Gospel Politics

Presented June 10, 2018 by Rev. Will Norman

Based on 1 Samuel 8: 4-22 and Mark 3: 20-35

OLD TESTAMENT READING    1 Samuel 8: 4-22

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”
6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”Samuel then said to the people of Israel, “Each of you return home.”


GOSPEL READING    Mark 3:20-35

20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And [Jesus] called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. 28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


For some in this sanctuary, I imagine, the combination of these two words—Gospel Politics—is disconcerting. After all, most of us learned from an early age that there are two things you don’t talk about at the supper table … religion & politics! And the reason for that prohibition in many families is that tempers and passions have a tendency to flare up around these topics, and an otherwise friendly conversation can escalate into a screaming match, irreparably damaging our most fundamental and cherished kinships. But it was voting day this week, so here we go!

And though we are not actively partaking in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper this morning—we did that last week—whenever we gather to remember the life, death, and new life of Jesus, we are, at least in spirit, at the supper table … where the unifying power of the Gospel is at its most profound, for at Christ’s table, democrat and republican, conservative and progressive, activist and mainline share of one loaf and one cup, taking Christ’s body and blood into our own. In Christ we are unified … but we are not  uniform. When we take the body of Christ into our bodies, we embody gospel … and if we take it seriously, it will shape our politics towards a politics of unity for the Gospel of Jesus, as much as it is a unifying gospel can be so only be also being a political gospel.  It is concerned with the exchange—and the abuse—of power. Likewise, the history of Israel—as if we need any reminder—is a political history. And so our faith in this gospel … our ongoing participation in this history cannot be separated out from the ways in which power is won and lost; amicably exchanged and forcefully taken—try as we might, our faith cannot be separated from our politics.

And the Bible might be the greatest argument in favor of that position.  As the story goes, Israel has been delivered from slavery in Egypt, they've wandered in the wilderness for 40 years or so, and now they are in the promised land—which had to be wrestled away from the indigenous population in Canaan, by the way. They’ve come into or grown up in this promised land as a marginal company of tribes, but as you’ve just heard read, and as we know from all the Bible stories, it won’t be long before a king is crowned, and the loose, flat, theocratic government is centralized into one individual. The book of Samuel tells the story of this shift from a loose company of cultic tribes to a centralized monarchy.

At its core, Samuel is a book about King David, which is confusing because its named Samuel, but we haven’t come that far in the narrative yet anyhow, and before we get there, Israel’s political dissidents will make their voice known. In other words, not everyone thought monarchy was a good idea … and they protested!

At least in this story, it is these protesters with whom God takes up sides, even in concession—“Listen to the voice of the people Samuel; they haven’t rejected you, but they have rejected me. Just make sure they know what a dangerous path they are embarking upon.”

God’s response is so interesting here. God clearly disapproves of the political decisions being made at highest levels, and yet permits them nonetheless … but lest the monarchy crowd get a big head about it, God sends Samuel to be a dissenting voice … and does he ever dissent!

“First this king you desire is going to take you sons for battle and labor. Then he’ll take your daughters to tend to the royal court. Next he’ll take your land and your crops—he’ll demand tribute and raise taxes to support his lavish lifestyle. He’ll make your slaves his slaves, and before you know it, we’ll all become his slaves!”

I can imagine the reaction at that assembly—“Take off your aluminum foil hat, Samuel … I think you’re getting a little paranoid.”

Whenever I read these parts of our Bible, I can’t help but think of the political dissidents of our times—those women and men who appear to be against the world, and the world against them. Society labels them—trouble makers and loud mouths;

We label as “Conspiracy theorists” those who raise questions about the covert knowledge and maneuvering—undisclosed motives of governments and other powerful people.

Often—not always, but often—these political dissidents are shown to have had some valid concerns and suspicions. But like Samuel’s voice, the voice of our dissidents goes unheard and unheeded. How are we to know when God is with them—or with us—as God was with Samuel?

Historically, churches and synagogues, as well as other religious communities have joined the dissenting ranks, not just in personal disagreement with this or that policy, but in public opposition to the powers who make and enforce the policies for the rest of us. Mainline Protestants including us Presbyterians have been at least marginally active in protesting various wars, working for justice for black Americans during the civil rights movement, and more recently, with BlackLivesMatter. At marches for common sense gun legislation, civil rights for members of the LGBTQ community, and accountability in policing—you will find thousands of clergy, often vested as for worship; tens of thousands of members of faith communities … holding signs referring to their faith in God as a motivation behind their protest.

For those of us who didn’t grow up in politically active churches—and I did not—there can seem to be a disconnect here. The faith I always knew was deeply concerned with staying out of trouble with the authorities. When my youth minister unofficially suggested that we ought not buy food from a regional grocery chain or from Wendy’s because our denomination had voted to boycott their business until they agreed to pay their farm workers higher wages, no one that I can remember took him seriously. “What does that have to do with Jesus?” I wondered.

Well, 15 years later, let me tell you what I think it has to do with Jesus now.
By the time Jesus comes around, the monarchy has come and gone. For 500 years or so Israel has been occupied territory of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and finally the Romans. They do not rule themselves in any absolute sense, but the small religious community has set up within its structures a temple hierarchy. Priests and high priests, pharisees, sadducees, and scribes hold the power, in varying degrees of cooperation with their Roman overlords. It is the scribes, in today’s reading who come from Jerusalem to discredit the dissenting voice of a particularly bold new protester in town, named Jesus.

Up to this point in his ministry, Jesus has been healing unclean people—people the religiously powerful should have been caring for but weren’t. Each healing story concludes with Jesus instructing the healed people to go show themselves to the priests. We usually interpret this instruction as an example of Jesus adhering to the boundaries of the temple system—healing both the physical and social problems of these unclean people by making them clean and then demonstrating to the guardians of purity their newfound acceptable status.  But the stories actually make more sense if we interpret Jesus’ actions as a public protest against the failure of these authorities and the system they uphold to care for the sick, poor, and marginalized within the community.

Only from this interpretation, does it make sense that Jesus family would say “he’s out of his mind! He’s taking the civil disobedience thing too far!” Only from this interpretation does it makes sense that the scribes come all the way from Jerusalem, and the first thing out of their mouths is to label Jesus an agent of Satan. They’re doing the same thing we do when we label someone crazy or a trouble maker or a thug because they express their discontent and opposition to the systems that benefit us, but leaves them out in the cold.

In my read of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is clearly opposing the religious system that upholds the lifestyle of the priests and scribes at the expense of the poor and the sick, and so the scribes in this story, who derive their power from their positions, can’t conceive of Jesus in any other way than satanic. He opposes that which they believe to represent God--the institutional religious structure.

But God was with Jesus in his protest … just as God was with Samuel in his—but even more so. In Christ, God’s self protests the political system that had been constructed to worship and bear witness to God.

How can we, then, hope to keep our religion and politics … separate? Or as the author of James asks the question, how can we wish a brother or sister well but do nothing to bring about their wellness? Faith without works is dead.

I went through a phase as a child, during which I would very carefully separate the items on my dinner plate, one from another. Nothing could touch.  If even the juice from the green beans seeped into my macaroni and cheese, there would be a little hissy fit at our supper table. And whenever this would happen, my father would calmly, if a bit irritated, say, “Will, it all end ups in the same place.”

The opening chapter of John’s gospel says that in Jesus, God put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood… which means we can no longer keep our green beans and macaroni separate … it all has ended up in the same place—God and people, flesh and spirit, sacred and secular, faith and works … all mixed together … so that when Jesus’ disciples ask that he teach them to pray, his response includes the petition, “let Your kingdom come; Your will be done ON EARTH, just as it is IN HEAVEN.”

If it was unclear before, in Jesus there can be no confusion—the spiritual is political.

The closing scene of this gospel story is maybe the most difficult of them all. We know from the beginning of the passage that the crowd around Jesus intended to eat together, but was intruded upon by the accusing scribes. And Jesus’ family— embarrassed of his actions and concerned for his well-being—is outside of the crowded house looking for him. Someone spots them and says to Jesus, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside looking for you.”

Jesus replies,“who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” And looking around the room, continues, “But these are my mother and brothers and sisters … whoever does the will of God is my family.”

These days, we hear a lot of Christians talk about the importance of preserving the traditional family structure … In one sentence, Jesus dismantles it … not by abandoning or rejecting his biological family--the rest of the gospel makes clear that he has not traded in one family for another--but by embracing fully and equally as kin all who are in need of healing, and all who are willing to risk their lives to see a son or daughter of God healed. At the end of the day, neither the oppressive powers nor the well-meaning, restraining effort of his loved ones will be keep Jesus from table fellowship with a world hungry for healing, peace and justice.

We may desire to make earth the realm of politics and heaven (or church) the separate and untouchable realm of spirituality—we may desire to keep both faith and politics away from our supper tables … but Christ comes among us in flesh and blood; in bread and wine, breaking down all dividing walls. To take of the sacred meal is to receive the healing touch of Jesus … but it is also to embody the healing presence of Jesus in the world. That is what the church means when we call ourselves the body of Christ; we are not uniform, but at Christ’s table we are unified … ironically enough … by Gospel Politics.