Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Getting Involved in Politics (July 12, 2015)
Homily: Yr B P15, July 12 2015, St. Albans
Readings: 2 Sam 6.1-5, 12b-19; Ps 24, Eph 1.3-14; Mk 6.14-29
“King Herod heard of it.” What? What did he hear of?
Why, the mission of course. What we read about in our gospel last week. Jesus sent his disciples out to towns and villages all over Galilee, to heal the sick and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
Of course King Herod heard of it. He’s got his sources, the internal police, his spies on the ground. Of course he heard of it. And if King Herod heard of it, that’s not good, not good at all. Because you remember what happened to John the Baptist, don’t you?
When I was walking the Camino in Spain last month, one of my walking companions in our group of seven that formed was a Hungarian woman. One Saturday evening we went to mass in the village church. But mid-way through the mass, I noticed that the Hungarian woman was gone. I asked her afterwards what happened. She told me that she’d left after the prayers because the priest had included prayers for the Spanish election which was just about to take place. And it made her angry, because, she said, the church has no business in politics. Church and state, religion and politics, these should be kept totally separate.
We hear that often don’t we, that there should be a separation between church and state. Some of that comes out of European history, where so-called religious wars were a scourge on society for hundreds of years from the 16th century on. Some of the drive for keeping religion out of politics is more recent, a secularizing tendency to restrict religion to the individual and private domain, keeping it out of the public domain.
Whatever the merit, or perhaps the foolishness, of these attempts to keep religion out of politics, it appears that Jesus didn’t get the memo. Because Jesus chooses as his main message a phrase that is at once intentionally political and a deliberate challenge to those with political and military power:
“The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent.”
Just think how that would have sounded to King Herod. Some upstart from Nazareth calling for fundamental change and proclaiming a new kingdom right under King Herod’s nose. And Jesus was popular. Massive crowds gathered around him. And now he was expanding his mission, recruiting followers, sending them out to more and more villages.
Who is this Jesus? Some were saying John the Baptist raised from the dead. Some said Elijah. Still others claimed “He is a prophet.”
And tell me, what happens when prophets tell powerful men like King Herod the things they don’t want to hear? What happens when God’s truth is spoken to power?
Well you know what happened to John the Baptist.
More than just an execution, the story of John’s death is a sick and twisted story. To get an image of how sick and twisted, picture just for a moment the severed head of John the Baptist being placed in the hands of a young girl at the request of her own mother. You’ve heard the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Well there’s its image, right there, a severed head being presented on a platter to a twelve year old girl. That’s what power can do.
One of the ironies in the way that Mark tells the story is that Herod is actually presented as a sympathetic figure. He feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. He liked to listen to him. He is distressed at the thought of John’s death. When John speaks truth to power, Herod actually recognizes the truth. And that’s not enough, because still he is unable to give up the way of power, and power demands the head of John and gets it.
Last week when we considered the disciples heading out on their mission with nothing for the journey, no bread, no bag, no money, no spare clothes, we remarked on their vulnerability, how they would have to depend on the hospitality of those they met along the way to provide them with the basic necessities of life. Today’s text takes their vulnerability to a whole new level. The disciples have just joined the mission, they too are out proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and Herod has heard of it. Keep this up and you will suffer the same fate as John the Baptist. That’s the way of power.
I suppose that the disciples, as minor players in the drama, might have the option of scattering when things get bad. Jesus won’t get the same opportunity. He is already a marked man. He has challenged the powers and authorities, and power will do its thing. But Jesus is not deterred. He will speak truth to power, in fact when asked why he came, he will reply that he came to bear witness to the truth. And what truth is that? The truth that Jesus bears witness to is that God’s way is not the way of power, but rather the way of the cross.
So on this question of the separation of religion and politics, who’s right? Is it Jesus who intentionally begins his mission with a deliberately political declaration which he will take right to the capital city, the seat of power? Or is it my Hungarian friend, who having surveyed the carnage of European history declares that the followers of Jesus have no business getting involved in politics?
Actually, I think that both are right. Jesus is right because he knows what the psalmist declared in our psalm reading this morning. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.” When the psalmist makes this declaration, he’s not just talking about the birds and the bees. He’s talking about every sphere of human activity, including economics, politics and military engagement. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. No sphere of human activity can be separated from the sovereignty of God. Jesus’ mission is inherently political, and his followers are invited to join him in the realization of God’s kingdom on earth.
But my Hungarian friend is also right. Because Jesus’ way is not the way of power, it is the way of the cross. And so when we as followers of Jesus engage in the public sphere, we’re called to do so not from positions of power, but from a position of vulnerability. And when we do so, our sole allegiance is to God, not to our country, not to our cultural or ethnic group, not to any political party. And that’s where the church has gone wrong in times past, those are the tragic mistakes that so enraged my Hungarian friend. Often, when the church has engaged in politics it has been, first of all, from a position of power and secondly, in allegiance with nation-states or political parties.
That’s not the way of the cross. That’s not the way of Jesus.
As people of faith, we bring our faith into all domains of life. Our faith is not something we limit to our homes, or to Sunday mornings. We’ve been invited to proclaim the kingdom of God in our time and place. We’ve been told to love our neighbours as ourselves. We’ve been called to feed the hungry and care for the needy and to release those who are oppressed. We’ve been taught to love our enemies.
None of these things can be done from the privacy of our own homes or from the confines of this building on a Sunday morning. All are inherently public and political acts. So we must enter the public domain. But when we do enter the public domain we are called to do so as followers of Jesus. Take nothing for the journey – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. And yes, Herod will hear of it. But go anyways. We follow not the way of power, but the way of the cross.