arguing with the ancestors

Sermon 11-13-16

Matthew 6:1-18

I have been struggling with what sort of sermon to preach today. The election this week, and the eruption of hatred and bigotry that followed it gutted me, and I know it has done the same to many of you.

The text for this morning, here in the middle of our series on the Sermon on the Mount, is Jesus teaching against hypocrites and for humility. Do not be like the hypocrites, he intones over and over. Don’t practice your faith in order to be seen. When you give to charity, don’t sound the trumpet like the hypocrites. When you pray, don’t stand on street corners and in synagogues yelling ostentatiously like the hypocrites. When you fast, don’t make yourself all pitiful looking to get attention for your goodness like the hypocrites.

Instead, give quietly. Pray simply. Fast cheerfully.

These quiet, humble ways of being feel super insufficient this week, when hate is upping its volume to the nth degree.

Maybe you saw the news articles about the Ku Klux Klan planning a victory rally here in North Carolina. Or maybe you saw the report about the hateful graffiti that appeared on my block downtown the day after the election: Black Lives Don’t Matter and Neither Do Your Votes. Or maybe you, like me, have heard stories from friends and teachers, stories of kids being bullied and taunted, kids worried about being sent to another country because of their parents’ immigration status, kids fearing for their safety and the lives of the ones they love.

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In the face of such escalating vitriol, such violent speech and hateful behavior, Jesus’ instructions to be humble, quiet, and not like the hypocrites feel woefully inadequate.

But, here we are.

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I’ve been arguing with our Brethren ancestors intensely this week. The first Brethren sprang from a context of religious persecution in Germany and when they settled here in America, they spent the better part of the next century arguing over the specific kinds of engagement with the world that were or were not acceptable for followers of this Jesus who commands humility and simplicity.

Those Brethren argued for decades about the appropriateness of buttons, birthday parties, Sunday School, and musical instruments in worship. This week, I was remembering in particular the conversation that they had about whether or not voting was an activity fit for a Christian.

Can you imagine?

This week, four out of every five white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump for president. For whatever reason, the pollsters don’t take into account those of us Christians who aren’t white or who don’t fall into the ‘evangelical’ category, so who knows what the full picture of a ‘Christian’ demographic might be.

But the fact that the majority of white Christians voted for a particular presidential candidate and the swirl of shaming and instruction surrounding how and why Christians should vote before the election (you should see the pile of ‘voting guides’ we received in the mail here at church that I promptly recycled) makes the very idea of an extended discussion of whether or not voting could be a faithful action sound absurd.

And yet, for the majority of the 19th century, the Brethren busied themselves with this very question.

The question in 1813 was about “electioneering,” a word that I really, really love. The old Brethren were talking about participating in political elections – not just voting, but endorsing one candidate or another, one party or another. That year, according to the fascinating record called Classified Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Church of the Brethren from 1778-1885, the gathered body had this to say:

Inasmuch as the appearance of the times into which we have come are grievous, and inasmuch as party spirit has risen so high in the kingdoms of this world that men, and even the heads of government are among themselves at variance, therefore it has been viewed in union, that it would be much better if no votes were given in at elections for such officers; for so long as there is such division of parties, we make ourselves suspicious and unpropitious on the one side, on whatever side we may vote…Moreover, is not only our land but also almost all empires engaged in war; hence it was considered best to give in no vote, else we might, perhaps, assist in electing such as would afterward oppress us with war.

Of course, like any question with real meat to it, real and immediate implications, this 1813 decision was not enough to satisfy the body. The question came again to Annual Conference in 1828. And again, in 1835. And again in 1837, 1839, 1841, 1849, 1853, 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866, 1869 and 1877. Those last few questions were in regard to the statement of 1866: “this Annual Meeting recommends to the members of the church to refrain from voting, fearing that by voting we may compromise our non-resistant principles; but we recommend forbearance toward those who vote…

It has not been easy for us, this question of how to follow Jesus in the midst of a violent world.

Those Brethren were worried about at least two things: first, given the burden of their history as a persecuted minority, they were worried that any involvement with government and society would be dangerous. This week, I have heard people who identify with various demographic minorities express that same fear – of being persecuted for simply being who they are. Better, those first, legitimately fearful Brethren thought, to keep to ourselves and practice our religion, as Jesus seems to be suggesting here in the Sermon, in secret.

Second, they were worried that voting would implicate them in the violent, oppressive systems of empire. Even in 1813, they acknowledged that all empires engage in war, and they were trying mightily not to get entangled in that situation again. They believed in the power of a Sermon on the Mount kind of life – a life of enemy love, refusal of retaliation, forgiveness and humility – to produce a faithful kind of existence, and they wanted to stay away from those tempting processes of democracy that might lure them into believing some other pathway to peace was possible.

Those Brethren believed in a Kingdom that was both bigger and more immediate than any government or empire that they might attach themselves to. Those Brethren knew, because of where they’d been and how they’d been cast out and set aside, that their first allegiance was not to a German prince or an American system, but to the Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords.

This is where I’ve been taking issue with those beloved pioneers of faith this week.

If my citizenship is in heaven, what kind of leverage do I have to speak out when my country elects leaders who are greedy, hateful, full of vengeance and intent on oppressing the orphan, the widow, the foreigner and the outcast?

If my citizenship is in heaven and I ought not put my trust in princes and mortals, how can I be grounded and present in my neighborhood where the scale needs some of us to stand on the side of justice and love in the wake of hate literally written on the walls?

If my citizenship is in heaven and I am not supposed to go pray on street corners or fast to raise awareness, what does that mean for my impulse to go join demonstrations and rallies in the public square?

//

There is an insidious danger in interpreting Jesus’ words as a license to separatism. Our beloved Brethren have a tendency to fall into that trap. If God is in control, I have heard it said this week, then we don’t really have to do anything. Once, I had a conversation with a deeply faithful man who described his take on the ecological crisis by saying “God knows what we need! If this earth gets destroyed, well, he knows everything, so he’ll just send us a new one!”

The impulse to hide away, to secret ourselves quietly into locked rooms, to stick to the known and only the known, to pretend that we are exempt from participation because our citizenship is in heaven, to hear Jesus instructing us to be not like the hypocrites and take that to mean that we ought not ever do anything outside of our own prayer closets…well, that just doesn’t make sense with the life, death, resurrection and witness of Jesus.

At the same time, the impulse to act first, pray later, to just DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING, to join in with whatever movement presents itself, to align ourselves with a party or an advocacy group, is also out of line with Jesus’ life. When we lose sight of God’s active presence, when we forget that our citizenship is first and foremost in the Kingdom and not in the American political system, when we assume that everything is always up to us and that God has nothing to do with it, we also lose our way. That, too, fails to make sense with the witness of Jesus himself.

So. Should Christians vote?

It depends.

Should Christians practice our piety in public?

Jesus warns us to beware.

I do not think that Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, was encouraging his hearers to pick up their lives and move into desert caves, far away from the realities of life around them. I don’t think Jesus’ warnings against hypocrisy are meant to silence us, or to keep us from speaking out boldly in his name.

I think Jesus’ words here are meant to force us to do some self-examination before we speak or act. Why is it that we are doing or saying the things we are? Are we doing it for attention? Are we doing in public things that we can’t back up with our live in private? Are we voting with the assumption that the election will bring about the Kingdom, or even part of it? Are we fasting to raise awareness of an important issue or to raise awareness of our own goodness?

Those are really difficult questions to answer. They require self-inquiry, prayer, and discernment. They require both a deep engagement with God through prayer and a deep engagement with the world through service and relationship.

I think our forebears were wrong in declaring so stridently so many things – buttons, birthday parties, Sunday school – to be absolutely not in line with following Jesus. I think we are wrong when we do that today, too. But I also believe that we need a more robust practice of prayer and discernment, larger, more gracious spaces for interrogating ourselves, our privilege, our ego.

I have been moved, this week, to be more public with my faith. I am committed to following Jesus’ commands to interrogate my own motives and to cover everything with prayer, to beware of practicing my piety in public for pleasure. I am committed to understanding what it means to put my trust in the God whose Kingdom I pray for and the Christ whose life I believe enacted a divine, salvific grace for you and for me and for every created child of God. But I am also moved to make Jesus’ messages of enemy-love, compassion, forgiveness, and care for the oppressed and the marginalized as easy to hear and encounter as those messages of hate that keep erupting.

And we are lucky, because we are already part of a community that works hard to embody that message. We are already here, we are already together, we are already blessed with the words and example of Jesus.

So. Here are a couple of things I did this week, a couple of things I’m going to invite you to join me in:

  • Our coordinating council has recently agreed to partner with Church World Service in helping to resettle refugees here in Durham. I signed up for their next volunteer training, in December. you can join me.

 

  • On Tuesday, I’m going to the monthly meeting of Durham Congregations in Action, an organization that brings together people of faith across lines of race and religion to work against poverty, racism and violence. One key characteristic of DCIA is that it is an organization led by people of color. In a world where I am so very often in charge as a white person, that’s important, to be in spaces where I am not. At the last DCIA meeting I went to, I heard the story of how three Durham clergy – a white Presbyterian minister, a black Baptist preacher, and a Jewish rabbi from the north – worked together to prevent the Klan from marching in downtown Durham forty years ago.

 

  • I downloaded the application from Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests to become an official part of their Supportive Congregations Network. This is a process of conversation and discernment toward becoming a safe space for people who do not identify as heterosexual. I think it is time for us to have this conversation.

 

  • You’ve noticed the messages on our sign changing. This is a tiny way to make love public. If you have ideas for the message there, share them with me.

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  • And, right here in the scripture passage is a prayer we’re probably all familiar with. We call it the Lord’s prayer, but it is the simple prayer Jesus offers in his instructions toward humility and against hypocrisy. Would you pray it now, with me?

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

 

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