Don’t Wanna Live Without Teeth, Don’t Wanna Die Without Bite

Isaiah 65:17-25 | 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 | Luke 21:5-19

Jeremy Richards

So, I preached my first real sermon here two weeks ago, not counting my candidating sermon. And to be honest, I felt like it was a bit heavy. There weren’t any fun stories, or jokes really (and Stacey told everyone last week how I made Leviticus fun). So my plan for this week was to have a little more fun with the sermon, to maybe take my foot off the gas pedal. It’s easy for young pastors straight out of seminary to want to go a little too hard a little too fast – we tend to think we know more than we do.

So, the sermon this week was going to be a little more lighthearted. Well that’s what I thought last week, when I was beginning to think about my sermon. But I forgot something important. I forgot that something kind of big was going to be happening this week. I think it happened on Tuesday.

I know, I know, I know. We’re not supposed to talk about politics in church. Even though that’s what everyone outside of church is thinking about and talking about, but we’re not supposed to because we’re in church! We talk about it at work, with friends who come over for dinner, with some family – probably only family that agrees with us – over the phone. But not in church!

But here’s the thing, I think we need to talk about politics in church. I’m not saying we all need to believe the same thing, or take a stance as a church (I’m actually very much not saying that), but we need to be able to talk about politics, and about other difficult topics. If there’s one place where nothing should be off the table, it’s church. Because we believe as Christians that we’ve been invited into the life of God, the Triune life, and the flipside of that is that we invite God into our lives – every aspect of our lives, including politics. And the church is where we meet God in one another, where we discern the will and voice of God through the movement of the Holy Spirit in and amongst us.

Let me be clear about what I mean when I say we need to talk about politics. Merriam-Webster defines politics as “activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of a government or getting and keeping power in a government.” When I say the church needs to talk about politics I mean the first part but not the second part. I mean we need to talk amongst ourselves – I’m talking real talk, I’m talking about genuine dialogue – about “activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of a government.” I don’t mean that we need to become invested in “keeping power in government.”

The actions of and policies of the government affect the way people our treated, and we are called to care to care for the welfare of all people, but at the same time, as American Christians, and especially as Baptists, we believe in the separation of Church and state. We believe the government should not favor one faith tradition over another. We believe people of all faiths should be allowed to hold office.

We also believe that the government shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of the church.

In the days of the Reformation (Slayden, I’m going to talk about history! Hopefully I’m right), each country had its national church. So, the state church might be Lutheran or Reformed or Catholic. And the way things were set up was that being a citizen of that country and being a member of that church were the same thing. So when an infant was baptized (and every infant was baptized in those days) they were becoming part of the church, but they were also becoming a citizen of the political government.

Then, some pretty cool people came along: the Anabaptists. And the Anabaptists said, “No no no! We’re not citizens of the world. We’re citizens of the Kingdom of God. We reject our loyalty to our government for loyalty to the one true God.” Now, they weren’t saying they wouldn’t live peaceably in their country. In fact, almost all of them were pacifists (Maybe reference the ones from Munster). And they weren’t saying they wouldn’t seek the welfare of their nation. They were just saying they were committed first and foremost to Christ before any other authority.

So they decided to do baptism differently, since their baptism was to God and not country. When they were baptized in the church it was all pretty and nice. The kids wore nice baptismal outfits and the priest usually just put a few drops of water on their heads. But the Anabaptists went out of town, signifying that they were leaving the establishment so to speak and, as adults, they went into some natural body of water, fully clothes, and fully immersed themselves, signifying that they were now part of a government that existed outside and beyond the rule of humankind.

That is an extremely political act. Which seems kind of counterintuitive. Their wanting to remove themselves from the political government was political? Yes! So guess what happened? The Anapatists got killed. A lot. At that time Protestants and Catholics hated each other, but the one thing they could agree on was killing Anabaptists.  

By separating church and State, the Anabaptists said they didn’t have to live by the rules of the government, if that government was contrary to the ways of the Gospel. And the government didn’t like that. And the churches aligned with the government didn’t like that.

Do you see how a church that is separate from the State is actually a radically political entity? It’s not that it would ever purposely antagonize the State for no reason, but it means it would stand against the State if it felt called by God to do so. It’s allegiance was first and foremost to God.

So, that’s the Anabaptists. We aren’t exactly Anabaptists, but as Baptists we’re like cousins.

It was similar for us Baptists, but we came more out of the Puritan movement. We rejected the Church of England and had to run away, first to the Netherlands, then to America.

My point in all this is that separation of Church and State does not mean that we don’t engage in politics. In a way it makes us all the more available to be political because we aren’t beholden to some kind of king or queen, we are beholden to God.

As Christians, our faith has to impact our politics. Because our faith impacts everything.

Because politics affect peoples’ real lives, and we believe God cares about peoples’ lives, not just their spirits. God cares about their safety and their wellbeing. God cares about what happens to people. The incarnation is proof of that. In a couple weeks we will enter the advent season, when we begin to wait expectantly for the coming of God in flesh and blood.

I think it’s really important to remember that: God took on flesh and blood. God didn’t just “take on”, God became flesh and blood. In the wake of the election I’ve heard quite a few people say things like, “Well, it doesn’t matter who won because God is in control.” And while I believe that God is in control, I think this kind of abstract, transcendent God is problematic, if not toxic, because it can easily lead to apathy and passivity in the Church: “God’s got it under control, so I don’t need to do anything.” That’s not actually the God of the Christian faith. As Christians we believe that God was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Meaning God could only by known to us in the incarnation – in flesh and blood.

And the God who was revealed was completely different than the God we expected. We expected a God who was more like Zeus, who was “sovereign” in the way an earthly king was sovereign, only more so. We expected a God who was invincible, and who couldn’t feel pain. But we got Jesus. God chose to enter humanity as an oppressed person – a Palestinian Jew under Roman rule – who entered the world as the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: a human baby. He was immediately threatened in his own land, became a refugee in Egypt, and when he returned to Palestine lived in a backwater town: Nazareth. The Compton of Israel. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” He felt pain, he felt sorrow, and he experienced death. And only after all that did he rise again. The God we find in Jesus works from the place of the created being.

I want us to really think about that. God chose and chooses to work through flesh and blood.

God revealed Godself through humanity. That’s what we see in Jesus. God doesn’t pull the strings like a cosmic puppet master.

God acts through flesh and blood.

God acts through us.

It’s up to us now, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said in John that we will do greater things than he did. That doesn’t sound like permission to sit around and wait for God to make everything right without us.

That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. We believe the Holy Spirit indwells Christians so we can be the hands and feet of Jesus. So we cannot, we should not, wait for God to just do something. We can’t wait for God to act on God’s own. I’m sure God could. But God has told us that God will work through us.

There’s nothing after the ascension of Jesus that implies that God will work without the participation of the Church. Yes, God will be the one who ultimately brings about redemption, but we will be an integral part of that redemption. So we need to think critically when we speak of God as being “in control” in a way that minimized our responsibility to affect change for the kingdom.

The question is, are we willing to take the risks involved? The way that God chose to enter the world demands that we take flesh and blood seriously, especially the flesh and blood of those who are most vulnerable in society. Matthew 25 tells us that caring for the vulnerable is the same as caring for Jesus himself.

And politics affect flesh and blood. Politics affect vulnerable flesh and blood more than anyone else.

If you were able to vote without fearing that the result one way or another would really have any effect on your life, like I was, then you need to recognize that that is a privilege. Because those who are most vulnerable in society are the first to be affected by politics.

So we need to talk about politics. We need to have the hard conversations. I think Jesus knew that. I think Jesus assumed we would be having those conversations. That’s why he said “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name” and “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.” You don’t get persecuted and arrested by the state, or betrayed by family for being nice and avoiding difficult topics.

You get taken before kings because you resisted the kingdoms of the world, like the early Baptists and the Anabaptists. You get taken before governors because you stood up against injustices. Those are political acts. You don’t get betrayed by family members for sitting quietly when one of them says something derogatory about another people group. He get betrayed because you challenged them to explain why they said that, and tried to engage them in a real, loving conversation and they chose to become angry instead of listening. But you still did it because it’s the right thing to do, even though it was hard and made you uncomfortable.

It seems that Jesus just assumed we would be having those hard conversation. Because he assumes we’ll be getting into trouble. He assumes we will be “hated by all.” But that’s just what Christians do: they do what right, they put in the hard work, even when it’s scary.

Of course, it doesn’t always end in division. It might, but it might not.

In our reading from Isaiah we are given another alternative. An alternative that might become a reality in the church, if it’s to become a reality anywhere. It’s a more hopeful picture: one of the new heaven and the new earth. The prophet says there will come a time when the wolf and the lamb will lie down together. How beautiful.

It seems completely impossible for a wolf to lie down with a lamb. It isn’t even worth considering. A wolf lives by hunting animals like lambs. And lambs live by avoiding wolves. But that’s the kind of imagination God has, and that’s the kind of imagination God calls us to have.

The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says the work of the prophet is to evoke and nurture a reality that is completely contrary to the accepted way things are. He says the prophet presents a possible life with God that only God could dream it up. Only God would think of wolves and lambs actually, really laying down together. Only God would think of a lion eating straw like an ox.

Maybe that will happen when we engage in hard conversations. Maybe we who are opposites in some ways will come to a mutual understanding. Maybe we’ll enter into deeper relationships with one another because there isn’t anything we’re hiding from one another.

So long as we just designate specific places for each group, though – so long as we say lambs over here and wolves over there – we will never come together. We will only surround ourselves with the people who look like us, think like us, and reaffirm the beliefs we already hold. And the two sides will only be pushed further and further apart. Isaiah’s vision rejects that accepted division. Isaiah dreams of something bigger. He dreams of peace where before there was only strife and violence.

And he believes it will actually come to pass.

So let’s disagree. Let’s do it in love, but let’s disagree.

Let’s do it over a shared meal. Let’s host one another so that we serve the ones we disagree with, and we accept the hospitality of those we think are the “other.”

I think it’s wrong that we can’t be honest with one another. And I think it’s insulting to one another. It’s insulting to think that you can’t handle my opinion – that you’re too far gone. Do we really think our relationships are so weak? That our love is so shallow? Maybe they’re stronger than we think they are.

The church has to wade into the mire and the muck. It has to take risks. I think the church’s very survival depends on it. Because, you know what everyone is talking about in seminaries and church leadership? They’re talking about how the Church is dying. Congregations are having to close their doors. In my humble opinion, it’s not because we don’t have hip enough music or because we need to have better lights and affects. I can go to a concert or watch a movie if I want that. It’s because most people see the Church as irrelevant.

Somewhere along the way the Church became too concerned with being nice, and it stopped challenging the status quo the way it used to. It forgot that it’s legacy is with Moses demanding Pharaoh to let God’s people go, and with Elijah condemning Ahab and Jezebel, and Jesus turning over tables, and the apostles being imprisoned and beaten and eventually killed by those who held political power.

And young people, millennials, they see right through it when the church side-steps the things that matter. They don’t want to spend their precious little time off singing flowery songs and hearing a feel good sermon about the next life when they spent their whole week witnessing how broken the world is in this life. They want to know that God is active and moving. They want to know the redeeming, resurrected God, who is making all things new.

They want to be a part of a church that believes in that God, and works with that God. A church that is filled with the hope of Isaiah, that

[All] shall build houses and inhabit them;
    they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
    they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
    and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
    or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
    and their descendants as well.”

We don’t come to church to re-apply our blinders.

We come to Church to be filled with the hope of God, the hope we hear about through Isaiah, but it’s a hope that’s got teeth. It’s a hope that does work and takes risks.

We come to Church to seek God’s face, to hear from God through our collective worship. But we can’t hear God if we won’t hear one another other.

So let’s listen. Let’s listen to one another. And let’s listen for God’s voice in one another’s voice.

Let’s take a step into the unknown, into the messy and the difficult, into the political, but let’s take that step together.

Amen.

Ryan Weilert

Portland, OR, United States