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Where the Lord Stands
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
November 24, 2019
A Reading from the Book of Jeremiah
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
I want to start this morning by telling you the story of Reign of Christ Sunday. That’s today, the last Sunday in our church year, a day when we celebrate Christ’s reign over all creation and then next week we round the bend towards Bethlehem and start the circle again. And just like most of the other feast days on the Christian calendar, Reign of Christ Sunday has a story, but it’s not a story that comes out of scripture. Instead, it comes out of the headlines. From Rome. From a century ago. In the 1920s, as the power of the Catholic Church had been locked in a standstill with the powers of the Italian government all around it. In some ways this is just the end of a much longer story — five hundred years ago, everything there had been the power of the Catholic Church; it was the state, it was the government, everything bent towards Rome. But by the early 20th century, what had once been the Holy Roman Empire had collapsed down to a few city blocks surrounding St. Peter’s cathedral, and for decades it had been fighting off invaders. Italian governments occupied it. French governments occupied it. The church that used to own everything had now become a political football, tossed back and forth between modern nation-states. If you’re going to go to war, after all, you might as well do it with the church in your pocket.
Reign of Christ Sunday is how the Pope fought back. No Papal army was going to run into the breach, and no diplomatic muscle was going to turn the tide. Instead, the Pope did what the Pope can do: he created a Feast Day, the Feast of Christ the King. Here’s the language: “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds… he must reign in our wills… he must reign in our hearts.” What this was, of course, in its own way, was a political manifesto. It said that the church could not in good conscience belong to any state, to any earthly king, or to any earthly queen; it could not become an instrument of France or Italy or any of them — nothing exempt from his empire — The church could not be a political football and it could not be a feather in anyone’s cap. Four years later, the Lateran Treaty created the modern Vatican City as an independent state, effectively putting this theology into international law. Which means that there’s a sort of delicious irony sitting at the heart of all this story: that treaties were signed and borders were drawn, and governments were formed, all because the church didn’t want to get tied up in politics.
Don’t put your faith in princes, the Psalmist says. Or here in Jeremiah. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” Instead, the Lord tells Jeremiah, instead “the days are surely coming when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” If this passage doesn’t sound familiar it may at least sound approximately familiar, especially with Advent so close around the corner — we use similar words from Isaiah every year — “a child has been born to us, a son given to us; his authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for David and his kingdom…” And of course part of our long Christian tradition is to hold passages like these as prophecies of the birth of Jesus Christ — the branch of David, the son given to us, and with that interpretation comes this sort of sweet release from all of the political affairs of the day itself. Don’t worry about the comings and goings of your own rulers, God says to Jeremiah. I’m going to send you a future king. A spiritual king. Almost a metaphorical king. So, you don’t have to worry for now about these everyday kings. So, you can wipe your hands.
The problem is that, while these Old Testament prophecies surely point towards Jesus Christ, born some five hundred years later, they surely also refer to Israel’s very immediate hopes for very specific kinds of leadership, right then, and right there. Jeremiah is working during a time of very specific political unrest. Israel’s kings have left the country on the brink of a very specific exile. The Babylonian army is, somewhat literally, at the gates, and God is here talking to Jeremiah as if this is the result of very specific and very bad political leadership — “Woe to these shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” What’s more, in response, God is getting ready to get even more involved in the perpetually toxic cycle of who gets to run the country: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock; I will bring them back to their fold; I will raise up shepherds over them.” And again, it’s very easy to interpret this through a comfortable and metaphorical distance. But if you shake it off a bit, there doesn’t have to be much metaphor here. God is tired of the kings that have messed up Israel, and so God is going to pick some new kings. So much, again, for not getting God involved in politics.
Having God in our politics gets uncomfortable really quickly. And we get uncomfortable for good reasons, and I bet you know them already. First of all it sounds divisive, everything political sounds divisive, and surely people of different political persuasions can come around this table and be fed and worship God and everybody in here wants to show love and hospitality to everybody else in here which means wouldn’t the easiest thing be for our God not to get involved in politics? And secondly, it’s just exhausting. I mean the noise of the headlines is constant and deafening and news breaks at a dizzying pace and honestly if we’ve all been watching CNN all week in desperate suspense for the next story to break, don’t we have some obligation to this time, this hour, some obligation to this space to have some sanctuary from all of it? Wouldn’t it simply be an expression of our pastoral care for one another just not to let all that stuff come in here?
And third, haven’t we seen what happens? I mean don’t we know how dangerous it can be when churches decide that God is going to get involved in politics? Churches have a long history of deciding real quick when God has picked favorites, and if you think I’m talking about some other tradition, our own Reformation heritage begins with churches cozying up to whatever vice-duke would give them the political protection they needed in turbulent times, which is how you get paragraphs like this one from our own 1560 Scots Confession: “We confess and acknowledge that emperors in empires, kings in their realms, dukes and princes in their dominions, and magistrates in cities, are ordained by God’s holy ordinance for the manifestation of his own glory and for the good and well being of all men. We hold that any men who conspire to rebel or to overturn the civil powers, as duly established, are not merely enemies to humanity but rebels against God’s will. Further, we confess and acknowledge that such persons as are set in authority are to be loved, honored, feared, and held in the highest respect, because they are the lieutenants of God, and in their councils God himself doth sit and judge.”
That language may sound out of date, but maybe the theology also hits a little close to home in an era when too many Christians are too quick to interpret their own access to power as a sign of God’s blessing. And so, wouldn’t it just be simplest and safest and easiest for everyone to leave politics at the door and gather in here for something else, anything else, anything as long as we don’t drag God into politics. The problem, though, is that God consistently drags herself into politics. It’s not the only thing God does in these scriptures, of course. God walks alongside faithful disciples and talks with prophets. God appears in the whirlwind and in the burning bush and shows up in the dreams of generations. But in addition to all of that, sometimes God just doesn’t like the king. Sometimes God wants to go get a new king, a king who will serve God’s interests, a king who will execute justice and righteousness. It is not politics here for the sake of politics. It is not politics for the sake of power. But it is politics for the sake of God’s people, the story of God who is so persistently seeking the ends of justice and righteousness that she will use every instrument at her disposal in its pursuit. Even, dare I say it, politics.
Is think there is Gospel here for us, and I think it’s also the Gospel of Jesus Christ whose Lordship we proclaim today. After all, Jesus the Messiah talks a lot, too, about justice and righteousness. Jesus stands among the lepers and talks about justice and righteousness. Jesus stands among the poor and talks about justice and righteousness. Jesus stands among the oppressed and talks about justice and righteousness. And Jesus talks about justice and righteousness enough that invariably he finds himself in political confrontations; his message has political consequences; his ministry has political costs. It’s not the whole story, of course. His ministry isn’t just politics. Jesus isn’t just some community organizer out to bring down the empire. But it is politics, politics for the sake of God’s people, it is the story of a Messiah who is so persistently seeking the ends of justice and righteousness that he will use every instrument at his disposal in its pursuit. And so, if we are called to stand here today and celebrate the reign of Christ. If we are called to do it fully, with our minds, and our wills, and our hearts, then surely we too are called to use every instrument at our disposal to stand where the Lord stands. Political as it may sometimes be.
So, we’ve got a year ahead of us. We’ve all got a year ahead of us, as this election bears down on us, and as the heat of the headlines bears down on us, and as the pile-driving anxiety of our national moment bears down on us. We’ve got a year in front of us, and I’d like us to make a covenant together, so that we can live into this year faithfully. I’d like us to make some promises. I’d like us to promise to do a few things together at the same time. The first promise is that we will do, and continue to do, the regular disciplines of prayer and worship and fellowship. Our politics are certainly exhausting. The noise is deafening. More than ever, you and I, we all need the regular disciplines of prayer and worship and fellowship so that we have some grounding somewhere else, somewhere that isn’t just poll results and bad headlines and mean tweets. We all need care and feeding, and this should be a place that cares and feeds. The second promise is that we will do, and continue to do, the basic hospitality of loving one another. We can love one another no matter the polls. We can love one another no matter the headlines. We can love one another no matter the mean tweets. We can love one another as joint members of the body of Christ, no matter what the year brings. We can love one another as Jesus Christ who reigns today loves us.
I believe that we can do these things, and yet also a third, which is that we can promise with every instrument at our disposal to stand where the Lord stands, to stand, on this reign of Christ Sunday, to stand with the only one who has ever truly ruled over any of us. If Jesus stands for the poor, then we stand for the poor. If Jesus stands for the outcast, then we stand for the outcast. If Jesus stands for the oppressed, then we use every instrument at our disposal to stand for the oppressed. We preach and teach for the oppressed. We open our hearts and our doors for the oppressed. And we engage in the world around us, in the city around us, in the country around us, in the politics around us, we engage this world for the oppressed. Politics in the service of God’s people is faithful work. It doesn’t mean we put our faith in this king or that king. It doesn’t mean that we believe any of these kings have justice and righteousness on their hearts. It only means we believe in the one true king, the one true God, the son born for us, Jesus Christ, risen from the grave, who reigns forever and ever.
Will you stand with me and reaffirm this promise together using the words of the Belhar Confession, printed in your bulletin.
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH adapted from the Belhar Confession
In a world full of injustice and enmity, we believe that God is in a special way the God of the destitute, bringing justice to the oppressed, giving bread to the hungry, freeing the prisoner and restoring sight to the blind, supporting the downtrodden, and protecting the stranger.
We also believe that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right, and therefore that the church must stand where the Lord stands, by people in any form of suffering and need, and that the church must therefore witness and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things. Jesus is Lord. To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
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