31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
7Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. 8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
I’m doing something a bit dangerous, this next couple of weeks. I’m preaching about faith and politics. Last night with a group of people I mentioned that was the sermon topic for the morning and you’d have thought I threw a grenade. Everyone had something to say; some were excited, others worried, surprised or even angry that I would do such a thing. Don’t worry: I’m not going to tell you who I think you should vote for. This is not going to be a partisan sermon, or a rant, or a scolding. It doesn’t matter to me who you vote for, but it does matter to me that you vote, and that you take your faith with you into the voting booth.
My job as a Christian is to grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ. When I say Jesus is Lord, what I mean is that I want to obey him in my life. That’s supposed to mean my whole life. Of course, saying it and living it are not exactly the same. I’m human, so I am not perfect. But I hope each day to bring my actions closer to my intentions by spending time in prayer, reading the Bible and practicing my faith consciously. Each day I should get better at seeking and following Christ’s direction in everything I do.
In the same way, my goal as a pastor is to help you grow in your discipleship and to help Laurelton get better at nurturing people for their spiritual growth. I want us to get better at living our faith together. I want this community to reflect Christ’s love more clearly each day in how we treat each other and how we treat our neighbors. I want us to get better at following God in everything we do, which includes thinking about our faith as we decide how to vote.
Politics is how a community lives together and governs itself. Elections are part of that, but so is how we spend our money and time, how we interact with our neighbors, how we raise our children,. Right now when we think about politics, we think especially about the community we call the United States of America, and the upcoming elections for President and many other offices. But ultimately, politics is less about who wins this election and more about what kind of country we want to live in, what kind of country we want to build together.
Next week we’re going to focus on loving each other when we disagree. This week we’ll focus on what our faith tells us about life’s priorities and the role of government.
Let’s start with priorities of life and faith. I chose this passage from Matthew because it gets at the core of what our faith is about. Jesus tells his listeners what will happen at the end of time when he comes in glory to rule and judge the nations. We’ve read this together recently, so I’m not going to pick it apart in detail. The point is: when Jesus judges us the question that will matter isn’t how often we went to church, how much we pledge, whether we taught Sunday school or smoked cigarettes, or read the Bible. Instead, the question Jesus will ask is how we treated the hungry, the naked, the sick, the lonely and those in prison. The question that Jesus thinks is most important is how we treat those people who are easiest to ignore. Jesus calls them, “the least of these who are members of my family.”
Neither of our presidential candidates talks much about “the least of these.” Neither one talks about the people on the margins of society, even though most of us realize that we could be right there with a few unlucky breaks. We know that if we lose our job at same time we have a major medical problem, we will be headed for financial catastrophe very quickly. That’s not the priority of our political parties. People living in poverty don’t contribute much money to political campaigns and they are not as likely to vote as people with higher income.
Both of our presidential candidates, in fact all of our candidates, talk a lot about the middle class, but not much about the poor. Jesus talked about the poor a lot, and never mentioned the middle class. Don’t get me wrong; supporting the middle class is important. A strong middle class has been one of the keys to the stability of US society from the beginning of our nation. But as people who follow Jesus, caring about the poor is not optional; it is the thing Jesus tells us we will be judged on when the world ends.
That means Christians have to take our concern for the poor into the voting booth and we have to hold our elected officials accountable for how they treat the poor once they are in office. Both before, during and after the election, Christians have to keep the poor on the national radar screen, because they don’t have a lobby or a super PAC or a political party. Both parties are run mainly by the rich, for the rich, so the rest of us have to keep those at the margins from being forgotten.
OK, that’s my quick take on what Jesus tells us about God’s priorities, which should also be our priorities. Any questions or comments about that? Am I being fair?
On to Paul and the role of government. In theory, the basic difference between liberals and conservatives in our country is the role of government. Liberals believe in a more powerful government to address the problems our country faces, while conservatives believe that individuals can solve problems better than government, so it’s better to have a smaller government and leave individuals more resources to solve those problems on their own. Both philosophies have their advantages and disadvantages, and neither party is perfectly consistent in following those philosophies. Neither of those approaches is more or less Christian. There are committed Christians who are conservative and committed Christians who are liberal.
To Paul in the first century the debate wouldn’t even have made sense, so his words aren’t going to be a perfect fit for us today, but they still have something to teach us. They’re not a perfect fit because the fact that we choose our government changes things. The US is a democracy, so we are the United States. When our government does something, it is acting in our name and on our behalf. That means if I think the government is doing something wrong it is my responsibility as a citizen to voice that opinion to my leaders.
That’s a big difference from Paul’s world. For Paul and other Christians of his time the government was a force that could play a role in their life, but over which they had very little control. Paul didn’t think about how Christians should govern, because Christians didn’t govern then. Paul thought of government as a possible threat and as a protector of his rights. We still think of those things. We also have to think about the government as an expression of our voice.
That means we need to be involved in government by being informed and voting our conscience. Paul didn’t have to think about that, but we do.
Where we have something to learn from Paul in this case is that even when we don’t agree with our government, we owe it some level of respect. Paul talks about not only respect, but also obedience. What’s interesting about that is that, while Paul always respected the political and religious leaders he encountered, he didn’t obey them if they wanted him to go against God’s calling.
The Roman government was not persecuting the church yet; that would come later. In fact, in the last third of Acts the government protects Paul from the religious authorities, because Paul is a Roman citizen. Of course, the government protects Paul by locking him up, but it could be worse. Still, Paul writes that his imprisonment has helped spread the gospel because he teaches the guards, other prisoners and everyone he meets about Jesus.
Religious leaders, on the other hand, do try to prevent the gospel from spreading. Paul and other early church leaders don’t reject these leaders, but they refuse to obey them when they forbid them to teach about Jesus. When we see the early church in the book of Acts, they are honest and respectful with the religious leaders. In one scene, Peter and John are arrested by the Pharisees and ordered not to teach about Jesus. They put it very clearly in words that are both respectful and challenging: “Whether it is right for us to obey you instead of God, you must judge.” In other words, they are not going to obey, but they will accept the consequences that come from their choice. God always comes first, but political and religious leaders have a claim on our obedience too.
So how do we put that all together into a Christian approach to government, especially in election season? The most important part, which we’ll talk more about next week, is love. No matter whether we agree or not, Christ calls us to love each other and to love other people. That is at the heart of Jesus’ message; it is at the heart of Paul’s message too. He reminds us that if we put love at the center of our actions we’ll be following God’s commandments. Obviously, that has a lot to say to us about the tone we take with each other and how we discuss issues. It also guides us in terms of the policies we will support or oppose. Christians should support policies that express love and oppose those that support hatred.
Christians should also keep a careful eye out for how government policy affects the poor, the hungry, the sick and those imprisoned. Jesus warns us that when we care for these folks we are caring for him and when we refuse to care for them, we are rejecting him. Regardless of what approach we take to government, we have to consider the most vulnerable people in society as we vote and as we go about our daily lives.
When we vote and when we think about politics we obey God first, but we also need to respect our leaders. Sometimes we cannot obey them, because God’s calling comes first, but even when we disobey, we should do so with respect, honesty and integrity.
Finally, elections and politics are important, but they are not ultimate. Our passage from Matthew starts with what’s important. When Christ returns to rule and judge the world it will be obvious to everyone what we believe today: Jesus is king. No matter who is president of the United States for the next four years, Jesus is still Lord and God is still on the throne. We have a role to play in the leadership of this country and of our local community, but our first commitment is to God. That commitment is at the center of our life. We will disagree on the best way to follow God and the best policies for our life together, and that’s fine. In fact, that’s the beauty of the democratic republic we live in. But regardless of this election or any other election, God is God, Christ is Lord and love is the center of our calling.
Thanks be to God.