February 9, 2020 Sermon
“What Love Has To Say About Partisan Politics”
1st Scripture Reading – John 13:34-35
34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
2nd Scripture Reading – 1 Corinthians 3:1-4
3 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
“What Love Has To Say About Partisan Politics”
We start a new sermon series today that will take us to the end of the current liturgical season of Epiphany. I’ve mentioned before, many many times, that the season of Epiphany is the liturgical season during which we remember Jesus’ identity made known. We remember Jesus’ identity made known by God to an ancient people on the other side of the globe, and we remember Jesus’ identity made known in ways that matter to US, on this side of the world, in the 21st century.
As I prepared for this series of sermons, I recalled Jesus’ new commandment told in our scripture reading from John:
“Love one another…By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Just as God revealed Jesus’ identity through Jesus’ own actions and words, both as they transpired and as they have been recorded and preserved in scripture, God continues to reveal Jesus’ identity through the acts of love done by Jesus’ followers. That’s what Jesus was saying in this new commandment, right? That’s how others will know we are Jesus’ disciples, which means that’s how others will know Jesus.
I hope you get what a big deal this is. I hope you get the kind of responsibility this places on you. Once you declare yourself a disciple of Jesus, what you do, what you say, EVERY thing you do, EVERY thing you say, how you live your life, identifies for others who Jesus is. If you live out of a desire to what is best for others, seeking people in need and then doing what you can to help them, you proclaim something about Jesus’ identity. Alternatively, If you live selfishly for you and your family, you proclaim something else about Jesus’ identity.
Once you identify yourself as a follower of Jesus, whatever you do, whatever you say, however you choose to live, will reveal to others who Jesus is. So, by this new sermon series, I’ve decided to explore what it looks like, what it means, to “love” as a way of living…not just generally but in terms of some of the most contextual and difficult aspects of 21st century American life. Because, this is our context. And as wonderful as love sounds in general, love can be tricky to live out in context. I call the series, “What does love say about…”
Before I get to the very first contextual issue to be addressed, I want to set out a definition of “love” to guide us. If you worshipped here on January 12, my first Epiphany sermon of 2020, you already got to hear the answer. The Greek word Jesus uses for “love” in this new commandment, it most accurately translates as “to prefer” or “to show a preference for”. Without context, scholars suggest the word means showing a preference for God and God’s way. In the context in which Jesus uses the word in this new commandment, it’s all about following God’s lead in showing a preference for others over a preference for ourselves, a preference most perfectly exemplified, of course, in Jesus’ decision to give His life for all others. Throughout this series, I’ll use the concept of “preference for others” in words and deeds as a short summary of what Jesus was commanding.
I’ve got to say, the task of choosing contemporary issues for which to apply Jesus’ new commandment was daunting. Among all the issues facing our society, how could I choose just 3…that’s the number of sermons I’ve got before the first Sunday in Lent? Should I be bold and tackle the most difficult issues or ease us in? Well, with just three sermons, I’ve decided to go bold. So, please, don’t run when you hear the topics. We should be able to apply Jesus’ new commandment to any topic, no matter how difficult. I’ll go further to say as followers of Jesus, it’s our responsibility to tackle the most difficult, the most divisive issues first. Indeed, in our second reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul suggested divisiveness – jealousy and quarreling – as indicative of our following the way of people instead of the way of God…so it is how we deal with the most difficult issues that will best demonstrate our faith, that best provides a true test of our faith lived out in community.
So…let’s give it a try. Today, I’ll consider what love has to say about partisan politics. Please note, your ability to hear this sermon should not depend at all on whether you lean left or right. The sermon has nothing to do with which way is better, which politics is better. I hope you know me well enough to know I wouldn’t address that issue from the pulpit. Indeed, to do so would be unloving, would be showing a lack of preference for those on the other side of the political aisle. So…that’s NOT what this is about.
To help better explain what this IS about, I need to define what I mean by the phrase “partisan politics”; the phrase can mean different things to different folks. In an article about partisan politics from Wharton Magazine in 2012, an article that asks the question of whether or not partisan politics has become an acceptable form of bigotry in our country, the author of the article defines “partisan” using the definition from the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster, which is as follows: “a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause or purpose; especially one exhibiting blind, prejudiced and unreasoning allegiance.”
I imagine many of us don’t particularly LIKE this definition. In fact, the author of the article didn’t seem to think his readers would like the definition…since he wrote down what he anticipated to be their response as follows:
Blind? Prejudiced? Unreasoning? Why it’s widely known that the good my party has done far outstrips whatever good the opposing party has done—if, indeed it has ever done any good. And the wrongs the opposition has committed? Much too numerous to list here. And well beyond any wrong my party has committed—if, in truth, my party has ever committed any wrong. What’s unreasoning about that?
To simplify, it sounds to me like “partisan politics” involves identifying with a political party in such a way that you are predisposed positively toward the views of that party and are pretty much intolerant toward the views and people of the other party. Whether you would define the phrase “partisan politics” differently than I do, THIS is the kind of thing I’m talking about for the purposes of this sermon. It might apply to you; It might not. It might apply to some people you know; it might not. I’m fairly certain it applies to quite a few people in 21st century American society, which is why it bears discussion.
And so, I wonder: what might love say about this? In the context of the issue of partisan politics, the question could more applicably read, “is love, is a preference for the other, compatible with partisanship in politics…or, really, partisanship in anything?”
Before I proceed, I offer this disclaimer. I don’t have to tell you that this past week has been a busy week in American politics:
- The Iowa caucuses were held on Monday;
- The State of the Union was given to congress by the president on Tuesday;
- The impeachment trial concluded on Wednesday.
You might be tempted to think I am preaching this sermon as a result of these events. I…am…not; I scheduled this sermon more than a month ago. You might be tempted to think I’m preaching this sermon to point out the partisanship of one side or the other, even one side over the other, in response to the events of this week. I…am…not. You might be tempted to hear the words of this sermon as leaning toward one party or the other; it…is…not. This sermon is an attempt to consider what love has to say about the issue of partisanship, especially partisanship on the part of followers of Jesus, anywhere, anytime. This sermon applies to people in foreign countries that don’t have Democrats or Republicans. It applies to the future and the past. It happens to be particularly relevant, particularly contextual, to our time and place because that’s what a sermon is supposed to do: apply scriptural principles to now, to us. But this sermon absolutely, positively is not about lifting up one side or dragging down one side. Please don’t hear it that way.
Oh, there is one more thing I suggest we consider to help us discover what love has to say about partisan politics – to help us discover what love has to say about anything – and it is this: we should consider who or what will provide the example of love to which we can turn for our learning. I won’t spend a ton of time on this, but it bears saying: God is where we look to know what love will have to say about something. Recall the words attributed to the gospel writer John in 1 John 4, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.” Throughout this and the coming sermons, I will look to God in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – to help us discover what love has to say.
Onto the question of what love has to say about partisan politics.
The first thing I find that love has to say about partisan politics might surprise you: love encourages diversity of opinion. Believe me, I get that sometimes it seems like the world would be a better place if we could all just agree. And it might even seem like that’s what Paul was trying to suggest in our reading from 1 Corinthians…because it might seem like the best way to prevent quarreling is to force agreement, but it’s not. My friends, forcing others to agree with us or choosing to ignore or discount or not listen to those who don’t agree with us is not a very Godly thing, not a very loving thing.
How do I know? For starters, even Paul would write later in his letter to the church in Corinth, “[love] does not insist on its own way.” In other words, love is incompatible with forcing your way, your ideas, onto others. Further, remember the definition of love; it’s about preference for the other. How can you prefer someone, act in their best interests, when you demonize them, ignore them, or refuse to accept them as worthy? You can’t. But, my answer goes even deeper than that. My answer gets back to God. Way back at the beginning of the Bible, in the description of creation that begins in Genesis chapter 2, God gave people the ability to choose, to choose for God or against God. While we can all agree that the poor choice of humanity hasn’t produced great results, that’s not the point. The point is: out of love, rather than forcing people to agree with God about everything, rather than forcing people to behave as God desired…which God COULD have done, God, who is the perfect example of love, allowed people to choose. And when people kept making bad choice after bad choice after bad choice, God never wrote them off the way partisans tend to write off the other side. No, God argued with Abraham; God argued with Moses; God argued with Job; God endured the waywardness even of God’s chosen people, and, ultimately, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son…”
Y’all, out of love God encouraged diversity of opinion, even when God KNEW the opinions of people were WRONG. God still let people have those opinions. God still interacted with, even listened to, and never wrote off the people with different opinions. God even sent God’s son to die for people who were and are sinners, who had different ideas about how to live. God STILL preferred people. That’s what God does; that’s what love does.
But what does partisanship do? Partisanship rejects people who hold different opinions, refuses to talk to people who hold different opinions, refuses to prefer in pretty much any and every way people who hold different opinions. Which is to say, love is almost completely incompatible with partisan politics. If God can love us, even while we’re still sinners, even while God KNOWS we’re wrong, can’t we love people who hold different views about how the world should work, how our nation should be governed, even when we THINK they are wrong?
And the second thing love has to say about partisan politics flows from the first: we, the followers of Jesus, the Church, we should be the examples of love overcoming partisanship. In other words, love pretty much demands that we show the partisans in this nation – and even the world – a better way instead of participating in the way of divisiveness that Paul referred to as “of the flesh.” This doesn’t mean we have to agree with our political rivals. It only means we have to love them. But, by “loving them”, I don’t mean a politically correct, nice kind of love that’s just in our hearts and minds. No, we must actively love them, the way God actively loved oppositional people in sending judges, prophets, scripture writers, and even Jesus to people who opposed God’s ways.
What does this look like?
For starters, establishing real relationships with people on the other side. Not necessarily to convert them to your way of thinking…that’s not preferring them. Rather, intentionally establishing real relationship that includes a dialog of give and take to get to know them as people, to understand what motivates them, to get in touch with their fears, their worldview, their understanding of how things work. But most importantly to show them love is bigger than our political differences. In such a politically divisive culture as ours, if we, First Christian Church, Grand Junction, chose THIS to be the way we will make our discipleship known by our love, I am confident we would grow by leaps and bounds.
Part of this means we’ve got to exit the mode of thinking that we can only love each other if we don’t talk politics. Y’all, if that’s the case, if the followers of Jesus, if the people of God, can’t love others with whom we disagree politically, we worship a weak God whom few people will take seriously. I’m convinced this is one of the underpinnings of the decline of the church in the last half century in this nation. It’s time for us to trust God enough to live out the love we proclaim, even with our political opponents. When we do THAT, God will transform the world through us. Cowering away from conversation and relationship with our political adversaries only communicates that we don’t really trust in God’s power to overcome our disagreements.
This also looks like cutting out the back-chatter about our political opponents. If we put up a good outward front but laugh about, sneer about, or ridicule our political opponents behind their backs, when we’re in a safe place with our like-minded friends, we’re not really loving; we’re not really preferring the other, and believe me, people will see it. If you hold contempt for the other side of the aisle, you can’t hide it. Your love for the other must be real.
So I guess this starts with each of us getting clear about where we are politically and then actively finding someone on the other side, engaging in a prolonged period of real dialog and relationship with that person, keeping God and love at the forefront of our discussions, and then allowing ourselves to be changed by these conversations.
And if you’re squirming right now, if you want to openly disagree with me or even yell at me for making this suggestion, if you want to find another church because this pastor is so bold, even if enough of you want to fire me for preaching love for our political adversaries from the pulpit, I get it, I really do. But know this, these impulses are reflections of our culture, even the ways in which we’re “still of the flesh”; they are NOT reflections of the God we proclaim to serve. They are not reflections of love.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
My friends, with regard to politics, haven’t we been doing what Jesus warned us against for too long? Haven’t we been loving only those who agree with us and not our metaphorical enemies, meaning those on the other side of the aisle? Isn’t it time for us to follow the example of God’s love, God’s preference even for sinners, so that we might show the world a better way? Amen.