Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Holy Messiness of Citizenship

[Sermon from Sunday, July 1, 2012.]

As we approach Independence Day this year, the Supreme Court has certainly given us a lot to think about in terms of American government and public policy – which is, ultimately, our concern, given that we’re the ones who govern this democratic republic. Last week, the Court first struck down some provisions of the controversial immigration law from Arizona while upholding other parts of it. Then, on Thursday, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the 2010 health-care reform law, much to the surprise of many. At least we can rest assured that American government isn’t boring.

Beyond these Court rulings, of course, this is also an election year – and a presidential election year at that. So when we go to the polls this November, we’ll have many decisions to make about who will lead us, at every level – from president to county clerk – not to mention ballot initiatives and local issues. So this morning, and again on Wednesday, as we lift up our nation in prayer and give thanks for the gifts of independence and self-government, we also remember the huge responsibility we bear as the inheritors of those gifts. As Jesus reminds us: To whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48).

So what will inform those choices, come November? What democratic vision guides us as we elect those who will guide our nation? What kind of political consensus binds us together as Americans?

Anymore, it sometimes seems the only common measure of success in governing is whether your actions take you one step closer to victory in the next election and set up your opponents for defeat. Voters increasingly ignore moderate voices, the people doing the hard work of compromise, and respond to shrill and simple answers instead. We have a political culture that rewards intransigence, grandstanding, and a failure to govern. When Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II was with us one Sunday in the spring, the clergy were talking in the sacristy before the service; and one of us asked Rev. Cleaver how things “really are” in Washington. He stopped vesting, and looked intently at us, and said, “It’s even more broken than how it seems on TV. It’s worse than you could ever imagine.” Somehow, I don’t think this kind of political stewardship is what our nation’s founders had in mind.

For that matter, I don’t think it’s what God had in mind either in giving Americans the gracious gift of self-government. As Christian citizens of this nation, we bear responsibility not just to govern ourselves competently but to do so in a manner pleasing to God and in keeping with the lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s a delicate balancing act in a nation whose core principles include the separation of church and state. But we know God wants us to “use our liberty in accordance with [God’s] gracious will,” as the prayer book puts it (Collect for the Nation, BCP 258).

So how are we, as Episcopalians, called to live out American citizenship?

When we look around us, we see many different examples of how Christian identity might shape our decisions about policies and candidates. In some Roman Catholic and conservative Protestant churches, members get specific direction on what’s acceptable and what’s not – and sometimes pretty clear direction on which candidates are acceptable, too. The African-American churches have a long history of speaking the prophet’s voice about civil rights and the plight of the poor – and mobilizing their members for political action. For us, as Episcopalians, we’ve tended to see things a little differently. For a long time, we’ve recognized that, at our best, we’re a broad church, a big tent where people can disagree in love on nearly any issue and still come together to worship the God whose kingdom transcends our differences. But as members of that broad church, how are we Episcopalian Christians called to practice faithful citizenship?

Well, in all the stewardship that God asks of us, we’re called to live our gifts. And one of our greatest gifts as Episcopalians is the ability to deal with uncertainty. We don’t demand a lot of hard-and-fast answers or rigid requirements. We can handle it when things get messy. In fact, we do “messy” pretty darned well. So maybe our call as Episcopal Americans is to roll up our sleeves and practice the messiness of thoughtful citizenship as a contrast presence to the politics of polemics.

And you don’t have to look very far to see us answering that call. Right here, in the St. Andrew's parish family, we have people who’ve put themselves into the mess of government and politics because they’re passionate both about their nation and about the kingdom values they hear God calling them to reveal. We have parishioners who’ve worked on campaigns for Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian candidates. We have parishioners who’ve served as delegates to national party conventions. We have parishioners who serve as lobbyists and advisors to Congressmen. We have a former four-term Kansas state senator in our midst, Audrey Langworthy, recently honored as Johnson Countian of the year for her committed, caring, sacrificial, and self-effacing leadership. And now, continuing the tradition, we have another parishioner, Kyle Russell, who is making his own run for the Kansas Senate. Kyle has a passion for issues like taxation, schools, and highways. Some of that has to do with just wanting to make his state a better place. But he also sees public service as an opportunity to live out the values and priorities he hears in Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God. And, like the Langworthys did for many years, Kyle and Rhonda Russell are willing to make significant sacrifices of time, and money, and normal family life so that he can put himself into that messy world of American democracy in action.

I believe that, as people of faith, our vision of the kingdom of God must inform how we govern ourselves. That call is not unique to this denomination. But how we Episcopalians live it out is in recognizing that God gives us each different eyes to see that kingdom and different facets of it on which to focus. On most policy issues, we simply can’t read the mind of God clearly enough, on this side of eternity, to say “I’m right” and “you’re wrong” because the Bible tells me so. But the fact that we don’t issue a lot of policy statements as a church doesn’t mean our faith is silent about how we should govern ourselves. Even though we reject a view of Scripture and the Church that says we should always be on the same page, God does give us some pretty clear mandates; and we heard several of them in our readings this morning. As Deuteronomy puts it, we must be instruments of justice for those it’s easy to forget: the orphan, the widow, the stranger – those who lack the essentials of life and the standing in the community to obtain them. As Matthew puts it, we must love our enemies and pray for those who oppose us – even when our brokenness leads us to strike back. As Hebrews puts it, we must not cling too closely to our worldly identities and affiliations but always remember our true identity as citizens of God’s kingdom seeking our true homeland, a better country – that is, a heavenly one. With the gifts of our Scriptural witness, and our tradition, and our reason and experience, we’re called to govern ourselves prayerfully, in a way that builds the kingdom as God gives us to see it. We should follow the lead of members of our own parish family and practice public discipleship according to the passion and wisdom God gives to each of us. In our tradition, we have a particular giftedness for showing a broken and divided nation the holiness of the “old politics” – the politics of Episcopalians like Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and John Danforth. It’s the politics we see in our own parishioners who put themselves into the holy messiness of government to transform it with civility and common purpose.

Of course we don’t agree about everything. But I’d say we do agree about the bottom line: to steward the gift of freedom in such a way as to build up God’s kingdom – one handshake, one compromise, one sacrifice at a time.

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