Sermon: 4th Sunday after Pentecost, 12th June 2016

St.Alban’s Epping, 12th June 2016

“POLITICS, MORALITY AND RELIGION”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(1 Kings 21:1-21; Psalm 5:1-7; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3)

Some time ago I was taken aside by a family member who was deeply offended by one of my sons-in-law. He had chipped him about the policies and decisions made by parliamentarians belonging to the party he supports. The comment had caused great offence. “We do not discuss religion or politics in this family”, I was told. I don’t remember ever having this rule at home, and I suspect it was an interpretation of “We avoid arguments in this family”!

Of course, we have all heard of that trio of subjects which are traditionally not raised in polite conversation: sex, politics and religion. And with the election less than three weeks away, all three are coming up regularly. Sex because of the issue of same-sex marriage, and the strong views held on both sides of the debate. Religion not only because of religious input on this debate, but because of a number of other issues on which individual Christians and church bodies have expressed views. And politics? Enough said!

Of course there are many people who say that the church should keep out of politics. Religion is the church’s domain, and Christians should stop trying to force their views on society. Whether it’s gay marriage or the treatment of asylum seekers or overseas aid or school funding or climate change, the views of Christians have been put forward and attacked, particularly in recent times.

But should religion and faith be allowed to influence politicians and their decisions? I remember one particular leader whose religious background was well known. He insisted that he would not allow his religion to interfere with his decisions and actions as a political leader. I would suggest that a faith which has no impact on our decisions is a very strange sort of faith!

And others who are known as Christians sometimes make decisions or take stands that make me ask myself: “How can a real Christian make that decision or support that policy?” And one of the big issues that Christian politicians have to work through is how they make decisions as representatives of a mixed population in a secular society. There will be times when their personal principles and values will differ from those which dominate in our country: when should they be different, and when should they reflect the popular view, or the policy of their leader?

Today’s Old Testament reading points us to a man who represented traditional religion, a man who certainly interfered in politics, a man who was a real thorn in the side of his king. Of course I am referring to Elijah the prophet. The king was Ahab, although the power behind the throne was Ahab’s wife Jezebel, who came from a neighbouring kingdom, and was determined to have her religion and her values established in Israel.

Elijah had challenged the king’s lack of commitment to the Lord, the true God of Israel. The great contest on Mount Carmel, when the Lord had sent fire and Baal had done nothing, had demonstrated that the Lord was truly God. But the Lord’s triumph on Mount Carmel had not really changed things in Israel, and it was clear that Ahab was dominated by the ruthless pagan Jezebel.

Ahab had a palace in the city of Jezreel, and wanted to buy the property of Naboth, who lived next to the palace. He wanted to use it as a vegetable garden. Naboth however was not prepared to sell it to the king: his security was bound up with that land which belonged to him and his family, and he knew that his land was the gift of God, and not to be conveniently sold.

Jezebel sees that Ahab has the sulks and asks him what the problem is. “Aren’t you the boss in Israel?” she responds. “I will get you the land.”

In fact, Ahab is not the boss. The Lord is the true king of Israel, not Ahab. In a real sense, Israel is a theocracy, not a monarchy. The king is to rule as God’s servant: the power he has is to be used for God’s purposes, not his own. But Ahab is not going to ask too many questions if Jezebel will get that land for him.

Jezebel has Naboth tried and executed on a trumped-up charge, and suddenly the land is available. The leaders of Jezreel who delivered the required verdict should have done the right thing, but it was no doubt safer not to go against the clear demands of Jezebel.

Ahab went to claim his land. No doubt his good mood changed when he saw that interferer Elijah. “Have you found me, my enemy?” he greeted Elijah. He knew that the prophet was not going to excuse him just because Jezebel did the dirty work. “You have done evil in the sight of the Lord.” And Elijah pronounces the Lord’s judgement on both Jezebel and Ahab.

Well, was Elijah just another religious zealot interfering with the king’s rights and powers? As I said, kings of Israel were to serve as king under God. Israel was in a covenant relationship with the Lord, and the kings were to fulfil their role within that covenant.

They must obey God’s law, and they must listen obediently to his messengers the faithful prophets. They must never be a law unto themselves. But Ahab and Jezebel were guilty of the corrupt use of power. They used their power for their own selfish ends, not in the service of their people. Instead of serving, they abused their power.

How does this relate to our lives today? Should Christians get involved in politics? If so, what sort of role should they seek? And do Christians and church leaders have a right to speak out on current issues?

Politics is not just about power, how to achieve it and how to hold on to it. Politics is about the life and direction of a state or community. It is about the welfare of communities and people, or sadly it may be about their neglect and exploitation. But for Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah was a political threat, a threat to their power and the way they wanted to use it. He was indeed their enemy.

And what about Christians today? Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, and one side of that is our concern not only for individuals in need, but for the welfare of our community. And involvement in political activity can be one way of expressing that concern. It may be by taking up particular issues, or supporting particular campaigns, or by joining and being active in political parties, or even standing for office. And because no particular political approach has all the answers, Christians might well support or join different parties.

I doubt that any political party is by nature more “Christian” than any other; and I am very wary of parties with a specifically “Christian” name or agenda. Their shortcomings can be very obvious, and their views often only represent a particular kind of Christian.

Nevertheless I am pleased to see people known as Christians who are active in the political life of our state and nation, some of them in very prominent positions. Sometimes I will agree with their statements and stands: sometimes I will disagree with them, sometimes I will be disturbed by their words and actions, sometimes they make me cringe! But I want them to be thinking about how their faith relates to what they say and do. I want them to consider issues in the light of their understanding of God’s word and God’s ways.

In particular, I want to see them acting with integrity, and I want to see them reflecting Christ’s compassion for those in need. I want them to be willing to challenge the thinking and direction of their parties when they find it unconscionable.

And in a democratic country – even a secular one – Christians as much as anyone else have a right and even a responsibility to make their views on issues known – just as anyone else can! Christians won’t be able to force anything on society, if they ever could!

And in any case, Christians do not always agree on political issues, even those with strong moral aspects. For instance, there is the obvious issue of same-sex marriage. Up till recently, Christians generally understood that Biblical teaching indicates that sexual relationships should be heterosexual and in the context of marriage. But society has moved very quickly to accept same-sex and other relationships, and Christians are now divided on the matter. Some Christians will insist that the scriptures must be held to, and that the church should resist what is seen as an ungodly lifestyle, which will do harm to our society. Some Christians will hold personally to a traditional understanding of the issue, but say that it is better to encourage all loving faithful relationships in this secular society, even if they don’t fit in with our ideals. And other Christians believe that we need to radically rethink our understanding of how we understand and apply scripture, so that we find a new understanding of the issue that relates to the realities of life today. And of course there will be other views within the Christian community.

Well, I’m not going to solve the problem this morning. I must admit that I’m still working it through myself! And I don’t have all the answers on our treatment of asylum seekers, the best response to climate change, overseas aid, and many other issues which concern me as I consider how I vote.

Let me encourage you to think prayerfully about how you vote, and not just automatically vote the way you always vote. Be wary of those with loud voices, and do listen to voices other than the shock-jocks! Ask yourself what you see as the key issues, and perhaps also take the risk of asking what Jesus might see as the key issues. Think of Australia as a community, not merely as an economy. And let us pray that those who are elected will see themselves truly as servants of our people, and humbly listen and think and serve for the good of our people, and indeed for the good of our world, which after all is God’s world. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: St Aidan’s, Sunday, 5th June 2016

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 5th June 2016

Rev. Paul Weaver

“THE GOD WE BELIEVE IN”

(1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17)

What kind of God do you believe in?

The question occurred to me as I reflected on today’s Psalm. Psalm 146 is full of enthusiastic praise for the Lord. The Psalmist not only praises the Lord himself: he wants those who read or hear or sing this Psalm to join him in praising the Lord, and in trusting the Lord.

“Put not your trust in princes”, he says. People of mere flesh and blood cannot save. And in this extended election campaign, I find myself more often being reminded of the frailties of our princes, our political leaders, than of good reasons to put my trust in them!

In contrast, the Psalmist points out that the Lord is the Creator of the universe. He is faithful and worthy of our trust. He establishes justice and righteousness and provides our daily needs. He liberates and heals and supports those in need. And his care reaches not only the elite, but also the foreigner, the struggler and the vulnerable.

And so the Psalmist calls on all who hear his words to praise the Lord, who is king for ever. And is it not right to honour and trust a God who is like that?

The problem, of course, is that our experience of life, and our observation of life in this world, do not always seem to confirm the Psalmist’s picture. Is life really as the Psalmist presents it? We are only too aware of the suffering and violence and oppression and injustice in the world. Is the Lord really as wonderful as the Psalmist’s glowing picture suggests? Is he really as active, as “in control”, as the Psalmist tells us? Could it be that the Psalmist is indulging in wishful thinking, perhaps sounding enthusiastic in the hope that this will submerge his doubts? There are many who would suggest that the Psalmist is mistaken, even deluded. It was true then: it is certainly the case now!

Once upon a time atheists were respectful to believers, and even showed respect for the idea of a Creator God. But nowadays there are many who openly mock people of faith and deride the idea of God. To these people – I call them evangelical atheists – believers deserve to be treated as fools. Many of them insist that faith in God is not only foolish: they claim that all religion is dangerous and harmful, and are always ready to pounce on the failures and mistakes of organized religion to demonstrate their point.

Of course, not all people who see themselves as atheists are as aggressive as that. Many simply explain that for various reasons they do not share my faith, as the husband of a dying woman explained in detail to me the other day. I could acknowledge the story he told me, the reasons he had come to his unbelief, even though I came to the opposite conclusion.

There are some chaplains who might have debated with him at that point: tried to show him that Christianity was true, and that he should believe. But I didn’t do that. I respected the reasons why he had come to his conclusion, and the personal pain which was associated with his lack of belief. Maybe the right time will come up to explore issues of faith with him, but at that time I felt he needed to know that I didn’t condemn him for his lack of faith, and that I was still willing to stay with him and support him in the difficult journey he and his family were taking. He wasn’t ready for debate or for correction. Hopefully I was able to demonstrate to him something of the care and patience and understanding of God, and that I think is more helpful to him right now.

Of course, we all come to issues of faith and meaning with our own presuppositions, our prejudices, our stories and our agendas. We must be realistic about that.

And we must be honest about the fact that the Christian’s belief in God, and the Christian understanding of Jesus, cannot be literally proved. Nevertheless I am convinced that there are good reasons for believing the Christian message, for believing that the Gospel does indeed make sense.

But I know that it is quite possible to present the Christian message to a person who seems quite reasonable, to helpfully answer every question they might have and every objection they might raise, and fail to convince them. We can’t unanswerably prove the truth of the Gospel.

Each of us makes our own spiritual journey. For many of us I imagine that faith has been part of our life since our childhood days. Nothing major has happened to overturn that faith, although we may have had our spiritual ups and downs as we have journeyed through life. Perhaps some of us have had particular turning points when Jesus has come alive to us in a new way: we might call them conversion experiences. Some of us may have had major spiritual battles at particular points of our lives. We hold our faith now for our different reasons. But ultimately our faith will hold because it makes sense, because our faith impacts positively in our lives, and because we sense that God is indeed at work in our lives.

The faith that the Psalmist describes is demonstrated in different ways in today’s Bible readings. For the widow of Zarephath, it was through the wonderful continuing supply of food when it looked as though she and her son would die of starvation. The Lord miraculously “gave food to the hungry”, as the Psalmist said.  He not only provided for his servant the prophet Elijah: he upheld the widow and the fatherless, people who were outsiders.

Or take the Gospel story of Jesus. He arrives at the village of Nain, and sees the funeral procession for this young man whose mother would in the future be alone and very vulnerable indeed. Jesus offers not just sympathy, but something far more powerful. He raises the young man from death, ensuring not only that the woman is not alone, but that she has someone who will ensure that she is provided for in the future. Once again we see God at work through his servant – in fact, his Son – providing for the needy and the struggler.

Or what about Paul? Here indeed is someone whose life was taken by God, and turned upside down – or perhaps turned right side up! This was Jesus, Paul’s enemy, taking him by the scruff of the neck, and changing the direction of his life, and revolutionizing his understanding of God and his purposes.

Paul’s message about Jesus was not simply the product of rational evaluation or even an emotional crisis. He insisted that his Gospel was God’s true and authoritative message, provided by the Lord himself to one who sought to destroy those who bore witness to it.

And this was a Gospel for all people, not just those who thought they were God’s favourites. It was a message of forgiveness for those who know they fail to live the lives they should; of hope for those who struggle through life; of provision for our deepest needs; of love and acceptance for those who feel cut off.

Well, what kind of God do you believe in? Perhaps you find it hard to believe at times. Perhaps you just aren’t sure. God doesn’t usually force himself on us, and sometimes faith is not easy.

Our readings today present a God who cares and provides for those in need, a God who honours those who love and obey him even when it is difficult, a God who brings life out of death, a God whose Son shows us the way to life, a God who speaks through the message of Christ and through the scriptures. This is the God in whom we believe: the God whose Son Jesus Christ we trust and follow

Although we will continue to have questions and uncertainties, I am confident that it still makes sense to believe in the God who is revealed through the pages of the Bible. And I believe that the answers we have through the scriptures are far greater than the questions that may come up about whether the Christian faith is for real.

I believe in the God who created this world and who keeps on providing for our needs. Evolution may well describe the process of creation, but we believe that behind that process there is a Creator. I believe in a God who usually does not impose himself, who works quietly in the world and in his people, but who has chosen particular people such as Paul to communicate the message of his power, his purpose and his love.

So today we come to express our faith in God who made us, who loves us, who has shared our life, and who has brought us forgiveness despite our sin. This is the God who invites us to trust and follow his son Jesus Christ.

Our faith may have its doubts, its questions and its weaknesses. But God is greater than those limitations, and he calls us into his kingdom through his grace. And in his grace, he calls us to trust and follow his Son Jesus Christ, through whom we find life and hope and eternal love. Amen.

Paul Weaver