Jesus’ Political Table
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Luke 4: 14-21
January 4, 2015 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev Scott Elliott
A few years ago I read a story about a fellow who’s daughter’s second grade class was asked to write about their personal heros. The father was flattered to find out that she had chosen to write about him. When the father asked why she chose him, his daughter matter of factly replied: “Because I could not spell Arnold Schwartzenegger.” 1.
When January rolls around I always tend to think about the political heroes of this nation because a lot them were born in January. I know this because, well, I have always had this thing for history and it’s long stood out to me how many famous Americans have January birthdays, like: Paul Revere, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Daniel Webster, Franklin Roosevelt, and of course, Martin Luther King Jr.
The founders of this nation have always been of particular interest to me, both the well known and the unsung men and women who sacrificed so much to birth this truly amazing nation. Today is actually the birth date of Dr. Benjamin Rush one of our mostly unsung founding fathers. Born in 1746, two hundred-and-sixty-nine years ago, Dr. Rush founded Dickinson College, was Surgeon General in the Continental Army and while serving in the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Rush was also very involved in the Presbyterian church and was a staunch abolitionist and a very early advocate for the rights of Blacks and Women as America began.
Next Sunday, January 11, is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday as well as the day he was baptized three hundred and nine years ago in the most famous Congregational church in American history, Old South Church in Boston. Dr. Franklin is famous and most of us know his history, but we may not know much about Old South Church. Ben Franklin and Sam Adams were members, as was the 18th century slave and poet Phillis Wheatly.
The famous Old South Meeting House was a part of the church and many an important American Revolutionary meeting took place there. From gatherings in response to the Boston Massacre to Tea Tax debates to the original Tea Party formation, Old South Church housed many of the embers that sparked the Revolution. Indeed, that church played such an important role that, as Old South Church’s current website notes: when British troops occupied Boston they made sure to
gut[ ]the vast interior of the Old South Meeting House. They tore down the pews, the pulpit, and the galleries and burned them for fuel. Hundreds of loads of dirt and gravel were spread on the floor, and a bar was erected so the men could practice jumping their horses. In the east galleries, the officers enjoyed drinks while they watched the feats of horsemanship below. The British left the building unfit for occupancy. It took nearly 8 years for the congregation to restore the building. 2
Those types of political reprisals did not stop our founders from declaring independence including the famous wonderful self evident truth “that all . . . are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Political reprisals against churches for revolutionary roles is not unusual, nor is their ineffectiveness to stop God’s call to a better world.
We – this church– come out of both the Presbyterian and the Congregational traditions that I’ve mentioned. In our small part of the world, this church has faced political opposition and has thrived and helped do its part to change the politics of this nation and of the world.
I love that we were an anti-slavery church in 1834 and that the stained glass windows in the back there remember that. And that people of color are held up not only as Bible characters in the windows, but look out over not only this worship space but the Main Street of this town reminding us and the community for 120 years that people of color matter, because every life matters . . . and equally so.
Last month Ron Meharry wrote a wonderful letter to the editor noting how in this church’s founding years we were anti-slavery and our building was the target of political protests including the pelting of our first church building on Mulberry with eggs and rocks. There were in fact riots and lynch mobs that sought to harm pastors and speakers at our church in its formative years, but still we talked and we worked on that political matter, and because of churches and others like this – THANK GOD– slavery ended.
Ron’s letter also reflected upon the recent Christmas Holiday Season protestors whose anti-Gay politics were expressed with offensive signs and comments as they gathered outside our church service. These, of course, were not the first political protestors at our church steps and I doubt then will be the last. We will keep talking and we will keep working and – THANK GOD– oppression of LGBT and others will also end because of churches like this and others.
Sometimes pastors hear church members claim that they don’t want politics preached from the pulpit. In fact both times that I have searched for a church to pastor at I encountered churches asserting they didn’t want politics preached from the pulpit. I gently let each of these churches know that that was the reason I would not consider their church and probably why they were having trouble in the search. God is political. The Bible is political. Preaching and church done right, necessarily have a political aspect to them.
Perhaps like the spelling of Arnold Schwartzenegger, some church folk decide to do what is easier to avoid political dictates in the Bible rather than face them. But that is not Christianity’s tradition. The idea of no politics from the pulpit or actions in church is un-Biblical. It could even be considered un-American. While the First Amendment to the Constitution requires a separation of church and state in virtually all levels of government matters, the rule of law stemming from the Constitution does not dictate that churches must also keep separate or stay away from issues of state. Indeed the opposite is true; the First Amendment does not just forbid government establishment of religion, but also forbids the government from prohibiting the exercise of religion, and protects free speech.
So while the government cannot generally question church affairs, churches have the right to question government affairs.
Stopping church discussion of politics is an un-Godly idea because in our scriptures God never stays out of politics, nor do God’s people. Jesus’ ministry was often about politics– matters pertaining to state and governance.
Politics are deeply spiritual matters in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament the prophets admonish and direct government and state conduct. Even the establishment of a religion worshiping Yahweh was about politics. The state sanctioned polytheistic gods who sided with the powers that be were replaced by Yahweh the One God who sides with justice and righteousness and the oppressed, not solely with the powers that be.
Moses owed his life to political actions by two mid-wives challenging government edicts to kill male infants. And Moses himself directly confronted the politics of enslavement and established with Yahweh a people governed by Divine laws and commandments. Politics fill the Exodus story.
And it does not stop at Moses, the Book of Judges is about the early governance of the Hebrew tribes. The Judges do more than solve civil disputes they lead and wrestle with war and communal misdeeds.
The stories of Saul and David and Solomon are about kings and kingdoms and the politics of governance and intrigue and God’s roll and response to political action by human leadership, and through the nation of Israel.
The proper political goals are even spelled out in Psalm 72 (our Lectionary reading today) where no less than Solomon is reported to pray these amazing words with God’s political instructions:
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. . . .
In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. . .
Then, as we heard, Psalm 72 goes on to say this about political leaders who follow the Psalm’s political instructions:
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight . . .
This Biblical text, this prayer of Solomon, is in no uncertain terms a political statement about, and to, national governance.
How marvelous it would be if we Christians spent our time protesting and criticizing the non-compliance with the political dictates of Psalm 72 which enshrines in Scripture a Divine call to political leaders to“judge [the] people with righteousness and [the] poor with justice.”
Our nation, our world, would change if Christians took to the streets and wrote to their politicians demanding that our nation does as Psalm 72 asserts to “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor;” and that “peace abound;” that a nation’s leaders must “deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper,” that they are yo have “pity on the weak and the needy . . . save the lives of the needy [and] [f]rom oppression and violence . . .redeem their life.”
Those are not my political statements. Those are Biblical statements in a Lectionary lesson for churches across the world to consider today. And if Psalm 72 is not a political statement I don’t know what would be.
Banning politics from the pulpit would mean forgetting Psalm 72 and the Exodus story. It would mean excluding from worship Jesus’ inaugural speech from Luke that we also heard. The story where Jesus states in the political phrases of Isaiah that he, Jesus, came to proclaim what amounts to promises of equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those American Revolutionary ideals are supported by Jesus first sermon in a synagogue when he preached these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free . . .”
That first recorded sermon of Jesus’ can be heard as played out by Jesus in all that he teaches and does. Politics mattered to Jesus and his followers and have been deeply a part of American church life since the start of this country. Its been a part of this church since it’s formation.
We can argue about whether liberal, moderate or conservative means can best accomplish equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, but we cannot ignore that we are to accomplish them as Americans or as Christians.
On January 1, 1802 President Thomas Jefferson received delivery at the White House of a 1200 pound round of cheese from a Baptist church in “respect[ ] of [Jefferson’s] defense of religious liberty.” “Painted on the crust [of the cheese] was the inscription “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” 3
The ugly truth is Jesus was crucified because of his political non-violent resistance to the politics of tyranny and oppression of Rome. He was killed because he was preaching politics, changes in the ways of state and governance.
I find it particularly interesting that a church sent 1200 pounds of cheese to President Jefferson at the start of a New Year with its very political theological message. I like that the not-so-cheesy message from a church came in the form of food because meals are a primary vehicle by which Jesus delivered and still delivers political messages.
See, in Rome the meal was a place of cultural significance. Who was invited and not invited, who you were seen with and not seen with at meals was very important in that patron based system. Usually only important adult males were invited; Women, children and other oppressed and expendables were left out. The table practices throughout the Roman Empire reflected the Roman power structure, meals were part and parcel of the system. Meals were political. Everyone knew their places and who was “head of the table.”
A part of Jesus’ genius was that he stood the Roman table practice on its head. He started counter-culture meals; a table where the self-evident truth that all were created equal reigned. At Jesus’ table those who were Rome’s culturally unacceptable sat as equals with Rome’s culturally acceptable. Outcasts, poor and sinners ate with the in-crowd, rich and religious.
And it was more than just sitting. The hungry got fed. The thirsty got drink. All were not just said to be created equal, but they were actually treated equal and so were in fact equal at Jesus’ table–and in His community.
Today we still remember those meals through this table up here. Unlike the Roman table with controls and boundaries establishing who could come and break bread and drink wine and in what order; to sit at Jesus’ table had the opposite effect. And it still has that effect. Jesus’ banquet, the Lord’s Supper “is a table without controls, a table without boundaries. It represents a community in which all are welcomed, into which all may come.” 4
It’s a table where all are known to be created equal. Where all are known to have undeniable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Communion is a political statement by Jesus, by God, by this church and by us. It says God loves everyone and Jesus loves everyone and they aim to include all at the table and in the community, whether anyone else likes it or not. This open table here in this church says that we understand that and that we strive to do that do too!
May our coming to this church always make that statement, not just at this table, not just on Sundays, but in our every Word and in our every deed. AMEN.
* based in part on a sermon I originally wrote in 2008
1. Slightly modified version of a story in Rowell, Edward, ed., 1001 Quotes, Illustrations, and Humorous Stories for Preachers, Teachers and Writers, BakerBooks (Grand Rapids, 2008), 325.
4. Christian Century, July 2008
4. Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1998), 86.
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2015