Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
In the days after the American election results, it was one of the big questions lingering in the air, a question I heard in prayer requests at church, whispered from downcast friends, and even bubbling up from some deep place in me: How do I talk to my family in this post-election moment?
The concern stretched beyond the boundaries of family, to friends, and even neighbors. As a good friend said that first week, “I don’t know who my neighbors are, and I’m pretty sure they don’t know who I am either.” Others said they couldn’t understand why some were so distraught. Finding themselves confused by the depths of anguish they witnessed in their beloved ones, and wanting to “get it,” they felt they could not.
It was a divisive moment and perhaps still is as executive orders that will change our neighborhoods and who we will be continue to roll out. Even now we continue to navigate the temptations of misplaced allegiances and the fear that love of neighbor might be a zero-sum game. But if there is beauty here, some taste of hope peeking through, it’s the way our despair and anguish in how to relate reveals how much we need one another, want and belong to one another. Our lives are entangled and identities interdependent, for good or for ill, and often beyond our ability to say so.
This current historical moment further reveals – or perhaps only reminds us – of a disturbing truth about the church, namely this: When we name our belonging, we don’t even talk about belonging to Paul or Apollos any longer, as Paul accuses the Corinthian church of doing. In fact, if we did make this sort of claim on an interpreter of the politics of Christ, that would mark our progress toward embodying the gospel.
Many congregations, if they claim to belong to someone at all, are unable to locate themselves in any sort of theological genealogy. Loosely they may know they belong to Wesley or to Luther, the Pope or Stone and Campbell, but the marks of their predecessors are mostly in name only, and more recent influences, like Barth or Tillich, the names of strangers.
Our more compelling allegiances, we might imagine, are elsewhere, and this election cycle has tempted many to say instead of Paul or Apollos, “I belong to Trump,” or “I belong to Hillary,” or “I belong to Bernie.” To stretch Paul’s analogy a bit, if his two available feeding options for the church are milk or solid food, we are in this current moment perhaps somewhere back at an umbilical stage of feeding, this generation of the church in America working through its development still, making the organs, so to speak, for digestion at all.
Numerous factors account for this: our forgetfulness that the gospel is political, the way the American myth collapses ‘Christian’ and ‘nation’ together as if they were compatible, our mistake in thinking the church is about souls while politics are about bodies, and on and on. This post-election era is apocalyptic, not necessarily in the Hollywood sense many of us fear, but in the old sense of the word – as unveiling, revealing, as a pulling back the curtain on the way the world really is. Many of us are discovering in this present political moment that we are not who we thought we were, and our neighbors might not be who we took them to be – even our pew-neighbors.
Suddenly, the gospel of the inbreaking kingdom is set in high relief. Any candidate would have made a worthy Caesar for the church to oppose, but this one in particular stands in such stark contrast to the character of Jesus that the lines seem bright, clearly defined – so clearly defined that we can hardly believe when others can’t see it too. Further, what many of us are discovering is the costliness of this gospel on the one hand, and the depths of our anger and despair on the other. We who see bright lines aren’t certain what to do with our brothers and sisters who would draw the lines differently.
Into our mess comes the gospel, and the conviction that in this moment I would rather cut off the right hand of my brother or gouge out his eye – the way he acts in the world, the bright lines he sees – than amputate my own sinful modes of being in the world. Many of us right now are working out our salvation with fear and trembling, hoping desperately for grace to be with us in this. We live in the agonized tension between holding together a clear view of the gospel of Christ’s kingdom and the political embodied action it requires of us and, on the other hand, loving the very comfortable neighbor in our pew who is delighted to see America becoming “great again.”
This is, in some sense, the question of the moment – how to hold all of this well, how to know what faithfulness looks like and which relational decisions ought be made to embody it well. If I take myself to be, so to speak, the left hand of the body of Christ, can I say to the right hand that I no longer need it? Can I claim that it is causing me to sin, and cut it off? Further, what would it mean that I take myself to be the left hand, instead of one tiny cell woven into the whole of the body of Christ?
In the Matthew text this week, we are told that if we are bringing our offering to the altar and there remember our brother or sister has something against us, we are to go and be reconciled. This is a hard word, fraught with agonizing questions and complications, and implications we’d rather not think about.
Reconciliation is no small process to undertake. It demands the hard work of sustained engagement, and the vulnerability of hoping against hope that a relationship might continue. How do we say “I have strong gospel convictions I will not let be shaken, and they will cause me to act in ways that seem like I am against you, but deeply do I love you and need you and want you and belong to you” and live in the suffering of that stance?
This word speaks directly to the thing we know to be true, that under the meta-politics of this American moment lie an ordinary, mundane politics of our daily lives: webs of belonging, fidelities and vows, people we make and who make us. These are good and right, in reality extraordinary and hardly mundane. They are the quiet stuff of the kingdom breaking in, even as they cause us anguish in this moment. The gospel right now is in the striving together toward having more fully the political mind of Christ. We are God’s field, Paul says. We are God’s building. And we are God’s body, the body of Christ in the world. We are embodying some kind of politics at every moment.
So let our political unity be the tangled roots beneath our soil and the way we all grow upward toward the light of Christ. Let the building we are be more than walls, but the shelter and welcome of home. And let our body be more than right or left hand, but an embrace that encloses and draws the other near. We are the offering at the altar. We are a living sacrifice hoping to be pleasing to God. We are bread. Let us be broken for the world.