Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Blog Sermon:Many of you know that I am an ordained minister. For the past few months, I've been preaching at a small Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. It's a wonderful church full of the oddest most faithful bunch of Christians I've ever met. Holy Trinity-St. Anskar is filled with a bunch of old leftists who have made a Republican like me feel welcome. On December 21, I preached a sermon based on Mary's Magnificat. The mother of Jesus sings this song of how God cares for the lowly. I preached on how the Bible's message of social justice is not simply an idea for Democrats, it is a message that those profess faith in Jesus Christ must make a part of their faith. I have included the text below. Over the next few months I will be talking about religion and politics on this blog. I hope this will forment some discussion.

“A Republican Takes on the Magnificat”
Luke 1:39-56
December 21, 2003
Holy Trinity/St. Anskar Parish
Minneapolis, MN

When I thought about the gospel text I was reminded of a story I heard about over the summer. Maybe you’ve heard about it too. It’s the story of Bob Riley, the newly elected governor of Alabama. Riley is a God-fearing conservative Republican. Most of my liberal friends would immediately know what kind of person this was. He wanted low taxes and few government programs. They have seen this kind of politician before. Except, that’s not what kind of governor Riley is.

As I just said, Riley is a God-fearing man. So much so that he has studied the New Testement and believes that we are to love God, love each other, and take care of the least among us. He saw that the Alabama tax system was doing just the opposite: it placed heavy burdens on the poor while giving breaks to the wealthy. Riley thought this was against biblical principles and decided to do something about this.

The century-old tax code, enshrined in the state constitution was written to favor wealthy landowners. Changes have always been blocked by these powerful interests. This means that the poor pay a very heavy share of the burden. For example a family earning as little as $4600 a year still has to pay income tax, while in next-door Mississippi, one could make $19000 and still pay no tax.

So, Governor Riley proposed something that ranks up there with “only Nixon could go to China.” He put to a vote a measure that would raise income taxes dramatically. The tax hike would have erased the deficit and poured money into education and other services that were woefully underfunded.

This did not sit well with many of his fellow conservatives. The Christian Coalition urged people to vote no, along with other anti-tax groups. Low-income African-Americans did not support the bill partially because of the history of repressive Alabama governors. In short the proposal went down to defeat.

But even though this measure lost, what is stunning is Riley’s commitment to his faith. I’ve know many conservatives who have talked about living a moral and godly life and then ignoring the needs of their neighbor. They have supposedly studied the Scriptures on what it says about homosexuality but never talk about help the poor. What’s different is that Riley knew that there was a theme of justice in the Bible that could not be ignored. He knew that as a Christian he must do what he can to create a just society.

The story of Governor Riley reminds us all that Mary’s Song is a song we who are disciples of the living Christ should be singing. Why? Because when Jesus spent time here among us, he spent a fair amount of time with the poor and outcast. He healed their illnesses and fed them. He spoke in parables about helping the needy and he rebuked those who were too greedy to care for others. Mary may have had a glimpse into what Jesus was to be in the world: calling people to a life of discipleship which stresses care for the other. Helping the needy among us and striving for a just world is not a liberal thing: it is something we are commanded to do as followers of Christ, whether we be an old socialist or a country-club Republican. We may disagree on how we do this, but the message is still clear: we are to strive for justice.

I am dismayed at times at how some of my fellow conservatives seem indifferent to the poor. I remember back in the mid 90s one conservative said on the misquoted a saying from the apostle Paul that said in effect those that don’t work, don’t eat. It was interesting that one could use this one verse that was taken out of context and miss the entire gospel that talks about Jesus helping the hungry.

Mary’s song should make us quake in fear. God is coming and God taking names. Who among us is living right?

This sermon is not about how conservatives should be nicer to the poor, though we conservatives should do. Instead it is about how Mary was telling us that discipleship meant more than simply reading a the Bible or praying or going to church. Following Jesus means following his life here on earth and that means trying to follow in his footsteps of doing justice.

How is this congregation publicly following Jesus? I know about the past which I think is quite impressive, but what about now? If a visitor walks through these doors, would they know that this is a place that sings Mary’s song? Would it cause the well-to-do to give of themselves and those with little to know that God cares for them?

This church has had a proud history of standing for justice. Currently, our passion for mission has not been what it should. If we are followers of the one that Mary carried in her womb, then we must work together to be a place where Mary’s song is sung, with gusto. We must become again a community that knows how to live mission and do justice.

I hope that in the coming year, we will renew the missionary spirit that is such a part of this congregation and go out into the world and do justice as a community. I can see us working at a local soup kitchen or marching in the local gay pride march. I can see us raising money for Heifer International so that people in other parts of the world can purchase farm animals to feed themselves and their communities. I can see us working as a team to build a house for Habitat for Humanity. I can see us writing letters and lobbying our representatives to make sure that the poor are not forgotten by our government. These are but a few ways we can tell the world that we worship a God who cares for the poor.

Is Mary’s song for a Republican like me? Yes. It has to be if I call myself a follower of Jesus. But it has to be for all who call themselves Christians. So, let us sing loudly like Mary did for the one comes to set things right. O come, O Come, Emmanuel. Amen.


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