“Whether the Time is Favorable or Unfavorable,” A Sermon for the Sunday before the Election

“Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

This morning I want us to reflect on this phrase in the context of our upcoming election. I want us to consider how this phrase, vague though it is when standing alone, might help us trace the basic shape of a Christian political vision. By ‘political’ I simply mean what is traditionally meant by that word: a vision of human flourishing and a practical way of getting there. Things that tread that territory, including the Christian life of faith, are inherently political.

The important modern distinction between the roles of the church and the state should give us pause here. It is a wise chastening. Throughout history, when the church has had the state’s power on its side, the church has made a mess of things. When the church has had such power it has pushed the teachings of Jesus toward the back of the shelf. The modern church and state distinction is a wise one.

Nevertheless, this modern distinction has sometimes misled us into thinking that following Jesus is “spiritual” and not political, or that it is “private” and not public. It has lead us to think that our faith can be an individual matter of conscience cut off from the life of a community. It has led us to think that it makes sense to say things like, “Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my opinion” (S. Hauerwas).

So, “be persistent whether the times are favorable or unfavorable.” I’m suggesting that this phrase is an important strand in a political cord.

But “be persistent . . . in what”? It’s a logical first question. In the immediate context of Paul’s letter to an emerging leader named Timothy, the encouragement is to be persistent in proclaiming “the message.” Judging from the rest of this letter, and Paul’s writing more generally, we might think of it like this: Persist in living as though a loving God really has undercut the powers of evil. Persist in knowing that Jesus is both the judge and the judged (we carry neither burden). Persistent in the confidence that in the incarnate presence of God there is a revolution—even a new creation. Persist in making investments in God’s economy. Persist in proclaiming reconciliation where relationship has been broken. Persist in inviting all of God’s beloved into true communion, not simply into mutual tolerance.

A national election has the potential to take us toward tolerance. The life of the community of faith should take us further: it should take us toward true communion.

“Be persistent whether the times are favorable or unfavorable.”

Not long ago our congregation celebrated the arrival of a new child. Like the ancient pilgrims described in Deuteronomy, we celebrated this life even before we could possibly know the specifics. We praised God for the beginning, the first fruits. Such a celebration is a statement of confidence in God’s power and goodness. It is at the core of our politics. It does not depend on the favorability of the times.

“Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

At the beginning of Paul’s letter to Timothy we read that he described the young man as a “beloved child.” Paul probably had no genetic or legal connection to Timothy. We are reminded that the role of nurture and care for young children is something that Christians have long believed stretches well beyond the bounds of nuclear families. A Christian politics expands the circle of those for whom we care. We are called to care, not only for ourselves or our families, but for others, especially the vulnerable. This is our calling regardless of national policy.

“Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

In the section of the letter from which our assigned reading came (II Tim. 3:10-4:5), Paul writes this: “Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love , my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me . . . .” There’s an interesting insight that slides in here, whether or not it was intended.

The insight is simply that the young Timothy observed not only what the elder had to say, his teaching, but also the way he carried himself and in what direction he oriented his life. He would have notice whether or not these things lined up.

A Christian political vision cannot be separated from the story we tell about a loving God who desires our love and desires us to love our neighbors. This means that our politics is shown in much more significant ways than simply how we vote. How we spend our time and our money—those are our fundamental political actions. They speak to the aim of our life. And these things are neither private nor personal. They are public and they affect those around us.

“Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

Tomorrow many of us will go to the polls. We will cast our vote in favor of the candidate that we think will best serve the most significant interests of Canadians. This is worth out time. It is an important exercise of a type of power given to us.

And yet it comes with a not-so-subtle temptation: the temptation to think that politics (and our lives generally) is mostly about advancing our interests, getting our way, and gaining as much control over our surroundings as possible. A Christian political vision by contrast may well involve suffering for the sake of our calling as friends of Jesus.

“Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

Living a life that would identify us as friends of Jesus means that we will never wholly embrace any national ideology. That is one of the things that the scriptures mean when they say that we are “citizens of heaven.” It is why living as friends of Jesus can be difficult. A Christian political vision will always stand apart from that of any national party.

“Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

Paul says to Timothy: “But as for you continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and knowing how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you.”

Earlier in the letter we learned that Timothy’s approach to life was chiefly formed by his mother and grandmother. They taught him the value of engaging the scriptures again and again, finding new meaning and new sustenance in what were already ancient texts. New situations in our lives uncover new truths in scripture. Therefore, a Christian political vision is continually shaped by scripture. It is worked out in living flesh, not cut timelessly in stone.

“Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

I imagine Timothy learned was that the challenges we experience in the life of faith can lead us to a deeper, more mature faith. These challenges need not lead us out of faith. What I imagine Timothy learned from his mother and grandmother was that the serious questions with which we grapple signal that our understanding of God is about to deepen. Scripture is not a list of timeless propositions and moral formulas. It is more like something given to us at the start of an adventure, something we don’t fully understand, something we grow to value over time. Yes, a Christian political vision is shaped by scripture, but not woodenly or simplistically so. There is always reformation and always repentance.

“Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

So, yes, let us persist in living as though a loving God really has undercut the powers of evil. Persist in knowing that Jesus is both the judge and the judged, that we carry neither burden. Persist in the confidence that through God’s incarnate presence there is a revolution, even a new creation. Persist in making investments in God’s economy. Persist in proclaiming reconciliation where relationship has been broken. And persist in inviting all of God’s beloved into something better than a begrudging tolerance—true communion.

 

 

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