a sermon on Psalm 27 and Luke 13:31-35
Jesus, Donald Trump, and Pope Francis walked into a bar, and a huge fight broke out. The bartender said, “When I saw them coming I thought this was a joke, but it sure seems to be real!”
With the events of the last week on the national stage, with Pope Francis suggesting that some of the policy ideas of Donald Trump are not consistent with Christian values and then Donald Trump suggesting that the pope ought not to question his Christianity and would wish that he was president when the Vatican gets attacked by ISIS, the collision of religion and politics seems to be more real than ever before—except than in the story of Jesus himself.
Our reading this morning from the gospel of Luke shows us one of the great examples of how Jesus got involved in both religion and politics in his own life and ministry. As he was teaching and healing in the villages of Judea and making his way to Jerusalem to proclaim his message there, Jesus was confronted by some Pharisees. The Pharisees had caused plenty of trouble for Jesus before, but this time they came to him with something of a warning about what Herod was up to: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Now Herod was not a particularly powerful ruler—Rome ultimately exercised full authority over Judea and Palestine in those days, and they used puppets like Herod to give a false sense of some local control and influence in government. This Herod actually had even less power and authority than his father, that familiar figure from Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, who received the magi upon their arrival to celebrate the birth of the king of the Jews and then was so desperate to find and kill this newborn child that he killed all the boys under age two in the entire town of Bethlehem. While the Herod of Luke’s story certainly shared his father’s murderous disposition, the Romans did not allow him to use the title “king,” and he was clearly subordinate at every turn to the Roman authorities who were really in charge and didn’t seem quite so interested in getting rid of Jesus.
Still, the Pharisees bore this message from Herod to Jesus, but Jesus wanted nothing of it. He responded by inviting them to go back to “that fox” Herod and tell him that he would not get in the way of Jesus’ work. Herod’s threats would not pull Jesus away from “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow.” And their plotting and planning would not distract him from his journey to Jerusalem, for even if he was to suffer and die there, he would stand in a long line of prophets and others who had done exactly that.
In this brief encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus made it clear that he had not come to appease the religious leaders, prop up the political establishment, or even promote independence from Rome. His mission in the world was not to blindly identify with others’ agendas or support earthly governments—and in fact his actions along the way would quite likely challenge the powers that be at every turn. Instead, Jesus insisted that his was a mission of transformation and care, grounded in his work of healing and continued in his “gathering [Jerusalem’s] children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Amid all the foxes of the world like Herod who sought to preserve their own power and position at the expense of the poor and outcast, Jesus set out to protect this brood who may have struggled from time to time but who were ultimately deeply loved by God and so deserved real and true protection from those who were out to exploit them, both spiritually and politically.
This incredible commitment of Jesus to stand against the powers that be and protect those who were left to fend for themselves was grounded in far more than just his own chutzpah. Navigating the journey that was ahead for him required far more than just an internal sense of doing what was right—it required a deep relationship with God that recognized how God would go with him along this difficult way. So I imagine Jesus carrying the words of Psalm 27 with him along this journey, grounding him in the tradition of his ancestors and supporting him as he faced the difficulties of the journey to the cross:
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?
The LORD is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
In these words, the psalmist offers assurance to Jesus and to us that there is nothing to fear when we place our confidence and trust in the Lord. The trust and fearlessness that the psalmist proclaims here stands behind Jesus’ response to the Pharisees—and his journey to Jerusalem to face the powers of death.
Even as the words of Psalm 27 gave him confidence for his own journey, Jesus embodied the words of the psalmist in his mission of teaching, healing, and protecting God’s people from harm. So in the same way, we are called not just to enjoy this protection but to protect others along this way as well, embodying the kind of love and justice that Jesus offered in his ministry in our daily lives, caring for the people that Jesus set out to protect—the poor and outcast, those typically neglected—joining in what God is doing to stand up to the work of the powers that be in our world and make it clear that our human politics and institutional religion are no match for God’s great transformation.
Living out this sort of thing has never been easy, but I suspect it is about as difficult as it has ever been right now. We do not have to look very far or listen all that carefully to discover places where politics and religion are getting all mixed up in ways that make it clear that the kingdom of God is the last thing on our minds. Too many political candidates use religion as a tool to build support and momentum without recognizing that Jesus came to inaugurate a different way entirely, setting aside such confidence in human institutions and instead affirming the power of God to make all things new. Too many churches put their confidence in political solutions to the problems that we face, ignoring the real and important steps that we must take to bring about change and the ways that our religious institutions are themselves complicit in oppression and injustice. And too often politics and religion become those things that we refuse to discuss in polite company like the church, assuming that they will inevitably result in conflict when in fact they really do matter as we figure out how we will participate in God’s new creation that is taking hold in our world.
In this day and age, I completely understand the dual temptations that Christians have faced in politics and religion over the centuries. Too often our ancestors have thought that we could just fix everything if we made it all Christian, if everyone shared the same creed and everyone lived out their spirituality in the same way. And plenty of other ancestors in the faith have suggested that the better way would be to step out of the political world entirely, to let this world crumble to its inevitable end sooner rather than later so that we can take up the glorious perfection of the kingdom of God.
But neither of these temptations were good enough for Jesus. These were the easy way out, for they refused to engage the world as it really is, with all its religious and political complexity, for these are very much part of who we are as human beings created in the image of God. So when the world threatened to do him in, Jesus did not ignore these challenges but instead kept his focus on his mission, staying the course in his interactions with the religious and political authorities of his time, engaging the people in his prophetic teaching, touching them with healing for physical, emotional, and spiritual ills, doing his best to protect them from the evils that threatened them, and finally even offering his life so that the whole world could live in the new kingdom that he had announced even from the beginning of his ministry.
So when we are tempted to depart from joining in God’s new way, when we are afraid of the Herods and Pharisees of our world who threaten us with their sham authority, when we wonder how we can keep the faith amid the rocky world around us, when we get lost trying to sort out all the challenges of politics and religion in these days, when we lose sight of the call to participate in God’s new creation, may the witness of Christ give us confidence, and may the words of the psalmist give us hope, for the Lord is our light and our salvation and the strength of our life, and we have no reason to fear as we join in God’s work in Christ to make all things new. Thanks be to God! Amen.