Politics, Power and Jesus

Coming along Spencer St at the Manchester-East Hartford line on fall day, I saw an uncommon sight:

political signs, stuck into the grass along the side of the road, touting the names of those running for office.

It was a national election year, and both party’s signs were vying for space.

This by itself is commonplace—

however, these signs were placed just outside a cemetery.

I could see the headstones with their names printed on them in the same view.

The juxtaposition of these two name bearing signs seemed somehow ironic—

a reminder that though the world operates on popularity and power, it all leads to the same place.

No matter who won the election, the names on those signs would be names in the cemetery.

To be honest, I have always been a bit skeptical of politics.

Perhaps its that I was raised in a post-Watergate era, when trust in our political leaders had shattered.

While there are many politicians who are motivated by a desire to serve their people

What you most often hear in the media are the scandals, the negative campaigning, and the gridlock.

Approval ratings of Congress are at 14%, with an all time low of 9%

just after the government shut down two years ago.

Perhaps, I am seeing only part of the picture, but from where I sit

the people in power seem more concerned about staying in power than serving their constituents

or greater good.

It might be easy to write off politicians categorically as unethical and selfish people,

But our gospel lesson gives me pause.

It’s a story about grabbing power, about selfishness and a big ego

but it isn’t the usual ‘bad guys’ that are doing it.

It isn’t the Pharisees or the scribes and priests—it’s not even the Romans.

It’s two of Jesus’ closest friends, James and John, two of the three in Jesus’ most trusted circle.

“Grant to us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they said.

Jesus had just got done with telling the disciples for the third time

that they were going to Jerusalem for a specific reason—

that he would be killed there, and rise again after three days.

James and John must have been daydreaming,

because their response was to ask to be Jesus’ right hand men when he came into power,

as if Jesus was going to ride into the Jerusalem, kick out the Romans,

and make James and John his first and second in command.

Jesus used the opportunity to teach his disciples about the use of power. He said two things.

First of all, Jesus did not claim power that was not his own.

“to sit at my right hand or my left is not mine to grant,’ Jesus said.

That power belongs to God alone.

But secondly, Jesus pointed out that the Way of his follows is not be the way of the world

“You know among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them,

And their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you;

whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,

And whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Those who live in Jesus’ Way do not use their power to be tyrants, having their own way

but rather use their power to be servants, and serving the interests of others.

I think it is helpful to know that Jesus used two words which can be translated into English as ‘servant’

one is ‘doulos’, which literally means, slave, and other is ‘diakonos’, where we get the word ‘deacon’

which means servant.

Jesus uses both terms here.

Being a servant isn’t always easy—putting other people’s needs first—

but being a slave is down-right counter cultural—who wants to do that!?

Jesus put forth his view on how his followers are to use power in the most provocative way

that they were to be like slaves for other people.

This is not the way I usually see politicians.

But I had to confront my own prejudice when I moved to the West End of Hartford six years ago.

It’s where a lot of the politicians live, including the governor.

In my first months of moving there, I was having tea

with the grandmother of a girl who lived down the street and played with Stephanie.

After exchanging pleasantries, I asked her what she did for a living.

Turns out she was Senator Joe Lieberman’s Chief of Staff.

She’d run his campaign with him when he was running for Vice President.

As I talked with her, I felt my preconceptions melt away.

Like many in Connecticut, I had no special love for Lieberman

but his “Number One” talked about aspects of their work that didn’t often make the news:

about how she had just been able to help a student get a visa,

how they had worked to push through funding for low income housing,

how people would call their office with problems and how they could pull strings

cut through red tape, and actually help individuals.

While this woman was clearly a shrewd strategist and highly effective organizer,

she also had heart—and that was the reason she worked long hours and had her blackberry with her 24-7.

Many of you know that two of our members are running for political offices in town this fall.

They are taking the risk not only to talk about what they think the town and schools should be doing

but also offer themselves as public servants to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

If they are elected they will have a position of power, but also a responsibility to the people of this town.

The rest of us have responsibility, too.

Our power in a representational government system is that we have a say.

And so we need to hold our elected officials accountable.

It is our responsibility to demand our politicians to look out for the poor, the little guy

to insist that they listen to one another and find points of compromise

to refrain from bashing candidates whose views we do not share,

and instead listen to all ideas with respect.

As Christians, we are all called to use our power to bring about God’s Kingdom.

Jesus ushered in a new way of living, one which his followers willingly serve others

looking first to the common good and the needs of others.

That is a tall order.

Because it means that our first priority should not be our own pockets or own neighborhood

but what is good for the immigrant, the poor, the imprisoned.

These are the people that Jesus served; they are the ones we are to serve too

through our own lives and through our civic choices.

If you drive by the cemetery on Spencer Street, you may still see the signs.

I know the headstones are there.

Now instead of being cynical, I reflect on the truth that we have limited time.

Our political system is far from perfect.

But we have power, and we are to use it as Jesus says, as a servant,

for the betterment of all God’s people, right here, right now.

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