I don’t think anybody really wants to hear about politics anymore. I don’t either. I have been disgusted by the political discourse in our country for the past two years. I learned early on that posting my thoughts about our politics last year was an exercise in futility. No one ever changes their mind based on someone’s rant or rave about their political opinion. However, politics are hard to avoid, especially in our own lives. When it comes to volunteering for leadership on church councils and committees, or facing disruptions and disputes in the congregation, politics are always given the reason for leaving. But something that really helped me understand and even face these kinds of challenges throughout my past 20 years in the church is this mantra: wherever there are people, there are politics. More simply, people = politics.
Recently I had dinner with Read Hodges and his partner, Tom. Read recommended we visit Suzy Wong’s House of Yum for their drag N’dinner. It was awesome! The food was delicious, the entertainment was fantastic and the company was sublime. I love those guys! And Read introduced me to a publication called, “History and Commemorative Writings of the MCC Church in Nashville between 1972-1987.” This is a really wonderful historical document sharing the timeline and personal insights of the founding of the MCC church in Nashville.
The first week that I was here in Nashville I purchased a copy of the Contributor, the weekly newspaper sold by the homeless in the city, and read a wonderful article about Rev. Bill Barnes who had passed away in August. I’m sure many of you know about, or have heard of Bill Barnes. He was a longtime Nashville affordable housing and civil rights advocate, crusader for the poor and founding pastor of Edgehill United Methodist Church. Rev. Barnes was often described as that persistent voice, probably at times an irritating voice to some, of the importance of equality and justice for all God's children. Known for his politically progressive stances, he fought against the further concentration of poverty in Nashville and raised concerns about the homogenization of neighborhoods. He wanted to help children break the cycle of generational poverty.
But what you may not have known about Rev. Barnes was that he paved the way for the first gay-friendly church to be planted in Nashville. It was October 18, 1972, 45 years ago this past week, when Bill Barnes told the emerging congregation of MCC Nashville that they could begin meeting in Edgehill UMC. Now this was quite the controversy in the UMC church at that time. And the Tennessee Annual Conference was closed to removing ministry funding from Edgehill UMC if they didn't exclude the MCC from using their facility. While the congregation held firm and prevailed, the UMC church continues to struggle with this same issue, even now, 45 years later. Because people = politics. And when there are so many different understandings of what’s right and wrong among folks living in the same community, you will inevitably have conflict. It seems that those with the most power in these communities have the most influence in swaying the majority to go along with their understanding of what’s right and wrong.
Well, now you know exactly what the Pharisees were doing…and what Jesus was so fired up about in our text today. Let me give you the specifics: Jesus had stepped on the last nerve of the Pharisees and religious officials by telling a series of parables in which he clearly pointed a finger at them. Jesus told them in clear terms that they were totally off the mark with God and that all those people they considered spiritual rejects, you know…the prostitutes, tax collectors and beggars, were about to inherit the kingdom of God before them. Now because of Jesus' popularity with the crowds, the Pharisees and their allies decided to set a trap for him that would hopefully result in discrediting him and weakening his credibility. And then, they could swoop in and arrest him for treason, and then force Caesar to judge and execute him. This was an ambush by every means. This was the ultimate scheme to trick Jesus and make him slip up.
Forcing Jesus to answer a question about paying taxes would insure that he would incur someone's wrath. If he says "yes" to the tax, he will anger those who oppose and struggle against submission to Rome. If he says "no" to the tax, he will be subject to a charge of treason. Now these political and religious men were so certain of their position that they had no room for doubt; no idea that they might make fools of themselves. But once he answered with those famous words, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Render to God what is God’s” they scampered home with their heads bowed and tail between their legs.
Jesus was above their petty squabbles. He understood that earthly government had turned the worship of God into a means of control, defining who was right, both morally and politically. People = politics. But there is also another statement that has helped me in ministry: hurt people hurt people, but healed people heal people. People like Rev. Bill Barnes have healed much in this city by his openness and desire to care for the poor and disenfranchised in the world. It was the same for the prostitutes, tax collectors and beggars in Jesus time. Jesus knew that people could be healed. And as our friend and forefather Bill Barnes said, “it is always better to risk death because of faithfulness than to go on living out a lie.” Friends, let's live out loud. And don’t be discouraged when politics confronts you, because on the other side of it is a person and relationship that needs to be loved.