A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 4, 2015
Matthew 14:1-12 CEB
Do you know what a burlap sack is? I grew up on a small farm; fifty or so years ago, burlap sacks were quite common and often used in various ways. The primary use for burlap sacks was for bagging up ears of field corn to take to the mill to be ground into feed for livestock. But burlap sacks could also be used to sack up potatoes and the like. Occasionally, one might use a burlap sack to transport an unwanted animal to another part of the country.
Last week, as I was mulling over a topic for today’s service, and thinking about the constant clash of politics and religion in our country, it occurred to me that the state of American politics and religion might be compared to putting a cat and a dog in a burlap sack and tying a twine string about the opening and then letting them go after one another. Now, I would never do such a thing, but you can visualize that can’t you—throwing a cat and a dog in a burlap sack and listening to them attack each other? Such seemed to me to be a fitting metaphor for the constant clash between American religious beliefs and politics.
But before we get into that, let it be noted that religious convictions and social issues (which almost always bleed over into politics) have been at each other’s throats for millennia. That is why I chose the story involving Herod and John the Baptist. According to John’s strict religious code of morality, it was not right for Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great) to be married to the divorced wife of his half-brother Phillip. One commentator also suggested that Herodias was also Herod’s niece. In John’s eyes, such a relationship was incestuous, and according to Jewish purity laws was strictly forbidden. And so, John confronted Herod, which angered the ruler, but not to the point of actually killing him. But Herod’s wife had the upper hand and devised a scheme to have John’s head. The long and the short of this was religious morality and convictions clashed with a social issue, which spilled over into politics. And such has been going on ever since. We are constantly being confronted with religious-political issues that challenge, and maybe even threaten us.
Consider, for instance, the Catholic hospitals and related social service agencies whose pro-life, anti-abortion beliefs have clashed with government health care initiatives that mandate them providing birth control to their employees. It appears that faith-affiliated charities, colleges and hospitals that oppose some or all forms of birth control may take their case to the Supreme Court. Views over the morality of birth control based on religious convictions range from the very simple (i.e., sex is for the purpose of procreation alone) to the extremely complex (i.e., termination of a pregnancy via the “Morning After Pill” or abortion). So availability of birth control for all provided by health insurance plans is one instance where religious beliefs clash with politics or government programs.
Consider, as another example, the controversy over the Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Her religious beliefs—which she says precludes her from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples—have clashed with American politics, to the extent that she has even served time in jail for contempt of court. But the bigger point is, religious beliefs and interpretation of the Bible and actions of the courts over equal rights regardless of sexual orientation have clashed and likely will continue to clash for some time.
Consider presidential candidate Ben Carson’s recent statement when asked if he could support the idea of a Muslim being an American President. At first Carson seemed to give an unequivocal “No,” that he could not. Carson stated that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” But then after the fallout, he later sought to qualify the statement by saying he would support a Muslim becoming an American President, if the candidate could put the US Constitution above his religious beliefs and the Koran.
On the one hand, the US Constitution makes clear that religion is to play no role in a candidate’s fitness for office. Article VI of the US Constitution states “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” But on the other hand, both you and I know that the reality is as American voters we have in the past and many of us will in the future cast our vote based upon our own religious leanings or prejudices. Such is not to say this is a bad thing; it is just the way things are. An Atheist or Buddhist or one of some other non-Christian faith running for office would likely be as problematic for most Americans, as we tend to fear or distrust that which we don’t know or understand or is not “like us.” But the original point is, the religion (or lack of religion) that a candidate professes is another instance of the clash between American religion and politics.
Now, in all of these cases, including the religious-social issue clash between John the Baptist and Herod, the basis for the clashes seems to be individual reverence for and interpretation of the scriptures.
In John and Herod’s case, it was John’s strict interpretation of the Torah that forbids incestuous relationships, a point upon which all of us likely agree with John. But from Herod’s perspective, having numerous wives (maybe even family members), often for political purposes, was the norm.
In the case of Catholic hospitals and other agencies and the issue of birth control, again verses can be cited from the Bible to support their position.
In Clerk Kim Davis’s case, the belief that marriage licenses should not be issued to same-sex couples is based on purity law verses in the Bible that forbid same-sex relationships. Those on the opposite side of the fence who advocate for equal rights for same-sex couples might appeal to stories in the Bible that speak of close, loving, same-gender relationships (and the stories are there), as well as compassion and not purity as being the primary concern of religion.
In Ben Carson’s comment about a Muslim becoming an American President, his view and many like him may be based on fear of Islam or fear of the Koran and the fact that it is not the Bible that we know and love.
But what it all boils down to in the final analysis, it seems to me, is how one interprets the Bible—as a document that was dictated by God, the infallible, unchanging Word of God; or as the religious views, struggles, and opinions of the people who wrote the Bible in the social, political, pre-scientific age that they lived.
As a rule, I do not tell anyone how they should believe, especially on hot button issues that can be so controversial. And let me make it clear that my intent in this sermon is not to pass judgment on anyone I have mentioned and it is not to say that any of the people I have mentioned are wrong in their position. But as I interpret Jesus, the over-arching rule when approaching such religious-politic issues is compassion. The heart of Jesus’ message, ministry, teaching, and actions centered around compassion.
So when it comes to our interpretation of the Bible; when it comes to the question of birth control and/or the yet-to-be conceived or unborn; when it comes to the question of equal rights and marriage licenses for same-sex partners; when it comes to political candidates and their religious affiliation; in all cases (in my humble opinion) as we work through these difficult issues, may we let compassion be our guide, for those on both sides of the issues. Amen.