Bartlet for President

1 Timothy 6:6-19New International Version (NIV)

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

I need some help form the congregation this morning. I am making a list of opposites, so when I say a word, I want you to reply with the opposite. So if I say black, you would say white. If I say hot, you would say cold. If I say light, you would say dark. If I say pro, you would say con (or amateur).

If pro is the opposite of con, does that mean that the opposite of progress is…congress?

That’s right, folks, we are starting off today’s sermon is a joke about politics. Every Christmas we sing songs about Jesus being the King of kings, Lord of lords. And sometimes I fear that when we hear those words year after year, associating them with the birth of a baby and stopping there, that we forget how important this phrase is. We forget how subversive it is. To say that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords says that ultimate power, authority, and allegiance belongs to him. This isn’t some far-off confession of faith meant for when we die and go to heaven. This means Jesus is King of kings, Lord of lords, here today.

But we also know that we are in an election year. If you didn’t know that, well, I’m a little jealous! In less than two months our country will pick the next leader of the United States. As our nation continues to divide and become more polarized, we must remember that we cannot simply follow the culture around us. We are called to be the church of Jesus Christ, a city on a hill, standing out from the rest of the world as an alternative. Even an alternative to the divisive politics of our day.

Our text for this morning comes from the last chapter of the first epistle written to Timothy. What a great way to end a book of the Bible, am I right? Money and power are the main emphases of this passage, so if we could just make a reference to sex yet we would hit the trifecta: sex, money, power.

Most scholars agree that the Pastoral Epistles, which includes the books of 1 and 2 Timothy, were not written by the Apostle Paul, but likely by someone else named Paul, which would have been a common name in the 1st century, or by one of Paul’s disciples. The authorship of this letter really doesn’t matter to me; what matters to me is that we as the church have canonized this letter as a part of our divinely-inspired Bible. So if I say Paul wrote this letter, please know that I do so out of convenience.

Paul is writing this letter to his young companion Timothy, and as is common in these letters, he tries to fit in a lot of information in his closing paragraphs. You get the feeling that he is running out of papyrus and is turning it sideways, writing in the margins, trying to squeeze in every last bit of wisdom that he has been given. And evidently the issue of money is very important because our text opens with a comment on money, moves to a comment on power, and then comes right back to money again. Money, power, money; I simply can’t imagine how I’m going to connect this passage with politicsJ.

Our text starts with the phrase “godliness with contentment is great gain.” The word translated as contentment simply means that you need nothing outside what you already have. He goes on, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” You’ve heard the saying, “I’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch,” before, right? Yeah, they often do have trailer hitches. But the purpose of the saying is still valid. You come into this world with nothing, and anything you do accumulate will be left here. But this isn’t just a teaching on the temporary nature of money, there is something quite important to be taught here. Verse 10a, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Money itself is not evil. In fact, it is quite essential in our society, just as it would have been in Timothy’s day. The problem is when we love money. Or, as the old saying goes, far too often we love money and use people when in fact we are to love people and use money. Paul then says that some have wandered away from the faith on account of money.

Paul takes a short break to talk about power. He names Jesus as Lord, which is a ranking of Jesus as the highest leader. Jesus is the boss! He says that God is the only ruler, the King of kings, Lord of lords. I’m not sure that Paul had his doctrine of the Trinity completely finalized at this point but he is connecting the Father and Son as Lord over all. Lord over the church, Lord over nations, Lord over Caesar, Lord over money.

Jesus has a lot to say about money and power in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. For instance, he says in 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Our English translations lose something here because we translate the word mammon into money. According to a number of scholars, mammon was not a neutral term used to describe money, but actually a name for a deity, a god of money. Mammon was perhaps a Canaanite counterpart to the Greek god Plutus, the god of wealth. You may hear of a system of governance called a “plutocracy,” which means it is ruled by the rich.

What Paul and Jesus are saying is that we cannot make money a god, we cannot treat it as an idol.

I don’t think it is by accident, then, that after this brief section about the Lordship of the Trinity that he comes back to money again in verse 17. The brief section on power is bookended by a warning against power. Money and power are interwoven with each other.

Speaking of money and power, we are coming right up on Election Day here in the United States, and I think this is a good time to really think about money and power here in the United States. Who is Lord over our church, Lord over our nation, Lord over our leaders, and Lord over our money?

There is a story where Jesus is questioned about paying the imperial tax, which would have been money collected by the Roman Empire from the Jewish people. They are trying to trap Jesus, because if he says that they should pay the tax, he sounds like a Roman sympathizer. If he says not to pay the tax, he could be arrested for sedition. As always, Jesus is wise in his response, and he asks one of his questioners if he has a coin. When the man produces a coin from his purse, Jesus asks him to look at the coin and tell him whose image was on it.

It was Caesar. Money and power intertwined.

But the convicting aspect of that story is that the man who was carrying the coin was breaking an important Jewish law. Let’s look at it in the King James, Exodus 20:4, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” That’s one of the ten big ones.

To participate in the Roman economy required the Jews to use Roman coins, which bore the image of Caesar. To carry Roman currency, to use it in the market place, to have it in your home meant breaking one of the Ten Commandments. But as a minority group in an occupied territory, what other option did they have?

I am absolutely struggling this elections season, because like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, I don’t feel like I have a good option. And I don’t think that I am alone. Sonya and I recently had a conversation about how few signs we see for the presidential candidates in our neighborhood, where four years ago there were a dozen signs for Barrack Obama or Mitt Romney on every block. We interpreted this as other people not being overly excited about the options, as well. Our friend, Tate, who has always aligned himself with one party, even being a part of a partisan organization through his college years, has said that he can’t support his party this year. He posted a picture of himself wearing a “Bartlet for President” shirt on Facebook recently. If you don’t know the reference, Jed Bartlet is not real. He was the President of the United States on the television show, The West Wing. The joke behind the shirt is that many would rather have a fictional character as their president than one of the options that we are faced with. I even heard a Christian say on the radio this week that he wasn’t voting for anybody this election. He was voting against someone.

Here is my struggle. I feel like a vote for any presidential candidate requires me to bend, if not outright break, some of my religious convictions. Like a Jewish man living in the 1st century, carrying an image-bearing coin, what other options are there? Or as New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk has said, “There is no vote cast that doesn’t require some measure of forgiveness.”

Think about it like this. Recently I was encouraged to listen to a podcast that tends to be on the more conservative side. This podcast discusses religious issues, politics, and how the two interact. On the particular podcast that I was listening to they were discussing which of the two major political parties in our country a Christian should vote for. They did not endorse one candidate over another, and I don’t think either were even named. But knowing the nature of the podcast and the hosts, I kind of knew which way they were going to encourage people to vote. And that’s okay.

To make a case for Christians to vote for Republican candidates, they addressed three topics and looked at the official platform for each party. Those topics were: life, family, and liberty. At this point, I think everyone is on board! Who isn’t for life, family, and liberty? But it comes down to how you define these things.

The hosts spoke about three agenda items that have been central to the Republican Party for as long as I can remember: abortion, LGBTQ rights, and religious freedom. And because the Republican Platform aligns with these two Christian hosts views on these three issues, they said that Christians should vote Republican.

That’s fine, but who decided that those were the only three topics that matter to Christians? When I think about life, I don’t just care about life before a baby comes into the world. Life after birth matters, too. So a party’s views on humanitarian aid and refugees matters to me. Families are about more than LGBTQ rights and laws. So I’m concerned about programs for underprivileged families, public education, and housing.

When Jesus comes on the scene and begins his life as a ministering person, he gives his stump speech in Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What was Jesus’s platform? Good news to the poor, prison reform, healthcare, social equality, and debt reduction.

My point is that you can make Jesus sound like a Republican or a Democrat by picking and choosing which aspects of his ministry you want to emphasize. If abortion and gay marriage are among the most important things to you right now, vote for the party that most closely aligns with your viewpoints. And if healthcare and immigration are the most important issues to you right now, vote for the other side. But know that neither side is perfectly in line with my understanding of who Jesus was and is calling us to be today. That’s why I strongly believe that every vote cast requires that we humbly admit that we need to repent as well.

This is my real challenge to everyone today. If you feel called to vote for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton, feel free to do so. If you want to vote for a third-party candidate as a protest, I understand that as well. And if you choose to not vote because you cannot in good conscious be a part of this system, I get that. But please never, ever say, “If you are a Christian, you will vote this way.” I’ve read the words of Jesus written in red in my Bible, and they do not align perfectly with either platform.

Let’s just look really quickly at what the Bible does not say.

The Bible does not say, “They will know we are Christians by our voting record.” No, they will know we are Christians by our love (Jn 13:35). Far too often I hear followers of the Prince of Peace pointing fingers and calling names. We fall into the practices that we see among the candidates, slinging mud and spinning lies. I think that one of the most counter-cultural things that we can do as the church is to opt out of all of that.

The Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not engage the other political party in a loving conversation.” Jesus was always sitting down to a meal, eating and drinking with people who had vastly different view than he did. He dined with Pharisees and tax collectors, religious leaders and prostitutes. And if Jesus can break bread with a prostitute, you can probably buy lunch for a Democrat or a Republican.

The Bible does not say, “Blessed are you who will vote, because you have fulfilled your Christian duty.” No, one of my biggest fears is that over the last few decades Christians have fallen into the thought trap that says if we vote on an issue, that is all we need to do. Jesus never spoke about voting at all. It is fine to vote, but it takes a back seat to actually doing something. And make no mistake, both sides of the political divide are guilty of this. If you feel strongly about reducing abortions, don’t vote for a law and call that your duty. Befriend an unmarried, pregnant woman who is struggling to make ends meet who might be considering ending her pregnancy and walk with her through the process. Help her with medical bills, go with her to birthing classes, hold her hand while she pushes 8 pounds, 9 ounces of humanity out and into the world.

If fighting poverty is your goal, sure, vote for your preferred candidate. But don’t stop there. Tutor a child who is struggling to make good grades. Mentor a young adult who can’t seem to budget their income. Volunteer at the Valley Mission and clean some bathrooms. Yes, these things are costly, but Jesus compared following him to carrying your own cross. It will hurt; following Jesus always does.

My friends, Jed Bartlet is not running for president this year. So if you choose to vote, vote for the person that most closely aligns with your beliefs. But know that we are called to do much more than vote. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus here on earth. We are called to continue the ministry Jesus began 2,000 years ago when he gave his stump speech. Money and power are formidable foes! But we have a greater ally. Jesus is our Lord, no matter who is president.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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