“Self-Appointed Tyranny”:Triumph and the Gospel

I try my best to not talk politics at Church. At seminary we were taught to preach the Gospel, not politics from the pulpit (or, in Orthodox terms, from the “ambo”.) The reason was because a) taking a political position would immediately alienate a portion of the congregation, and b) the point of the sermon (homily) is not to foist our particular opinions or views on people. “It’s not about you, it’s about the Gospel” one particular professor would continually remind us. Also, the homily is not an aside, but is about continuing the ascent of liturgy which leads to Holy Eucharist. In Orthodox worship the sermon is not the central thing, the Eucharist is. And, finally, the Gospel has plenty to say about so-called “political” issues, there is no need to add anything else.

Now at fellowship hour, the meal after Liturgy, conversations flow a little more freely. Everything from discussing the upcoming Great and Holy Council (yes, we Orthodox can be kinda theologically nerdy at times) to “how do you think the Colts will do this year?” or like today, a conversation I had with one of our teenagers (a songwriter) where we commiserated about the untimely loss of Prince, can be heard. And, yeah, I suppose politics can come up. But I even try to shy away from it there. I’m wary of years we attended faith communities where we would receive the “voter’s guide” when we walked in for worship. I always felt manipulated, so I don’t ever want to manipulate, from my position of leadership, by stating my views. Those cards stay close to my chest.

Today, though, I had a really good conversation with a parishioner about politics. It was good because it was really about the Gospel.

And, like most good conversations, it started with a joke.

“Father Joel, look, it’s a sign,” a parishioner said while pointing to a bottle of Sangria (aside: it was Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church today, a Feast of the Triumphal Entry of Christ in Jerusalem, a festal moment before we enter into a week of fasting, prayer, and hours of services in anticipation of the celebration of the Resurrection next Sunday – so, yeah, we have Sangria at fellowship hour). I looked at the bottle wondering what he was talking about. The brand was “Cruz Garcia”.

“See – we’re supposed to vote for Cruz!” he said.

“I don’t know about that, maybe we’re supposed to vote for Garcia,” I responded.

He laughed and mentioned that, no, he wasn’t being serious, and that he was actually pretty discouraged about the current presidential choices overall.

“I’m not sure I want to vote for any of them,” he said.

He then shared with me something he had read in the preface of the service book for today (see, people really to read this stuff!). It was a reflection from Fr. Paul Lazor on Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. Fr. Paul explained that in Jesus, in His earthly ministry, with all of the healings, all of the miracles,  all of the teachings, only really only had two moments of public triumph. One was after the raising of Lazarus, and the other was shortly after, when He rode into Jerusalem and was greeted by the people waving palm branches, as they would a victorious athlete, or a King. That’s it. Even when He rises from the dead, He is greeted not by great crowds, but by the women who stood vigil by his tomb. The word spreads slowly, among His followers, and is disbelieved by the “powers” and “masses” for the most part, at first.

My friend continued to compare the scarcity of public triumphs of the One Who truly deserves it with that which is demanded by those seeking earthly power, whose campaigns are full of promises of triumph, of crowds praising, believing, and joining in a suggested “triumph” that will happen if, and only if, this person is elected into power. I went off my usual “don’t talk politics” script for a moment and mentioned the absurd promises proclaimed at the Trump rally last week in Indiana. I absolutely acknowledge this happens on both sides of the aisle, but I had listened this past week as Trump promised to “fix” every “problem” facing this country: immigration, the economy, jobs, ISIS, he even promised to “end the drug problem” if he were elected. Wow. And all of it was met with cheers of triumph. The thing is, and my friend and I agreed, the whole system of reaching out for earthly power is based in this process of creating as much promised triumph, and, at rallies and speeches, as many moments of current triumph and adoration as possible. It’s about being a winner, and promising those who follow will be winners too. Big winners.

“So much winning you’ll be sick of winning!” my friend said, laughing, and then asked, “But what does all this have to do with the Gospel?”

We came to the following conclusion: Nothing. That’s what. Jesus never promised political power. Jesus never promised His followers would ever be, or even should be in the place of privilege and dominance. Jesus never promised that following Him would be applauded, accepted, protected, or even understood in this world. He promised no triumph but that of the Cross and the Resurrection. That is it. Period. Not religious rights, not a Christian culture, not national greatness. Just the Cross, which is the only way to the Resurrection.

Perhaps that’s another reason I don’t like talking politics at Church. To say something about any side is to risk being placed on the other side, when really, what bothers me is when Christianity gets married with politics and power at all. I see Christians presented in the media as a voting block or political demographic and am deeply troubled. Christians are not supposed to pledge true allegiance to anything but Christ and Him crucified. Those ‘voter guides’ I spoke about earlier? What was most troubling, perhaps, was not being manipulated even, but the idea that to be Christian was to be in any political party. What does this have to do with the Gospel? That is the question my friend asked, and that I ask again.

But I’ll step off the soapbox (another reason not to mix politics and Church) and get back to the conversation today, and what it has to do with Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, and what we should consider when we think about authority, leadership, and power. Even Jesus’ moment of triumph is not done with fanfare arranged by Himself of His followers. He arrives not on a shining steed, with armor and a sword, but rather, on a donkey, in humility and understated. It is the children who recognize Him, waving palms and greeting Him, but He does not demand these accolades. What a stark contrast to what we often consider “great” “famous” or “powerful” in our world. Jesus told His followers just before He entered Jerusalem that He would be betrayed, beaten, and crucified. Does this sound like “winning, winning, winning!”?  Again, no, it’s the Cross, but its the only way to true victory. To quote one of my favorite bands, Wilco, “You’ve gotta lose. You’ve gotta learn how to die, if you wanna be alive.”

In tonight’s Bridegroom Matins Service (the evening services of the first four nights of Holy Week) we are given the image of the forefather Joseph (for  more on the example of Joseph as it connects to Holy Week see the previous post Revenge and Forgiveness). Joseph was given great authority in Egypt, but did not grasp for it nor lord it over his subjects. Joseph, as a foreshadowing of Christ, is said in the hymns of tonight’s service to have “preserved the freedom of his soul” while being “lord over Egypt.” His freedom was in his humility, his lack of demand for triumph. Later in the same service we hear Our Lord’s command to His disciples:

“Be at peace among yourselves and with all men. Think humbly of yourselves and with all men. Think humbly of yourselves and you will be exalted”

“Let your order be contrary to that of the Nations, who hold power over their fellow men, for such is not my portion, but rather self-appointed tyranny. He, then, who would be great among you, must be the servant of all.”

Indeed, the Gospel is enough to challenge us, not only in how we live our lives, but what we value or place our hope in when it comes to leadership. Christ presents a way quite contrary to the way of political victory in our world. Perhaps it can challenge us to consider the ways we might have been tempted to marry the two. Perhaps it will help us, before we place hope in the triumph of this world, to seriously ask, in light of the One Whose only triumphs shone with humility, the question:

“What does this have to do with the Gospel?”