The Partisan

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, November 20, 2016
Taken from 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 20-24

When I was a boy, my mother made the best rice pudding.  It was second only to her candied yams with toasted marshmallows on top, all floating in butter and brown sugar.  I could eat my weight in Mom’s rice pudding.

One evening, Mom set a whopping big bowl of rice pudding there on the dinner table.  It was like she was laying down a challenge in front of me, to see if I really would try to eat my weight in rice pudding.  I don’t know how many servings I ate, but I ate and I ate and I ate rice pudding until I couldn’t squish in another bite.

I got up from the table, and all was fine for the first fifteen or twenty minutes after dinner.  But, then, I started not feeling so well.  My intestinal distress I suspect may have had something to do with rice swelling; I know it had a lot to do with trying to fit pretty much that whole big bowl of rice pudding inside of me.  Leave it sufficient to say, I had a very long and miserable and messy night ahead of me.

It was many years before I could stomach even the thought of eating rice pudding, never mind putting a spoonful in my mouth.  My body would go into instant revolt, as if to say, “You do that to me again, and I will seriously hurt you!”

By Monday two weeks ago, on November 7, we all had had more than our fill of presidential campaigning.  Much more than any of us really could stomach.  So, on Tuesday, November 8, we cast our votes and went away satisfied.  We thought we had finally pushed away from that table and from all that–whatever it was–we as a nation were feeding ourselves on.  But, we didn’t get away from it all so easily, did we?

No, from what you yourselves my church family tell me, from what my own circle of personal friends and acquaintances tell me, and from what I read and watch across all forms of media, none of us of any political persuasion, have walked away satisfied.

Instead, we have made ourselves miserable as a nation.  We have sickened ourselves as a people in ways we have yet come to realize, so soon after rising and walking away from the table of this campaign season.  Just as I had only started to realize as a boy those many years ago shortly after my rice pudding feast was finished and I had left the dinner table, so now for us there is a national distress among us and there is a personal distress within us which I expect will get worse if it is to get better.

How will it get better, though?  What will be your role, and what will be my role in navigating our way through whatever distress may yet come for our people?  How will you and I help our nation’s predicament end up better than where we find ourselves now?  That is not a partisan question, though our own political partisanship may help us.

My question for us this morning is, what are we going to do together  for the next four years, folks?  And, by “folks”, I don’t mean “my fellow Americans”.  I mean to ask, what are we, University Baptist Church, this Community of God’s Beloved on this corner in Charlottesville, we brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus, we citizens of the Kingdom of God here on this sweet earth:  what are we going to do in this time of national and personal distress?

Whether we voted for President-elect Trump or we voted for Secretary Clinton or for one of the Third Party candidates or if we simply opted out of voting, we are in for a long, tough slog together.

You who voted for President-elect Trump:  you are so fed up with those protesters and those muck-raking journalists and all those malcontents hogging up the media. They lost the election, but they won’t accept defeat with grace and civility.  They refuse to practice the ideals of citizenship that you who voted for President-elect Trump say you would practice if your candidate had lost and Secretary Clinton had won.

You, my sisters and brothers of the Lord Jesus, what are you going to do in these months ahead and these years ahead?  Those who so deeply agitate you in these first days after the election are not going away.

You who voted for Secretary Clinton:  you are so emotionally distraught, I mean, truly distraught.  You are angry, frightened, your teeth set on edge and your minds stupefied afresh every time you hear that phrase uttered, “President-elect Trump”; it shuts you down or sets you off.

What are you going to do, my sisters and brothers of the Lord Jesus, as you watch Mr. Trump’s administration unfold in the next two months, and what are you going to do for the next four years because every day you will hear reference to “President Trump this” and “President Trump that”?

These are not questions of partisan politics I’m asking us.  I am speaking to you as your Interim Pastor, and I mean to say this is a matter of our souls’ well-being.

A “partisan” is, by the dictionary’s reading and I quote:

“1: a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially: one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance
2a: a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy; b: a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines”1

Do any of those statements describe people you know or describe you yourselves here this morning?  Are you one of those “firm adherents” to the person or the party for whom you voted on November 8, even to the point of “exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance”?

Do you, today, feel as though you are “a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines”?

Partisanship doesn’t have to be to this extreme.  Partisanship can mean the way we choose among various options for how to govern and how we choose from among a list of values what to implement.  Those are our priorities and preferences.  In other words, we support and advocate for one part of the whole while still advancing the well-being of the whole as our central ambition.

In this sense of being a partisan, we appreciate that other people choose other options and priorities.  We respect that, even as we hope our candidate and our preferred party can persuade enough of our fellow citizens to choose the part we think will best serve the interests of all.

This is the understanding of partisanship that motivated me as a college student to be active in partisan politics.  I took a significant amount of time off from college to be involved in the legislative process here in Virginia.  I was employed as a campaign worker in a state-wide primary race here in Virginia.

When I finally returned to college and graduated, I was one of five graduates that year from among Virginia’s public and private universities chosen for a one-year government internship under the auspices of Governor John Dalton’s office.  So, in essence, I was a one-year political appointee.

I tell you all of that to communicate as well as I can that I appreciate the role of a healthy partisan political process.  I value those men and women who commit themselves to a set of priorities and commit themselves to candidates who embody those priorities so they can make a real difference for our common good.

But, partisanship has a shadow side of which we must beware.  The shadow side of partisanship promotes divisiveness and it deteriorates and it destroys the health of civic body.  It was this ominous unfolding of partisanship that prompted Paul to write to the Christians in Corinth.

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth is among the earliest of our New Testament books.  It predates the first of our four Gospel accounts by at least a decade.  Already, an attitude of partisanship was insinuating its way into the church there.

Partisanship had become so disruptive and so threatening to their fellowship, that it’s the very first issue which Paul addresses, here in chapter 1:  “There is quarreling among you, sisters and brothers.  What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ’.”

“Each one”, Paul writes, had begun choosing up for himself or herself, which teacher had the true teaching of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.  There were the partisans for Paul.  There were partisans for the Apostle Peter, or Cephas, as Paul writes, using the Greek version of Peter’s name.  There were partisans for a Christian named Apollos.  Apollos was an eloquent and powerful evangelist there in Corinth.  You can read more about Apollos in Acts chapter 18, verses 24-28.

There were even some who claimed, ‘we are partisans for Christ’.  Well, what’s wrong with that?  What was wrong was the attitude with which they made that claim.  Let me illustrate it this way.  How many of us want to be a “humble Christian”?  How many of us want UBC to be a “humble church”.  Yes, we’d all answer, because we know humility is a significant spiritual virtue.

The problem is, there’s no good way we can stand up among our peers and proclaim, “Well, look at me, I am the humblest of Christians!”  “We are the humblest of congregations!”  To do so would more than suggest that we don’t really understand humility.  That’s what was wrong with how this particular faction was standing up among their peers in Corinth, saying, “We are the partisans for Christ”.  It belied their understanding of what that means.

Paul called on his contemporaries to give account for their behavior against the greater truth of the Gospel.  Not according to their identity as Jews, not according to their identity as Gentiles, not according to their identity culturally or politically or economically or racially or by any other qualifier of who they were when they came to faith in Jesus:  they must now give account for themselves in the light of who they were as followers of the Crucified and Risen One of God.  So must we, post-November 8th.

Paul sums it up for them and for us when he writes in verses 23 and 24:  “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block [for everyone] but to those who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  What about the resurrection?  Why does Paul call them to focus on Christ crucified, when the Good News is Christ resurrected?

Here’s the essential element of our faith that Paul was calling them and us to affirm.  When they, and when we, said Yes to Christ Jesus, that was our sacred vow before God: “by faith, Lord, I choose to be crucified with you, so that I may die to the powers of this world opposed to God and be resurrected into the new life of your way, Lord Jesus.”  In that commitment of faith we chose the way and the values of our Lord Jesus first and always.  We chose that our life-agendas first and always will be the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth.

Where the claims of any party or candidate or other secular group may happen to correspond to the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth as best as we can understand the Gospel, we can in good conscience add our voices, our resources, and our votes.  But, always we do so with caution.

Always we must be vigilant, examining and reexamining, dicing and slicing and sorting among those partisan claims upon us.  Always we must be on the lookout for what of that partisanship conflicts with the part we have chosen with the Lord Jesus Christ and the Christ-body politic.

We must be astute students of the life and way of the Lord.  Paul writes in these verses that this must be the wisdom for which we strive, “the wisdom of God…[revealed now in]…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (verses 21, 24).  As we grow in God’s wisdom revealed for us in Jesus, we inevitably will come up against conflicts between God’s wisdom and this world’s wisdom.  Then, we crucify and put to death within ourselves those other allegiances and claims upon us.

When we discover an essential conflict, then we come up against this hard choice:  will we be true to our sacred vow before God?  Will we again affirm the wisdom of God, and our place by the side of our Lord, “Christ crucified”?

By our taking up the cross of Christ in practice, that is how we “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block…and folly” to the world, “but to those who are called”,  that is, to we who are called to bear witness of Jesus, to we “who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” in my life, in your life.

This is how we demonstrate that we are partisans of Christ who is Lord over all of us.  This is how we demonstrate that we believe that the Gospel-agenda of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s agenda for all humanity.  This is our call as God’s people on this earth:  we are salt, and we are light; we are the sacred leaven of Jesus, worked in among the nations, among the peoples, among the partisans of this world.

A sickness has taken hold of our nation.  A fearful illness the symptoms of which are truly visceral and violent and which each hour of the so-called news cycle manifests itself.  Never more than now has this nation and our community needed a people among them who are being healed in mind, body, soul, strength, through the love and the life of the Risen Lord Jesus.

In whatever is to come, never more than now, this nation’s turmoil will require that we be a people who practice this power of God and this wisdom of God.

To do that, we will need to discover that power and that wisdom of God operating within ourselves, as individual believers, and as a congregation.  We will need to do the necessary soul-work, assess where we find ourselves with the Lord Jesus, deepen the wells of our own spiritual resources, put up upon faith’s cross what must be relinquished, so we may know more of the resurrection life of Christ being formed within us.

We have spiritual work to do in these days, each of us, and we need one another to see that work through.  This is what it means to be the body of Christ for one another so that we can be the body of Christ for our community and for our Commonwealth and for our nation.  This is our part for the healing of the whole.