by Mike Clymer
March 18, 2007
The Christian life is one long, continuous election cycle. As citizens of a democracy here in the United States, we have become accustomed to such cycles. In our collective political life, there is always an election of some sort on the horizon.
We know we are already entering the cycle of the next presidential election, though it is a year and a half away. There is a rhythm to our political process–congressional elections every two years, presidential and gubernatorial elections every four years, various state and local elections almost every year, with special referendums, bond issues, and so on in between. Of course we all differ in the degree to which we get involved in these elections. Some of us vote every time, some occasionally, some not at all. We may put signs in our yards and wear buttons, we may support campaigns as volunteers or contributors, or we may just watch it all on TV like a spectator sport.
It might interest some of you to know that for many Mennonites, voting used to be strongly discouraged because it was considered a “worldly” activity. My grandparents, for example, felt that Christians, or at least good Mennonites, should not involve themselves in voting. In the last generation or so, that thinking has changed, and today most of the Mennonites I know–not all, but most–accept voting as a civic if not a Christian responsibility. I won’t try to analyze all the reasons why that change in thinking occurred, but one thought I would offer is that perhaps Mennonites have come to see the reality that in terms of our involvement with the “world,” whether we ever step into a voting booth or not, the fact is we each vote all the time.
What does it mean to vote, anyway? When we vote in a political election we are making a choice, a decision. (I think it is Fox News that titles its election coverage “Decision 2004″ or “Decision 2006″ and so on.) Perhaps we are trying to effect a change, perhaps we are making a statement, perhaps we are sending a message. In that sense, think of all the ways we do those things every day. We sometimes vote on a ballot, yes. But we also vote with the words we speak–the things we say or don’t say, the language we use. We vote with our time–what messages do we send by how we prioritize our time, which for many of us is our most precious resource? We vote with our pocketbook–how do we spend our money and to whom do we give it? Those are profound choices we make, and as Bob challenged us in his sermon a few weeks ago, even where we spend it can make a difference. We vote with our presence–we make statements about what is important to us by the events and meetings we attend, or don’t attend. In short, we vote by the very way in which we structure our lives. Understood this way, the former Mennonite injunction against voting seems like a moot point.
In fact, understood this way, voting becomes a Biblical mandate. Listen to Joshua addressing the Israelites as they prepared to establish themselves in the Promised Land: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fore-fathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose lands you are living. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Sounds like a call to vote, doesn’t it? Listen to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” Sounds like a call to send a message! Later Jesus warned, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” Sounds like a call to make serious choices. And these are the words of John from our recent Sunday School lessons: “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did… Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness…Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth… And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” These words from I John sound like a call to make statements by the way we live–and to make sure those action statements line up with our words and our beliefs.
There is an interesting phenomenon that sometimes occurs in elections in this country. Sometimes people don’t vote the way they say they are going to vote. We all know that opinion polls and surveys have become a big part of our political process, and the science behind such polls has become quite sophisticated. Because leaders and candidates rely so heavily on poll numbers, they depend on them to accurately reflect how people feel. Yet in some elections recently, there has been a significant gap between how people said they would vote and how they actually did when they were alone inside the voting booth. The numbers didn’t match. It can be that way in other parts of our lives as well, right? Sometimes the words we say or the beliefs we espouse don’t match the way we actually vote with our actions, or our time, or our pocketbooks. For example, when I stop to consider the time I spend watching sports and movies, versus the time I spend playing with or reading to my children, I realize that the way I allocate my time doesn’t line up with the actual priorities of my heart. The numbers don’t match. As I stand here I recognize that is a pretty serious inconsistency–and it’s only one of many in my life, I know.
The Bible doesn’t only call us to vote, and to vote consistently with our beliefs, but it gives us guidelines about how we should vote–guidelines that maybe aren’t as specific on certain issues as we would like, but guidelines nonetheless. We are in the middle of Lent, and many of the themes of the Lenten season highlight what I would call these “voting guidelines.” First, there is the theme of forgiveness. During Lent we remember the connection between the wilderness and the Promised Land, for the Israelites and for ourselves. When we experience the wilderness, when we are hungry and thirsty for God–as Elaine preached last Sunday–God reaches out with open arms of forgiveness to restore us to our rightful place. Another related theme is that of generosity, of God’s abundance. Like the Prodigal Son, we sometimes run away from God. We sometimes squander our spiritual inheritance, but when we return, broke and broken, God’s response is to throw a party. If you remember that story in Luke, it is the older brother of the Prodigal Son who is resentful when he returns, and who is unhappy at the Father’s extravagant celebration. Perhaps we sometimes take that role, failing to truly appreciate God’s generous grace and mercy for others–or ourselves. Lent reminds us that God’s love is abundant for all of us. Finally, there is the theme of reconciliation. During Lent we remember that God’s ongoing business is the work of calling us back into relationship. We fast during Lent, and we feast during Lent. We remember and acknowledge our alienation from God, and we celebrate our reconciliation with our Creator through his Son Jesus.
In the passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul calls us to recognize the significance of that reconciliation. If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation, and we are now given what Paul calls the “ministry of reconciliation.” We are Christ’s ambassadors; we have become the righteousness of God. In short, we are a part of God’s ongoing work of reconciliation. That, to me, is the ultimate voting guideline for Christians. No, I don’t mean it tells us exactly how to vote in political elections; it doesn’t tell us to be conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, for or against specific ballot issues. But it does mean that in our involvements and activities in this world, we are compelled by something greater than our own self-interest or even our own national interest. We are compelled, as Paul says, by Christ’s love. We make our choices, take our stands, and build our lives as new creations, guided by generosity and grace, relying on God’s abundance and the Holy Spirit’s wisdom. We are cabinet ministers, if you will, for the department of reconciliation.
There is an old Sunday School song that some of you may remember: “I have decided to follow Jesus.” It’s a simple gospel song, an elementary statement of faith when sung by children. Sung by adults the words become even more meaningful and profound. “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back… Though none go with me, still I will follow… The world behind me, the cross before me… no turning back, no turning back.” Here in the middle of the Lenten season, we can look ahead and see the cross before us. That decision to follow Jesus is the ultimate vote, the ultimate choice we make as Christians. And while that vote for Jesus is a vote in our hearts, we vote for Jesus with our lives as well. Our words, our activities, our time, our money, and yes, even our political choices, are all important ways we vote, and as noted earlier they are sometimes contradictory. My question for us today, then, is: How consistent are we in the decisions we make and the messages we send? Does the ballot of our lives match the ballot of our hearts?
The Christian life is one long, continuous election cycle. That decision to follow Jesus is one we make daily. With the vote we have been given in this life, let’s vote for forgiveness. Let’s vote for generosity. Let’s vote for reconciliation. Let’s vote for Jesus.