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November 18, 2018

“The Religion of Politics”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Psalm 118.1-6

1 Samuel 1.4-20

November 18, 2018

The holiday season is quickly approaching. This means that soon we will be sitting around tables with friends and family, eating good food, and laughing and watching sports. Now, you know the rules: you can’t talk religion or politics, right? Many people steer clear of these topics at family holiday gatherings because there are too many different opinions, which turn into one giant argument. Yet, is the problem that we disagree, or that we just don’t know how to talk about religion and politics?

It seems like all we do anymore is talk politics, and maybe not enough religion at times. We split up the two conveniently and we don’t want to offend with religion, but we certainly are offending with politics. We shouldn’t be offending with either, but I also wonder if these two are as separate as we pretend they are in our world. In America there is a line between church and state: politicians cannot tell us what religion to practice, and churches cannot tell you who to vote for, but that does not mean they are completely separate. Politicians still have faith, and churches still talk politics. How do we know where the line is drawn between these two subjects? What is a biblical view of politics? How can we talk about both without being offensive, and not lose our belief system?

A recent article in The Christian Century included various essays from pastors and professors across the country answering whether the church had an obligation to engage in politics. The majority of them agreed that the church must be political – especially in times when everyone is at odds in the political realm – but we are not to be partisan.[1] There is a difference between talking about politics and talking about a specific candidate or politician, or political party. Often people can agree over a single issue, or a couple of issues, rather than a politician. How many Donald Trump voters do you know actually support everything he does? How many Barack Obama supporters agreed with all of his actions?

When we engage religion and politics together, I think it is important to remember what one professor from Calvin College wrote: “Preaching isn’t dictated by the pet priorities of a party but by the worldwide curriculum of the body of Christ at worship.”[2] A couple times now I have spoken with a May term class at the college about religion and politics. The class reads Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and asks me questions about religion and politics. Last year one student asked me, “Does your religion inform your politics, or your politics inform your religion?” This student asks a really interesting question, that I think we should all ask ourselves.

We are all political, whether we are aware or not. Jesus was political. He challenged the political leaders of the time. He spoke out against injustice. He called for peace. All of this is political. Feeding the hungry is a political issue. Inclusion of our LGBTQIA friends is a political issue. These topics can be political but it does not mean they all fall on one side, or that we cannot engage with someone on the “other” side, whatever side that might be.

The Bible is not politics free, either. The politics in our scripture passage are hidden, but certainly present in the history that precedes. We read about the birth of a political reformer. Leaders in the time of this passage were judges. Samuel, the child who will be born to Hannah, is the last judge in Israel. If we were to go back to the book of Judges and read about the leadership in the time we would see that life wasn’t so great: there was war, the tribes were fighting, people were dying.[3] Sounds like just another day of reading the Courier Journal, right? While the characters in our story do not know the outcome yet, we know how Samuel will reform Israel and appoint two kings to rule.

Hannah is a brave woman whose story is central to the narrative. She is married to Elkanah and cannot have children. If you remember the passages from last week, we know that bearing children was important to continuing family lines and the community in those days. Elkanah married Peninnah and they have children together. Peninnah bullies Hannah and makes her life awful.

Elkanah talks to Hannah briefly when he sees her tears. He tells her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Either he is extremely empathetic and wants to make the situation better, or he is completely oblivious and doesn’t see that Peninnah is lording her childbearing abilities over Hannah.[4] We do not know his intentions, but we know that Hannah struggles and suffers. We know this because of her prayer and her persistence.

There is symbolism here in Hannah’s barrenness. The isolation and pain she feels is like that of the people of Israel.[5] The people are at a critical moment as they are dealing with difficult issues in the world and their leadership has failed them. Who will move them forward? Who will help them? How can they end the merciless killings? How can they stop the fighting? What can the people do? What can Hannah do?

Hannah prays. She goes to the temple and pours out her heart and soul. The priest, Eli, believes she is drunk because she is praying silently but moving her lips. He tells her to take her drunkenness elsewhere. If this is the response of clergy, we are in trouble. Eli doesn’t see her, or hear her at first. She tells him that she is speaking from her anxiety. I believe that this is the prayer of our country right now – we are speaking out of anxiety. We are speaking out of pain and worry. Sometimes, that is our prayer, and we have to vent it out to God. Perhaps it is better to pray anxious words than to act out of anxiety.

God hears Hannah’s prayers and answers them. God hears the prayers of the people, too, and answers them. This person, this baby, Samuel, will be the last judge. He will appoint two kings to help Israel. They certainly weren’t perfect kings, but they began a new era in the life of the Israelites.

Does God appoint our leaders? I’m not sure that’s a slope I want to slide down. Yet, I do think we can pray for our leaders. We can pray for a change. We can pray for a world without hatred and violence and speak our anxieties to God, because God hears us. In scripture, many people see a birth as a symbol of hope.[6] Samuel’s birth was hopeful for Hannah and for the community. The psalm gives us hope, too, reminding us that God is good and God is loving.

In our world we may not always be happy with politics. We may have anxiety. Yet, there is hope. We can’t avoid politics. We can’t let it consume us. We must engage politics. God created us to engage in the world, and that means to do God’s work in a world that is hurting, that is overwhelmed, and filled with strife. How will you voice your anxieties to God? How will you help those who are hurting? Be filled with hope, for God is good, and God’s steadfast love endures forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] William H. Lamar IV, “Do Politics Belong in Church?” Christian Century, October 10, 2018, No. 21, Vol. 135, p.22.

[2] James K. A. Smith, “Do Politics Belong in the Church?” Christian Century October 10, 2018, No. 21, Vol. 135, p.21.

[3] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 467.

[4] Martin B. Copenhaven, “1 Samuel 1.4-20” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 292.

[5] Marcia Mount Shoop, “1 Samuel 1.4-20” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 292.

[6] Frank Yamada, “1 Samuel 1.4-20” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 291.