My wife played me a recording this week from an NPR program called This American Life. The entire episode was about the way kids think and the funny (sometimes profound) things they say. It was originally broadcast in 2001:
It all began at Christmas two years ago, when my daughter was four-years-old. And it was the first time that she’d ever asked about what did this holiday mean? And so I explained to her that this was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she wanted to know more about that. We went out and bought a kids’ bible and had these readings at night. She loved him. Wanted to know everything about Jesus.
So we read a lot about his birth and his teaching. And she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was, “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we would talk about those old words and what that all meant.
And then one day we were driving past a big church and out front was an enormous crucifix.
She said, who’s that?
And I guess I’d never really told that part of the story. So I had to sort of, yeah, oh, that’s Jesus. I forgot to tell you the ending. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.
It was about a month later, after that Christmas, we’d gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant. And it was mid-January, and her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools. So Martin Luther King Day was off. I knocked off work that day and I decided we’d play and I’d take her out to lunch.
We were sitting in there, and right on the table where we happened to plop down, was the art section of the local newspaper. And there, big as life, was a huge drawing by a ten-year-old kid from the local schools of Martin Luther King.
She said, who’s that?
I said, well, as it happens that’s Martin Luther King. And he’s why you’re not in school today. So we’re celebrating his birthday, this is the day we celebrate his life.
She said, so who was he?
I said, he was a preacher.
And she looks up at me and goes, for Jesus?
And I said, yeah, actually he was. But there was another thing that he was really famous for. Which is that he had a message.
And you’re trying to say this to a four-year-old. This is the first time they ever hear anything. So you’re just very careful about how you phrase everything.
So I said, well, yeah, he was a preacher and he had a message.
She said, what was his message?
I said, well, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.
She thought about that for a minute. And she said, well that’s what Jesus said.
And I said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And it is sort of like “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.”
And she thought for a minute and looked up at me and said, did they kill him, too?
The NPR story ends there, but the answer to the little girl’s question is, of course, Yes. They did kill Dr. King too, and Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the prophet Isaiah, and the apostle Paul. It seems that the treatment inflicted upon Jesus has also been visited on those who stand up for what is true and right in any age. The apostle Paul himself, before he was beheaded by the Roman state, famously said, “In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Paul seems to have picked up on the inherent connection that exists between what happened in Christ on the cross and what happens in those whose lives are similarly extinguished by unjust powers. In the mind of God, these events are not separate: They are one.
Jesus himself articulated a similar sense in Matthew 25 when he said to his followers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.” The suffering of the hungry, naked, sick, and imprisoned people of this world is one and the same with the suffering of Christ.
We Christians don’t always understand this truth. At least, we don’t live as if we understood it. We separate these events in our minds. We separate the social from the spiritual. We say things like, “The church shouldn’t get involved in politics.” While I agree with this statement when it comes to religious institutions endorsing candidates or receiving state funding, I disagree with the idea that our most deeply held beliefs and values should not shape the way we organize our life together. Politics, on the most basic level, has to do with relationships, and relationships are what Jesus is most interested in. When someone once asked Jesus about the most important part of the Bible, he said it all comes down to relationships: your relationship with God and your relationship with your neighbors.
The quality of our relationships is the measure of the quality of our religion. In fact, we read in this morning’s scripture readings how religion should even take a back seat to relationships. In our first reading, from the book of Amos, the prophet tells the people that Yahweh their God is disgusted with their religious rituals and fed up with their pious posturing. He says that God isn’t even listening to the sound of your hymns anymore. Why not? Because what God really wants is for “justice [to] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” In other words, God listens for the harmony and not the melody. God wants harmony between people, not just musical notes. That’s what the words justice and righteousness mean in this passage. God wanted nothing to do with their religion because their relationships were all out of whack. There is an inherent connection between the way people behave toward each other and the way they behave toward God. Injustice toward a neighbor is a sin against God. The spiritual is political. The quality of one’s religion is measured by the quality of one’s relationships.
In our New Testament reading, we see Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple. As he drove out the money changers, he shouted, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
He was quoting a passage from the book of Isaiah. In that section, the prophet was setting forth a vision of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem as an international, multi-cultural center of faith and learning. People from all over the world, not just Jews, would one day be welcome in the house of God. The place designated for this activity was the Outer Court, also called the Court of the Gentiles. It was the only part of the temple where non-Jews were allowed to participate in worship. It just so happens that this was the very place where the money changers and animal dealers had set up their shops. They had robbed the Gentiles of their rightful place in God’s house. And for what? To make more money. By placing profit over people, they undermined the legitimacy of their spirituality. They made the house of God into “a den of robbers”, according to Jesus. Like Amos, Jesus wanted to see “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
Again, the quality of our religion is measured by the quality of our relationships. What we do for our neighbors, we do for God. There is a connection between the suffering of people and the suffering of Christ.
This morning, we are continuing with the fifth sermon in a five-week series on the Great Ends of the Church. We’re asking the question, “Why does our church exist?” We’ve already given four answers to that question. We said the Great Ends of the Church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, the maintenance of divine worship, and the preservation of the truth. This week, we’re adding a fifth Great End: the promotion of social righteousness.
This one tends to get us into trouble sometimes, because many (including some within the church itself) say “the church shouldn’t get involved in politics.” They cringe when preachers bring up controversial social issues from the pulpit, preferring instead that preachers would just “stick to the gospel.”
But here’s the thing: a good preacher can’t preach the gospel without getting into relevant social issues. Any minister who just wants to save individual souls for heaven isn’t preaching the gospel of Jesus. Jesus said the quality of our religion is measured by the quality of our relationships. Jesus said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.” Jesus drove the money changers out of the Gentiles’ place in the temple and told his followers to leave their offerings at the altar and make peace with their neighbors before coming to worship. Jesus said that God preferred the compassion of the Good Samaritan over the ritual purity of the priest and the Levite.
No Christian who actually reads the Bible can preach the gospel of Jesus without engaging in the promotion of social righteousness.
Now, as I said before, this doesn’t mean that churches should be endorsing candidates, telling people how to vote, or accepting money and power from the state. What it does mean is that we should all have a clear enough understanding and a firm enough commitment toward our beliefs and values that we are willing to speak up and act up when the culture around us promotes practices and policies that contradict said values. Do we believe at all people are made in the image of God? Then we should have something to say about equal opportunity for all races, classes, and genders in housing, education, and employment. Do we agree that Jesus had a special place in his heart for poor and outcast people? Then we should not just make room for them in our hearts, homes, and churches; but we should also re-locate and re-orient ourselves to be where they are: in the slums, bars, and jails of Oneida County. Do we believe that God loves everyone and never gives up on anyone? Then neither should we.
These Christian values, if we live them, will inevitably put us at odds with American values. We will have to go against the grain and the flow of the larger culture in order to hold it to a higher standard. It will be uncomfortable. It will make us unpopular. It might even be dangerous. But let us remember what our Savior taught us: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
People throughout history, from Martin Luther King to the apostle Paul, have followed Jesus on the path of the cross. Their suffering and his suffering are one in the eyes of God. They didn’t just preach the gospel, they were the gospel. And they share in the resurrection life of Christ, who overcomes the bonds of death and proclaims a new reality in our midst, a new community that is overthrowing and replacing the old domination systems of this world: the kingdom of heaven-on-earth. When the church challenges the unjust practices and policies of the powers-that-be, we show ourselves to be citizens of that kingdom with the saints in light. The church’s promotion of social righteousness is not separate from the proclamation of the gospel or in addition to it, it is an essential part of it. Our actions in relationship with our neighbors comprise the text of the silent sermon we preach every day to the people around us.