“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
Don’t you hate that? I sure do. And what I hate most about it that it rings so true. There is no plan so perfect, no system so airtight, and no arrangement so ideal that life cannot find some way to mess with it. Sometimes, I just wish the universe could just leave well enough alone for once. But, as we all know, that never happens. Eventually, something comes along to change every circumstance, for better or worse. Those of us who are invested in the way things are usually have the toughest time adjusting to the new situation (especially when we feel like we were just getting used to the old situation). Life is frustrating that way.
Of course, we don’t mind sudden and unexpected change so much when it happens to other people. In fact, we kind of relish it. I think this is because it makes us feel better about the chaos in our own lives to watch others go through it and survive. Just think: how many of your favorite books, TV shows, and movies involve plots where the hero is thrust into action against his/her will?
Lately, I’ve been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, with my four year old. For those who haven’t read it, it’s the story of a hobbit, a little person, named Bilbo Baggins, who lives in a quiet little village in a land called the Shire, where life is simple and no one ever goes on adventures or does anything unexpected. Hobbits like to eat, drink, work in their gardens, and watch fireworks. Anything else is far too exciting for them. Those who seek greener pastures and broader horizons are frowned upon by the rest of hobbit society.
Then, one fine day, a wizard named Gandalf the Grey shows up on Bilbo’s doorstep with a band of rowdy dwarves. Suddenly, Bilbo finds himself unwittingly thrust into a most dreadful adventure, full of goblins, dragons, lost treasure, and one magic ring (that later proves to be most significant indeed). He never asked for it and didn’t even really want to go on the trip. He just wanted to stay home, read books, and smoke his pipe. But the remarkable thing is that Bilbo only becomes the hero he’s destined to be because of all the unexpected things that happen to him along the way. Those chaotic changes, for all their inconvenience, enable Bilbo to discover who he is and what he is capable of. As readers, we can definitely agree that The Hobbit wouldn’t be much of a story without the unexpected changes. After all, who would bother to read a book or see a movie where the hero never leaves home and never has any problems of any kind? Nobody, that’s who.
Chaos, change, and conflict drive the plots of our favorite stories. As it is in fiction, so it is in life. If our lives didn’t keep getting interrupted by unfair and unwelcome changes, they wouldn’t be very interesting. We would never learn what we are capable of. We may hate the change and curse the chaos, but we need them because they make us into the heroes we’re meant to be.
This is what evolution looks like: the unfolding emergence of life through struggle and chaos. When unexpected change comes, it is not the devil trying to steal your peace, it is God’s way calling you to new adventures of the spirit.
Jesus knew how to embrace the flow of this constantly unfolding process in life. He talks about it somewhat enigmatically in today’s gospel reading. He says in the beginning, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
If you look past the metaphors of fire and baptism, you can see Jesus talking about something that is not yet finished. He is telling his followers that he is involved in something that is not yet completed.
Going on from there, he elaborates, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” This is an unusually harsh thing for Jesus to say. We’re used to thinking of him as the ultimate champion of world peace and family values, but here he talks about conflict and the breaking up of families due to his influence. What are we supposed to make of that?
What I hear Jesus saying in this passage is that his job is not to uphold the status quo in life or society. “The way things are/have been” is of little or no interest to Jesus. His job, as he sees it, is to shake things up.
Understandably, this agenda would have been particularly frustrating to the religious leaders of his day, who saw it as their solemn and sacred duty to maintain the status quo and defend traditional family values. In the eyes of the people, they were the ones who had all the answers when it came to issues of faith and morals.
But Jesus is challenging their authority. He makes the claim that their so-called insight is really nothing more than pretense. “You hypocrites!” He says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Jesus is exposing their so-called insight as deficient. They, with all of their sophisticated arguments and developed systems of ethics, really have no special knowledge about the nature of reality beyond that which is available to everyone. The word hypocrite, which Jesus uses here, is actually the Greek word for actor. These leaders have built their reputation on pretending to have knowledge and insight. They keep up appearances and see to it that the show goes on.
The implication is that, if they really had insight, they would be able to see this unfolding process that Jesus was describing in images of fire and baptism. The truly wise among them would know that growth requires change and change is hard. If they knew “how to interpret the present time,” as Jesus said, they would be open to interpreting the challenges of the future as opportunities presented by God for our growth and development, our evolution, as people of faith. But, as it is, these close-minded authorities are simply standing in the way of God’s work with their beliefs, their tradition, and their family values.
This is a hard and enigmatic word that Jesus gives us today. We mainline Protestants in the 21st century are really not all that different from the Pharisees of the first century. We too are concerned about preserving what we have, especially when it comes to church, tradition, and family.
There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s quite admirable to honor the best of what has been handed down to us from previous generations. However, we have to always keep before us a sense of the renewing nature of faith in each generation. The challenges that our grandparents faced are not the challenges that we face. We would do their legacy a disservice if we were simply to repeat and regurgitate what they had passed down to us.
Our task, as believers in this day and age, is to make the Christian faith our own as we reinterpret and apply its message today. Sometimes, this means doing away with old ways of thinking or doing things. We have to be open to each new challenge, not as a threat against the integrity of our faith, but as an opportunity presented by God for our growth and development.
Holding this kind of perspective, which I call ‘seeing with the eyes of faith,’ will keep our attention focused where it needs to be: on the unique possibilities presented by each new situation as it arises. As believers, we are called to face the future with the conviction that we are being loved and led into new beginnings. That’s what faith is.
Our ancestors had to do adopt this risky perspective in times past. The earliest Christians found their experience with Jesus to be at odds with traditional Judaism; John Calvin found his study of the Bible leading him to challenge established Catholic doctrine during the Protestant Reformation; other Christians at various times have been led to adopt new ways of thinking and living in relation to issues like the abolition of slavery, the theory of evolution, the ordination of women, and marriage equality for gay and lesbian people.
Change is nothing new for us Christians. It goes all the way back to the very beginning of our faith, including Jesus himself, if we take today’s passage seriously. For almost two thousand years, the Spirit of Christ has been kindling a fire in the hearts of people the world over. This spiritual fire has put them at odds with their peers and mentors, who couldn’t understand that what was happening through them was the work of the Holy Spirit. If we would honor our ancestors’ legacy, then we must open our hearts to that same inner fire of the Spirit. We have to look at the constantly changing chaos around us as God’s gift for our evolution.
This church is about to enter into yet another one of these times of change. After three wonderful years as your pastor, I will soon be moving on to a new call at another church. I recognize that it’s easy for me to stand here this morning and ask you to embrace change with openness because I know exactly where I am going next and what I will be doing when I get there, while you remain here without so much knowledge. It might even seem trite or cruel to hear these words from me, but I wouldn’t be your pastor if I didn’t challenge you to look beyond these present circumstances and see, with the eyes of faith, the hand of God leading you into new opportunities as a church.
Whatever the future looks like, it will not look like the past. I can’t even guess what new realities will emerge for you from the womb of possibility. What I do know, and what I can tell you is this: If the Holy Spirit is calling me to a new ministry, then the Holy Spirit is also calling you to a new ministry. The question for you to answer is: what might that new ministry be? I can’t answer that one for you. What I can tell you is that the God who has been “our help in ages past” will continue to be “our hope for years to come.” The same God who loved our ancestors into their new beginnings is faithful to love us into ours. That much I know. This much I trust.
My prayer for you, as I prepare to leave next week, is that you, as the Church of Christ, will embrace the challenge of the coming days in the spirit of faith, which looks for opportunities and possibilities. Silence in yourselves the voices of fear and despair. This church is neither dead nor dying. We are alive with potential and bursting at the seams with possibility. This church is a powder keg, waiting only for the fire of the Spirit to ignite us into explosive new realities.
Trust this. Be open to each new opportunity as it comes. Like Bilbo Baggins, become the heroes you’re meant to be. Honor the legacy of your ancestors by showing yourselves to be the kind of Christians who “know how to interpret the present time” through the eyes of faith.
Two researchers at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that atheists and agnostics run the range from vocally anti-religious activists to nonbelievers who still observe some religious traditions.
“The main observation is that nonbelief is an ontologically diverse community,” write doctoral student Christopher Silver and undergraduate student Thomas Coleman.
I had fun with this study because, although I don’t ascribe the label atheist to myself, I am not a theist in the classical sense. For those who may not be familiar with the terms: Classical Theism refers to belief in an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, and personal deity who is responsible for the creation of the universe, exists separately from it, and interferes with its normal operations at least occasionally. Depending on who you ask, the God of classical theism might also be defined as omnipresent, immutable (unchanging) and/or impassable (incapable of feeling or suffering).
I really like a conversational strategy adopted by Unitarian Universalist minister John Buehrens: whenever someone says, “I don’t believe in God,” Buehrens responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” Most of the time, he says, he is able to say that he doesn’t believe in that God either. Likewise with me: if the classical theist concept of divinity is the only legitimate definition of the word God, then I would be forced to classify myself as an atheist. For various reasons, I reject outright the ideas of immutability, impassability, and separateness from the universe. I radically redefine concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, creativity, and personality in ways that would make them nearly unrecognizable to a classical theist. For reasons that I admit are not entirely rational, I continue to accept the quality of benevolence as central to my understanding of the idea of God.
There are two thinkers with whom I tend to resonate when it comes to talking about God. The first is philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich who famously declared that God is not “a being” but “Being Itself” or “the Ground of Being”. This is also vaguely reminiscent of St. Thomas Aquinas who said (not in so many words) that God does not “exist” but “is existence”. In more recent years, Forrest Church (another Unitarian Universalist) wrote in his book The Cathedral of the World, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all, yet present in each.”
Like most atheists, I have no trouble acknowledging that God is a mythical concept devised by human minds in a particular cultural milieu. I utterly reject the hypothesis that there is actually an “old man in the sky” who created the world, controls everything, and condemns earth to destruction and the majority of humanity to eternal postmortem torture as punishment for various moral and dogmatic infractions. If that’s who God must be, then you can call me an atheist.
When it comes to the six types of atheists, I might be classified somewhere between a 3 (seeker-agnostic) and a 6 (ritual atheist).
Regarding the 3 (seeker-agnostic) the article says this:
This group is made up of people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience.
Silver and Coleman describe this group as people who regularly question their own beliefs and “do not hold a firm ideological position.”
That doesn’t mean this group is confused, the researchers say. They just embrace uncertainty.
Regarding the 6 (ritual atheist) the article says:
They don’t believe in God, they don’t associate with religion, and they tend to believe there is no afterlife, but the sixth type of nonbeliever still finds useful the teachings of some religious traditions.
“They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation,” Silver and Coleman wrote. “For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions.”
For many of these nonbelievers, their adherence to ritual may stem from family traditions. For others, its a personal connection to, or respect for, the “profound symbolism” inherent within religious rituals, beliefs and ceremonies, according the researchers.
If I had to classify myself as an atheist, based on my rejection of classical theism, it would probably look like some combination of these two categories. However, I don’t consider myself an atheist because even a combination of these recently expanded ideas is still too dogmatically confining for me.
So here I am: neither a classical theist nor an atheist. If there is a widely acknowledged category that most closely describes the place where I live, it would be panentheism (God exists within the universe and the universe exists within God). Unlike pantheism (God is the universe and the universe is God), panentheism leaves more room for mystery and transcendence beyond the realm of time/space/matter/energy.
However, because I like to challenge conventional labels and make up new words, I’ve been playing with the term alt/theism as a description for where I’m at. Don’t read too much into it or get your torches and pitchforks ready, this is just pure fun with words.
For me, as an alt/theist, faith in God is based on a meta-rational “hunch” about the mysteries of existence, connection, personality, and harmony. My hunch (which I cannot prove as fact but cannot reject as possbility) is that each of these experienced realities is derivative from some larger source or whole that can never be fully understood or explained by human reason. To this mystery, the language of my Christian tradition attaches the name God. My only hope in the quest for understanding is to approach the very tip of reason’s precipice and peer over the edge into the ongoing mystery with my eyes, ears, heart, mind, and mouth hanging open in wonder.
‘Never, if you work to live and to grow, never will you be able to say to matter, “I have seen enough of you; I have surveyed your mysteries and have taken from them enough food for my thought to last me for ever.” I tell you: even though, like the Sage of sages, you carried in your memory the image of all the beings that people the earth or swim in the seas, still all that knowledge would be as nothing for your soul, for all abstract knowledge is not enough, you must see it, touch it, live in its presence and drink the vital heat of existence in the very heart of reality.
‘Never say, then, as some say: “The kingdom of matter is worn out, matter is dead”: till the very end of time matter will always remain young, exuberant, sparkling, new-born for those who are willing.
‘Never say, “Matter is accursed, matter is evil”: for there has come one who said, “You shall drink poisonous draughts and they shall not harm you”, and again, “Life shall spring forth out of death”, and then finally, the words which spell my definitive liberation, “This is my body”.
‘Purity does not lie in separation from, but in a deeper penetration into the universe. It is to be found in the love of that unique, boundless Essence which penetrates the inmost depths of all things and there, from within those depths, deeper than the mortal zone where individuals and multitudes struggle, works upon them and moulds them. Purity lies in a chaste contact with that which is “the same in all”.
‘Oh, the beauty of the spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth!
‘Son of man, bathe yourself in the ocean of matter; plunge into it where it is deepest and most violent; struggle in its currents and drink of its waters. For it cradled you long ago in your preconscious existence; and it is that ocean that will raise you up to God.’
–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Priest and Scientist), Hymn of the Universe (Harper & Row: 1965), p.64-65
God language can tie people into knots, of course. In part, that is because “God” is not God’s name. Referring to the highest power we can imagine, “God” is our name for that which is greater than all yet present in each…
Proposing that “God” is not God’s name is anything but blasphemous. When Moses asks whom he is talking to up there on Mount Sinai, the answer is not “God,” but “I am who I am,” or “I do what I do.” That’s what the word “Yahweh” means. When the Hebrews later insisted that it not be written out in full, they were guarding against idolatry: the worshiping of a part (in this case the word-symbol for God) in place of the whole (that toward which the word-symbol points).
So it was for the biblical Jacob, who wrestled for life and meaning with a mysterious heavenly messenger. When dawn finally broke after a nightlong struggle, Jacob demanded to know his adversary’s name. “Don’t worry about my name,” God replied. “It is completely unimportant. All that matters is that you held your own during a night of intense struggle. You will walk with a limp for the remainder of your days. Yet that is simply proof that in wrestling for meaning you did not retreat, but gave your all. Therefore, though my name is unimportant, I shall give you a new name, Israel, ‘one who wrestled with both divinity and humanity, and prevailed.'”
-Forrest Church in The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (Beacon Press: 2009), p.3
The most ancient shrine described in the Bible was a rock. As the story is told in Genesis, Jacob founded the shrine because of a dream. Traveling alone, he fell asleep one night in the mountains, with his head resting on a stone for his pillow. Perhaps it was one of those bright nights when the stars are thick and close, like a spangled quilt thrown over the earth. He dreamed he saw a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing up and down. “This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven” he exclaimed when he woke. He set up the stone to mark the place and named it Beth El – the House of God. Another night, on another journey, Jacob tossed and turned in fear that his brother, whom he’d wronged, might kill him. An angel came in the darkness and fought him. Jacob survived the fight but limped ever after, and he gained a new name – Israel, which means “one who struggled with God and lived.”
The divine-human encounter is the rock on which our theological house stands. At the heart of liberal theology is a mysterious glimpse, a transforming struggle, with the oblique presence of God. “Theology” literally means “God-talk” and derives from theos (God) and logos (word). But talk of God is tricky business. The same Bible that tells of Jacob’s marking stone also warns, “Make no graven images of God.” God may be sighted by a sidewise glance, sensed in a dream, felt in a struggle, heard in the calm at the heart of a storm, or unveiled in a luminous epiphany. But the moment human beings think they know who God is and carve their conclusions in stone, images of God can become dangerous idols. In Jewish tradition, God is ultimately un-nameable, and some never pronounce the letters that spell out God’s unspeakable name.
In liberal theology, at the core of the struggle with God is a restless awareness that human conclusions about God are always provisional, and any way of speaking about God may become an idol. This is why not everyone welcomes talk of God. God-talk has been used to hammer home expectations of obedience, to censure feelings and passions. It has been invoked to to stifle intellectual inquiry and to reinforce oppression. For many people the word “God” stands for conceptions of the ultimate that have harmed life, sanctioned unjust systems, or propelled people to take horrific actions “in the name of God.”
-Rebecca Ann Parker in A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press: 2010), p.23-24
I hear a lot of folks talking lately about how the world isn’t what it used to be. They’re worried about the decline of human society, the decay of public morals and values, and the emptying of mainline Protestant churches. For many of these folks, these three series of events are related. They say, “People just aren’t coming to church anymore, so society is going to pieces.”
A lot of people wonder why this is the case. There are a lot of theories. Some say it’s because of the cultural changes that happened during the 60s. Some say that our country’s tolerance of religious diversity has left people in a state of moral and spiritual confusion. Others say that our society’s addiction to busy-ness and constant entertainment has distracted people to the point where they just don’t even have time to think about church anymore.
Personally, I think some of these theories have valid points. And I think the whole truth about the matter is probably bigger and more complex than any single theory can fully explain. But there’s one theory that stands out to me more than the rest, if only because it’s the one I hear most often from people who don’t come to church. And here it is (the number one reason most people give for not coming to church): “It’s hypocrisy of Christians who claim to believe that God is love but do not extend that love to other people.”
Isn’t that interesting? When you actually go and ask people why they don’t come to church, they tell you: it’s not because of diversity, and it’s not because they’re too busy, and it’s not because of the 60s. It’s because of Christians. The author Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
As Christians, it seems that we don’t take our theology seriously enough. We think we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength without loving our neighbors as ourselves, but Jesus calls FOUL on that play. He says you can’t have one without the other. If you try to separate them, you end up with something other than the God revealed in Jesus.
Central to our Christian faith is the belief that God is love. Did you get that? God is love. Most people breeze right by it without thinking and end up with the wrong idea about who God is and how God works in the world. What they tend to hear is “God is loving” (i.e. “God is basically a nice person”). In other words, they think that the Old Man in the Sky (who made the world and controls everything that happens) is a nice guy. But that’s not what the text says. The text is taken from 1 John 4:16 and it says, “God is love.”
There’s a big difference between being loving and being love. God is love itself. God can be found in the dynamic interchange of energy between people who care about each other: family, friends, lovers, even enemies. Wherever there is love, there is God. In fact the full text of 1 John 4:16 reads, “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” The Creator of the universe is not separate from it. God is not “out there,” floating on a cloud or in some alternate dimension. No, God is right here. As the apostle Paul says in Acts 17, “In [God] we live, and move, and have our being.” God is within us and all around us, wherever love is found. God is love. God is a relationship.
Our ancestors in the early Christian church came up with an interesting way of expressing this truth. They left us with a kind of puzzle that could never be solved. And they called it the Trinity. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, we Christians believe in only one God who eternally exists as three persons: traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is both three and one, one and three. Each person in the God-head is co-equal and co-eternal with the others. There is no hierarchy or pecking order among them.
The doctrine of the Trinity has always been controversial. In ancient times, Jews and Muslims accused Christians of being polytheists. In more recent years, people have identified the sexism inherent in using exclusively male terms to describe the Father and the Son. In any age, the Trinity comes across as confusing. Many have tried to solve the puzzle, but all have failed. So, this morning, I won’t even try to offer an answer to its question. We’re going to let the mystery stand and focus instead on the implications of that mystery for our lives as Christians.
And just what are those implications? Well, according to the mystery of the Trinity, our one God exists in a state of relationship between three persons. In other words, God is a relationship. God exists, not as an individual entity, but as the dynamic exchange of perfect love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because of this, it suddenly makes sense to say that “God is love.” God is love because God is a relationship. Wherever love and compassion are established on earth, God is present. “God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” That is the practical application of the theological doctrine of the Trinity. That is where we begin to live what we believe and show ourselves to be either followers of Jesus or just another group of hypocrites.
The only way to faithfully testify to the presence of the Triune God in the world is through acts of love, not supposedly infallible announcements of dogma. If God is a relationship, then we usher and invite people into greater spiritual awareness by being in relationship with them, regardless of whether or not they ever darken the door of our church. Moreover, if God is a relationship, then we come close to God, not through dogma and rituals, but by intentionally engaging in relationships with the people and planet around us.
Jesus spoke about this very clearly in Matthew 25 when he said, “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.” Offering food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless, friendship to the lonely, and justice to the oppressed are not simply good deeds that improve the reputation of the church in the community, they are our best way to participate in relationship with the Triune God. God is a relationship, so relationships are the places where God is most fully known and experienced.
There is no one I can think of in the last one hundred years who lived this Trinitarian theology more fully than Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist who opened homeless shelters and soup kitchens for the unemployed workers of New York City during the Great Depression. So remarkable was this woman, she was not content to simply found and fund a charitable agency for the poor, she moved into the shelter and ate the donated food with her clients, who she simply regarded as friends. In them, Dorothy Day was seeking and serving the Triune God.
She wrote in 1937:
Every morning about four hundred men come to Mott Street to be fed. The radio is cheerful, the smell of coffee is a good smell, the air of the morning is fresh and not too cold, but my heart bleeds as I pass the lines ofmen in front of the store which is our headquarters. The place is packed–not another man can get in–so they have to form in line. Always we have hated lines and now the breakfast which we serve, of cottage cheese and rye bread and coffee has brought about a line…
The [Pope] says that the masses are lost to the Church. We must reach them, we must speak to them and bring them to the love of God. The disciples didn’t know our Lord on that weary walk to Emmaus until He sat down and ate with them. ‘They knew Him in the breaking of bread.’ And how many loaves of bread are we breaking with our hungry fellows these days–‘ 3,500 or so this last month. Help us to do this work, help us to know each other in the breaking of bread! In knowing each other, in knowing the least of Hischildren, we are knowing Him.
This morning, I want to urge you toward similar action in your own life. I invite you to participate in the life of the Trinity, to get caught up in the infinite whirlwind of perfect love that flows between the persons. In that Great Love, incarnated in the myriad little loves that surround us every day, may you find God: not the monolithic “Old Man in the Sky” but the dynamic energy of love that pulses through all creation. And, through you, may others come to believe in the God who is love. May they find that God here in our church as they enter into relationship with a community of Christians who really do live as if they believed that “God is love, and all who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.” May it be so.
I saw that the church implicitly invited people to treat God like an actual therapist. In many evangelical churches, prayer is understood as a back-and-forth conversation with God — a daydream in which you talk with a wise, good, fatherly friend. Indeed, when congregants talk about their relationship with God, they often sound as if they think of God as some benign, complacent therapist who will listen to their concerns and help them to handle them.
Astounded onlookers chalk it up to drunkenness, forgetting that alcohol tends to make one less intelligible, not more. Besides, if drunkenness produced multi-lingual fluency, a good many college graduates today would be eligible for a job at the U.N. Likewise, Peter dismisses the charge and says “It’s a God thing,” exactly what the prophet Joel meant when he said, “In those days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh: old people, young people, folk from every place and every walk of life!”
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 musicalnotes. 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.