Are We Who We Say We Are?

I will be preaching at the South Highlands United Methodist Church in Garrison, NY, and the Cold Spring United Methodist Church in Cold Spring, NY, for the next two weeks. Here are my thoughts for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

As a way of introduction, I am a second generation military brat; so as I was growing up, my family moved around a lot. But we always remained connected to our “roots” in St. Louis. So it is quite natural that, when it comes to baseball, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I still have memories of my father setting up an old Hallicrafters radio receiver in the den of the house in Denver so that we could pick up the KMOX radio signal and listen to Harry Carey broadcast the Cardinal games.

Now if there was one thing you could count on with Harry Carey, it was his intense support for the teams that he covered. This support was so intense that, if you were watching the same game and listening to him broadcast that game over the radio, you had to wonder if you were watching the same game as he was.

Now, I look around me at this world in which we live and hear that we are a Christian nation following Biblical truths But when I read the Bible, I get the same feeling as when I watched a Cardinals baseball game and listened to Harry Carey describe it over the radio. Are we living in the same world? Are we reading the same words?

Today, if you say that you are a Christian the public believes that you are a political conservative. If you say that you are a political liberal, the public believes that you have no faith or are not willing to publicly acknowledge your faith. And each group, despite their claims of openness, turn away individuals whose views are not exact duplicates of accepted party doctrine.

So, with that in mind, I will say that I am an evangelical Christian; I am evangelical by baptism, evangelical by confirmation, and evangelical by belief. I am committed to a strong global mission to share my Christian faith with other people, without prejudice or discrimination. I fulfill this mandate given to me by Jesus Christ by my own personal witness and by supporting others through my financial support.

I feel, as do others, that to say and be an evangelical Christian is to say that you are willing to take the Gospel out into the world and bring a message of hope to the poor, a message of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry; it is about being a voice for those oppressed and without a voice. It is also about bringing a message that tells others about the personal relationship with God that can be obtained through Jesus Christ. But it is not about forcing a message of any kind down the throats of others.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, the term “evangelical” has been misused or distorted. To say that you are an evangelical Christian is to invite people to say that you are a ‘bigot’, ‘a homophobe’, ‘male chauvinist’, or a ‘reactionary’.

But the same people who describe Christians in those terms also describe Jesus as ‘caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, and sympathetic.” (1)  How is it that there is such a wide discrepancy between what people think of the One who guides our lives and what people think of us?

As Jimmy Carter stated in his 2002 Nobel speech in Oslo, Norway, “the present era is a challenging and disturbing time for those whose lives are shaped by religious faith based on kindness towards each other.” President Carter further expanded on this statement by saying,

There is a remarkable trend toward fundamentalism in all religions — including the different denominations of Christianity as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Increasing, true believers are inclined to begin a process of deciding: ‘Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs should prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently wrong,’ and the next step is ‘inherently inferior.’ The ultimate step is ‘subhuman’, and then their lives are not significant.

He went on to describe how he felt that fundamentalists had distorted the vision of Christ in the world and the nature of Christianity. He noted that fundamentalism could be characterized by three words: rigidity, domination, and exclusion. (2)

Fundamentalists say that they believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible. But the Gospel readings that we have read these past few weeks showed us that Jesus held to the Law without being rigid. It was the Pharisees and the Sadducees that held to a rigid interpretation of the law. And even the Bible tells us how Jesus refrained from giving even his own disciples authority over other people. In His charge to them to go out as witnesses, they were empowered only to serve others, by alleviating suffering and espousing truth, forgiveness, and love.

As we read the Gospel for today (3), we are again reminded that Jesus opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all those who would believe. There is a reason that Mark included the national identity of the woman in this story.

Keep in mind that in Jesus’ time and in the society of that time no woman, Gentile or Jew, would normally have been allowed to be that close to Jesus. By identifying the woman in today’s Gospel reading as non-Jewish, Mark further made it clear that those who society would reject were accepted in the Community of Christ. Jesus is not attempting to insult her by using the metaphor of “the little dogs under the table”, as others would; He is only testing her faith and with her response, he responded with “O woman, great is your faith.” (4)

Jesus would not exclude anyone. He sat with the Samarian women at the well; he ate dinner with Zaccaheus, much to the dismay of the religious leaders and personalities of the day. Remember how the Pharisees and Sadducees reacted when the woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair? Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of today, their reaction was to criticize and complain that things were being changed. Jesus only pointed out that the woman did what they, as hosts for the dinner at which Jesus was invited, failed to do what was required of them. Exclusion is not part of the Gospel message.

It amazes me that too many churches have forgotten the words of James that we read for today (5). How is it that a church that was founded on openness and that welcomed all has become one of exclusion? How is it that a church that began with everyone in the community sharing their resources has become one where wealth and power are the dominating values?

When we read the verses from Proverbs for today (6) and the words from James (5) as well, we are reminded of what the Bible is really about. It has long been noted and demonstrated that if you took out every verse or phrase in the Bible that dealt with the treatment of the poor, it would fall apart. One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament refers to money or the poor. This ratio is one in ten for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John; it is one in seven in Luke. In the Old Testament, only idolatry is mentioned more times.

At the beginning of the last century, the ten richest countries were nine times wealthier than the ten poorest ones. In 1960, the ratio increased to thirty to one. As we started this century, average income per person in the twenty richest nations was almost $28,000 per person, in the poorest nations this average income was just over $200. This is a ratio of 140 to 1.

These are the figures for the world; the disparity between poor and rich in this country is much the same. The ratio of incomes between the top and bottom one-fifth of the population is eleven to one in the United States. Every decision made in this country for the past six years has been in favor of the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes.

Yet the church remains remarkably silent on this issue. If it speaks out, it is to encourage people to seek riches through God. This prosperity gospel only seeks to glorify wealth and power where care for the weak and needy should be paramount. While I realize that many churches do not fit into the model of the modern church, for which I am thankful, the churches that people hold up as successful are those with operating budgets that come close to those of many small countries and whose pastors earn salaries in the millions of dollars. How is it that a pastor can have a million dollar salary, several homes, a private jet and the other accouterments of wealth when Jesus told his disciples to travel simply? Is it any wonder that people see Christianity in less than a favorable light?

But before you think that the state of the church is beyond hope, let us remember what happened to the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 18: 20 – 19: 18, Elijah challenges the authorities to prove that their gods were better than God. It was a task that they failed. In retaliation, Queen Jezebel orders Ezekiel killed. As Ezekiel is running for his life, he finds himself alone in the wilderness.

There, Ezekiel asks God why he was left alone. To this God indicated that there were still true believers in the next town and that is where he should go.

There are still true believers today, ones who feel that the fundamentalist view of the world will be shown to be the false hope that it is. We are reminded by the writer of Proverbs that those who give kindness will receive kindness; those who seek injustice will only receive calamity. (6)

I was a member of a church in Minnesota that came to know the meaning of those words from Proverbs. Many years ago, someone visited this church. It was no big deal; others had probably visited the church before this person came one Sunday and others most certainly came after. Probably no one made much that there was a stranger in their midst that one Sunday morning. But a few years later, the church received a rather sizeable check from the stranger’s estate. On that one day when he was a stronger, this church had made him feel welcome. So when he died, he left the church some money. The money was used to purchase the church’s present parsonage and allowed the former parsonage to be used as a Sunday School building.

William Willimon, formerly the Chaplain at Duke University and now the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference recently told the following story,

On one of my worst days, a grueling eight-hour marathon of appointments, I was about ready to go home when I was informed I had one more appointment. Two older women walked into my office.

“We’ve come to Birmingham from Cullman to tell you about our ministry,” one said. “Gladys’s grandson was busted, DUI. We went over to the youth prison camp to visit him. Sad to say, we had never been there before. We were appalled by the conditions, those young men packed in there like animals. We got to know them. Are you aware that only 10 percent of them can read? An illiterate 19-year-old and we wonder why he’s in prison!”

“Well, we began reading classes,” the other one said, “Sarah taught school before she retired. Then that led to a Bible study group in the evening. We’re up to three Bible study groups a week. Two friends of ours who can’t get out bake cookies for the boys. We’ve also enlisted wonderful nurses who help with the VD. Some of them said that those cookies were the first gift they have received.”

“And you want the conference to take responsibility for this ministry?” I asked with bureaucratic indifference.

“No, we don’t want to mess it up,” Sarah responded.

“You need me to come up with some money for you?”

“Don’t need any money. If we need something, we get it from our little church,” she said.

“Then why have you come down here to tell me about this?” I asked.

“Well, we know that being a bishop must be one of the most depressing jobs in the church — too many things that we are not doing that Jesus expect us to do. So Gladys thought it would be nice if we came down here to tell you to take heart. Something’s going right, that is, up in Cullman. (7)

Bishop Willimon said that he took heart that with all the troubles that he saw, in a world of darkness there was a glimmer of hope by the people of God in a small town in northern Alabama.

In preparing for this sermon, I came across two other stories that tell me that there are still people who are the true believers in Christ and the church on earth. In his notes for September 6th, the blogger known as Quotidian Grace writes about a workshop led by Reggie McNeal that was based on McNeal’s book, “The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.”

During the seminar, McNeal told the story of a woman who wanted to help high school students in her neighborhood. She went to the principal of the high school and said that she wanted to volunteer to listen to any student who needed someone to talk to. The principal was thrilled and invited her to the next assembly. She rounded up four or five other women from her church to go with her. At the assembly she told the students that it was much harder to be a teenager today than when she was growing up. “Some of you don’t know one of your parents, you don’t have relatives close by, you may be having problems at home or school or with a girl friend or boyfriend.” She then gave them the phone number of her church and said to call that number if they just wanted someone to talk to. The next day the church had over 300 phone calls from those kids. (8)

There is still the question of how a particular church would respond to a similar situation. But there still remains the point that this unnamed woman sought to reach out to the people in her community.

The other story that I came across comes out of Atlanta, Georgia. It concerns the people of Clifton Presbyterian Church. It starts with a homeless man who started coming to Sunday morning services. A lot of times such individuals are discouraged from coming back but the people of Clifton Presbyterian made him feel welcome. Then, one day in 1979, the people of the church remembered Jesus saying to them “inasmuch as you done this to the least of these.” So, they made plans to give this homeless individual a place to lay his head at night.

They took the pews out and brought in chairs to sit on. With the pews taken out, they could install cots. So it was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church’s Night Hospitality ministry began. This one individual now had a place to stay and a place to eat. Other homeless men began to show up. And this church, as long as they were sober and obeyed the rules, became their home.

The people of the church realized that providing a home was not enough. Many of the men who spent the night needed counseling and training. The church bought property across from the church and turned it into transitional housing. The ministry grew, so much so that the people of the church made a decision to disband the congregation and move to other congregations. But they did not abandon the ministry that they had started. It is still there in Atlanta, located in a middle class Atlanta neighborhood. Though Clifton Presbyterian died, the Clifton Sanctuary Ministry remains today. (9) It reminds us that there are those who have heard the words of the Gospel to bring hope to the poor, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and to be a voice for the oppressed and those without a voice.

So today, having heard the stories of people and churches where the Holy Spirit lives and is alive, I ask you to make a decision. Will you be a Christian in the eyes of the public or will you be a Christian in the eyes of Lord?

In discussing the future of Christianity, President Carter wrote

Those Christians who resist the inclination toward fundamentalism and who truly follow the nature, actions, and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us with our care, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and unselfish love.

It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and what emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us. (2)

When John Wesley came back to England after his ministry in America, he felt that he was a failure.  For all his training and upbringing he had concluded that he had not done what he thought he had been called to do.  But on that night when he went to the chapel on Aldersgate Street, his life changed when the Holy Spirit touched his heart.  Will you allow Christ to enter your life and change your life as it has so many others?  Will you, having accepted Christ as your personal savior, let the Holy Spirit empower you as it did John Wesley and so many others?  Will you be able to say that you are the person you say you are?

(1) Adapted from Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo

(2) “Our Endangered Values”

(3) Mark 7: 24 – 37

(4) Matthew 15: 28

(5) James 2: 1 – 10 (11 – 13), 14 – 17

(6) Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23

(7) From “First-year bishop” by William H. Willimon, Christian Century, 20 September 2005

(8) – 6 September 2006

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