Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. This has been edited since it was first posted.
The last verse (“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” – Luke 17: 10) in today’s Gospel reading (Luke 17: 5 – 10) poses an interesting question. What are we as a church supposed to do?
Are we to be the moral conscience of society or its moral police? Are we to be the social conscience of society or its primary social agency? There is today, I believe, a crisis in the church. It is because we cannot answer those questions; it is because we, as a church, do not know what it is we are supposed to do.
The leading religious voices in America today claim to be Christian but I can no longer accept that notion. Jesus commanded us to consider the least of all the people yet so many of these quasi-Christians are more interested in their own power and position. How can you say you are a Christian when your values and your voice are not the same as those of Christ? How can you say you are a Christian when your goal is a kingdom on earth and you put politics before people?
We are told that a true Christian is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriages. Yet nothing is said about defending the power, healing the sick, building homes for the homeless, and freeing the oppressed. Why are two topics of abortion more important that the ones that Jesus expressed when He began His ministry?
It is one thing to speak out against abortion. Personally, I am opposed to abortion. But notice the word “personally”; it is not my right in any realm to impose my beliefs about this or any other item on others. It is not my right to revise the Bible in such a way that it makes one act wrong but sanctions other acts.
If one is opposed to abortion because it is a clear violation of the Sixth Commandment, then one had better be opposed to the death penalty. And one should also be opposed to war. There are those who hold to all three but the ones with the loudest voices, the ones who oppose abortion are quite willing to let states murder in our name and call it justice. They are quite willing to go to war and kill others because “our god is strong and your god is weak.” It makes no difference that many times their god is our god and we don’t understand that fundamental fact.
And if one is opposed to abortion then one should be working towards removing abortion as an option. This means offering other forms of birth-control and increasing sex education. These are topics that seem to be off-limits to the anti-abortion foes. In fact, it would seem as the entire topic of sexuality is off-limits in the world of the fundamentalist. Could it be that they fear what they do not know or understand? Could it be that what is unknown or to be feared is to be ignored or banned?
There are those who oppose same-sex marriages and construct Biblical justification for their opposition. Theirs is a church that only certain people can enter. Theirs is a church that only certain people can lead. And theirs is a church that would bar Jesus from entering and preaching in.
The same arguments that are used today in regards to sexuality and love were used when it came to slavery and our concept of humanity. It took almost two hundred years but we finally learned that the color of one’s skin does not change their humanity and that whatever color we might be, we are all the same. We are still learning about sexuality and we, as a church, are going to be in great danger if we continue a policy of sexual apartheid and then find out that sexuality is more genetic than choice. We walk a fine line when we try to explain God’s handiwork with only a limited amount of knowledge.
When all is said and done, it is quite clear that we have not even done what we should have done.
What are the sound teachings that Paul is speaking of in his letter to Timothy? (2 Timothy 1: 13) What did Timothy’s grandmother and mother teach him that Paul suggests still lives in him? Are they the values that are expressed in today’s culture?
The word Christian should describe people of extravagant grace and generosity; it should describe people associated with acts of courage, justice, and compassion but it is more often used to describe people who are close-minded, vindictive and judgmental. Studies show that nine out of every ten people identify themselves as Christians but only about four of the ten will say they have been to church lately. What American people know about the Bible and religion, both other religions and their own, is surprisingly limited. Eight of every ten Christians say that a person from another faith can be saved or go to heaven. Broken down, seven of every ten Christian evangelicals and nine of every ten Catholics say that is possible. But it is a major tenet in both evangelical and Catholic communities that there is no salvation outside the Christian faith (and in many cases, they will say there is no salvation outside their “brand” of Christian faith. While Americans may say they are Christian, they do not know what they are. And if they do not know what they are, they are incapable of deciding if what the leaders say is even remotely true. (Statistical information and other information from The Phoenix Affirmations by Eric Elnes)
It is easy then to see why people so easily accept what other Christian leaders, ministers, or spokesmen say. The public does not know what the truth is so when they are only given one view, they can only conclude they have been told the truth. It explains why so many people have turned away from the church; their understanding is in conflict with what they see and hear. There is a gap in the lives of many people and each day the gap grows bigger. And with each day that the gap grows bigger, people find it harder and harder to come to the church. Each day, it becomes easier and easier to see the church as a meaningless and archaic institution, out of touch with the modern world and incapable of working and living in it.
We read the Old Testament reading for today (Lamentations 1: 1 – 6) and we can understand the hurt and pain that the prophet must have felt. The people of Israel were scattered from Jerusalem and Jerusalem was empty. There was a sense of desolation and loneliness in what the prophet wrote and it is no wonder. Everything that one hoped for was gone.
So what are we to do? Some would say that there is nothing we can do. The signs that we see are signs that the End Times are near and that Armageddon is just a matter of time. As I noted in “The Future for the Methodist Church”, after one individual gave his reasons for leaving the ministry, someone added their own comment that his leaving was because he hadn’t been brought up in the ways or Word of the Lord. Of course, this reasoning ignored the fact that the student minister was studying the Word of the Lord and he had been doing the Work of the Lord. To give fatalism as the reason for the failure of the church to shepherd its own is limited reasoning at best. It says that there is no hope.
Unfortunately, such reasoning takes place because people have not studied the Word. They are quite willing to accept the pronouncement of others as the truth even when it is false teaching. Instead of studying the Bible on their own and coming to understand what is written in each chapter, they let others explain it to them. And when there are contradictions, they don’t know how to deal with them because they haven’t studied the Bible themselves.
What are we supposed to do? Having come to Christ ourselves, we have to go out into the world, taking the Word of God with us. We are to testify to the world as to what Christ means to us. But such testimony must be more than words and the words must be words of hope, not condemnation. Our testimony must be done through not only what we say but what we do.
Paul points out that it is not our works that count but rather what was given to us through Christ. Now some will say that we only have to say what Christ has done but it is meaningless to say for a representative of God to say that God loves you when the representative does not. It is meaningless to say that God offers the water of eternal life and ever sustaining bread when representatives of God won’t share his bread or water.
We are faced with a great challenge. It is to show the presence of God’s Word in this day and age. It is what we said we would; it is what we must do.