This was a sermon that I gave for the 4th Sunday of Lent (21 March 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, New York). The Scriptures were Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11 – 32. (Edited 17 March 2010)
There is an old union song entitled "Which Side Are You On?".
Its origins come from the bloody union battles to organize the coal miners of eastern Kentucky during the 1930’s. Back then, and even today, there was no middle ground; you were either a union man or you worked for the coal company.
We are a society that likes clearly defined concepts. We chafe and hesitate when concepts we have spent a life believing in are pushed beyond our capabilities to understand. We like the world in black and white, not shades of gray. But the only time life has such clarity and definition is when we are dealing with a two-year old. Then it is clearly "yes, you may" or "no, don’t do that!"
But our choices are not that simple. There is today a common perception that if you are a Christian you are a political conservative. And if you are a political liberal, you cannot be a Christian. A recent study suggested that individuals who went to church more than twice a week were likely to have voted for George Bush while those individuals who never went to church were likely to have voted for Al Gore.
But as Anna Quindlen, a columnist for Newsweek, stated in a recent column (March 8, 2004), there is a wide range of individuals in the middle of the church attendance spectrum. And because there is, you cannot readily determine a person’s voting pattern from their church attendance. And I am bothered by this assumption that Christians are primarily conservative and liberals are not Christian.
True, the view many people see today is a conservative one but that is because the many liberal Christians have either given up the fight or don’t care. But I grew up at a time when the Bible was used to justify segregation. I went to school when the Bible was used to justify killing in the name of your country.
And today, when people see Christian churches, they see a conservative approach to religion. It is an approach that is exclusive and judgmental. It is an approach that tries to use the Bible, even when there is no real justification, to justifying second class status to women and others.
It is an approach that is rigid and unyielding, unable to adapt to new ideas. And I find that, at least in the scientific community, a hesitancy to accept those with a Christian viewpoint for fear that they will condemn science as anti-religion.
And why shouldn’t people think that way? Did not the Catholic Church of 16th century burn Copernicus and imprison Galileo for suggesting that the earth was not the center of the solar system? Never mind that no one has ever come up with the answer to "why" the universe was created. Or that we are still struggling with "how" the universe was created, we find conservatives today stifling scientific imagination because they are unwilling to accept physical evidence concerning the age of the earth. Our ability to teach in this country is severely hampered because conservative Christians bully and intimidate textbook publishers to publish questionable and invalid approaches. Faith and science are not the same and those who think they are should reexamine their own thinking. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."
And even today, in areas where you would think that Christian ethics should be paramount in one’s daily living, we find conservative Christians holding back, preventing an implementation of the true meaning of the Gospel. Last November (actually, it was in August; see "Do As I Say? Or, Do As I Do?" – note added 28 May 2008), I spoke about the effort in Alabama to seek true tax reform, reform based in part on an examination of the Old and New Testament, and Judeo-Christian ethics.
The state of Alabama’s tax system has been identified repeatedly as one which is unfair. Though the income tax is one of the lowest in the country and the property tax is as well, there is a tax on just about everything else. The sales tax in Alabama is the highest in the nation and does not exempt even the most basic necessities such as food. Put together, taxes in Alabama put an unfair burden on the lowest income groups and allow the richest in the state to avoid paying any taxes at all. People who own 71 percent of the property pay less than 2 percent of the property tax in the state of Alabama. And if you are paying for schools or healthcare from your property tax revenue, where is the money coming from?
But one of the leading opponents of this reform was the Christian Coalition of Alabama. They argued that there were no problems with Alabama’s tax system; that the lowest income families weren’t overtaxed. They also argued that it wasn’t the responsibility of the state but rather the church to take care of the poor (an interesting argument for a Christian group to make). And when these arguments failed, they turned to attacking the creator of the tax reform plan. It is interesting that a group calling itself Christian would stoop to mud slinging.
Unfortunately for the people of Alabama, the campaign for tax reform failed. Hopefully it is only a temporary failure and the efforts to create a just tax code, preferably one based on Judeo-Christian ethics, will ultimately succeed. There are hopes to take the issue of tax reform from the local and state level to the Federal level (for it has been shown that any tax cuts on the Federal level invariably lead to tax increases at the state and local levels). But as Dr. Hamill pointed out, the special interests at the Federal level that would oppose tax reform are meaner, greedier, and better funded than were her opponents in Alabama. (adapted from an interview with Dr. Susan Pace Hamill in the April issue of Sojourners.)
I became aware of Christ’s presence in my life during a time of great upheaval in this country. It was a time when we were fighting for equality in society. And it was the church that was leading the fight. And then there was Viet Nam. It could be that there are justifiable wars. But a truly justifiable war is hard to define and as I struggled with my opposition to the war, I struggled with what my faith was requiring of me. My own opposition wasn’t so much against the war (how could I, the son of a career Air Force officer and the grandson of a career Army officer be against the military) as I was against the draft. I felt then and still do today that we must be free to choose, to act, and to bear the responsibilities for our own actions. (based in part on Letters From a C. O. In Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer) I felt that the draft took away that choice. And it was quickly apparent that the draft was unfair. There are numerous examples of individuals who literally bought their way out of serving, some by using political and family connections to get into the National Guard. Oh, they served their country but on their terms. One of those people was a roommate of mine in college, who when faced with specter of failing in college and being drafted, got his family to get him into the Missouri National Guard. It became apparent that as the war dragged on, the inequities of the draft mirrored the inequities of society.
I cannot say exactly how it happened but it is most likely that as I looked at my options concerning the draft and service to my country, I began to understand exactly what my faith was. I know that back then I saw faith in terms of actions first. If I did the right things, then I was guaranteed a place in heaven. But the actions the Gospel encourages us to take, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and comfort the poor and needy are actions driven by your faith. It was the inaction of the church that drove Wesley to seek a new way of fulfilling the Gospel.
It is a basic tenet of Methodism that, having come to Christ yourself, you must then work towards the perfection of Christ. It is a task that by definition can never be reached but one that must be undertaken. It is not the enactment of the Gospels in one’s life that gets you into heaven but it is a requirement of faith that you seek to enact the Gospel message in your life. And if the enactment of the Gospel or if caring about righteousness and justice makes me a liberal, then I am proud that I turned out that way.
But before anyone should think that I am just grumbling about conservatives, let me point out that I think those who are liberal have failed. The struggles for equality were lead by the liberals of the church, following in Jesus’ footsteps and showing that all were welcome in the kingdom. But once the legislation to insure equality was passed, the liberals stopped. The battle may have been won but the war was far from over.
The Old Testament passage is an interesting one. The Israelites have finally reached the Promised Land and have settled down, no longer wandering through the desert. And because they have settled down, the manna from heaven that had provided them their daily bread ceased. Now they would live off what the land that they had been given produced. I think to understand this passage you have to read the next one.
In the next passage, the Israelites began the series of military operations that insure that they will occupy the land. But just before the battles begin, Joshua (now the head of the people, replacing Moses) encounters a man dressed for battle. Joshua asked this man, "Are you for us, or for our enemies?" (Joshua 5: 13) The man (assumed by some writers to be God), answers "Neither." (Joshua 5: 14) In this brief encounter, we are told that God is not on the side of the Israelites but that the Israelites must fight God’s battles.
We cannot expect the manna from heaven or products of the Promised Land if our focus is on what is good for either you or I; God expects us to continue working for him long after we find Him. When the Israelites quit working for God, trouble invariably followed. From the Book of Judges to the end of the Old Testament, there are countless passages telling of the calamities that befell Israel when it failed to follow God.
The Gospel reading for today starts off with the Pharisees complaining that Jesus is eating with sinners and tax collectors. What self-respecting rabbi would ever do that? I see many churches today, or perhaps it would be better to say the people of the churches today, acting just like the Pharisees did back then. And when we welcome a sinner back into the fold, they are like the oldest son, sulking in the corner because the best wasn’t given to them.
The Pharisees saw themselves as keepers of the tradition of the Law and they expected rewards for keeping the Law pure and safe. But in keeping the Law pure and safe, they ignored the many people in society who were suffering. Many times Jesus said that he was not the keeper of the Law but rather it’s fulfillment. Every action that He took was predicated on the notion that the riches of God’s kingdom were for all and not just a select few. The celebration of the kingdom was for all, even the lowest sinner, if they repented of their sins and sought God.
Following God isn’t really a conservative or liberal thing. When Jesus selected his disciples, he selected Matthew, the tax collector. Those who were tax collectors in Israel were considered traitors to their people and among the outcasts of society. But Jesus asked him to follow Him. And then Jesus chose Simon the Zealot. (Matthew 10: 4) To describe someone as a zealot might have been a description of their religious fervor; but it also could have meant that they were a part of the Jewish revolutionary group that was violently opposed to Roman rule in Palestine. Such a person would not have been found in the same room as someone like Matthew who worked for the Roman state. Yet Jesus chose these two men, extremes of the politically and religiously polarized society of the day. (From a letter to the editor in the April 2004 issue of Sojourners.) Christ saw that there were no divisions.
When you follow God you become a new person. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Everything old has passed away and we are surrounded by new things." (2 Corinthians 5: 17 ) Paul wrote that in Christ there was no east or west, no Jew or Gentile. In Christ, there was no division, so there is no reason to choose sides.
So the only question would be, "Where are you this moment in Lent when it comes to God?" On that Friday that we have come to call Good, Jesus was nailed to a cross between two men. The man on the left ridiculed Jesus, calling for him to save Himself and echoing the sarcasm of those whom nailed Jesus to the cross. But the other man knew and said that Jesus had done no wrong. And in his own pain and suffering, this second criminal asked to Jesus to remember him in paradise.
In the coming days, there will be many challenges. Challenges to the church and denomination, challenges to Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church. Which side will you be on? Will you be on the side that sees no hope in Christ? Or will you be on the side of Christ, working for the fulfillment of the Gospel? The song’s chorus is "Which side are you on?"