This Sunday, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, I am at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church). The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Proverbs 22: 1 – 2, 8 – 9, 22 – 23; James 2: 1 – 10, 14 – 17; and Mark 7: 24 – 37
For awhile this week, I was thinking that the title for this message should have been “I am a Christian, but –“. Because everything I heard this week sounds like it starts with that phrase, such as
I am a Christian but I don’t think that everyone is entitled to health care;
I am a Christian but I don’t think we need to worry about the homeless or the poor;
I am a Christian but it is alright for me to proclaim that wealth is a sign of righteousness and the poor are to be blamed for their own poverty;
I am a Christian but I think it is foolishness to think that the church should be open to the homeless, the poor, and the needy because they are only going to steal you blind;
I am a Christian but it is alright for me to tell you how to live while I am free to do whatever I please;
I am a Christian but I ignore the answer when I ask what Jesus would do today;
I am a Christian but it is alright for my pastor to call for the death of national and international leaders from the pulpit.
And every time I hear one of these Christian “buts”, I think back to the beginnings of the Koinonia farm in Georgia. As I have probably mentioned before, this farm was started by Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, and was the first integrated farm in the Deep South.
But it wasn’t always that easy. Early on, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups attacked it with the fury of a level 4 or 5 hurricane. That it has survived and prospered over the past sixty years is a testimony to the tenacity and the faith of the original group and to those who live and farm there today.
To combat these attacks Clarence Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan. His brother refused, claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he was to become a Georgia state senator and later a justice on the State Supreme Court). He said that such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.
Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. To this, Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence.
Clarence then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.
Robert could only say that he followed Jesus, up to a point. Continuing the challenging, Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross.
Robert replied that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but rather an admirer. He also said that he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.
Robert’s comments were interesting. He said, in effect, that if everyone who felt like I do did what you suggest, we would not have much of a church. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society (From my notes on Clarence Jordan’s brother, Robert, in “What Do We Say”).
That phrase, “the betterment of society,” is an interesting phrase. But then again, so are the phrases “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. And what is worse, if you were to ask many people today, they probably couldn’t tell you that those phrases are the core of the preamble to the Constitution of the United States.
The debate in this country today is not about healthcare but whether or not this country is for all of the people and not just some of the people all of the time. The debate in this country today is not about the right to healthcare or education or housing or food; it is about whether or not we are who we say we are. Those who proclaim themselves Christian the loudest also add the loudest “but”.
And while they say they are Christian, it is just as likely that they couldn’t tell you that the dominant theme in the Bible is the care and concern for the welfare of the people, especially the poor and the destitute.
Jim Wallis, someone admired by many and probably despised by just as many, has said on a number of occasions,
I was a seminary student in Chicago many years ago. We decided to try an experiment. We made a study of every single reference in the whole Bible to the poor, to God’s love for the poor, to God being the deliverer of the oppressed. We found thousands of verses on the subject. The Bible is full of the poor.
In the Hebrew scriptures, for example, it is the second most prominent theme. The first is idolatry and the two are most often connected. In the New Testament, we find that one of every sixteen verses is about poor people; in the gospels, one of every ten; in Luke, one of every seven. We find the poor everywhere in the Bible.
One member of our group was a very zealous young seminary student and he thought he would try something just to see what might happen. He took an old Bible and a pair of scissors. He cut every single reference to the poor out of the Bible. It took him a very long time.
When he was through, the Bible was very different, because when he came to Amos and read the words, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he just cut it out. When he got to Isaiah and heard the prophet say, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to bring the homeless poor into your home, to break the yoke and let the oppressed go free?” he just cut it right out. All those Psalms that see God as a deliverer of the oppressed, they disappeared.
In the gospels, he came to Mary’s wonderful song where she says, “The mighty will be put down from their thrones, the lowly exalted, the poor filled with good things and the rich sent empty away.” Of course, you can guess what happened to that. In Matthew 25, the section about the least of these, that was gone. Luke 4, Jesus’ very first sermon, what I call his Nazareth manifesto, where he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to poor people” — that was gone, too. “Blessed are the poor,” that was gone.
So much of the Bible was cut out; so much so that when he was through, that old Bible literally was in shreds. It wouldn’t hold together. I held it in my hand and it was falling apart. It was a Bible full of holes. I would often take that Bible out with me to preach. I would hold it high in the air above American congregations and say, “Brothers and sister, this is the American Bible, full of holes from all we have cut out.” We might as well have taken that pair of scissors and just cut out all that we have ignored for such a long time. In America the Bible that we read is full of holes.
We are faced with a crisis in this country. It transcends national and regional boundaries. It goes far beyond personal, corporate and national identity. It is a crisis of the mind and soul, for we have forgotten what the pages of history have taught us.
We are a faced with a crisis of identity when we have a conservative writer and politician saying we should bar immigrants from other countries while forgetting the ostracism and discrimination that his own ancestors encountered and endured because of their religion and land of origin when they first came to this country one hundred years ago.
It is a crisis of the mind when a preacher proclaims a Biblical truth that isn’t in the Bible and when those who hear those words nod in agreement.
It is a crisis of the soul when churches, ministers, and laity proclaim that they teach and preach the Gospel message but close their doors to outsiders and strangers.
It is a crisis of the soul when people say that poverty is acceptable and nothing can be done about it because Jesus said “the poor will be with you always”. (Matthew 26:11) It is a crisis of the mind and soul when people tell you that it is in the Bible that one may seek wealth and power and that they have a right to keep what they have gain.
It is a crisis that will strike deep within our soul and, if we are not careful, it will devour our soul leaving each one of us, man and woman, adult and child, totally empty.
I am not the first to make this cry; I will probably not be the last, for history tells us that we very seldom learn from our mistakes. The pages of the Bible are filled with prophets crying out to the people to repent of the ways, cast aside those old ways and begin anew. John the Baptizer stood in the wilderness and called for the people to repent and prepare for the coming of the Lord. Even Jesus called for us to repent and begin anew.
The crisis that we face today is not simply that we have ignored these cries; we have forgotten that they were ever spoken. You have heard me proclaim the hypocrisy of the modern church. But know that I am not alone in my view of the church in today’s world.
Barbara Wendland is someone whose writings I read on a regular basis. She publishes a monthly newsletter called “Connections” and in this month’s issue (Number 202 – September, 2009), she announced the beginning of a project to change the direction of the church. For her and her colleagues there is a need to do so because,
Like many of my readers, when I look at the South, I see a cruel parody of justice. Our prisons burst at the seams while social and economic inequality grows. Christians sing sweet songs about heaven and Jesus, but their idol is often uncritical patriotism. Too many vote for leaders who glorify war and discourage access to health care, education, and employment.
In the South, I also see a flood of misinformation. Bible studies and sermons reject ideas from scholars and scientists. Children are urged to pray in school but aren’t taught basic facts about the Bible and the church. Christianity is worshiped with no mention of its own sins or the virtues it shares with other faiths.
When I look at the South, I see more racism, sexism, and heterosexism inside churches than outside. Congregations invest in buildings and programs but ignore children from across the tracks. Women are told to be dependent and submissive; God is praised as male. Witch hunts target members and clergy.
And in the South, I see minority views scorned or stifled. Self-proclaimed church “moderates” preach unity and inclusion, yet reject uncomfortable truths outright. As one southern friend observes, “Where we live, you can’t stick your neck out without someone chopping it off.”
We have forgotten from where we came and we have no idea where we are going. We have turned the words of the Gospel inside out and made God our servant instead of being God’s servant. We have taken away the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross and substituted the perceived victory of the Pharisees as our victory. We will not, as the prophet Micah wrote, “do what is fair and just to our neighbor.” We will not “be compassionate and loyal in our love” nor are we willing to walk humbly with God.
There will come a day when all that we have forgotten will come back to haunt us. There are going to be those who proclaim these are the End Times and the coming of the Final Judgment. They will proclaim that these words were written by John the Seer in the Book of Revelation. John the Seer never wrote those words and those who proclaim the End Times as Biblical have forgotten what the Bible really says.
When are we going to learn that what we say and what we do are often times so often in opposition? When are we going to learn that our fate will be like those who never heard the cries of the needy or the poor, who never visited the sick, the dying, and the imprisoned and then wondered why they could not get into heaven? When are we going to learn that our fate, our destiny is very much determined by the relationships we have with God and others.
The words of Solomon in Proverbs about the treatment of the poor and the hungry; the words of James about the attitudes and actions of the rich against the poor; all will echo in the ears in the self-righteous as they struggle with the results and consequences of their greed and self-interests.
They will be like the ones who saw Jesus cure the sick, heal the lame, give sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf and wonder how He did all that. They will not be able to understand the compassion that Jesus had for the ones that society had ostracized, that society had denied care and support to. In a society that would feed dogs before feeding children, Jesus gave hope to those who sought the crumbs from underneath the table. Yet, today’s society says that our children, our poor, our hungry, have no rights or concerns in this country.
I fear for this country. The dreams of too many people are fast fading and dying away. Our world is quickly becoming the world into which Alice entered when she passed through the looking glass, a world where one must travel twice as fast just to stay in place. And in such a world, there is no hope. And without hope, there can be no vision. And we are back to the Book of Proverbs, where it is written that without a vision, the people will perish.
The question isn’t really when are we going to learn but when are we going to learn that the way we are doing things doesn’t work. We can no longer treat others as less worthy of us or what we have is more important when others have nothing.. When are going to learn that what James wrote to the early Christians two thousand years ago is still true today, that our faith is meaningless if our efforts don’t match our words.
When are we going to learn, as Robert Jordan learned some sixty years ago, that the road to heaven goes through the Cross, not up to it or around it?
We already know that being is a witness is difficult; perhaps that is why we are so reluctant to be one and to live a live as a witness to and for Christ. But when are we going to learn that there is not other way.
But it need not be difficult and it need not be done alone. We can, today, here and now, open our hearts and minds to Christ, accept Him as our Savior, and then become empowered by the Holy Spirit to go forth as witnesses of God’s wonder and power. It is what we were taught; is it what we have learned?