“The Values of Religion”

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, 8 August 2004.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 1: 1, 10 – 20; Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16; and Luke 12: 32 – 40.


You will have to excuse me if this sermon sounds angry. But things have been said and done these past few months that make me, as a Christian and as one who believes in the power of the Gospel, angry. Actually I am as much confused as I am angry.

We call this country a Christian nation. We seem to think that a few drops of water on our heads at birth, a few grains of rice when we get married, and a handful of dirt thrown on our grave when we die make us Christian. (This was adapted from Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williams, page 116)  All our words say we are Christians. We put the phrase "under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance to remind others; we put "in God we trust" on our money to remind others; and find a politician today who doesn’t end their speech with a rousing "God bless America!" We say that a reaffirmation of our Christian values will keep this country safe, strong, and free. But our actions belie our words.

We call for the return of prayer in school, saying that our country began to fall apart when it was taken out. I remember when we started each day in school with a prayer; but I also remember that the school where this happened was segregated. I also remember my parents having to buy my schoolbooks at a bookstore because the local school board did not want to buy books for the students, black and white, in the district. We may be a country where we invoke God’s name and say that all men are created equal. But our educational processes then were separate and hardly considered equal. And today, when segregation is supposedly a thing of the past, there are still schools that use Jesus and God as covers for segregation and racism.

Forty years ago, we had prayer in the schools but our schools were homogenous. Now, with our schools heterogeneous and diverse, it would be very difficult to offer a prayer that meets the requirements for all the Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in our schools. How can any prayer be written that meets the needs of the students?

And with our God the same God that Jews and Muslims pray to, how can we explain the actions of some Christian churches who fired their ministers after they shared a community platform with Jewish rabbis and Muslim imans?

We have been told that we are stewards of this earth. But how does this allow us to pollute the air, the water, and eliminate for all times many species of plants and animals? To be a good steward is not to use it up but to keep it for all but there are those who say that God allows us to do so. Besides, who is going to miss a small sparrow that only lived in a ten square mile in the northwest? Does God not care for all His creatures, great and small?

As a Christian nation, we say that we accept the words of the Bible as the inherent words of God told to mankind? So why is it when the words of the Bible conflict with the laws of nature we condemn or kill those who point out the discrepancy? Is it that we forgot that God wrote the laws of nature just as he lead men to write the words of the Bible? As children of God, we are created in God’s own image and given the ability to reason and think. Yet, many Christian preachers seem to think that only they can do so and we are to blindly follow.

We have been taught and we have taught our children that there is no separation of people when it comes to faith. So why have we used the words of the Bible to prove that whites were the superior race? Jesus did not teach discrimination or separation. In a world where women were second class citizens and children given the status of dogs, Jesus removed the barriers that separated people. Yet, we still build barriers between people in the name of God because we do not like someone’s race, economic status, beliefs, or lifestyle. We have been shown that there is no difference in people simply because the color of their skin is different. So what shall we do if our other notions about human differences are proven false? What will happen if we find that there is life on other planets? Shall we treat these individuals any different; will we, in the name of God, claim superiority over them, just as the first explorers of this country did to the natives of this hemisphere?

And how can we, as Christians and as a Christian nation, accept the fact that there are homeless in this country. How can we accept the fact that there are those who go hungry for days, rather than the few hours between breakfast and dinner? How can we claim to be Christians when we allow oppression and discrimination to exist in this world? How can we claim to be Christians when our very actions drive wedges between people and drive people away from the church, not to it? How can we, those who proclaim once a year that the Son of God was born to be the Prince of Peace, even begin to think that war will do anything but make people more hungry, destroy their homes, and keep the oppressed in bondage.

How can we ever expect peace on this earth when we do not practice good will towards men? How is it that we, claiming to be Christian individuals, and this nation, claiming to be a Christian country, ever expect to remove terrorism from this world if our responses to terrorism are only in kind? Yes, in the Old Testament, the philosophy was an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"; to respond in kind to that which was inflicted upon you. But Jesus said that we should turn the other cheek, we should respond to violence with love and respect. How is it that we can remember the words of the Old Testament but forget the words of the New Testament?

We may say we are a Christian nation but our actions certainly do not reflect those beliefs. This is a time when vast, powerful forces sweep across the country bringing changes to our very doorstep.

Yet, instead of recognizing the opportunities such changes bring, churches close their doors to the opportunities and resist the change. Churches today seem afraid of what might be outside their doors.

Instead of true repentance and the acceptance of the Holy Spirit, evangelism is more a call for condemnation and judgment. Instead of seeking opportunities to bring the Gospel message to the people, churches today seem more interested in ways to build bigger buildings and have countless programs

But such activities, as God proclaimed through Isaiah, are doomed to fail. Those churches that put the gain of members before the presentation of the Gospel will die.(Adapted from comments by the Rev. Jane Middleton, printed in the July 30, 2004 issue of The Vision.)  Churches today have become churches of exclusion and privilege. Instead of preaching a Gospel message of love and openness, many churches preach division, exclusivity, and certainly no love for all.

The church the public sees seeks to impose its will on the people it should serve. Evangelism has come to mean condemnation and judgment. And for many, the church is no longer a place of haven or solace. It has become simply a place for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

It is no wonder that people are turned off or driven away from the church. How can we ask people to be disciples of Christ if they cannot see Christ at work in this world? How can we call men and women to conversion without seeing that Christ calls us all to repent of our prejudices and to be open to the fullness of the life? We cannot practice Christianity and be a false witness; we cannot be evangelists while escaping from Christ’s demands ourselves.

We have to ask ourselves what it means to call people to Christ. The church’s sole purpose is to show the world, through word, deed, action and thought that God’s will is the best alternative to a materialistic or secular world.

Still, there is a vision of hope and promise. Just as John Wesley began the Methodist Revival when it appeared that the words and actions of the church were counter to the goals and outcomes of the Gospel, so too can we embark on a new revival. If there were ever a time for a church to embark on a course of evangelism and outreach, it is now. As Jesus points out in the Gospel message today, there is no time to wait; the hour of His coming is unknown and lost to those who wait.

Within the next six months we will meet as a church. We will vote to remove forty some individuals from the membership rolls of this church; we will say to these friends and children of the church that, because they have failed to be active and supportive members, they are no longer members.

I am not condemning these individuals; for the most part, I do not know who they are. But I can only presume that because they have chosen not to respond to our inquiries and mailings, they see their membership in terms of drops of water, grains of rice, and a handful of dirt rather than in terms of prayers, presence, gifts, and service. I know that some of these individuals have moved away but others are close by and they do not come. They choose not to come because something keeps them away.

It is about time that we, as practicing and professing Christians, do what Christians should do. Just as Jesus said that his mission was first to the lost sheep of Israel, so too must our first evangelistic outreach be to those who have strayed from this, their church home. We need to make one last major effort to reach out and bring them home.

And as we do this, we also need to reach out to those new residents of this area. We should do so, not for what they can bring to this church, but rather what this church can bring to them. In a world of despair and void of hope, this can be the source of hope and promise through the Gospel message.

These opportunities, to reach out and find our own lost sheep and bring in new members, are fleeting. But there is no time later and events in this world can force us into actions that we may not want to take. But if we act in accordance with the Gospel message, we may be able to dictate what those events will be.

We cannot rest on what we have done in the past nor can things that we have developed or created forestall the inevitable. God made it very plain that such an approach would not work. We cannot say that people should come to this church, simply because it is historic and been here for a long time; we can say that people should come because we have been presenting the Holy Spirit at this location for over 200 years. (This isn’t exactly what I said but I think it is close enough to it.)

What is acceptable to God is the exercise of one’s faith, a demonstration to others that God is truly our God. That means that God must be the centerpiece of our lives. God, today through the words of Isaiah, is telling us to show others who He is through what we say and do. And what we do, when we do it, must be for the benefit of others, not for ourselves.

What was it that brought success to Abraham? It certainly was not his abilities. But through his faith in God and his belief that God would give him the family that he had been promised, he received the family that he had been promised. We are told today by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews that it was the faith of the saints, and not their actions that brought them success.

We are reminded today of the lengths that God will go to for us. We are reminded that we are able to come to this table today because Christ died for us and not for anything that we have done. This moment in time solidifies the relationship that exists between God and each of us. One of the basic tenets of faith for Methodists is that there is a relationship with God through Christ. It is a relationship that is intensely personal but also one that must be shared with others. It is a relationship founded on faith, a faith that is both informed and experienced. It is a faith that goes beyond our own personal boundaries through our concern for the spiritual, physical, and social conditions for all people.

Our heritage as Methodists is to evangelize, to take the words of Christ, the Gospel message, into the world. We are not charged with anything difficult or beyond our capabilities. We are only asked to do like the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus, to tell the story and what it means to us. Evangelism is nothing more than that; we are asked to neither condemn nor condone individuals but just tell the story of Jesus and what it means to us.

We are not going to change this country overnight. But it is not a question of changing this country; it is not even a question of whether or not this country remains or becomes a Christian nation. It is a question of whether or not we can show the presence of Christ in this world.

The words, actions, deeds, or thoughts of individuals who seek gain for themselves will not do this. Rather, it will be the words, actions, deeds or thoughts of those who have accepted Christ as their own personal savior and have allowed the Holy Spirit to guide and direct them in everything they do and say.

You may come to this table tired and worn out but you leave refreshed and renewed. You may come to this table devoid of hope for the future but you leave knowing that there is a future of hope and promise in Christ. You come to this table seeing a world and a church focused inward and selfish. Yet you come to this table knowing that Jesus gave of Himself so that we may have the hope and promise of eternal life. As you leave this table this morning, refreshed and renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit and cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ, your values change.

As we eat the bread and drink the juice of the grape, we are reminded that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was for us. So how can we leave this place and not carry the Gospel message into the world? As you leave this table and this church this morning and go out into the world, what will you say and do this week to help others to find what you experienced today?


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