This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY) for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2005. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 6: 1 – 8, 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 31, and Matthew 5: 1 – 12.
The events of the past few months have lead me to conclude that there is a crisis within the church. It is a crisis that transcends the nature of Christianity, crosses across denominational boundaries, and filters down to the local churches.
Christianity today, I think, is seen more often in terms of exclusion and exclusivity. It is seen as intolerant and vindictive. How many gays and lesbians will seek solace in a church when the public view of Christianity is that Christians are homophobic? We may have laughed when the Roman Catholic Church admitted that perhaps the church was wrong in punishing Galileo for his views on the structure of the solar system. We may have laughed because we knew that Galileo was right and the church was wrong. But even today, some Christians are pushing to limit the pursuit of scientific knowledge by restricting the teaching of the theory of evolution in the high school classroom. In one sense, I side with creationists because I think that the theory of evolution is incorrectly taught. But creating and teaching an alternative theory that violates the mandates of scientific thought is not the answer.
For some, religion of any kind is bad. Seen in the context of history, religion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. But millions of lives have also been destroyed by political strife and by technology and science, yet few advocate getting rid of them. We may want to get rid of religion but we have to know what we seek to remove. If I think good is what benefits my friends and harms my enemies, then my religion may be dangerous. If, on the other hand, I come to think that good is what enables all intelligent and thinking beings to flourish, and the spiritual reality is supremely beautiful, wise, and compassionate, then my religion can be a tremendous force for human good. (From "The Good of Religion", published in Science and Theology News (November 2004) and reprinted in the February issue of Context.)
Somewhere along the line, the nature of the Gospel message has been removed from the nature of Christianity. No longer is a message of hope and promise for those in need; rather, it seems to be a message of greed and intolerance, of exclusivity and closed-mindedness. Jesus spoke of offering comfort and support to those with physical and spiritual needs; the churches of today, at least from the public perception of Christianity, no longer do that.
It is a problem that crosses denominational lines. We have heard the stories and the statistics about the decline in membership in mainline churches while at the same time there is growth and vitality in evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Tony Campolo, the noted evangelist, pointed out mainline denominational leaders did not pay enough attention to people who were subjectively aware of their own sinfulness and longed for a message of deliverance. These leaders often failed to give sufficient recognition to people’s need for something more than a religion that made sense in the face of scientific rationalism of modernity and addressed the painful social crisis of the times. Too often they overlooked the fact that people craved a feeling of connectedness with God that gave them the sense of being inwardly transformed. In the pews of mainline churches were men and women who wanted to feel a cleansing from sin and experience the ecstasy of being "filled with the Spirit," but mainline theology and preaching marginalized such dimensions of Christianity.
The growth of the more evangelical churches can be seen in light of those comments. People want the experience and they get it in these newer, younger churches. But that is because these newer churches place a greater emphasis on individuals making a personal decision for Christ. And such decisions require a high level of commitment to participating in the mission of the church. (From Speaking My Mind by Tony Campolo) For many young members of mainline churches, growing up in the church does not lead to such a commitment, so they leave seeking Christ elsewhere.
The problem for these newer churches is that they do not care what others may think of them. No church, mainline or new, conservative or liberal, fundamentalist or advanced in theology, should ever compromise what they believe in order to gain the approval of the secular community in which it serves. It should, first, make sure that they preach the Gospel message and know what the Gospel means in which they believe. Second, we should care that people in the secular community see Jesus in us. I think, and I have said, that these newer churches will encounter difficulties in the coming years because, as people grow in their faith, they will have difficulty reconciling the views of the church with the Gospel. And it is this difference which has lead to the public perception of Christianity about which I have already spoken.
In the localized world of this century, another religious development is urgently needed — one that takes into full account the moral and scientific advances in the world since the 16th century, when the scientific revolution began. Religions that take this step will be self-critical, recognizing the uncertainty of all human knowledge and accepting that criticism is the most secure path to the truth. This does not mean that they must give up their central distinctive doctrines; there will always be diverse religious beliefs, and believers will have firm commitments to their centrally revealed or authoritatively defined truths. But even firm practical commitment can be allied with humility, with an admission that there are many things one does knot know and many things that are incompletely understood. Self-criticism is openness to learn from others, not a practical hesitancy about one’s own deepest commitments.1
The last crisis is at the local level and, I am not talking just about Tompkins Corners in this regard. It is a crisis which affects all small and rural churches, churches within the United Methodist Church under the "Town and Country" banner.
As Dennis Winkleblack pointed out in a message to the Town and Country Breakfast at last summer’s Annual Conference, the focus of too many churches in the New York Annual Conference is gone. He noted first "that we are confusing a tool for ministry – namely the church building – with Jesus’ call to be the church." He also noted that a few people in far too many churches are choking their church to death.
These individuals mean well but they insist on getting their own way. As he said in his remarks printed in The Vision, no one in history has lived long enough to see what happens if they are crossed, there is a great unspoken fear that these individuals will stop giving or leading or doing all the work. Or, worse, they will explode in anger as they have in the past.
The third crisis facing the churches of the New York Annual Conference is a crisis in the pastoral ministry. Too many of the pastors are staying in the ministry when their hearts are not. This is a question that not only the pastors of this conference need to look at but the people of the many churches that make us the conference. For what reason do we seek the ministry of the church? Is it for the money that is provided? (An interesting thought considering the salary and benefits for many of the full-time pastors in this conference.) Or is it because it is an expression of our faith?
The fourth point that Dennis pointed out was that there is a crisis of imagination. Be it the local church with all of its differences and problems or the Annual Conference with its own collection of differences and problems or the General Conference, where the differences and problems make national headlines, Dennis noted that we are so caught up in fixing our problems and managing our finances that there is little energy left to imagine a whole new way of life.
With all these crisis and with all that is going on in the world, is there hope for the world? I think there is. The job of the church is to tell the truth; this is not an exceptional nation and we do not live in exceptional times, at least as the world describes it. Everything did not change on September 11th; everything changed on the day Christ was born more than 200o years ago. When the Word of God became incarnate in human history, when Christ was tortured to death by the powers of this world, and when he rosefrom the dead to give us new life — it was then that everything changed. Christ is the exception that becomes the rule of history. We are made capable of loving our enemies, of treating the other as a member of our own body, the body of Christ. The time that Christ inaugurates is not a time of exceptions to the limits on violence, but a time when the kingdoms of this world will pass away before the unbreaking kingdom of God.
The "holy nation" of which the scriptures speak, Exodus 19: 6 (– And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a ‘holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.) and 1 Peter 2: 9 (– But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,), is not the United States or any other nation-state, but the church, the universal body that transcends national boundaries. If the church narrates history faithfully, it will resist the idolatry of the state and resist the politics of fear that makes torture unthinkable (the writer was speaking to the issue of the nomination and confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General of the United States). In concrete terms, this means refusing to fight in unjust wars, refusing to use unjust means, and refusing to be silent when the country drifts toward the institutionalization of "exceptional measures." (From "Taking Exception" by William T. Cavanaugh in the 25 January 2005 issue of Christian Century)
While the writer of those words was thinking of the atrocities in Iraq and the apparent callousness of the present administration towards our treatment of prisoners there and in Cuba, I think that his words are also applicable to the role and duty of the church in this country in terms of everyday life. We cannot, if we are Christians, stand by and let evil, in what ever form it may take rise up and take the place of good. Rather, we must stand firm, grounded in our faith and knowing that what we have been taught from birth and what we have come to believe is the truth – the Christ is the Lord and Savior.
Paul writes to the Corinthians about the nature of wisdom, of who is wise and who is foolish. He writes about who is called to be the representatives of Christ. It is important that we understand that God’s plan of salvation does not confrom to the world’s priorities. To many it seems foolish. But God used what one might consider foolish and despised in this world to reveal His truth, so that He alone would receive the glory. Otherwise the powerful would boast that they had found the truth. Instead, God sent His Son to become a humble carpenter and to die in the most despicable way, on a cross. Jesus’ life and death reveal God and God’s wisdom.
The Beatitudes place our lives in the context of the whole realm and scope and community of God’s love and justice. More description than instruction, more report than directive, they compose a litany in which all promises point to the same reality. Speaking of those who have already "crossed over," those who even now inhabit the kingdom of God, the first part of each beatitude identifies who is blessed and the second part names the group’s relationship to God. And the Beatitudes turn the world upside down with their shocking promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless. A powerful antidote to the contrived happiness of consumerism and mindless entertainment of our day, they are good news to God’s people, the humble of the earth, the strong of heart, those who take refuge in God alone. Yet, this is the way it should be.
The prophet Micah said something quite similar using different words: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (From "Be happy" by Patricia Farris in "Living the Word" in the 25 January 2005 issue of Christian Century)
The passage from Micah can be seen as a courtroom scene in which the Lord lodges a legal complaint against Israel. The first two verses are where the Lord summons the people to listen to his accusation and to prepare their defense against the charges that will follow in verses 9 through 16. The Lord speaks in verses 3 through 5 poignantly reminding the people of his gracious acts in their behalf. In verses 6 and 7 Israel speaks and in verse 8 Micah responds directly to the nation, answering the questions of verses 6 and 7.
So, here we are, in God’s courtroom, facing the charges before us. Whether we care to admit it or not, the crisis of the church are our crisis. And how we respond will determine the outcome of the case. We can be like some who seek the glory for themselves. Such a choice will not gain us what we need.
But we can do what is asked of us, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? The jury will now begin its deliberations and the verdict will be known soon.