Following Jesus: Contending with the World 10/21/12

Our sermon series on Following Jesus continues today, thinking about how Christians relate to the world around us. We started with a sermon on the people of Jesus totally separating themselves from the world – which of course is not possible, though monks and hermits have tried. Last week we talked about the people of Jesus being totally a part of the world, not separating themselves, and we looked at the problems that causes when we human ones are not challenged by the Word of God separate from ourselves, when we try to pick and choose from the Gospel. Today and next week we are going to think about the people of Jesus “in the world, but not of the world.” Able to confront the world, able to be transformed by the life of Christ in ours, and therefore able to be part of the transformation of the world.


Mark 10: 35-45: James and John the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them,” What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you, must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Are You Able to Drink the Cup?  Oct 16, 1994; October 19, 2003: Too Close for Comfort; Oct. 18,2009, Great Service;


Oct. 21, 2012                       

Following Jesus: Contending with the World

I decided to do this sermon series when I heard about a group of pastors who declared the first Sunday of October “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The Alliance Defending Freedom decided they don’t like to have any restrictions on what they say from the pulpit and they want to be able to endorse political candidates. They want to give their people direction on whom to vote for according to their understanding of faith.

Most people, including most pastors don’t want to have churches or pastors endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. The rule that keeps pastors from taking political stands is the same one that keeps non-profits from endorsing a candidate lest they risk their non-profit status.  Lyndon Johnson introduced the law into Congress in 1954 in an attempt to silence non-profit groups who opposed him. Churches had nothing to do with it. They just got caught up in the cross-fire.

I, of course, (just like this guy here) could tell you whom God would vote for in our upcoming election. I’m sure you would listen to me carefully and vote for exactly whom I told you to vote. But we won’t risk losing our tax exempt status.

Seriously though, though I do have strong feelings about the election, I don’t have a burning desire to endorse a candidate from the pulpit. Having worked for non-profit organizations all my life, I have become accustomed to and agree with the way we separate political campaigning from non-profit advocacy. Because I think politics in general and political parties are so flawed, I think it works fine to ask churches and non-profits to advocate for values and causes rather than for particular candidates or parties.

Some people think that pastors and churches should not address any political issues. They sound somewhat like the people we talked about the first week in this series who think Christians should totally separate from the world around us. The world is corrupt and Christians should only focus on the eternal salvation of humanity, they argue. We should only be about the saving of souls for the world–to-come and not worry about this world because there’s not much we can do about it.

In Christ and Culture, the book I’ve been re-reading for this sermon series, Richard Neibuhr calls these people who want to live in the world but stay separate from it ‘dualists,” church and culture in paradox. He says these people are a little like Job who repents in dust and ashes for thinking he has any insight into God’s realm. As we read this morning, the book of Job ends with a beautiful description of how mysterious and awesome God’s realm is. The earlier part of the book is a fable about Job’s suffering, how his suffering is not caused by his sin, and his righteousness does not keep him from suffering. And yet the book of Job argues for trusting God anyway. See the dualism – the world is a total mess; God is totally good.

Paul, Augustine, and Luther were all dualists.  They believe that a person will never come to God on their own. God finds us. We don’t find God. Often it is only when we are at the end of our rope, having tried everything else, that we realize that God was reaching out to us all the time.  Most dualists until recently did not get involved very much in politics, but in the last 15 or 20 years these folks who feel such a stark separation between their faith and the ways of the world have found ways to become a much more powerful force in the political scene.  They are full of paradoxes, these dualists.  They are hoping and living for a world to come, a world of grace and mercy, but in the meantime, while they live in this world of severity and justice, politics can be a pretty brutal game.

Christian thinking and practice, as Neibuhr describes it veers between knowing God is with us and among us, and feeling like we need a God who is totally other, from beyond, to help humanity because we are so flawed.  There are some who were a little more optimistic about the culture, about basic goodness of the natural order. They affirm the value and importance of civil virtues and work for just social institutions. Virtually all Christians agree that these virtues and institutions are important. Dualists mistrust those institutions as basically flawed, and Neibuhr scoffs at people who trust too implicitly in human virtue and cultural institutions without recognizing the reality of human sinfulness. As we hear in today’s Gospel reading, even Christ’s closest disciples got caught up in arguing over who would sit at Christ’s right and left hand. Jesus reprimands them with the instruction that anyone who wants to be close to him must be a servant to all of humanity.

This call to servant-hood and the recognition that there is more evil in the world than most people want to acknowledge both argue for more involvement of Christian thinkers and activists in commenting on and influencing the culture. I don’t think our only role is to wait for the rapture or try to save souls for eternal life. God calls us to work today for world that God envisioned for creation from the very beginning.

Next week we’ll talk more about Christians’ role in transforming the culture. For today, I just want to say that though I am naturally (and healthily) reticent about expressing my political views (in terms of endorsing candidates) from the pulpit, I think it’s important for Christians to speak and influence the culture. Even if I don’t endorse a candidate, you still work to account for my biases when you listen to me because you know they’re there. I think the church should be actively calling politicians of all stripes to account for not doing more to end the gun violence in this culture, and the church deserves to be called to account for not talking more directly about all the human craziness about sex and money, money and sex.

We Christians need to set an example of speaking out for justice for all of God’s people, looking out especially for the poor and marginalized; and we also need to constantly examine ourselves for our bias, our naiveté, and our own desire to sit at the right hand of Jesus. God calls us to know that we are accepted, to live from acceptance rather than always working for acceptance, to work for a society and a church infused with God’s justice. Finally our commitment to Christ, our calling by Jesus, our love of God calls us to nothing less.


Responsive Hymn: 2027  Now Praise the Hidden God of Love