Covenant: Social Holiness and Scripture 1-29-17

Today is the last Sunday in January and the last of this sermon series on covenant commitment. Each Sunday we have taken a pair of theological concepts that are related in our minds – like forgiveness and faithfulness to show how we sometimes get the relationship wrong. So we found that, though we think our faithfulness leads to God’s forgiveness; it is God’s forgiveness that calls us to faithfulness. Today’s pair of concepts, social holiness and scripture, work a little differently, though in a similar way. We tend to think we have a natural sense of what our society needs and we can do without scripture & tradition altogether.

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus, as he often does, also reverses our expectations, as he announces how blessed the hungry, the meek, the poor, and the persecuted are. Let’s read it together today. We haven’t done this in a while. But I’d like you to call out a word or phrase that stands out for you. They don’t have to be in order and you can repeat what someone else sees as well.

Matthew 5: 1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside, and after he sat down and the disciples had gathered around, Jesus began to teach them: “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled. Blessed are those who are gentle: they will inherit the land. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they will have their fill. Blessed are those who show mercy to others: they will be shown mercy. Blessed are those whose hearts are clean: they will see God. Blessed are those who work for peace: they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their struggle for justice: the kingdom of heaven is theirs.You are fortunate when others insult you and persecute you, and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great; they persecuted the prophets before you in the very same way. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

January 29, 2017

Covenant: Social Holiness and Scripture

Some of you may remember a confirmation class years ago when we went down to Washington DC. The young people slept on pews of an old church and we visited historic and important churches in the Washington area. I remember that the group indulged me when I suggested we take a long walk to see the United Methodist building. We walked a long way, and when we got there, it was just a building, a building right next to the Supreme Court building, but still, just a building.

I took our confirmees and parents there because I wanted to show how the United Methodist Church is right at the center of our national political scene, working to effect policies that are important to our church. The United Methodist Building is the only non-government building on Capitol Hill. It was completed in 1923 when the Methodist Church was a much bigger influence on people and politics than it is today.

Prohibition of alcohol passed in 1919 with the strong support and encouragement of the church. Temperance headquarters were moved to the Methodist Building from Kansas when the building was completed. Other big issues they worked on back in the day were gambling  and obscenity in films and publications. In the 1960’s the building became a center for the Poor People’s Campaign and anti-war marches.

Today, the building is still owned by the United Methodist Church, though much of it is rented out to other faith groups and non-profit groups. The influence of the church has declined considerably, but the building is still there, a symbol of an aspiration to guide and inspire our nation. A book I just finished called The End of White Christian America used the repurposing of the use of this building as an example of the main point of the book, which is that our country no longer has a white Christian majority.

Both the Main Line and Evangelical branches of Christianity have declined enough to mean that white Christian America no longer sets the terms of discourse and this has created serious anxiety among white Christians, especially in places where the discourse is still dominated by the church – as in the south and the midwest.

This anxiety leads to Christians who should know better applauding when our government moves to discriminate against Muslims coming into our country. This anxiety leads to Christians joining coalitions of people working to create higher borders and boundaries to non-white racial groups entering the country and participating in our communal life.

This anxiety leads Christians to act in ways contrary to the basic teachings of our faith, including those in our assigned readings today – the one from Micah enjoining us “simply to do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God,” and the profound teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

The Beatitudes sound a little different in Matthew and Luke. Scholars tells us that Matthew seems to have added to the original saying of Jesus, using “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” instead of the starker claim, “Congratulations, you who are poor.” Maybe Jesus also said “Congratulations to those who are hungry” instead of “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” and “Congratulations to those who weep,” “Congratulations to those who suffer.”

Jesus in the Beatitudes was teaching that those who are poor, those who hunger, weep or suffer, are included in the coming realm of God. Jesus’s teachings were apocalyptic – looking forward to a new time, a new age, and he gave hope to his followers to help them remain faithful through the challenges that they face. He was inviting his followers who felt outcast to know that their time would come.

The Beatitudes were not calls to action. They are promises, promises that God is with the poor, the hungry, the grief-stricken and suffering, and that God will ease their suffering, that they will know God’s care and love. The Beatitudes are also Jesus’ call to compassion – a reflection of Jesus’ basic Jewish understanding of compassion for poor, hungry, grief stricken and suffering people.

How ironic then, that anxiety ridden brothers and sisters of ours feel they have to try to protect our Christian faith by contradicting its basic tenants – by rejecting poor, hungry, grief stricken and suffering people at our borders. I’m not saying that our borders can’t have any restriction. In fact, we need to have better clarity and boundaries are important. At the same time, Jesus calls us to compassion and to humility in the ways in which we set those boundaries. We destroy our own faith tradition when we act contradictory to those values, the very tradition we hope to protect.

We as Christians look to the Bible as the source of our understanding of the way we want our society to be. We follow the teachings of Jesus. We listen to God’s word with a long tradition of what they mean for us. We need this tradition to help guide us and to guide the leaders of our country. We don’t need to exclude other traditions and sources of wisdom for the Christian tradition to maintain its power and its witness in our lives. We just need to live out the values that we believe in – compassion, kindness, justice and humility.

We at St. Luke acknowledge that the end of White Christian America is not the end of us. We welcome people of color into our faith community and into who we are. We stand side by side with people of other faith traditions in this stressful time to tell them that they are welcome too in our country. We will not let them stand alone when they are targeted. We stand as citizens of the world, vowing to not live only for ourselves and our own country but to live with humility and compassion beside other countries of the world.

The people who built the Methodist building in DC hoped that our particular form of Christianity would gain great influence in the US government. That’s why they built the building. Through the years, as our particular faith has lost influence, we have invited other denominations to share the building with us. Now there are Presbyterians, ecumenical groups, Catholic groups, even Jewish and Muslim groups that share the building.

All of these groups share a vision of our country as a place of compassion, justice, and humility. They may interpret those values in different ways based on their own traditions, but it is a wonderful thing that they work together in that building, and that they work for a way to care for all God’s people. This is what God requires of us in our time.


practice Responsive hymn  What Does The Lord Require Of You