Tuesday, March 4, 2014

“Stuff You Really Don’t Have to Believe: ‘The Church Should Stick to Saving Souls and Keep Its Nose Out of Social Issues’” - March 2, 2014

Texts: Amos 5:21-24, Luke 4:16-19

I have enjoyed this series of sermons on “Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe.”  There are a lot of assumptions people have about Christian faith, a lot of beliefs that Christians have about Christian faith, that are not only wrong but harmful.  We could probably go on and on with this series, but we’ll stop today with an idea that I have heard in various forms, which basically boils down to “Churches should stick to saving souls and keep their noses out of social issues.”

It has to do with the role of the church in the world and whether Christian faith is only about personal salvation and personal morality, or whether faith has broader and more public claims.

We lived in a small community in Illinois before moving to Ames.  Arthur was a small town with more energy and civic pride than a lot of small towns, and it was because of the Amish who had settled in the area.  The Amish made the area a tourist destination of sorts, and there were a lot of small Amish businesses in the surrounding rural area, bakeries and candy makers and upholstery shops and quilt shops and what-not, as well as excellent furniture makers and cabinet makers.  There were also what were called Salvage Stores, Amish grocery stores that stocked a lot of past date and discontinued items.  Between the various businesses and the novelty of seeing horse buggies on the road, there were a lot of visitors to the area and the economy was doing very well for a community of its size.

What was interesting was the level of involvement of the Amish in the wider community.  They would participate in community matters, but only to a certain point.  Many of the children actually attended public schools – the private Amish schools were expensive – but they were only with the English students through sixth grade.  Amish students had their own seventh and eighth grade classes devoted to practical skills, because that was as far as they went in school.  Amish students did not go to high school; they went to work, much to the dismay of townspeople who thought that if we only had some of those Amish kids on the line, our football team would be unstoppable.

The Amish did not vote.  They did not run for office.  They did not participate in civic or political life.  Culturally, they were in another world.  No electricity, no automobiles, no tractors, no telephones.  Well, they did have telephones – there would be phone booths out in the countryside, and maybe six families would share a phone booth.  Someone with a business would tell clients or customers to call between 6 and 7 am, because that is when he would be at the phone.  But they had no phones in their homes.

The Amish way of life is based on the idea of being separate – of separating themselves from the evil of the world around them.  It is a Biblical idea.  In 2 Corinthians chapter 6 we read, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers.  For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness?  Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? … Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?  Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them.”  “Be ye separate.”  It’s Biblical. 

There are those in, for lack of a better world, more mainstream Christian churches who have a similar approach to involvement in the wider society.  For them, Christian faith is about my personal relationship with Jesus.  If we start giving too much attention to social ills, to things like hunger and poverty and the environment and drug addiction, well, that’s a slippery slope and the next thing you know we’ve left Jesus behind.  The next thing you know, we are more worried about a person’s earthly state than their eternal state.  No, we need to just focus on spiritual things.  And when it comes to behavior, our concern is not so much social concerns but matters of personal morality – things like not drinking or smoking or cursing and being sexually pure.

As a seminary student I served as a summer youth minister at a church in my hometown.  The pastor was on vacation and I was preaching.  It was Peace Sunday, a day on the denominational calendar, and in the evening service I preached on peace.  Art Christmas, the pastor who is long since retired, told me after he got back, kind of chuckling, that one of the members told him, “David had a pretty political sermon.”  Well, I had not advocated that the church disinvest from South Africa or protest nuclear proliferation – not that these wouldn’t be worthy of the church’s consideration.  But to focus on a topic like peace and talk about more than just personal peace in our hearts seemed beyond the boundaries of what this person thought was appropriate.

Now to be fair, those who see faith strictly in personal terms are not against combatting hunger or working for world peace.  They just don’t see that as the church’s role.  We just need to help people find Jesus – and when enough people do, then things in society will turn around.

I have talked before about Will Campbell, a self-described bootleg Baptist preacher who got in trouble in the 1960’s for working for racial equality in the South.  Will served in World War II on a medic unit on a Pacific island.  Once, in the middle of the night, a sergeant woke up Will.  He was needed to assist a surgeon with an operation on a severely injured island boy.  A crusty colonel form Atlanta performed the operation.  Sadly, the boy did not survive.

After the operation, the colonel asked the sergeant what had happened to the boy.  The sergeant told him that he had dropped the ashtray of a wealthy French planter and that the man had beaten the child mercilessly.  The colonel looked at the boy, still on the operating table, and said, “That’s a helluva price to pay for dropping a g**d*** ashtray. 

After they delivered the body to the family, the sergeant asked Will if he would go with him to the chapel to pray.  Seeing a little boy beaten to death for dropping an ashtray would motivate most anybody to pray, so Will readily went with him.  But he was shocked by the sergeant’s prayer.  The sergeant prayed and prayed, but never prayed for the boy who had been lost, or his family, or for justice for the man responsible for his death.  Instead, the sergeant prayed for the surgeon who had taken the Lord’s name in vain.  He seemed profoundly distressed about the colonels’ sin.

Campbell was flabbergasted that this man was more concerned with the colonel’s cursing than he was the tragic death of this boy or the gross injustice of the planter.  This incident affected Campbell deeply and stuck with him throughout his life.  It was a reminder that when we focus too narrowly on personal piety and ignore the larger issues of compassion and justice, we can miss the point of religious faith.    

Now, I do not in any way want to disparage those who emphasize personal religion.  And indeed, our Baptist tradition has always emphasized personal faith.  We each must make choices for ourselves about following Christ, and we celebrate whenever someone chooses to commit their life to Christ.  We want people to lead lives of faithfulness and integrity.  And there is some truth to the idea that when individual lives are changed, then the world will be changed.

But there is no way you can read the scriptures and not be struck by how much God is concerned about justice.  There is no way you can read the Bible and come away with the idea that faith only pertains to the personal and individual sphere.  And while there is this strand of separatist religion in the Bible, it is more about the survival of the community in the midst of a hostile culture than it is about ignoring social need.

What about Jesus?  When he gives his inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  And Jesus tells his listeners that these words had come to pass right in front of their eyes.  He was taking this as his personal mission statement.

To me, the dichotomy between personal faith and social concern is a false one.  We have to have both.  It really can’t be either/or, because if our faith is in Jesus, then following Jesus will lead us to a concern for the world around us.  We will be concerned about personal salvation and personal behavior and responsibility.  And we will also be concerned for the social dimensions of faith.  Scripture teaches us that God passionately cares about poverty, the environment, peace, healthcare, immigration, our justice system, fair wages, hunger.  It’s both/and.
Ken Chafin was my preaching professor in seminary.  A great guy, he was from Texas – I mean, he was from Texas and he was still a great guy.  He had worked for the Billy Graham organization at one time and had taught evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, so he had the conservative, evangelistic bona fides.  But Ken was a thinker and a community-builder and because he was too open, too inclusive, too ecumenical, he was on the outs with the fundamentalist group that had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention.  And he wound up being a guy who went on Phil Donahue and network news program to debate or give an alternative viewpoint to people like Jerry Falwell.

Anyway, Ken was one of the most encouraging professors I ever had and made me feel like I was a better preacher than I actually was.  (I know, I know: you’re probably thinking that I never got over that…)

Ken had an interesting take on evangelism.  He told us about a church in Houston, a Methodist church that was growing by leaps and bounds.  He asked the church’s pastor about that.  Ken said, “You don’t seem ‘evangelistic’ – you don’t preach evangelistic sermons or have altar calls or use the latest church growth programs.  But you seem to be the fastest growing church in town.  What are you doing?”

And the pastor told him, “When you speak to the pain people are feeling and when you address the hurts and problems people see around then, it is the most evangelistic thing you can do.  When people see that you care about them and care about the world around them, they are drawn in.”  His point was that a concern for the needs of people, a concern for social justice, could actually be very evangelistic.  People want to be part of a church that is making a difference, caring about its community, caring about the world.

Christian faith is deeply personal, but it is not only personal.  Faith is also deeply communal – our faith is a shared faith - and authentic faith reaches out in love to all of the world, addressing wrongs, working for justice, building bonds of peace.  A deep personal faith will lead us to involvement in God’s world, while social concern expressed in the wider society can make people more open to the gospel, to the message of personal salvation.  The two go hand in hand.

This idea that the Church should only worry about personal salvation and not worry about social justice is wrong for two reasons.  First, it is wrong about what salvation means.  A lot of people think that kind of talk means a ticket to heaven and escape from eternal punishment.  But that’s an incomplete, a weak and simplistic understanding of salvation.  When the Bible speaks of salvation, it speaks of wholeness and healing and reconciliation, of being in right relationship, of shalom – of peace – with God and with others.  We are not just saved from something, we are saved for something – to be a part of God’s work in this world.  Salvation includes the life to come, but it is most definitely here and now.

So if we want to focus on salvation, well, salvation has social implications.  Salvation assumes concern for mercy and justice in God’s world.

And then, I challenge anybody to find the phrase “personal salvation” in the scriptures.  You won’t find anything about Jesus being a “personal savior” either.  Yes, faith is personal, and yes, we have to choose faith freely, for ourselves.  But we are part of a community.  We are connected to one another.  And we have been called together to serve God in this world.  Our concern is not only for those within these four walls, it is for the world out there.

The prophet Amos spoke to a people who were caught up in religious ritual but apparently unconcerned about matters of justice, blind to social need.  God says through Amos, “I hate your religious festivals, I will not accept your offerings, I cannot stand your songs and your music.  You are just going through the motions.  You’re just playing church.  But let justice roll like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Personal faith, if it is real faith, if it is faith in Christ, can’t help but lead us to concern for our world.  Amen.        

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