02.08.2015 Preaching Text: “If I proclaim the gospel, this give me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:16)
In Isaiah this morning we are reminded of the “elephant in the room.” God, that is, whose active, though often hidden, presence not only brought all things into being but sustains it as well. Only in this awareness (the reality of God) does life make sense.
This would seem, as we gather here today, fairly obvious. But is it? Don’t we forget God often, if not most of the time? And when we do remember, do we have any sense of what this same God would have us be and do?
In our other readings from 1 Corinthians and Mark, this awareness compels believers to share that presence with others. The vast majority of the New Testament is in fact all about sharing the Good News, as witnessed, for example, by Jesus’ and Paul’s travels from town to town.
But today we’re far less apt to see such efforts as important. You might even say we’re loathe to do it! The obvious question is why?
Well, for one thing, Christianity is a victim of its own success. The many benefits it has bequeathed to Western Civilization over the centuries have been absorbed into the culture, which suffers from a kind of amnesia. Which is to say that it no longer knows where its values and norms originally came from, but assumes these values and norms to exist everywhere, as universal in nature. The secular world may even take credit for these things!
A recent article in the religion section of the Cape Cod Times, entitled Children in America’s Secular Families Turn Out Just Fine, argues just that. Secular families, we are told, offer the same if not better moral values and norms as do religious families.
The problem with this analysis, as I say, is the lack of awareness as to where these “ethical standards and moral values” come from. Curiously, with no even small amount of irony, the author cites the “Golden Rule” as the norm for secular living, especially the sense of “empathy” such living engenders!
To repeat, Judeo-Christian values have become so ingrained in Western thought that we absentmindedly assume they’re ours, simply by virtue of being human (values such as education, the rule of law, charity, decency, the idea of the universal rights of human beings as well as reason).
Yet large swaths of our world, past and present, betray the falsity of this altogether blithe and misguided assumption. For this way of seeing things wrongly assumes that “ethical standards and moral values” will automatically continue, despite considerable evidence that such standards are under assault.
This does present a problem, however. If it’s true that, as one mother in the article says, people don’t believe there’s any need for God in order to rear a child as moral and “empathetic,” then what has the church to offer someone like her?
This gets to the root of much of the church’s current difficulties. For we have bought into her way of thinking – that you don’t need the church to be a good person, I mean. And if not, that would explain why we don’t believe – deep down – we have much to offer our world.
But it gets worse. It’s not just that we feel irrelevant, but we may even feel the lack of confidence, even guilt and shame for which we must atone. This was perfected expressed the other day when President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Two days earlier, ISIS, the “Islamic State in Syria,” released a horrifying video of a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage. The very next day, the United Nations issued a report detailing “mass executions of boys, as well as reports of beheadings, crucifixions of children, and burying children alive” by this same Islamic state.
It was the next day, Thursday, speaking to a mostly Christian audience that the president said, “[Lest] we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country,” he continued, “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
With all due respect, his comments were unfortunate. For one thing, aside from the fact that it happened 1,000 year ago, the Crusades was a defensive and largely unsuccessful war that sought to recover land that previously had been taken unjustly by a Muslim jihad. Muslims not only had captured the Holy Land from Jews and Christians, but were threatening other parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. That awful things happened is both undeniable and indeed lamentable.
As for the Inquisition, few realize that this was mostly an attempt by the ancient church to curb the excesses of medieval society. Heresy was considered a crime against the state. Local nobles, often greedy and illiterate, and eager to placate the mob, would execute people under the slightest pretext.
The Inquisition, instituted by Pope Lucius III in 1184, initially sought to adjudicate these “crimes” in ways that were more humane and, dare I say it, Christian. This, again, is not to excuse any abuses but to place them in their proper context, something rarely attempted today.
What is mostly absent whenever the Crusades, the Inquisition, and slavery are used as indictments of Christianity is any reference to the way Christianity also ultimately brought about the dissolution of these very things.
Slavery, for example, was outlawed in the U.S. in 1865, largely due to the tenets of the Christian gospel. For the same reason Jim Crow ended officially a half-century ago.
Indentured servitude, however, continues unabated, almost exclusively among some Islamic groups in the Middle East and Africa. The caste system – as well as ethnic and religious tribalism – which institutionalizes discrimination and second-class status persists today in places in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Christian countries, in contrast, were the first to legally end the age-old human sin of the slave trade, and the first to outlaw slavery’s continuance.
To this point, despite its worst, most damning sins, Christianity has proven to be an indisputable, beneficial force throughout history that has brought about unquestioned improvement of the human condition.
Two questions thus come to mind: one, should your life be defined by your very worst moments? And two: do you think the world would be a better place had Christianity never existed?
I’ll even add a third: given that neither you as an individual nor the church as an institution is perfect, does that mean we or it are rendered ineligible to fight for the good? Are we morally disqualified to get “on our high horse” in the face of children being buried alive or gays being thrown off roofs or women being beheaded after having been raped?
I do realize that the president was urging against self-righteous triumphalism (or at least I think he was) but the broader point, and the point I wish to make, is that, due to this kind of thinking, we have a crisis of confidence in the church today. Or, as I said earlier, even a sense of shame or guilt for which we must atone.
We are so used to hearing about our sins that we’ve internalized the secular critique. (Of course, as we know, ironically, one of the primary conditions for admission into the church is that we admit we’re sinners!)
The overall effect of this kind of commonplace shaming is that we have forgotten we have something lovely and beautiful to share with the world, just as in the days of Jesus and Paul.
Meanwhile, the elephant in the room, God, is diminished in the eyes of not only those of us called upon to share the Good News but those with whom we would hope to share it. Amen.