11.26.2017 Preaching Text: “[For] I was hungry…I was thirsty…I was a stranger…I was naked…I was in prison…” (Matthew 25:35-36)
Today’s reading from Matthew is one of the most commonly used in the U.C.C. The reason is that we’ve always sought to champion the well-being of the poor and the oppressed. The U.C.C.’s stated self-identity, after all, trends toward social justice.
This passage, notwithstanding, is an important and essential reminder of our responsibilities as Christians, and as those in a position to help. So even as we thank God for our personal blessings, we are duly reminded that there are others whose struggles are both real and ongoing.
Yet there are other evils going on in our culture of which we rarely speak, things having to do with the overall moral decay within our culture. As a case in point, we’ve recently been inundated with news stories about widespread sexual impropriety and, worse still, sexual assault.
These stories seem to be coming at us by the hour if not the minute, as more and more names are added to the list of rogues and miscreants. I don’t know about you, but I need a shower after reading the news.
Linda and I were having breakfast on Thanksgiving Day at a local restaurant. At the table next to us were two retired pastors. They were talking about this whole sordid mess. One suggested that we’re now discovering that the elites in entertainment, media, and politics constitute a veritable “cesspool” of lawlessness and immorality. I couldn’t agree more, though, to be honest, I’m not sure it’s really anything new in the powerful ruling-classes of every age.
But what about the rest of society? Back in August of this year, several months before most of these stories came to light, two law professors, Amy Wax from the University of Pennsylvania and Larry Alexander from the University of San Diego, wrote an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled, “Paying the Price for the Breakdown of the Country’s Bourgeois Culture.” To say it was not well received is an understatement.
The opening paragraph gets right to the point: “Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.”
“The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex,” the authors concede, “but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”
This bourgeois culture, they argue, predominant from the late-40s to the mid-60s, “laid out a script we all were supposed to follow.” (I would argue that this script goes back as far as our nation’s founding, based as it was on Judeo-Christian precepts, and as practiced by a dominant Mainline Protestantism.)
The authors offer a short summary of what constitutes this bourgeois “script”: “Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”
Though the authors are quick to add that society during this period was hardly perfect, the almost “universal adherence” to these values “by people of all backgrounds and abilities” was “a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.”
They even go so far as to suggest that those who deviated from these norms “rarely disavowed or openly disparaged the prevailing expectations.”
This “cultural script,” however, began to change in the late 60’s, and was replaced by a countercultural movement, one particularly attractive to the “chattering classes – academics, writers, artists, actors, and journalists – who relished liberation from conventional constraints and turned condemning America and reviewing its crimes into a class marker of virtue and sophistication.”
An earlier age would have considered this change “antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish fulfillment.” Fueled by “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll,” it constitutes a mindset “unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society.”
Curiously, as Charles Murray pointed out in his landmark 2012 book, Coming Apart, an exhaustive study of cultural change during the period from 1960 to 2010, we have an upper-middle class that still largely observes this “bourgeois script” while at the same time maintaining an oddly dispassionate “nonjudgentalism” toward those struggling with the predictable, bitter fruit of this increasingly chaotic way of life. (Recall Murray’s wry observation that the upper-middle class today refuses to “preach what they practice.”) This “bourgeois” group, I would venture to add, includes those of us in Mainline Protestant churches as well!
To say this message of warning has not been well-received by the church is an understatement. As a case in point, I’m reminded of an annual meeting I once attended while serving a church in the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference.
The keynote speaker, whose name I no longer recall, was a scholar-in-residence at the University of Chicago and had published a detailed study of cultural trends within the United States over the last few decades. Much of what he said mirrors both Murray’s and the two law professors’ observations.
Notably, he honed in on the problem of out-of-wedlock births, which at that time had reached roughly 40% of the population. He commented on how this emerging trend most adversely affects women and children.
The response from my colleagues was somewhat less than felicitous. They objected to the subject matter without providing, as far as I recall, any real basis for their opposition. Maybe they just didn’t like what the facts suggest.
It’s easier, or so it seems, to “preach” about helping the poor and disadvantaged without having to look deeper into the varied causes of their suffering. Perhaps it has something to do with our selective views in judging others. Nonjudgmentalism, it appears, is in the eye of the beholder.
Then again, the Christian life, as I’ve often said, actually requires that we judge. The problem is that we too often judge arbitrarily, selfishly, and according to our own personal standards, rather than God’s.
So what if God never judged? What if God were to turn a blind eye to sin? What if God didn’t care that this same sin causes his children real and lasting pain? Like a bad parent, God would then seem more neglectful than loving. A good parent, after all, seeks to spare the child unneeded, self-inflicted suffering. This is what we try to do as parents, right?
In a sense, then, our job as Christians is to accurately discern God’s righteous judgments and, in so doing, not only live by them, but “preach” them as well, not stupidly, meanly, arrogantly, or self-righteously, but with selfless love, intelligence, and tact. For God’s judgments are never intended to harm or oppress or condemn, but to open the pathway to a godly life, one free of sin and its very real, life-negating effects.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says he will judge how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.
But as, daily, our culture grows ever coarser and morally corrupt, and as more and more people suffer its debilitating effects, as numerous studies reveal and – let’s be honest here – as we all well know, is it not possible that Jesus will judge us for our response to these things as well?
In the end, believe it or not, it may be fair to say that Christ will judge us on how faithfully we ourselves judged, not, of course, in terms of what benefits us, but for the wholesale good of others. Amen.