…Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:16b-17
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Luke 12:32
Five months ago, back in the rainy days of March, a radio and television personality named Glenn Beck received a fair amount of attention when he gave his listeners the following advice:
‘I beg you: look for the words, “Social Justice” or “Economic Justice” on your church’s website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice are code words. If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop and tell him…’
Mr. Beck even went so far as to link the term “social justice” with the Nazi Party and to the Communist Party. He actually held up a swastika in one hand, and a hammer and sickle in the other, as he told his audience that what both of these movements had in common was this sinister goal of social justice. So if you hear that kind of talk in your church, run away!
Of course, Mr. Beck’s amazing statements were met with hoots of derision from all corners of Christendom – from Catholic bishops to the heads of just about every mainline Protestant denomination to some leaders of his own Mormon Church, who made it clear that the concept of social justice is one of the pillars of the faith and, I dare say, desperately hoped Mr. Beck might follow his own advice.
Well, all that was five months ago, as I said; and I had almost forgotten all about it when the news this week brought word of another person talking about leaving the church. This time it was the famous author of all those vampire novels, Anne Rice – who had a conversion to the Catholic Church ten years ago, and now renounces the church.
While she would continue to be devoted to Jesus Christ, Ms. Rice said, she was renouncing the title “Christian.” But unlike Mr. Beck, it wasn’t because Christianity talks too much about “social justice” – it’s because Christians don’t talk enough about it, nor do they practice it.
She said, "In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life."
It kind of broke my heart that it apparently never occurred to her that there are actually many hundreds of churches and millions of Christians – Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Congregationalists, to name just a few – who also refuse to be all those things and nonetheless somehow manage to happily remain in church.
But the more striking thing about this was how her statement served as a kind of ideological book-end to Mr. Beck’s statement, each one outrageous for different reasons but both of them representing extreme right-wing and left-wing arguments for leaving church.
We even have one of our own - the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor – who wrote a book entitled Leaving Church. In it she describes the impossible ironies and frustrations of life in a typical parish, and finally paints her decision to leave the church as a call to a more authentic life.
You know… In the good old days, people left church because they lost their faith, or finally found the courage to admit they never had much faith in the first place. But now, a guy can spend the morning in bed watching football and convince himself that he is doing it for the loftiest of reasons, even for the sake of loyalty to Christ himself!
So now leaving church has now become politically correct – for both liberals and conservatives.
How very convenient.
It takes courage to go to church these days; we who do are becoming counter-cultural oddities; museum-piece curiosities. We feel the pressure: how many of us think twice before we talk about church with our friends or co-workers? And this is having an effect on our own parish’s attendance figures. It’s not that any of us are leaving the church – some of us are just coming less often. It’s like this virus of church-leaving is spreading. And the less often we come to church, the more disconnected we feel from the community, and the more disconnected we feel, the more we wonder if this is the best use of our time.
I think some of us might feel kind of like the guy at the baseball game who got up to get a hot dog and when he got back he sees that the score has changed and he missed something important. If he’s lucky, he’s got a friend who can explain what happened while he was gone – but it’s nothing like being there yourself.
I’ve heard people say they’re just not sure what our church stands for anymore; what’s the mission, what’s the point? Why are we doing all this?
Which gets us back to this reading from Isaiah:
…cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:16b-17
Back in the olden days – and now I’m talking about that short period of time between, oh, say about 3,000 B.C. to around 1980 – if you asked people what the purpose of the church or the temple was, you would get some variation on the following answer:
1. To worship God. The primary purpose has always been to worship God;
2. To bring spiritual comfort and nurture to the members of the church;
3. To teach and preach the Bible;
4. To engage in charitable acts of mercy, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless;
5. To engage the world in the public sphere of social justice: to abolish slavery and segregation; to engage in prison reform and the treatment of the mentally ill; to be a public voice of conscience in our society – consistent with the prophets and with Jesus – protecting the vulnerable and the poor.
But what’s happened since about 1980 is that somehow, in the blink of an eye, it has become self-evident to many people that the entire public mission of the church – that whole #5 category - the mission that forced the Magna Carta on King John; the mission that invented hospitals; the mission that abolished slavery and gave African Americans the right to vote and stood up against the Ku Klux Klan; the very same mission that made it possible for me to marry the woman I love – this same public mission of the church is simply dismissed now with a wave of the hand as “political” and therefore inappropriate.
Somehow it has become self-evident to people that churches have no business engaging the world in the cause of social justice. It’s almost like the guy who got up in the middle of the game and by the time he got back he had forgotten which team he was cheering for!
But fortunately we have Holy Scripture, like these words from the prophet Isaiah, reminding us of the proper mission of the church once again.
…cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
We have our Lord Jesus, who asks us to do the impossible:
"Do not be afraid, little flock;… sell your possessions, and give alms.”
This is not an easy assignment. If these words from Scripture make us feel uncomfortable, that’s good, that’s what Scripture is supposed to do. If the words of the prophet make us clench our fists and want to shut him up, then we’re getting to the heart of what Scripture is there for.
Scripture should be making us uncomfortable. It should be making us angry. It should get us to think seriously about our lifestyles and our self-indulgent habits.
Because the Bible is not only about comfort. In fact, there is very little comfort in the Bible for those of us who are comfortable in the world. Jesus did not come into the world in order to make us feel good in our prosperity. Just about everything he says about people like us are words of challenge to our lifestyles and our priorities.
So the question is, and always has been, can we endure the discomfort that Jesus and the prophets bring into our lives? Can we grow from that discomfort, without leaving church? Can we, as a congregation, honor the words of Jesus and the prophets and find our public purpose in the world without everyone getting frustrated and doing the easy thing which is to leave the church? Do we have enough love to stay together, even when we disagree with one another?
Sometimes it feels like Christianity has gotten so fragile that it can’t tolerate its own message. It reminds me of the newborn puppy I heard about, who barked for the first time and scared herself half to death. Our sensibilities are so delicate that we can’t even admit that we have anything to repent of. We can only stand to have a God of comfort; the God that is uncomfortable – the God of justice – is just too much to bear.
But Jesus never said it was going to be easy.
And here’s the good news: this discomfort is only temporary; as we work past our discomfort we find that we grow closer together as brothers and sisters in Christ; we find new energy, newfound joy in fresh discoveries of the Gospel. We discover that there is something that unites us that is far deeper and more permanent than any political slogans or social agendas.
The experience of staying in church is the experience of discovering that there are people in our community with whom we couldn’t disagree more, and yet these are the very same people whom we love most deeply.
That’s gospel love.
In Christ there is no East nor West; no slave nor free, no Democrat nor Republican. What unites us is Christ himself, his love pouring out to us as freely as an ever-flowing stream.
I pray that, as we endure this uncomfortable Gospel together, we never forget this one simple fact: that God’s love transcends all boundaries; God’s love draws us closer together; and that any impulse to leave church, whether inspired by Anne Rice or Glenn Beck or Barbara Brown Taylor, is an impulse that draws us away from the heart of this wonderfully uncomfortable love, made real in the person of Jesus Christ.
Somebody say… Amen.