Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Church Will Not Change the World Unless...

Last Thursday, I had a powerful, genuine, moving spiritual experience, something I haven’t had for a long time.  A small group of passionate people gathered together and sang and spoke over the injustices happening around us, and we mourned and raged at the lack of real, compassionate response.  We celebrated a safe space for people of all ethnicities, political beliefs, genders, and sexual-orientations.  Hope was offered that the tragedies of this life don’t have to continue.  We mourned that Freddie Gray would’ve turned 13 that day had he not been killed.  We talked about mental health issues and celebrated that people can find hope outside of their depression or bi-polar or schizophrenia.  And at the end of the night, I and others like me left feeling like we could change the world.  I felt on fire!

Do you know what is sad though?  This experience didn’t happen at a church.  This wasn’t a Christian event.  In fact, a good majority of the people present were probably atheist. It was a punk rock show.  And I left feeling like maybe punk rock could change the world because it was willing to stand up for something real, for something right and to call its congregation to action; for some reason it embodied Jesus’ ethics without even believing in Jesus.

The problem is, I’m not so sure that the church in America is going to change the world because it does not have the courage to live like Christ over and against the way that popular Christianity is choosing to live.

In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus tells a parable of two builders, one who wisely chooses to build his house on a foundation that can withstand a strong storm, and the other who chooses to build his house on a weak foundation which will be destroyed by the wind and waves.
He uses this parable as the capstone of the entire Sermon on the Mount to say that it is the wise person who hears these words and founds his or her life on them by following them.  Anything else will lead to destruction. 

The question we are left with is, do we follow or not?  It’s really a simple question, but our response carries immense repercussions. 

I want to suggest that the church in America has by and large chosen to build its foundation on the sand because we have decided not to take seriously Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount.  We hold in our hands and hearts the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which offers redemption and salvation to all peoples regardless of their skin color, their gender, ethnicity or sexual-orientation, social class, or country they were born into.  But we have allowed that Gospel to sit impotently by while the hate-agendas of our society have taken root in our hearts.

2014-2015 has been a banner year for strained race relations.  After Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Beavercreek, and now South Carolina, 68% of the United States believe that race relations aren’t good.  The problem is that many in the church, especially the most vocal, are spending an inordinate amount of energy arguing that Black people are bringing police violence upon themselves rather than recognizing the broken system that has led to broken relationships that has led to this epidemic in unwarranted violence.  Additionally, we are not taking seriously how black people feel about the way authorities are treating them.  A NY Times poll that found that black people are more than twice as likely to say police in most communities are more apt to use deadly force against a black person — 79 percent of blacks say so compared with 37 percent of whites.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been pulled over for my race, frisked for my race, had a gun pointed at me for my race, or had to worry about what might happen to my children because of their race.  How can we hope to mend race relations if we act so unsympathetically towards an experience that we, for the most part, will never have? 

Do you want to know why the church isn’t going to change the world because of racism?
Because we would rather spend time convincing ourselves that racism is a dead thing and that black victimization is a hoax instead of recognizing that our entire nation has been founded on the principle of white privilege and that principle continues to shape and form us today. 

Remember that our European forefathers came to America believing in Manifest Destiny, the right to steal land from the Native peoples.  And then, some believed because of their racial superiority that they could enslave an entire race of people; those who didn’t hold slaves certainly didn’t believe in the rights of the African.  Abraham Lincoln himself said that he didn’t emancipate slaves for the sake of the black person but so that he could hold the union together and if he could’ve done so without freeing slaves then he would’ve. And when slaves were finally freed, Jim Crow laws were enforced which kept them under the thumb of the rich and powerful and white.  Then their leaders, like MLK Jr, were killed for calling for civil rights.  And then when black neighborhoods formed around city industries, white people and their factories moved away, leaving a ghetto wasteland with no job opportunities.  And then a black president is elected who, whether or not he is a good or bad president, is constantly compared to Hitler and has been called the Anti-Christ as well as unspeakable racist names on online forums. 

And so a culture has been formed in which there are violent ghettos and in which black people perpetrate acts of violence against white people, which is used as a proof text to say that black thugs deserve to be killed by the police.  And a culture has been formed in which a white youth believes it’s his duty to carry a weapon into a church and kill nine people in cold blood. 

As a church, we should be mourning with that church for the loss of life as well as with the African-American community, who takes every event like this as another sting to themselves and their pride.  We need to be asking ourselves how we have contributed to this and how we can make sure this never happens again.  We need to recognize this as another canary in the coal mine screaming that something is very, very wrong.    

Paul tells us in Galatians 3:28 that, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Paul was an enormous advocate for racial equality in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus, even though his primary mission was to speak to and convert Jewish peoples, spoke with, healed, and forgave non-Jewish persons.  We cannot serve both God and race. 

Church, we aren’t going to change the world until we repent of the ways in which Christians of our privileged race has used religion in the past and present to oppress others.  And we aren’t going to change the world until we stand alongside of our black brothers and sisters against the devil who uses race as a division amongst the children of God. 

The reality behind racism, homophobia, our love affair with violence, and any other thing that stands in the way of the Gospel is that ultimately, we are a people unfaithful to who Jesus has called us to be. 

That’s what this Scripture passage is about today.  Jesus uses the parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders as a capstone warning to his listeners at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.  He says I have given you the way of life; everything you have heard is meant to be practiced.  And you can choose, then, like a wise builder, to found your life on these words, which when the earth shakes and heaven is rent, will not fade away.

 Or, we can choose to live like to foolish builder; we can believe in wealth, privilege, racism, homophobia, and violence, which will crumble like a house built on sand in a hurricane.  And when you do so, you are choosing an eternity without God. 

One of the most terrifying passages in all of Scripture comes just before this parable, in which Jesus reveals that there will be people who call on the name of the Lord who will be turned away from heaven. 
Matthew 7:21-23
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

Now If I am reading this right, Jesus is saying that it is not just enough to verbally say that you believe in God or that you are a Christian, but that our lives must match our words.  In fact, what he is saying is that there could be people in the church this morning who, at eternity, may be denied entrance into heaven because of a refusal to shut down their passive, passionless, apathetic living in exchange for the dangerous, unsecure, adventure of following after Jesus. 

For the foolish builder, Jesus’ words go in one ear and out the other because we are so rooted in the thoughts and ethics of this world that we cannot imaginatively conceive of a life that actually embodies Christian witness.  We come to church, we read our Bibles, we are confronted with an alternative, difficult lifestyle called Christian discipleship, but rather than allow ourselves to be transformed, we allow apathy to cause us to drift off elsewhere.  James writes about this phenomenon in James 1:22-25

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
Let’s be honest, we’ve all been foolish builders at times, hearing about loving our neighbors, living simply, giving to the poor, walking humbly, but then allowing those words to fall flat in the sanctuary because we are selfish, prideful,  and greedy.  You know, one of the reasons why the punk rock show was so moving was because of the passion of the participants.  They were ready to start a revolution and hung on to every word of the singer as good news gospel!

I have to be honest, I’m tired of going to churches that lack passion, where the people begrudgingly stand to sing songs they don’t mean while thinking about something else, and close their eyes to pray while thinking about something else, and then falling asleep, or talking, or doodling, or reading, or thinking about lunch during the sermon, rather than receiving God’s Word of life!
Church, we will never be a conduit for God changing the world through us unless we repent of our racism, our homophobia, our love affair with violence, and our general unfaithfulness to the worlds of Jesus.  

Until then, we are foolish people, setting the gospel message on top of a foundation of sand.  The rains will come down, the wind will blow across, and the gospel will topple.  Now it will never be destroyed, because it is ultimately God who is at work behind it.  But our ability to share it will be destroyed.   And like the foolish builder or the person who cries “Lord, Lord,” God might reply “I never knew you!”

So what are you going to do?  You can start by no longer supporting those structures which oppress other persons, by promoting the Jesus of love rather than the law of hate, by spending time with the least-of-these, the African-American, the LGBTQ person, the immigrant, the homeless, prisoner, the mentally ill, and instead of imparting judgment, share love.  You can model what it means to be a Christ follower to those Christians who are still founding their faith on the unsteady ground of unfaithfulness.  You can stop excusing the ways in which white Christians have used their privileges to oppress other people and instead stand in defense with those whom God has also called to be His people.   You can pray, you can educate yourself, you can stop making jokes or laughing at jokes aimed at the belittlement of other people.  You can view the world through the eyes of Jesus, which while he does not condone their sin, chooses to love them anyway, rather than through the eyes of a Pharisee, which sees only condemnation and judgment.  You can be a wise builder, or you can be a foolish builder.  

This is your choice.  

The church will not change the world unless it repents and follows Jesus.

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