Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Jesus -- it's nothing personal" - A sermon by the Rev. John Good.

A sermon preached by the Rev. John Good at St. Vincent's in the Vineyard, Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, on Sunday, July 21, 2013. This is the last sermon John preached before he died on Sunday, August 18, 2013. We love and miss you, John. You were part of the transformation.

At age 75, I officially qualify as a curmudgeon. A curmudgeon is a grumpy, old critic of what the world is coming to. I want to warn you ahead of time that much of this sermon will be a grumpy critique of what American Christianity has come to. 

Before I can do that, however, I need to establish the foundation of my criticism in the lesson from the Hebrew Scripture that was our first reading for today. The prophet Amos was also a curmud¬geon who grumpily found fault with what the kingdom of Israel was coming to. Speaking the words God gave to him, Amos said, “Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing, …Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work. You exploit the poor, using them—and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.” Notice that God’s focus is on justice. For God, justice is the extension of love into community and national life. He condemns the economic, political and social elite of Israel for their lack of love—for oppressing and exploiting the weak and the poor. In the rest of Amos’ prophecy, God promises the rich and powerful that they are headed for doom.

Jesus also courageously denounced the lack of love revealed in the religious and political elite’s unjust treatment of the under classes. He boldly attacked the elite of Jerusalem, the Pharisees and their theolo¬gians, when he went there to confront them before being crucified. In Eugene Peterson’s modern translation of the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, Jesus told the crowd in Jerusalem, “[The religion scholars and Pharisees] package [God’s Law] in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals…. [They] keep meticulous account books, tithing [you] on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commit¬ment—the absolute basics!—[they] carelessly take it or leave it.”

In twenty-first century America we rarely hear religious leaders criticize our political and economic elites for their lack of love revealed in their acceptance of social injustice. With the excep¬tion of Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners who actively challenge our institutions to deliver justice, plus a few others, most religious leaders believe that Christianity should steer clear of political, economic, and social concerns. They think that the Christian faith is a private and personal matter between an individual and God. They are primarily concerned with how we answer the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” The notion that we should have a personal relationship with Jesus grows out of the individualistic, narcissistic, consumer mentality spawned by the culture in which we live. It is the way our national ethos chooses to interpret scripture, even though it is not emphasized in the Bible. For the most part the witness of those who wrote the Bible is concerned with how love is translated into justice in the community instead of a personal relationship with God.

Those who promote a private, individualized Christianity also ask a related question: “Do you accept Jesus as your personal Savior?” They never specify what Jesus saves us from, but you can bet dollars to donuts they believe he saves us from going to hell after we die. Again the Bible places little emphasis on heaven and hell, but it became the standard paradigm for understanding salvation during the first Great Awakening in the middle of the eighteenth century in America. And it fits right into our national spirit of individualism.

By way of contrast, as the distinguished biblical scholar, Marcus Borg, explains, “Salvation now refers to life after death; it is about going to heaven. But in the Bible, it is seldom about an afterlife; rather, it is about transformation this side of death.” 1 Borg believes that the “heaven-hell” emphasis has twisted our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. In his book, Speaking Christian, he writes, “The heaven-and-hell framework is like a black hole that sucks the meaning of Christian language into it changing and distorting it.” 2 That is why I have become a curmud¬geon when I look at the state of Christianity in today’s America.

You see, the privatized, individualized Christianity of America has turned our faith upside down. When we say that Jesus is our personal Savior we have made Jesus our servant. His main purpose is to save us from hell. But when God calls us to become transformed so that we can participate in God’s mission to establish his kingdom in our world, we are called to be God’s servant. That restores the proper relationship we have with God.

By way of contrast, Borg points to the main emphasis in the Bible when he says “it is about transformation this side of death.” Admittedly, that involves the transformation of each of us as individuals. But our personal transformation is intended to prepare us to participate in God’s mission to transform the whole world—but especially the communities where we live—into the kingdom of God. When Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee, he called for anyone who would be his disciple to repent—which is another way of saying “be transformed”—“for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And throughout his ministry, he never wavered from his focus on the kingdom. For Jesus, transformation goes beyond individual transformation; its ultimate goal is the transformation of the systems in which we live into systems based on love. As the scripture I quoted earlier makes clear, Amos and Jesus were attacking the domination systems of their eras in which small elites oppressed the under classes in order to exploit them for their own benefit. Ever since God attacked the domination system of Pharaoh, God has sent prophets like Amos and Jesus to cry out against oppression and injustice and point to a world in which love for neighbors is embodied in the political, economic, and social systems of the world—this world.

The God of the Hebrew-Christian Bible has revealed in its pages that God’s major concern is to transform our oppressive, exploitive, and heartless systems of society into liberating, cooperative, and compassionate systems that translate God’s love into justice and peace for all humankind. And God has given us the privilege to participate in that transformation as his servants.

1 Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored, (Harper Collins, New York: 2011) p. 15

2 Ibid. p. 17

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