Monday, September 10, 2012

St. James On Why We Are Here

This weekend, we will welcome several new people
         into our community of faith.
They will become part of us and share our identity.
So today is a good time to consider who we are.
Just what is our shared identity?

The bottom line is we believe in Jesus.
We trust in Jesus.
We follow Jesus.
We are people who want to be like Jesus.

That’s basic.
But sometimes we get it wrong.
We think believing in Jesus is just having an opinion.
We say, “Jesus is Lord,” and think that’s the end of it.
James wrote his letter to a church
      that thought the same thing.
They wanted to just believe in Jesus
          without letting it change anything.

But James said, “That isn’t possible.”
“Do you,” he asked, “with your acts of favoritism
        really believe in . . . Jesus. . .?”
The church folks had their doctrine straight,
         but they didn’t care much about the poor.
Well, James thought they ought to care about the poor.
But it’s more than that.
James says you can’t believe in Jesus
       without being seriously committed to the poor.
It isn’t just a nice thing to do.
It is constitutive of our very identity.
It’s what it means to be a Christian.

That’s because of who Jesus is.
First of all, Jesus was poor.

The Biblical evidence is abundant
       – the poor person’s temple offering
         when he was a baby,
         the holy family’s flight to Egypt with no belongings,
         Jesus saying he had no home,
         his burial in another man’s tomb.
If that evidence were not enough,
         St. Paul writes, “He became poor.”
If you are amused by people doing mental gymnastics
         to avoid the obvious,
         it’s fun to read fundamentalists like Oral Roberts
         trying to prove that Jesus was rich.
The Scriptures about his poverty, unlike all other Scriptures,
are not to be taken literally.

Jesus identified with the poor.
He said how we treat the poor is how we treat him.
Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you fed me,
         I was thirsty and you gave me drink.
         I was an alien and your sheltered me. . . .

         Whenever you did such things for the least
                  of these, you did it for me.”

The Christian moral lodestar is what would Jesus do?
What did he do when people were hungry?
He fed them.
Today, Sept. 9, 2012, 16,000 children will die of malnutrition.
16,000 more children will die tomorrow,
        and 16,000 more the day after that.
What would Jesus do?
When people were sick, he healed them.
When people were paralyzed by guilt, he forgave them.
When they were shut out from the group,
he befriended them and invited them in.
When they lacked knowledge, he taught them.

If we believe in Jesus, we follow him.
We do what he did.
This isn’t just for the Outreach Committee.
It’s what Christians do.

To sign on as a member of the Episcopal Church
         is to enlist in God’s mission
                  as our Church understands it.
There’s a simple checklist for what we do.
It’s the 5 Marks of Mission
adopted for the worldwide Anglican Communion
in 1984 and reaffirmed in 1990.
The Episcopal Church adopted them officially in 2009.
It’s simple:

1.   Evangelism: proclaim the good news of the Kingdom.
2.   Formation: teach, baptize, and nurture new believers.
3.   Benevolence: respond to human need with loving service.
4.   Advocacy; transform unjust structures in society
5.   Environmental stewardship: sustain and renew the life
of the earth.
I warn you there’s a 6th Mark in the pipeline:
         Reconciliation: making peace in a war torn world.

 That is what we exist to do.
I recently heard a parish leader say our purpose
         Is to offer familiar rituals to provide a “comfort zone.”
I heard another parish leader say she comes to church
         because the beautiful setting makes her
                  “feel so spiritual.”

 I understand the need to reduce our stress.
But the Church is not here to provide an escape
         from the world.
The Church is here to be Christ in the world.
In Communion, we take Christ’s life into us
         so that we can live his life in the world.

 But many of us feel cut off from our mission.
Modern culture has redefined religion.
We have constricted faith to narrower and narrower
         fields of concern until Christianity
                  has become irrelevant to real life.
Matters of money and power are not our concern.
Matters of peace and justice are not our concern.
Real issues are the exclusive province of secular authority.
Faith is limited to people’s private feelings
         and now that jurisdiction
has been entrusted to psychiatry.

The remaining pallid ghost of Christianity is irrelevant
to anything people care about – like jobs and education.
No wonder so many young people have lost interest.
We aren’t interesting because we are not in the game.

Christians feel eviscerated by the separation of Church & State.
That separation is a theological principle taught
by a Baptist preacher Roger Williams
of colonial Rhode Island.

But let me tell you something:
Roger Williams never intended to exclude the voice
         of faith from issues of justice and mercy in society.
He was engaged in those issues  
up to his eyeballs his whole life.

In 1908 his Baptist follower, Walter Rauschenbusch,
         began a Social Gospel movement in Hell’s Kitchen
         that spread all over this country applying Christian ethics
                  to schools, child labor, racism, alcoholism,
                  and a host of social ills.

In 1955 a young black Baptist preacher
in Montgomery, Alabama got the idea
that Jesus cared whether the city buses were segregated.
That would be Jesus the Jew who healed the Gentile child
In today’s lesson and desegregated Jacob’s well
In the story of the Samaritan woman.

 Across the waters,
Victorian England was divided by an argument  
         between two rival moral visions.
One was the heartless Social Darwinism
of English agnostic philosopher Herbert Spencer.
It was the philosophical defense of industrial tycoons’
         exploitation of the poor in sweat shops.

The opposing vision came from a Christian,
an Anglican novelist, Charles Dickens,
supported by our greatest theologian,
                  Frederick Dennison Maurice.

The voices of Dickens and Maurice echo
         in the Five Marks of Mission.
The voices of Moses, Amos, Isaiah, and Joel
         echo in the Five Marks of Mission.

 The voices of Roger Williams, Walter Rauschenbusch,
         and Dr. King echo in the Five Marks of Mission.
But most importantly, the life of Jesus echoes today
         In the Five Marks of Mission.

That’s who we are.
That’s why we’re here.