Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Christ transforms culture

Richard Niebuhr's book, Christ and Culture, made a huge impact on me in seminary. (Occasionally, I'll review other books that have had such an effect on me, in hopes of inspiring you to read them and to be changed by them.)

Christ and Culture, published in 1951, has exerted a powerful influence on many spiritual and even secular leaders over the years. And it goes on influencing people.

Richard Niebuhr, born in Missouri in 1894 and died in 1962, was the son of a Protestant pastor. He was the younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr, another famous theologian. Richard earned his PhD at Yale and later taught at its Divinity School. He published many books.

In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr looked at Christ's relationship to culture, culture being the sum total of human expression, including religion, art, literature, music, languages, political systems, and much more.

After surveying the ways that Christ and culture relate--Christ in and with culture, Christ over and against culture, for instance--Niebuhr concludes his analysis with a plea for Christ "transforming culture."

Niebuhr's assumption is that culture is not fully what God intends it to be. It must change. Culture, including American culture, does not fully embody and express God's relentless and passionate concern for the poor and marginalized, for a just world, for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace among his children.

The role of Christians, therefore, as expressed in our Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer, is to repent of sin, to resist evil, to strive for justice and peace, to respect the dignity of every human being. In Baptism, we pledge to carry on Christ's work, furthering God's kingdom of justice, freedom and peace.

Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven...." Heaven--where everything conforms to God's loving plan, and not to the world's unloving plan-- is not just out there, beyond space and time; but heaven is, potentially, right here in the physical world and in everything that constitutes this world, including human beings, our relationships, government, institutions. Everything.

The New Testament writings proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is Lord of all--not just a part of our lives, that one hour of  Sunday worship, the quick prayer in a moment of desperation, the "dues" we pay to the church, that carpenter-Gothic building at Kimbrough and Walnut Streets in Springfield, Mo., called Christ Episcopal Church.

No. Christ is Lord of all creation, ruling all things through active, loving concern. He rules most visibly (his hope is) through his disciples, everyone who acknowledges him as Savior and who follows him as Lord.  To follow Jesus Christ means to conform one's life to his teaching and actions of love, mercy and justice. .

And we need plenty of help from God to do so, especially today.

Alas, too many Christians  regard themselves as  merely consumers of religious services. How can it be otherwise? We live in a consumer culture. I understand  consumers of religion, because I used to be one. Perhaps I still am in some ways.

We consumers of religion might not articulate our relationship to Christ's church in just such a phrase, but, in the words of the Prayer Book, our many "things done and left undone" would demonstrate just such a relationship.

Consumers seek out the church primarily when we need something, such as a beautiful  Christmas or Easter service, a place for a wedding, a baptism, a funeral, a priest to say a prayer at the bedside, preaching that confirms existing beliefs and choices, or some other specific service.

Please understand:  It is good when people seek out the church, as I did a long time ago, even if it's just for a one-time service, because there is, at least, a chance that the church might become more than a spiritual mall.

Through the Spirit, church can become a community with Christ and others, where we consumers of religious services can begin to grow into the "full stature of Christ," as the writer of Hebrews puts it. This process  is life-long  and is completed  in the life to come.

At the same time, increasing numbers of us consumers are weary of conforming, in St. Paul's words, to the world. Some of us are conforming ourselves to Christ by the renewal of our minds, which is usually painful, a kind of death-and-resurrection experience.

When we make that transition from conforming to the culture to conforming to Christ, we discover that our true and eternal identity is not that of consumers of religious services, but that of members of Christ's body, the church, and servants of Christ. 

Engaged in daily conversion, as Trappist monk Thomas Merton put it, we're conforming to Christ--and being transformed by him--through our regular reading and study of the Bible; by taking an active part in Christian education weekly; by praying daily, worshiping weekly, giving generously and even sacrificially, joining other Christians in ministry.

In the words of New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, we're learning and living Jesus Christ today.

The Episcopal Church and Christ Episcopal Church rightly and proudly proclaim that we welcome all people. And we do (and we can do a much better job of it).

We welcome religious consumers, in hopes that they'll meet the living God at a wedding or funeral or baptism or in a prayer at the bedside and start that life-long journey of growing in Christ.

And become part of what Richard Niebuhr aptly described--and called Christians to embrace--Christ transforming culture.

Monday, July 22, 2013

When the preacher speaks, maybe it's God calling

Most people come to church for comfort, not discomfort.

I like to preach messages of comfort, not ones of discomfort, because I would rather people like me than dislike me for what I have to say. 

But sometimes God has other plans for me and my sermon on Sunday.

Yesterday, I preached on Amos 8.1-12. Amos was a Hebrew prophet who spoke to the powerful in the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos was unpopular because he spoke God's truth. Many prophets were stoned to death for telling the truth, which people didn't want to hear.

Since Amos's time, eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, prophets have fared little better. Jesus, God himself with us, was crucified for telling the truth.

In the text yesterday, Amos speaks for God, rebuking the powerful in Israel for abandoning him and committing injustice and oppressing the poor and the needy. 

Here is some of what Amos says: "Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land....(who) practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat....I will never forget any of their deeds...."

In my sermon yesterday, I spoke about Amos and his context, and then I applied the text, which is what seminaries teach students to do when they preach. Few people are bothered by sermons about "then," but lots of people are bothered by sermons about "now."

I spoke about what many people considered a recent injustice--the U.S. House of Representatives' eliminating food stamps from the farm bill. I mentioned the Tennessee congressman who had quoted St. Paul, that if you don't work, you don't eat. I said the congressman had misinterpreted the apostle.

I cited the evidence that most people who received food stamps were not "parasites," as another congressman once said, but the elderly, the disabled, the chronically unemployed, children. 

I said that nearly 60 percent of public school students in Springfield were receiving free or discounted school lunches because they were suffering from "food insecurity."

In the prophetic tradition, I issued a call to action, making a few suggestions about how we, the followers of God's mercy and compassion, Jesus Christ, might act for justice. 

You can hear the sermon for yourself at 

Several people disagreed with what I had said from the pulpit, even viscerally,  telling me so directly or indirectly. They said I had politicized the pulpit, that I had divided people. I am sure that many others also disagreed with me. Many people did agree with what I had to say; they told me so.

Whether you agreed or disagreed with the sermon yesterday, thank you for listening.

To everyone who gathers at Christ Church faithfully from week to week to receive God's Word made flesh in the sermon and in the sacrament,  I say:

Thank God that we preachers in the Episcopal Church are free to speak from the heart--from our own hearts and from God's heart about those great ultimate themes of love, mercy, compassion, freedom, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, love. 

Thank God, in our church, we are are free to agree or disagree.

And, if you find yourself disagreeing with a sermon (yes, I have disagreed with sermons),  you might just listen for that Voice beneath the other voices of anger, frustration, guilt, perhaps.

When I have done so, I have found that beneath the voices of my discomfort God was often speaking to me. He was telling me something that I didn't  want to hear, but that he wanted me to hear--and embrace in faith--for deeper life in Christ.