Working to End Injustices – August 30

A sermon based on Romans 12:9-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 30, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Many of you know that I left church as a teen and spent a couple of decades opposing the church and challenging Christians over what I felt was unloving treatment of others. I had seen and experienced the mistreatment and mistakenly thought it was universal in the church. I am sorry still about that mistake and I regret very much my ignorance and the resulting bigotry I held toward all Christians. I AM sorry. I regret too not finding a loving church sooner to actively do as Jesus and Paul taught us do together, to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the community.

My break with the church began way, way back in the days when Jerry Falwell Sr. and the Moral Majority were just bursting on the scene and giving me – and others– the false impression they represented Christianity and church in general. They, and other televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker, from my perspective, pitched an ungodly meanness mostly through a form of Fundamentalism that loudly took over the airwaves and a part of the Church. That expression of religion did, and still does, convey a loathing and hatred toward many. My personal church experiences back then seemed to be a part of, or akin to, this negative expression of religion. And I became among the loathed, first as a youth in church who questioned the loathing and then as a non-church goer who did not shy away from challenging it with– what I called a few sermons ago– “a quiver full of argumentative arrows to shoot the religion down.”

The airwaves and news media are still fraught with the disharmony of religious people claiming connections to Church haughtily dishing out unloving, loathing and hate toward people in and outside of churches that they do not like. They abhor and treat as profane and unclean those without faith; those of other faiths; other nationalities, other sexuality, or other skin color– and/or Christians who disagree with them. This violates God’s clear command in Acts (10:28) that Christians are to call no one profane or unclean; Jesus’ teachings to love everyone; and Paul’s assertions in our lesson today.

And it is not just the big-wigs on TV. During my first Advent at this church a group of Fundamentalists lined our sidewalk and verbally accosted church goers with anti-LGBTQ assertions, false assertions that people created good by God are profane and unclean, and by extension that our church and we are too. Locally there have also been numerous unloving comments in the newspaper in name of Christianity. I heard just a few days ago that someone described us as “that ‘blanking’ liberal church.” Despite what he might think, what we really are is the type of church Paul admonishes Christians to be. We are on Jesus’ Way.

And “blanking liberal” is not our claim. Our claim is we are Christian community, followers of Jesus. Here. Now. Any Christian and church’s haughty unloving, disharmonious acts that disturb the peace in the media and our local sidewalks and in our paper, of course, literally violate the admonitions in our lesson today– lessons for Christians and churches to :

“Extend hospitality to strangers . . . Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are . . . take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

Paul’s admonition was to teach and lead Christians and churches to be the positive force of Christ’s presence by showing love and goodness, by being God’s hands and feet and voice in the community. They are also meant to act in ways that showcase Jesus’ Way to attract others to it; as well as to not diminish Christianity or the church in the eyes of others with un-Christ-like haughtiness and disharmonious unloving acts that disturb the peace.

When Christians and churches don’t try to do that, they violate Paul’s clear dictates, Christ is not present in those violations, but rather wrongdoing is. We have seen a lot of that wrongdoing in our lifetimes. And it is not new to our times. Nor is it new that this type of wrongdoing can taint all Christianity. I am not the only one to mistakenly blame the whole church for such rogue actions and actors. Over a hundred years ago Mark Twain observed, “If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be, a Christian.”

After I left the Church I hung a poster with that quote on my bedroom wall for years, but before that – before I left Christianity– I was very involved in church as a youth. My parents never went to church. But I attended twice a week. I sang in the choir. I was part of a Christian drama troupe. I played church softball. I even held elected offices at the local and state level. And I truly tried to follow Jesus’ Way. I believe all of that saved my life at the time and transformed me. But I left the church because of the hate and loathing I perceived locally and in the media. Jesus’ Way did not point me in THE way of that sort of church, that sort of Christianity…. so, I finally shrugged my shoulders and left.

Many have left like that and have continued to leave. Indeed, the last decade has seen a heartbreaking exodus from churches over unloving behavior. Not only are those in exodus missing church, but most of their children are too. The thinking of many of those not attending church these days is all churches and their members are like the televangelists and other religious leaders and churches who violate Paul’s admonitions in Romans and Jesus’ teachings in general. Many of them observe something along the lines of Mark Twain, that if Christ were here today there is one thing he would not be, a Christian. And ironically it is the heart of Jesus’ Way that drives them away. Well-meaning people stay away from church in effect siding with Paul’s admonition to not be a part of ungodly behavior.

It’s even more ironic since that ungodly behavior is done by religious people who espouse to take the Bible literally as God’s own words. The literal commands by God to, in essence, be love in word and deed are disobeyed, or watered down or twisted to allow commission of hate and loathing.

As someone who left Christianity for a long while and opposed it with vigor I have an insider’s understanding of the exodus from church. But as someone who has returned – and with even more vigor tries to be part of church and Christianity as Paul describes it should be– I can see now that it is also ironic that those of us who left because we wanted what Paul described and what Jesus taught, exposed the Church to the loss of many, many people who wanted to do as Paul advised and Jesus taught, but by leaving created a higher percentage left behind in the church not doing that! And sadly, we created few or no alternatives to do it ourselves in community with others as Paul and Jesus taught.

Consequently, those of us who joined the exodus from church because Paul’s admonitions were not being followed, ironically did not followed them either.

See, the failure to act as God’s presence is not just done by committed misdeeds in a faith community, but by doing no deeds in a faith community or at some equivalent community effort. The sin of the commission of acting unloving . . . and the sin of the omission of acts of love are both sins–that lack love!

Among other things, with the tragic shooting of Jacob Blake this week Racism haunts me as vivid and sad example of how detrimental it is for caring people to not belong to a community that acts as God’s presence– whether they call it God or not. A few weeks ago, I saw a Facebook post with an article about how white evangelical Christians are more racist than the population as a whole. There was a comment about Christians needing to do introspection, which is fair enough . . . and in the context sad all on its own. But what I also found sad is that the article left off the fact that ANTI-racist, pro-justice people who have left churches, or never attended have ceded more and more of the institution of Church – which has been instrumental in the success of every civil rights movement in this nation’s history– they have ceded it to a higher percentage not using it to oppose racism, or worse, misusing it for racism. And those in exodus are not creating or joining in great numbers viable alternative community organizations committed to a way of living that seeks justice and love in the world as a way of life. Put another way those of us who went into exodus because we felt, or feel some Christians do not do good, do not do the good ourselves as community, at least not to same extent.

Mind you I am not saying those like me who left church are like racists in the article, but rather that by leaving we do less, or no substantive anti-racism work or other types of justice work which we, as a whole, did with faith communities – which have a long history of anti-racism and other forms of justice work. While a person can certainly not belong to church and be good and anti-racist, that’s not nearly enough. We need to be connected to a larger portion of the society that bands together to actively live toward justice and love. And I do not mean just sending a check to a non-profit that fights injustices, or appearing in a peaceful protest when someone organizes one. Those are good things but I mean more.

I mean being a part of living on a way– as Paul says at the very end of the lesson– to “overcome evil with good.” We must overcome injustices, like racism – AND sexism, heterosexism, class-ism, nationalism, and faith-ism too. We need to do it with love not from afar but daily in our way of living together, and in our communities. To put it in church context, our table must be so radically open we bring the nourishment of justice served there by God out to everyone in need of it. Just as Jesus did, not by thinking it, by doing it.

In The Feasting of the Word commentary (Year A Vol 4, p16) on Paul’s lesson for today, Professor Eleazar Fernandez, has this wonderful description of what church as Paul describes provides. He focuses on hospitality as the catch-all for Christian action. He writes

“What the church really has to offer is an invitation to a new community that nurtures believers to live differently and to live out their calling both within the faith community and the wider society.”

He goes on to point out that

“Hospitality is a distinctive mark of the church” and that “[w]e must move beyond hospitality as charity, to hospitality as an act of justice. Hospitality as charity offers crumbs at the table; hospitality as justice offers a place at the table.”

That is what Paul’s idea of church played out looks like, it is Jesus’ Way lived into. Other people, especially the outcasts and oppressed and those we’re taught are enemies, they are all cared for unconditionally and actively when church is done right. Christians and church are not to do haughty unloving disharmonious acts that disturb the peace. They are to do justice, and love, not prepare a table and shout out who is excluded from it, but prepare a table making an equal place at it for everyone and inviting people far and wide to it, as well as working to take the nourishment of justice out to all in need.

I was a part of leaving church and the exodus of that has caused less and less people to be a part of that work. I ask forgiveness for that sin. And I ask Christians not involved in doing the work of radical hospitality to be prayerful about how to get involved doing it. And to those not in a church doing this work, I pray that they find a church or other faith community, or if religion does not work for them to create a community to do it and get involved in justice work. For Christians it is our call. It is our duty; It is God’s command.
And just for the record, for Mark Twain and all who are thinking like him and me in the past, Christ is here now! And there is one thing Christ will always be, working to end the injustice in the world – with love for all. AMEN!