Epiphany 4A, 2023
Over the years we have been duped. We have fallen into a trap, a trap laced with promises of power and prestige.
In the beginning Christianity was very much counter-cultural. The twelve disciples came from lower or working class people, with a hated Roman sympathizer/tax collector thrown in for fun. Women supported the ministry of Jesus. He hung out with tax collectors, touched and healed the sick, conversed with women, and constantly butted heads with the influential religious authorities of the day.
As the movement spread it welcomed outsiders. Peter saw a vision he interpreted as giving God's love and compassion to all people. Seven deacons were chosen to minister to and feed widows. Saul, as a Pharisee, worked to imprison or kill all who followed the Way of Jesus. The Roman government also worked to eliminate this new sect through a variety of persecutions.
And then Constantine legalized Christianity. It found its way into the government where it quickly became the dominant religious and political movement. With power ow established, it forgot its roots of persecution and began persecuting others. This power also led to the approval and support of slavery, the Doctrine of Discovery, and the marginalization of women and minorities.
Add in the further rise to cultural dominance in the 1950's and '60's, the political influence it exerted in the '80's and beyond, and we have been duped into seeing Christianity as inherently and properly powerful. We have, I think, developed a mindset over the years that if we aren't the dominant religion, if we can't influence society like we used to, if we aren't as prosperous as we used to be, then the whole institution will collapse.
On top of all of this there has been a revival of muscular or manly Christianity. This movement began in 19th Century England, but has shown up here. At its root is a fear that the church is losing men. This loss of men leads to all kinds of troubles: women in leadership, effeminate clergy, and soft theologies. To deal with those issues the movement looks to make Christ more muscular so he will appeal to real men and get them back in church.
This fear of a feminized church, of focusing on past glories, and a desire to dominate the culture and world are all based on power. But take a look at all three readings today and see what they have to say about being in positions of power.
Micah tells the people of Judah that the Lord has a controversy with them. There are lots of reasons this could be so, but in today's passage God is attacking misplaced worship. Shall we come with burnt offerings that provide outward signs but no internal change? Shall we make a show of our wealth by offering thousands of rams? Shall we prove how repentant we are by sacrificing our children? All of these things are about elevating ourselves over what God desires which is, in all actuality, a form of exerting power and control over God.
As you would imagine, though, God does not want these things from us. What does God desire from us? To do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly. These are not things that provide power and prestige. But these are things that draw us closer to God.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about the foolishness of the gospel. He mentions that not many in that house of faith were wise, powerful, or noble. In other words, they were mostly made up of the powerless and the underprivileged.
Yet Paul points out that these are the very people called by God. God chose the low, the weak, and the despised. It will be this group of people who bring the message of the gospel to the world. It will be this foolish group who upset worldly systems in favor of God's system.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, and the pure in heart. Jesus is laying out a different kind of power structure. This isn't a system where the rich get richer. It's not a system where the meek are run over and taken advantage of. It's not a Machiavellian political system schemers use to increase their power and influence. This is a system where compassionate foolishness takes hold and the love of God is shown over and above all things.
There is a clear difference between how the world thinks we should operate and how God thinks we should operate. There is a clear difference between how certain churches and leaders operate, and how disciples operate.
Last week was the annual meeting. There was some concern about the budget. There was some concern about the need for new members. Those concerns are valid. But we must not elevate those concerns into our reason for being. That is: we need new members to shore up the budget; or we need new members so we can once again look like we did in 1957.
Don't fall into the trap of trying to reclaim past glory and prestige.
Instead, I think we should be foolishly living into the future message of the gospel. We should be looking forward to how we can become better disciples and to what God might be doing with us. The world sees justice, kindness, and humility as weak and foolish. God sees these as primary to our being. The world sees the message of the cross as foolishness. God sees the message of the cross as life-giving. The world sees the message of the Beatitudes as unsustainable. Jesus sees the message of the Beatitudes as life-shaping.
Let us not be duped into following a worldly path for Christianity. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking worldly power and prestige is what God desires for us. These are things which Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
Instead, let us foolishly follow the message of the cross and gospel. Let us foolishly care more for those in need than we are advised to. Let us foolishly work to feed the hungry instead of placing limits on what they deserve. Let us foolishly reach out in love to our neighbors. And let us be less concerned with those who revile us and utter false accusations, and be more concerned with revealing the glory of God to the world.