In a recent sermon I quoted the saying “When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.” I first saw this on a poster in the 1970s but I just read a blog post on the Psychology Today website with that as a title. I have always thought of the quote in reference to the numerous committees and meetings one attends as a part of an organization or bureaucracy, where things are discussed exhaustively but they rarely lead to any kind of action, except possibly the issuing of a report. My idea of hell would be an endless series of meetings in which trivial things are painstakingly dissected with nothing concrete to show for it.
But the subtitle to this piece by Dr. Gordon S. Livingston is “A relationship is a collection of promises, explicit and implied.” This is true of a marriage, a friendship, a common interest group (like a church) or even a commercial relationship. Whether those promises exist in a signed contract, in spoken vows or are simply assumed, relationships depend on the acceptance of certain responsibilities. The promises boil down to this: I will treat you well and not harm or betray you and I trust you to do the same.
The post was otherwise kind of all over the place but it did have another good observation: “Any unkept promise ought to be interpreted as a statement of priorities.” And that's true even if the promise goes unfulfilled for what are universally recognized as good reasons. If I didn't fulfill my promise to take you to dinner or to Disney World because someone I love suddenly got ill, that simply means that the life or health of the person in question is more important than the activity postponed. If, however, I stay home to watch the game rather than go to your mother's funeral, well, that means my pleasure is more important to me than supporting you in your grief. Exceptions reveal one's true priorities and principles.
In the honor/shame culture in which the Bible was written, one's word was supposed to be inviolate. We pay lip service to this idea but sadly, we live in a culture where we routinely don't believe certain people. It used to be quite bad for someone in public life to be caught in a lie. They might be fired or forced to resigned or at least censured in some way. Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. None of the tobacco industry CEOs who lied to Congress about their knowledge that smoking causes cancer went to jail. Candidates and government officials lie with impunity. Talk show pundits and radio personalities say outrageously false things and rarely pay in plummeting ratings. So we have whole websites that fact-check things that are said by politicians, talking heads, and the internet and rate them as true, mostly true, half-true, mostly false, false and Pants on Fire! The last rating means a statement is so extremely false that the person could not be merely mistaken but had to know he was lying. I haven't noticed this putting the brakes on persons who say things that, in this information age, are easily tracked down and proven to be false. People who thrive on social media don't even register embarrassment when they contradict what they previously posted.
Even in the Bible we see an acknowledgement that people can say one thing and do another. In our passage from 1 John, it says, “How does God's love abide in someone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And while people cynically accept that politicians lie, they get outraged when Christians do so. Recently the #MeToo movement brought down David Silverman, president of the organization American Atheists, founded by Madalyn Murray O Hair. Silverman's board terminated him for sexual misconduct and assault. And yet under the Facebook post was a comment that had he been a Catholic priest, he simply would have been moved to another parish. It didn't matter that movie moguls, famous actors, comedians, governors, mayors, senators and representatives, and even atheists have been ensnared in sex scandals. People are more incensed when Christians get caught. They hold us to a higher standard.
And they should. True, we are sinners like everyone else but we should be getting help for that. We should be able to see a situation like this developing in our church and especially in our own life. We should catch it in the early stages and take action. If a prominent person in rehab were routinely binge drinking or doing narcotics or gambling, we would look askance at him. Sinning is a much broader range of behaviors but as it said in our passage from 1 John last week, “Whoever remains in him doesn't continue to sin. Whoever keeps sinning has neither seen him or knows him.” (1 John 3:6) I translated the verb for “sin” as “continues to sin” and “keeps sinning” because the Greek verb tense indicates an ongoing action or habit. Again people in AA are not surprised if someone in the program falls off the wagon. But if they aren't really trying to stay sober, the group may exclude them until the person shows that they mean to get into the spirit of the thing and starts working the 12 steps again.
But notice that in our passage the big contradiction pointed out is when a Christian fails to show compassion in a practical way. If you see someone in need and you can help them out but don't, how can you say that you have God's love in you? 1 John says, “We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for each other.” And though in that time period, you could literally die for being a Christian, he is talking about not dying here but living your life sacrificially for others.
Again the world knows this and every time a wealthy TV evangelist buys a multimillion dollar airplane or gold-plated bathroom fixtures but his church does not do much to help the poor, people get outraged. And sadly, this has led some to think all churches are raking in the money and all preachers are in it for the money. That's like thinking all radio DJs make the kind of money Howard Stern does. Quite frankly, I was going to enter seminary right after college. I became a nurse to pay my way through seminary. And then I realized I was making more money as an LPN—not even an RN but an LPN—than I would as clergy. Plus I was married by then and having kids. So my plan to become ordained went on the back burner for a couple of decades. Today, it turns out, the average pastor/priest actually makes about $5,200 a year more than an LPN, probably because the medical establishment is trying to phase out practical nurses. Still nowhere near a fortune. (Oddly enough the highest average pay for clergy is in Nevada! Is that because of all the sinners repenting or do high rollers tip the Lord well when they hit the jackpot?)
The 3 elements of any religion are belonging, believing and behavior. And every religion has more luck with the first 2 than that last one. Belonging is great. Having a group of like-minded people whom you care about and who in turn care about you is good for you psychologically and physically. In fact, most scientists attribute the undeniable and verifiable health benefits of religion to the social aspects of the phenomenon. Part of the reason they do is that you can quantify attendance. Part of it is that they are loathe to attribute the things they see among active members, like lower blood pressure, better recovery from disease and longer life, to the action of God.
It is harder to measure how much someone actually believes. Sociologists and polling organizations like the Barna Group and the Pew Research Center use studies based on self-reporting. Thus we can know what people say they believe. Gallup found that only about a quarter of Americans believe the Bible is the literal Word of God. However, the majority of Christians (54%) will agree that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. According to Barna, 56% of Americans believe Jesus is God, though that drops with each younger generation. And while 6 in 10 Americans say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus, that percentage is higher among women (68%) than men (56%), is higher among black Americans (80%) and non-white Americans (65%) than whites (60%), and higher in those making less than $100,000 (63-65%) than those making more than 100K (53%).
Behavior is, oddly enough, the hardest thing to quantify. While almost 3 quarters of Americans (73%) claim to be Christians, less than a quarter of Americans (23%) go to church weekly, though just over half (51%) say they go at least once a month. Just over half of Americans have given to their church (54%) in the last year and 22% have given to another non-profit. Overall, 96% of practicing Christians have ever given money to a church or another non-profit whereas only 60% of atheists and agnostics have. 75% of Americans say they have prayed to God in the last week, only a third (34%) have read the Bible outside of church, and about 1 in 6 has volunteered at a non-profit (19%) or at a church (18%).
Now one presumes that some of the money given to a church will go to help the needy, yet it is hard to find any statistics on how many religious programs there are to help the poor. All we can say is, there are a lot. Large churches run soup kitchens, food banks and homeless shelters. While the majority of churches in this country have less than 100 members, even small churches can contribute to things like the local food pantry or to denominational efforts. Every denomination has organizations that help the poor, immigrants, people in developing nations and gives grants and funds to local churches with specialized ministries to the homeless, the hungry, and the disadvantaged. But there doesn't seem to be a clearinghouse for all the data from all the denominations.
However, I did find a disturbing poll taken by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. In it 46% of all Christians said a person's poverty is generally due to a lack of effort. Only 29% of all non-Christians felt that way. Worse, 53% of white evangelical Protestants blamed poverty on the person's lack of effort. Only 41% attributed poverty to difficult circumstances. I find that incredible considering that evangelicals pride themselves on taking the Bible seriously and the Bible mentions the poor, the needy, the hungry, the sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the fatherless, the widow, and the resident alien more than 800 times. (Reality check: how many times does the Bible refer to homosexual activity? 7 times. Which do you hear evangelical preachers talking about more often?)
Sadly, when it comes to helping the poor, many Christians point to 2 Thessalonians 3:10 which says in part, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” But Paul was addressing people in one church who thought Jesus' return was so imminent that they had quit work and were just waiting for the second coming and mooching off others. In no way did Paul, who exhorted Christians to help the poor (Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10), mean for skepticism to be our default attitude towards the needy. Nor did Jesus. (Matthew 5:42; Luke 14:12-14)
We are saved by God's grace not by works. But works should be the natural outcome of the action of God's grace on our lives. In fact the most famous passage about this reads, in its entirety: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) We are not saved by works but we were created to do good works. God intends us to help others. They are a sign that we are in good spiritual health. When you are in bad health you refrain from doing things because they are difficult or impossible. When you are in good health you engage in healthy activities. You should be able to go on a long walk without getting winded. You are able to go out with friends, do things around the house, help out an aged or infirm relative or neighbor without any thought for whether you can. If you can't, there is some health issue you need to correct.
God is love. If we are in good spiritual health, we should be making that love concrete in all we do. And just as you have to be healthy to do exercise, doing exercise in turn keeps you healthy. If you ask me, a lot of the spiritual ill health we see in the church has do with our not doing our spiritual exercise, that is, not doing loving things for others. Somehow we have come to think that spirituality is strictly internal. It is something that takes place in the mind and heart. True, but if it doesn't manifest itself in how you live then it is merely notional. Jesus went off by himself to pray but then he got to his feet and went out and healed the sick and forgave the guilt-ridden and fed the hungry and guided the lost to the truth. He was the most spiritual person ever and yet he didn't shut himself up in a cave or on a mountain top and meditate his life away. He plunged into his mission of bringing good news to others, both with his words and with his works.
Somewhere along the line we have gotten the idea that what I do, standing up and preaching, is the main thing the church should do. And the world has heard our fine words and said, “Put your money where your mouth is. Act like you are following Jesus.” And the world is right. It is simply seconding what James wrote 2000 years ago: “Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) Show; don't tell. When all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done.
At the jail last week an inmate pointed to the verse where Paul says “If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) Which makes it sound as if there is nothing more to being a Christian than believing something and saying so. I pointed out that in those days just saying that could get you killed. Saying you were a Christian in public was a brave and death-defying act. In the year 112 AD, Pliny, governor of a province in what is now Turkey, wrote to the emperor Trajan about what to do with Christians. He said he would give them 3 chances to deny they were Christians, invoke the Roman gods, offer prayer, incense and wine to an image of the emperor, and curse Christ. Those who refused and persisted in their loyalty to Christ, even under torture, he executed, as he did with two slaves who were deaconesses. Trajan wrote back that Pliny had done well.
Yet they were not able to stamp out Christianity. In fact, the bravery with which Christians faced death made more converts. Pagans were especially impressed with the way Christians stayed in cities when plague struck and took care of the dying at the risk of their own lives. They feared neither despots nor disease nor death. They made their lives and their deaths count. What they found worth dying for made life worth living.
If it were illegal to be a Christian here, as it is in certain parts of the world, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Has your life changed sufficiently that the only explanation is that the God who is love, and who was incarnate in Jesus Christ, lives in you? Are you willing to lay down your life and take up your cross for others as Jesus has done for you? Show the world.