Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Turn Around

This is out of chronological order, so that I could post my Thanksgiving sermon closer to that date.

Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, got into trouble for name-calling a few weeks ago. He was criticizing the folks at National Public Radio for firing commentator Juan Williams for what he said on Fox News. Ailes called them Nazis. The odd thing is that those who objected to his words were not the people at NPR, who might have pointed out that the Nazis silenced political opponents through murder, nor even the American Nazi Party, or as it’s now called, the National Socialist White People’s Party, who might not have appreciated being likened to an organization that has shows hosted by non-whites and Jews. Instead Ailes had to apologize to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League not only for using the name inaccurately but for trivializing the ideology that conceived and carried out the Holocaust. Ailes was just doing what is acceptable in politics these days: trying to redefine your enemy by sticking him with a bad name. He just overdid it.

Names can be powerful. Few people agree with Shakespeare’s Romeo when he says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps, but not many would venture to take a sniff of something called a skunk cabbage. I doubt whether John Wayne’s name would have become a synonym for masculinity had he not changed it from Marion Morrison. And you have to ask why a bookkeeping firm took its name from the small South Dakota town in which it’s located, especially since that makes it “Crooks Accounting.”

Most companies today spend a lot of time and money trying to pick good names for themselves and their products. And they spend even more protecting those names. There is now a company called “Reputation Defender” that controls what people find on the internet when they Google you or your company. As Shakespeare writes in Othello, “he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” If you lose your good name, it is almost impossible to restore it.

Which is the problem the church faces today. Only nobody did it to us. Christ’s enemies couldn’t have done a better job at tainting the name of his people than they have done themselves. Pedophilia, corruption, lawsuits, hypocrisy, playing politics, property fights, racism, divisive theological debates, jurisdictional disputes, and self-righteousness are what we are known for putting our energies into, rather than love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity. gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. We have put our agendas above God’s. And the church has acted little differently than any secular organization. That is, its primary mission has become perpetuating the organization, over spreading the gospel and loving God and others.

The good news is that surveys show that people generally like Jesus even if they have problems with the church. But popularity is not the issue. Jesus needs followers, not fans. The church is supposed to be made up of his followers but we are hardly a good advertisement for recruitment.

It’s not that the church isn’t doing good things. We bring medicine and education to the poor and the far off. We bring food and agricultural equipment and knowledge. We care for the orphaned, the outcast, and the oppressed. We give voice to the voiceless. Everyday all over the world we do this. But it’s not as exciting as a really nasty quarrel over sexuality or evolution. So the media, even the Christian media, highlight the scandalous and controversial. And that well never runs dry.

How can we repair the damage done to the once good name of the church? Well, there’s no magical solution. It will take hard work and a change in attitude--attitudes, actually, towards a number of things.

First, we must change our attitude towards the meaning of success. It does not lie in numbers, either of pews occupied or of money given. In fact, those sorts of things really took on primacy during the industrial revolution. Before that, what mattered is how well you did things, not how many things you made. The house of Stradivari was known for the quality of their instruments, not the quantity. Part of the reason so many churchgoers are ignorant of their faith and how they should live is that we have been more interested in making them into return customers than into disciples.

We see them as paying customers as well. While we shouldn’t abandon sound business practices, neither should we forget that raising money isn’t our primary purpose. Putting too much emphasis on money distorts our priorities. I know churches that tolerate certain behaviors on the part of some members, or which back away from much needed changes out of fear of offending big contributors. In the secular world, right or wrong, the wealthy call the shots. The church doesn’t need to mirror that practice, especially if it diverts us from what we ought to be doing.

Next, we must change our attitude towards the importance of unity. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed for the unity of the church, not its uniformity. He commanded us to love one another, not agree on everything. In fact, if we agreed on everything, we wouldn’t need a commandment to love each other. We seem to put other things above unity, specifically pet theological or social issues. I’m not saying some of these issues aren’t important, just that they shouldn’t take priority over the things that are essential. What a terrific witness to this fractious world it would be if the church was able to function despite its disagreement over important matters.

We need to change our attitude about worship. We are treating it more and more like putting on a show rather than on calling people to adoration, confession, pardon, communion and praise. It’s easy to shift from focusing on God to worrying about keeping the customers happy. And it turns participants into a passive and picky audience, looking to be entertained.

We need to change our attitude about what our duty to the church is. We shouldn’t be sacrificing individuals for the good of the institution. We need to be open about mistakes and evil actions committed by people in the church. As we’ve seen, cover-ups only delay revelations of wrongdoing and reduce people’s trust in the church. Trying to protect our name can hurt it.

There are also things we need to stop doing. One thing we need to resist is commenting on every hot political topic. Jesus’ opponents kept trying to get him to make pronouncements on the burning political issues of his day--taxes, for instance. His statement that we should give God what belongs to him and Caesar what belongs to him is a bit of an evasion, in that it doesn’t give helpful specifics. I think Jesus intentionally wasn’t getting into the details of a volatile political problem.

We can’t avoid certain social issues where clear moral principles are at stake but we needn’t make religious rulings on every popular contemporary concern. For one thing, we shouldn’t spread the mistaken idea that there is one true Christian position on every problem facing us as a society. Let us concede that there are good Christians on almost every side of some issues. Not to do so is to succumb to the modern tendency to oversimplify complex questions and needlessly polarize people.

We can imitate Jesus’ switching the emphasis from the theological technicalities of certain situations to practical ways to help. When Jesus was asked whose sin it was that caused a man to be born blind, he said that as far as he was concerned, the man was in that condition so that the power of God could be demonstrated in his healing. In the same way, Jesus doesn’t really answer the question of Mosaic law justifying the stoning of the woman taken in adultery. He adds a new consideration that makes it impossible for her accusers to execute her. Just as with taxes, Jesus sidestepped the debatable in favor of the practical. Jesus’ approach to matters in which someone was getting hurt was to relieve the suffering. He didn’t excuse sin anymore than he let an illness continue but he forgave it and healed it and gave the person a fresh start at a spiritually and physically healthy life.

In fact, the main thing we can do as a church is act more like Jesus. And that means risking our existence as a church. In Luke 23:33-43 we see Jesus at his most iconic--nailed to the cross. At Calvary, there’s no cavalry coming to the rescue. Jesus was going to die. But he was still ministering to the needs of others, in this case a robber being executed with him. If the church gets so concerned about surviving at all costs, it will make changes that will cause it to lose its moral authority. There are some matters on which it must stand, though it looks as if it will suffer the ultimate cost.

And ironically enough, research has shown that, throughout history, the parts of the church that grow are those considered outside the mainstream. Right now that means Pentecostalism and Eastern Orthodoxy and even Evangelicalism in countries where that’s something new and cutting edge. People turn to the church for things they don’t find in popular culture. So it is a mistake for us to fall into the role religion typically plays in society, that of giving its blessing to the status quo. Just like Jesus, we need to be counter-cultural. On certain matters, when the zeitgeist zigs we should zag.

In Colossians 1:11-20, Paul presents us with a very exalted view of Jesus. Then he links that to the church. If in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” and if we are his body on earth, then that should apply to us as well. Why doesn’t it? For one thing, we forget that Jesus assured us that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the church. We react too often in fear instead of faith. But Jesus, facing death, said to his father “not my will but yours be done.” We need to do the same.

And we need to take up our commission not with arrogance but with humility. In C.S. Lewis’ “Prince Caspian” when the title character is offered the kingship of Narnia, he says he doesn’t feel sufficient to be king. Aslan, the Christ of that world, says that if he had felt sufficient, it would have been proof that he wasn’t. Whereas the world wants people who act as if they can do it all, Jesus wants people who know they can’t, whose confidence doesn’t rest in themselves but in him.

Today is the last Sunday of Pentecost, the feast of Christ the King. He promised that we too would reign in the new creation. Jesus set the bar high. He said we would do greater things than he. But his glory was not that of worldly popularity. He was glorified by going to the cross for doing what was unpopular but right. He came not to be served but to serve. He said that only those willing to take up their cross and risk losing their lives would find life. Only that way can we resurrect the good name of God’s people. I don’t know about you but that scares me. I’m not sure I can do that. But I know that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. And so can you.

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