Sunday, September 9, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Vote 4 Jesus"

Matthew 10:1-4

He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. 2 Here are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; 3 Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean;[a] and Judas, who betrayed Jesus. (CEB)

“They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations,” Week One: They Think the Church has a Political Agenda

It ordinarily was not something you would consider the “religious right” to become so invested in—it involved a student in the faraway state of Alaska accused of a rather juvenile prank—creating a sign that arguably advocated for drug use, who was subsequently disciplined by his school. He sued, claiming his free speech rights had been violated, and when the case made it to the Supreme Court several years ago, the talking heads pounced, chattering up a storm of conversations over the promotion of drugs—and illegal drugs at that—but fewer people discussed why Christian groups were at hand here. Why were they?

Well, the sign in question began with the words “Bong Hits,” hence the national conversation about drug use. But those words were then followed with, “4 Jesus.” Fearful of any precedent of censoring religious speech, these groups filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the student. And so it came to pass that the Christian right—not a monolith you would normally associate with promoting the sticky icky—broke down stereotypes about their puritanical nature, at least for a moment. Trouble is, though, nobody ever seemed to notice! Once a person’s or a group’s opinion of you is set, it can be so very, very difficult to change how they see you.

Even if you feel that impression is not entirely deserved.

This is a brand-new sermon series for us to begin the fall season here in the life of the church, and it is a sermon series that, as it takes us through September and into October, I imagine will likely challenge and maybe even distress us a bit…which I promise you is a good thing, even in the comfort zone of church. In fact, church has become such a comfort zone for us, and for many Christians, that an increasing number of folks feel shut off from us because they worry that they do not speak our language, or understand our thoughts, or follow our precepts. And that separation has not been easy on us, as church memberships decline and the average age of remaining church members increases. In the midst of these sociological trends, a California pastor named Dan Kimball wrote a book entitled, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” in which he documents—qualitatively, rather than quantitatively—the stereotypes that people who live outside the church hold of us. And none of those stereotypes are good. Each week over the next six weeks, we will hear—through Dan—from a member of my generation about how they see the church, and we’ll do so while also exploring what the Bible has to say about it. And so we begin today’s message with the theme of, “They think the church has a political agenda.”

As Dan Kimball describes her, Alicia is a twentysomething “molecular biologist (who) exudes joy and intelligence when she speaks…(and) she speaks from a gentle and even concerned heart.” This is what Alicia had to share with Dan about Christianity:

"I don’t trust the church. All you ever see is men who have their own political agendas basically brainwashing the people in their church that if they don’t believe the same things the church leaders do, and vote the same way, they are going to hell. Church shouldn’t be about politics. It’s all about organizing their religion to control people to conform them to their viewpoints and mix that in with spiritual faith. What is sad is how many people sit there and never question it." 

She continues:

"Church leaders seem to focus more on acting like businessmen raising funds to build bigger buildings for their own organized religious corporations than they do on taking the time to teach about social action for the poor. I think Jesus would have cared more about raising money for the poor than building yet another mini-mall church with comfortable seating and wide video screens so you can see the CEO pastor all the better and bigger". 

I suppose that puts an end to my secret dream of installing platforms into the sanctuary floor so that I can ascend up in a cloud of dry ice like in Iron Chef.

Alicia is probably right, though—Jesus WOULD have cared more about the poor than about building another megachurch. And I don’t just say that because of what Jesus said—though Lord knows, He dedicated so many of His sermons and lessons to championing the poor and the outcast.

I say it because of what Jesus did, of how He built His ministry.

At first glance, this roster of the twelve disciples seems rather unremarkable. They’re given power over demons and disease, and really, that seems like the most surprising part of it all. But I don’t think that was the most surprising part of this passage to Matthew’s audience.

Re-read the names of the disciples themselves. While some of them are identified by lineage—James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and James the son of Alphaeus, only two are identified by title: Matthew the tax collector, and Simon the Cananean, or, alternatively translated, the Zealot.

This is no coincidence.

The Zealots were the Israelites and Canaanites who incited insurrection against the occupying Roman Empire by means of force. They were the backbone of the Jewish revolt of 66 CE that ultimately led to the sackings by Rome of Jerusalem and Masada. They were true believers in Israel’s independence from imperial rule, and they sought such a world by any means necessary.

A tax collector, by contrast, was the symbol of everything the Zealots loathed about Roman rule. I honestly do not like this translation, “tax collector,” because it evokes images of a bureaucratic auditor, but trust me, whatever your feelings about the IRS may be, the civil servants who work for it are not thugs. Ancient Israelite tax collectors were. The way the Roman Empire financed itself—how it raised its money—was by auctioning off the right to collect taxes in a certain territory to the highest bidder. That bidder paid that fee to the Romans, and was given free license to raise as much as he wanted in taxes from the populace. In order for this to be a profitable enterprise, he had to raise more than he paid, and the more he raised, the more profit he had. As you can imagine, tax collectors were, in essence, state-sanctioned thieves, taking as much as they dared from the people they had charge over.

But the way of Jesus Christ is such that it had room for both the fanatic and the thug, the Zealot and the tax collector.

You might say, “Pastor, this is because Jesus’ ministry was separate from political concerns.” But when Jesus is executed as a political figure—as, in Pilate’s words, the King of the Jews—Jesus was very much a political figure, whether He wanted it or not, whether we want it or not.

No, it is not that Jesus’ ministry was divorced from politics, or that Jesus didn’t care about politics, it is that He transcended politics. His message was so powerful, so persuasive, so compelling, and so inspiring that it brought a Zealot whose people had been broken and beaten down by the tax collectors to walk hand-in-hand with one of those very same taxmen.

Which means we do our Messiah a tremendous injustice when we use Him to justify our own beliefs, rather than justifying ourselves by believing in Him and what His ministry represents—hope for the broken-hearted, good news for the poor, and affirmation for the outcast.

So I’ve got news for you—as a Christian, I don’t care who offers aid to the poor, be it the church, or charities, or our government, because it is no single person or single entity’s role to aid the poor, it is all our roles, all our burdens, because the plight of the poor is not a political issue, it is a human issue; when we compartmentalize it, we’re compartmentalizing other people.

As a Christian, I don’t care if my political leaders share the same religious affiliation that I do, because Jesus didn’t care that His disciples shared the same political affiliations.

And as a Christian, if we become too caught up and too bogged down in which political party released which attack ad first, or who faked outrage at the latest non-starter controversy—if we care more about those things than what Jesus, later in Matthew, calls the “weightier matters”—justice and mercy and faith, then there are two disciples named Simon and Matthew who have something powerful to teach us.

This is not a church where I tell you who to vote for. And as long as I am here, it never will be.

You know that…but that doesn’t mean that everybody else does. People outside the church now, in many ways, expect the worst from us, rather than the best. Many folks would expect to walk through these doors this time of year during an election cycle and be told who to vote for. But that is not Jesus’ mission. He was not in the business of handing out political endorsements, He was in the business of changing peoples’ lives for the better. May it be so for His church, too.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 9, 2012

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