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Sermon for May 17, 2009

Christians on the Margins
Matthew 28:18-20
May 17, 2009

Marybeth Hicks once wrote a great piece in the Washington Times. Listen to her description of a meal at her house:
The mashed potatoes sit in stiff, icy peaks on the plates, thin moats of beef gravy surrounding their starchy edges. A while ago, the combination of boiled potatoes, butter, sour cream and milk spun on the whirring whisks of the electric mixer, promising the tasty comfort of carbohydrates. But now, the steam long dissipated, dinner mostly consumed, there remain two lumpy mounds of glop — as appetizing as papier-mache, or perhaps wet lint from the dryer. After 15 years of parenting, the dinnertime battle rages on. Besides the mashed potatoes, tonight’s menu is pot roast and a medley of frozen peas and carrots -- a reliable meal, nothing fancy. Earlier, the lingering scent from the crockpot had everybody salivating like Pavlov’s dog, subliminally suggesting a tasty dinner — except that two of my children won’t eat mashed potatoes. This is simply ridiculous. Who doesn't eat mashed potatoes? . . . Tonight I decide to ignore both my pediatrician and conventional wisdom. Tonight I’m force-feeding. “Nobody gets up from this table until all the food on your plate is eaten. Period.” Two heads snap toward me in horror. “All of it?” they ask in unison. “Every bite,” I declare, drawing a line in the mashed potatoes. “But I'm allergic,” my daughter cries as she scratches her arms and fakes a sneeze. “I don't like potatoes,” my son protests, stating the obvious. “Too bad,” I reply in a tone of voice that conveys I’m serious. They pick up their forks and push the spuds around on the plate . . . My picky eaters reluctantly shovel some mashed potatoes onto their utensils and slowly bring the pasty food to their lips, their youthful faces contorting in anguish. Their eyes water. The color drains from their cheeks. They subdue the gag reflex — an obvious effort to gross me out.
Sometimes, we in the church treat the Bible like a great meal that’s spoiled by a cold glob of mashed potatoes. We read the Bible and listen to preachers, or family, or friends talk about their spiritual journeys and we pick and choose which teachings are appetizing and which ones are indigestible. For many people, faith is a little mix of this, and a dash of that. Throw in a little of God’s love, stir in a belief that all people are good to the core and will become angels when they go to heaven, fold in the belief that it doesn’t matter what religious faith you belong to because they all teach the same moral lessons. But leave out the stuff that doesn’t taste good. Don’t even allow thoughts about God’s judgment or human sin to enter the recipe. Maybe foreign missions leave a bad taste in your mouth. And tithing one’s income to God’s work is definitely out. It’s human nature to want pleasure without having to experience sacrifice.

For some, the most tasteless aspect of church life is that dirty little “E” word – evangelism. Evangelism isn’t only a dirty word, it’s confusing. We are not clear on why we should even share our faith with others. Some people ask, “What gives is the right to force our faith on others?” Others insist that all must believe the Christian message or risk eternal punishment without God.

We call the words of Matthew 28 the Great Commission. Christians over the centuries have interpreted these words to mean that God expects us to go out and make converts to Christianity. In 313 C.E., when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, our faith changed from an illegal minority to the established religion of the Roman Empire. Convinced that Christendom owned the right answers to the world’s problems, the Church and the Empire used the Great Commission as marching orders to expand their territory. Conversion of the masses justified any necessary means of persuasion to make it happen. Charlemagne typified the thinking at the time. Before he became the Holy Roman Emperor, he was warring with the Saxons. The goal was conversion of the pagan Saxons to the Christian faith. Because the goal was so worthwhile, Charlemagne approved of any means necessary to make them convert. In the year 755, the Saxons were defeated, and they submitted to mass baptisms over the next two years. Charlemagne wrote, “If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism and he wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, then let him die.”

This attitude is called triumphalism. Triumphalism refers to the tendency to present our faith as the full and complete account of reality, leaving little room for debate or difference of opinion. Triumphalism expects unflinching loyalty from its subjects. It says, “You can survive and even thrive if you become like us. You can keep your life by giving up your identity. Until you do that, we will call you inferior.” Triumphalism wants to keep one group at the center, single-handedly controlling who’s in and who’s out of the circle, even if it takes violence to keep that control. I'm reminded of a Peanuts cartoon in which Sally tells Linus, "I would have made a good evangelist." Linus asks, "Oh, yeah? How come?" Sally says, "You know that boy who sits behind me in the classroom? I convinced him that my religion was better than his." Linus asks, "How'd you do that?" And Sally says, "I hit him over the head with my lunchbox."

Haven’t we had enough clubbing each other in the name of religion? Can we avoid hitting each other over the head with our cultural, political and religious lunch boxes or calling judgment down on those who are different?

Triumphalism was effective when Christians were on top of the religious dog pile. But we find ourselves in different times. As I have shared over the past weeks, the era of Christendom is fading. In the USA, organized Christian religious practices are shrinking and Christianity has a decreasing social impact. Christian churches, once founded and established to make a difference in the lives of others, now face a time of change and confusion, a time of diminished purpose and vision. In this new religious context, we are becoming one religious tradition among many — a faith on the margins instead of the center.

When it comes to sharing our faith, we face new challenges. On one hand, our Scriptures tell us to go into the world and make disciples. We are called to speak about our faith in compelling and convincing ways. On the other hand, our models of evangelism don’t work for us anymore. Must we find ourselves "telling the old, old story of Jesus" by insisting that others must believe in Jesus as the only son of God and Savior, else they are surely going to hell? Must we thump others over the head with our lunch boxes? We aren't practiced in doing evangelism other than the way our ancestors did. For much of Christian history, believers affirmed that apart from Christ there is no salvation, and they understood this to mean that those who did not have faith in Christ were condemned to eternal torments. This provided powerful incentive to share the gospel with people all around the world. It also led to failure to appreciate the positive contributions of other religious communities.

David Barrett identified 10,000 religions in the 2001 edition of the World Christianity Encyclopedia — 10,000 separate religions that humanity has turned to in its attempt to understand and get closer to the divine. Of those 10,000, 150 of them have one million members or more. Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus is the only way to the only God, and that the other 9,999 religions are false? How do we, as a faith of weakening majority, talk about Jesus Christ in a pluralistic world? How do we approach interfaith situations apart from triumphalism? Where do we draw those lines about some of those other 9,999 religions? What gives us the right to claim that our truth is truer than someone else’s? Who gives us the authority?

One of my majors in college was English. I ended up taking many classes with Dr. Peters — a pompous man who regularly intimidated students. He impressed fear into most of his students. His authority came from his title, his position, and his ability to scare us. In a literature course on the age of classicism, Dr. Peters bellowed, “Braddock! What, according to Alexander Pope, is the requirement for being a British magistrate?” He scowled at me as I sat in stunned silence. “Well, Braddock, what’s your answer?” I would finally stammer a made-up answer. “I think Pope says if a man wants to be a magistrate, he has to have a wife who sells Tupperware.” Dr. Peters shook his head and looked at me in disgust before moving on to the next victim.

I was also a teaching assistant for another English professor, Dr. Paul. One afternoon he handed me a stack of papers to grade. As I went though the pile of freshmen English journals, I was disgusted by how poor the work was. Each passing paper was worse than the one before it, and the marks I gave reflected my loathing for their pasty writing. I delivered the graded papers back to Dr. Paul, shaking my head in disdain. The next day I went to his office, and he had a stack of papers for me to look through. They were actually the journals I had corrected the day before. Dr. Paul had gone through and changed all of the grades to higher marks. When I asked him about it, he simply quoted an OT prophet: “Matt, in wrath, remember mercy.” That lesson has stayed with me. There is no doubt in my mind why Dr. Paul had a very devoted band of students on campus. Dr. Peter’s authority was fed by the fear of his students. Dr. Paul’s authority was rooted in mercy.

I think the same should be true with Christians. If we want to have the authority to speak about our faith, then our words and actions need to be rooted in how we show mercy, not in how we cause others to avoid us. Our message is not about scaring followers into obedience. We follow and believe because we’ve been marked by love. It’s time for the church to jettison ends-justifies-the-means evangelism. It’s time for us to embrace the kind of humility and suffering love that marked the ministry of Jesus.

About a dozen years ago, news outlets reported on an amendment to KY state law that allowed ministers to carry concealed weapons in church buildings. On the Today Show, Maria Shriver interviewed a pastor who played a pivotal role in the new law. The preacher reported that down-and-outers looking for money often visit churches and he suggested that having a gun might provide protection from those who might desire to steal church contributions or hurt employees. Bewildered, Maria Shriver asked the preacher if he understood that his reliance upon a handgun stood at odds with the Christian proclamation of peace and reconciliation. Imagine having the wife of Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the poster boy for violent entertainment, reminding the church that the gospel bids believers to resolve conflict with methods that are different from those that rely upon physical force.

The gun-toting preacher stands in stark contrast to another news account from the University of Southern California Medical School. In August of 1993, a young woman named Sophia White picked up a .38 handgun and went looking for a nurse named Elizabeth Staten. Staten was allegedly cheating with White’s husband. Firing six shots, White hit Staten in the stomach and wrist. When Staten ran into the emergency room, White followed her, firing again. In the ER, with blood on her clothes and a hit pistol in her hand, another nurse, Joan Black, met the attacker. Joan did the unthinkable. She walked calmly to the gun-toting woman – and hugged her. Joan spoke comforting words. The assailant said she didn’t have anything to live for, that Staten had stolen her family. Joan said, “You’re in pain. I’m sorry, but everybody has pain in their life . . . I understand and we can work it out.” As they talked, the hospital invader kept her finder on the trigger. Once she began to lift the gun as if she would shoot herself. Joan just pushed her arm down and continued to hold her. At last, White gave the gun to the nurse. She was disarmed by a hug, by understanding, by compassion. Joan later told an AP reporter, “I saw a sick person and had to take care of her.” Joan loved God by being courageous, friendly and gentle to a dangerous stranger.

Now let me ask, who has the greater authority, the emperor who forces baptisms on pain of death, the minister with the gun, or the nurse who hugs attackers? Before you answer, remember the cross. There hangs Jesus -- unjustly abused, tried and murdered. His dying words are a prayer of forgiveness for those who kill him. Imagine what might have happened if Jesus had lived in KY, and just before they nailed him to the cross he claimed his right as a citizen and pulled out a .38. Jesus Christ gained all authority by stretching out his arms, and disarming the world with the embrace of compassion.

So, how do we share our good news in a multi-faith, pluralistic world. Let me suggest three ways we can begin to do missions and evangelism from the margins:

1. Faith, not sight. Christians do not know, they only trust. We do not own the truth. We bear witness to the living Truth. We must be open to the possibility that another, any other human being, has something to bring to our meeting — the other is not just a mere receptacle for our message. In fact, the other might have positive or corrective insight to bring to me. Faith is about modesty. To have faith in Christ is to be open to wisdom and reality wherever they may be found. It does not involve the claim that we already know all that needs to be known.

2. Hope, not finality. Christians claim to have glimpsed something of the reality of God. We do not present ourselves as a community for which all is finished. We are not a community that has arrived, but one that is under way.

3. Love, not power. How might history have been altered if missions had been done in the spirit of love? Mission from the margins includes humility, contrition, repentance, and honest acknowledgement that the church has not consistently incarnated the gospel.

How can we tell the story of Jesus honestly and sensitively, respecting the spiritual wisdom of people outside the Christian faith? Some Christians say that we can't — we can't accept the possibility that anybody besides us has spiritual truth. But, I have found that if I think of Jesus as a person filled to the brim with God's spirit, then I can hold up Jesus as the hope of the world without disrespecting the faith of others who relate to God by another way. We must keep re-examining and re-expressing our belief that Jesus is alive through the Spirit. We must find ways to explain to modern, skeptical people that Jesus shows the nature of God better than anyone whom the world has ever known; and that following in his way is indeed the hope of the world.


Sources:
· http://www.marybethhicks.com/washtimes.potatoes.html
· Brent Walker, “American Pluralism and Lunchbox Evangelism” (July 9, 2006).
· http://chalicechristian.blogspot.com/2009/05/sermon-sunday-3-may-2009.html
· Douglass John Hall, The Cross in Our Context.
· Stuart Murray, Church After Christendom.
· John B. Cobb, Jr., “The Christian Mission in a Pluralistic World” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1487
· Edward H. Schroeder, “Pluralism’s Question to Christian Missions: Why Jesus at All? “http://www.crossings.org/archive/ed/Pluralism.pdf
· http://www.bible.ca/global-religion-statistics-world-christian-encyclopedia.htm

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