Nov 23, 2008
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Title: Subversive Walks of Faith
This day in the church calendar is called "Christ the King Sunday." It has been for a while...at least by those traditions who routinely follow the lectionary. Ralph Klein, a Lutheran theologian, reminds us that "Christ the King Sunday first emerged...as an attempt to counter the outlandish claims of some European dictators in the twentieth century. The real ruler of this age is Christ!"
This historical context is important to recall. We have to look back to the days of the Great War and then World War II...We have to try to imagine (or remember) what it was like and why prophets might emerge during such a time in history.
In response to such violence as a global conflict we encountered Baptist preachers like Harry Emerson Fodsdick who would proclaim the failure of the Christian nation in Geneva Switzerland at the end of WWII. His voice would eventually give way to voices like that of William Sloan Coffin who would rail against the powers of violence and Empire, against selfishness and corporatism...Dorothy Day and others from the Catholic Worker Movement would also speak...and act...such preachers are people who proclaim a different ruler of the world and deny any movement to the contrary. Such a proclamation is bold. It gets people in trouble. It's not necessarily popular.
Instead, such a proclamation is subversive. It states the desire to undo what is totalitarian, dictatorial, or based in the power of Empire. Commercialism, consumerism, workaholism...anything that places achievement of the self above service to others...These are all the virtues of Empire...of selfishness or fanatical nationalism, of any notion that attempts to usurp God's place in Creation.
Of course there are deep historical roots to this kind of difficulty in the world. It's not like the Twentieth Century in America was the only time in history that saw such struggle. In Christian history we could look a little earlier. We could look all the way back to the Edict of Milan in 313...Through this legislation, the Roman emperor Constantine gave Christianity a legal place in the Roman Empire. It would no longer be subject to the mass purgings of the past. But was it all good news? Professor AKM Adam states From this time on, the church was a publicly accountable movement. Thus begins the 'bourgeoisification' of Christianity. "
It's both good and bad news. It means the beginning to the end of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, and admire the martyrs as you may, knowing that you can practice your faith in freedom is good news. They will even make Constantine a saint...an act of Thanksgiving to God for ending the oppression.
To some it was even better news. What if this was God's answer to prayer? What if this was the New Jerusalem? What if the Empire could indeed become God's Kingdom on Earth! Now that's good news, no? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
In some ways, the Church in the fourth century became Empire. It adopted the trappings of The Roman Empire. Eventually, to own property, one had to be Christian. To hold public office, one had to be Christian. Can we now safely say that this was not what Jesus was after as he proclaimed God's coming? Is Christian belief or practice to be a prerequisite for someone to be perceived as a full human being?
The subversive proclamation of Jesus is lost in the attempt to proclaim the faith as status quo. It's an interesting and ironic truth to Christianity. Institutionalizing it can kill it. A Christian Empire is an oxymoron. We legitimize the powers that be in the process of our own adoption of Empire. Simply put, people confuse their own power for God's.
History, of course, repeats itself. We can count on that.
Perhaps America was attempting the same thing 300 years ago. We were colonized as a city on a hill, a new Jerusalem...176 years after the country's founding the pledge of allegiance was amended to read "One nation. Under God." There's a precarious balance being attempted in coupling this statement with a separation of Church and State. It may be a wise discipline for us to ask again and again Has the Church in America adopted the pattern of Empire? Does it assume its own existence? Is there a kind of institutional entitlement at work?
Today, many of our contemporaries say yes. Many say that we have mistaken our own wealth, political clout, and influence for the message of God. We have substituted our own voices for that of Christ's in the world. We have attempted to silence the subversive message of a carpenter from Galilee who asked us to care for the poor, to teach peace, to put ourselves last, and to make room for all of God's children.
And now many point out that the church, specifically the Mainline Protestant Church, as an institution is crumbling.
It is like the .com bubble or perhaps the mortgage lending crisis. What if what we are seeing in the declining rolls in many congregations of the Church is not actually a loss of faithfulness or a denial of God? As I've said before, plenty of people claim to have faith. Research makes that clear. We can thank the kind people at Gallup for that information. But the institutional church in many parts of the country struggles. What if it's the natural correction of Church as Empire falling apart? Simply put, maybe the bubble has burst. Maybe we have to embrace that reality and rejoin the subversive movement that led many of us into the life of this congregation in the first place.
As painful as this shift may be, perhaps it is for the best. We have to ask hard questions. That's what is happening in this morning's scripture passage. We have some hard questions being asked.
'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
As I said last week, this is the culmination of a string of parables that Matthew uses to tell us something about Christ. This week's passage tells us just as much about ourselves. This parable is about how the world will be judged...the nations of the world...will be judged on how they treat the least of these. In this case the least of these are the followers of Christ...the subversives who live out the beatitudes.
The judgment itself is also subversive. It's not founded in an institution. God is Judge. Not the Church.
This Judgment is not about knowing Christ.
What kind of faith is this asking of the nations? Unconscious? Blind? None at all?
As a walk of faith it is simultaneously individual and communal.
It is all subversive.
Jesus' judgment subverts even the institutional structures of the church. It holds the nations, the powers that be, accountable, for their willingness to live lives of mercy, for their ability to step away from oppression and selfishness...and for how they treat the subversives who live lives faithful to the Beatitudes.
Christian Faith is subversive, denying the legitimacy of anything that claims to have power over or outside of God. Matthew wants us to know this. He believed that Jesus wanted us to know this.
We are encouraged by Matthew to recognize that Jesus is asking us to join in his subversive walk of faith. He's asking the whole world to do so.
Here are some example of the kind of faithfulness that is being asked of us.
Bread for the World is an organization trying to put an end to hunger. Right now there are members of that organization in Managua, Nicaragua. They are sharing their stories on-line, trying to help raise awareness and get help for people who live in incredible poverty. There are children who live at landfills. Some of the young girls there trade sex for recyclable goods. Bread for the World is trying to subvert the systems that would allow for this kind of poverty not simply to exist but to flourish!
Here is another example: The Christian Peacemaker Teams have volunteers stationed all over the globe attempting to teach peaceful non-violent responses to the incredible violence that exists in places like the Middle East or Sudan. They do this in a spirit of reconciliation and in the name of Jesus.
Churches on the South Side of Chicago are organizing in attempt to end the senseless gun violence in their neighborhoods.
The Boy Scouts leaders in our own building are attempting to teach the Scouts in their charge the virtues of tolerance, listening, and kindness.
Jesus is present in such places. Jesus calls us to such places. Jesus does not call us to support the status quo. A walk of faith takes us out of the status quo to landfills in Nicaragua...and to the mission field of our own basement.
The world is in need of a Church that assumes God's existence and not its own. This is subversive. This is life giving. This helps us step outside ourselves and into the world...undoing the powers of Empire.
Can we see that The Faith was always subversive? That it was/is designed for it?
Can we make the leap see that our tithing, what we call our Walk of Faith, is "a way to act outside the economy, the system that runs the world. It frees us and allows us to act out the truth, that we can give because we have first received all things from Godit is an act of worship."
It's a challenge. We still live in the shadow of our own structures, of the structures of Empire. I wear a collar. I dress in robes. We are part of a congregation that came into existence at least in part because there were simply enough Baptists in Wilmette to start their own church. We have to remain realistic.
We live in the shadow of the past, but our future is ours to determine.
This is the road we have chosen to travel. The is our walk of faith, it's geography, its history and our best intentions rolled into one. Can we begin to make the change? Let's re-enter a subversive movement. Let's re-purpose the buildings, the trappings, the robes and the collars, the organ and the choir, the whole of who we are.
And let us shed what no longer serves.
Let us walk God's subversive walk.
It is a walk of faith.
Thanks be to God.