To Change the World
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Owasso United Church of Christ
25 October 2008
This summer I was at a barbecue and pool party at my best friend's house. It was an annual party of the Diversity Business Association, which is Oklahoma City's gay friendly chamber of commerce. There were many people there, and I was mingling about chatting with friends and acquaintances.
At the party, a man was talking to me about the church he attends and he said something to the effect, "I don't go to church to learn anything new, because I don't need to, I go for the fellowship. Isn't that why everyone goes to church?" I answered with an exasperated, "I hope not." And he looked at me puzzled. I went on. "That sounds like a social club to me. I go to church in order to change the world."
Our sister church, Church of the Open Arms in Oklahoma City, for the last three weeks has sponsored a series of forums on faith and politics. Last week there was a spirited discussion about the topic with one man stating quite adamantly that his faith and politics do not mix. He said, "I go to church for my spiritual development. I go to a political party for my social activism."
In response to that gentleman, I said that I do not think that you can distinguish the two. My implication is that you cannot develop your spirit as a Christian apart from social activism.
The most important thing that we do as a Christian church is to create community, to build relationships, fellowship, with other people. It is also the most difficult thing we do. I encourage you to read the Sermon on the Mount. We are working our way through it right now at the Cathedral of Hope. And one thing you notice there is that Jesus is teaching his followers the practices which are essential to build community. Like how to deal with your anger at a sister or brother, about how to treat each other's bodies, about truth-telling and non-violent peacemaking.
The church is a diverse group of people on a journey together of learning how to get along.
And that requires really difficult work. It means learning about confession of sin, about forgiveness and reconciliation, about anger management and conflict resolution, about how to love and care for one another, about worshipping God instead of ourselves, about living our lives in the service of others.
And that is how our Christian character is formed. We learn what it is to be a Christian, by walking on the journey with other Christians. We develop the habits of the Christian life, as part of a people who live those habits with each other. We are shaping our consciences. And this spiritual formation is essentially a political act – political in that it is the formation of a people. The church cannot separate spiritual formation from community formation without betraying its core identity.
We cannot live the Christian life in isolation from other people. In fact, even when we withdraw from society, in order to practice contemplation, we are drawn into relationship as part of our contemplation. A great example of this is the Italian priest Carlo Carretto who records in his book Letters from the Desert the time he withdrew to the Sahara for contemplation. He tells the story of one incredibly hot day when he was driving through the desert and his radiator was boiling. He was searching for shade and finally found a giant boulder which was cast a shadow that he could lie down in and rest. Here's what he writes:
From 115 degrees the temperature descended in a few minutes to 80 degrees. With that sense of refreshment I stretched out on the sand to sleep; in the desert you take your siesta before your meal.
In order to lie more comfortably I looked for a blanket to put under my head. I had two. One remained by my side unused, and as I looked at it I could not feel at ease.
But to understand you must hear my story.
The evening before I had passed through Irafog, a small village. That evening I had seen old Kada trembling with cold. The sun had gone down, and Kada was shivering. I had the idea of giving him one of the blankets I had with me, but I put the thought out of my mind. I thought of the night and I knew that I, too, would shiver. . . . when I left the village the blankets were still on the jeep; and now they were giving me a bad conscience.
I dreamed that I was asleep under the great boulder and that at a given moment – it didn't seem to be a dream at all: I saw the rock moving, and I felt the boulder fall on top of me. What a nightmare! I opened my eyes and saw Kada shivering in front of me at Irafog. I didn't hesitate for a minute to give him the blanket. I tried to stretch out my hand to offer it to him; but the stone made even the smallest movement impossible. I understood what purgatory was. Who knows for how many years afterwards I would be haunted by seeing that blanket near me as a witness to my selfishness and to the fact that I was too immature to enter the Kingdom of Love.
Even what would appear to be the most solitary of Christian practices, retreat into the desert for contemplation, draws us into solidarity with the rest of creation. Christianity is an incarnational religion. As Caretteo learned, Christianity cannot become a spirituality separate from the real, physical needs of the world without betraying its core identity.
So, the church is this political act -- the formation of a people through the habits of a community which shapes our conscience to be more like Jesus. But there's even more to it than that. In Christianity there is the missionary impulse, which is stated most strongly in this passage in Matthew known as the Great Commission. The Christian community exists on behalf of the rest of creation.
It is our calling to spread the gospel around the world. The church, then becomes a multi-cultural institution. For the church, borders cease to mean much of anything. This is why we can speak so strongly on the issue of immigration and why we are not convinced by those who care so fervently for borders. For Christians, following the calling of Christ here in Matthew, our common humanity is what connects us with immigrants and that common humanity FAR outweighs any imaginary line drawn by a human government.
For a Christian, following the call of Jesus, all sorts of categories which are typically used to divide us cease to have meaning – categories of race, ethnicity, language, culture, gender, class, caste, or sexual orientation.
Nation-states and our allegiance to them are secondary to our relationship to the church. We are citizens of the world. Our relationships are with all people. We cannot give privilege to those who share our own demographic over those who are different from us. That would be a violation of our calling here in the Great Commission.
I believe that the ultimate, eschatological goal of Christian mission is union of all creation in an ecstatic fellowship. And it is an ecstatic fellowship based upon God's own internal relationship. In this passage, Matthew makes reference to the Trinity – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Father, Son, and Spirit; Mother, Lover, and Friend.
Though the church can get into confusing conversation about the Trinity, at its core the doctrine makes an astonishing claim. The claim is that the essence of God's identity is relationship. Or, as the theologian James McClendon says, "an ecstatic fellowship."
When we conceive of God as fundamentally relationship, then that has profound implications for Christian mission. If the goal is to become more like God, then our goal is to enter into relationship, to become part of an ecstatic fellowship with the rest of creation.
Christianity is a Trinitarian religion. It cannot become merely a private spirituality that ignores the real world situation of those different from ourselves without betraying its core identity.
The church is essentially a political act, forming a people according to Christian conscience. As such, it is an alternative politics. It was originally an alternative to the Roman Empire, which sought to unite people and bring a form of peace. Instead, the church would unite people and bring peace, but in a different way.
Many scholars have in recent years exposed how politically subversive the New Testament is. Even when a person says the simplest Christian confession "Jesus is my Lord and Savior," that is a politically subversive act. It was Caesar Augustus who used the titles Lord and Savior and those continued to be used by the Roman emperors. Christians claim that it is not the empire which has sovereignty and the power of salvation. Instead, it is a Jewish peasant who was crucified by the empire.
So, I repeat that the church is an alternative politics, which should always speak a prophetic and critical word to any human government. Because no matter what government it is, or what party is in charge, every human government will be part of the structures of sin, part of the powers-that-be which are fallen and in need of redemption. Every human government will pale in comparison to the vision of the Kingdom of God.
The church, therefore, should never become aligned with a human government or a political party, because it is too easy for the church to then become corrupted and diverted from its global mission. This is the theological and spiritual problem with pastors endorsing political candidates from the pulpit, as many have recently done. Once they have endorsed, then they have aligned themselves with a human power, not a divine power. And, I don't know about you, but I'd much rather be aligned with the power of God.
Christianity is an eschatological religion, believing that the world can and will be a better place. It cannot become a religion supporting the status quo without betraying its core identity.
So, I believe it is my calling as a pastor to be fully engaged in society and to lead my congregation in that direction. The last two weeks are a good example. Last Monday I was part of a meeting of interfaith leaders who are planning to introduce new hate crimes legislation in the next legislative session, and we were strategizing how to do that. On Wednesday I was part of a group organizing an anti-bullying conference to draw attention to the bullying of gay, transgender, Latino, and Muslim students in Oklahoma schools. This Tuesday I spent four hours in a meeting with the diversity team from a corporation which is relocating to Oklahoma City. Their diversity team had concerns with the cultural and political climate here and wanted to talk to local progressive leaders about their concerns. And last night I was standing with around 1,000 other people on the campus of Oklahoma City University in a silent demonstration to counter the protest by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, you might know them as the "God hates fags" people, who were there protesting against the play The Laramie Project, which is about the murder of Matthew Shepherd ten years ago this month.
For me the church's engagement in social justice issues flows from the core doctrines and practices of the faith. If we are not witnessing to the truth that the world can be a better place than we are not forming our spirits according to teachings of Jesus.
Now, there are those who disagree with my interpretation of Christian scripture and the practices of the faith. So, I want to close with a story that illustrates how once the church accommodates itself to the status quo, that it distorts the faith, malforms the conscience, and abandons its calling to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
In 2003 I was on vacation in Mississippi . . .