"Clearly Jesus believed he could honor what they [religious leaders, teachers, Pharisees] claimed to stand for, while shaming and insulting what they really stood for. And that's just what he did."
"It's not always out of line to criticize religious people, institutions, or practices. And that's what I'm going to do here today."
- Jesus certainly would say out loud just what he thinks about our churches today, and it would not all be pleasant.
- Many American churches have helped give Christianity a bad name and flavor, as shown in four particulars: a) focus on others' "sins" and our own "righteousness", b) neglect of the little people, c) listening to liars, d) support for unjust wars.
[My site address is publicchristian.com ]
ON WHAT ISSUES WILL AMERICAN CHRISTIANS BE JUDGED?
I. JESUS AND THE 'CHURCHES'
Talk to me. What do you remember about the relationship Jesus had with the religious establishment? (Brief pause, looking around.)
How did he get along with `the churches' and with their leaders? Of course they weren't `churches' in his day, but there were similar institutions. Did he ever have problems with them? Did he ever say anything disrespectful? What was the relationship like? (Some interaction.)
In fact there was a problem, as we all know. But it is important to remember that in fact Jesus had a lot of love and respect for these institutions: the temple, the priesthood, the Scriptures, the synagogues.
He was in synagogues very regularly on the Sabbath. In fact, he was often on the platform. Now that was no mean feat in those days. It meant he had a lot of respect and credibility among the powers that be in the religious community - and that often included some of the movers and shakers in the secular community. A synagogue in a city like Capernaum was a major center of influence and money in the society of the town. And Jesus was honored and welcomed in that synagogue, and in many others.
However, he did not pull any punches. He said whatever he felt really needed saying. Here are some examples.
"Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts ... (Mark 3:5)
In this case he was up front, in charge of the service at that point, and very much the focus of attention. It was one of those set-ups where they wanted him to step out of line, and he did so, on purpose. He looked at the man who needed healing, then asked for all to hear, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" And he waited and looked around at them for an answer. Well, that's an unanswerable question, an insult in fact, given the way they were operating. So they kept silent. But he also was insulted, because there were obviously serious issues that needed facing that day in that place, and they would not face those issues. And they went out furious.
"He looked around at them in anger." Up front, in church, without words, his anger showed. This was a very serious confrontation, and everyone present knew it.
Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely." (Luke 20:46,47)
"Devoured widows houses." Really? Yes, really. And that happens today, fairly often. People in positions of authority in American Christianity taking money from people who cannot afford it and in return not giving what they are contracted to give, which those people whose money they are taking really need. I've seen it literally, taking widow's houses, "to support the ministry," which meant to support the so-called ministers.
Clearly Jesus believed he could honor what they claimed to stand for, while shaming and insulting what they really stood for - how these real people actually behaved in practice. And that's just what he did.
My point is that it's not always out of line to criticize religious people, institutions, or practices. And that's what I'm going to do here today. I see some important ways in which many Christians and churches in this country are showing a very bad face to the world around us, and we need to be talk about that.
And, shock of shocks, the name of one or two political parties may come up - in fact, will come up. Especially the Republican party. Now I know that can be a shock. I know Christians - literally - who are more offended if you criticize the Republican party than if you criticize St Paul, the Prophets, or even Jesus Himself. That's the truth. Many conservative churches have developed a very close, virtually symbiotic relationship with the Republican party over the past few decades, so much so that to talk about one is to talk about the other. I'm not here to talk about the Republicans, but about the churches. But the Republican party will come up a couple of times. Just so you're warned in advance.
II. THE CHURCHES AND ME
A few days ago I received an angry email. Here are a couple of sentences from near the end of that email.
I'm just very concerned because you are helping my son to turn further and further away from church. How can you call yourself a Christian when the goal of your website is to turn people away from church. Talk about wolves in sheep clothing!"
I wrote a short response to that and put it on my web site. Part of my response was to point out incidents like we just talked about where Jesus criticized the `churches' of his day. And there are really quite a few of those incidents.
But I also responded to the charge that I'm helping young people turn away from the church. I wrote:
>"It pains me to see young people leave the church. I know some of these kids, and I promise you, many of them would really like to be involved. They want something honest and realistic and healing. I do not encourage them to leave their churches; I applaud them for staying and trying to make things better."
"But, as in Jesus' day, there are some things that must be said. I'm not the one driving youth from the churches; many churches have proven very capable of doing that without my assistance. I'm trying to show them that the churches, in spite of appearances, are carriers of the most precious of truths."
Here are some comments other people added to that article after it appeared.
1. As one of the people who left the church, I assure you that people like you are one of the few reasons I've ever seen to go back. The few times I have gone back though, I met people more like the ones who post hateful replies here. I go back less and less now.
2. I haven't left the church, but I have to say that since the election I've been thinking about it a lot more. And it has nothing to do with this website except insofar as this site points out just how sadly the churches are doing at relating to reality. Not to mention Biblical reality.
3. I keep thinking there must be some way that we can re-build Christian community closer to the way it should be, but because so many people have left the church it's hard to find them. This actually seems like the best way we have until we can find another way to bring them back.
4. I have to say that I am in the same boat. Having been taught that "church hopping" is nearly a sin, I stuck with the same church for years until I could no longer take it. ... I really am not looking for a comfortable sermon or for a whole church to agree with me.. I am fine with worshiping alongside christians that I don't agree with 100% in terms of theology, however, when the main preaching is spun ... then I feel i run the risk to become hardened and blind. I totally understand why people stop going..
These comments say that the church in America is being used and abused and made a fool of. These and others who comment on these issues see the church - and its Gospel - being profoundly misrepresented on the American public scene. I believe they are very right in seeing it that way.
And many believers are being forced out of the churches, because they see the churches as not practicing what they preach, or as not preaching what the Bible asks them to preach.
III. I want to mention FOUR AREAS WHERE I SEE REAL PROBLEMS with our credibility and our behavior as Christians.
First, Emphasizing Other Peoples' Sins and Our Own Righteousness.
This the world sees through INSTANTLY! And they rightly despise it.
In Isaiah 58 God is complaining to people who are faithful and energetic in their worship celebrations. You'd think God would be pleased.
To them he says, among other things, "Do AWAY with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk." Notice how oppression and blaming the victim of your oppression go together. C S Lewis says that when we mistreat those we dislike, our hatred for them increases. Maybe that's why so many non-Christians, and so many who have left the churches, use words like "hateful" and "intolerant" about us. Maybe they are right.
Did you know that Paul talks about greed - he equates it with idolatry - more than he talks about homosexuality? But the churches and the religious political activists don't. And many Christians certainly don't get as angry about greed as about homosexuality. But Jesus did. He also mentioned greed a number of times, and he never did specifically mention homosexuality.
We get so worked up about sexual immorality among homosexuals we don't know, and seldom mention pornography usage among fellow church members, or habitual flirting or other types of adulterous behavior. American culture is soaked in invitations to heterosexual immorality, and the Bible repeatedly speaks against it. But where was the Christian support for a constitutional amendment against heterosexual immorality? In fact we honor preachers who are guilty of those behaviors.
Now how does a lot of that come into our homes? Hey, how about if we launched a boycott of cable tv? Six months. No cable in millions of Christian homes. And write a few letters explaining why. Wow. That would send a message. And not only would it not cost us anything, it would actually save us money. But we don't do that. Instead we rage about other peoples' homosexuality.
Do you think the world does not pick up on this hypocrisy?
We rant and rave about the lack of prayer in school. But there are far greater and more common injustices and outrages going on in our schools regularly, and we hardly make a peep. I know those of us here who work in education pour our hearts into it and do the absolute best we can. But we know there are things that are just not right. Yet Christians fuss loudly and repeatedly about whether we have prayer in schools.
Do you remember? Jesus in fact insulted those who were concerned to pray in public. So did the Old Testament prophets. Jesus said, "Go into your closet ... and your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you openly." Now which would be better - to force people to pray, or pretend to pray, in public, or to go pray in private ourselves and actually get answers to our prayers? I think it would be better to actually be getting answers.
There was a politician in another Christian nation some years back who had a lot of support from the churches. They saw him as good for the economy; he was good for national pride and self-esteem; he stood up against the nation's enemies; he was against Communists and liberals; he was against gays.
Sounds like a `moral values' candidate to me! Do you know who it was?
His name was Adolf Hitler.
He gave people targets for their anger and hate: Jews, liberals and Communists, foreigners, homosexuals. He knew that hate is a tremendous motivator. And he burned down Europe with it.
A Lutheran pastor named Martin Neimoller spoke out, was arrested in 1937, and finished the war in a concentration camp. In the years following he made many speeches here in the US, and often ended with lines like these:
In Germany they came first for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me--and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Second, Accepting and Repeating Falsehood
1. A high official in the White House said recently, "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Well, we may force our views on people, maybe on millions of people, but we do not "create our own reality." And REAL reality will sooner or later come back to bite us.
2. Almost everything I've heard about John Kerry from Christians in the last few months has been false - demonstrably false. Why is that? That should not even be possible.
3. A Pew research poll about politics and religion found that most people supporting the Iraq war believed several falsehoods about that war. And I mean "falsehoods", not disagreements. These are facts that are publicly available and easily researched. Most who were not supporting the Iraq war did not believe those falsehoods. But all agreed that those ideas had been disseminated by the Administration itself. Why did Christians not pick up on this kind of discrepancy?
4. Rush Limbaugh -- It is well known that Rush's talk is laced with lies and slander, frequent malice and hate, obvious self-worship, contempt for law and for people who honor the rule of law. Rush injections incite anger and malice in his listeners. There is much anger among men in our churches, and I know that regular doses of Rush and people like him keep that anger and irritation at an edge.
This is not good for you. I tried to listen to Rush. I decided it was not good for me, but that I would allow him up to 10 lies per day, then shut him off. The most time he got from me under those terms was 15 minutes. The experiment only lasted a few days. Why do I want to drink in lies & hate?
Third, Disregarding `the least of these'
Matthew 25:44,45 "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
When Chelsea was little her family moved. In the new state, Indiana, they applied for state medical aid for her, but it never came through. So they put her medication on credit cards. When the cards were maxed out, Connie took her to an emergency room. There they called Connie negligent and threatened to take Chelsea away because Connie was not providing her with medication. That got straightened out, but that kind of thing IS coming for many of us, given the direction we are clearly and rapidly moving.
Friday's New York Times quoted a mother from Tennessee, which once had an widely admired health security system, but whose system is now on the ropes. The mother said, referring to her 12-year old daughter, "Why, in a country this wealthy, must parents choose to watch their children die?" Why indeed?
The tax credit companies get for providing health insurance for their employees is being removed. I'm relatively safe, with my retirement, but not entirely so. But what about you? What about the many Americans out there who will literally die prematurely because this extremely wealthy nation will not see to it that health care is available to its working people?
Our good jobs leave the country, and poor jobs increase. A man I know in this state can own two fast food stores for a few years, and retire in his mid-forties with $1million in the bank. But the people who work in those stores get few or no benefits, and will soon do without hope of overtime pay. How do you raise kids on $7 or $8 / hour? How do you retire on $8 or $9 an hour? I don't know just what, but something very inappropriate is going on here.
Does Jesus care? Do non-believers around us SEE that Jesus cares? I know all the economic and philosophical arguments. But I also know that Jesus said, "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment."
Fourth, supporting unjust, unjustifiable, and murderous wars
You've heard that classic quote from the Viet Nam conflict. "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." If it's MY village, I might prefer that you not try to save it! Our technology and our people were being used to kill 100's of thousands of Vietnamese who never wanted us there in the first place and were very willing to die to make us leave. Our government kept telling us, right up to the very end, what wonderful things we were accomplishing over there - how we were winning the hearts and minds of the people - how well `Vietnamization' was working.
I supported our troops back then by wanting to see the government get honest about how it was using and misusing our troops, and about what was really happening over there. Surely that is an appropriate Christian approach to government.
Today our troops are being misused even more dishonestly, and in ways that are even harder on their families, and are then being recalled after they return home - or if disabled, they come back to find veterans medical resources being cut. AND, as back then, the government is telling us about the wonderful things we're doing over there, how we're bringing democracy and crippling the insurgency (an insurgency that did not even exist a year ago), and how the Iraqis are on the verge of taking over all the hard stuff.
But worst of all they - and our powerful technologies - are again being used to kill dozens of thousands of innocent civilians. They may have welcomed some help, but they never asked us to come and take over their country and destroy it and create thousands of new terrorists in the process.
Again I support our troops by asking our government to get honest about how it is using and misusing our troops, their families, and our veterans, and about how we are killing scores of thousands of people who would never have been our enemies if we had behaved honestly in the first place. Surely that is an appropriate Christian approach to the powers that be.
If we do not know what our government is doing in our name - and even in the name of Christ - we are still responsible.
Here are a few more quotes. These are from other blogs and online discussions in the last 2 or 3 weeks.
1. What I am referring to are the connections that the religious right has built to the supremely immoral side of the Republican Party who give away riches to the rich, forget about the poor and the needy, and sleep content while bombing into extermination the villages of other countries in the name of civilization and Christianity.
2. My wife and I just changed churches to get away from the people who act as if God and the GOP are interchangeable.
3. I have been very troubled with how so many of my fellow brothers & sisters in Christ just go along with the republican party and its garbage. I believe Bush has had his opportunity to live his faith and failed our country majorly. I cannot, in good conscious, vote him into another term. I deeply sorrow over what we have become as a country. We are disliked around the world and God have mercy on us for the what we have sown. I do not want to reap it. I don't want my children and grandchildren to reap it.
I don't like talking about these things. I never have spoken about such issues from the pulpit in all my fifty-nine years - but I think I should have. What do I want from this? I want two things. I want us to realize there are very genuine, very thoughtful Christians, some of the best Christians in this country, who disagree with us about some of these things, whatever our position. To be a Christian does not automatically mean one is a Republican (or a Democrat). And I want us to realize that in many ways the churches truly are presenting a very bad face to the world around us. We do have to talk about that.
Let me close with a prayer that was recently posted as a comment on my website.
"I haven't gone to church in over twenty years. Born again in a Southern Baptist church, I had gone to many different churches, including Methodists, Assembly of God, Nazarene, and many more. But more and more, I found the churches were no longer focusing on the message of Jesus, of forgiveness and love, of being humble.
"Now, even more than then, there is arrogance, pride, self-righteousness, even hatred. ... It's breaking my heart. How can people not see?
"Heavenly Father, I forgive all who have ever committed any offense against me. Forgive me for going astray. I could not find You for so long, but You were never lost. I was. Help me to not hate those who are blind. I humbly ask you to forgive me of all sin. Please, give me Your strength to endure what is to come, and keep me from being blinded to the truth. And please, help others to see.
"Even if I cannot be forgiven, I hope you will hear my prayer for others. My heart is breaking for those who cannot see. My tears blind me, my spirit is broken, and I beseech You to reach out to Your children, before it is too late. Nothing is impossible for You. I love you, Father, and I can only trust that You know my heart. In the depths of my despair, for myself and for others, You are the only answer, the only hope. Great God, please forgive all of us, for our hatred, our arrogance, our pride. I pray you hear my plea, in Jesus' name. Amen.
Excuse me, I can hardly see to type. Don't know where that came from, but I'm ripped up right now. Be back later.
by Larry Harvey (a sermon delivered Nov 21, 2004, at the Vineyard church in Curtis NE)