The story is told about the youngsters passing a church building that was being torn down to make way for a new one. One of the boys, dismayed at the partially destroyed structure, exclaimed, “Look, they’re going out of business.”
While few would say the church is going out of business, there are many who are wondering just what the church’s business really is. The question uppermost in the minds of concerned individuals is how we, as free peoples, can win the struggle for dignity, integrity, and lasting peace for mankind everywhere. The consensus of the most discerning and dedicated leaders is that there must be a rediscovery of the free world’s spiritual resources, the reviving of a dynamic religious faith. This means specifically a renewal of the Christian church. Historically, we have our precedent in Pentecost, and the secret is wrapped up in Acts 4:31,
And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke the word of God with boldness.
And this needs to happen in the church today. William Barclay in “The Promise of the Spirit,” relates how Rita Snowden was walking with a friend in a village in southern England. They came to a little church and entered. There were 3 in the choir, about 20 in the congregation, and the vicar. Says the authoress:
Hymn and psalm and prayer, and the quiet murmuring voice of the vicar tended to take my thoughts out of the windows in the morning sunlight and over the fields and far away. The pity is, it was all so harmless, so gentle, so proper.
This was Jesus’ great criticism of the church into which He was born. It was so proper, so pompous, so respectable. In effect, they hung a sign on the door, “Do Not Disturb.” And because the itinerant minister from Nazareth stirred them up, disregarded their time-honored traditions, exposed their smug pretenses, challenged their deceitful practices, they did away with Him.
Herein is the wonder of the “abidingness” of the people of God. As head of the church, Jesus Christ is forever probing, prodding, provoking His followers, insisting to the point of irritation that we remain sensitive to our own shortcomings and alert to the ever-changing and expanding needs of the world about us. Through His ceaseless chastening and challenging of His followers, our Lord saves the church from stagnation.
Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, once said that the Christian is a person who carries the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. This statement carries a wealth of implications for the modern churchman. Unquestionably it places the church squarely in the midst of everyday life. It implies that the God who used nations and peoples to fulfill his purposes, still is doing so, and that He still is raising the issues that trouble men’s hearts.
The church in the world is a concept resisted strongly by many people, both in and out of the churches. Social action committees and boards, where they exist, are stiffly opposed by those who feel that the church has no business getting involved with slum dwellers, Senators, or blacks. In spite of this, the spirit of social concern and action is nothing new to the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Those who molded the religious attitudes and faith of the Hebrew nation were very much aware of the activity of their god in history. They saw Israel as a chosen people, a people through whom God was to reveal the ultimate meanings and values of human life. Oppressed, despised, and without hope in Egypt, their escape was interpreted as a supreme act of love and mercy on the part of their God, whom they called Yahweh. Although they fought hundreds of years for the land of Canaan, it was viewed as the Promised Land, a gift for which they had not labored. As their land had not been given as a gift, so had life. Man was a steward, not an owner. God had set His love on the downtrodden, and so too should His people. There were no such things as social action committees, for social concern and action were a part of everyday existence. The widow, the orphan, the poor, the helpless, all were to be cared for, because God had remembered the Israelites in their time of great need.
A similar theme runs throughout the messages of the prophets. By the time they appeared later in the history of Israel, the nation had undergone a basic re-orientation. A monarchy had replaced the theocracy. A strong military provided security for an insecure people, trade had expanded, and the people were sampling various culture religions. Enjoying an unprecedented affluence, the people no longer assumed that God had chosen them to show the world how men should love their neighbors as themselves. The measure of a man’s life now had become the quantity of goods he owned; the object of his life was to achieve comfort and ease.
For three centuries various prophets walked the land attempting to slash through the apathy. They asked discomforting questions, and they reminded the people of God’s covenant. In Isaiah 3, the prophet delivers a scorching indictment of the waste and improper use of wealth. He was incensed that the women could prance about the marketplace in their finery while the poor continued to be crushed. In Amos 5, we have that prophet’s denunciation of the hypocrisy of the pious worshippers, in cutting yet poetic words:
I hate, I despise your feats, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will no listen.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The prophets spoke not in the name of social action. They were not chairmen of any committees or church boards. They spoke only in the name of their God and in the tradition of their faith.
And then there was a carpenter from a place called Nazareth. A man of controversy, He was described by some as a glutton and a drunk, while others contended that in His life were to be found the keys to the salvation of the human spirit. Articulating what He considered to be His mission, Jesus read from the Scriptures:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Throughout His short life, He ran a collision course with the pious and religious men of His day. He was called a blasphemer and a breaker of God’s law.
Jesus was not concerned with worshiping institutions or customs. He was concerned with showing men what it meant to be truly human ---
I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.
Whatever forces limited the full and abundant divine gift of life, were opposed by Jesus, whether they were restrictive religion, poverty, hate, pride, or false piety.
THIS is the Judaeo-Christian tradition, heritage to which we are responsible and you say that we should not talk about poor housing, race discrimination, ghettoes, starving people, unemployment, etc? The Biblical world and the world of the 20th century are radically different, but our obligations are the same.
There is no mention in the Bible of slums, public education or nuclear weapons. Should we then take the position that the Christian faith has nothing to say about such matters? To do so would be to deny the basic content of our faith. The Judaeo-Christian tradition holds that God is Lord over every minute aspect of life; that the mercy and graciousness with which God has dealt with us should govern our relations with others; that the worth and meaning of one’s life is not measured by the quantity of goods possessed; that whatever destroys authentic human life must be resisted.
The problems against which the judges, the prophets, and Jesus struggled are still with us – only their form has changed. Our predecessors worked within the structure of their society in the service of God and man, and so must we work within ours.
For example, at times the Hebrews lived under a monarchy. We govern ourselves under a democracy, electing certain individuals to conduct the affairs of the community and the nation. We give them authority to affect the lives of millions of people. In the hands of the President of this country, we place the power to destroy the lives of all the inhabitants of this planet.
It seems elementary that Christian people, spiritual descendants of Moses, Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus – should be acutely concerned with the way their leaders administer affairs, which affect the lives of all God’s children. If we REALLY believe what our faith has to say, we cannot help but be concerned:
that honest and capable people be elected and appointed to office;
that the sick and elderly be given proper care;
that the poor be given not just a dole, but a chance to become useful, productive, and respected members of society;
that the Black be recognized and treated as a human being, with all the implications this involves;
that the nuclear arms race be ended;
that the hungry and diseased people all over the world be added, regardless of the labels which artificially classify them by nationality and politics.
If the Christian really believes that life is a gift from God to be lived responsibly and joyfully, this presents a problem concerning the use of leisure time. Sitting for hours in front of a TV or arduously fighting crabgrass in suburbia while the poor are crushed in the inner city, should make a lot of Christians feel guilty.
Price fixing, misuses of union power, waste by government departments, dishonest officials, race relations, election campaigns, tax levies, urban renewal, underemployment, inadequate incomes, rotten housing, lack of police protection for Blacks – these are not just political or economic problems – they are, above all else, HUMAN problems. Policies which affect the lives of millions cannot be sloughed off as someone else’s problems. All these concerns spring naturally from the Christian faith. Unfortunately they have been narrowed in scope and labeled, “Property of the Social Action Committee.”
In our churches today, they are the property of the Social Concerns Committee or Board, even though they have historically been the concern of the entire religious community. So the Social Concerns committees have to break through apathy, and confront the congregations with problems that call for Christian concern and action.
What of the churches today? Do they see their mission clearly enough to recognize the theological imperative for social concern and action? Of course not, for the most part!! Look in a mirror, and get your answer.
Churchgoing, not professional football, has replaced baseball as America’s number one spectator sport, and for this reason the Christian faith has lost its identity. By a process of cultural osmosis a diluted, watered-down, lowest-common-denominator form of Christianity has been adopted as America’s national religion, and officials in Washington, D.C. lead us all in this hypocrisy. Sometimes I am not optimistic about this cultural institution we know as the church, nor about its prospects for awakening the consciences of its members to their social responsibilities. Certainly more genuinely Christian programs have been undertaken by concerned people outside the church than most churchgoers ever dreamed of. God works in wonderful and mysterious ways and will continue to work, whether it be through the churches or not. And I say this not to discourage the potential social activists and mission-minded saints in the pews, but only to inject a note of realism. For example, it was NOT the churches that took the lead in the struggle for racial justice, but the Supreme Court of the United States. And only in recent years, amid much resentment from rank and file Christians, have some courageous church leaders become actively engaged in a practical manner to oppose discrimination.
If, as some contend, the racial issue will split the churches wide open and cause a great loss of membership and money, it would probably be the best thing that has happened to the church since Martin Luther raised a few eyebrows back in the 16th century.
How often we hear it said, “religion and politics do not mix” – perhaps people who say this are afraid of the results of the mixing. And no doubt this accounts for the persistent criticism of the church throughout its history. Because it is revolutionary, Christianity always has proved disturbing to those who prefer “things as they are,” those who have a stake in the status quo. Whether it be the scribes and Pharisees reacting against Jesus’ attacks on their legalistic methods or slave-traders recoiling against abolitionist William Wilberforce, Christian efforts to change the status quo always have drawn fire.
A standard rejoinder is that things of the Spirit and things of the flesh simply do not mix, that the Church should not meddle in politics. When we are honest, we KNOW, beyond any doubt, that the forces of religion MUST be concerned about people and all the conditions and institutions which influence their lives. So the church is under a MANDATE TO MEDDLE, in politics, in poverty, in housing, in racism, in unemployment, in air pollution, in forestry conservation. Yes, the church may make mistakes in commenting on the political order, but error is one of the risks of relevancy, and the obvious alternative is irrelevancy, the death of the church as we know it.
And certainly no religious organization has been subject to more criticism and misunderstanding through the years than the Congregational Church, now the United Church of Christ. But where are the local churches of our denomination when we consider this MANDATE TO MEDDLE? Where is THIS church?
A Congregational Church in Bakersfield, Calif., has one member who has answered it for his church, for the first Sunday the new pastor approached the pulpit, he found an anonymous note tacked there saying,
“If you want to remain in this church, you do not preach about race, politics, housing, migrant workers, working conditions, poverty.”
Open discussion of honest differences of opinion is an expected part of our democratic processes, but some churchmen, attempting to bring the Christian Gospel to bear on the complex problems of today, find themselves accused of everything from simple meddling to outright treason and atheism – charges that never have any true bearing on the real issues in question. Will such twisted tactics by extremists subvert freedom of the pulpit and muzzle the prophetic voice of the church?
This “hands-off” attitude is the same view of the role of the church as demanded by the Communistic regimes in Russia and China. The assumption is that the church must confine itself to the area of personal piety and private devotion. It must isolate itself from the social, economic, political, and cultural interests of the people.
Why should the church in our land adopt the policy forced upon it in other lands by totalitarian states? If more churchmen had spoken out boldly in Germany thirty years ago, the world would not have heard of the Third Reich. The Church MUST pursue its prophetic role with urgency, regardless of the criticism that to speak on the problems of society is not of its range of responsibility.
The church MUST not be muted in its efforts to hold our social and political conditions up to the light that comes from the Gospel. To proclaim the Lordship of Christ, the church cannot exempt any part of human life from its domain. To label the church as meddling when it lifts its voice in prophetic announcement, is to attack the process of reconciliation of society with the Ten Commandments, the message of the prophets, the Sermon on the Mount.
And let it be understood clearly, the church in speaking on this vast multitude of problems of our day, speaks not so much for the constituency as TO it. In the most vital periods of history, the prophetic voice of the church has been the voice of light; to be silent now in the realms of human concern and need, is to say “The Lordship of Christ covers only one hour on Sunday morning, not all of life, as man has to live it day by day.”
Two things the early apostles realized about the Word of God – it was real, not rhetorical!! God the Father had spoken not in language but in life. So they declared the Word as the authority, the action, the power of the Almighty. They preached events not ideas – what had happened, not hearsay!! The reality of the relevancy of the Word of God, the word FROM God.
We have our commission, our mandate to meddle, “Go into all the world” – “and lo, I am with your always.” To forsake the mission is to forfeit the promise.
In the quiet of these closing moments of our worship, O God, we ponder the words we have heard from this pulpit. What has been said in error, correct, and what has been omitted, add; and lead us each one by Thy Spirit in the tasks that are ours to do in the coming days; through Jesus Christ we pray. AMEN.