"By Faith..."

The first in a series of messages on relating faith to issues in the news.

"By Faith..."
Romans 5:1-11

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

I'm excited for our new message series, "Holy Conversations." In fact, the only others more excited than me are Pastors Kerry and Gregg, since they don't have to preach! We'll explore topics in the news recently and how our faith speaks to them. The reaction to the series has either been excitement or dread- we'll see how it goes- if anything, it will be memorable!

When we decided to offer this series I set up a new folder in my email called Holy Conversations. For the past few months, every tweet from TEXAS MONTHLY or Amnesty International or THE ECONOMIST or THE HUFFINGTON POST that had to do with an issue for the series has gone in that file. This being an election year, these issues are much more prevalent. That folder in my email has more than 50 links for the series- and grows every day. So everyone is talking about stuff like immigration and marriage equality- except the church. Or, I should say, most churches. A few voices are out there, representing some viewpoints, but when the rest of us are silent there is a potential for danger.

During the last presidential election I was so interested in these questions that I offered two sermon series called "Ripped from the Headlines." I wrote my doctoral project on the experience, and we're building on those findings during this series. You know, because there is another presidential election this year. You knew that, right? After each 11:00 service we'll have an opportunity for further discussion, as well as a guest speaker. AND LUNCH. Plan to stay today to hear from Dr Bill McElvaney, a legendary preacher, teacher, and social justice advocate. You'll find the complete roster of guest speakers in the newsletter section of your bulletin.

I used to be a huge fan of THE SIMPSONS. One of my favorite characters was Grandpa, who lived in the local retirement home. There was a sign by the front door: "Thank you for not discussing the outside world." You'll notice on your bulletin cover we've placed the same sign outside the church (sorry, Mr Tree!). Many Christians, as well as congregations, have this attitude. Somehow it makes us more comfortable if we have an unwritten agreement to avoid any possibility of disagreement. A have an old friend whom I've known since PreK; he and I don't discuss politics anymore, because we could not figure out how to do so peaceably. But in the church we need these conversations. They help us to exercise our faith- and minds. People always dread politics in the church. "Keep the politics out." "The church is too political."

The word politics is derived from polis,  a Greek word for city- or any grouping of people. Any time people get together it's political. The grocery store, a Rangers game, a rally of some sort. When Jesus promised to be among any 2 or more who gather in his name, maybe it was because of the potential danger of politics! The word for religion is very similar. Religion refers to a ligament, a connector. Religion binds people together, including all of their opinions, disagreements, and views. In other words, religion is inherently political.

Recently the Pew Research Forum released results of a survey of religious people and their beliefs about faith and politics. They tracked how people felt about from 1968, the height of the Civil Rights movement, in which the Church had a major voice, and 2010. By 1968 a majority of Americans wanted the churches to retreat from the public discussion- 53%. Over the next three decades, however, that attitude changed. Fewer people wanted the churches to be silent- the number dropped to about 40%. The gap was narrowed because of two factors: the mainline, diverse churches stopped being socially active, and many far-right, fundamentalist voices sprang up. These voices were very divisive, but appealed to many people who were concerned with moral decay in the society. One of these leaders was Pat Robertson, who said this in 2004:

"We are in danger of becoming two Americas, not one. On one side are those who reject biblical norms and Christian values in favor of abortion-on-demand, radical feminism, intrusive central government, homosexual rights (including homosexual marriage), pornography and sexual license, weakened military defense, and ever-increasing role for non elected judges, and the removal of our historic affirmation of faith from the public arena.

On the other side are those who believe that biblical standards are truly the glue that holds society together. They are men and women who respect human life at every stage, who stand for the sanctity of marriage, who want limited government and lower taxes, and who do not wish to give veto power over public actions to tiny, radical minorities. We believe in free enterprise and a strong defense, and we want judges who serve in our courts to decide cases on the basis of established law rather than trying to write the law to suit their own whims."

Now, maybe you're thinking, "It's Pat Robertson and nobody listens to him anymore." Maybe so. But the idea that there are only two ways of seeing the world- conservative vs. liberal, freedom vs. tyranny- is not unique to Pat Robertson. During the 70s/80s/90s those voices became fewer and louder. And people responded. But now we've seen the pendulum swing in the other direction. Today the number of those wanting the church to be silent and removed from the public discourse is 53%~ the same as it was in 1968. People have become so tired of the rhetoric that they've had enough. This is especially striking among young people. Those under 30 by large majorities see the church as hypocritical, judgmental, and anti-gay. Even young people who self-identify as evangelical are in line with those trends. Another factor here is the dramatic increase of young people with no religious associations. Nearly 20% have no religious affiliation at all. They simply feel the churches do not reflect how they see the world.

See what happens when the church withdraws from the public discussion? There are no dissenting voices. No differing perspectives. No one is challenged, so faith and understanding cannot increase. We must not be  silent about our faith. It has such profound insights to share. In the Romans text Paul challenges Christians boast in their faith. Because of the grace we have received we boast about who we are- we even boast when we suffer trials. How can you boast if you are silent? How can churches be boastful about the extravagant grace of God if they are not allowed to speak? Grace, love, mercy, forgiveness... they would have a great impact on how people see us. In Bible study this week we read Hebrews, which is a letter meant to encourage those who are struggling with their faith. In Chapter 11 the writer lifts up the great heroes of the faith who achieved great things. Using the phrase "by faith" over and over, the writer exhorts us to remember the examples of our heritage: "By faith" Abel's offering was accepted. "By faith" Abraham followed God. "By faith" Moses appeared before Pharaoh. "By faith" the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. Then in Chapter 12 the writer encourages us to follow Jesus, the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith, as we finish the race ahead of us. No one boasts quietly. No one races alone.

The church is, by nature, political- it's got people in it! United Methodists have always understood our faith to be one that is active in the world. We have Social Principles, approved by every General Conference, which are tools to start conversations. They are not binding and do not reflect  every single person's viewpoint. You may not know this, but there is a United Methodist Building literally across the street from the Supreme Court and the US Capitol. We have an active voice in government. One of the consistent themes of Scripture is God's demand for a just society. We'll talk about it each week during the series. Persons of faith may not remain silent in the face of injustice. We must be the ones who speak out in the face of moral failure. Always respecting the rights of all, particularly those who disagree. The prophet Amos said, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." You and I, through our voices and actions, can start the water flowing!

Jesus called a broad spectrum of folk to be his disciples. They didn't all come from the same school, share the same occupation, etc. They were fishermen, tax collectors, religious zealots. You and I also come from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. It's what makes Oak Lawn a vital community. We want to be a place where we practice intentional diversity. Democrats and Republicans, Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. After Jesus had a final meal with his followers, he washed their feet and the prayed with them before his arrest. He said, "Everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another." And he prayed: "Father, as yo and I are one, so may they be one." Jesus did not pray for everyone to get along all the time, forever. He did not pray for everyone to be polite and happy all the time, forever. He prayed for unity. If you have unity in the church, then you can serve together, love together, share together. Regardless of your political affiliation. John Wesley spoke about a "catholic spirit" (little c- not the Roman Catholic Church). We can be united and diverse. It is possible!

A couple of years ago Christy, Linus, and I had lunch together. We stopped to pray before eating. During the meal, a man left his table and paused at ours. Placing a $20 bill on our table, he said he appreciated our faith. See- there are advantages to being a public Christian! Live out your faith. It's part of our DNA. Do it in a way that respects others' opinions, but don't be shy about expressing your faith. When we are silent, we concede the public conversation to the loudmouths. Then what happens is everyone assumes all Christians believe the same thing. Break your silence! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.