Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I'm Dreaming of a Debt-Free Christmas

Bobby said I should put today's sermon on the blog. OK...here goes:

Is Jesus Your Personal (and Political) Lord and Savior?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 25th, 2007
Reign of Christ Sunday


If there is one thing that will get ministers in trouble, it is to bring politics into the pulpit. It doesn’t matter if they are correct to do so or not, or correct in their views or not, mixing politics and preaching is like mixing potassium and water--it is explosive.


Most ministers, wisely, avoid it.

The problem, for those of us who are wise, is that we have to ignore most of the Bible, we have to ignore Jesus, and virtually all of Christian history. Or if we don’t ignore it, we spiritualize it.

What I mean by spiritualize is this. When Jesus is recorded as saying,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

..he meant that spiritually as in poor in spirit, captive to sin, blind in their hearts, oppressed by personal demons and so forth.

Theology over the centuries has largely been an exercise in de-politicizing the Gospel.

If an alien from the far reaches of the galaxy were to visit Earth, observe Christian preaching and report back what it is that preachers do, the alien would say something like this:

“Earthlings do an interesting thing on Sunday morning. They pay this guy to preach from a book and reward him when he completely misses the point.”

Or the alien might saying something like this: “The preacher preaches about a guy named Jesus without ever saying what Jesus said.”

Christianity over the centuries turned the spirituality of Jesus into a superstition about Jesus.

To put it one more way: Jesus preached about the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The church said, “No thanks, we would rather just go to heaven when we die.”

I admit that what I have said so far has been pretty harsh. I have also used hyperbole. I think, however, my observation is valid.

Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich tells of her experience of visiting a tent revival in Portland, Maine. The preacher was preaching about Jesus on the cross. She looked at the audience, mostly impoverished people, and she thought:

“It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”[i]

Consider the cross. We have one here on the wall. It is huge. It is beautiful. Nice wood. A work of art. I see crosses everywhere. Madonna, the pop singer, wears a cross. I guess now her protégé, Britney Spears, wears one as well. I even wear one. The cross is the symbol for Christianity.

What does this cross mean? Most folks would answer that the cross represents the spiritual truth that Jesus died for our sins. Then those with more theological knowledge will talk about the sin of Adam and Eve that we have inherited just by being human. This sin is so damaging that it has dishonored God. We deserve eternal death and condemnation. A sacrifice is needed to satisfy God’s justice, this debt to God. We can’t pay the debt. Only God can, so Jesus the God/Man is substituted for us. He suffers and dies on the cross in our place.

I don’t mean to mock or belittle. That view may have its value for helping some people come to terms with their personal issues. But this theological theory is a major move away from what the cross was in the time of Jesus.

The cross on our wall is a replica of an instrument of torture. The Roman Empire for centuries tortured and executed thousands of people (perhaps tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands) of people by crucifixion. Jesus was one. We know that. We know the Good Friday story.

Yet, we know it in an incomplete way. The church has said that this one execution was more important than the others and this one had theological significance. With those theological moves, we lost, and we lose, the entire significance of Jesus in my view.

Rome, its Empire, its economic system, its methods of controlling dissidents and keeping peace, all were forgotten. Jesus, who criticized this system, who was tortured and executed because of this system, is forgotten. The people, their poverty and their oppression, are forgotten. The church lifted Jesus out of his historical setting and transformed him into a dying and rising God/Man.

The church was not concerned about the kingdom of God on Earth, but becoming a salvation machine so that people through the church and its sacraments alone, could enter the kingdom of God in Heaven after they died. Of course, without the church, they would end up in Hell.

Again, I don’t mean to belittle. It is not that that religion is a bad thing. It is just that it has nothing to do with Jesus. It has nothing to do with the reality in which he lived and taught. It has nothing to do with what really killed him.

I would also add that this popular myth of Jesus has nothing to do with the realities in which we live. The real Jesus does resonate with our reality.

Religious scholar, Marcus Borg, has pointed out that Christianity is the only religion whose founder was executed by established authority. Think of it. The person whom we follow was a political criminal. Such a heinous criminal in the eyes of the government, that he deserved death by execution.

Who deserves death by execution? Really bad people, right? Murderers, mostly. Jesus wasn’t one of those. Who else gets executed? Traitors and those who threaten the peace and security of the government. These are political criminals. Rome might have called Jesus an insurgent. I don’t think Jesus was violent. His insurgency was a non-violent insurgency.

His dream was the kingdom of God on Earth. What would our political, social and economic life be like if we were organized by the principles of justice?

Don’t think that Jesus didn’t deserve his execution. By Rome’s standards, Jesus was a threat. He had a following. He was about change. The Gospel of Luke records Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown. After he finished his own townspeople wanted to throw him off of a cliff.

You know he was not preaching about seven habits of highly effective people, how to get rich with the gospel or how to get to heaven when you die. He preached about realities, about injustice, and about change. He invited them to join. But they were afraid of him.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

If you think that changing the health care system in the United States is a monumental task, imagine what Jesus was up against. “Come on board,” he said. “We can do this.”

But they didn’t like it. Too much politics in the pulpit. Jesus ran into that wherever he went.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God, is in your hands, let’s do it. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. What are you waiting for?” Excuse my paraphrasing, but I think that is what he was saying.

It got him in trouble. He threatened the system. He threatened progress. Rome was doing quite well. They were building and building and building. The Temple in Jerusalem was Herod’s masterpiece. To fund it and his other projects required taxes. People had to give up their subsistence farms to huge absentee landlords and grow crops for this landlord. It made crop-growing more efficient. It moved the economy. The people lost their homes and their lands. Yet some folks did quite well. It is progress, after all.

Jesus didn’t play along with this vision of progress. He didn’t think it was the way to go.

In the gospels we find the story of Jesus’ disciples admiring the Temple. Like a bunch of country bumpkins from Montana visiting New York City. “Wow,” they said. “Look at this huge building!” Jesus wasn’t impressed. “One day there will not be one stone on top of another,” he said.

Jesus was not impressed with progress at the expense of people. He was executed as a threat to Rome and to the local authorities who ran the Temple which had been co-opted by Rome. Jesus wasn’t that much of a threat, probably. He was a local problem. Rome and the temple authorities used him as an example of what happens to those who disturb the peace.

It was good the church made a religion of him. In so doing, we preserved his story. The story has been altered beyond recognition, but it is still there. It has always been there. Throughout history, people have glimpsed his real significance. It has been repressed by the bearers of the mythical dying and rising salvation machine, but it is still there. We are at a time in our history, in which we can hear again the real story of Jesus, if we dare.

Jesus’ setting differs from our setting of course in many ways. Yet there are many things that are similar. Rome needed to grow. It needed to expand. It needed to be fed. It became an ideology of progress. One thing that is similar in our time is that we as well are supposed to value an ideal of progress. We are supposed to value this thing we call “the economy.” Everything else is subservient to its growth. In every newscast we hear the numbers of how “the economy” is doing.

I am not an economist by a long shot. But I marvel at how much we worship this thing. It must grow. It must expand. Every year it must get larger. How much larger can it get? What feeds it? We read the news that America is at war. I have been told that is not true. I have been told that America is not at war. The United States’ military is at war. America is at the mall. We are feeding the economy.

A new documentary entitled, “What Would Jesus Buy?” follows Rev. Billy who calls people to stop spending themselves into debt. He stages protests at shopping malls and big retail outlets about the evils of consumerism for ourselves and for our planet. I think it is ironic that a fake preacher is the one who is preaching the message of Jesus.

According to the film, last year Americans spent 455 billion dollars during the holidays. Consumer credit debt is 2.3 trillion dollars. For what? A bunch of stuff that will end up in the landfill.

What is sinister is that we are supposed to do all of this shopping for “the economy.” The kingdom of God is not the economy at least as the economy has been presented to us. The kingdom of God is what life would be like if we really lived the message of Jesus.

Today is Reign of Christ Sunday. Today we speak about the politics of God. What is God’s economy? Jesus told all who would listen: “The kingdom of God is in your hands.” He told us through his parables and sermons that it is a vision of life in which everyone has enough food, healthcare, shelter, peace, productive work, and joy.

Well, I will finish my sermon with my radical political message. Don’t play along. It is not up to us to save “the economy.” Enjoy the holidays. Get into the spirit of Christmas. But don’t go into debt over it. The wily serpent will entice you with that credit card at the mall. Like Eve’s apple, it will be a delight to the eyes. Don’t bite! Get yourself a budget for the whole of Christmas. Plan it out. Have fun planning it out. Do fun things. Get the kids involved. Try not to watch too many television advertisements. Give to an alternative cause, like the Heifer Project or something. But whatever you do, do not go into debt this Christmas.

If we have to go into debt, trash the environment, use up resources, for the sake of “the economy,” then perhaps “the economy” is not worth it. Just a thought. Now I know some of you don’t have a problem with this. But please, out of empathy, join the rest of us. I will conclude with a call and response. Repeat after me:

I will not go into debt this Christmas.
I will not be stressed by Christmas.
I will deepen my spirituality.
I will enjoy Christmas.

Halleleujah!


[i] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 95-6.

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