There has been a lot of talk in the press during the past year about the so called “Culture Wars.” You know – whether or not the 10 Commandments can be posted in the public courts, whether or not the institution of marriage can be redefined, whether or not to keep the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, whether or not the federal government can fund religiously sponsored social programs, whether or not there needs to be a limit on stem cell research, whether or not there can be a public prayer before a public school football game, whether or not the creation story in Genesis can be taught as scientific theory along with concepts of natural selection. These and other seemingly endless controversies involving religion and culture (along with the commotion around Mel Gibson and his movie The Passion and the ever so current hullabaloo surrounding SpongeBob SquarePants) have gotten a lot press in recent months.
Now many of these subjects are important areas of debate and provoke passionate responses by folks on both sides of the issue. But I wonder, if our Lord came back tomorrow what would he think about some of these topics? Would he jump in and set us all straight? Would he debate the pundits, theologize with the preachers, write editorials in the newspapers? Maybe. Or maybe he wouldn’t talk about many of these subjects at all. Maybe he would spend his time raising completely different topics, preaching and teaching about completely different matters.
I mean, when you read our lessons for this morning you can’t help but wonder – are we at least in part missing the point? Are we more like the Pharisees and the Scribes who argued with Jesus about the letter of the law and completely missed its heart? If our Lord came back tomorrow what subjects would he think worth arguing about?
It is an interesting question and one I certainly cannot answer. But if the words of Holy Scripture say anything to us this morning then they ought to make it clear that within our current cultural debates there are several subjects that seem to get little attention. “What does the Lord require of you,” Micah asks, “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Who is “blessed,” Jesus tells us – the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, those who suffer for the sake of the Good News. When does our faith take on our culture in regard to these topics? Where are the Christians screaming for justice, demanding kindness, lifting up the poor, thirsting for righteousness, praising the peacemakers and the merciful? I know they are out there but why are all these other arguments so much louder, so much more demanding of our attention?
There is an old story from the writings of the Desert Fathers (a group of some of the earliest Christian monks) that goes, “A brother asked one of the elders, saying: ‘There are two brothers, of whom one remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is the most pleasing to God?’ The elder replied: ‘If that brother who fasts six days at a time were to hang himself up by the nose, he would not equal the one who takes care of the sick.’”
Quite frankly there are just some teachings from scripture that we cannot escape, some commands from our God that we cannot replace with our piety or our good intentions. They are the meat and potatoes of the faith. They are the indispensable tenants of the faith that cut across all of Scripture. Today in Micah and Matthew we are given a large helping of God’s meat and potatoes. In other words, God’s call to do justice, love kindness and Jesus’ declaration about those who are blessed are among those pieces of scripture that are fundamental when it comes to how Christians are supposed to behave. And yet I wonder – where are the voices lifting up these central teachings in our current cultural debates?
We live in an age when being a Christian can seem quite confusing. There is a push for Christians to choose up sides, for Christians to further define themselves with ever increasing labels. People aren’t just Christians anymore they are Christian liberals, Christian conservatives or (God forbid) moderate Christians. Some in the media would have us think that American Christianity is synonymous with the Republican Party, while others mock the idea that real Christians can be anything other than liberal Democrats. But God doesn’t belong to a political party; God’s will for his children transcends the labels of politics and our current cultural divisions.
Increasingly as I move around the wider Church I encounter more and more people who are pushing back against these old labels. Many of them are young people who are fed up and deeply saddened by divisions that have separated good people one from another by arbitrary lines drawn in the sand. They ask questions like – Why can’t I be conservative in my personal values and yet radical about social justice? Why can’t I believe in the benefits of our capitalist system and be committed to ending poverty and shrinking the growing divide between rich and poor? And because their faith means so much to them they are beginning to reach beyond denominational lines. They see good things in the passionate and spirit filled worship of Pentecostals and Evangelicals when it is combined with a passion for the poor and the downtrodden as exemplified by main stream denominations like Episcopalians and Presbyterians. They want to do God’s work in the world and they are not interested in organizational memberships, bumper sticker allegiances, or other cultural labels. They have much to teach us.
God’s good news is forever. The essential teachings of the gospels cut across our cultural divides. The meat and potatoes of Holy Scripture, like the passages we have for this morning, comprise the real work of our faith. We need to learn how to argue less and seek justice more. We need to learn that loving kindness and walking humbly with our God means that no one group has all the answers. We need to admit that there is much we can learn from one another and teach one another if we are truly willing to be God’s humble servants. And above all we need to learn how to lift up those our Lord has called blessed including the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart, and those who suffer for their faith. You and I and others who have been baptized into Christ are supposed to be a light to the world. We are supposed to illumine the dark places and give sight to the blind. This morning in our lessons our God asks us – where is your light and why won’t you use it for my sake and for the sake of the world. Amen. From the Desert Fathers, in Christian Mysticism, by Manuela Dunn Mascetti.