Sunday, February 5, 2017

WORSHIP IN THE AGE OF EMPIRE

WORSHIP IN THE AGE OF EMPIRE
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Little Rock, AR
February 5, 2017 (Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany)

Isaiah 58:1-12
58Shout out, do not hold back!
   Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
   and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
   they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
   and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator
* shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
   and satisfy your needs in parched places,
   and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
   like a spring of water,
   whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
   the restorer of streets to live in.
 
Matthew 5:13-20
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,* not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks* one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

        According to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center, the United States remains home to more Christians to any other place in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven out of ten – identify with some branch of the Christian tradition.[1]   With this in mind, one wonders how the nation that is home of more people who claim to follow Jesus can be led by a leader – President Donald Trump -- whose policies, proclamations, and proclivities are so out of step with the life, ministry, and message of the most famous prophet in history. 

Welcome to the American version of worship in the age of empire. 

The lectionary lessons for today from Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew shed prophetic light on a subject that is likely to be discussed by followers of Jesus, religious people from other traditions, and by people who are not affiliated with any religion now, and in the coming days, weeks, months, and years of the Donald Trump presidency.  In the passage from Isaiah, God speaks through the prophet to accuse a society known for its penchant for religious observances with being unjust.  The people in that society, like people in the United States now, are outwardly religious.  They observed the religious rituals, but their way of living was unjust. 

God – speaking through the prophet – lays out specific accusations of the gap between the religious claims of society in Judah and the realities of life in that society.  The society is a place of praise, prayer, and fasting.  Meanwhile, people are hungry and naked (homeless).  Workers are oppressed by employers.  Merchants cheat consumers. 

Ponder the divine command to the prophet.  Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to the people my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.  Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinances of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.  

These words suggest that God knows the prophet may not want to boldly expose, denounce, and condemn the rank religious hypocrisy that is known.  The prophet may not want to shout about it, but may be inclined to speak of it in hushed tones.  The prophet might be tempted to not openly expose it, might have preferred to speak of it privately.   So there is striking contrast between what the prophet might have preferred doing and the divine command. 

Like the prophet in the lesson from Isaiah, prophetic people in our age and place recognize the gaping difference between engaging in religious rhetoric and rituals and living justly.  What are we to do about it?  What might obedience to the divine command to loudly engage in prophetic protest and denunciation about that hypocrisy look like? 

One recent example that rings true to our prophetic obligation is Rev. Dr. William Barber II (President of Repairers of the Breach, Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement).  Here is what Rev. Barber wrote in an op ed column following President Donald Trump’s remarks at the first National Prayer Breakfast of his presidency.

President Trump's first appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast met awkward silence on Thursday as he began his comments by touting ratings when he was on "The Apprentice." Unpracticed in the public performance of piety, the candidate who was praised for "telling it like it is" made even his white evangelical base momentarily uneasy as he demonstrated the impotence of their religion to overcome his narcissism. Excused as a "baby Christian" during his campaign, the teen-like Trump continues to expose the hypocrisy of white evangelicalism.
As a preacher ordained to proclaim the message of Jesus, I know that the faith which embraces Trumpism is not my faith, nor is it the faith of many of my Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu colleagues. I do not doubt that it takes genuine belief to say, as Franklin Graham did, that Trump won the election last November because of a "God factor" for which the media and pollster could not account. But whatever you call that faith, it's not mine.
Anyone who prays should be clear about what they really believe.
A century and a half ago, as he led the faith-rooted struggle against slavery in America, Frederick Douglass wrote, "Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked."
This essential distinction was not reconciled following America's Civil War. In some ways it became more rigidly defined, as the Ku Klux Klan adopted a fiery cross as the symbol of its hatred and white Southerners determined to erase the work of Reconstruction called their crusade the Redemption movement.
In response to such hypocritical religious extremism, the Social Gospel movement emerged in America to challenge corporate greed and, in some instances, systemic racism. Long before "What Would Jesus Do?" was a wrist bracelet, it was an evangelical challenge to child poverty, labor exploitation, and homelessness in early 20th century America.
But as Kevin Kruse has documented in his book, "One Nation Under God," the corporate leaders who were the heirs of plantation capitalism became frustrated by the Social Gospel's influence on the New Deal. They wanted a religion that would affirm private property, individual responsibility, and laissez-faire capitalism. So they invested millions of dollars in organizations that would give them just that.
One of those organizations, known today as "The Family," is the sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast. Funded by corporations and private family foundations, the annual event has gathered a bipartisan crowd since Eisenhower's administration to invoke God's blessing on America.
But conspicuously absent from those invocations have been faith leaders who continue in the tradition of Fredrick Douglass and the Social Gospel. While their memory may have been invoked on occasion, Dorothy Day, Ella Baker, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were never invited to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Trump's need to praise himself at a prayer breakfast might have passed as an awkward moment in civil religion if the actions of his first two weeks in office had not already inspired mass protests. But in the face of the moral outrage that millions of Americans feel, the awkward silence of so-called faith leaders as they listened to a braggart drone on about himself was revelatory. The President went on to say, essentially: the world is a mess. I'm here to fix it. The Bible has a name for this political position: idolatry.
The emperor had no clothes, but there wasn't a prophet in the house who was prepared, like the boy in the story, to point out the obvious.
But outside the Washington Hilton, on DC's streets, moral witnesses stood vigil in solidarity with the millions who've gathered across this nation, in our airports and on our streets, to challenge President Trump in the prophetic tradition of Frederick Douglass. Many well-intentioned Christians objected. "Even if we disagree with some of his actions," they asked, "doesn't the Bible still instruct us to pray for our leaders?"
Not the Book of Jeremiah. "Don't waste your time praying for this people," God says to the prophet. "Don't offer to make petitions or intercessions. Don't bother me with them. I'm not listening." Scripture is clear that there comes a time when religion that simply blesses injustice is heretical—an offense to the God who has made clear what true religion requires: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.
Earlier this week Donald Trump marked Black History Month by acknowledging that Frederick Douglass "has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more." Many laughed at the President's apparent ignorance that Douglass died in 1896. But in light of the growing moral resistance in America, Trump may have misspoken prophetically.
It was, after all, Fredrick Douglass who said, "I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs."
God knows America needs our prayers. May we link arms and pray with our legs until the God of justice is as well known as the impotent faith of the National Prayer Breakfast.[2]
Dr. Barber understands what the lesson from Isaiah makes very clear.  Heretical religion calls for moral outrage, not quiet protest. 

We live in a society led by a leader whose policies, pronouncements, and practices directly contradict the life, conduct, and ministry of Jesus.  As followers of Jesus, we should not criticize those policies, pronouncements, and practices.  Shout out, do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to the people their rebellion … [and] their sins. 

Protest openly and loudly.  Write letters to the editor.  Use social media.  Become part of organized and impromptu efforts that denounce the immigration ban issued by President Trump as wicked.  It is not merely unworkable.  It is wicked.  Say so, despite how unpopular it will be do be seen and heard openly condemning policies the new US president as being wicked.

As followers of Jesus, we should remind family members, co-workers, peers, and the public that the greatest danger to our societal integrity and well-being is not from “radical Islamic extremism.”   If the 2016 presidential election campaign revealed one thing with brilliant clarity, the greatest threat to justice in the United States, and now the world, is heretical white Christian nationalism.  White Christian nationalism is responsible for the election of President Trump.  White Christian nationalism is responsible for the racist, sexist, homophobic, materialistic, militaristic, imperialistic, and xenophobic events we are living through.  We must not shrink from calling that evil by its proper name.

In the Gospel lesson from Matthew, we are instructed that conformity to imperial norms, values, and metrics is the principal threat prophetic people face in life.  Jesus called it being salt that has lost its hygienic character and being light that is hidden under a basket.  Salt is used to preserve meat from rotting, but when salt loses its preservative character, it is worthless to the meat.  Light that is shrouded does not illuminate much, if anything. 

Our society and world now suffer from religion that has become “salt less”  and shrouded by devotion to the imperial aspirations of white Christian nationalism.  Refugees seeking asylum in the US and elsewhere in the world are suffering because of the imperial aspirations of white Christian nationalism.  Women, persons who are LGBTQ, racial and religious minorities, persons with frail health, and people vulnerable because of militarized law enforcement are threatened. 

What the world needs most from our religion is not different liturgy.  We need prophetic people to proclaim a different way to live.  We need prophetic people to be salt and light.  We need prophetic people to shout loudly and denounce heretical religion, whenever, wherever, and however it may show up.  

This is our mandate from God.  This is the way of Jesus.  This is what prophetic living means for our place and time. 

Amen.