This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on September 6, 2009.
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-17
Many people consider religious faith a private affair. They do not want to discuss religion in general or their personal moral views. Christianity appears to have embraced this notion of private piety judging from the things people who self-identify as Christians talk about. We devote considerable time and other resources on such matters as personal devotional time and private issues of morality. Browse through any commercial bookstore and you will find many books on those subjects. When Christians take their faith into public view, we do so primarily through our worship rituals, regalia, and routines.
The readings for today are a clear and direct challenge to this private piety concept of religious faith. Consider these messages:
· A good reputation is better than wealth (Proverbs 22:1).
· Both the wealthy and the poor belong to God (Proverbs 22:2).
· Injustice will not escape divine judgment. Generosity and benevolence for the poor is divinely favored (Proverbs 22:8-9).
· God will vindicate the poor and weak against those who mistreat them (Proverbs 22:22-23).
· God expects the able-bodied to make healing and justice for sick, weak, and vulnerable people the business of our faith (Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-17).
Even on retreat, Jesus honored the plea of a faithful mother on behalf of her sick child. Even in their health, some un-named people brought a man who could not speak or hear to Jesus, spoke up for him, and made his plight a matter of their faith. And in the reading from James, we read that it is nonsense to believe that we are justified before God by a faith that produces no meaningful difference in the lives and plights of others.
These passages clearly do not support the idea that personal faith is a private matter. The individualistic notion of piety that is so popular among American Christians is not Biblically authorized or authentic. Justice, mercy, peace, and equality are themes that run throughout the Bible. They challenge us to be concerned about other people. “Love thy neighbor” is not a private moral issue because we live as neighbors in God’s neighborhood. We are neighbors to each other and before God. Any notion of salvation that claims justification from God without unaccountability to God for the neighborhood and our neighbors is a lie.
However, evangelical Christians have made personal justification with God the number one concern of piety. We are told that the most important issue in faith is whether people have a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Then we are told that faith in Jesus Christ means believing in his birth, life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. If a person believes that God sent Jesus into the world, that Jesus died for our sin and rose again, then that faith declaration is redemptive. We are set for all eternity. If we say anything about sin, we talk about private wrongdoing, not public evil.
So workers can be mistreated around us and we need do nothing about it. People can be robbed of their health, self-worth, and fortunes by wicked business practices, and we need do nothing about it. People can be tortured by government agents with the knowledge and approval of our leaders, and we need do nothing about it. People can threaten violence against others because they disagree with them, and we need do nothing about it. Lies can be told about policies aimed at making our society more healthy and just, and we need do nothing about it. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We need do nothing.
Based on this deceitful notion of Christianity, people have turned away from issues of justice, mercy, peace, and equality that run through the Bible. Based on this fraudulent notion of Christianity, Africans have been enslaved, women have been exploited, workers have been mistreated, and immigrants have been marginalized. When their plight and problems has been presented to church people, the usual response has been to say “Those are social concerns. The Church does not get involved in that area. We focus on spreading the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. That is our work.”
That personal piety notion of righteousness has also infected our worship life. As the reading from James shows, a personal piety focus based on cronyism, favoritism, and pettiness in religious life will leave the work of justice, mercy, peace, and equality undone. People who wear expensive clothing, drive luxury automobiles, and enjoy favored business or political connections usually find little difficulty getting accepted in most congregations. These are the people we prefer to worship with while we ignore evidence about unfair workplace practices, vicious political activities, and oppressive commercial policies. Consequently, it should not surprise anyone that many church outreach efforts look more like business development and marketing schemes than anything that Jesus did.
Jesus and the Hebrew prophets who preceded him made the cause of poor, sick, and disfavored people the work of their lives. They focused ministry efforts on justice, mercy, peace, and equality because they were concerned about outcasts, not insiders. For Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, faith meant working to produce justice, mercy, peace, and equality for people in the name of God.
We must never forget—and must always remind ourselves and others—that Jesus and the Hebrew prophets (Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Deborah, Huldah, Nathan, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Isaiah, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, etc.) were outsiders, reformers, organizers, and activists for God. To poor people who were victims of a failed healthcare system, Jesus and the Hebrew prophets were healers in the name of God. To widows, orphans, and immigrants victimized by profit-craving business people, Jesus and the Hebrew prophets were agents of social justice and equality. In the face of military obsession and oppression, Jesus and the Hebrew prophets were activists for righteousness and peace.
If Christians claim to follow Jesus and the faith lived by the Hebrew prophets, then we have no reason or right to behave as though social justice issues have nothing to do with righteousness and salvation. Righteousness and salvation go hand in hand with social justice.
· Faith that works understands that healthcare availability is a moral issue. A society cannot be just if it does not care for people who are sick and try to help people enjoy health without regard for the ability to pay for healing and treatment.
· Faith that works recognizes that having a public option as part of healthcare reform is a moral issue. Public education, libraries, health clinics, roadways, safety employees, and the military have long been accepted as morally valid “public options.” There is no legitimate reason why a publicly-funded healthcare program should be considered immoral or unfair.
· Faith that works treats public education as a moral issue. A society cannot be just if it does not care whether people learn or not, or if it discriminates based on wealth and land value in the way that public education is administered. For religious people to object to President Obama or anyone else encouraging their children to study hard and stay in school makes no sense. After all, the Bible commands that we love God with our minds!
· War and peace are moral issues. A society cannot be just if it will condone killing, torturing, and plundering other societies and people.
These and other social justice matters are crucial tests for our professions of faith. If we are people of faith, then hungry people should be fed, widows, orphans, and immigrants should be protected from abuse and exploitation, and weak people should be protected from thieves and violent people. If we are people of faith, workers should be protected from employers who put more value in profits than the people whose work makes the products and services from which profits are taken.
God is much more interested in the out-working of our faith than whether our churches have choirs, the choirs have robes, or whether the robes match the lighting and other building dÃ©cor. God is more interested in how our faith works for people without healthcare, people without jobs, people without influence, people without wealth, people without strength to protect themselves from bullies, and people without friends and family to protect them from discrimination on account of their immigration status than the size of church building funds.
And the world is much more interested in the out-working of our faith than our worship rituals, regalia, and routines. Religious faith that does not or that will not challenge social injustice eventually loses any ability to exert a righteous influence on a person or society. Religious rituals, regalia, and routines do not make people or societies righteous, just, safe, or solvent. If we truly are saved by the faith we sing, preach, and pray about in worship, then that faith should be saving people in God’s world.
So in the name of Jesus Christ and in obedience to the faith described so vividly in the Bible, let us live in ways that produce God’s justice, mercy, peace, and equality. In the name of Jesus Christ, let us stand up for and with people who are mistreated, weak, vulnerable, unpopular, and isolated. Like Jesus Christ, who lived and died to redeem sin-oppressed humanity, let us live and die to redeem people from the oppressive forces of ignorance, disease, violence, greed, and prideful discrimination.
Then the will of God in heaven will be done on earth. Then our faith will take root and produce fruit of peace, strength, and justice in the lives of people who are victimized by violence, suffering, and oppression. Then our faith will work loving results in the world, healing results, peaceful results, just results, and saving results. In other words, we will be blessings for God and others.
As followers of Jesus Christ, let’s get to work making God’s love, peace, righteousness, justice, and mercy live and reign! Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.