I live at a curious crossroads of faith and politics.
I am senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Calvary is located almost exactly between the Capitol building and the White House.
The challenges of living at this juncture have not eluded me. In fact, compulsions to speak out on political issues have kept me up at night because, friends, I am a good Baptist, thoroughly enamored with ideas like priesthood of the believer, autonomy of the local church and separation of church and state.
Lately, though, I’ve been noticing that Jesus, whom I claim to follow, was quite an outspoken critic on political issues and institutions. He spoke out vehemently and agitated forcefully against those in power.
Being in this city has made me confront it a little more concretely. It seems to me that political ideologies and institutions are just like every other human invention: they can be used for good or for evil (and often are–both).
The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to speak out–vehemently, even–when any person or institution or ideology creates poverty or injustice, perpetuates the spiritual or physical hunger of any soul.
With that convicting thought steering the liturgical car at the moment, I have been planning worship for the fall. I noticed quickly that those of us following the Revised Common Lectionary have the opportunity to jump feet-first into the Epistle of James these next few weeks, framing our examination of the Scripture texts with the admonition that our faith is sadly empty if it doesn’t change the institutions and ideologies around us that enslave people: “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of God: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
So I thought this might be a great opportunity to preach some “social justice sermons”–you know, some really heart-wrenching, guilt-inducing, go out and be a good Christian for God’s sake kind of sermons. We could even go protest down on the Mall after church!
The more I looked at the lectionary texts, though, the more I realized the questions raised for me were not inviting the same (though justified) outrage over starving children in Darfur. Instead, the Epistle of James and particularly the words of Jesus in the Markan passages seem to be asking pointed questions of why these injustices happen in the first place.
Perhaps, I began to think with help from my colleague and lectionary planning partner, Lia, this might be just the opportunity to examine the roots of injustice, pain, hunger, racism: all those things that plague our religious and political selves. Beginning Sept. 3, here’s where we’re going in worship. Take a look:
–Why Are You Afraid? (Mark 7:1-8; 14-15; 21-23 and James 1:17-27). Wherever he went Jesus kept running into the political and social powers of the day. The Pharisees were afraid. They were afraid of losing power, of systems changing, of discomfort. And with his suggestion that we seek internal transformation rather than external position or power, Jesus was threatening them. They were afraid. Why are we afraid?
–Why Are You Poor? (Mark 7:24-37; James 2:1-10;14-17). There are all kinds of poverty, as we know well. But in these passages both Jesus and the writer of James explore the disparity of our societal distinctions. Both seem to suggest that everyone should have a place at the table, but we spend an awful lot of time making sure folks don’t. The irony of all of this exclusive behavior is that it makes US poor. Go figure.
–Why Are You Foolish? (Mark 8:27-38; James 3:1-12). An inability to deny ourselves and put others first might just be the very thing that causes us to buy into our own grand ideas of how we might live–which generally end up being downright foolish. Instead, Jesus suggests we adopt a wise way of living that includes denying ourselves. If we do that, the way we live, the institutions we create and the ideologies we embody will reflect our true hearts, as the James passage points out.
–Why Are You Lazy? (Mark 9:30-37; James 3:12-4:3). Want to be first? You’re going to have to become a servant. Want to know what’s causing dissention among you? Take a look at your ongoing pursuit of pleasure. Wondering why things aren’t working as you think they should? Examine what motivates you.
Separation of church and state doesn’t mean we sit back and stay quiet. Perhaps these lectionary passages can help our congregation take a closer look at why injustice happens and where we can start to change–really change–the institutions and ideologies that enslave our world.
Surely the gospel of Jesus Christ, political activist extraordinaire, calls us to nothing less.
Founder of Invested Faith, Butler currently leads National City Christian Church as intentional interim senior minister. Prior to that, she served for five years as the seventh senior minister and first woman at the helm of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Butler holds degrees from Baylor University, the International Baptist Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary.