PROPERS: PROPER 20, YEAR A
TEXT: MATTHEW 20:1-16
PREACHED AT ST. PAUL’S CHURCH, MAGNOLIA SPRINGS, ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2017.
ONE SENTENCE: Christianity is profoundly countercultural and it calls for a changed life and perspective.
Being a Christian for the first three centuries of the church was not easy.
Because of persecution at the hands of the Roman government, the Christian faith could be quite perilous.
Small groups of worshipers would gather in individual homes – hence the name, house churches. Nevertheless, it was a time of growth – a time in which solid Christian foundations were built.
The persecutions at the hands of Roman authorities had been brutal. The persecutions came in waves – some much more bloody that others. But it was never easy.
In the year 313 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine desired to placate the Christian God. It was his hope that his prospective action would have benefits for his empire.
Constantine issued what was known as the Edict of Milan. It did not make Christianity the official religion of Rome – that would come 67 years later – but it did call for tolerance of Christianity.
It was a turning point for Christianity – both for better and for worse. It marked the beginning of unprecedented growth of the church. But it also marked the melding of the church with governmental and political institutions.
For sure, there would be many more Christians. But there would be an obfuscation of Christian teachings. Secular motivations and government policies would be confused with Christian principles.
It was not a one-time thing. As you know, the Roman Emperor became the Holy Roman Emperor. Pogroms and persecutions, sponsored by the church, took place in Spain and Italy. Jews were persecuted and “heretics” were readily identified and “dealt with.”
The great protestant John Calvin’s theology became a foundation an oppressive government in Switzerland. Martin Luther’s rebellion against Rome impacted the lives of many in the Germanic kingdoms. Of course, as heirs to a tradition, we know of the chaos which followed Henry VIII’s claim to his power over the church in England. Bloody Mary and others.
And who could justify – in Christian terms -- what transpired in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1930s and 40s?
Politics and theology do not mix. The one which is diminished in that exchange is normally theology. It gets watered-down. It gets muddled. It loses its prophetic witness. It loses its power to transform lives. It loses its ability to confront and challenge culture.
I want you to hear my words to come not as an indictment of this congregation, but as shade cast on the larger forces at movement within the greater church and in our body politic. And if it is appropriate, take my message in, and reflect on it.
Today, we have lost so much. We need to be reminded. The best way to do that is to read scripture and reflect on its meaning. Look at its overriding themes – what I call its metanarrative. We need to have our suppositions challenged. We are to worship as people of God – with that title as our primary identification, with every other identifier being secondary.
In the exchange we have experienced between theology and politics, we have lost our call to righteousness. We have abdicated our role as moral witnesses. We have betrayed justice… servanthood… concern for the least among us… and our willingness to offer our lives to God’s greater purposes. We have seen and heard the calls for those ideals, and we have said, “Yes, but…”
We have chosen power, position, and influence over Jesus’ call to take up your cross daily. Christ’s call to us is to wash one another’s feet and to love each other, not to Lord over others, as Jesus says, as the Gentiles do.
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In gospel lessons over the last several weeks, we have heard Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness… about taking up our crosses… about resolution of conflict. Today, we have his word-portrait of the Kingdom of God.
All of these tell us of the truly radical nature of the Kingdom for which we pray. Imagine for a moment the standard of the last being first and the first being last being reality in our culture. How would we be different? What would our world look like?
What if we followed Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness? Would our relationships be transformed?
What if we took up our crosses daily and followed Jesus – even if it meant the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows.
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These teachings… and others from our Lord… are difficult. John’s gospel tells us that, after some of Jesus’ lessons, certain followers said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can listen to it?” And they chose to no longer follow him.
However, those who remained with him, said “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
As one who used to be fully immersed and placed great faith in politics… As one who is imperfect and needs transformation… Credo… I believe… that Jesus offers us the way, the truth, and the life. It is through his example and teachings that our world will be transformed. We are reconciled to God through his life and teachings. It is onto those we should cling.
The movements of a political moment may scratch an itch or give us some sense of satisfaction for a particular viewpoint we hold. But it should never be confused with the eternal vision found in our Lord’s words.