First United Methodist Church
August 7, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
The Flipside of Joy: How Can We Serve as Champions of Justice?
I once came across this quote: “Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” Statements like this can be divisive because there is both truth in these words as well as misconception. It seems to me that people who don’t go to church are finding it easier and easier to make statements such as this one, and those of us who do attend church are finding it harder and harder to argue with them.
If you think about it, there are actually two separate and profound truths that are being expressed by the author of this particular statement. The first truth, the one that most of us here are very much aware of, is that it isn’t the church that makes us Christians, it is Christians who make up the church. We become Christians because of our faith in Jesus Christ, and our faith is sanctified and made possible by the Holy Spirit.
And since I’m not in a position to judge whether or not a person making this statement is or is not a Christian, I essentially have to defer to this truth and allow the non-churched person to continue to justify his or her absence from the church. But the deeper meaning, the other truth that we need to be aware of, is the slur on Christianity that is emerging. People who don’t go to church don’t see a significant difference in the lifestyles of those of us who do. Perhaps it is because we tend to keep our faith private, or perhaps it is because their perception of what a Christian should be like is not the image that we are reflecting.
Either way, there is a dividing line. People on both sides of the line have deeply set convictions in why they believe the way they do, and no amount of arguing will change the other person’s perspective. But here’s the thing, in our text today, Jesus reminds us that being a follower of Christ is not easy and there are costs connected with our commitment to Christ. As members of a church, we will always face personal struggles and weaknesses as individuals. But there is one thing I can guarantee. You can stand in a garage forever and you will never become a car. But if you go to church, whose primary mission is to teach people how to serve Christ, you might be inspired to become a Christian. Once you open your heart to Christ and the Holy Spirit, God will begin to work within you and through you.
This month our focus has been to look at Scripture through the lens of justice. As we do this, we are hoping to discover that when we as God’s people seek justice for God’s children and creation, we will be able to experience true and everlasting joy. We don’t often think of joy and justice together, yet if we look for joy in these passages, we will find it. Joy is found when we put our faith into action by pursuing justice and championing the oppressed.
Throughout the Bible, it’s normal to find scriptures about judgment and devastation which leave the reader wondering, can there be joy that is understood as the flip side of this story of injustice? The prophets were mostly speaking to the people who had power, because they were accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor. If we support laws that continue to marginalize particular groups of people, then we are doing the same thing. Isaiah’s metaphor, proclaiming that God lovingly planted the vineyard, Israel, but its walls have fallen and the vineyard is becoming wild, is a warning for us as well.
Our reading from Luke echoes the harsh tones of Isaiah in words of judgment and division. The hard work of responding favorably to Jesus’ invitation to receive or enter the kingdom of God comes with a price: there will be strife, division, in-fighting. Becoming part of God’s kingdom in response to Jesus’ teaching requires a deep level of commitment and the patience to endure suffering.
Jesus calls us to a deeper level of kindness and generosity than what is expected of the average person. According to Wesley, faith in Jesus Christ is necessary not only for salvation, but also for sanctification. It is a real change in the lives of believers, made possible by the Holy Spirit. Sanctifying faith is a gift from God given to Christians as they voluntarily continue to grow in their faith. In this sanctifying process, “good works” in the life of the Christian becomes a lifestyle, not an obligation.
Good works, or works of mercy and piety, are tangible expressions of God’s redeeming love working in the lives of the believers, leading them to reflect God’s love in all of their actions. In this way, sanctifying faith is the essential element for holy living, which is living a life filled with love for God and neighbor. Sanctifying faith is personal and social: personal as it enables individuals to overcome private weaknesses and struggles, and social as it points out the need for community in developing a healthy understanding of the Christian faith, calls for denouncing social evils, and promotes the redemption of social structures, such as systematic racism. As individuals, we can compassionately share our faith with a few people, but as a community of faith, we can reach an entire community.
The early Christians faced obstacles to sharing their faith that we cannot possibly imagine. But their steadfast commitment to live their lives the way Christ taught us to live radically separated them from the rest of the world. When cities were overcome by plagues, the Christians cared for the sick when the physicians abandoned the towns. When families abandoned their children in the city dumps because they did not have the means to care for them, Christians rescued them and raised them as their own. When people had no food to eat or homes to live in, those who had something gave to those who did not. These acts of kindness, accompanied by their joy in worshiping God, helped to establish the church throughout the ancient world. What we have to remember is that the church did not develop by chance. There was an intentionality in the early church to continually reach out to new people, share the good news of Jesus Christ and invite them into a life of sanctifying faith.
I sometimes wish the Christian story were easier. Luke’s passage, with its strong emphasis on division, even to the point of splitting families, shows what might happen if Christians and churches truly stand up for what we believe is right, and work with a vision for justice, becoming advocates for those who are regularly persecuted or being treated unfairly.
Brian McLaren, a pastor, speaker, activist, and bestselling author, once got a call asking him to join the group of clergy who were praying for those who were protesting. He didn't tell anyone he went. Later, his senior pastor at his home church mentioned it in his sermon. McLaren tells how an older gentleman got in his face after the service and lectured him, saying he did not respect what he did and thought he was wrong to do it. McLaren said this experience reminded him of today's passage from Luke 12:49-56. He says, "Jesus' work as peacemaker often makes things worse before they get better...When Jesus came, he was not a pacifier. He was not a law and order dominator...He was an agitator. He was a fire starter. He knew that things had to heat up before people would wake up."
A similar thing happened when my father accepted an invitation in the 1960s to go to Mississippi to be an advocate for civil rights. The Vestry, or the Staff Parish, told him that he was prohibited to go. Rather than cancel his trip, he instead offered his resignation. There are times when Christians have to stand up for what they believe, even when they are standing alone. My father not only spent that summer in Mississippi, but he also returned to his church and shared his experiences with them.
Jesus came with a vision of God’s coming kingdom. It’s a kingdom that stands in stark contrast to the kingdoms of the world. Rather than valuing the strong and powerful, it values the poor and vulnerable. Rather than prizing power, it lifts up compassion. Rather than coming by force, it comes in weakness and vulnerability. And for all these reasons, it challenges the status quo and makes people nervous, uncomfortable, even angry.
Which is why Jesus causes division. We are called to bridge across the differences in our society in order to fulfill Christ’s vision for the kingdom. Relationships are both bonded and broken because of our loyalty to Jesus Christ.
Notice, though, that he doesn’t enjoy this either. Jesus, too, is under stress. He was baptized by John and the Spirit at the opening of his ministry, but that baptism has not yet reached its culmination. The baptism of which he speaks, in fact, will only be completed at his cross.
So why, then, does Jesus follow through with his journey to the cross, enduring the pain and stress and suffering that such a baptism entails?
Because that’s just how glorious and needful the vision of the kingdom with which he has been blessed and burdened is. This vision – of a God who loves all and a world drawn together by sharing that love – is worth it. It’s that simple, that hard, and that beautiful. Not easy, to be sure, but beautiful to the end.
The challenge ahead for us, and for our church, is to consider how we can embrace a life of righteousness that seeks justice for all of God’s people. Who is being left out, persecuted or marginalized in our world? What might justice, informed by faith in a God who loves us, look like for our community? What would Jesus have us do?
God of healing mercies, we come to you this day as imperfect people. We know that you desire for us hope, happiness, and love, yet we have found so many ways in which to block your gifts, or to grab hold of them as if we were entitled to them. We have been given the pathway to peace in the witness of Jesus Christ. He taught us to live as people of compassion and service. But our service has been mostly for ourselves, for our own gratification. We have failed to be your church, your witnesses on earth. We have neglected the needs of others in our rush for our own comfort. Forgive us, O merciful God. Heal our wounded spirits. Turn us again to you, that we may again learn of your love and mercy. Help us to become partners in peace and hope for others. For we ask this in Jesus' Name. AMEN.