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Sermon – “Prayers for Everyone” – September 22, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Prayers for Everyone Psalm 4; 1 Timothy 2: 1-7; Luke 16: 1-13

I saw a fire hall advertising a social event featuring a “Christian Comic.” This got me curious about all the sorts of things that could be “Christian,” so I turned to Google on my computer. You could buy your car from a Christian auto dealer, be represented by a Christian lawyer, work out at a Christian fitness club, purchase a bouquet at a Christian florist, have a Christian mechanic work on your car, call a Christian plumber to fix a leak, enjoy a ChristianmassageandeatataChristianicecreamparlor. Allthesethingsgeteasiertofind the farther south you go, but some things, like talking to a Christian counselor, or being entertained by a Christian comic, are around here.

Itʼs not just that the plumber or the lawn care person or the doctor or the masseuse believes in Jesus Christ. Itʼs that they consciously offer themselves as capital-C “Christian” practitioners of whatever it is they do, and expect to serve a capital-C “Christian” population which is in the habit of distinguishing itself from the rest of the world by this narrower sense of the meaning of “Christian.” In order not to have to deal with any and all business people who may not have the same take on God as themselves, they can find what they need through the Christian Yellow Pages.

Seventy years ago there was a broad presumption that we all lived in a Christian society, and the adjective “Christian” was used as a synonym for “good.” One reason there has been an increase in the sorts of Christians who prefer to shop at a Christian book store or get a Christian massage is that society has become less monolithically Judeo- Christian, mostly by becoming more secular, though thatʼs not what we emphasize when we talk about diversity. Of course there are many more Muslims and Buddhists and HIndus in the nation than formerly. The greater reason thereʼs a self-distinguishing capital-C “Christian” culture in our midst is that mainline Protestant churches for the past century have invested themselves in trying to influence the world to match what seemed to them to be Jesusʼ aims for society–relief for the needy, finding alternatives to violence to settle differences, emphasizing compassion over piety. That religious agenda has run counter to another way Protestantism has been done, and deepened the conviction of what used to be called “fundamentalist” churches and now sometimes include what are called “evangelicalist” churches that it is up to them to uphold the merit and promise of traditional Protestantism, which they practice with an effort to read the Bible literally, and to emphasize separation from the world.

The Bible does, in places, recommend leaving behind and avoiding the wider world and its less godly priorities. The Bible does, in both Testaments also, uphold an ideal of a community set apart to serve God. Neither the chosen People of the Old Testament nor the new loving community of the Christian world lives up to its ideal, but the ideal remains. We are quite fond of some Christian separatists. I like the people from whom I buy

carrotsandonionsattheFarmersʼMarket. Acornerstoneoftheirlifeistheconvictionthat they have to maintain a distinct identity and relate, most of the time, to their own kind.

Other Christians who make a big deal of being different form everyone else– especially the ones who believe that they are “Christians” in some sense that I am not– annoy me. I understand that if they go to hear a Christian comic they wonʼt hear bad language, and I sympathize with the desire to be amused without profanity or scatology. On the other hand, probably like many human groups, when people choose to segregate themselves from the wider culture, and expect to find themselves insulated against individuals and groups who are not like themselves, they enjoy using “inside” language–like the inside language of an inside joke. Thatʼs efficient for insiders, but excluding for anyone else, and I donʼt enjoy being made to feel like I donʼt fit in.

It isnʼt, however, the occasional instance of self-admiration or narrow-mindedness that makes me object to Christians who emphasize a distinct identity and prefer an insulated, self-identified Christian world to the wider world. Theyʼd be easier to take if they always were courteous, humble, kind, and devoted to good deeds, but even then Iʼd wonder if they were on the right track.

John the Baptist, in the New Testament, comes across a bit like these “Iʼm not one of you,” religious persons. He wears distinctive clothes, and has strict rules for himself and his disciples. He has, as he eventually reveals by sending disciples to question Jesus about whether heʼs really the expected servant of God, ideas of what constitutes sufficient or appropriate godliness in others. That doesnʼt make John a bad man, and Iʼm not saying that all varieties of shunning the world are wrong.

What Iʼm saying is that Jesus has a different approach. Jesus scandalizes his fellow religious teachers by the extent to which he shares the life of the world around him. He says of himself that John was considered a kook for his habits of self-denial, but that he, Jesus, is regarded as a glutton and lush for eating and drinking like other men.

Jesus doesnʼt take his religion to some community out in the desert and stay there. Hehascontemporarieswhodothat. Again,JohntheBaptistisabitlikethat,untilhis outspoken criticism of authority gets him arrested. Jesus takes his service to God everywhere. He goes through towns and villages, even to places, like Samaria, which are half-enemies of the Jews, and even to places, like the non Jewish colonies nearby, which have no connection to his tradition.

Jesus believes that living for Godʼs priorities– being subject to a kingdom, not of this world, but where God sets the standards–is something that can be done without withdrawing from wider society. It seems clear that most of Jesusʼ actions and teachings say that serving God in oneʼs life ought to be done in the midst of the world.

I want to talk about todayʼs scriptures in light of this non-exclusive, not-self-isolating approach to Christianity, but first Iʼll say that there are people whose spiritual reality is that they will be better off with the security and support of a group which does set itself apart. Joshua said that bad company ruins good morals, and Paul the apostle reiterates that in his advice to the Corinthians.

There are people who probably always will benefit from sticking to a group which does its best to avoid worldly contamination, and perhaps all of us at times especially need to be part of a group which is distinct from the non believing world. At least some of us would say that our joining together in public worship was part of sustaining a consciousness of Godʼs importance in our lives, and an awareness that there is more to life than all the practical and present events and concerns which impose themselves on us daily.

So Iʼm not saying that the capital-C “Christian” approach is all bad. It has its origin in a reading of scripture, and it has its practical use. What Iʼm saying is that, if God has blessed us to be able to share in the general character of the life of the world without forgetting our faith or forsaking our desire to behave in ways pleasing to God, thatʼs better. That creates the possibility that the discipleship of each of us may serve to make the world a bit better than it would be if we were not there.

Psalm 4 is the prayer of someone who realizes that others donʼt believe, and that disbelief is always possible because Godʼs showing up and helping isnʼt always evident. Yet the person is Godʼs person, and makes this boast– that the love of God is so satisfying that a faithful person is happier in affliction than a faithless person is when things are going the faithless personʼs way. Thatʼs an Old Testament example of deliberately living for and by the help of heaven while here in this world.

First Timothy is written at a time when the distinct character of the church has to be combined with efforts to demonstrate to the wider world that Christianity is on its side, broadly speaking. We pray for leaders because we live with the effect of their decisions, and because persons more vulnerable than we do must live with those consequences. We aim for respectability, not as a pretense, but as a way to prevent there being an obstacle to any outsiderʼs seeing that following Jesus makes people good people.

The parable Jesus tells of the dishonest steward gets an odd application in the gospel. Iʼm not sure what it means to make friends for ourselves with unrighteous mammon so that its failure sees us received in heaven. Iʼm sure, though, that it isnʼt advice to shun the world. The story makes the most sense if we understand that nobody in this parable represents God. The master is an immoral, opportunistic person, and so is the servant. What may be being praised is resourcefulness, resilience, the ability to think on oneʼs feet. What also is in that story are relationships of all kinds, and though in the dishonest stewardʼs story the relationships are an arena for wrongdoing, itʼs worth noting that good management of oneʼs connections is recommended. How much better when Christianity enters into the business of all kinds you have with others? How much more use to God when you can improvise a way, in the worst circumstances, to bring your faith to bear in your life?

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