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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

November 11, 2018

Awaiting a Savior

Isaiah 42:1-9; Philippians 3:17-4:1

            In the spring of 1993, I stood before the Presbytery of Coastal Carolina in Sanford, North Carolina, ready to be examined for ordination. It is one of the rituals of Presbyterian life that contains equal parts excitement and terror, a perfect balance of gentle encouragement and downright sadism. A young ordinand stands before the gathered body, with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, helplessly awaiting the questions designed to prove whether one is worthy.

            The first minister to stand did so near the front and to my left. He was a middle-aged black man, and he asked a question that wasn’t surprising, but it wasn’t a softball, either. “Do you believe that the church has a responsibility to make a social witness?”

            Now, I assume that you can read the subtext of this encounter. A young, white man answering a middle-aged black man, in the year 1993. He, no doubt, had been born around 1945. He had lived through Jim Crow, and the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, and the Freedom Rides, and the Birmingham Bus Boycott. He had witnessed the white church’s struggle to respond faithfully to the crisis of racial animosity in our land. And he wanted to know, “Do you believe that the church has anything to say and do when it comes to the problems of society?”

            Welcome to week five of our series on the Great Ends of the Church. This week it is “The Promotion of Social Righteousness.” That word “righteousness” isn’t just a long word with a lot of letters; it’s a deep word with a lot of history. In the Old Testament, there are two words frequently used together, as if they are best friends who think the same thoughts. The words are “righteousness” and “justice.” The prophets frequently use them in parallel, as when Amos cries out, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” In fact, the New Testament has just one word that can be translated with either “righteousness” or “justice.” My point is that the Bible doesn’t make a distinction between them. In the purposes of God, they are the same thing. That does not mean, however, that God’s justice and righteousness are the same as the justice that anyone – or everyone calls for.

            Joe Small, in his discussion guide on the subject that our small groups are using, says, “The meaning of justice, and especially social justice, is not self-evident. The American political and judicial system equates justice with the attainment of personal and group rights…. Rights-based justice appeals to fairness as the standard of determining a just outcome, but since fairness is in the eyes of opposing plaintiffs, justice must rely on legislative or judicial procedures. When justice is restricted to rights, the promotion of social justice can become a zero-sum game … However, Scripture and Christian tradition do not reduce God’s justice to fairness. They do not assume justice is established through the conflict between competing rights. In Scripture, justice and righteousness have more to do with obligations than rights, with relationships than with clashes, with covenants than with laws, with peace than with verdicts, and with communion than with adversarial conflict.”

            There is no doubt that God calls the church to promote social righteousness, social justice. That is why I was able to reply, on that day in 1993, to that minister who had grown up in the face of much social injustice, “Yes, I do believe that the church is called to make a social witness.” I also had to admit, though, that I had been raised, implicitly, with what I later learned was the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church. In a nutshell, that doctrine from the 19th century said, “The church has no business dealing in politics. Church is for the salvation of souls.” I came to realize that if God really loves the world in any meaningful sense, then God cares about practical matters such as food and clothing and shelter, practical matters such as the way we treat other people. And I concluded that if God didn’t care about those things, then it’s hard to declare that God loves the world. One way to think about it is this: If I said that I loved my children, but neglected to provide for them food and clothing and shelter, my profession of love would be empty.

            So, the fifth great end of the church is “The Promotion of Social Righteousness.” And my answer was, “Yes, I believe that. Of course, the problem is in how we do that. People disagree on the how of it.” So, today, let’s consider the how. Let’s consider what Joe Small describes as the distinction between American politics and the universal church’s calling.

            And let us seek guidance from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi.

            Paul tells the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior.” One of the first things to remember, as we consider our place in this nation and world, is that because we belong to Jesus Christ, our primary affiliation ceases to be political. We are not, first or foremost, Tennesseans, or Americans. Because we belong to Jesus Christ, we are first and foremost, citizens of heaven.  We are here in Tennessee like resident aliens. We love this place; we offer ourselves to it; we invest in its wellbeing; and we do so because we have a more demanding set of laws that guides us, and a ruler who supercedes our Mayor, our Governor, our President. That, apparently, is what Paul was getting at when he called Jesus Savior here; you see, in the Roman Empire, the Emperor was worshiped, and was called Savior. So, Paul was encouraging the Philippians to have the guts to say, “Jesus is Lord, and the Emperor is not.” Jesus is our primary loyalty, our supreme loyalty. And so, the way that God establishes justice in the world is very different from the way people might think. Isaiah had an inkling of it when he declared this word of the Lord, “He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” I daresay that God’s justice does not come by the winning of an election, the vanquishing of a political foe, the exercises of media manipulation and voter turnout. Whatever all that stuff is, it is not the justice of God, the social righteousness God calls you and me to promote.

            “In Scripture, justice and righteousness have more to do with obligations than rights, with relationships than with clashes, with covenants than with laws, with peace than with verdicts, and with communion than with adversarial conflict.”

            Last week one of you reminded me of those old commercials for Lite Beer filmed by Conrad Dobler, an offensive lineman for years in the NFL, and a notorious agitator and instigator of fights. He sits down in the stands between two guys, and says to the camera, “When I played football, people called me a troublemaker. But really, I’m just a nice guy who likes to watch a game with a Miller Lite.” Then he turns and says to the guy on his right, “Hey, I see you’re drinking a Miller Lite, too.” And the guy says, “Yeah, it tastes great!” And Dobler says, “I agree,” but that guy drinks it ’cause it’s less filling.” To which the guy sneers and says, “Tastes great.” And so Dobler turns to the other guy and says, “Did you hear that?” To which he replies, “It’s less filling.” And Dobler goads the first guy: “Pretty strong words.” And the first guy says, “Tastes great.” And the second guy says, “Less filling.” And before you know it, all of section 137 is at war, shouting “Tastes great!” and “Less filling!” And Conrad Dobler smiles an impish smile at the camera as he slinks away.

            “In Scripture, justice and righteousness have more to do with … communion than with adversarial conflict.” So, how on earth is the church to promote social righteousness when conflict seems unavoidable? Is it right to remain silent in the face of social unrighteousness? I confess that I have had to grow on this count since 1993.

            You see, in my college years I became a fan of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who sought social righteousness through nonviolent means. In my first job out of college, I taught civics to high school students from around the country, who would come to Washington for study tours around the city and workshops with men and women involved in government. One aspect of my job was to lead tours of the U.S. Capitol for groups of about 30 students. I never failed to show them the bust of King, which was placed at the base of some stairs on the Senate side of the Capitol. I was a Christian and a political junkie, and I felt a great passion in describing for them how King sought social change by nonviolent means, in obedience to Jesus, who faithfully brought forth justice.

            It took me years to realize that King had to do more than act nonviolently. King also had to face social unrighteousness by agitating society for change.  King, and many more nonviolent protestors with him, were frequently accused of being “outside agitators,” causing social unrest in otherwise peaceful cities. Such a charge ignored the fact that a problem existed in those cities already, and few people were willing to acknowledge it. So, yes, King was an agitator, but sometimes a person has to agitate a situation in order to fix it.

            Think about a clothes washer. What is it that makes the clothes clean? Do you just drop some detergent in the water, and put the clothes in there to sit for an hour? Trust me, as someone who bought an early “high efficiency” washer: clothes don’t get clean without agitation!  Social impurity doesn’t get clean without agitation. It’s uncomfortable. It can be loud. But it’s purifying. It’s cleansing.

            And so the church promotes social righteousness, seeking communion. It seeks not conquest, not power over, but communion. When four children were killed by a bomb in their Birmingham church, King spoke at the funeral. It was three weeks after the March on Washington. Eight thousand people came. John Lewis tells how amazed he was at how peaceful the service was, “that in spite of the pain, the people still seemed able to forgive. There were many who felt bitter, many who felt let down. There were some who were ready to take up guns, who were saying, ‘We told you this nonviolence would not work!’ But most shared Dr. King’s attitude, the message he delivered in his eulogy that day, when he said, ‘You can bomb our homes, bomb our churches, kill our little children, and we are still going to love you’” (Walking with the Wind, 235).

            This is the world’s hope. While we all were yet sinners, Christ died for us. His closest friends betrayed him and denied him; his own people called for his head and jeered as he breathed his last; but he loved them until the end. This is the Christ whom we serve; this is our Lord. Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we await the coming of our Savior.

            One of the blessings of this Lordship for us is that we are spared the illusion that any of us will create heaven on earth. Christians are not Utopian. Jamie Smith, a teacher at Calvin College, laments that too many Christians today are “functional utopians, who overexpect from the present and underexpect God’s sovereign grace. But,” he reminds us, “the kingdom of God is something we await, not create. And while we hope for policy that bends the systems of society toward justice, we won’t legislate our way to the [Second Coming].”

            That does not mean, however, that the church has no interest in politics. It just means that the politics are always complicated, never satisfactory, always incomplete. Different Christians can have completely different political convictions. In fact, I hope that different Christians have different political convictions. It is one of the great blessings of this congregation that I can look out to you and see Democrats and Republicans. There are too many churches that are little more than one political party or the other at prayer. We need each other’s presence; we need to realize that our political convictions are transitory, while only our Lord and his kingdom are eternal. We need to do what we do out of allegiance to Christ, with one shining goal: Social Right-Relatedness. Not conquest. Communion, even with those who seem to hate us and others.

            I swear that what follows is not a crass appeal for money. It’s a word of affirmation. Yes, it’s the season of generosity, formerly known as stewardship season. It’s time to take account of what we do as a people to make a social witness. Years ago, I was in Richmond at the seminary, talking with other ministers about the congregation I serve here. I confess that I was absolutely proud as I described what you do. I told them how we house the homeless and feed the hungry, build Habitat Homes and contribute to healthcare for folks with no insurance, assist refugees to this land as they get established, help women who are escaping prostitution and abuse to become independent, help incarcerated men heal and get back to work and reconnect to their families, provide for children at risk.  Does the church have a social witness? You better believe it!

            We know that we’re not going to bring the kingdom through our efforts. But we surely are going to promote it. We’re going to obey God’s call and follow Jesus’ example. We’re going to seek social right-relatedness, all the while awaiting our Savior’s return, hoping that when he does, he will look at us and say, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter in the joy of your Master.”

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