From WikiLeaks and Julian Assange to Russian spies to garden variety computer thieves, we know more about hackers than we ever wanted to know. Hackers cost us sleep as we worry about bank accounts, investment portfolios, and stolen identifications. It doesn’t get any more real than this. If we were as concerned about our Christian practices as we were the balance in our checking account, I have no doubt we would be fantastic Christians.
Well, the Gospel of Jesus has been hacked. Our memory of how Christians in the past have lived, our memory of what it actually means to be Christian, is being systematically deleted. The hackers have implanted a “virus” in the mainframe of Christianity. Only a few have noticed – theologians mostly. But almost no one listens to theologians these days. And the same goes for all the academic disciplines. For example, a renowned scholar in evolutionary biology testified in a Texas courtroom in favor of evolution as if science needed legal approval. He gave a reasoned argument. As he left the courtroom, a nice lady, with a big smile, said, “It’s only a theory – and we’re gonna win.” That’s what passes for truth in America today: opinions. You should know that we have a problem when the media wants opinions on life and death, and they interview movie stars, politicians, football players, and the guys at Duck Dynasty – a group of college-educated guys making a fortune pretending to be Rednecks. Mostly we want relationship advice from Dr. Phil, legal advice from Judge Judy, and investment advice from Charles Schwab.
It is odd that a nation that has always valued education now has concluded that the academic disciplines are just a batch of opinions that are inferior to the common sense of the ordinary American who sits around watching six hours of t. v. per day. What any highly credentialed person says is now just another piece of information to add to all the pieces of information floating in the cyber world of tweets, fifteen second advertisements, bullet points, and emails.
The hackers, my friends, have lulled us into the illusion that we are all just supposed to get along and deny that there is a cosmic war ongoing between good and evil. We have become an untrained army unable to muster the skills necessary to engage the enemy. If the Christian “army” actually went to war against the powers and the principalities we would be routed as surely as the undisciplined, badly trained army of Iraq in the Gulf War.
The real damage of the hackers has been done to our vocabulary – the words that define the nature of the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ. Our basic Christian words have been replaced with non-Christian words. We, fooled by the virus words, did what Baptists do: we baptized the words.
In particular we have been seduced by the gods of “democracy” to legitimate a form of Christianity that is no longer Christian. We have allowed politics to define the church rather than the church critiquing politics. On the right, 82% of Evangelicals voted for President Trump. For better or worse, this election defines evangelical Christians in America. They own this election. The left wing is in just as much hot water with its politics. A few of these “hacker” words are RIGHTS, FREEDOM, REVENGE, SECURITY, PATRIOTISM, and TOLERANCE.
Take the word “RIGHTS.” It is not a Christian word. Righteousness is a Christian word; “rights” is a political word. Christian faith is not about rights; it is not even democratic. Don’t confuse Baptist polity with Christianity. Being opinionated and telling it like “you think it is” is not a virtue especially if what you are spouting is crude, rude, and untrue. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Does that sound like “rights talk” to you? “Rights talk” is so prevalent that affluent, older, white people are now able to work up a good outrage over having their rights trampled. Historian Martin Marty said we would never understand the Religious Right until we understood they feel left out of everyone else’s “rights movement.” Call it “rights envy.” On this reading, since gays have the right to marry, the Religious Right wants the right to discriminate against gays. Tit for tat. Unchristian.
In C. S. Lewis’, The Great Divorce, a big ghost is on a tour of heaven. There he meets a solid person who had been a murderer on earth and the ghost is outraged. “I got to have my rights same as anyone else, see?” “Look at me, now,” said the Ghost. “I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights.” “I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.” The solid person tries to tell him that the kingdom of God is not about rights, that there’s something far better than rights, but he isn’t in the mood for it. In fact, takes the bus back to hell because there’s an interesting theological discussion that evening being led by a former bishop.
On the left the shouting is for tolerance. Many Christians are silent in the world for fear someone will confuse them with a right-wing fanatical. Why are we comfortable with badly dressed football fans (The former Oakland Raiders come to mind) and so afraid of being labeled a fanatic for being Christians? Instead of witnessing in public we are all hiding in the closet. Therefore we hide in the closet, tolerate just about everything and say, “At least I’m not a right-wing fanatic.” I think there will soon be a shortage of closets because so many Baptists are hiding in them. Supply and demand. At least the gays are out of the closet and that clears up a bit of space for fearful Baptists. I call this closet-dwelling the “least common Christian” – not much Christian but plenty of fear.
Another of the infected words is “freedom.” Freedom now “trumps” grace, mercy, salvation, forgiveness, repentance, Jesus, or love. Freedom, and its lap dog, patriotism, are now the pre-eminent buzz words among Christians in America. But patriotism, like humility, lacks the ring of truth with the more you claim it and the less you give your life to it.
A few years ago I was invited to be the guest preacher at my home church. The Sunday of the Church’s anniversary fell on July 4th. When I arrived, I found the Lord’s Supper table filled with more than 100 miniature American flags. The pastor joined more than 200 worshippers in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag after the opening hymn, “God Bless America.” Before my sermon, a video was shown of then President Bush on an aircraft carrier proclaiming, “Mission accomplished.” Then the choir and congregation sang the National Anthem. And then came my turn to preach from the gospel. Recovering from my shock, and maintaining the good manners my mama taught me, I preached a sermon that would not embarrass my daddy in front of his family and friends.
Thus the right wing of the church uses “freedom” and “patriotism” as weapons to allow them to control both the church and the government. I am sure that the freedom to tell others what to do is a giddy feeling.
Now, from the left we get a different spin on “freedom.” The left uses freedom as the catch-word for allowing each individual to make up his or her mind about everything from beliefs to behaviors. Here freedom is not about nationalism or patriotism, but about individualism and the freedom to do as we please. John Stuart Mill, English philosopher, in his Principles of Political Economy, argued that freedom from social interference is the best way to encourage the growth of strong individuals who turn out to be necessary for creating societies in which the greatest good for the greatest number can be made a reality. You can hear this political philosophy in our slogans: “Who am I to judge another Christian?” “What I do is my business as long as I do not hurt anyone.”
Now do you see why it is so hard for anyone to figure out what it means to be a Christian in America whether we are Catholic, Baptist, conservative or liberal. Is there any way to delete the virus?
Let’s see what the gospel has to tell us this morning on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. Maybe we will be fortunate enough to have the epiphany of Isaiah: I am a man of unclean lips dwelling in the midst of a people of unclean lips. What a relief that would be from the putrefying air of self-righteousness, niceness, and nothingness that we usually breathe.
Matthew tells us that Jesus went to Zebulun and Naphtali – the warrior tribes of Israel. Jesus comes to fierce people of courage to catch his first disciples. Now, it shouldn’t be a stretch to know that we are a warrior culture. We attempt to disguise this awful reality behind a self-righteousness that pretends that we possess a righteousness that other nations lack, but it a peculiarly American illusion related to our sense that somehow we have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. We are a violent people and we dwell in a land filled with guns, violence, bombs, and we spend billions and billions on weapons of war. American troops are mercenaries to the world whether we admit it or not.
America could use a visit from Jesus more than we need one from the president of Mexico, the prime minister of Great Britain, or from Mr. Putin. American thrives on enemies: Muslims, immigrants, terrorists. Nothing turns out the vote like having enemies – real or imaginary. This is why politicians revel in enemies. Some would have you believe that the really bad enemies are university professors, socialists, environmentalists, liberals, feminists, and aliens. Lately we are supposed to believe that the press is the enemy. The press hasn’t had this hard of a time of it since Spiro Agnew. I’m going to stick with the press on this one because there are so many of them and they actually do research and reporters win Pulitzer Prizes for their work and their carefully documented stories are filled with fact and truth no matter what their political critics say. When the hustlers, hacks, and hustlers offer us “alternative facts” and distorted visions of the news, we have drifted far from any Christian sensibilities.
Since we have picked the wrong enemies, we have become disciples of revenge, especially after 9/11. In that house of horrors known as the House of Representatives, someone is always forgetting his Christian manners/ethical sensibilities and going on about carpet bombing the Middle East back to the Stone Age or wiping out terrorism (as if that were possible), making speeches about taking names (everyone knows the phrase that goes with that one) or grousing about fighting fire with fire. Yet Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Revenge is alien to Christian practice.
Jesus opens his sermon with one word: “Repent.” This is Christian speech. Repentance means we admit we have been wrong. Repent indicates that we have changed our minds. Repent would mean turning nuclear warheads and aircraft carriers into food and medicine for the hungry and sick. We don’t need an arms race; we need to race after Jesus as fast as our legs will carry us.
Then, of all things, Jesus says to a group of small businessmen running a fishing business with their daddy, “follow me.” Do you remember the Nissan Pathfinder ad of a family on vacation? They reach a locked gate with a sign: “Road closed.” They are lost and don’t know where to go. The wife says, “There’s a guy. Excuse me sir. Glacier Point?” The guy gets in his truck and cries “Follow me.” The guy switches to a snowmobile as he cries, “Follow me.” Then from a dog sled, “he yells, “Follow me.” Crazy? You betcha but Jesus keeps crying, “Follow me.” Follow me is Christian speech.
The four small business owners leave home and family. They were no longer concerned with taxes, or profits, or payrolls. It doesn’t get more basic than this.
Now, the most frightening of Christian words: call. Do you know you have been called by God? A character in a novel struggles with whether or not God is calling him. “Finally, I reasoned that in dealing with God you had better give him the benefit of the doubt. I decided that I better accept the call that had not come, just in case it had come and I had missed it.” Do you have the nerve to take God that seriously?
Jesus comes to the fishermen, not the other way around. He didn’t find a one of his disciples at prayer in the synagogue. He didn’t call Matthew from a Tuesday night Bible study but from the tax collector’s booth. He didn’t call James and John from a seminary classroom, but from a fishing business. Jesus catches his disciples from the everyday world of work. Michael Lindvall, in A Geography of God, observes that, “The journey of faith is not so much to ‘find God’ as it is a struggle to follow a God who finds us.”
God catches us. But God’s fishing is catch-and-release for those who don’t wish to follow. Once we are “caught” we are no longer free to do as we please. Some of you think that church is just one more consumer option. This goes against the claims of the gospel where we are not choosing; we are caught.
I have to ask: Can you delete the non-Christian words: revenge, rights, freedom, tolerance and replace them with gospel words: repent, follow, call. It will be hard but I make no apology for the demands of the gospel. You are called by Jesus and he awaits your response.