Sermon: Surrogate Light

1.26.2014    Preaching Text: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

I had a friend back in college whose parents were very religious. They were Christians. And pretty intense ones at that.

I remember having a discussion with them one day which didn’t turn out too well. They liked me, but after telling them some of what I believed, I think they ended up pitying me a bit.

You see, their brand of Christianity was clear and precise, with no middle ground or shaded areas. Either I agreed with their beliefs in toto, or I was, sad to say, “of the world,” and I don’t mean that in a good sense!

Later, in divinity school, another friend told me of growing up with a grandfather who was a fundamentalist preacher. The way to argue with fundamentalists, his father advised him, was to “smile and lie a lot!”

What his father meant was that it is pointless to argue about something that is already settled. If you deviate from the “truth,” in other words, you’re simply lost to the spirit. The logic is that if you’re not going to get anywhere in the debate, if those you’re talking with are not going to listen, why bother?

I think this sort of rigid religiosity is how we in the Mainline Protestant churches fear contemporary culture sees us. In fact, we’re almost desperate not to play into this stereotype, so much so that we remain mostly silent.

In the last few sermons, as you know, I’ve been talking about the relationship between the church and American culture. Over the years I’ve made the claim that contemporary American culture has lost interest in us, at best, and has moved on. Either that, or it still tries to shame or force us into silence, which, sad to say, has been largely successful.

Today it is assumed that we may worship and practice our faith provided it’s done privately. We’re entitled to our beliefs, in other words, but dare not express them in the “public square.”

This, of course, is a distortion of the whole idea behind the separation of church and state. Originally, this separation, as first expressed in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, was intended as a protection of religion freedom from government influence or control, not as an effort to make religious expression off-limits. The idea was to grant freedom of religion, and not to impose freedom from religion.

In today’s scripture readings, we are reminded that we have been called to bring the light of Christ into the world. But since, as we discussed last Sunday, we’ve largely ceded this task to the wider culture, one has to wonder how effective we have become in living out this most basic of Christian undertakings.

Karl Barth, perhaps the most influential Protestant theologian of the last 100 years, once said, ““Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

In part this means that every Christian needs to be a social critic. We need to accurately assess what’s going on in our world to determine whether it accords, or deviates, from biblical faith.

Because we in the Mainline Protestant churches have been content to see the culture in mostly benign, if not favorable, terms, this task is perhaps especially relevant to our age.

As I’ve said many times, there are some societies, both past and present, where the line between Christian and non-Christian is stark. Consider North Korea today where simply possessing a Bible has led people to be tortured and killed.

In today’s America, opposition to the gospel is, thankfully, nothing like this. Yet opposition does exist, if only in far subtler ways.

But because, for so long, we have trusted the culture to do our bidding, only now are we beginning to recognize that we’ve been effectively sidelined, and (unceremoniously) disestablished, removed from our assumed place within the “commanding heights of culture.”

As such, Barth’s admonition acquires new and compelling relevance. We the faithful must read the signs of the times carefully, and act accordingly, as Christ would have us.

I recently came across an eye-opening article by Helen Rittelmeyer entitled, Bloodless Moralism. In it, she implies that secular culture has superseded the church’s traditional role as moral arbiter.

After pointing out that in the West, from the Crucifixion to the Middle Ages, most problems were expressed in religious terms, even problems that were economic or political. The accepted rationale for any issue, in other words, had its explanation in the gospel.

Then, beginning with the 19th century, the reverse happened. Now all matters, social, political, and moral, were cast in purely materialistic, mostly economic terms. All beliefs were now attributed to “class interest, with religion and morality reduced to power plays designed to keep the [have-nots] in subjection.”

Rittelmeyer goes on to describe how most moral problems today, including social and political policy, have been taken out of the realm of morality per se, and are now subject to quantifiable social-scientific evidence.

For example, during a recent election in Australia where she lives, mental illness among young people was described by one political party in terms of the financial cost to the nation (roughly $10.6 billion), in addition to the projected 70% loss in productivity due to lower employment and absenteeism.

In the arena of contemporary American journalism, she cites a recent headline: “Racial Inequality Costs GDP $1.9 Trillion”, as well as her personal favorite: “Holy Water May Be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds”.

She cites other studies in modern academia which argue that children of two-parent families have better test scores and that regular church attendance lowers divorce rates, all of which may be true, but isn’t it interesting that any judgments within today’s secular culture are addressed not in terms of morality or religion, but in terms of utilitarian numbers, all accompanied by irrefutable-looking charts and graphs.

With the growth of the social sciences beginning in earnest in the 60’s, and with a commensurate growth in college enrollment, more young people, she writes, are “acculturated…into a mindset where academic findings are granted serious weight and being skeptical of eggheads is considered philistine.”

The point, in short, is that with the loss of church influence, secular society has assumed one of the church’s primary functions, to be the moral arbiters of society.

Though we can’t go back to the earlier period of religious hegemony (nor should we, for that matter), we nonetheless must wake up to the fact that morality is being defined in purely secular terms, morality based on lifetime earnings, say, rather than the Word of God.

By, in effect, losing our nerve, the church has ceded moral authority to secular technocrats, whose lamp, I would argue, does not always burn quite as brightly as the light of Jesus Christ.

By not wanting to be perceived as religious bigots, or as theocrats eager to force Christianity down everyone’s throat, we flail about trying to find relevance, while simultaneously being ignored and rebuffed.

In Bible study this past week, we read Luke’s account of Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to search out the one lost sheep.

This parable was a shock to his contemporaries, who were accustomed to believing that God might indeed forgive the earnest, repentant sinner, but who never would actively search out and pursue that same (pre-repentant) sinner.

Rather than seeing our role as judges ready to condemn others (perhaps our greatest fear) what if we saw our role as searching out those in need, in spiritual and moral need, not to lord our superiority over them, but, as Jesus commands, to save them and love them?!

Christ calls each of us to bring his light into the world. That is our task.

Do we not have something good to share with our neighbors? Then why are we so silent? Amen.