First Things First

November 12, 1995


First Things First

The young Jewish extremist who murdered Yitzhaq Rabin a few days ago had a law in his sacred book which said, “Thou shalt not kill.” But he also understood from that book that the Messiah would not come until the so-called Holy Land was entirely in the possession of the Jews. Since Rabin was trading some of the land away for the sake of peace, the promise took precedence over the law for his killer, who said he was doing the will of God. Murder for God — the centuries are full of it: Hindus and Moslems, Jews and Arabs, Catholics and Protestants — blinded by rigid creeds to the compassion which is taught in all their religions. We have a hard time keeping our priorities straight.
Such things happen so often they are quickly forgotten, and few of you will recall a young man who killed Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr. just over 20 years ago because he hated Christianity so much that he wanted to destroy it by killing first his fellow blacks who professed it. He hated it, he said, because it is the white man’s religion, either unaware or simply not caring that it was Christianity that fueled the fight against slavery 130 years ago, and nuns, pastors and priests who took the lead in the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s. He knew Christianity by what he, personally, had seen from it…..and that had included church deacons who dressed in white robes and burned crosses and lynched blacks. I had a university colleague who was so bitter toward Christianity that he vowed to me one day he would never again enter a church unless he were promised a five-minute rebuttal at the end of any sermon he had to endure. Many people find it that difficult to tolerate Christianity, or at least what has passed, for them, as Christianity.
I have no easy answers for their hostility, or for their difficulty in finding Christianity credible. Some of what they feel is beyond any talent of mine to remedy. But I do think there is a radical mistake in their image of what Christianity is all about, and I think we have often helped to create that image. Our mistake is the picturing of Christianity primarily as a doctrinal system concerning which one has to decide whether or not it is credible. People who enjoy hair-splitting and logic-chopping fill the air with partisan strife and denominational rivalries until watchers turn away in embarrassment, or, at the other extreme, religion becomes so genteel and tepid, so utterly undemanding, that no one with an ounce of passion could careabout it.
Since neither of those forms of Christianity is appealing, that ends the matter for many people who say — some of them wistfully — that they simply cannot believe in it. So let’s put the opposite case bluntly: Christianity is now, and always has been, primarily something to be done. It is not first of all a set of propositions to be catechised over. It is first of all an unfinished task to be completed. It’s a way of thinking about life, and living life, which has to be worked out personally and socially. The question to be asked about it is not simply, “Is it true?” but “Can we ever in this world make it come true?” For twenty centuries some of the most ingenious minds in the world, many with too little else to do, have brooded over the writings of the New Testament, chopping them into the tiniest of pieces, putting them under microscopes, staining them with the dye of their own prejudices, and then assuring the world that theirs is the only true color.
Because of this, Christianity seems to some people a very complex and difficult thing. Endless sermons are preached on it, thousands of books are written about every conceivable nook and cranny of it, scholars discuss it endlessly in seminars, and those who buy critical commentaries discover that a single word in the gospels may take several pages to explain. Yet surely the essence of the Christian message must be very simple, because the people who took it from the lips of Jesus were not clever people. They were hungry for good news, eager for more abundant life — that was their ticket for entering the kingdom. And what they were given was not a set of abstract arguments, but a way of life.
It’s an odd thing to realize that with the possible exception of one day in the synagogue at Nazareth we have no evidence that Jesus ever conducted a religious service in his life, but we have abundant evidenced that he fed the hungry, comforted the sad and lonely, cared for the sick. Christianity, at the beginning, was not liturgy or ritual, sermons or choirs: it was friendship, compassion, surrender to human need. Jesus would never have made the mistake we have sometimes made who profess to live out his ideas. When he is pictured in judgment on life, as he is in the 25th chapter of Matthew, his entire concern is with what people have actually done. He does not ask, “How correct were the details of your creed? Did you get the doctrine of the Virgin Birth or the Trinity straight? What was your mode of worship? What kind of music and ritual did you employ?” Instead, these were his questions: When people wre hungry, did you feed them? When they were sick and in prison, did you visit them? When they were naked and homeless, did you clothe and shelter them? It is right to understand this quite literally, first: people actually starving, sick, imprisoned, homeless, without clothing. But then you must understand it more broadly, to include people who eat well but are starved for knowledge and affection you could provide; people who are physically healthy but sick in mind and heart; people behind bars of fear and hate who have never been in a literal jail.
When they first heard those painful questions from Jesus, his audience squirmed uneasily and hinted that if they had only seen Him in one of those states they certainly have done something. He replied with what may be the profoundest truth in all the gospels: Wherever you saw people with needs like that, you were actually seeing me, and whenever you did nothing at all to help, it was me you were failing. This mystic affirmation that Christ is Everyone would revolutionize human life if it were believed…..and practiced. College students I have known over a lifetime, who thought organized religion was a joke, joined the Peace Corps or Mennonite relief groups or Habitat for Humanity, instead, because compassion in practice appealed to them.
The little judgment scene sketch in Matthew always reminds me of an incident in Voltaire’s Candide, which I used to read with students in a world lit course. Candide, a simple native young man, is lying battered and half dead on the ground, pleading for oil and wine to revive him. Pangloss, the philosopher and theologian, stands by vigorously discussing theories. “How could such a thing happen? What does it mean?” Only when Candide finally faints dead away of his wounds and hunger does Pangloss notice him. It’s a portrait etched in acid of the way some religious people have argued theology while the world died at their feet.
I grew up in a religious environment where people loved to hold debates. We loved them because we were the only ones who had the truth and the arsenal of Scripture texts to prove it. When we felt our side had won (which, in my memory, was always), we went away from the debates feeling vindicated in our faith. Christianity must be true, we felt, because it had been argued so well. If across the tracks men and women despaired because they could not get work, if badly fed children grew up misshapen with rickets, if their mothers wept in the night because they had no hope — well, we who felt we had won the debates hardly knew it. During the week we worked at our jobs, and accepted happily the perks of being educated or white or Protestant, and on Sunday we came together with scrubbed faces in our best suits and dresses and congratulated each other on having the gosplel truth no one else had.
It was a foolish, and sometimes vicious, thing, but it was a while before some of us came to see that every presentation of Christ’s teaching in the New Testament is a call not for debate but for decision. “Here is an idea to be worked out, a job to be done. Will you do it?” If you read with great care the Sermon on the Mount, it will strike you that nothing in literature could be less theoretical than that document. Every element in it is practical, livable. A call for Sincerity, for example, so that our simple Yes or No needs no oath to support it — we understand what that means, we can do it — if we wish to do it! Generosity without showing off, so that the right hand does not know what the left hand does — that can be lived. Making peace, going the second mile, becoming less judgmental about other people — we know what those things mean, we need no learned explanations, we either do them or we don’t and there is no hiding behind argument and logic. When we rediscover that, in a church, we also rediscover something else easily lost sight of, even when it is the central symbol in our sanctuary. I mean the cross — because the cross does not signify the acceptance of a theory but the taking up of a task. Jesus never bothered to say, “Get all the theological symbolisms of the cross clear, and come with me.” What he said was, “Take up your cross, and follow me.”
If Christianity is only a set of propositions to be believed, creeds to be affirmed, it is really not very costly. We can play it all out in the arena of the mind, where we can keep it neat and clean and where the arguments we make are a pleasant exercise in logic. But if Christianity is an unfinished job to be completed in this world, then we are back with the first little band of disciples hearing Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” When I was 15 I thought it said, “If you wish to please me and be a champion of the faith, study debate and memorize prooftexts until you can out-argue anyone you meet.” Someone asked me the other day, “When did you begin to change?” and I said, “When I broke out of my tiny cultural cocoon and spent 3 years in the military, meeting for the first time in my life all those people not in my church whom I had been warned to avoid lest they contaminate the purity of my creed. I was so primed by then that I went gleefully into evening debates in the barracks with Catholics and Jews and the whole wide range of Protestants who hadn’t seen the light either. I won the debates….and lost. With years of practice already behind me, I could smother my barrack mates with Scriptures until they were confused and silent. According to my script, I should have been happy, but more and more often I walked away from such encounters asking myself what sense those silly little triumphs made. Some of the guys I defeated had so much more of the spirit of Christ than I had that my victories turned hollow, the roof of my arrogance caved in on my head, and I was left to rebuild my whole notion of what the way of Christ was all about.
We started out this morning by saying that Christianity is not argument but action. Years ago a prominent professor at Yake described how he had lost many of his religious beliefs, and his description is more accurate and revealing, perhaps, than he intended. He said, “I never consciously gave up a religious belief. It was as if I had put my beliefs into a drawer, and when I opened it there was nothing there at all.” No surprise at all, if Christianity is action rather than theory. This is why my non-churchgoing uncle struck me as more like Christ than several other uncles who never missed a Sunday and could verbalize their faith at the drop of a hat. He did the things Christians are supposed to do. They talked about them. I got old enough by and by to realize the difference.
The most convincing thing in the world is not an argument, but an action. Mark Twain had a physically deformed black servant named Lewis who worked around his farm. One day that man, with skill and extraordinary courage, stopped a runaway team and saved the lives of three of Twain’s family. This is what Twain wrote: “When Lewis arrived the other evening, after having saved those lives by a feat which I think is the most marvelous I can call to mind, when he arrived hunched up on his manure-wagon, everybody wanted to go and see how he looked. They came back and said he was beautiful. It was true, and yet he would have photographed exactly as he would have any day these past seven years.” Twain, like any good writer, saw the truith of it: a great action is always beautiful and convincing — and makes the actor beautiful.
Ultimately, Christianity comes down to how we go through the day, to simple demonstrations of love and forgiveness and understanding. Some of you who know me well may be thinking, “But all those shelves of commentaries and Bible dictionaries and theology in the study where you work, I’ve turned the pages and seen the under-lined passages. Obviously, you love that stuff.” I do, and I pick up those books for bedtime reading with the same pleasure I take in great poetry and splendid novels. I love discussing them with anybody who runs the risk of showing interest. But I am not fooled into thinking they make me a better Christian. It is not the intricate argument I can fashion, but the fair and forgiving and compassionate life I can live that proves my profession of faith.
I like as often as possible to have you leave with a real-life example of what the sermon has tried to say. I was turning through a book some days ago when my eye fell on a passage that reminded me so much of my own childhood that I stopped to read. The author said, “My childhood was as rich in dreams and radiant in hopes as it was poor in economic realities. I came from a poor family. The street I was born on was known as ‘Hungry Hill.’ That’s why we loved church picnics. We always looked for Ruth Kuhn, my mother’s best friend. ruth Kuhn could pack one incredible picnic basket. She’s pull out of it and spread on the table fried chicken, glazed ham, German potato salad, Boston baked beans, homemade bread and butter pickles, German chocolate cake, Boston cream pie. Then we would hear the sweetest words any child growing up on ‘Hungry Hill’ could imagine. Ruth would look at us, smile and say: “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we just put it all together? Let’s share our dinners.” My father would say immediately, “Oh, no, Ruth, we couldn’t do that! We couldn’t even think of it!” But he had one eye on the German chocolate cake.
“‘Oh, come on,’ Ruth would counter. ‘Yes, you can. There’s more than enough of everything and I made an extra pie. Let’s just put it all together.” And so we shared, and put it all together. We ate like kings when we came like paupers.”
Ruth Kuhn — no theologian, helpless in debate, but for one small boy in her church she was love incarnate. Which, if all this is to mean anything, is what we have to be.

In the name of that radiant life which drew us into this
fellowship, send us out, our Lord, to live well this week. Amen.