“…Thy will be done on earth…”
Hayward United Methodist Church
July 17, 2022
Warning: I spent forty years as a college professor, so I expect you to take notes, have a short quiz, and be prepared to discuss these issues during coffee hour.
Preface: What follows was inspired by Sandy. She’s not to blame for what I say today, but she definitely inspired almost every idea and many of the words. You see, she has this crazy idea that the Bible and the Church ought to have something to say about how we should live in today’s world. Historical exegesis of sacred documents has it’s place, but not in this sermon.
Our text: Matthew 25:35-40 Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. You ask when did I do these things? As you helped the least of the children of God you helped me.”
Introduction: We’ve all heard the claim that America is a Christian nation. Inside and outside this building is the United Methodist motto: “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open doors.” Let’s give the motto a try for the next twenty minutes or so. Well… let’s concentrate on open minds and open hearts for today. ‘Open doors’ often takes us to LGBTQ issues in the church, issues that are splitting –or, better, splintering—United Methodism. This is the issue that caused me to resign my 74+ year Methodist membership, counting from confirmation — and confirmation is the formation and foundation of the Christian Church. I’ll set those formidable issues aside; if you’re curious about my thoughts on LGBTQ issues and the Methodist Church, let me know and I’ll send you my three-page single-spaced letter to three Bishops, half-a-dozen District Superintendant’s, and over thirty-five Methodist preachers that I know personally (teaching at a Methodist university for over forty years has its price).
So, back to America as a Christian nation viewed with open hearts and open minds. In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was the leading Christian minister in our country. In his most famous sermon, preached at Riverside Church in New York City one year to the day before his assassination, April 4, 1968, Dr. King identified the dominant values in America at that time. He called them the “giant triplets:” racism, greed, and violence. Not exactly Christian values. If King were around today I suspect he’d come up with the same three and say they have gotten worse. Let’s take up each dominant cultural value separately.
Part I: Racism. There’s no doubt that the Unites States of America was built with slave labor. Not only workers in cotton fields down south whose work made plantation owners very wealthy, but workers on government buildings too. Did you know that the US Capitol in Washington, DC, was built by slaves? Neither did I. That little detail was never mentioned in school when I was a kid. But, hey, I was a kid 65 years ago. Things are much better today, right? Well, I read in the New York Times this week that a committee of Texas educators who make recommendations for the state school curriculum of Texas have recommended that the word “slavery” be dropped from school textbooks and replaced with “forced relocation.” They’re serious! “Forced relocation” sounds nicer than “slavery,” but it conveniently neglects buying and selling people as property, forcing them to work without pay, breaking up nuclear families by selling off spouses and children so families wouldn’t become more loyal to one another than to their “master.” And they neglect the practice of outlawing teaching slaves to read so owners could perpetuate the lie that slaves were too stupid to read. Of course none of us owned slaves, and most of our ancestors didn’t own slaves, so why is this problem of historic exploitation any concern of ours? Because we have benefitted from it.
Remember the US Capitol built by slave labor? There are many more federal buildings, roads and bridges that were built by slaves. And we –by which I mean white folks– benefit, in many small ways: we get the benefit of the doubt when interacting with the police; we don’t get followed around stores by employees instructed to “keep an eye on us” for possible shop lifting; we don’t get suspicious looks if we’re standing on a street corner with a friend; we can watch a cab driver ignore a black person looking for a ride but will stop for us half-a-block away; people don’t assume we’re poor due to the color of our skin; we aren’t expected to explain and defend the behavior of every white person; no one assumes we are good at sports –or that we can’t swim or skate because of our color; we’re not expected to have rhythm because we’re white; we’re not black so people don’t assume we’re “shiftless and lazy,” poorly educated, a criminal, a drug dealer or unemployed. If we are recognized with an award, people don’t say it’s because of our race, or that we got a job or promotion because the employer was forced to hire us for our color. There are and many, many more of these “micro-oppressions.” They may seem small to us but they add up when you live with them every day.
Another form of American racism is how our ancestors treated Native Americans (some prefer to be called First Nation members, indigenous people, Indians, or by their own name for themselves in their own language, like Anishanabe, Lakota, Klinget, Haida and so on). Native Americans were pushed off their land to poorer and poorer land. Of course none of us stole Indian land nor did most of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Our ancestors homesteaded in government land rushes. Of course the land the government gave away wasn’t the government’s to give; it was taken from Native Americans. So, homesteaders received stolen property. Many of us, or our ancestors, inherited this land. It’s called “generational wealth” because subsequent generations get an economic head start, you did if you’ve ever inherited anything, and your kids will if you leave anything to them; that’s the point. The poor often stay poor generation after generation because they never have an economic base to start from. Many of us have benefitted from our government’s theft of native land.
What would a Christian value on racism look like? I think we know: Jesus elevated everyone to equal status with Jews — the chosen people — despite racial discrimination. That’s part of his point in the parable of the good Samaritan: a Samaritan, looked down upon by Jews, helps the robbed and beaten Jew left on the road half dead, even when other Jews walk by on the other side. Jesus instructs us to treat people equally, to reject and overcome the prejudices of society.
Speaking of equality, I read in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week that a woman was denied her right to make a purchase at the Wallgreens drug store here in Hayward because the clerk’s Christian values wouldn’t allow him to cooperate with birth control. The woman wanted to buy condoms. The article reminded me of the cake decorator who appealed to his “Christian values” to refuse decorating a cake for a gay couple. Of course half a century ago some racists appealed to their “Christian values” to refuse service to black people at lunch counters, to deny black children to attend public schools and even to ban Blacks from using a “whites only” drinking fountain. Clearly “Christian values” can be perverted. We all know the Bible can be used to justify whatever we want. At the same time we know when Christian values are being perverted. Even segregationists knew racial segregation was wrong. Hate overwhelmed conscience.
Much more could be said about racism in America as contrasted with Christian values on racism, but let’s move on to greed.
Part II Greed. “The business of America is business.” We’ve all heard that statement. It seems true when we realize that most elected officials are more loyal to their financial supporters than to their constituents. We see greed everywhere: salaries for entertainers and professional sports players, compensation for CEOs of major corporations and so on. Ordinary people –even children— measure one another by their material status: Mr. Smith is “doing very well” means he has more than most: more money, a bigger house, better cars and clothes, etc. Those things are highly valued. Our culture teaches us to want more… and more. We learn to envy those “better off” than we are. Advertising works because of this envy: if we had that car, that outfit, that makeup or beer or whatever is advertised, then we would go up in status.; we would have more value. In America, often we are measured by what we have not who we are. Material things. Envy. Greed.
A few years ago Opera Winfrey sponsored a study relating happiness to income. The study found that people’s happiness grew as they left poverty and minimum wage jobs for higher paying work, but that happiness topped out at around $115,000 per year ($75,000 adjusted for inflation). People in households making more tended to be less happy; in fact, the larger their income above $115,000, the less happy they were. It turns out that being rich isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Wealth comes with many headaches of various kinds. The main problem with greed is that greedy people never have enough. Happier — and wiser – people understand that the key to happiness is enjoying what we have rather than always wanting more.
What does Christianity say about valuing one another by the things we have, measuring one another by our net financial worth? Again, the answer is fairly obvious. Jesus tells the rich young man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor; then he will have treasure in heaven. And he says it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom. According to Jesus, it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to get into the Kingdom of heaven. Of course, this is usually dismissed by Christians. He didn’t really mean it; he was just emphasizing his point about the importance of moderating our wealth. Right.
Part III Now, what can we say about violence in America? There are two levels of violence: interpersonal and large scale. Concerning interpersonal violence we all know the heartbreaking levels of gun deaths in America. In our country we had 37,038 in 2019, the latest data available. Experts say it’s only gotten worse. Only 4% of US gun deaths are due to mass shootings; about 8% are accidental; nearly 20% are due to suicides; and roughly 70% –nearly 26,000 annually—result from homicide. To compare this with other countries we have to count deaths per 100,000 to be fair, since national populations vary widely. In the US, we have 12 gun deaths per 100,000 people. In Canada there are 2 per 100,000. Germany and New Zealand each have 1, and the United Kingdom has just .23 (one in 400,000). So, US gun deaths are six times that of Canada, 12 times Germany and NZ; and 48 times that of Great Britain. Part of this is explained by the fact that we have 120 guns per 100 citizens while Canada has 35 with most nations are under 2. So the US has 60 times the guns in the hands of citizens compared with most countries. Clearly, when it comes to gun deaths, we live in a violent society.
Regarding mass violence, the US military budget is $778 billion annually, $272 billion more than the next nine top military budgets combined and $526 billion more than our nearest competitor, China. And our military expenditures are $716 billion more than Russia (ranked 4th). Put another way, our military budget is more than twelve times that of Russia. When we count military bases abroad, the US has 51; the UK and France are next with 16; Russia has 8; and China and Canada, each have 4. Most of the nearly two hundred nations on earth have none. No wonder countries around the world think the US is out to dominate the world. In his farewell address in 1960 President Dwight D. Eisenhower – someone who knew something about military budgets — echoed Matthew 25 when he said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Ours is a violent country.
What have Christian values to say about violence? Again, I think we all know. Jesus was a pacifist. It is laughable to think of Jesus as a soldier much less of him holding an automatic weapon. Christianity was built on Jesus’ life, death, and teaching. Of course it would be a pacifist religion from the beginning. Regarding interpersonal violence, we all know Jesus counseled that if we are hit on one cheek, we should “turn the other cheek.” This has always been a well-known biblical reference, but in my Sunday school days, my confirmation classes, my 75 years of attending Christian worship services, my hearing dozens of Christian speakers, I almost never heard mention of “turn the other cheek.” It is as if Sunday school teachers, pastors and Christians in general deliberately avoid the subject…perhaps because they know quite well what it means and are afraid of its implications for their lives. A few years ago I was at a family celebration for Father’s day. At dinner I happened to be seated next to a very devout evangelical Christian. I asked him what he thought about Jesus as a pacifist and what it meant for Christianity. His reply? He said Jesus didn’t really mean it; he was just trying to emphasize the importance of kindness. I then asked whether that sort of kindness should be extended to enemies in war. He asked me to pass the salad. I asked again, this time about “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and he turned to talk to the person on his other side. I think he was surprised I could quote the Bible and too caught up in his own righteousness to give it much thought. So much for “Open Minds.”
To think about Christian values as they relate to large scale violence we need to know that Constantine, Emperor of Rome and its colonies in the fourth century, was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. At that point Christianity began leaving behind Jesus’ pacifism and the nonviolence central to the Christian Church for its first 300 years. With Emperor Constantine’s conversion, Christians could be soldiers and war could be accepted. Obviously, Constantine needed more troops, and he didn’t need opposition to his wars. In the subsequent history of Christianity, regarding mass violence the Church has been all over the place. The early Christian Church was pacifist for three centuries; the Medieval Christian Church fought holy wars trying to drive Muslims out of the Holy Land; and the contemporary Church accepts just war. Perhaps more accurately, the current Christian Church allows all three positions on the morality of war. The result is 1) a tiny minority of Christian pacifists, 2) a sizeable contingent of folks who accept holy war, extending it beyond Muslims and the Holy Land to most any enemy most anywhere, and 3) the majority of congregants embracing just war. This embrace of Christian Just War is why Billy Graham visited so many Presidents to pray with them on the brink of so many wars. It helped Presidents get approval from constituents in our Christian country. Clearly Presidents really didn’t want prayers or advice from Martin Luther King, Jr. on the brink of any of their wars; King was a Christian pacifist.
I have not shown how each of these “giant triplets” is connected to the others; I could, but we don’t have all day. One obvious example is the disproportionate rate at which police officers shoot unarmed black men compared with police officers shooting unarmed white men. Racism, greed and violence are inter-connected in many ways…but that topic is for another sermon.
Conclusion: Don’t you just hate it when you hear a depressing talk and you’re left with nothing to do to address the pressing issues? I do, so I’ll offer a few modest suggestions: I’d say read, listen, and think. Reclaim our history and become better informed on these topics. One way to do this is to consider joining, or at least sitting in on, a session of “Can We Talk About ______?” (fill in the blank), a zoom group Sandy started after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. We began as a discussion group but evolved into a social issues reading and discussion group. We read just a chapter a week. A dozen or so folks from HUMC have been meeting every week for two years, with Memorial Day to Labor Day off. If that’s not for you, read, listen and think on your own. I recommend reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, written “bottom up” with women, slaves, farmers, laborers, Native Americans, union organizers and others at the bottom of power structures telling their stories rather than the rich and powerful writing textbooks top down. We’ve spent our lives reading books authored by people at the top of most systems: the rich, the powerful, the advantaged, the connected. It’s time to hear other perspectives. Consider writing your government representative about any of these issues using what you’ve learned. Call out racist, sexist, homophobic comments –and any other cruel comments– when you hear them. Talk respectfully with your family and friends about these difficult issues, being careful to listen openly to their perspectives and not just lecture them with your views. But do share your views and your reasons and evidence for holding them, and ask for their views, their reasons and their evidence. We don’t and won’t all agree but we will all learn.
Oh, one more thing. I suspect some of you have been thinking, “Shouldn’t politics be left out of the church?” I agree. I only mentioned one political figure, President Eisenhauer, and othwise avoided mentioning office-holders, political parties or partisan politics. This is a Christian presentation based on Jesus’ own words. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the sick, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, and generally follow the greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. If we do these things we will be doing God’s work as described in the Sermon on the Mount: we’ll be working to see God’s will done on earth. And we might move America a bit closer to being a Christian nation.