Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and abandon their particular customs. All the Gentiles conformed to the command of the king, and many Israelites delighted in his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath.

Maccabees 1:41-43

As living and sacred words, the scriptures live anew for us in every given moment and phase of our lives. To read the words from Maccabees this morning is to experience from our own perspective the problem of faithfulness and syncretism. What our immigrant grandparents so valued and longed to enter into, the “melting pot” of American culture, is for us who attempt to hold to a gospel faith an increasing experience of inner and outer conflict. In practice we sacrifice on a daily basis our lives to the cultural values of competition, consumption, and commerce, while relegating our relationship to God and the quality of our worship to moralism and self-justification. We have come to mistake our participation in culture wars, now within the church as well as without, for true worship and evangelization.

In 1936, Reinhold Niebuhr prepared a paper entitled, “The Christian Church in a Secular Age.” Central to his argument was the point:

The truths of the Christian gospel are simple and clear. But it is not easy for any human institution to mediate them without pride or hypocrisy; and the church is a human institution . . . . The real difficulty of preaching the gospel of God’s mercy to the prodigal son, our modern culture, lies in the temptation to play the part of the elder brother in the Lord’s parable. One might indeed elaborate this parable without disloyalty to its meaning, with the suggestion that the younger son might well have been prompted to leave his father’s house because of the insufferable self-righteousness of the elder brother.

Especially in most recent times the young of our culture more and more reject any affiliation with organized religion, with established churches. If we listen to official and unofficial church reactions to this phenomenon, however, we are likely to hear just a louder and harsher reiteration of the very factors that source the young’s disillusionment with church. We hear, on the part of those who have the least right to be so, a pride and hypocrisy that betrays itself in moralizing and intolerance. Pope Francis is always, in his life and his teaching, a counter to this. He tells those of us who may be like the elder son or daughter, to leave our place of superiority and comfort and to go out to be with and bring home the lost one. One of my favorite stories about St. John of God is that after he was able to move his small hospital for the poor from a rented house to an old Carmelite monastery, he created in the hall a homeless shelter. The townspeople were outraged that he was sheltering criminals and sinners. His answer was that he knew of only one sinner there, and that was himself.

Back in 1936, Niebuhr conjectured that the growing secularization and alienation of the culture might well be, in part, because of the lack of true and living faith in many of the adherents of religion. How is it possible that so many of the powerful in our secular culture declare themselves to be the most orthodox of churchgoers? Leaders of the church are often decrying the fact that in American culture religion is discriminated against and victimized, its voice being excluded from the public square. Yet, a majority of our legislators and Supreme Court justices claim to be devotedly religious. Even our current president deems it an electoral necessity to declare that his favorite book is the Bible, “all of it.”

Many years ago, I heard that the theologian Mary Perkins Ryan once said that the truth of one’s belief in the Trinity could be seen in how one behaved in a crowded bus. We know with the appropriate exceptions of individuals and some subcultures, that often our behavior not only on a bus but societally and globally proclaims a faith only in self-concern and promotion. Countless studies are confirming the growing fear, anxiety, and depression that is pervading much of our population. We have become a society that so needs the proclamation of the good news of the gospel.

As Niebuhr wrote in 1936,  however, that proclamation must look very different than its current form. As we call others to repentance, we must first repent ourselves. If we announce the judgment of God on our self-centeredness and sinfulness, we must first pronounce it on ourselves. In Sunday’s gospel we heard Jesus telling the people of when the time would come when there would be no stone left upon a stone, when even the Temple would be destroyed. A teacher of ours used to say, “When everything falls apart, that’s the sign that everything is alright.” I think he maintained this because, for us as human beings, we need to know the contingency and impermanence of everything we do, if we are to remember that the Kingdom and power and glory are God’s.

We live in a time when for all of the bluster and propaganda to the contrary, church and society are falling apart. In both cases, they are falling apart because what we have put together is still a far remove from the Kingdom of God. We who desire to live in faith must recognize this of ourselves as much as of anyone else. We are not above what is happening, nor are we exempt from responsibility for it. It is a dangerous thing, on a small or larger scale, to become powerful. In the financial crisis of early this century, there was no real accountability from those who created it. Today in government, as then in business, there seems to be a real demand, cloaked as a political position, that there be no accountability of the powerful. And in the church we have seen the attempt to blame the victims of the malfeasance of the powerful. It’s because we all are not moral enough, orthodox enough, submissive enough. But the truth is precisely the opposite. We had been too submissive and too trusting.  

I myself have been part of authority structures, in quite small situations. My experience shows me that there is little or no evaluation and then accountability of the work of authority. And so, without such appraisal repentance is impossible. And without repentance first of all, there can be no change.  

Niebuhr said that “Nothing is cheaper and more futile than the preaching of a simple moralism which is based upon the assumption that the world need only be told that selfishness is sin and that love is the law of life to beguile it from the anarchy of sin in which it is at present engulfed.” If we are called to offer the gospel to the church and world in which we live, we must begin by placing ourselves under the judgment of God. Finally, transformation is the work of God’s Spirit alone. We can serve it, but only to the degree that we not take the stance of the elder brother of the parable.  We don’t know what is needed; only God does. We can serve God’s will, however, to the degree we become servants and not masters of our communities, churches, and societies.

Such a recognition is the clue to the problem of an effective proclamation of the Christian gospel in our day. If we preach repentance, it must be repentance for those who accept the Lord as well as for those who pretend to deny Him. If we preach the judgment of God upon a sinful world, it must be judgment upon us as well as upon those who now acknowledge His judgments. If we preach the mercy of God, it must be with a humble recognition that we are indeed of it as much as those who do not know God’s mercy in Christ. If we preach the obligation of the love commandment, the preacher must know that he violates that commandment as well as those who do not consciously accept its obligation. Nothing is cheaper and more futile than the preaching of a simple moralism which is based upon the assumption that the world need only to be told that selfishness is sin and that love is the law of life to beguile it from the anarchy of sin in which it is at present engulfed. Such a moralism, to which the modern church is particularly prone, is blind to the real tragedy and persistence of sin in the world.

Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Christian Church in a Secular Age” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 91

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