Sent into the World

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
May 20, 2012  


One of the books I was finally able to tackle in my time away was The Kingdom Is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch, by my friend Christopher Evans. Ministers love to say that a book is by a friend. They like it even more when it’s true. Chris Evans was a friend and classmate in Chicago; when we moved here we reconnected as he served on the faculty of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School teaching church history. More importantly, he is a devoted and passionate baseball fan.

Professor Evans has written a definitive biography of Walter Rauschenbusch, a person about whom you should know a little. Rauschenbusch’s German-born father taught at what was then Rochester Theological Seminary, which was located just down the street from here, on Alexander Street, before it moved to its present location on Goodman. He spent much of his childhood in his birthplace Rochester and Germany before returning to Rochester for seminary.

His first and only congregational service was in a German-speaking congregation in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, where he ministered to immigrants as they sought to navigate their new world. It was in that challenging setting that Rauschenbusch began to formulate what came to be known as “social gospel” theology.

He returned to Rochester in 1897 to teach at his alma mater, and his fame grew as he wrote several important books, including Christianity and the Social Crisis and A Theology of the Social Gospel. Rauschenbusch had a good relationship with one of my predecessors, Paul Moore Strayer; they frequently took walks together after lunch to discuss theology and the events of the day. I suggested to Chris Evans that we might do that. We didn’t.

This congregation appreciated Rauschenbusch so much that we memorialized him in the sanctuary chancel stained glass window, adjacent to Florence Nightingale, Jane Addams and Albert Schweitzer.

Rauschenbusch's “social gospel” was a vision of Christianity that would spread the Kingdom of God across the country and around the world, not with evangelistic fire and brimstone preaching, but through the leading of a Christ-like life. He wrote often that "Christianity is in its nature revolutionary." He believed that the Kingdom of God "is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming…life on earth into the harmony of heaven." If this sounds radical, it is. To a point. Rauschenbusch’s social gospel focused on the individual as the means to convert the fallen and sinful social order.

Rauschenbusch was seeking to answer the question that all of us ask – what does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus in the world? That question makes an assumption, of course, that followers of Jesus are to live in the world. They are not to live apart from the world. They are not to live above it or beyond it.

All traditions do not believe that, with all due respect – monastic traditions, for example, or the Amish, or ultra orthodox Jewish, 40,000 of whom are gathering today in NYC for an anti-internet rally.

Our tradition has answered that question differently from the outset. We are called by God into the world, and sent by Jesus into the world, not to oppose the world, but to make a difference, to share our values and vision as followers of Jesus with a world hungry for hope and healing.

In this place we are heirs of Walter Rauschenbusch; we are also heirs of John Calvin’s moral and ethical vision. Some 400 years before Rauschenbusch, Calvin would have agreed about the need for Christ-like behavior by individuals in the world; Calvin would have pushed the notion that human institutions – governments, businesses, the church – as well as individuals must be guided by a moral compass that would counter the human tendency to sin. Calvin’s very Presbyterian vision was that ALL we do is done to the glory of God – not just our sacred and religious activities, but everything. Government. Business. The arts. The sciences. Everything and all of it an opportunity to glorify God, and to make human life more reflective of God’s vision for humanity and creation.

Historian Ronald Wallace wrote that Calvin believed that those responsible for civil government obeyed the word of God and served Christ in their own secular sphere no less responsively than those who had the task of church government. Calvin thought that being a politician, a magistrate, was a high and noble calling. I’m not sure what he would think these days! Calvin “was convinced that the challenge and power of the Gospel must be allowed to cleanse, regenerate and direct not only the human heart but every aspect of social life on earth – family affairs, education, economics and politics.”

Ministering in the refugee city of Geneva, Calvin believed most passionately in the “public welfare of the city.” That was his vision, which included how children were educated, how the poor were cared for, how taxes were levied, all the way to how police, fire fighters and building inspectors did their jobs. (Calvin, Geneva and the Reformation, pp. 27-29)

Now I am mindful that this is an awful lot of history for a Sunday morning, even for me. But remembering two saints can help us respond to the same question they were seeking to respond to, what it means to live in the world as a follower of Jesus.

Jesus' first followers were asking that very question as they were seeking to follow him in real time. There is a long stretch of the gospel of John that scholars call the “high priestly prayer.” There is a whole lot of Jesus speaking in red in these chapters and verses. It’s tough to follow but worth the payoff. It’s a prayer that Jesus is offering to God, but the intention is that we overhear it. Jesus is the mediator between God who he calls Father and the people with whom he has been sharing his life and message.

Here is what Jesus seems to be saying. We do not belong to the world. We belong to God. But we do belong in the world, and more than that, we are sent into the world, to live in the world in joy and truth, to share the love and justice we have experienced. Because God’s love has become incarnate in the world in the life of Jesus, so we make Jesus’ love incarnate in the world.

Charles Cousar writes: "(This) community (is not) an esoteric enclave… (but a) community (energized) for its task in the world…" Our “radical otherworldliness” is lived out in the world. (Texts for Preaching, Year B, pp. 343-345).

We could reject. We could ignore. But we live. In the world.

Walter Rauschenbusch and John Calvin and those original followers each faced their own moments and contexts. We face our own now. I cannot say that our moment is more difficult, or more complex, than any others – whether 1500 or 1900 or whenever. But our moment certainly is difficult and complex.

At the founding of this nation faith and politics, “church and state,” began a complex dance. They are separated to be sure, and rightly so, initially to keep government from intruding on religion and not the other way around. But the dance is complex. We experienced that this week; Jesus sent us into the world and there was tension and friction.

When President Obama declared his support of marriage equality, he cited his motivation as both political and religious. Governor Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate, would reject the same proposition, presumably for the same motivations, political and religious. How does religion play itself out in the public sphere, when there are competing religious visions of civic matters?

Governor Romney is finding common ground with evangelical Christians on social issues, a group that a generation ago would not have given him the time of day because they weren’t sure – and some still aren’t – whether Mormonism is Christian or not. President Obama, an avowed Christian who some still believe is Muslim, finds himself at times both at odds and in harmony with his own Black church tradition, and mainline Protestantism. Does a president’s faith matter at all? It raises the complexity for all of us – not what does it mean for the President to be sent into the world, but what does it mean for us to be sent into the world and to think of matters political.

If we ever were, we are not a Christian commonwealth anymore. We live in a multi-faith or no-faith world, a conflicted and complex and evolving world. How on earth – as we’re sent into it – can we live in it?

This week pastor Otis Moss III said something helpful regarding marriage that applies to many issues. “(E)cclesiastical councils are not equipped to shape civil legislation – nor are civil legislators equipped to shape religious rituals.”

Calvin believed the same, according to historian Fred Graham, that “church and state – were to exist side by side, serving and ruling the same people with mutual respect and aid. The church did not attempt to prescribe civil laws, nor the state to usurp spiritual discipline. But the church preserved its right to speak as a church to the state…Today, “(Presbyterian churches) make public statements of policy in the political and social arena, not just for the sake of its members, but also for the eyes and ears of the world…” (The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact, pages 175-176)

We believe that "God alone is Lord of the conscience," that people of good faith and good will can disagree faithfully, though we often hear that there can only be one Christian perspective on a social issue.

Even so, we know we must speak out and act out when the Spirit calls us. King George III called the American Revolution a Presbyterian rebellion, and every major American social movement has had Presbyterian fingerprints on it, sometimes on the right side of a cause, though not always.

We’ve made a commitment here, for example, to sign letters for Bread for the World and Amnesty International. Not all Christians, not all Presbyterians, would agree that the right thing to do. What we can’t do is not think about or not act on these things, even when they are complex and messy and controversial. To be sent into the world is political, to be sure. But politics for us needs to move beyond red and blue to something different.

And being sent into the world needs to mean more than politics. Our faith values bring something to bear on every aspect of life. Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs survey revealed that Americans are overwhelmingly negative about the future of moral values in the United States. Lack of tolerance, respect, or consideration for others were seen as major problems. Americans believe the most important moral problems center on matters of civility, family structure, and religion rather than popular political issues such as abortion and marriage.

That feels to me like an invitation, an opportunity, to make a difference, political, to be sure, but so much broader and deeper than politics as we know it. We are called to live lives of faithfulness within the confines of the church, and then we are called to bust the boundaries of these confines and live our faith in the world. There can be no inreach without outreach, no spirituality without social responsibility. We are called to gather in, to tend to our own souls, but faith is not complete until we are sent out, tending to the souls of others, the souls of our communities.

Culture is not the enemy but the arena to which we have been called. To be salt and light. To take risks. Not to be intimidated by the complexity of an issue or shy away because of the heat of the rhetoric.

Jesus sends us into the world. We may fail. But it is our mission, and we are never alone. Jesus promises to be with us. Trust that promise.

One more historical reference: “You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand." Woodrow Wilson said that. U.S. President. Presbyterian elder. Sent into the world. Just like you and just like me. Amen.

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