Pentecost 17B: Fighting Hard in the Culture Wars

The readings for this 17th Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Jeremiah 11:18–20

Psalm                    Psalm 54

New Testament     James 3:13–4:3, 4:7–8a

Gospel                   Mark 9:30–37

We are at an inflection point. We are in a culture war. We are in the midst of a grand worldwide conflict over how to prioritize our values.

Surely the polls show it. One recent poll says that about ¾ of people of one political party say it’s a bad idea to remind Americans about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing racial inequities. And, true to form, about ¾ of the other side say it’s a good idea. And the same goes for whether voting is a right or privilege, and a host of other issues. And, of course, there is the head to head battle over vaccines and Covid measures that are forcing us to decide whether personal liberty or care for the community is the priority value in the face of this health emergency.

And the church of God has a “dog in this fight.” In this moment or inflection and conflict, the followers of Jesus Christ have a great responsibility to be in on the action, and to understand the weapons God has given them to fight with. The wrong side—the side of authoritarianism and resentment and protection of privilege at all costs–may be relatively small in number, but they are have outsized influence because they know it is indeed a battle that they are waging. So they are organied, and they are committed to fighting hard.

All the readings this Sunday have something to do with fighting hard. Jeremiah is in his hometown of Anathoth, There people have grown annoyed with him because of his relentless warning that they have mistaken covenant for privilege and unconditional protection. Jeremiah has warned that if the people of Judea don’t get more serious about their faithfulness to God and about God’s requirement of compassion for the poor, God will bring the hammer down on them. And so there are folk in Anathoth who are plotting to get rid of Jeremiah by any means possible—even death. They have voted that it is definitely not a good thing to be reminded of their sins. Jeremiah does not respond with softness. He will not forgive them. Instead he pronounces a solemn, divine oracle of vengeance on them: sword, famine, and total disaster.

Is Jeremiah being too harsh? Perhaps. It is possible to be so hard as to close off all possibility that enemies of justice will listen, be persuaded, or recognize the power of God’s love? Perhaps. But pulling punches doesn’t win fights either. And the Christian default strategy should not be to forgive so quickly and softly that it closes off all chance for true repentance and social change.

Psalm 54 does not pull punches either. There are people out there who are ruthless, insolent, and downright acting against God’s purposes. The high point of this psalm is the idea that when we fight a righteous battle we can count on God to be a faithful upholder of the covenant of compassion and vindicate (sooner or later) those who stand up for it.

James calls on Christians to make sure we are being counter-cultural with our hardness. Some of the people we must engage with are loud and enraged and well organized and full of zeal not because they are right, but because they have simply dressed themselves in the façade of righteous indignation. Their true and hidden motives really arise out of  a “friendship with the world” that makes them “enemies of God.”

Saint Augustine of Hippo said “Bad people use God to enjoy the world. Good people use the world to enjoy God.” So, Christians should be hard and loud in calling out hypocrisy. There is true evil in dressing up the desire to maintain privilege in Bible quotations and sanctimonious slogans. But being religiously neutral or anti-religious can be another smokescreen. Today it is quite fashionable for comedians and “public intellectuals” to be atheists. And so we should remember James’ advice that the most counter-cultural thing of all in any age is to ask for things in prayer rather than always plotting to grab them through raw power plays. Prayer changes us into a new creation.

It is Jesus’ words in the last half of our Gospel reading from Mark about greatness that has the last and most important advice for engaging in these times. Of course it is dripping with irony when the disciples around Jesus, who have already heard their master claim the role of sacrificing servant of all humankind, and his call to follow him, argue with each other about who is the greatest. But here, one more time, Jesus says it and shows it:

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

We are living at an inflection point. All around us a culture-war is being waged. We must fight by being organized and by being not too hard, but also not to soft. But most of all we of God’s church must never, ever, act as anything other than servants of all. Our job isn’t to win arguments, but to win people. Our job is to truly see, hear and understand, not only our opponents in this conflict, but all the silent stakeholders who are forced to sit on the sidelines. We need to listen long enough to understand them and feel their needs and give whatever we can to meet those needs.

And we must never forget to serve all. Not only the ones who look like us or vote as we do—but serve them all.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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