Being a sermon planner-aheader, I could have had no idea that this sermon would be preached the day after we buried Martha Brown, the queen of challenging the status quo. Of course, we shouldn’t think for a second that Martha was the only Silversider who ever dared to challenge a status quo somewhere. I was amused during the remembrances spoken about Martha yesterday when her great friend, Charlie Butler, tried to summarize Martha’s theological perspective and kinda sorta implied that she ended up at Silverside because we were good enough to take her in, even with her unorthodox approach to religion. Charlie, who is Chief Deputy Attorney General here in Delaware, emphasized that Silverside lacks a middle name, which must explain how we could accept a Martha Brown. He said, “It’s not Silverside Methodist or Presbyterian Church. It’s JUST Silverside…uh…Church.”
Several responses to that snippet from his beautiful statements of remembrance. One, we didn’t do Martha any favors by “allowing” her to become a part of our church family; she favored us with her presence, her creativity, and her diligence. Two, we didn’t go out of our way to adapt our ways of thinking and doing to make a place for Martha; she joined a community of like-minded people–not to say that everyone in the church agreed with everything Martha said or did. What we did do, though, was to embrace another person who believed that theologically and often socially, the status quo MUST BE upset if people try to live, in some sense, according to the teachings of Jesus–whatever their theological thinking about Jesus. People in the Jesus Movement or followers of Jesus, however you’d describe your connection to the Jesus of history and his teachings, have no real option except to be disturbers of the status quo.
So, Martha found the place here for her spiritual home, but joined a group filled with others who, individually and collectively as a faith community, have been challenging one status quo or another for 176 years. The forebears of today’s Silverside Church were a small split off of Wilmington’s First Baptist Church, which no longer exists. The reason for the split was not animosity; thank goodness we don’t have that black mark in our historical reason for being. The reason for the split was that the First Baptist Church, like many mainstream churches 176 years ago, did not believe in missions or Christian education. They were Calvinistic in their theology, which is more directly a part of the heritage of Presbyterians and various Reform religious movements such as the Reformed Churches in America, but Baptists got some of it too; and what was picked up from John Calvin, who was the key personality in the Protestant Reformation in the Geneva, Switzerland, area, was a serious doctrine of absolute predestination.
Calvin and his original followers along with his followers today believe in essence that God has foreordained everything that happens, from the glorious birth of every child to Hurricane Katrina. With such meticulous preplanning, the Calvinistic god also determined from the foundations of creation which humans, until the end of human history, would spend eternity in heaven and, conversely, which ones would spend eternity in hell. To make all of that predetermination easier to deal with, there was nothing anyone could do to change her or his eternal accommodations. If you were one of the so-called elect, you were going to heaven no matter how hellishly you might live, and if you were one of the damned, you could live a morally perfect life though you’d still find yourself burning in hell someday. (A disclaimer here before I continue. I do not believe an unconditionally loving God could have envisioned, much less created, any kind of place–with excess fireplaces or not–for unceasing, eternal punishment. I’m good with the notion of heaven as a place where those who choose it may enjoy what I like to call “God’s more intimate embrace.”)
The early Silversiders rejected the Calvinistic attitudes of First Baptist Church of Wilmington, which led them to reject missions and Christian education. Their reasoning for such rejection was squarely theological; if God had already planned everything for everyone, why bother with missions or education? People gathered for worship to be obedient to God, not to make any decisions about God or the Jesus whose teachings revealed God. Our spiritual forebears were not Calvinist and believed that missions were important for spreading the good news of God’s love for all people and that Christian education was important to teach children as well as adult seekers the same truths hoping that they would embrace the powerful reality of God’s unconditional love for them.
The founders of Silverside Church believed in personal choice in matters of theology and spirituality, but they were in the minority. Going back 176 years in this country, more churches and denominational groups warmed up to Calvinism than to free choice in the matter of responding to the God of unconditional love. What I’m saying to you this morning, my dear friends, is that from the get go, Silversiders have been upsetting apple carts. They would not be bound by the status quo whether political or social.
Did you realize how strongly pro-slavery the First State really was? President Lincoln said that except for our pastor, James Stokes Dickerson, Delaware ultimately would have fought with the South to preserve the institution of slavery. But for our pastor, Raymond Baker, who knows when the blatant disregard for the poor would have been challenged leading to a movement for Wilmington to provide decent housing options for its poor?
For a pitifully, painfully long time, women were second-class citizens in most mainstream churches in the United States. Women who felt called to preach were told that God didn’t call women to such ministries and that they should consider becoming directors of Christian education or missionaries; or if neither of those suited to find an effective psychiatrist. That anti-female attitude filtered down to the work of church members, the non-clergy types, and, for the most part, the anti-women attitude kept women from serving as deacons as well as being appointed to church councils, presbyteries, and vestries. Women could not teach men in Sunday School classes; they were only permitted to teach children and other women. Silversiders challenged another status quo; in the 1920’s our church was affiliated with the Northern Baptists. It just so happens that Northern Baptists were the first mainstream denominational group to elect a woman as its paid, professional executive. Her name was Helen Barrett Montgomery, and she served with distinction despite the constant criticism thrown her way by the anti-women religious groups, which dominated the religious landscape in our country in those days.
Though Silverside has not yet had a woman as one of its pastors–not for reasons of debasing women as daughters of Eve–women have served as deacons and members of Council for years and years; many Council Chairs have been women, and I don’t know where the Board of Deacons would be without its present women members and the women who came before them. These kinds of strides are not made, regardless of their theological, social, and moral correctness, without the strength and determination of people willing to challenge the status quo.
I’m so glad and so proud to be pastor of a church not controlled by the antigay and anti-lesbian status quo. Members and friends who choose to be open about their homosexual orientation may freely do so here, but that would not be the case had members long ago failed to challenge that status quo.
I want to make sure I’m clear on this point as I continue my sermon series on “Pathways to Personal Fulfillment.” It’s nice to be beneficiaries of positive changes brought about by someone else’s challenge to a status quo. We enjoy religious freedom, in part, in our country because some Brits told the powerful Church of England that its way wasn’t the only way. I don’t know how we’d ever find a way to express the gratitude due those who envisioned freedom of religion and made it real, along with those who fought since its inception to keep it real.
Even so, fulfillment for us individually means that we ourselves or we in groups with whom we affiliate must do our own challenging of an unjust status quo. It is not simply the responsibility of those who want to be bothered by such things; it is the responsibility of everyone who wants a better world. Martha marched against racism in the King years. June tirelessly fights for world peace day by day. Gordon has given much of his ministry challenging a status quo that says addicts are throwaways. Walt, other than serving as a distinguished judge himself, became known long ago as someone who challenged the widely held folk belief that lawyers and judges are above the law, and he functionally became the go-to-guy for advice and direction on matters of sticky judicial ethics.
If I want to be a fulfilled person, there will come a day, without a doubt there will come a day, when I have to find the courage to challenge the status quo. Perhaps I’ll have options, some more comfortable to me than others; perhaps not. Some injustices have to be confronted publicly and head-on.
Baseball Hall of Famer, Dave Winfield, has spoken out against racism in early sports history in the United States. He said, “Hank Aaron, man, you challenged the status quo and the records of the game. Monumental feats in an era where people didn’t like that.”
The caste system in India was frequently challenged before India’s constitution was amended to forbid the existence in 1950 of the lowest of the castes, the Untouchables. Since then, some Untouchables have arisen to high political and judicial office. My Indian students tell me that in places, hints of the aspects of the caste system remain.
While the caste system was still fully in place, its defenders remembered ancient myths used to endorse division of all citizens into a hierarchy of importance. One of those myths appearing in the Rigveda tells of a giant named Purusha from whose head brahmins, the highest of all castes, were created. Nobles and warriors were created from Purusha’s arms; their caste was immediately under the brahmins. Moving on down the giant, farmers and merchants were created from his stomach, and servants from Purusha’s feet, “an example of how mythology preserves the values of a society by rooting present practice in the ancient past, but also it can be seen as a means of maintaining the status quo to the benefit of those in power [today].”
Can I live with myself if during this critical hour I fail to stand up and say that quality health care is not the sole possession of people or employers who can afford to pay its outlandish rates? Can I sleep at night in a political era where a few false political promises have been replaced by candidates who tell nothing but lies to get themselves elected? Then, we criticize elected officials for lacking integrity! We endorsed and applauded their lies because we wanted them in office. So, we get what we pay for–through taxes and special interest bribes.
Another ploy from politicians is that they understand and are concerned about the plight of their constituents. Some really are, some few really are. British journalist, Anthony Holden, writing in mid-twentieth century captured the pattern perfectly:
They tend to be civil servants, often diplomats drawn from the Foreign Office, who may be very pleasant, intelligent people, but once they get inside the Palace they’re riveted to the status quo and they lose track of public opinion in the real world.
Wall Street is currently “occupied” by protesters who have gone there to say that the abuse and misuse of our money has to stop; somehow the White House and Mr. Geithner haven’t been able to communicate that with clarity and force. Some of the protesters who are doing no worse than yelling to be heard are being roughhoused by some of the New York police. The near absence of news coverage about this challenge, whether you agree with their methods or not, is eerie. Everything else gets reported down to how many cigarettes President Obama has smoked since he became President.
The Atlantic Wire ran a story on this past Wednesday with the title, “Media Non-Coverage of Occupy Wall Street Gets Lots of Media Coverage.” Coverage picked up after the story ran, but not much. Originally, the only pictures being shared were taken by amateurs. Pictures, not such flattering ones for the police, were being taken and leaked by amateurs, such as the picture of the two women holding not so much as a protest sign being maced by two burly NYPD officers.
Dr. Laurence J. Peter has said, “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”
Indeed it does.
Have you heard about the Marines who headed up to New York this weekend to make sure these peaceful protesters are protected from police carrying out orders from whom? We don’t know. Well, somebody knows. Plenty of others have hunches. The orders are coming from powerful enough sources to get the police to act illegally as they did when they jailed my older son and about 199 other college students for protesting. An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union represented these kids and filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department; the then-college kids won.
Best I can tell, a Marine named Ward Reilly organized this Marines on Wall Street movement, which was to have begun at 10:00 last night. This is what Reilly wrote on his Facebook page:
The Marines are coming to Wall St…(to PROTECT the protestors). I’m heading up there tonight in my dress blues. So far, 15 of my fellow marine buddies are meeting me there, also in uniform. I want to send the following message to Wall Street and Congress: I didn’t fight for Wall Street; I fought for America. Now it’s Congress’ turn. My true hope, though, is that we Veterans can act as first line of defense between the police and the protester. If they want to get to some protesters so they can mace them, they will have to get through the Marine Corps first. Let’s see a cop mace a bunch of decorated war Vets. We all took an oath to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution of this country. That’s what we will be doing. Hope to see you there!!
It’s a mistake to think that Jesus was despised by hoards of his fellow Jews who began to hate him when what he taught made them uncomfortable and followed through on their hatred of him before Pontius Pilate demanding that Roman Governor Pilate pronounce the death penalty and order Jesus crucified. I was saying that long before a real New Testament scholar, Dr. John Dominic Crossan, said it; and not too many people have listened to him either on that point. Hollywood, and most recently the brilliant theologian and filmmaker, Mel Gibson, has won out on this point.
The truth is that some fellow Jews were confused because Jesus’ teachings didn’t match up so well with what they’d always been taught, but they didn’t hate Jesus for presenting an alternative perspective. Those who did hate Jesus were some of the Jewish religious leaders whose bread and butter were based on staying with the traditional interpretations of the ancient Jewish laws. Others who hated Jesus were those at whom Jesus poked fun for thinking that keeping religious rules was the same thing as a personal connection to God, but all of those who hated Jesus and wanted Rome to do him were in the vast minority.
Most Jews who knew him, and he was unknown to many, whether they agreed with his teachings, did not want Rome to put to death another of theirs. As Crossan points out, there’s no way hoards of Jews would have descended on Pilate demanding that he do anything–put Jesus to death, improve the roads, have better security during the high holy days at the Temple. If any hint of that had happened, Pilate would have called on the Roman legions at his command, and every Jew in sight would have been executed. The Jews did not boss around the representative of the mighty Roman Emperor.
A handful of those who did hate Jesus, though, did come before Pilate trying to reason with him and have him agree with them that Jews and Romans alike would be better off if Jesus were rubbed out. The reason this small group of Jews hated Jesus enough to press the Roman enemy to kill him is because he challenged the status quo as determined by centuries of interpreting the letter of the ancient Jewish law rather than the spirit of the ancient Jewish law. Jesus dared, because of his reform spirit and his desire for Judaism to flourish through fresh air, to pit his understanding of the ancient law against the perspective that had prevailed among Jews for hundreds of years.
Any Jew in power was irked beyond reason, and early on in Jesus’ ministry a number of these Tea Party Jews whispered about their plans to do him in, whatever it took…all because he challenged the status quo, and he really do that blatantly.
Again, he dared to toss the interpretation resting on the letter of the law and replace with his own ideas about what really mattered, the spirit of the law. Listen to how daring he challenged that status quo:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the gehenna of fire.
Always remember with me, please, that Jesus never used the word “hell.” Aside from that, here’s a widely known ancient law that says in essence, “If you dare to murder someone, you will be judged for your crime.” Jesus says to those listening to this part of one of his sermons, “Well, duh. Of course, if you murder someone, you’re going to face the legal punishment for that deed; namely death. Now most of you aren’t murderers, and you won’t ever be so let me tell you what’s behind this law. If you let your temper get out of control to the point that you’re ready to hurt someone physically and with words, you’ve already stepped over the line and thumbed your nose at God. You can find yourself alienated from God even if you never kill anyone because you let your rage cause you to treat someone inappropriately, knowing that if you do become a murderer rage will be a part of your deed.” Jesus went on to say that if someone even has such disregard for another human being as to call her or him a fool, meaning someone so intellectually lacking and therefore of such limited benefit to the world that the person might as well be dead, you’re the one who will thereby show yourself unworthy to dwell among the civilized; so you’ll be tossed into gehenna, the big garbage dump.”
See, when the Pharisees bragged that they’d kept all the laws since birth, they meant, in the case of this law, that they’d never murdered anyone. Jesus irritated them beyond reason, when he said what he said, namely, “Oh, when you start feeling and thinking the kinds of things murderers think and feel, letting these build up to an act of murder; way back at the beginning of that process, you already crossed the line, and you’re guilty of violating the same religious law a murderer violates.”
Jesus wanted to reform Judaism. Many of us when we realized that we were seekers and could no longer function in a community that attempted to practice what we could call conventional religion, weren’t trying to flush religion away altogether; instead, we were trying to gather with people who might join us in challenging the status quo that makes religion at best ineffective and, at worst, evil.
Marianne Williamson, who is called by her admirers a spiritual activist, says this about religion in our time:
Our religious institutions have far too often become handmaidens of the status quo, while the genuine religious experience is anything but that. True religion is by nature disruptive of what has been, giving birth to the eternally new.
Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, probably the most highly regarded Christian theologian worldwide during the twentieth century wrote,
“Faith in God’s revelation has nothing to do with an ideology that glorifies the status quo.” In other words, if God is leading God’s people to take certain actions in the world, through the various means by which God is said to make known God’s will according to Christian theology, what could God possibly be revealing to us? Well, there are amazingly compassionate acts being done in God’s name around the world today, some of them even through churches–though most churches at the end of the day are about self-preservation first and foremost. Most of the time, this means an ardent defense of the status quo. Post Vatican II, some Roman Catholic Churches around the globe refused to give up saying the Mass in Latin even though many who hear the Latin Mass never understand with great clarity what is going on. Similarly, the original Anglican Book of Common Prayer, dated 1522, gets revised a couple of times to update the language so the modern people understand exactly what it means. What happened, Anglican churches spring up all over whose claim to fame is their exclusive use of the original Book of Common Prayer, none of its adapted later versions.
That would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Vice-gripping oneself to the status quo will rarely get us to any positive or fulfilling place in terms of religion or relationship or social justice. Challenging the status quo is always a risk, to some degree, but if we never attempt it in an area we know needs change, fulfillment will surely escape us.