A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, October 2, 2016 (World Communion Day)
Matthew 14:13-21 CEB
The impetus for today’s sermon came from a New York Times article someone passed on to me titled “What Religion Would Jesus Belong to?” The writer of the article, Nicholas Kristof, begins by noting that “One puzzle of the world is that religions often don’t resemble their founders.”1 “Many faiths have lost sight of their founders’ teachings,” the article contends.
Kristof goes on to quote Brian D. McLaren, one of today’s most popular and most adept writers on contemporary Christianity. “Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for” notes McLaren. McLaren has also written in his new book, The Great Spirit Migration, “We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped [hence today’s sermon title] and held hostage by extremists. His captors parade him in front of cameras to say, under duress, things he obviously doesn’t believe. As their blank-faced puppet, he often comes across as anti-poor, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant and anti-science. That’s not the Jesus we met in the Gospels!”1
Well, I have to agree with McLaren—much of today’s Christianity is far from what we read about Jesus, his teachings, his attitude, and actions, and far from the spirit of the early Christian movement. It seemed that this World Communion Day—which has as its theme Christian unity—would be a good opportunity to address this topic.
The truth is, it has been a common occurrence that religions tend to stray from the original spirit and intents of their founders as they transition from movements to organizations. The article points out that this has been true not only for Jesus, but for Muhammad and the Buddha as well. In all three cases—Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha—it is as though the founders of these religions have been kidnapped by extremists who use their name to propagate extreme teachings and despicable acts in their names.
When it comes to religious movements, organizational concerns, positions of leadership, and the innate human thirst for power tend to entice and corrupt and lead religious movements away from their roots and core principles. The Jesus that we see depicted in much of Christianity today is totally foreign to the original, Galilean Jesus. Jesus wouldn’t know himself as depicted by many today who claim to be his followers and speak in his name.
So what McLaren calls for in his new book, and what Kristof seems to be proposing in his article, is “for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life. . . .”
McLaren cites two characteristics of the original Jesus and suggests that today’s Christians try to adopt or return to them. Curiously enough, these two characteristics are present in the scripture reading from Matthew.
The first characteristic of Jesus that McLaren notes is contemplation. He suggests a Christian’s lifestyle today also be “rooted in contemplation.” Today’s gospel story speaks of Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place by himself (14:13). And rather than being a one-time occurrence for Jesus, we find in the gospels that it is something Jesus did often. He often sought out lonely, desolate, private places for prayer, meditation, and contemplation. And many of the Christian saints have done likewise. Some of the greatest, classic, devotional writings in the Christian library came to us as the written experiences of the followers of Jesus who spent their lives in contemplation.
And so, the suggestion is that Christians today would be so much closer to the spirit of the original Jesus, and the world would be so much better off, if we were more committed to lives of contemplation than we are concerned about what McLaren calls “a problematic system of beliefs.”
One of the primary points the Times article makes is there is marked decline in the interest in many about Christian doctrine and organizational bureaucracy; and hence, the migration away from organized religion. But at the same time “there’s also a deep impulse for spiritual connections.” And so, the implication is that churches today would do well to spend less time focusing on systems of doctrine and church bureaucracy, and more time on promoting lives of contemplation; i.e., prayer, meditation, spirituality, study, and other activities that nourish the soul.
Then the second characteristic attributed to the original Jesus and also noted in today’s gospel story is compassion. “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith . . .and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks. “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?” he asks.
Today’s gospel story says, “When Jesus . . . saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick” (14:14). Then when the people became hungry, Jesus again had compassion for them and set about giving them something to eat. Concern for and ministry to the sick and hungry—such defined the original Jesus who gave himself to a life of compassion.
Kristof suggests in his article, “If certain religious services were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world – and surely Jesus would applaud as well.” What Kristof says inspires him are “the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters . . . a Catholic missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims, an evangelical physician achieving the impossible in rural Angola, [and] a rabbi battling for Palestinian human rights. . .” In other words, people who put compassion into action.
So when we again consider all that goes on in the name of Christianity today, we realize that a life of contemplation and compassion is alien to much that seeks to pass itself off as true Christianity. As McLaren suggests, it appears that Jesus has, indeed, been kidnapped.
But then as we bring this closer home and think about our United Church, we realize we aren’t too far off base, as this is a church that has never been concerned with doctrine, dogma, or a system of beliefs. As I perceive the spirit of this United Church and try to describe it to outsiders or newcomers (as I did again this past week when someone called inquiring about our church beliefs), we are more concerned about learning how Jesus would have us live our lives in the world than what Jesus would have us believe. We don’t argue beliefs or doctrines here; we try to live lives of compassion and service in the world
If there would be room for improvement here at the United Church, perhaps it would be in offering more opportunities for contemplation, in various manifestations.
And so, today’s sermon might have also aptly been titled “Two Characteristics of Classical Christianity: Contemplation and Compassion.” On this World Communion Sunday when we seek to find common ground with true Christians the world over, may we do so in emphasizing contemplation (broadly defined to include prayer, meditation, spirituality, study) and compassion. If more Christians and churches focused on contemplation and compassion, the world would, indeed, be a much better place. May it be so. Amen.
1Nicholas Kristof, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?” The New York Times, Sunday, September 4, 2016.