A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 11, 2016
Amos 5:14-15; John 13:34-35 ESV
Reading from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
What is our business as a church, anyway? That is the question of the day. In some respects, the American Church seems to be floundering. Perhaps the American Church is in the midst of an identity crisis and is unsure of what its business really is. On the one hand, thousands of small churches of several Christian denominations close their doors every year. On the other hand, the past couple of decades we have witnessed the rise of several so-called “mega-churches,” entities that look somewhat like small corporations with structures and parking lots that are very similar to shopping malls. And some of the things that are offered inside these mega-churches remind one of shopping malls as well – juice bars, workout rooms, food courts, bookstores, and more. I am not passing judgment, mind you. I am just stating the facts and reminding us how the American Church is undergoing transformation and, at the same time, possibly changing its “way of doing business.”
And as you well know, different churches and different denominations can sharply disagree over what the nature of the Church’s business is. Priorities of different churches range from nothing but saving souls, to withdrawing and separating from the world, to instruction in holiness and saintly perfection, to promoting lives of prosperity, to comforting the troubled, to demonstrating and marching and political activism, to going on mission trips and running soup kitchens, and more. With so many different churches having such diverse ideas of what it means to be a church, it causes us to ask again, “What is the church’s business anyway?”
The church’s business has always been a point of controversy and cause for disagreement, even from the earliest days of the Jesus movement. We see the problem surface, for example, in the book of Acts from the issue of which groups of people the church should be reaching out to, to how the church should collect and spend its money, to how involved the church should be in social issues (i.e., taking care of orphans and widows), to guidelines regarding who should be included and who should be excluded from its fellowship and what restrictions should be placed upon membership, and so on. The followers of Jesus sought to hash out these issues as they met in church councils where they passionately debated their differences of opinion and tried to come to some consensus among themselves. At least part of what they were seeking to hash out had to do with the nature of what the church’s business ought to be.
But the issue of the business of the people of God reached much further back than the first-century church. There were differences of opinion among the ancient Christian ancestors – the Jewish people – as to what the business of the Jews, the Covenant Community, should be as well. And the business of the Covenant Community evolved and matured over time, culminating in the Hebrew prophets Amos and Isaiah. Amos concluded that the purpose of God’s people is to seek to do good, to love the good, and to work for justice in the land. Isaiah would come along and add that the purpose of God’s people is to be a servant people and a light to all the world.
And then some 800 years later, Jesus came along in the spirit of those 8th century prophets, echoing and refining the call to be a light to the world, to focus on mercy and justice, and to live lives of compassionate service. But Jesus also added the injunction to love: “A new commandment I give to you,” Jesus said, “that you love one another; . . . By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In these six little, yet oh so powerful words – “light, mercy, justice, compassion, service, and love” – we see a summary of what Christ-followers and God-followers in general are to be about. This is to be our business individually; and this is to be our business collectively as a church.
The nature of our business is echoed by Charles Dickens through the voice of Marley’s Ghost in that all-time classic, A Christmas Carol. I love that little book. And I love watching one of the many movie versions of the story. In fact, I have our DVR set to tape two different versions in the coming week so I can watch it again. Did you know that at least 20 different movie versions have been made of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? And it has been played out on the stage too many times to number?
And let us be reminded that A Christmas Carol is not a cute little children’s Christmas story, as we might sometimes be inclined to think. No, A Christmas Carol was a biting social commentary on the social injustices that were prevalent in the London of Dickens’ day. Dickens was a passionate social critic who sought social reform, using his writings and fame and influence to speak out against poverty, child labor, slavery, and other injustices of the day. He also worked to help get prostitutes off the street.
The passage that I read to you can be looked upon as a pivotal thesis of the entire story. When Scrooge says to the ghost of his deceased business partner Marley, “You were always a good man of business,” Marley’s ghost screams back a point Dickens was trying to get across to the readers of his own day. And it is the point that we dare not miss as well as we seek to determine the nature of our business today: “’Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.’” This is my all-time favorite Dickens’ passage, and in my opinion one of the most important passages he wrote. It gives me chills every time I read it anew or hear Marley’s Ghost exclaim it in the movie.
In having Marley’s Ghost say what he said, Dickens was echoing the 8th century Hebrew prophets, and especially Jesus. Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence – these are all our business as well!
There was a time in the American Church – just over 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century – when the Church seemed to have a clearer vision of what its business was. It was a movement that is looked back upon as the “Social Gospel Movement.” Two American ministers – Congregationalist Washington Gladden and an American Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch – are credited as the two of the fathers of it. Gladden is best known for writing the hymn, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.” He was one of the first to insist that Christian commitment should be translated into action in order to address current social problems. Or to put it another way, Gladden called for a “universal application of Christian values in everyday life.” The Social Gospel Movement sought to bring the Christian Gospel to bear upon social issues and injustices in the areas of poverty, slums, mandatory education and health care for the needy, labor reforms (including abolishing child labor and regulating the number of hours worked each week), providing daycare, and other issues. In other words, the leaders of the Social Gospel Movement channeled the spirit of Charles Dickens, it seems – and the Hebrew prophets and Jesus before him – as they understood that “mankind is our business. The common welfare is our business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, are all our business!”
Now, on the one hand, the spirit of the Social Gospel Movement continued to live on in the work and policies of some who came later – in the New Deal of FDR and the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., to name two. But on the other hand, much of the American Church seems to have forgotten about this all-important business of the church, as movements in other directions – the prosperity gospel, feel-good religion, Fundamentalism, hyper Evangelicalism, demonstrations and marches and political activism – have taken center stage.
But in the end, the 8th century prophets and Jesus call us back to the Church’s real business, if we are willing to read them and hear them. And every year at this time, Charles Dickens’ serves to remind us as well of what our everyday business, as individuals and as a congregation, is really about. As with Scrooge, we do well to heed the reminder while we still have time to do so: Humankind is our business. The common welfare is our business; mercy, justice, compassion, service, charity, forbearance, and benevolence – these are all our business! May it be so with us during this Advent-Christmas season, and in the year ahead as well. Amen.