October 7, 2012

Claiming the Christian Franchise


Click here to see the lessons of this day

For several years I actively resisted the draw of social networking. Now, I’m no Luddite—my profession is computer science after all. But like a lot of people, I sometimes feel like technology is moving faster than is good for us, or at least we’re adopting technology without fully realizing the consequences. My main reason for avoiding Facebook—or my main excuse—was that I didn’t trust that my privacy would be sufficiently protected. Identity theft is so easy and so rampant, it just seemed to me that making my private life essentially a public document was wantonly risky. On this point I’m pretty sure I was right, but ultimately I realized that I can’t be an expert in computer security if I don’t participate in the social networking. So I got a Facebook page and started to accumulate “friends.”

The immediate and very cool thing about Facebook is that you find a lot of lost people from your life—college, high school, childhood friends who have long since fallen off the Christmas Card list. You also immediately begin to learn a lot more about your friends than you ever really wanted to know, and more often than not that TMI comes in the form of religious zeal.

For good or bad, something I’ve come to understand about myself is that I’m a fairly parochial person. I get behind my school teams. I’m an ardent Red Sox fan. I’ve completely drunk my company Kool-Aid. And even though I officially became Episcopalian in 1986, I like to think my wool is just as dyed as someone born into this denomination. Yet I cringe deeply when several of my Facebook friends use that medium for posting overly simplistic inspirational quips of, shall we say, a Christian persuasion. I’ll bet you have a few friends like that, too, whether you are on Facebook or not.

Why am I bothered by this? I’m Christian, right? I root for this team. I should be “liking” the heck out of all of these posts. Yet I can’t help but have a visceral reaction against this, and it keeps coming back to the same question for me, a question I’ve been pondering for some number of years now: Who is the holder of the Christian Brand?

I bring this up today because I believe that today’s readings provide a bit of insight into this question and, at least speaking for myself, I found the answers here a bit surprising and counter to my Jeffersonian instinct of keeping religion a personal—and indeed a private—matter.

There’s an interesting little thread that passes through each of the three scripture readings today. Let’s review. In Numbers, Moses faces a crowd that is frankly getting a bit tired of the whole manna-from-heaven thing, so Moses complains to God, saying in essence, why do I have to do all of the work? Are these all my children? So God told Moses to bring men from the camp into the tent, and there God spoke to them, and God spoke through them, and they prophesied. You didn’t even have to be in the tent: Special mention is made of two men who were still in the camp, but nonetheless were included in the group that communed with God.

In the epistle, James is giving the church at large advice on being a community, confessing sins to one another and praying with and for each other. Even Elijah was human, says James, yet he was able to do powerful things through fervent prayer. Curious that James has to remind us that Elijah was human like us, but in doing so James makes the point that even legendary figures of the Old Testament are no different than you or me.

And then there’s Mark’s gospel. The passage starts with the disciple John’s outrage over an unauthorized exorcist, and then it quickly turns to talk about obstacles along the path to God. If you think you’ve heard some of this reading in other gospels, you’re right. The theme of lopping off body parts if they cause you to stumble is an echo of Matthew’s 5th chapter—the Sermon on the Mount—and also part of Matthew’s 18th. It is in fact Matthew 18 that is the direct parallel to this passage in Mark, but there is one important difference. In Matthew, the disciples are asking Jesus about what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus launches immediately into the familiar metaphor of offensive body parts. Mark is almost word-for-word the same, except that he adds four verses about the exorcist and Jesus’ reaction. His reaction was this: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Wait a second. Really? If there is anyone in the Judeo-Roman world at that time who needed to carefully craft his public persona, who needed to protect his franchise, to manage what and who is associated with his name, it’s Jesus. Jesus embarked on his ministry to bring a new, radical, and disruptive message to the people, much to the consternation and frustration of the power establishment. Effectively conveying this message, even under the best of circumstances, is a very tricky maneuver, something that would take fantastic image management skills. How carefully polished are public figures today, and how fast the backlash when a misstep is made by them or by someone associated with their cause. Is Scott Brown really responsible for the stupidity of some of his supporters? Whether he is or not, it is unbelievably ill advised for any public figure to pause for even a second, to let slip the tireless focus on image, to lose control over how you are seen, lest you also lose control over the message you are trying to convey. You simply can’t take the chance. There is too much at stake.

Yet: “Do not stop him.”

I’m telling you that this is, at least on this Sunday, the most astounding religious revelation of the New Testament. Hidden here in this small and easily overlooked part of Mark, a part that isn’t even echoed in the more famous discourse in Matthew, is the theological tenet that turns Christianity—Christ’s Christianity—from a religion into a faith.

Religion is a term we use to describe a belief structure. Even a cursory survey of world history has to include the partnership between political civilization and religious order. The earliest cultures on earth built societies around governments based on religious imperatives. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt were the link between the gods and the people, and incumbent upon them was the duty to construct temples and perform religious rituals in order to keep the gods happy. The Mesopotamian city-states were ruled by leaders who manipulated which gods were popular and which weren’t in order to solidify a power base or alienate an enemy. Most of what we know about the Hebrews comes to us from bible stories, but ancient Judea was no different from any other culture when it came to gods and politics. The emergence of Yahweh as the one true God among false gods and idols, when viewed as a social anthropologist and not as a Judeo-Christian, is entirely a function of which religious structures survived, and which ones did not.

When there is so much at stake—and by “so much” I mean power and influence—then it is not at all surprising that religion is the major tool of political institutions. Even now most of Europe has official state religions. The public schools in Ireland are what we call Catholic Schools here. Religion and politics, from Jesus’ time even until today, are deeply intertwined. Of this there is no doubt.

Religion has always been used to divide people in spite of the claims to the contrary. We live in a world where the motto is “if ya ain’t fer us, yer agin us.” Think about that. From politics to religion and everything in between, the inclusion criterion is that you have to agree to our way of seeing things, otherwise you are an outcast. The border is around us, and everything outside of that border is our enemy.

But listen to what Jesus says, if Jesus were from Appalachia. “If ya ain’t agin us, yer fer us.” Now think about that. The border is around those who are actively against us. The inclusion criterion is simply everyone else. It is essentially infinite.

Being so very inclusive takes great faith. My premise is that Mark’s 39th verse in his 9th chapter is Christ’s clear statement that His message is precisely one of faith and not one of religion. “Do not stop him.” In this one phrase Jesus turns from the human political instinct to protect His image, to the pure abandonment that faith requires. Jesus plays the long game here. He has faith that, in the large, against the basest aspects of human nature, amongst the constant rumble of charlatans and demigogs, and in spite of all those who would so readily hijack a religion for political gain, enough good would come by letting common people—us—do acts of power in His name. This includes those who think like us, who sing and pray like us. It also includes those who express acts in Jesus’ name differently and sometimes in ways that make us uneasy. Yes, in fact, it includes those who would use Jesus’ name as a means for vile and nefarious ends. “Do not stop him”, remember, did not come with conditionals.

Who is the holder of the Christian Brand? Christ demonstrates deep faith in us that we all will carry forth the Christian Brand. And yet we feel lost against all of those voices out there claiming the brand more loudly and, to our genteel sensibilities, more offensively than we are comfortable with. So we are quiet, polite, non-offensive. We meet the clamor with silence. We cede the Christian Brand, because we are so worried about our own personal brand. And we’ve gotten so good at protecting ourselves and tut-tutting all those others that we have forgotten how to speak for and about Christianity. We’ve lost the language. We have lopped off our own tongues because they may offend. Who?

Your brand doesn’t matter. The Saint John’s brand doesn’t matter, nor does the Episcopal brand. All that matters is doing works of power in Christ’s name, not in the name of a congregation or denomination.

What is stopping us? What is keeping each of us from answering our call to Christ’s ministry? Jesus said, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” Where Hammurabi’s Code saw stumbling as theft, and hands were literally cut off, Jesus is speaking metaphorically. What makes you stumble? I’ll tell you what makes me stumble. Fear. Fear that I’ll be lumped with a fringe of Christianity that isn’t as nuanced as I’d like. Fear that I’ll make my friends uncomfortable. Fear that I’ll offend. Fear that I can’t make a difference in the world, or even in this gathering we call Saint John’s.

If fear makes you stumble, Tim, then cut it off.

God called people just like us into the tent, and not even the tent could bound God’s call.

Elijah was a human being.

Jesus said, “Do not stop him.”

Who is the holder of the Christian Brand? Well, you are. And as strange as it may seem, there are no caveats or addendums to that ownership. There are no conditions or parameters. No list of dos and don’ts. You are a full and complete owner of the brand. You have a franchise. You are empowered.

Jesus has faith in you.