Claiming the Name
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, February 7th, 2021
I love the church I serve today, Cove Presbyterian Church in Covesville, Virginia, just south of Charlottesville. When I walk into the historic sanctuary, I see plaques on the wall, honoring pastors, elders, members who have shared ministry here since 1769. I realize that each time I step into the pulpit, I am standing on the shoulders of saints who have preached and led worship, prayed and sung here for generations.
Despite all its history and all that is good, faithful, and inspiring about Cove, we are battling a serious theological disease, an epidemic even, along with many other churches across the land. We are suffering from an “evangelism allergy,” an allergy that even retired Dr. Huber cannot cure. The symptoms are easy to spot. Just mention the word “evangelism” and some start to twitch and others break out in a rash. Some insist, loudly, “we care about matters of social justice. We leave ‘evangelism’ to crazy Christians. Don’t call us evangelicals!”
Well, it may come as a surprise to some and a disappointment to others, but I am a proud evangelical, social justice Christian. And, I would argue that anyone who is called by God to follow Jesus, is washed in baptism, and nourished at the Lord’s Table is an evangelical, social justice Christian. Evangelical, social justice, Christians begin and end each day by celebrating, announcing, praying, and living the good news we see embodied in Jesus. Evangelical, social justice, Christians are not spectators waiting to watch the “Super Bowl of Religion” play out on some distant field; no, they are on-the-field and on-their-knees followers of the demon-dashing, law-transcending, boundary-breaking, tradition-challenging Son of God, whom we know as Jesus.
The Jesus we meet in Mark is not looking for people who are simply impressed by him, amazed by what he does, think of him as a good teacher, or are inspired by him as a man of virtue. The Jesus we meet in Mark is the Beloved Child of God, the Risen Son of God, who expects people to leave everything behind to follow him, often into most undesirable situations. The Jesus we meet in Mark stirs things up and stirs us up to get up and get out and make sure that no one who speaks in the name of Jesus does so with any other agenda than speaking and acting on behalf of the grace-filled, life-transforming, God. The Jesus we meet in Mark not only takes time to pray, he walks boldly into places of power and announces the in-breaking of God’s reign of justice and mercy in the world.
I daresay that Jesus is not necessarily the Jesus we always meet in church or on religious TV. The Jesus we meet in Mark won’t stay put in any sanctuary or on any ZOOM screen. Mark’s Jesus does not worry about the company he keeps and brick by brick, he tears down the divisions of race and sexuality, money and title, power and privilege that the world, and even the church, works so hard to build up. Mark’s Jesus is not much interested in how prosperous, how esteemed, how powerful we are; he cares if you and I are willing to follow him even into places where prosperity, esteem, and power rarely visit and never stay, and if you and I are willing to work with him to keep tearing down the walls that divide us. That is what evangelical, social justice Christians look like to Mark’s Jesus. And, that is what I aspire to be.
Over the years that I served an inner-city church in Atlanta, I found myself involved in a recurring conversation with different groups of people. The subject was always about what the church is going to do with “those people,” a euphemism for men and women who were sleeping outside our church building. This conversation was sometimes scheduled, sometimes spontaneous, and it would almost always occur among a group of well-meaning and well-housed Christians.
On one occasion, a new pastor on our staff was taking part in one of these thorny conversations. When the topic of what are we going to do with “those people,” she left the room suddenly. Two minutes later, she returned with a group of “those people,” men and women without housing who joined us around the table in the conversation about their housing. I swear I saw Jesus take a seat at that table as the conversation shifted from a group of well-meaning folks who knew little about living on the streets talking about how to solve their problem to a group of well-meaning folks listening to those who were living on the streets and what they needed. In that memorable moment, I watched a wall of misunderstanding collapse and new possibilities come to life. In that memorable moment, my colleague was an evangelical, social justice Christian in its finest form.
I am still surprised how often Jesus shows up when I stop talking and start listening, when I stop fearing and start praying, when I stop pontificating timeless truths and start speaking the truth that now I see “in a mirror dimly,” when I stop trying to pad my privilege and start finding ways to defend those living with almost no privilege, when I start living in ways that make people want to come and see and follow Jesus with us into the Cove sanctuary and far beyond its sanctuary, not as amazed observers who are “impressed” by Jesus, but as on the ground disciples, as evangelical, social justice, Christians.
Maybe one reason many folks who call themselves “evangelicals” today shy away from speaking truth to power is because they are confused by what Jesus is calling them to be and to do. They seem to think that you can be an evangelical, an announcer of God’s good news, without realizing that speaking the good news of God includes speaking that truth to those who hold the power, political, economic, and social. They seem to mistake being evangelical with simply having a private, personal relationship with Jesus that stops at the front door, rather than a relationship that leads you into the public square, following the One who knocks down all doors that would prevent us from working for and demanding a just world for all.
Just a short while before he died, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta. The text was about the courage of the three boys, Sadhrach, Meschach, and Abednego, in the book of Daniel, boys who spoke truth to power and did not confuse their religious belief as a solely private affair, boys who held firm in their faith and stood boldly before the tyranny of King Nebuchadnezzar.
Toward the end of the sermon, King gives an eloquent description of what it means to an evangelical, social justice Christian when he preaches: “And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren't fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause—and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you're afraid that you will lose your job, or you're afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you're afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you're just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.”
It is a well-known fact that you need to eat well to be an evangelical, social justice Christian. You need to feed your body with a diet that builds up the soul. So, I invite those who follow Jesus at Cove and those who follow Jesus wherever you are hearing this sermon, to come to dinner. Come fill yourself at the table of grace, eat the bread that nourishes the soul and drink from the cup of suffering love. Then, say a prayer of thanksgiving, leave the sanctuary or turn off your screen and get out and follow after the Loving Lord of Grace wherever he may lead.
Do not cede the name “evangelical” to those who think following Jesus is a solely private affair. Claim your name! Proudly claim your call to be an evangelical, social justice Christian. Then, live into your name, become a proud, engaged, persistent, forgiving, loving evangelical, social justice Christian.
No telling where Jesus will lead us when we do, but one thing is for sure, it will be the journey of our lives.