Our neighbor George, along with several of his church friends, recently attended a workshop on the meaning of Lent. The purpose was to help them go deeper into the faith as they prepared for Holy Week and the celebration of Easter.
Amid the group discussion, which covered many topics, was an interesting comment about the “disconnect” between Sunday religion and weekday life. Apparently it focused on how on Sunday we worship God and “love Jesus” but during the week we often gossip, malign and even almost hate those we don’t like or disagree with.
He said the pastor leading the discussion group made mention on how he had received a couple of phone calls urging him to read some of the comments on social media his people were using. Instead of Sunday “sweet Jesus” the comments were “tearing down those they disagreed with” and “a no hole’s barred” attack on those who took a different view of issues they shared.
There was agreement that sadly there is both a “sacred religion” that builds up and a “secular religion” that tears down. For some there is the possibility of “being Christian” in name only without knowing anything that Jesus said or even stands for.
Their discussion brought me back to Ruby Bridges. I remember many years ago a famous Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell showed a little 6-year old Black girl being escorted into her New Orleans elementary school by United States marshals. I vividly remember the cover but for some reason never knew the name of the little girl.
The other day while driving I met for the first time on public radio Ruby Bridges. She is now a grown woman but as she retold her story it was both as fresh and disturbing as the morning newspaper.
Ruby just recently published a little book primarily for young people, “This Is Your Time.” I purchased the book (highly recommended reading) and discovered this message: “On November 14, 1960 at the age of six Ruby Bridges became the first black child to integrate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. Escorted by Federal Marshals past angry segregationist protesters, young Ruby attended William Frantz Elementary and earned a place in civil rights history.”
In the book she describes her experience of adults threatening her and throwing things at her. As a young 6-year old she was deeply troubled by the segregation demonstrators who had never even met her. The problem was the color of her skin. One of the pictures shows white adults carrying a child’s casket with a black doll inside. On the radio interview she said the comment was “this could be you.”
It is very possible, maybe even probable, that some of those shouting words of hatred at a 6-year old were the same people who would sit in a church the following Sunday singing “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and talking about the amazing grace of God.
Luke writes in his gospel, ‘(Jesus said) if you love those who love you what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” and adds, “but love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6.32).
Do you think there is a difference between talking about God and knowing God? Is there a difference from saying “I am a Christian” and actually following the teachings of Jesus?
Is there a difference between “going to church” and “being the church?” Do you agree or disagree with the statement “we will never change the world by going to church — we will only change the world by being the church?”
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Maybe some people don’t want to change the world. They are happy with it just as it is. They hold fast or they cling to the past as things used to be as the world slowly but surely passes them by. Changing the world may well mean changing your life and that is almost revolutionary for many of us.
When Jesus was asked “which is the greatest commandment in the law” he answered with a two-part response from the Hebrew scriptures from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. First, to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. But then he quickly added (some wish he hadn’t), “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Then to drive the point home he talked about two “neighbors” who hated each other yet came together in a moment of healing.
Hundreds of years before Jesus was born the prophet Amos raised the issue of religion as show and religion as faith. He wrote: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (5.21ff).
Let us close with a word about “ashes.” George asked a friend “what is the significance of Ash Wednesday?” And the reply came back “to get ashes.” George said “No! No!” Ashes are only the outward and visible sign of something far more important! They are a visible reminder of our humanity, of our mortality. They call us, even command us, to take a critical look at ourselves in light of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Psalmist (51) says it well: “Have mercy on me, O God... for I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
Let the dialogue continue. We only ask that you think on these things.
The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis “Lou” Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.