Mercy. Justice. Worship. Part 3a/3

[contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Message’ type=’textarea’/][/contact-form] Easter Day 2016 has come and gone.  Last Sunday, churches everywhere were full of “heartfelt gladness” as described in Acts 2.  But, as we continue this examination of mercy and justice in the context of a revitalized church, we must not forget the other descriptive element given us in Acts 2:46 – generosity.  Every day, not just Easter day, a revitalized church is a healthy church that demonstrates both heartfelt gladness and generosity. After looking at some of the Old and New Testament teachings on mercy and justice, it is time now to explore how to express these biblical concerns in a local church that is on a path toward revitalization.

As I have said before, at Metokos Ministries we help churches in the areas of worship, discipleship and mercy ministries – a three-legged stool that must have three balanced and equally functional legs.  The three areas need to work in this balanced, equal functioning collaboration – at the same time – not sequentially, that is, one after another. We cannot postpone one aspect of the church life until the others are “right.” We cannot postpone one for convenience or comfort. The church is the body of Christ, and he paid for the souls of the church with his blood. Worship, discipleship and mercy ministries – all three in collaboration – make visible to a watching world the presence of, and our union with, the only head of the church, our Lord Jesus Christ.

I emphasize these concepts of collaboration and balance and equality of function because I believe I see that churches have strayed from the collaborative mindset.  Within the PCA denomination, for example, historian Sean Lucas has examined the roots of the church in his book, For a Continuing Church, and his research shows us how the collaborative approach goes against the history and the practice of the Presbyterian Church in America. The denominational roots often, and officially, rejected “social” and “justice” ministries in favor of evangelism and the changes that can follow new life in Christ.  In Lucas’ chapter, “Southern Presbyterians, Billy Graham, and the Mission of the Church,” we read

Other southern Presbyterian conservatives similarly distinguished between their understanding of the church’s mission and the liberals’ understanding. “In our modern age two general positions have been set forth as to what the position is in relation to the social problems of the world,” R.P. Robertson observed. The liberals held that “the Church’s primary emphasis is that of easing suffering, correcting social and economic problems.” Conservatives understood that “the primary message of the Church is the proclamation of the Gospel; that it is the prime duty of the church to make clear to a world dying in sin that the hope is in the Christ of the Gospel.” These questions were the primary ones facing the church: Would the church primarily be a social and educational agency, or would the church be an evangelistic agency? How did social change happen, and how might America be transformed – through education or evangelism? (p. 184. quoted from R.P. Robertson, “What is the Message of the Church,” in The Southern Presbyterian Journal, page 19, on 1 February 1949.)

My point here is that we cannot reduce the work of Jesus, his Church, his kingdom, down to one ministry that is more important than other Jesus-directed/mandated ministries.  The roots of the PCA rightly were concerned with doctrine, but were wrong in opposing a Biblical concern for the poor and opposition to segregation. I point again to Lucas’s book, this time to his fifth chapter “Red and Yellow, Black and White”: Southern Presbyterian Conservatives and the Crises of Postwar America.”  The author devotes over 30 pages to the history of the church’s dealings with issues of race. The discussion ends on page 133 with this paragraph:

This merger of doctrinal, political, racial, and economic conservatism represented the worldview of southern Presbyterian conservatives.  In their minds, it was not possible to separate the strands; the same Bible that taught of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection was the same Bible that legitimated segregation, championed individualism, and castigated Communism.  The disagreement with PCUS progressives, then, was not whether the Bible spoke to social issues; rather, the disagreement was whether the Bible supported traditionalist or progressive approaches to those issues.  In addition, the two sides differed on the way of achieving social ends: progressives generally favored institutionally driven change through pronouncements, while conservatives desired personal, “natural,” gradual change through evangelistic outreach and conversion.  Those differences would come to be represented more clearly in the decade ahead.

A healthy church will have a visible mercy and justice ministry, a vital worship ministry and a discipleship ministry that includes evangelism addressing all of life, not just the “spiritual.”  People and churches have focused on one ministry while understanding neither the unintended consequences of that choice nor the reason behind that choice.

Remember, again, the concerns for local churches expressed by Dr. Don MacNair:  Education, economics and ethnic differences (3Es) create divisions in our communities and neighborhoods where church members live, worship and minister. We need to create pathways and bridges for long-term relationships in those communities and neighborhoods with people who experience these 3Es differences – in both directions.

In the early ‘70s when my wife and I moved to St. Louis for seminary and graduate school, we attended a church plant located in the inner city near a university. The church began in a home and later moved to a storefront, and members of the fledgling congregation moved into the neighborhood.  Looking back through the 3E filter, I can see that though most of the core group had college degrees, at least, and many were working on post graduate degrees, the neighborhood population was largely poor or working poor.  Also, though a good number of the church’s members were “impoverished” students, and economically had a connection with their neighbors, the reality was that the students, whether St. Louis natives or transplants who had moved to St. Louis to further their education, and their backgrounds were different from those who were there first.  Racially, at least initally, the church was mostly white while the neighborhood was mostly African-American.  Yes, there was definitely the 3E climate there, but the church quickly began to reach out to the neighborhood around the storefront.  Children from the neighborhood attended our Sunday school.  Both morning and afternoon services had fellowship dinners each Sunday – well attended by those neighborhood children and others from the neighborhood. There was, from the start, an active diaconal ministry; a redevelopment ministry grew.  Two co-pastors and elders were a team from the start.  I am recounting here some early efforts of a congregation’s attempt to cross the 3Es.  The church learned many lessons and has persevered in the inner-city to this day, now with a multi-ethnic staff.

As described here, a healthy church works to have a vital, practical, and generous mercy ministry as its members work in building these pathways and bridges by whichever means God shows them. A healthy church also sees concerns for justice as part of Christ’s local church mercy ministry mandate. Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 can motivate, shape, and guide such endeavors: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,’” and Paul’s words in Acts 20, “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

As churches gather to worship, how are justice and mercy to have a role?  Does the following fit your general experience?  When Protestants, in particular Presbyterians, think about worship, that worship tends to have some music, after which there is a jump to the preaching. Now, of course, preaching, historically, has been a mark of the true church. Let’s look at some healthy collaboration between preaching and mercy ministries and then consider other aspects of the worship liturgy, as well as personal and family worship.

Preaching begins with text selection, and includes choice and development of illustrations and applications. Sometimes the text will come from Lectionary choices; other times the pastor is preaching through a Book of the Bible; or a sermon theme needs support. After selecting a text, many pastors have the choice to unpack the text in either an expository manner or thematically. In thematic preaching the text is more supportive and illustrative, while in expository, Covenant Seminary style, (The style I learned) the main or unifying point, supporting points and their sub-points all have roots and connection to the text. The sermon comes from the text. It is not overlaid on the text.

In our quest to keep our healthy, generous stool legs balanced, we can ask a few questions when we come to a text. Do these verses show any differences between people, 3Es? Is there an outsider, a poor person, a widow or someone whose illness defines them? What kind of sin is addressed – individual,   family, community or national? Does the passage address power or leadership? Is there a challenge to the majority culture?  Jesus and women and outsiders in the gospels are examples of some of these issues.

It can be too easy to overlook parts of texts because they might make people uncomfortable. With the news of today’s world, the words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, blessed are the peace makers might seem out of place when we are looking for security. We also need to make sure that we subject prevailing political views and expectations to Biblical truth. People sometimes forget that a local church can become known for the political views its members hear expressed in preaching and conversation. That perception can become a wall that keeps others out before they have an opportunity to hear the Biblical gospel. It is too easy to forget that the 3Es hear differently because of their different backgrounds and experiences.

How different people hear what we say is the point where the choice of illustrations becomes critical. Using mercy illustrations to help open up passages can expand the listener’s view of the world. If poverty, economic, or ethnic issues are never used in illustrations, then silence becomes the norm. Both positive and negative stories are appropriate, but reinforcing stereotypes is not appropriate, nor is making assumptions or profiling. A most powerful illustration I recall came from an African pastor recounting the story of a widow and her three children, starving in a conflict zone. The mother found a dried up banana peel to feed her children. She stopped her children from eating until she could offer up a prayer of thanks. This poor woman saw God’s provision in that conflict zone and gave thanks for what many of us would put on the compost pile. This illustration is powerful using a few words – conflict zone, dried up banana peel, prayer of thanks – to demonstrate the situation’s humanity. We see human needs in a conflict zone, and we feel the connection with this woman and her family because of prayer and a common faith in the midst of trauma. A poor woman is a spiritual hero in the midst of her family’s trauma.

Some parents do not want their children exposed to the dark side of our broken world in sermons, but this illustration was true, not graphic. Unlike a photo, the story did not describe the appearance of children facing starvation. A story does not reflect on the damage done to brain development from childhood malnutrition. Unlike a photo, there is no visible image of the trauma of children living in conflict zones, seeing death and experiencing family loss. What we have learned about caring for children in the midst of the trauma of international conflicts can be transferred to care for inner city youth here in our own nation.

The application of a text is often what people are looking for in a sermon – the so what! Too often pastors chose safe applications to make listeners feel safe, or OK with their styles of life. Occasionally, that safety and okay-ness is needed, and warranted by the text. But more often than not, the text will push us to both change and repentance, making us uncomfortable. It is God’s grace that makes his people both glad and generous to those in need. Remember that.  Sometimes a sermon application will help us to see groups of people within our lives who have been invisible, unseen to us on account of how our lives play out each day. We work, go to school, shop, and live with people who are like us as defined by the 3Es. Using a mercy or a justice application that comes from the text is important, because to be silent reinforces the invisibility of the poor, the stranger, the weak and the needy.

Let’s consider a couple of texts and how what I have been suggesting might work out.

In Malachi 3:5 we read, Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Often people will jump to “I will draw near to you for judgment” and/or  “do not fear me” at the end of the text.  Our minds are trained by our culture to think about a personal application or to deflect the text’s application by assuming it “doesn’t apply to me.” Look slowly and carefully and we can see how this passage can be mined for religious sins, commandment violations, or systemic economic sins against the weak and powerless. There are family and neighbor sins. View this text through a political lens of either the right or the left. Point:  We need to let the text drive the application.

Next, let’s look at Galatians 5:13-15, For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

Again, our culture teaches us to jump to the obvious – in this case, the freedom reference. The text pushes us farther – “through love serve one another…You shall love your neighbor as himself.” Here applications from mercy and justice can flow. One of the verbs is “serve.” Serving can be “drive-by mercy” or “vacation mercy,” not a long term commitment to a mercy ministry that can be messy and at times disappointing. This text fully reminds us to see people, who are all made in the image of God, as neighbors, not strangers or at the worst, invisible.

Worship, of course, takes place not only in corporate settings, but also in personal and family  contexts.  Alone, or with your loved ones, it is natural to pray for ministries that focus on mercy ministries or justice.  Keep those prayer letters, cards, and brochures in a folder to pray through in your time with God.  Encourage your children or teens to write an email to someone in a ministry offering encouragement or asking or an update.

Within the corporate setting, the time of our confession of sin can include acknowledgement of our sin of not saying anything to support the poor or just not seeing those who are not like us. Then we can ask forgiveness for these omissions. We can recognize past corporate sins dealing with the 3Es. I have been  reminded recently that President Woodrow Wilson, in working on the Treaty of Versailles,  rejected a request by the Japanese for a declaration of the equality of all races. The reality was that white Europeans and Americans were not willing to give up the superiority of the white race. The name of that show, my friends, was “Prelude to Pearl Harbor.” Our nation and others, publically and formally, by silence, continued to support international racism. Preach about these public sins, then confess them in prayer. Don’t just spin off a confession without hearing God’s word expounded concerning the issue.

In public corporate prayers of intercession, offer specific prayers for mercy ministries. To be able to make them specific, have the ministries provide the church with current needs and praises.   Many churches have ministry highlights during corporate worship services. These are blessed times for the members of a church to hear first-hand of mercy and justice ministries within your congregation or in the local community or denomination.

Last Sunday we celebrated in a special, intentional way The Risen Jesus. Prayerfully consider the implications of His resurrection as those implications lead to collaboration between worship and mercy ministries. Next time, we will look at the collaboration between discipleship and mercy ministries.

Metokos is ready to assist churches anywhere with the steps to revitalization and health – heartfelt gladness and generosity.  I would love to speak with you about how we can help your congregation. Remember also to pass on this blog link to others who might benefit from our services.

(Sean Michael Lewis’s, For A Continuing Church, was published by P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ, in 2015.)

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