April 25, 2021 – “Activists: Loving God through Confrontation” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

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First Reading = Mark 11:15-18

15Then they came to Jerusalem. And  he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and  those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the  money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?But you have made it a den of robbers.”

18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.

Introduction

We are still in our series looking at spiritual pathways – nine different ways we are designed to walk toward and love God. You aren’t going to resonate with all of these, but we’re trying to help you find two or three main ways God designed you to walk toward him. Last week we talked about traditionalists – loving God through ritual and symbol and traditions. The core idea there is to find deep meaning in the acts of faith that you believe are worth repeating.

This week we are talking about activists – loving God through conflict. Those who walk the activist spiritual pathway serve a God of justice, and they believe the world should reflect God’s justice. In fact, they’re willing to push and pressure and even fight for God’s justice.

Now, I don’t think you know this about me already, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I can read minds. It’s true! I can see inside your mind. As I was just talking about activists and conflict and justice, I could see the red flashing lights and blaring warning sirens inside your head! Even through the Internet – I still saw those flashing lights in your mind!

I am fully aware that this topic comes with a warning label on it, and in my mind I see the Robot from Lost in Space, saying, “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”

So let’s talk about that. This is a uniquely difficult topic for our church because we have a wide range of theological and political beliefs. Pick any national news outlet, and we probably have 20% of our church who love that news source and 20% who hate it and 40% who fall in between.

When it works, our broad spectrum of thought can be a good thing. It’s a little glimpse of heaven. There are going to be people in heaven who called themselves conservatives on earth. There will be people in heaven who called themselves liberals on earth. There will be people in heaven who called themselves independents or even apolitical on earth. So, yay us! We have a little glimpse of heaven.

But it also creates friction and drama and difficulties that more unified churches don’t have to worry about.

Typically we approach this by trying not to talk about topics that are full of theological or political landmines. But that approach runs into two limits.

First, we run into what Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees who were so concerned with their own faith journey but didn’t do anything for their communities. Jesus said in Matthew 23 – “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.”

Among justice, mercy, and faith, Jesus mentioned justice first. We can’t ignore that. I am not in the business of ignoring Jesus.

The second limit we run into when we just try to avoid difficult topics is that there are people in our church who are designed to love God by seeking justice. We aren’t going to tell an intellectual they can’t have a Bible study. We aren’t going to tell a naturalist they can’t pray on a nature walk. We aren’t going to tell a traditionalist that their rituals and traditions don’t matter. I don’t believe we can tell the activists in our church that they aren’t allowed to seek Biblical justice.

But how we do that is very complicated and fraught in a church like ours. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do it, but it’s hard. So we’ll circle back to that later – how can a church like ours make a way for the activists in our church to seek Biblical justice without torpedoing relationships in our church at the same time? And the answer to that is…Oh look at the time! I should just say Amen and get us out of here! Just kidding. We’ll get to that.

But I want to get one more idea out there before we dive in. I’ve used the phrase “Biblical justice” today, and I gave a whole sermon on that last year. The words “justice” and “injustice” have been in the news quite a bit lately. And they have been used to mean a very wide spectrum of thought. So I want to remind us about “Biblical justice.” Biblical justice is making earth look more like heaven. Biblical justice is making our community a better reflection of God’s original intent for Creation. Biblical justice is making the world around us a better reflection of the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation.

That still leaves a wide range of interpretation, but it at least gives us a measuring stick.

So let me recap what we’re talking about today. We are talking about those who are designed to walk toward and love God by making their community a better reflection of what we’ll experience in heaven. And since our world is so far away from that, they have a long and tough battle ahead of them.

We already heard the classic text about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers outside the Temple. Our next text today is from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. The context is very similar to what Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees as I mentioned earlier. The nation of Israel in this text was religious. They were singing the right songs. They were praying at the right times. They were holding the sacred festivals. They were sacrificing at the Temple. But God didn’t like the kind of society they had created outside of their religious activities.

Sermon Reading = Isaiah 58:1-14

58Shout out, do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their  rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and  delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced  righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask  of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

3“Why do we fast, but you do not  see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your  own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to  fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today  will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to  humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in  sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the  Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to  loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the  oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the  hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the  naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8Then your light shall break forth  like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator  shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord  will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you  remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the  speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and  satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the  darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will  guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and  make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a  spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you  shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called  the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

13If you refrain from trampling the  sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call  the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; 14then you shall take delight in the Lord,  and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you  with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Fight for What’s Right

Well a few years ago, one young man was trying to gain signatures for his petition. Here’s how one of the interactions went between him and a young woman.

“Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?” “Definitely!”

“I’m having people sign a petition to end women’s suffrage. Is that something you’d want to do?”

<pause> “Sure. Where is this ending happening? Everywhere on the planet?”

“I mean, that’s kind of the idea.”

“Yeah. Let’s end women’s suffrage! Finally!”

Now, here’s a pro tip. If someone is asking you to sign a petition, and they have a camera recording you, just walk away. You’re walking into a trap! Which is exactly what happened here. Because, of course, women’s suffrage is NOT women’s suffer-ING. Suffrage means the right to vote! He was pranking people into signing a petition against women’s right to vote as a joke. Ah, the vagaries of the English language.

But in 1876, women’s suffrage was no laughing matter in Colorado. Activists attempted to enshrine women’s right to vote in the state’s constitution. That attempt failed, but they did get a provision that made women’s right to vote only need a simple majority instead of a 2/3 majority.

With that first small victory, Susan B Anthony and Lucy Stone swooped in to speak in favor of granting women the right to vote. It was a difficult road with a lot of opposition, but they persisted.

And in 1877, a referendum was held on granting women the right to vote. Newspapers all across Colorado anticipated a yes vote. And then, when the vote were counted…it was a landslide defeat.

It would take sixteen more years before the next referendum on granting women’s suffrage would make the ballot in Colorado. This time, Carrie Chapman spearheaded the effort, and as one paper said about her, “Mrs. Chapman is very able, eloquent and magnetic and made a splendid plea for simple justice to one half of the citizens of the state.” This time, the referendum passed!

Interestingly, it passed with 55% of the vote. If the activists in 1876 hadn’t gained the provision that made granting women’s suffrage a simple majority, it would have failed because it didn’t have 2/3 of the vote. Seventeen years of battles – of small victories and crushing defeats – culminated in Colorado granting women the right to vote in 1893.

With the benefit of more than a century of distance from that referendum, it’s not controversial. But I would be curious to know what was being said in this little Presbyterian church in downtown Littleton that was only 10 years old at the time. I bet women’s suffrage was a hot button topic for First Presbyterian Church of Littleton in 1893.

Susan B Anthony is a great example of someone who walked the activist spiritual pathway. She was raised as a Quaker, and her church taught that God created all people as equal. They believed that no gender or race or class had special status in the eyes of God.

Motivated by her faith, Susan B Anthony worked tirelessly to make a society that better reflected God’s intent as best she knew it. Her conviction was that putting men and women on equal footing was making earth look a little more like heaven.

But I’m going to switch over the cars for a moment instead of voting. I had a friend who liked to park illegally. It was like a game for him. And he had all these tricks to make it really hard to tow his car or put a boot on it. He knew how to park at a weird angle, with his tires turned a particular way, just close enough to some other car or obstacle. His goal was to make his car as hard to move as possible. Like, you would need a bulldozer to move his illegally parked car!

Someone who walks the activist spiritual pathway knows that they are trying to change things that have just as much resistance as my friend’s illegally parked car. To change something you believe is wrong, to generate momentum against something deeply entrenched, you can’t coast. You have to be a bulldozer to move that thing!

That’s why an activist loves God through conflict – they are trying to bulldoze a major problem in the name of God. As Susan B Anthony demonstrated, that doesn’t come easily or without a fight. Usually lots of fights. So those who walk the activist spiritual pathway are willing to engage in those difficult fights to make the world a better reflection of heaven. In our text today, God told Isaiah he would have to “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” A whisper isn’t going to change anything.

Biblical Justice

This last year has certainly revealed many ways our world does not reflect heaven. So this next question should be easy. What are some ways that you look at the world, and it doesn’t reflect what you expect to find in heaven? Where does our world depart from God’s vision and plan? What stands out to you?

God highlights several things in our text from Isaiah. Let’s run through some of these examples. God tells Isaiah that Israel needs to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” God says, “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.” God says, “if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness…then the Lord will guide you continually…then you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in…then you shall take delight in the Lord.”

So if Biblical justice is making the earth a better reflection of heaven, this text gives us a laundry list of differences between what we experience on earth and what we will experience on heaven. These are potential opportunities for activists to seek Biblical justice.

People are hungry on earth. No one’s hungry in heaven.

People are homeless on earth. No one’s homeless in heaven.

People are unclothed on earth. No one’s unclothed in heaven.

People are oppressed and chained on earth. No one’s oppressed or chained in heaven.

People point fingers judgmentally and speak evil on earth. No one points fingers at each other or speaks evil in heaven.

People are afflicted with diseases on earth. No one is afflicted with disease in heaven.

These are just a handful of the huge number of examples in the Bible where God points out the gap between what a community or society is doing and what God intends. You’ll see this in the Old and New Testament. I’ve already given you two examples from Jesus himself. Just a quick search revealed 328 times across the Old and New Testaments that the Bible speaks of justice. Those are the verses that move the Christians who walk the activist spiritual pathway.

Pitfalls

So the activist spiritual pathway is clearly on solid Biblical footing when it speaks of serving a God of justice.

But, as with every spiritual pathway, there are some common pitfalls to watch out for.

The most obvious pitfall is becoming judgmental. Judgmental toward those who disagree, and also judgmental toward those who just don’t care as much as they “should”. This one is super common. But remember that God told Isaiah one of the injustices was people pointing fingers at each other judgmentally and speaking evil about each other. So being judgmental toward others is creating an injustice while you’re seeking to address a different injustice!

Another common pitfall for activists is focusing on their cause with such laser focus that they neglect their own personal behavior or spiritual journey. Someone who is a bully in their fight against bullies is still a bully themselves. You get the idea. And many people have lost their faith because they wrapped up their identity in their cause instead of the God who gave them purpose through that cause to begin with.

Another common pitfall is to leave God out of the picture. An activist can get so wrapped up in their actions and stats and measurements and arguments that they forget to pray. Seeking Biblical justice requires sincerity, effort, and thoughtful prayer. God opens doors that would otherwise be closed. God closes doors that would otherwise be traps. God works in people’s hearts in ways far deeper than words.

Spiritual Practices and First Pres Littleton

So to recap, those who walk toward God on the activist spiritual pathway see the hundreds of ways that God addresses justice in the Bible, and they want to make our world a better reflection of God’s intent. This can’t be done quietly. It requires what God told Isaiah in our text today – “Shout out, do not hold back!” But an activist is prone to being judgmental, neglecting their own behavior or faith journey, or leaving God out of the cause they are championing in his name.

That’s all well and good for an individual who walks the activist spiritual pathway. If you are moved by some aspect of God’s Biblical justice, if you see a way the world could better reflect heaven, if you have a way to plug into that cause, fabulous!

But if we’re trying to make a way for all nine of these spiritual pathways to practice their faith here at First Pres Littleton, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do, what does that look like? And what does that look like given the huge range of thought we have? We might all agree that there are people who are hungry, and there are people who are homeless, and there are people who are afflicted with diseases, but there’s no chance that we all agree on what should be done about it and who should be doing it.

I’m still working this out, but my best idea is to focus on a few areas where we have proven resonance within our church.

For example, the monthly free Community Dinner has proven resonance within our church. We’re looking forward to re-starting that sometime later this year. Lots of people are involved. There’s a strong leadership team. The church supports it readily. We get to address hunger and loneliness in our community because we have such a relational approach to the meal. That’s a proven resonance within our church.

Whiz Kids tutoring is another proven resonance within our church. Kudos to Roberta and her team for keeping that going through COVID. Again, lots of people are involved. We have leadership and support. And we get to provide tutoring, snacks, a Bible time, and – this is crucial – transportation for the kids. That’s a proven resonance within our church.

Our church responds readily and generously to food drives. Our most recent one blew away the food bank because of the quantity and quality of the food items you donated.

So those have proven resonance. If you walk the activist spiritual pathway and you’re moved by something on that list, you can use your energy with others here at this church pretty easily. I’m happy to connect you with the right people.

Let me throw out another idea that we don’t yet know if it has resonance with our church. It’s interesting, it’s a major need in our community, it’s something we can do better than most, and it’s similar to things we’ve done in the past so it might find resonance in our church.

Our church administrator, Elinor, had the idea to offer showers for those who are experiencing homelessness in our community. We’ve been working on this for a few months, so we have a lot of the groundwork already laid. She even found a potential partner who already has a shower trailer at a church in Denver, so they already know how to do it well, we could go see what they do, and we could probably get their trailer down here once a month.

When I spoke with our partners at GraceFull Cafe, they said that hygiene is the #2 need of those experiencing homelessness in our community – finding a home would be #1. Showers and maybe washing clothes would help address their #2 need.

We have already done a lot of research. We’re continuing to work on things like permits from the city. We have a couple of people who would be interested in helping.

But for this to become resonant within our church we would need a point person – a leader – who is interested and capable of organizing and running with this. So we’re going to keep knocking down the logistical barriers, keep getting our ducks in a row, and keep praying for a passionate, committed, and capable leader to take the baton. If that doesn’t happen, then I guess it’s not resonant within our church. If a leader does arise, then this is resonant within our church. We’ll find out. Our church used to host homeless families for a week as part of a rotation of churches, so this is in a similar vein to something that resonated in the past.

If you might want to help, or if you feel like you might be a potential leader to take that baton, contact me or contact Elinor.

That’s an example of how I think we can approach the activist spiritual pathway within our church. Look for ways to address gaps between what we see on earth and what we will see in heaven. Look for topics and issues that are within the same vein as other efforts that have proven to be resonant within our church. If the pieces come together, fantastic. If the pieces don’t come together, then perhaps it’s just not resonant enough within our church.

Summary

Sisters and brothers, those who walk the activist spiritual pathway serve the God of Biblical justice, and they want to see earth be a better reflection of what we’ll see in heaven. But that can’t be done quietly – it often takes a bulldozer.

This is a uniquely challenging spiritual pathway for our church, but I do believe there are some resonant issues where a critical mass of our church can support the efforts of those motivated to change our community into a better reflection of God’s intent.

I know it would be easier to just ignore everything that could make one faction or another upset. And we’ve done a fair bit of that. But I found literally hundreds of examples in the Bible of God getting mad at religious communities for doing that.

So how might we empower the spiritual activists in our church to lead us toward deeper impact in our community on some issues that resonate in our church? There isn’t a really easy answer to that for First Pres Littleton, but I raise the question because I believe it is imperative that we ask it. Will you pray on that question with me? Amen.