One hundred years ago, the wealthiest man in America, by a good margin, was John D. Rockefeller. He was a lifetime member of the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. He had started there as a teen, and stayed. As an adult – as a millionaire, even as the world’s first billionaire – he went each Sunday, and twice a week for Bible study. He served as a Sunday School teacher, clerk, trustee and occasionally janitor. Imagine having the wealthiest man in America clean your bathroom!
In contrast, the wealthiest man in America today is Jeff Bezos. If he has a religious faith, if he has even gone to church for anything but a wedding or funeral, no reporter has been able to uncover it.
I’m not saying Rockefeller was good and Bezos is bad; oh no. They are businessmen and philanthropists: both wicked when they have to be and generous when they can afford to be. What I’m suggesting is that our culture has changed around us, and the place of religion in the public square has changed most of all.
Put simply: they – the elites, the opinion-makers – don’t take us seriously anymore.
It’s not just CEOs, of course. It is also scientists and physicians, artists and musicians – the people who shape our public discourse. There are a few of the faithful among them, but only a few.
And this filters down from the elites to the ordinary folks. After all, the rest of us take our cues from the “influencers” and “thought leaders” – the people we see on TV or read in the press. It’s hardest for the kids, whose opinions change in a minute, shaped by the whims of a YouTuber or Instagram influencer
We’ve been here before, of course. Two centuries ago, in Germany, the Enlightenment was in full swing. All the cool kids were atheists; some even saw the church as an evil, oppressive institution from which people would be set free by Science and Democracy. A professor named Schliermacher called these people the “cultured despisers” of religious faith, and that name stuck. Today, once again, the cultured despisers are out in force.
Which brings us to the Epiphany – the star, the wise men, the mother and her swaddled baby. And, I regret to say, to Herod the Great, the evil king of Judea:
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
That I may pay him homage? Not likely. Herod wanted to kill the baby Jesus, wanted it so much that he would kill every infant in Bethlehem if that were what it took. Like so many cultured despisers, like so many politicians in particular, he pretended to faith so long as it served his purpose – but it was only pretense. Herod was a Jew, at least nominally; he made a great show of rebuilding the Temple on a grand scale. But he did not fool his own people. They knew him. Underneath, he hated the faith of his people, he hated the Messiah whom God had sent them, he hated the whole idea of anyone – even God – who might be more powerful, more beloved, more worthy of tribute than he himself.
This is always the way. The world is full of Herods today – prominent people, hostile to religion, and specifically to the Christian religion. They dread the thought of a power greater than themselves, and so they either use the name of Jesus for their own ends, or simply drag it through the mud. They tell people that we are all a bunch of racist, sexist, whatever-ist thugs, a kind of backward superstitious cult dedicated to keeping men in power and women pregnant. And more and more, people seem to believe them.
People believe them, beloved. And that’s our fault.
The lies about Christ and his church aren’t our fault. But that people believe them — yes, that’s on us. Because too often, we have been content to let people believe that. Too often, we have shown them our worst selves.
It is possible, on any Sunday, to walk into a church see church ladies preening and backbiting; to see people unctuously welcoming one person and cold-shouldering another; to hear a political speech disguised as a sermon.
It is possible, on any day of the week, to read about some preacher who has encouraged his flock to burn Qu’rans or kick a child out of the house if they don’t conform, or do some other cruel, stupid, abusive thing.
And we here react in horror, crying, “But that’s not us.” And it’s not, of course; but it’s some of us – some of those who bear the name of Christ — and the rest of us don’t stand up and say “Enough.”
We are timid. We want to be agreeable, ecumenical, to speak no evil of our neighbor. But the timidity becomes a sort of weakness. We, with our weakness, give ammunition to the cultured despisers. We, with our sin, collude in the defamation of the name of Jesus.
Isaiah says that God’s People, the New Jerusalem, shall be a light in the darkness, drawing the nations with its beauty. But are we? Do we? The evidence suggests otherwise.
Here’s the bottom line: we can have all the evangelism committees and stewardship strategies we want – but if we don’t show the world, if we don’t show our neighbors and Heaven help us our kids what it means to be a Christian with our lives, then they will seek wisdom and transcendence somewhere else.
Right about now, in an Epiphany sermon, preachers normally say we should be like the Magi, the Wise Men. We should like them seek the Christ Child and simply worship him. Offer the frankincense of faith, the myrrh of charity. Fair enough.
But here is what I say to you: If we believe that God is kind, and loves the whole creation; if we believe that God forgives our sins, and calls us to forgive others; if we believe that Christ died and conquered death to redeem our souls from Hell as an act of love and mercy – then we are not called to be the Wise Men in this story, but the Star itself.
That’s right, the star. We should shine with the glorious light, so that people are drawn to us; and then we should point to the source of that light, the source of all love mercy – we should show Christ to the world.
Not the phony Christ of the cultured despisers, not the demanding, controlling, abusive Christ of the cults. We should show the true Christ: the one who loves, who serves, who sacrifices himself for the sake of the world.
We should show to the great and glorious, to the robber barons and CEOs, to the influencers and the influenced, to the lost and yearning, the Christ who first touched our hearts and made us his. The Christ whose death gave us life, whose love is a beacon in the world’s dark night. Then – maybe, just maybe – that Christ will touch their hearts too, and change the world. Amen.
Preached by the Rev. Michael Church at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Warrenton VA, on 5 July 2020, in celebration of the Epiphany. The texts were Isaiah 60:1-6 and St. Matthew 2:1-12.