Berkeley Morning Prayer St. Luke’s Chapel
Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. November 21, 2019
A Question of Greatness
1 Maccabees 4: 1-25 Matthew 18:1-9
If you want to understand what drove Jesus to such hyperbole about great millstones around our necks, self – amputation, and tearing out one of our eyes, just compare the wildly different world views in today’s two scripture texts. This past weekend, I took a group of students on a pilgrimage to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and I had just as visceral a reaction.
Through eight profoundly moving hours, exhibits documented Christians creating the slave trade, inventing the concept of race, and systematically undoing every attempt to free slaves or to promote the social, economic or political advancement of people of color, all in the service of “making America great.” Alongside this brutal history, we witnessed the incredible tenacity, determination and creativity of a people who contributed their greatness – in the very midst of oppression – to every area of American life and culture.
On the long bus ride home, I was haunted by two images: a 20-something Bayard Rustin demanding an immediate end to police brutality, and to economic and political injustice – 55 years ago. And the look of raw fear in one of our student of color’s eyes, at the prospect of entering a hotel elevator with a swaggering young man, sporting a red “Make America Great” hat. And I wondered, “What constitutes greatness for us, as Christians, in this present moment?”
I thought about how effective certain Christian groups have been, in promoting a theology that justifies war, the horrific treatment of immigrant families, including the very children Jesus defends as “the greatest,” and advocates for racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. Their real effectiveness may be that, in exposing the hypocrisy of what large numbers of Christians believe, they have stimulated the wholesale abandonment of religion by young people across the entire developed world. And I wondered if, in some way, this is a fulfillment of Jesus’ warning about putting stumbling blocks in the path of children.
Richard Rohr points us back to Jesus’ notion of greatness, when he says, “Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established ‘religion’ (and all that goes with that) and (thus) avoided actually changing lives. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is their ‘personal Lord and Savior.’ The world has no time for such silliness anymore,” Rohr concludes. “The suffering on Earth is simply too great.”
Life is short, isn’t it time to make Christianity great again?