At a recent event, I made the statement that today’s United Methodist Church exists because our predecessor denominations held three critically important functions in common: missional service, evangelism and social justice. In other words, we hold core values of caring for others, inviting all people into a life-changing, life-fulfilling relationship with God in Jesus Christ, and improving the conditions for all people wherever and whenever we can. A gentleman come up to me at the conclusion of the event and asked, “Why are you promoting this Socialist bullshit? The only thing that matters is personal salvation!” My knee-jerk response was anything but patient or helpful — I spluttered, “What Bible are you reading?”
A similar thing happened to me when I preached a sermon on Christian disciples transforming the world. I quoted part of a paragraph of our Book of Discipline which states, “Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit, the church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.” (2012 Book of Discipline, ¶201). I said that we shouldn’t view these as three distinct activities, but as three aspects of a single purpose. I used the analogy of juggling, saying you cannot just juggle two balls and ignore the third, but all must be in motion in relationship to the others. There is no “two out of three ain’t bad” thinking allowed. We engage all three or we fail to fulfill our purpose. At the conclusion of the serve, a couple came to me to tell me how troubled they were by my sermon. When I asked them to tell me specifically what upset them, the woman said, “You’re a liberal, aren’t you?” Dumbfounded, I said that I wasn’t overly comfortable with any such limiting and reductionist label, but, yes, I lean to the left in both my politics and my religion. “Well, you shouldn’t shove your politics down people’s throats from the pulpit!” she spat at me. Now, really shocked, I asked her what “political” statement I had made at any time in my sermon. Her husband chimed in, “You didn’t preach a sermon. You made a thinly veiled pitch for Socialism. You said that we are all responsible for each other and that we have a special responsibility to the poor, the marginalized, the less educated and those who are handicapped by physical, social and cultural oppression. That’s pure Socialism!” I said, a little more petulantly than I should have, “No, that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. I didn’t make those things up — they are central to our doctrine and polity in The United Methodist Church.” Smugly, the woman said, “We have been members here for over twenty years, and we’ve never heard gospel treated in quite this manner. If we had to listen to liberal propaganda week after week, you can be sure we would not be coming to this church!”
In the first 56 years of my life, I have never once been labeled a Socialist. Now, in the first few months of my 57 years, I have been smacked with the Socialist brand twice. My mouth said “evangelism, missions, justice, worship, edification, and redemption” and my hearers took offense. What I wrestle with is this: if we do away with missions, evangelism, justice, worship, edification and redemption, what are we left with? My first accuser would say we are left with that which is most important — personal salvation. But is a personal salvation that has no care or concern for anyone else really a good thing? If me and my buddy, Jesus, are just fine, thank you very much, do I have any further responsibility to anyone else? I cannot read any of the four gospels without a much greater sense of responsibility than looking out for number one. The very concept of a personal and private relationship with Christ is antithetical to our gospels. We are a people, together. Salvation comes to us in relationship with both God AND neighbor. Abdication of responsibility for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, imprisoned, naked, sick, etc., is a keen disqualifier from kingdom membership.
And what’s with the labeling? We are such crass and callous people. I don’t like what you’re saying? I write you off by labeling you something distasteful and disrespectful. I reduce you by my dismissal, then I don’t have to listen to you. How convenient. But, is it Christian? (Another label, I know, but one I am comfortable with…) What do we gain by name calling? In what reality can pigeon-holing people in derogatory categories lead us to any kind of unity, harmony, family or community?
And why are such things as mercy, justice, fairness, compassion and inclusion so threatening? Why must a radical commitment to the loving kindness and inclusive grace of God be deemed “Socialist” or “liberal”? When did common decency, civility, respect and manners align with one political agenda? Why are these things viewed as negatives or liabilities? As United Methodists, we cannot afford to abandon those things which gave us identity in the first place. We have always carried a passion for missionary service to the needs of people around the globe. Ours is a faith-based in justice for all, moving us to act on behalf of those who cannot act on their own, and to defend the weak, the powerless, and the oppressed. We have been entrusted as stewards of the good news of Jesus Christ to share this message with everyone we meet. We come together to worship — the Body of Christ, always growing in relationship with one another — giving our corporate thanks and praise to God. We learn, we grow, we discern, we discover, we develop, and we give — edified in our current beliefs and always challenged to engage in transforming work. And by our shared faith and witness, God transforms the world with and through us. This IS who we are, and when we encounter people who don’t like it or whom are made uncomfortable by it, we need to embrace a teachable moment. When people feel the need to label us for a faithful and consistent witness, so be it. We will wear our labels proudly, if doing so means we live with integrity. We often stray too far from our roots, looking for a comfortable, secure, and personally pleasing faith rather than one that propels us into a broken, hurting, demanding world.