5th and 6th Great Ends of the Church: The Promotion of Social Righeousness and the Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World

Isaiah 58:6-11, I John 3:13-24, March 17, 2013

March 17,
2013, The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen, First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh,
Wisconsin, The 5th & 6th Great End of the Church,
Isaiah 58:6-11, I John 3:13-24

This is the fifth and last sermon I'm preaching on The Great Ends of the Church. This high and noble statement has led to some very interesting conversations at Tuesday Bible Exploration and Monday night Bible Exploration at the bar and around the supper tables on the Wednesdays in Lent. The formality of the language of the Great Ends of the Church is stuffy and off-putting. People simply do not talk like that anymore. And to many people today the words sound arrogant, they sound sanctimonious—which is exactly the wrong thing for the church to try to convey today. I read this week's portion of the Great Ends "the promotion of social righteousness and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world," not as a description of the church, but rather as an ideal to which all churches of Jesus Christ should aspire, just as all churches of Jesus Christ will fall short of these ideals. I do not think that falling short of our ideals makes the church either a failure or a hypocrite. In all things the church needs to strive for a principled humility.  I think we need to bring principled humility to the last two Great Ends especially.

We talked about what the word "righteous" means—how it feels to our modern ears. There is an element of judgment in that word, and also a danger. One should never declare oneself to be righteous, rather one should behave in a way that is fair and respectful of other people.  Others should see it, but we should not claim it for ourselves, lest we be "self righteous." We talked about what it means to promote social righteousness. Dealing with other people fairly, treating all people equally, being respectful—these are all ways to describe and understand the concept of social righteousness.

And one person observed that social righteousness could be thought of social responsibility, or to put it another way, to live with regard to the common good and to recognize that one does not exist simply to take care of oneself, to look out for Number 1. To this person, being socially responsible means being able to respond in all situations with regard to the common good, rather than responding with what is easiest or most comfortable.

This is the concept that Isaiah was trying to get the Israelites to understand. In Isaiah's time people were being too pious, too conspicuous in observing their own, personal obedience and ritual purity. "Look at how well I'm fasting, God!" This is exactly what Jesus advised us against in the reading we had at the start of Lent. "When you pray, don't be like the show-offswho love to stand up and pray in the meeting places and on the street corners. They do this just to look good. I can assure you that they already have their reward." [Matthew 6:5, CEV] Instead, the fast that Isaiah calls for is not the discipline of going without food, rather it is sharing food with the hungry, giving cloths to the naked and taking homeless people into one's home. It's not a fast at all, and it is certainly not an individual practice that one does in isolation. This is a social, societal practice that the church is called to promote.

As a church we do this. We support Day by Day Warming Shelter. We have a covenant relationship with them. We have promised to support them with prayer, publicity and with money. This is important, life-saving work. The warming shelter is a kind of a safety net into which needy, vulnerable people fall every night.

The Warming Shelter is 100% effective at what it does. It provides people with a warm, safe place to sleep every night of the winter. The warming shelter offers some security, stability and dignity to very, very vulnerable people. And there is a very good chance that the guests at the warming shelter will always need this safety net. Some people will simply never be capable of taking care of themselves. Some people have been too wounded physically, emotionally, spiritually to ever pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and support themselves. Promoting social righteousness someone pointed out on Tuesday is work that the church must do continually. The need for the work will never, ever go away.

And there's another example of how this church lives this particular Great End. We collect food for the food pantry all the time. Each week someone takes the food that we collect and the egg cartons—he pointed out last month that Presbyterians eat a lot of eggs—to the food pantry. Once a month we have special envelope in the bulletin encouraging people to donate money to the food pantry. I believe it is very significant that we keep the collection box for the food pantry in the sanctuary. The room where we worship. A few years ago I was presiding at a wedding here and someone suggested that—just for the wedding—we move the basket out of sight. I was surprised, because I'm so used to seeing it that I don't notice it, but also a little hurt. This is a tangible, visible symbol of the church's care for needy people. This may be the most concrete thing we can point to that says we take Jesus' words about caring for "the least of these" seriously. The more I thought about it, the more important it was to me that the collection basket was visible and conspicuous.  Maybe a guest who has never been here before would see it and realize that we're not just the historic brick building with the beautiful windows.

Now the Isaiah reading goes on to say that there is a reward for setting captives free, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and caring for one's relatives. No, that's not the right word, there is a consequence—a positive consequence—for keeping the fast that God desires. If you care for and protect vulnerable, needy people, your light will shine in the darkness. It says, "your vindicator" will protect you, other translations say, "your honesty" will protect you. Those are not virtues, those are titles for God. Care for the poor and the One who is Honesty Personified will keep you safe.

The final Great End, "the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world," is really mouthful. This one is not studied separately as the other five are,   rather, it is thought to be part of the previous five—everything the church does should be an exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. At the bar Monday night a young woman said that she had no idea what an exhibition is. A public display, something conspicuous and noticeable. And an example. Jesus said the same thing, let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works. Do not hide your light under a bushel. Jesus says our good works should be public and conspicuous—and he also says not to make a big show out of praying in public and not to sound a trumpet when we give a donation to a poor person. This is a really, really hard line to walk. One of my favorite writers, Anne LaMott confesses to fantasizing about winning the Nobel Prize in humility. Well, that sort of defeats the whole purpose of humility, doesn't it?  One of the things that got people's attention about the new pope is that he rides the bus, rather than taking a limousine. I'm thrilled.  I am a big believer in public transportation. But I wonder is he truly modest or is he ostentatiously modest?

Exhibiting the Kingdom of Heaven to the world sure sounds arrogant, doesn't it? And certain and self-righteous. We don't want to call attention to  ourselves. We certainly do not want to be seen as strutting our piety in front of other people. Isn't it better if we just do our thing and not worry about getting attention? I know our preference is to be modest, but I also believe that modesty can go too far. Why did we enter a covenant with the warming shelter? Is that not perfectly in keeping with how we understand what it means to follow Jesus? Has anyone asked you about this partnership? Probably not, but what would you say about it if someone did ask you?  See, we're really, really good at doing good—and I am not being ungrammatical here. We do a lot of good in this community. And we do good well. But we're very skittish about connecting what we do with what we believe.  And we're very, very reluctant to talk about why we do what we do. Someone told me once it's easier to preach ten sermons than live one. And there's some truth to that, but we can look at it another way and say, we, as a congregation, are preaching sermons all the time but we do not see it that way.

And as individuals nearly all of our members volunteer in community agencies. We donate our time, talent and expertise for a lot of reasons—it feels good to make a contribution, we see th need around us every day, we have received huge blessings and want to use them to help other people—there are a lot of reasons. Do you ever think, "this is an exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven?" I think you should. Or perhaps, this is the faithful response of someone who has been richly blessed. We need to find ways to display what we do, not to glorify ourselves, but to point ourselves—and our neighbors to the reality of the constant, powerful, relentless love that we know in Jesus Christ.

Now, having said all that—there's one final little bit about this final Great End that I want you to wrestle with. The church is to exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. And no one, no one, no one, knows what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And my personal belief is that everything we can conceive of it is less than what it is. We're supposed to exhibit something to the world that is beyond our ability to describe or even imagine. We know the images that are associated with heaven, clouds, halos, lyres—where did all that come from? When I was a child I read a book by John Powers, he's the man who wrote "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" about growing up Roman Catholic in Chicago in the '60s. He remembers hearing the nuns describe heaven as being able to gaze on the glory of God all the time for eternity. And he wondered, What happens when the novelty wears off?" I wonder the same thing myself. How do you imagine the Kingdom of Heaven? When people describe heaven it sounds lovely, beautiful, well, heavenly, but static and unchanging—and no matter how good something is I believe anyone would get tired of having that all the time. Imagine only eating your favorite food—for the rest of your life. A few years ago I compiled on 2 CDs 30 songs that make me feel good the instant I hear the first notes on the radio. I called it "Audio Prozac" and it was a good theory and a lousy reality. Every single song—when it takes me by surprise—makes me feel happy, but a constant diet of these songs is too much. Maybe I could upgrade to modern technology and have hundreds or thousands of songs at my finger tips. I found my 30 songs were too much of a good thing. Then I think about when I'm happiest and feel most alive at least one of two things is present in those moments: I am either working on something that is a challenge, or I am doing something for someone else.  I find both of those really, really satisfying. I share that personal insight hoping that you'll think about not only what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, but also how the church can exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. Certainly promoting social righteousness is something that we do for other people as well as for ourselves. I believe we should also find a way to first imagine Heaven and then find a way to use our energy, intelligence, imagination and love to shine the light and warmth of Christ in the world. Amen.