Discerning Christendom

Don Alexander
Sermon Text: 

19th Sunday After Pentecost: Proper 21

September 20, 2018

There’s a popular saying that the Gospel stories should simultaneously comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.  When I hear the Gospel about John asking Jesus what do about a stranger casting out demons in Jesus’ name, it is easy for me to be comfortable and not become afflicted.  I have never cast out a demon and I doubt that any of us have.  The subtlety here is “when I hear the Gospel.”  We’re not asked to just hear the Gospel; we’re asked to also understand the Gospel and then live it.  When we live the Gospel things change.

Mark’s Gospel is compact and is largely stories of Jesus’ powerful miracles and the parables Jesus uses. This lesson is neither about a miracle nor a parable.  It almost seems out of place.   So what lesson did Mark see that made him include this story?  I think the lesson here is that Jesus teaches by his example.  When John asks what they should do, Jesus discerns the man’s actions are good - casting out demons helps people and by acting in Jesus’ name, the man can’t be opposed to Jesus.  Jesus concludes the stranger must be for them. 

Discernment then is a hallmark of this story. Jesus models discernment about things we encounter as a way of demonstrating how we should live.  Christians often reserve the term ‘discernment’ for callings from God.  Katherine has talked about discerning her call to the priesthood and Rachel Eskite is discerning a similar call right now.  And sometimes we use the term for calls to lay ministry.  Perhaps, we can be more discerning about other important areas of our lives. 

By way of example, Mary and I have spent six months out of the past two years in Yucatan, Mexico.  Being without a spiritual home for that long wasn’t our plan. Borrowing a line from the Ford truck commercial, our All Souls home didn’t just raise the bar for us, it set the bar.    Our Mexican spiritual home needed to be inclusive, welcoming, have a social conscience, active community outreach, and good preaching.   

We lived in or near Merida, which has about 800,00 people. There’s a Catholic church every 3 to 5 blocks, a growing evangelical community, and a few mainline Protestant churches, but only one Episcopal church; San Lucas.  The pastor, Padre Jose and the parishioners, both Latino and Anglo, welcomed us warmly.  This was encouraging but only the beginning of discerning if this would become our Yucatecan church home. 

Over the first few weeks we experienced the community’s inclusiveness.  Everyone was welcome; Mexicans and Anglos, gay and straight, old and young, residents and visitors, and as I was slowly becoming aware, all of the different classes of Mexicans were also welcome.  We  were also invited to participate in outreach and social justice programs.  San Lucas marched to protest against spousal abuse and spousal murder. They supported Colonia Guadalupe, the poorest neighborhood in Merida, comprised of squatters in makeshift houses.  They worked to find employment opportunities for the residents of Colonia Guadalupe.  Every week they made lunch to feed the sick in a local hospital.  Like All Souls, at San Lucas their faith embodied action motivated by prayer and discernment as opposed to just offering ‘thoughts and prayers.’

On Holy Thursday evening two years in a row, parishioners from San Lucas gathered in the town square to wash the feet of anyone who wanted to participate. The power of this action is hard to overstate.  Men, women and children had their feet washed, blessed, and kissed and the reactions ranged from joyous laughter, to awestruck silence, to weeping. Everyone was included -  the shoe shine men, the young women from Chiapas selling embroidered clothing, the lame, beggars, and regular folks like you and me.  No one, not even the police were excluded from this symbolic act of service.  And after washing their feet we offered them the bread of life.  People were treated with love and compassion and for some it was clearly a new and unexpected experience. 

The preaching at San Lucas was powerful, too.  Padre Jose never hesitated to challenge the status quo with the Gospel message.  It was powerful not just because he knew the Gospel but because he had chosen to live it and lead San Lucas in the way of the Jesus.  This community shared our understanding of the Gospel and we shared their quest to follow Jesus.  We discerned San Lucas to be our church home.  

Social justice issues were a common theme of Padre Jose’s preaching.  On several occasions he distinguished Christendom from Christianity, a new distinction for me.  Christendom exists in opposition to Christianity.  Christendom is ruling class domination disguised in a facade of Christianity.  Think of it as ‘Christian domination’ - hence Christian-dom.   Christendom forces compliance with Christian religious beliefs.  Contrast this with Christianity which is always invitation to follow the teachings of Jesus, never a mandate. 

What the Spanish brought to Mexico in the 16th century was slavery in the name of Christ.  The indigenous people in the New World were subjugated to the Spanish.  In the Yucatan peninsula, Mayans were made slaves of the Spanish, families were split up, the Mayans were forced to convert or die, and both the native culture and the language were replaced with Spanish language and culture.  The grand cathedral in Merida, which is still in use today, was built by Mayan slaves from materials taken from Mayan temples.  It was Christendom, not Christianity.  It was domination not invitation.

Christendom, as opposed to Christianity, was a new idea to me.  I quickly began to see how it had affected Mexican history.  Domination, even in the name of Christ fomented revolt.  Christendom seemed to me a Mexican problem.  However, once you’re sensitized to it, the scales fall off your eyes and with discernment I realized Christendom isn’t just a Mexican problem.  It exists here, too.  Discernment was making me squirm.  The Gospel was starting to afflict me.  So, where does Christendom exist in the US?

It exists in education, research, civil law, and women’s health issues.  In education we still find groups of Christians who insist on having creationism taught in public schools and evolution suppressed.  This despite a 1968 Supreme Court ruling that held teaching creationism violates the first amendment and amounts to government establishing a religion.  In research, we find Christian religious opposition to embryonic stem cell research and funding even though such research may relieve suffering for people with heart disease, diabetes, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries.  In health insurance, the federal government granted exemptions to religious groups and corporations allowing employers to deny women reproductive medical care based on religious beliefs.  In terms of marriage, 13 states still do not recognize marriage equality because of Christian religious beliefs.  And in one of the most hotly debated issues in this country religious groups actively seek to establish their moral standard as the law of the land by eliminating a woman’s right to choose.  This is the face of American Christendom.

On each of these issues, there are strongly held beliefs on both sides.  Jesus never taught us specifically how we should teach science, conduct medical research, or how to make medical decisions.  What he left us with were moral principles to guide us.  We have broad Christian moral principles that recognize love is from God, truth is good, human suffering should be alleviated, and a human life is God’s gift.  But without specific teachings how do we form our conscience in these matters?  Hopefully, we discern carefully, within the scope of Christian moral teaching, how to balance scientific truth with religious teachings, and how to balance the obligation to alleviate human suffering when it conflicts with our mandate to respect human life. 

When this uncertainty is recognized, we can honestly recognize positions with which we don’t agree.  A Christian who is pro-life can acknowledge that since we do not know with certainty when personhood begins, this moral position isn’t the only one.  This ambiguity that gives rise to held moral differences necessarily requires the freedom for both sides to express their beliefs.  Likewise, a person may discern birth control is morally acceptable and are free to use it.  People who believe birth control is morally wrong, simply don’t need to use it, not prohibit its use. 

When religious groups, coalitions, or corporations attempt to impose their understanding of Christian beliefs and morals on others, they eliminate this debate.  Today’s Gospel should remind us we have an obligation to discern our moral choices and be free to act on them.  When Christendom takes away our choices it doesn’t make us more moral, it makes us less human. 

Go to top