Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sermon for July 15, 2007

Promoting Social Righteousness
Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 5:43-48; 7:12

Ready for your morning theology lesson? There is a brand of theology called Dominion Theology. It is a belief that society, particularly in the United States, has seriously fallen apart, and must be totally rebuilt to biblical standards. Dominion Theology works on the assumption that God calls us to subdue the earth (Gen 1:28). Therefore, God’s moral Law, as stated in the OT, should dominate all aspects of society. This would mean that Christians would be obligated to keep the entire OT Law except in a case in which the NT specifically cancels a command, such as the sacrificial system. If the Kingdom of God is to gradually take dominion over the earth, it only makes sense that Christians must change the laws of the land, elect Christians to office, and bring our country to obey the Law of Moses. Just think about the possible consequences. If the Law of Moses was substituted for the law of the US federal government, there could be many changes. For instance, the OT prescribes:
· The use of the death penalty for adultery, blasphemy, heresy, homosexual behavior, idolatry, prostitution, and evil sorcery. Presumably that would be done by stoning people to death or burning them alive, as the Bible requires.
· An individual who does not accept the Law of Moses is an idolater. Idolatry is punishable by death.
· The status of women would be reduced to almost that of a slave as described in the Hebrew Scriptures.
· The prison system would be eliminated. A system of just restitution would be established for some crimes. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The death penalty would be practiced for many other crimes. Sound familiar? It should sound a little scary. It is the Christian version of the Taliban.

The church does have the mission of living out God’s moral law in order to transform society. But, what is the moral law, and how exactly do we live it out? That’s what we are going to explore today.

What is the moral law? The moral law is God’s way of molding our lives to outward honesty and right spiritual living. God’s moral law speaks to body and soul. It teaches us how to conduct our public lives and how to order our private spirituality. We grew up being taught that God’s moral law is best summed up in the 10 commandments. In the gospels, Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the moral law. He doesn’t do away with it, but he strengthens it. The moral law becomes the Christian’s rule of life.

So, when we talk about the church’s mission of promoting social righteousness, we’re talking about fulfilling the requirements of the moral law as it has been taught to us. Many of us heard preachers and Church School teachers tell explain it similarly to this: God has set his standard of conduct in the Bible. Scripture gives as rigid set of dos and don’ts that guide our conduct. If the law is broken, God will be disappointed and punish us. Bad things happen because it’s God’s way of teaching us to be holy. On the other hand, if you want to avoid punishment, strictly obey God’s law. After all, doesn’t Jesus say to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect? (Mt 5:48) Let’s take a moral issue of today and think through how this kind of application of the moral law affects it.

Nothing is talked about more in our churches today than the role of homosexuality. Many of us were taught that acting on one’s homosexuality is a sin. For many, gays are society’s untouchables. They have also become the enemies of the church.

Churches of various denominations have taken stands that say, “unrepentant gay men and women are not allowed to worship at our church.” They say it’s tough love. God hates sin but loves the sinner. The best way to show God’s love is to uphold the integrity of God’s law. Until gays are willing to humbly repent of their sin, they are excommunicated from the fellowship of believers. The same law and punishments apply to all kinds of sexual sinners like adulterers, unmarried couples who live together, women who’ve had abortions, and unmarried pregnant teenagers. The purity of the church is maintained and God’s moral law is strictly and carefully applied to judge error.

If we can just follow God’s moral law to the letter, God will favor us and bless us. We will be able to stand before God on the final judgment day and present God with a perfect slate. Of course, you can only maintain this position you are willing to live a flawless public life. For some this is a very attractive religion. It sets absolute standards on conduct. There is right and wrong, in and out, loved and not loved. It makes living out our faith seem very simple.

It’s an attractive religion -- if you want to be a Pharisee. The Pharisee believed that keeping the law perfectly made him more pleasing to God. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day filled their lives with rituals and outward gestures that were supposed to breed holy people. When Jesus came along, he exposed them as judgmental, mechanical, and as uncharitable toward others as they were of themselves. They were the very opposite of the holiness they aspired to. In fact, they were so aware of their spiritual purity that they crucified the Messiah. Remember, Jesus did not die at the hands of muggers, drug dealers, or thugs. He fell into the well-scrubbed hands of deeply religious people–society’s most respected members. Pharisees insist on the overriding importance of the rule of law. The basic dignity and needs of their fellow humans are irrelevant. The Pharisee’s way leads to outward perfectionism but ignores matters of the heart.

Pharisees are alive and well in our churches. Each of us has our own judgmental, intolerant Pharisee that flaunts its moral superiority over others. Jesus obviously had a problem with this attitude. Jesus knew that the way Pharisees apply the moral law is a burden. Pharisees have a vague uneasiness about ever being in a right relationship with God. They want to feel safe with God, so they strive for moral perfection. But it’s impossible. There will always be failure. Failure means risking disappointment with God. Shame. Self-contempt. Harsh judgment on self and others. Jesus must have another system for applying the moral law and promoting social righteousness.

Principle #1 -- Love. Matthew 5:43-45. I received and Email about a group of professionals who asked children between 4-8 this question: What does love mean? Here’s what some of the kids said:
« “Love is that first feeling you feel before all the bad stuff gets in the way.”
· “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”
· “Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him to make sure the taste is OK.”
· “Love is hugging. Love is kissing. Love is saying no.”
· “Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.”
· “Love cards like Valentine’s cards say stuff on them that we’d like to say ourselves, but we wouldn’t be caught dead saying.”
· “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”
· “If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.”

To me, this is a summary of the law that Jesus knew. Jesus said it differently, of course. He said, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. This sums up the law.” Let’s get back to our example of our preoccupation with sexuality in the church.

Is it really best to cast out gays from the fellowship of the church? How many people have felt abandoned from the love of God because of the hatred of the church? Love says, “You know what? You are welcome in this place because God loves you. NO matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Enough of these fixed certainties that we use to club other with. When we do it in the name of God, it’s blasphemous. Enough hatred and punitive judgments about other people. Before we condemn someone else, let’s listen. Let’s learn. Let’s read and pray. None of this is easy. The challenge is to show tenderness and constancy in caring the honors Christ’s love for each of us.

Principle #2 -- Live joyfully. In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris confesses that she dreaded hearing the 10 commandments read aloud in church. To her they seemed overwhelmingly negative. She tells about her grandfather who gave up alcohol and chewing tobacco when he became a Methodist minister in the 1920’s, but he still kept a box of cigars in the house. He didn’t dare smoke them, as the lingering smell would have given him away. But he would chew on them as he worked on his sermons. Even this would have gotten him in trouble if he were discovered, so for years his wife and children were sworn to secrecy. Earlier in his career, he was fired from one of his churches for playing hymns on the banjo with the youth group and teaching them how to play dominoes. Tobacco, banjo, and dominoes are not forbidden in the Law of Moses. But, we’ve become experts at taking the moral law of the Bible and applying it to just about anything we don’t approve of. When we focus on external matters instead of matters of the heart, we become legalists. Pharisees. This is not the kind of law Jesus wants to impose on us. Following God is supposed to bring joy. The law is not meant to be a burden, but a reminder that a holy God offers us the grace to find forgiveness when we’ve gone astray.

We will always have a choice to make in how we apply the moral law. Make no mistake, the law is constant. God’s expectations don’t waver. But we can be Pharisees or disciples. The law can be a back-breaking burden or a pathway to joyful living. We can be legalists or those who freely, and lovingly apply the law to ourselves. Promoting social righteousness can turn people away or bring them into the arms of their God. Which way appeals to you?

Sermon for June 17, 2007

Lessons from the Saints: Solanus Casey
Psalm 84

A bizarre criminal odyssey began at a 7-Eleven store in Lake City when police say a man wielding a pair of scissors and claiming to be Jesus tried to rob a garbage truck. It ended a short time later in front of the Bank of America Tower in downtown Seattle with the man’s arrest. Police say that the 25-year-old Seattle man couldn’t get the garbage truck he initially had tried to rob into gear. So the suspect car jacked a pickup truck, then led patrol officers on a short chase. When I read this story, I thought of the love of Jesus. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? After all, what does a homeless man who steals garbage have to do with the Savior of the world? Bear with me as I tell you another story:

David Harris speaks softly and eloquently, each word chosen with the care of a true poet. This beautiful voice does not fit the rest of the picture. His face is dark and weathered with carefully guarded eyes. His large glasses are held together with a safety pin. An oversized jacket covers multiple layers of sweaters and shirts. More telling is the defeated hunch in his shoulders, his hesitance to make eye contact. David’s intelligence and kindness are never realized by most of the world because he is homeless. David grew up in a middle class home in Maryland, complete with middle-class American values. He would go to work in DC every day, uncomfortably passing by homeless people on his way to work. David eventually had a stroke that left him unable to speak for a while. Since he had no health insurance, the enormous medical bills were too much for him to pay. He decided to move to the streets of D.C. with the city’s 117,000 other homeless people. Even if he got two 40-hour/week minimum wage jobs, David probably would not have enough money to afford housing in D.C. and pay for insurance. He told me about the people who helped him along the way, from a homeless woman he used to look down on, to a caring social worker at a shelter. David was a poet in his previous life in the working world. He is writing again. Listen to one of his poems:
This drunken bum
Looked into my eyes
Into a place inside me …
No words passed between us,
Only a steely glare.
Just five words burned
Along the edges of my mind:
“I am not like you.”

Can we ever understand people like David as God’s children instead of as problems to society? Can a homeless man teach us about the love of Christ.

There are a lot of titles for Jesus in Scripture, but there is one that doesn’t get mentioned much. Jesus was a homeless garbage man. Jesus himself said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58) It was Jesus who took the sins of the world upon himself as he was crucified near the city garbage dump.

When we look to see the face of Christ in those around us, we begin to see that God does not just reach out to the privileged. In Christ, God has dared to dwell with the “rubbish” of society. Quiet often we, as children of God, seem to separate ourselves from each other by determining some as garbage and others as not. Some here today may even think of themselves as worthless garbage. Are you ready for some fabulous news? God is the ultimate “garbage” collector! God likes the job so much that we are invited to join along. Those who believe themselves to be unworthy of God’s love and grace belong in the welcoming embrace of God’s of arms. We are called to challenge those who are determined to set barriers between people. We confront those who want to keep grace and love away from certain kinds until they change or prove they are worthy of God’s amazing love.

Meeting David Harris reminded me that there are times when we all feel alienated. We all have times when we realize that our lives are overflowing with emotional trash. Sometimes we are emotionally and spiritually separated from those whom we love. We’ve all felt shame over events of the past and done things to deflect the gaze of God to avoid the embarrassment of our poor choices. At one time or another, we feel like people don’t understand us. We’ve felt rejected, powerless, and unjustly criticized. When we’ve wanted someone to reach out to us in love and concern, we’ve felt that all we’ve gotten cold shoulders, icy stares, and condemning criticism. As difficult as this all can be, it can be a positive condition. As Christians, we remember that this world is not our final home. The Bible refers to God’s people in many ways: strangers in the world … pilgrims … exiles. We journey through this world to find our home in God. Like David Harris, we are homeless as far as the world is concerned.

The good news is that we are homeless, but we have a home. Let me tell you about one of my heroes of the faith. His name was Barney, but the people of Detroit knew him by the name he took when he joined a monastery: Solanus Casey. When he joined the priesthood in 1904, his knowledge of theology was judged to be too week. Church officials didn’t think he had what it took to be a full priest. Officials realized he had high moral character, though, so they ordained him as so that he could perform duties in a monastery. Even though he was a priest, Solanus Casey was never allowed to preach or hear confessions. After seminary, he took a job as a porter, first in NYC and then in Detroit. That means his job was to open the door of the monastery to visitors. Guests to the monastery soon realized that Solanus Casey was the best person to visit. People waited in lines just to speak to Father Solanus. He shared in their concerns and worries. He prayed for them, and inspired them, and spread the message of God’s love. All could sense his wisdom and his special gift of prayer. Father Solanus spent his entire ministry at the front door of the church.

This Summer marks the 50th anniversary of his death. On July 31, 1957, Father Solanus died in Detroit. The whole city seemed to mourn his passing. His funeral Mass was celebrated in the chapel of St. Bonaventure Monastery where Father Solanus had lived for some 20 years. The chapel was packed. The streets outside were closed to traffic and a spillover crowd jammed the sidewalks and streets in front of the monastery. As mourners gathered, people realized that he never complained about his lowly position at the monastery or his treatment from church officials. Throughout his life, Father Solanus kept extending God’s welcome, showing generosity, and being God’s doorkeeper.

Solanus Casey and David Harris remind me of the words of Psalm 84. We all have a home in the presence of God. Listen to where to psalmist has found his home:
· Verse 1–how lovely is your dwelling place. My soul faints the courts of the Lord.
· Verse 4–happy or blessed are those who live in God’s house.
· Verse 10–one day in God’s house is better than a thousand in any other place. I would rather be a doorkeeper at the gates of the Lord than live with the wicked.

Our home is in the presence of God. God sends us people homeless poets like David Harris to remind us that he all have times when we feel like restless wanderers without a home. God sends us humble doorkeepers like Solanus Casey to remind us that God always turns on the lights, throws the door open, and welcomes us into the warmth of God’s. Just ask, and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened.

God sent Jesus, our homeless Savior, to remind us that God loves us so much that God sent the Son to live among us. He experienced our pain. He felt our shame. He died for our sins and failures, symbolically nailed to a cross in the town dump, surrounded by the evidence of wasted lives. Yes, it took a homeless garbage man to remind that God has a home prepared for us, if we would only accept this gift of grace.

As this week unfolds, may we be constantly reminded that no matter what happens, we have a home in God’s presence. That is where we belong. We have a God who takes the trash away from us and gives us a new start. We have a God who warmly welcomes us, even when we feel like we don’t belong anywhere. We can find a new joy in seeking God’s presence, instead of feeling alone. Remember, we are homeless, but never without a home.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...