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?

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