Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sermon for October 2, 2011

The Danger of Morality

Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death. Philippians 3:4b-10

It’s October, and my youngest children are already talking about what they want to be for Halloween. Yesterday, Rose asked me what I was going to dress up as on the big day. I said, “I’m going to dress up as a Dad.” “You’re not going to dress up at all, are you?” she asked incredulously. She just couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t taking Halloween more seriously.

Some churches take Halloween very seriously. Consider Bethel church of Temple Texas. Every year, the church hosts an event called “Hell House” that draws about 2000 visitors. Every Halloween season, guides dressed as demons walk visitors through a building where youth actors depict disturbing scenes in hell. The purpose of Hell House is to save souls – to convert members of the community, specifically teens, into following Jesus. What started as a small event is now produced around the world. At any given time, one may encounter a Hell House; they are no longer strictly reserved for Halloween. In fact, it can be purchased as an “outreach kit” so it can be performed anywhere at any time. The kit includes a variety of scripted scenes, which depict events as: “the funeral of a young homosexual male who believed the ‘born gay’ lie and died of AIDS;” a “riveting reenactment of a clinical abortion;” a school shooting scene and a “satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice.” Promoters say Hell House, “is a spiritually-based adventure depicting the hell and devastation that Satan and this world can bestow on those who choose not to serve Jesus Christ.”

The idea is that living a life against Christianity’s ancient morality codes will earn you a personal frying pan over eternal flames. Believe in Jesus, and your life will be turned around. Heaven will be your home. Fail to live your life according to a certain group’s specific morality code, and you are toast. My question for today is this: Are we supposed to follow biblical laws blindly, or is it OK to realize that moral attitudes change, sometimes for the better? Can it be that morality develops over time, and that religions can develop more humane ways of following God?

Most of our religious moral codes came out of a time called “The Axial Age.” Axial is another word for pivotal, or transformative. Around 600-800 years before Christ, religious thinking began to change. It was the beginning of a fresh age of religion. Confucianism and Taoism emerged in China. Hinduism and Buddhism were founded in India. Judaism and monotheism began in the Middle East. Philosophy emerged in Greece. Religious thinkers began to approach their relationship with spirituality differently. They began to teach that it is more important how you behave than what you believe. It’s more important to treat people right than to be right. In fact, the Golden Rule comes from the Axial Age. It was first stated by Confucius in China five centuries before Jesus: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” The Axial Age began a new form of compassion that came from a very deep place within. People began to understand their connectedness to others. It was also a time of turmoil and social chaos. The message of the Axial Age was to find a place deep within of peace and steadfastness, even when the surrounding world is a terrifying place.

I’m giving you this little history lesson because I want us to understand that our religious moral codes are thousands of years old. They were invented in times when people needed peace, stability, and new ideas. However, as time progresses and societies change, we now have new situations that are not covered in the original codes. For instance, many passages in Old Testament law reflect a national mentality, portraying God as hating everyone the people of Israel hated. God’s law justifies the institution of slavery (except for fellow Jews) and defines women as the property of men. Note that even the Ten Commandments tell us “not covet our neighbor’s house, his wife, his slaves, his ox, his donkey, etc.” The neighbor is clearly a male, and the things that we are forbidden to covet are all male possessions. These Hebrew Scriptures, however, also define God as a loving, just, universal being.

There is a lot of debate about how we should apply these laws for today. It’s even come up in the current slate of Republican candidates. Two of them are associated with a strain of Christian fundamentalism known as Dominionism. Dominionism means that Christians have a God-given right to rule all earthly institutions. People who follow this theology think that the US Constitution should be replaced with biblical law. They think that Christians have a holy responsibility to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life.

And then we hear voices like the Apostle Paul’s. In today’s reading, he puts faith experience over adherence to law. Paul gives a list of everything he has done to follow the law. His pedigree is perfect. He has obeyed religious law without fault. But he now realizes that the law can’t save a person’s soul. Salvation comes through faith, not theocratic legalism. He says, “I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ.” For Paul, there is something even greater than morality: Knowing Christ.

The idea of unchanging, eternal law actually comes from Greek Philosophy. Greeks in the Axial Age believed that perfect truth was eternal. Truth never changes. If you ever took a college psychology course, you might remember the name of Lawrence Kohlberg. He came up with something called the Stages of Moral Development. He wanted to know how children develop a sense of right and wrong. Kohlberg looked to the Greeks to demonstrate how boys and men developed moral standards as they got older. Men, like the ancient Greeks, develop their morality based on unchanging, unbending standards.

Along came another psychologist named Carol Gilligan. She looked at Kohlberg’s research and said, “Wait a minute! He only tested males. Why were women left out of the research?” She did her own studies on the moral development of girls and women and she discovered something very different. While men looked for unchanging standards, women’s moral lives were governed by relationships. Women weighed the cost of their decisions based on how they affected others. For Gilligan’s female subjects, morality was situational and relative.

Maybe this should be true for religion, too. Rather than referring to some unchanging rule, instead of mandating ethics that are unchanging and absolute, perhaps God’s outlook on morality is relational, changing and flexible.

We stand at a moment of great opportunity. Some religious thinkers say that we are in the middle of a second Axial Age. If the first Axial Age was about owning individual beliefs and behavior, this Axial Age that we are now a part of is about global consciousness. It’s about understanding ourselves as part of a global network of people and things, and the earth. It’s about a growing awareness that God is present in us, in others, and in life itself. This second Axial Age is a bringing together of the east and the west. It is a stage for us to draw the best from our tradition but to understand that the moral center of Christian tradition is really no different than the moral center of other religions. Religion is not about judgment, death, and punishment. The core of religious morality is relationship and understanding. The central message of our morality is love. What better way to celebrate Word Communion Sunday than to remember our unity with all people and all religions that put love, compassion, and the ethic of reciprocity at the center of their ethical codes?

Religious morality is dangerous when it is about putting weighty and unreachable expectations on people’s behavior. Religious morality is dangerous when it asks people to be fake in order to please others. Religious morality is dangerous when it creates saved insiders versus unsaved outsiders. Morality should be about liberation. This is all about living authentically, and knowing yourself, and being true to your own perspectives. Of course, we need laws. We need morals. But there should be some guiding principles.

For me, the core principle is this: God is every action that you take, every word that you speak. In your actions of compassion toward people, you are no more and no less than showing the presence of God. How marvelous!


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sermon for September 25, 2011

The Unforgivable Sin

Then a demon-possessed man, who was blind and couldn’t speak, was brought to Jesus. He healed the man so that he could both speak and see. The crowd was amazed and asked, “Could it be that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah?” But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” Jesus knew their thoughts and replied, “Any kingdom divided by civil war is doomed. A town or family splintered by feuding will fall apart. And if Satan is casting out Satan, he is divided and fighting against himself. His own kingdom will not survive. And if I am empowered by Satan, what about your own exorcists? They cast out demons, too, so they will condemn you for what you have said. But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you. For who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man like Satan and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger—someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house. Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me. So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come.A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad. You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right? For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you.” Matthew 12:22-37

Three ministers and their wives got into a car crash and died one day. They found themselves standing at the pearly gates together before St. Peter. St. Peter opened his big book, pointed to the first minister, and said, “You’re going to Hell.”

“What? Why?” cried the minister.

“Because you lusted after money. You never actually stole any money, but in your heart, you were constantly thinking about money. You had money on your mind so much that you even married someone named Penny. So you’re going to Hell.” And in a puff of smoke, the first minister disappeared. St. Peter flipped a few pages in his book and pointed to the second minister. “You are also going to Hell,” he said sternly.

“Why?” said the anguished minister.

“Because of your love of alcohol. You never actually drank any alcohol, but you constantly yearned for it in your heart. You thought about it so much that you even married someone named Brandy. So you’re going to Hell. “And in a puff of smoke, the second minister disappeared.

The third minister turned to his wife and said, “Well, Fanny, it’s been nice knowing you.”

Here’s something for us to think about today. Is God really like that? Does the God you worship enjoy the thought of damning you because of your faults? Does God ever get tired of our mistakes? Will God ever stop loving us? Can we ever move ourselves beyond the boundaries of God’s forgiveness?

Imagine this scenario. You come to worship and have a transforming experience. You make a decision to change some aspect of your life – to turn something around or do something better. You day to yourself, “This week, I’m going to be good.” It’s easy to be good in church, right? Walk out the doors into the so-called “real world” and what happens? If you are like me, then you blow it. Some dimwit upsets you and you lose your patience. Someone betrays you and you plot revenge. Someone hurts you and you want to hurt that person back. It’s not that we didn’t take our life-transforming commitments seriously. We meant them with all our heart. We want a new and changed life. But something gets in the way and trips us up. And so we go back to church, recommit ourselves to godly living, and then we go home and mess it up again.

How do you think God feels about this scenario? Does God lose patience? Will God punish us for not fulfilling our commitments? The religion I was taught said, “Yes, of course God will punish us!” My faith told me that all of us are guilty before God. All of us deserve to be punished. God would not be God if He (God was always “He”) allowed the punishment to be suspended. I was a very worried teenager and young adult. I just knew that God was terribly angry about the sin I was born with as well as the sins I committed. As a just judge, God would punish me, and all sinners, now and in eternity. We could not hide the stain of sin; but we could be washed clean by grace. The Savior, Jesus Christ, stood between me and the severe judgment of God. Jesus received the awful punishment for sin that you and I deserve. It is in Jesus that we see God’s justice and God’s mercy being displayed at the same time and in the same person. This is what I was taught. This is what I believed.

I was also taught that there was sin and there was unforgivable sin. If I ever did anything to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, I would earn a non-refundable one-way ticket to Hell. But what was blasphemy? I was told that the original sin was doubt. The only way to reverse it was to have faith in Jesus. It was sinful to doubt that Jesus performed miracles. I questioned how Jesus could be the one and only way to get to heaven, but I kept those thoughts to myself. The more I tried not to doubt, the more doubts flooded my mind. I was sure that I had committed the unforgivable sin.

What do you think? On the surface, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading sound clear: whoever blasphemes the Spirit will not be forgiven. Let’s take a moment to revisit our Gospel story.

A man is brought to Jesus. The man is blind and he cannot speak. People assume that demons have taken up residence in him. Jesus has compassion and heals the man. Jesus enters that which others see as unclean or defiled, and he brings new life. As soon as he’s done, the criticisms begin. Those who are in power—those religious leaders who feel that Jesus threatens their positions -- accuse him of healing in the name of the devil. It’s an insult. They think that they are the only one’s allowed to represent God. They insist that they alone have the full and complete accounts of reality. They leave little room for debate or difference of opinion. They expect unflinching loyalty from their followers. They try to discredit Jesus by saying he’s in league with the powers of evil.

Jesus leads the revolt against the powers that keep people trapped. Jesus turns things around on the religious leaders. Jesus says, “Ignorance can be forgivable. Failure can be turned around. However, using religion to turn human liberation into something odious is not pardonable. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to see when God does something real before your very eyes.”

Jesus says that the nations religious leaders are the ones who are against God. They are captives to their need for power. They smother God’s effort to make broken people whole. And when we do that intentionally , we bypass the grace of God.

Think again about the faith commitments you have made – and perhaps failed at. Maybe we fall short in our quests for transformation because we are looking for Jesus to take something bad in us and make it good. Jesus did not come to make a bad people good. Jesus came to bring dead people to life. We can be good but not alive. There are a lot of people who are morally pure, but they have no life, no joy, no celebration. If our faith is not marked by raw, passionate love, then we are no better than the close-minded religionists that Jesus corrected.

Author Shane Claiborne tells a story about living in intentional poverty with some friends in Chicago. He headed out one night to get a loaf of bread in an area notorious for its prostitution and drug trafficking, where the air is thick with tears and struggle. He walked past an alley, and tucked inside was a tattered and cold woman on crutches, selling herself to make some money. On the way home, he saw the woman again, crying and shivering. He knew he could not pass her by. Shane stopped and told her that he cared for her, that she was precious, worth more than a few bucks for tricks in an alley. He brought her to the house he lived with his friends. As soon as they entered the house, the woman wept hysterically. When she gained composure, she looked at everyone in the house and said, “You are all Christians, aren’t you?” Up to this point, no one had said anything about God or Jesus. There were no crosses in the house – not even a Christian fish on the wall. She said, “I know you are Christians because you shine. I used to be in love with Jesus like that, and when I was, I shined like diamonds in the sky. But it’s a cold dark world, and I lot my shine a little while back. I lost my shine on those streets. She asked these people to pray with her. They did. They prayed that this dark world would not take away their shine.

Weeks went by, and they did not see the woman. One day, there was a knock on the door. On the steps was a lovely lady with a contagious ear-to-ear smile. Shane stared at the woman, not recognizing her. She finally spoke. “Of course you don’t recognize me, because I’m shining again. I’m shining.” He finally realized that she was the same woman he pulled off the streets. She talked about how she had fallen in love with God again and she wanted to give him something to thank him for his hospitality. She said, “When I was on the streets, I lost everything, except this.” She pulled out a box, confessing that she smoked a lot and always collected Marlboro Miles points from the cigarette packs. “This is all I have, but I want you to have it.” She handed Shane the box filled with hundreds of Marlboro Miles. Shane says, “It’s one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given.” He uses them as bookmarks in his Bible. Every time he sees them, he is reminded of all the broken lives that have lost their shine.

When people tell me that they have rejected God, I say, “Tell me about the God you have rejected.” They usually describe a God of condemnation, of laws and lightening bolts, a frowning, gray-haired God who enjoys boring committee meetings. You know what? I have rejected that God, too.

Piling guilt upon ourselves does nothing to correct the source of our real problem. Know this and believe this. God wants you to shine again. You are guilty of nothing. God loves you. God loves you more than any of us can even begin to fathom. You are a bright and clean spirit in God’s eyes and the only one who sees this differently is you. God already accepts you for who you are, and God is not going to punish you while you struggle to live the life of faith. Jesus Christ shows us that God makes broken people whole, and that there is nothing you will ever do that can put you outside the boundaries of God’s love.

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...