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!


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