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This week I was challenged to welcome several surprising visitors to Grace, including a prophet of doom (the tree guy who told me that two trees behind the Parish Hall are dying), an angel in disguise (someone who dropped off a donation that will probably cover the cost of the tree removal), a bicycling evangelist, and a lunching “Charismatic Christian,” among others. It was a week in which I struggled with my own fears and biases to find grace in anxiety, trust amidst paranoia, and hope in a sea of desperation. It was a week in which it was hard to know who to trust and what to do.
It’s an old problem, and one the people of Judah struggled with too. About six centuries before the birth of Christ, the Judeans were living in subjugation under the Babylonians and deciding if they should rebel – so they asked their religious leaders what to do. But, just as it so often happens in our time, they found that their religious leaders didn’t agree with each other. And, like us, they didn’t know who to believe.
This led to that precursor of pro-wrestling: the prophet stand-off. Two prophets with completely opposing views, both of whom claimed to be speaking with authority from God. In one corner: Hananiah, popular, powerful and with a message that these oppressed people wanted to hear. “We should rebel. We are God’s people. God is on our side.” In the other corner: Jeremiah – wild, grubby, wearing a yoke tied around his neck, and delivering a really unpopular message. “Don’t fight for your freedom. God wants you to submit to Babylonian rule.” Who are they going to believe?
It seems to me, that if it were us, we’d put our money on Hananiah. After all, isn’t faith about believing that God is on your side? Don’t Christians think that we have been saved by our belief in Jesus Christ and that our faith will protect us – no matter what? Actually, no – that’s not what we believe. What we believe is that we have a covenant with God – that we are in relationship with God, and that God will be faithful to that relationship no matter what. But “that covenantal faithfulness is not an insurance policy that kicks in automatically when [we] think [we] need deliverance from hardship…[It is a] relationship that requires asking, what is God’s will today?… God’s will may very well be that our tribe is not ascendant in all times and places.
What is certain is that God does not abandon us. Today’s psalm tells us that God pledges “hesed,” – a word that means steadfast love, loving-kindness, devotion, and faithfulness. But God never promised to give us everything we want. Contrary to what proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” argue, scripture tells us that being religious is “no guarantee of material or spiritual abundance.” What it is a guarantee of is the opportunity to become our best selves – the opportunity not only to be loved for who we truly are, but the chance to love everyone else that way too.
One of my unexpected visitors this week really made me think about how to figure out what is right. This person reported that she was baptized Roman Catholic, but then her mother was “seriously saved,” and she has been a charismatic Christian since that time. We had a lovely chat, agreeing on many things, including the need for all Christians to find common ground, that Christianity is not about seeking and using power, and that “the bottom line” of Christian teaching is Jesus’s command to love God and love one another. She asked if she could pray for my ministry and I gratefully accepted. It was a wonderful, hopeful encounter – until I said that it was important for people who do not have the same exact doctrine to support one another in their basic Christian beliefs. At which point she stopped me and said, tapping her Bible meaningfully, “As long as their doctrine is consistent with what’s in here. The problem with religion these days,” she continued,” is that no one talks about sin. People need to be told when they are sinning – and then she began to list groups of people whom she identified as sinners. When I suggested that perhaps it was not ours to judge, she agreed and said that she would never judge. She said she believes that it is up to us to simply inform people they are sinful – inform them with love.
Our conversation left me with a significant amount of emotional turmoil. On the one hand, our talk had ended pleasantly. On the other hand, I had failed to tell her that I believed that what she was saying was, in fact, opposed to scripture -that it’s impossible to “inform” someone that what and who they are is “sinful” with “love.” That excluding anyone from the opportunity to live in relationship with God and with other human beings is simply wrong. In fact, just as she had suggested, I, a church leader, had, in the interest of maintaining harmony between us, failed to talk about sin. So I’m going to do it now.
Sin is not about breaking rules. Sin is about breaking faith. I’m going to say it again: Sin is not about breaking rules, it’s about breaking faith – with one another and/or with God. Sin is separation. Yes, it is a sin to steal, to kill, to commit adultery, to lie, to cheat and to take God for granted – but not because those are rules, but because the result of breaking them is to separate us from one another and from God. But sometimes keeping rules for their own sake is just as separating – just as sinful. I believe that it is a fundamental contradiction to say you are a Christian and then argue that anyone should be condemned for who they are. I think it is unchristian to say that there are some sins that are unforgivable. And it is my opinion that it is completely inconsistent with scripture to suggest that hate is ever a good or godly thing. What our scriptures actually tell us is that human beings are imperfect and prone to sin. I don’t think that’s news for anyone here. The real news – the good news – is that “holiness is [actually] what we were made for.” We are meant to be and can be without sin, but not by our own will.
That is what St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Romans when he admonished them to be “enslaved to God.” He was not suggesting that in order to be saved we need to give up our intelligence or our sense of justice or our compassion for other people. To believe that is to misunderstand the context in which Paul was writing. When we speak of slavery, we are talking about the depravity of taking away the will and freedom of other people – of treating human beings as possessions – of the evil that people have perpetrated in order to serve themselves.
But that’s not what Paul is talking about. When Paul talks about slavery, he is saying that everyone serves someone or something – be it your country, family, or some other passion. For Paul, it is when you choose to focus on an earthly concern more than your relationship with God– when you become a true slave to fashion, or television or money – or religion – that you sin. That is why he calls it slavery – and it is a sin because it takes away our freedom to choose to submit to the holy relationship that God offers us. It is a sin because it separates us from God and from one another.
And separation is the last thing God wants for us. God sent Jesus Christ into the world so that we would never be separated from God’s love again. That’s why Jesus’s last command to us was to share his love – to offer it to everyone and anyone who asks – to welcome others with the “hesed” – the loving kindness and compassion – that he gives to us. This is not always easy -because we are not only called to welcome those who are like us. We are not called to change those who are not like us. We are called to welcome all people with love and compassion. It doesn’t matter that ”love is not always met with love…Sometimes…we are called to love in the midst of hate…Jesus calls us to put our love in jeopardy so that that its blessings are made manifest in our lives and in the lives of others.” Because that is the right thing to do. AMEN.
Robert A. Cathey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 178.
Ted A. Smith, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 186.