Monday, September 26, 2016

Religious Hypocrites: Romans 2:1-11

Growing up, my dad often warned me with these words, “Be careful of pointing your finger at someone because you will have three pointing right back at you.”

Being the little smart-alec that I was, I started pointing with an open hand.

Others have offered these words of wisdom, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.”

Being the smart-alec that I am, I’d respond, “I’ll live in a brick house.”

Excuses can come easy if you really want them to, but if you live long enough, take time to reflect on life long enough, and if you probe the depths of your own heart at some station in life, then you will come to see these anecdotes as a description of reality.  You will come to see the hypocrisy in your judgment.  You will find yourself condemned by your own moral standards.  Oh, some of you may readily disagree.  Some of you may believe that you not only talk the talk but you walk the walk, but the hard, cold fact of the matter is: we generally are hypocrites without even knowing it, and in the eyes of God, we bring condemnation upon ourselves.

We have just finished a scathing portion of the book of Romans.  In chapter one verses 18-32, Paul has laid out a horrid condemnation of humanity beginning with the premise that there are those who have traded the worship of the Creator for the created.  These folks’ hearts have been corrupted, and they chase after idols–false gods.  They seek their security, safety, worth, value, meaning, and purpose in goods and ideas that can never satisfy–and, in fact, instead of giving freedom and value, they actually end up destroying a person.  Hence, God “gave them up” to follow their desires so that the very fabric of God’s created order unravels and they find themselves in hell long before they die.  Chapter one ends in this fashion.

But what about people who do believe in God and worship God?  What about people who strive to follow God’s commands?  What about people who agree that all those things Paul listed at the end of chapter one are wrong and abhorrent?  I mean, most of us would agree that the following are indeed wrong: “wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossips 30slander, God-hating, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, inventing evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness.  Paul says that all of these things flow from a heart which is not seeking God–a heart that does not worship God.

This leaves the door wide open for someone to say, “Well, I do worship God.  I do honor God.  I am not like all those other people.  I do not stand condemned.  They are the ones with the problem–not me.”  Paul now turns his attention to such a one as Romans chapter 2 begins.

The apostle writes, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God?”  This must have seemed a bit confusing to those who heard it.  They might have thought, “What do you mean, Paul?  I strive to avoid such matters.  I don’t engage in homosexual acts.  I am worshiping God.  I work hard to love my neighbor and avoid all those things you listed.  How am I condemning myself when I point out the ugly things that people are doing?  How am I being hypocritical?  How am I doing those things you are talking about?”

Paul continues, “4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.”  The clue to this dilemma can be found right here in verse five, “but by your hard and impenitent heart.”  These words are the lynch pin of this whole diatribe.

Paul points out that it is in God’s nature to be very forgiving; to be patient; to be kind.  This kindness, forgiveness, and patience is meant to melt our hearts–to turn us away from idolatry and toward Him.  This is what repentance is.  Repentance isn’t just turning away from doing bad things and then doing good things.  Repentance is a total change of heart–a change from worshiping idols and worshiping God.  Paul is pointing out that this change of heart has not occurred.  Paul is pointing out that even these religious folks are committing idolatry, and odds are, they have no idea they are doing it.  I will explain what is going on in just a moment.  We need to add the next couple of verses to get there.

6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.  Now we come to a very interesting point because Paul says that God will repay each of us according to our deeds.  If we misunderstand what Paul is saying here, we will come to the conclusion that we’d better get our act together and do as many nice things as we possibly can.  We’d better worship regularly. We’d better give to charity and the church.  We’d better treat others with respect and kindness.  We’d better balance the scales in the favor of doing good because if we haven’t done enough, we will end up in the fires of hell!

But wait a minute.  Paul began this chapter addressing people who believed they were doing just this thing.  Paul began this chapter by addressing people who thought they were worshiping God who were not committing all the acts laid out in chapter one.  He said they were building up wrath for themselves.  He said that they had a hardness of heart.  How can that be?

Well, let’s return to how Paul defines what it means to do good–to seek for glory and honor and immortality.  Paul also defines what it means to do evil–to be self-seeking and obey wickedness or injustice.  Hold those two definitions beside each other for just a moment.  Doing evil is to be self-seeking.  Doing evil is to be consumed with self.  And if that is the case, does doing good mean that I am seeking my own glory; my own honor; my own immortality?  It cannot!!  Hence, doing good means I must be seeking the glory, honor, and immortality of something else.  It must mean that I must be seeking the glory, honor, and immortality of God.  It means my heart must be tuned to and I must be living for God.

Here is where I hope to clear things up.  Here is where I hope to show you how this all comes together.  For you see, Paul is telling us that you can do good deeds for the wrong reason.  Let me say that again, you can do good deeds for the wrong reason.  You can do good deeds and be completely and totally self-serving!

How so?  Let me show you by this imaginary dialogue.

So, I notice you go to church.  Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I also notice that you give to the church.  Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I notice that you are kind to others.  Why?
It makes me feel good, and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I notice that you give to charity.  Why?
It makes me feel good and I know I won’t end up in hell.
I noticed that you try and follow the Ten Commandments all the time.  Why?
I don’t want to make God angry and feel bad about myself.

Let’s stop the dialogue right there, and let me ask you: for whose sake is the imaginary person acting?  Who is the imaginary religious person actually serving?  Me.  Myself.  And I.  The person is not doing these deeds for God’s sake.  This person is actually self-serving.  This person is actually seeking his or her own good.  This person is not getting their sense of value, self-worth, safety and security from God–this person is getting their sense of value, self-worth, safety and security FROM THEIR GOOD WORKS.  This person has made an idol out of their good works.

And if I feel like I am successful in doing good...

If I feel like I can accomplish living a good and upright moral life...

If I feel like such a life can be lived with making just a few life choices and sacrifices...

Then I can be very, very contemptuous of others who do not live the same kind of life I live.  I can look down my nose at them and sneer.  I can say they are the ones with the problem, not me.  I’m doing good.  I’m living right.  I’m following God’s commands and worshiping Him.  They are the ones with the idols, not me.

WRONG.  You have an idol.  You just can’t see it.  Your self-righteousness blinds you to it.  Your idol is your self.  Hence every time you think you are doing good, you are simply storing God’s wrath up against yourself.  You are not working and doing such things for God, you are doing them for you.  While others are flat out rejecting God and turning to false forms of worship knowingly; you are rejecting God and serving yourself.

I have shared my testimony before you in the past, but it bears repeating now, for I do not want you to think that I am pointing fingers again.  I learned my lesson from my father and from the brutal reality of my own life.  For the bulk of my ministry, I now know that I was serving myself.  If you would have told me this five years ago, I would have denied it vehemently!!  I was a pastor.  I was preaching God’s Word.  I was helping a church to grow and do ministry!  There was no way I was serving myself.

But after getting burned out, God revealed to me the deepest desires of my heart.  I had to confront what I was living for–what I desperately wanted.  I wanted to take a church and make it grow from very small to very big.  I wanted this to happen because I wanted people to ask me how I did it in the mist of a culture that is more and more reluctant to embrace Christianity.  I wanted people to take notice of my preaching and teaching.  I wanted to write several books and become a popular author and public speaker.  I wanted fame in the church and the obligatory fortune that would come with it.  These were the deepest desires of my heart, and when this congregation didn’t grow as expected–when I felt like you weren’t holding up your end of what I thought you should do, then I became contemptuous of you.  I became angry with you.  You were why the church wasn’t growing.  It just couldn’t be me.  I was pouring my heart out to make you that I could reap the rewards.  Selfish.  Selfish.  Selfish.  I deserve your contempt and hatred.  It is only just.  Even in the midst of preaching God’s word and working in the church, I was not serving Him.

This is why Paul pens verse 11, “For God shows no partiality.”  It doesn’t matter if you are doing wrong because you flat out reject God or doing right because you are serving yourself.  In neither fashion are you worshiping the true God.  In neither case are you seeking His glory, honor, or immortality.  In both cases you are serving yourself.  In both cases, there is a hardness of heart.  In both cases sin is abounding, and in both cases, God’s wrath burns hot.

Paul unequivocally shows with these words that both the religious person and the irreligious person are under the condemnation of God.  Both the religious person and the irreligious person are pursuing idols.  It’s a hard, hard pill to swallow.

But the good news is that there is a cure.  We will not hear that cure today.  Not yet.  There is still more preparatory work to be done on our hearts.  There is still more groundwork that needs to be laid, but hang in there.  Walk through this time.  Feel the anger of God mounting as you realize the depths of your sin.  When the gospel is announced–when Paul reveals what God has done, you will understand why it is called amazing grace.  Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Romans 1:24-32: The World Unravels

I remember vividly an episode from my teenage years.  Like all teenagers, I had a rebellious streak.  I didn’t want to abide by all of the rules and impositions my parents had instituted.  I wanted to stretch my wings.  Do the things that I wanted to do.  I was very much like most teens in the world.  And on one such occasion, I lost my temper.  I wanted to do a particular thing–I don’t remember what it was–and I was denied.  I threw  a fit.

And my dad responded, “Whenever you think you are grown enough to do what you want to do, just pack your suitcase and leave.”

I went to my room and pulled out my suitcase.  And then I began to plan.  I had exactly $274 in my wallet.  I would go to my friend Kevin’s house.  It was a long walk, but I could make it.  I would ask to stay there.  But what then?  Would they let me stay long term?  Would they feed me?  Would they buy me clothes?  What would happen if I spent all my money and had nothing left?  What would happen then?  Where would I find myself.  Visions of standing at the end of a sidewalk with no place to go, no place to stay, broke and alone filled my head.

I put my suitcase up.

Maybe you can relate, but I want to intentionally shift the focus of this story, because I don’t want us to think about us for the time being.  I want to shift the focus of this story to my dad.  Because it is only in hindsight that I can see what my dad was doing.  He was giving me up.  I worded that last sentence very carefully.  My dad was not giving up on me.  He was giving me up.  Essentially he was saying, “If you want your freedom, take it!  There is the door.  Go!”

Even though I didn’t know what my dad was doing at the time, when I began thinking about it, it scared the hell out of me.  I realized I still needed my parents.  Freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

What would happen if God granted us that freedom?  What if God gave us up?  We don’t have to wonder what would happen.  We know.  We have a biblical history of what that looks like, and that biblical history informs St. Paul as he continues laying out his condemnation of humankind in the book of Romans.  Once again, I warn you, this journey is a dark journey for a while.  We will travel in darkness before we see the light.  And once again–like last week–I offer my apologies in advance.  We will not get to Jesus’ saving action today.  We will not hear John 3:16-17.  Our hearts must be prepared to hear the Gospel.  As I said last week, by the time we are done with the next two chapters either our hearts will be hardened so that we no longer want anything to do with God, or they will be crushed to the point that we rediscover just how amazing God’s love through Jesus is.  We will rediscover amazing grace.

Last week, I ended my sermon revealing how we are deserving of God’s wrath because we do not honor or worship Him as God.  We chase our idols of family, wealth, status, free time, government, and the like.  We chase them because we believe they will bring us fulfillment.  We believe they will bring us safety and security.  We believe they will bring us true life.  But they do not.  They lead us down a path of destruction.  Deep down, there is a part of us that knows this, but as Paul said last week, we deceive ourselves.  We tell ourselves that we are just fine–that there is nothing wrong with what we do or what we live for.  Stubbornly, we cling to our idols.

And this is where Paul continues today.  Verse 24, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.”  God said, “If you want your freedom to follow your heart’s desire, you have it.  Go get it!”  One commentator said it best.  God did not simply give us freedom.  No, that would mean we would be without desire and free to choose whatever we wanted.  God gave us the freedom to pursue the lusts of our hearts.  Not only did God say, “Go pack your suitcase.”  Essentially God said, “Here, let’s pack.  And then after helping you pack, He shoved you out the door.”  Sometimes there is no reasoning.  Sometimes there is no begging and pleading.  Sometimes there is no sitting down in a rational, loveable manner and showing another the consequences of his or her actions.  Sometimes a heart is hell bent on trying to get what it wants, and no matter what you say; no matter what you do; you will not prevent a person from trying to get it.

Have you ever tried to keep an alcoholic from getting another drink?

Have you ever tried to keep an addict from taking another hit?

Have you ever tried to keep a sexual pervert away from porn?

Have you ever tried to keep a Cowboy’s fan from reliving the 90's?  Okay, perhaps that last one wasn’t fair.

But you know the futility.  You know the impossibility.  And if you have ever reached your wits end, you know what it is to give a person up.  You know what it is to let that person go on in his or her self-destructive behavior.  And if you are angry enough, you push them toward rock bottom.  

When humanity decided to worship the creature instead of the creator because of the stubbornness and warping of their hearts, God gave them up.

Verse 26, For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.  I can hear the thoughts of some of you.  “Oh, here we go.  Time for some gay bashing.”  I can hear the thoughts of others, “Now, it’s time to bring the hammer on the gay agenda and show them what God really feels toward those sinners.  Time to tell them to repent of their sinfulness or end up in hell.”

First off, there will be no gay bashing–unless you call explaining what Paul says here gay bashing.  And a Christian is not allowed to bash anyone–much less condemn a person to hell, so don’t expect me to do that either.  These verses have been used as clobber verses toward gay people, and when used in such a fashion, they drive people away from the Good News.  They drive people away from Jesus.  This must never be our purpose.  But we must not shy away from what Paul is conveying in these words either.  He is making a very salient point.

More than a few scholars find it odd that Paul begins with homosexual acts for aren’t there other commands–other revelations of God which are seemingly more important?  I mean, Paul himself argues later in Romans and in the book of Galatians that the entire law can be summed up in one great command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why not begin with that command?  Why begin with homosexual, sexual relations?

In this section of the book of Romans, Paul is showing us what happens when God gives us up.  Paul is showing us what happens when God gives us the freedom to pursue the warped desires of our hearts.  Paul is showing us the consequences of what happens when we replace God with idols.  Nearly every scholar I consulted for this sermon agreed that the finely woven fabric of what God created begins to fray and come unraveled when we don’t have God in His proper place.  Nearly every scholar said that when God is not the center of our lives and worship, then our lives begin to descend into chaos.  God’s created order unravels.  This is important.  Let me say it again. God’s created order unravels.

So why start with homosexual behavior?  Let me ask you a question: what is the first recorded command in the Bible?  What is the first thing that God told humankind after He created them?  Do you remember?

Let’s take a look.  Please pick up the Bibles in your pews and turn to Genesis chapter one.  For those of you who have forgotten the books of the Bible, knock the dust off, and turn to page one...  Skip down to verse 27, and let’s read verses 27 and 28 together, “27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

So, what is God’s initial command to humanity?  “Be fruitful and multiply and have stewardship over the earth.”  Can a man and a man be fruitful and multiply?  Can a woman and a woman be fruitful and multiply?  You know the answer to that question.  And before anyone starts in on me: yes, I am aware that there are couples who cannot have children, and no one thinks they are sinning.  I am aware there are people who actively work to make sure they have no more children, including myself and no one causes a stir.  But this isn’t about having children or not having children.  It’s about how God ordered creation and how that order is maintained.  Homosexuality is against that created order, and it contradicts the very first command given to humanity–a command which was issued BEFORE the giving of the Law to the Jewish people–a command woven into the very fabric of creation.

Paul begins with homosexuality for these reasons.  Not that it is above other sins.  Not that it is because homosexuality condemns a person to hell.  I mean, as Timothy Keller says, “I know very well that heterosexuality doesn’t get you to heaven.”  Not that it is to be the focus of the church’s activity in the world.  Paul shows that when the Creator is replaced, even the most basic order of creation begins to be violated.

And then, it gets really, really bad.  Verse 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. God gave them up to pursue the desires of their hearts, and in doing so, their minds became debased; warped; unhinged.  The created order began to suffer even more.  Take another look at that list of vices that St. Paul puts forward.  Tell me that you have managed to escape every one of those vices.  Tell me you have been able to avoid such things your whole life through.  Tell me that to this day, you never boast, become greedy, spread gossip, or get upset at what someone else has.  Tell me that you are not under the power of sin.  Even you are corrupt and violate God’s natural order of things.  God has given you over to the freedom to pursue the desires of your heart.

And the picture of reality isn’t pretty.  Think about a world full of those vices.  Think about a world full of people who are greedy, selfish, envious, foolish, faithless, heartless, and ruthless.  Think about a world full of strife, deceit, murder, slander, and gossip.  Think about a world where people applaud you for getting away with evil–where people encourage you to give into your every desire; where people affirm every decision you make whether it seem good or bad; where people call you a prude for doing good.  Where people long for the hero to fall and gleefully laugh when he does.  Would you like to live in that world?  Do you believe that we thrive in such a world?  Would you agree that a world like that could be described as hell?

When God gives us up to the freedom to pursue the desires of our hearts, then that’s exactly where we end up.  Hell is not simply a reality after we die.  It’s already here.  It takes place when we replace God with idols.  It takes place when we demand our freedom from God’s rule.  God says, “Okay.  Let me help you pack your bags.  Let me walk you out the door.  Good luck.”  Continue down the path, and sooner rather than later, we will find ourselves at the end of some God-forsaken sidewalk with nowhere to go; nothing to do; alone; abandoned–in hell.  Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Grace that no Longer Amazes: Romans 1:18-23

Our foray into the book of Romans begins to take a dark turn.  I say this because in the next two chapters, Paul lays out a scathing condemnation of humanity.  Paul reveals to his audience just how sinful they are–how sinful we are.  There are many who will not like what I have to say in the coming weeks.  Many would like to pretend that they are generally good, decent people who commit a few mistakes, sure.  Everyone commits mistakes.  But tell a person he or she is deserving of God’s wrath, then you are likely to receive a tongue lashing.  We are a culture that has become desensitized to God’s wrath.  We have been so exposed to a loving, gracious God, that the thought of grace no longer even amazes us.

I watched a lecture this week by Dr. R.C. Sproul, and he told a very interesting story.  He said that he began teaching an introduction to the Old Testament course in theology at a particular college to all 250 students. He laid out how students would be graded for the class.  There would be a series of papers turned in throughout the semester due on a certain date.  If the paper were not turned in, the students would receive a failing grade.  Sproul said that at the first due date 225 students came with their papers and 25 did not.  The 25 pleaded with Sproul saying that they were making the transition from high school to college; they had made bad time management choices and needed more time.  Sproul granted them more time, much to their delight.  The next due date came, and this time 200 students came with their papers, and fifty did not.  Once again the begging and pleading ensued.  Once again, Sproul offered an extension.  At this point, Dr. Sproul became very, very popular on campus.  All the students loved him.  According to Sproul’s story, they even sang a song to him!

But then, the final due date arrived.  This time, 150 students handed in their papers.  100 did not.  Sproul approached a young man and asked, “Do you have your paper to turn in?”  The young man replied, “Hey, don’t worry about it prof.  I’ll have it for you in a couple of days.”  Sproul picked up his grade book, looked at the young man again and said, “You don’t have your paper?”  The guy replied, “No.”  Sproul marked in his grade book and said, “F.”

Sproul continues, “There was this gasp in the room.  And I looked and said, ‘Johnson, where’s your paper?’  ‘I don’t have it, sir.’ I said, ‘F. Reynolds, where’s your paper? F.’ And as if it were orchestrated...they call cried out with one voice, ‘THAT’S NOT FAIR!’

“I said, ‘What did you say?’  ‘We said that’s not fair.’ I said, ‘Beech, weren’t you late with your paper last time?’  He said, ‘Yes sir.’  ‘And you are late this morning?’  He said, ‘Yes sir.’

“So, I gave you an F for today, and it’s justice that you want?  I’m going to give you justice.  I’m going to change your grade for the last one, the one you were late for, and I’m going to give you an F for that one.  O.K.?  Now, who else wants justice.  You people be careful about ever asking for justice because you just might get it?”

Sproul continues, “But what happened?  They became accustomed to my grace.  First they appreciated it.  Then, they expected it.  Finally, they demanded it, and that’s who we are.”

That’s who we are.  When it comes to God’s grace; His love; His mercy in this day and age–we no longer appreciate it.  Most of us expect it.  And many demand it.  This is why there is a severe lack of humility in many churches today.  This is why many Christians come across as arrogant and self-righteous.  They believe they deserve grace–they deserve God’s love.  And a Christian who is not afraid of God’s wrath or a person who is not afraid of God’s wrath, will not hear the Gospel as good news; will not ever have a change of heart; and will never experience the fullness of peace that the Gospel delivers.

Today, we begin a journey towards humility.  Today we will begin to have our toes stomped on unmercifully.  When Paul is done with us, our hearts will either be hardened to the point that we want nothing to do with God, or our hearts will be crushed and ready to hear what God has done when we least deserved it.

Paul begins, “18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”  There was a time in recent Christian history when theologians wanted to get as far away from God’s wrath as possible.  They believed this painted God as arbitrary, judgmental, liable to blow up at a whim and punish whoever He wanted whenever He wanted without regard.  The idea that God could get angry to the point of dealing death toward His creation was shoved as far back as possible in favor of a God who simply loved and wanted to be loved.  The majority of theologians today have repented from this because the horrid events of the 20th century: the Holocaust; the killing fields; the murder of millions of people in Russian pogroms woke them up to the reality of evil.  And if God is a just God; if God cares even a smidgen for His creation, then He cannot stand such evil acts.  God’s anger must burn hot at sin or God is not good!!  Let me say that again: God’s anger must burn hot at sin and injustice, or God is not good!  This is what is behind Paul’s words here.  Ungodliness is sin against God.  Wickedness is injustice or sin from one human against another.  God hates these sins with a passion.  They bring about His wrath.

But one might argue, how can someone who has never known God or known God’s commands stir God’s anger?  Isn’t that injustice on God’s part?  Paul says unequivocally that God’s anger is stirred against ungodliness and injustice–of those who suppress the truth.  Can EVERYONE know the truth?

Paul anticipates this argument as he continues, “19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;”   Paul probably has Psalm 19 verses 1-4 ringing in his head as he dictates these words.  This Psalm reads:

The heavens declare the glory of God
the skies proclaim the works of his hands
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
No sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

Paul believes in what we call today, natural revelation–that we can come to know God–His power and His divinity–through the natural world.  This is not anything new for most people.  Most people believe that we can come to know some sense of right and wrong; some sense of justice; some sense of God through looking around the world.  Hence, every single culture around the world has some form of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Babies have a sense of fairness and justice.  It is innate within each and every person who is in his or her right mind.  No one is without excuse.  And if there is a universal law, where did that law come from?  Paul argues that those who suppress the truth are those who claim it comes from anywhere and everywhere but God.

21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.  There is a blatant mistranslation in this text in verse 21.  It should read “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened.”  The importance of this translation will become clear in a moment.

Paul continues in his argument saying that even though people knew God–even though they knew of His revelation through creation–they did not honor Him or give thanks to Him.  They refused to worship God.  This led them to become futile in their thinking; have darkened hearts; and to become foolish.  How does this happen?

This happens because everyone worships.  Yes, everyone worships.  I don’t care if you are an atheist, a staunch believer, or even a Christian in name only.  Everyone worships something.  Some may disagree with me greatly, but here is the argument laid out for you:

We as human beings don’t just live–we all live for something.  Something in this life gives us meaning; gives us direction; gives us purpose; gives us hope; gives us a sense of value.  Timothy Keller puts it best when he says, “There has to be something which captures our imagination and our allegiance, which is the resting place of our deepest hopes and which we look to to calm our deepest fears. Whatever that thing is, we worship it, and so we serve it.  It becomes our bottom line, the thing we cannot live without, defining and validating everything we do.”  In days of old those things were literally idols–images made from wood and metal, but in our days, such idols have been changed but are still none-the-less idols: money, sex, justice, peace, prosperity, work, family, friends, busyness, power, climbing the corporate ladder, science, technology, free time, the government and a host of other things capture our hearts’ imagination and lead us to become foolish.

How does this happen?  Let me read to you the comments of atheist David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech at Kenyon College:

Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what to worship, and the compelling reason to maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you choose to worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.  Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age starts showing you will die a thousand million deaths before they finally grieve you.  Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious.  They are default settings.

When your heart’s imagination is captured by anything other than the Creator, you will become enslaved.  It will demand your time; your money; your energy; your entire being, and then you will delude yourself into thinking you are just fine.  You will justify what you are doing over and over and over again.  You will make excuses for your behavior and your thoughts.  When others confront you with your behavior, you will get angry and frustrated, and you will say, “I can stop this at any minute,” knowing full well you cannot and will not–until your heart changes.  Your stubborn, darkened heart makes you a fool.  Your worship of things other than the Creator turns you into a fool.

And now we must all ask ourselves: what do we worship?  What consumes our heart and mind and our thoughts day in and day out.  What do we think about in our spare time?  What does our life revolve around?  Odds are, it is not God.  None of us, and I mean none of us are focused with all our being upon Him.  We have traded worship for our Creator for things that are created.  Therefore, we stand under God’s wrath.  We deserve God’s wrath.  God’s anger is kindled against us.

And now, I must end with an apology.  I apologize for ending this sermon right here and right now.  For years, I have included in my preaching the Gospel.  I have brought you time and again to the point where you hear the soothing message of what God has done for you through Jesus Christ.  I have pronounced the Gospel in a nutshell: John 3:16-17 with reckless abandon.  But I cannot do this today.  This book is forcing us to reflect upon the state of our hearts; upon the state of our sinfulness.  We must continue through the darkness so that when the Gospel is announced at the end of chapter 3, we will once again discover just how amazing grace is.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Romans 1:8-17 "God on Trial"

Today, I have titled my sermon, “God on trial.”  I have done so for a couple of reasons.  First, there are many people in the U.S. who are walking away from organized religion.  Half of those who walk away say that they no longer believe in God for various reasons.  In a very real way, they have looked at the evidence for God and about God and have found it lacking.  They have put the idea of God on trial and convicted Him of absence.  The second reason is related to the first–God’s seeming absence in the face of injustice and evil.  This has been a major problem for those who believe in God for many, many years.  The logical argument is thus: if God is all powerful and if God is all good, then why does God allow bad things to happen?  Why doesn’t God cure illness and disease?  Why doesn’t God correct the many wrongs that go on throughout the world where people in power abuse those are weak.  Why doesn’t God do something about the hatred and anger and abuse and violence that goes on in the world?  Does God care and if He does, can’t He act?  In a very real way, folks who ask these questions are putting God on trial.  In effect, they are asking the question: is God just?  Is God righteous?

As we turn to our next installment of the book of Romans, I want to begin with a little bit of a study of the Koine Greek–the language in which the New Testament is written.  Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be too detailed, but the detail I am going to reveal here is important.  The Greek word for righteousness and justice is the same word.  Therefore, whenever you read through the book of Romans or any other New Testament book, if you see the word justice, you can interchange it with righteousness, and vice versa.  This will come into play in just a little while as we talk about Paul’s words to the church in Rome.

After Paul’s initial greeting, he follows the traditional customs of letter writing in the first century Roman empire.  He offers some gracious words of thanksgiving to the people he writes to.  In one way, you could say that he was buttering them up.

Paul begins: First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.  Paul is using some exaggeration here most likely.  Most scholars believe that the church in Rome was not large by any extent.  In fact, our membership very likely exceeds the number of Christians in Rome at the time Paul writes this letter.  At a maximum, the church in Rome may have numbered 200 people in a city of over a million.  But this is no small thing.  Rome is the center of the Roman empire–the most powerful empire in the world at the time.  It is where the emperor: Caesar, sits enthroned.  To profess “Jesus is Lord” right under the nose of those who demanded all Roman subjects profess “Caesar is Lord,” is an act of extreme bravery–something we know little about in our present situation.  But the Roman Christians’ trust in God empowered them to hold fast to their proclamation despite the threat–truly something to proclaim throughout the world.

9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.  Paul then offers an intriguing oath, swearing before God that he prays regularly for the Roman church–desperately wanting to come and visit them.  Speculation is that Paul may have included this heart-felt prayer because some of the members in the Roman church felt slighted that the self-described “apostle to the Gentiles” hadn’t visited them in the heart of the Gentile world.  Paul wants to soothe their soreness as he pens some very important words to them.

11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.  Paul obviously feels that he has something very important to share with the church in Rome.  The jury is still out as to what he wants to share with the Christians there, but Paul quickly points out that he does not want to come simply to impart knowledge on his own behalf.  There is a mutual sharing and growth that will occur.  This is quite revolutionary for us to think about because oftentimes, our thoughts tend to trend toward the idea that “I go to church to get something.”  Certainly, when we come to church, we should receive encouragement as we face our daily lives, but the encouragement also flows from us into others.  In other words, I am not simply giving you encouragement when you come through those doors, you are giving me encouragement as well.  We mutually build one another up.  This is ideally the way the church works.

13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15— hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.  Paul now closes out his reasons for wanting to come to Rome as he wants to reap a harvest–meaning make converts to Christianity because he is a debtor to both Greeks and to barbarians–to the wise and to the foolish.  What does Paul mean by this?  Tim Keller offered up a very interesting way to understand what Paul is saying here.  There are two ways of becoming indebted to a person.  First, if I borrow $100 from you, then I am indebted to you until I pay you back.  Secondly, if you give me $100 and say, “Please give this to my friend.”  Then I am indebted to your friend until I pass on that $100.  Paul believes he has received something that is not his–the Gospel.  Paul believes he is indebted to the world–to Greeks and barbarians; to the wise and foolish–and he must pass the Gospel onto them.  He must pass the Gospel onto everyone.  Why?

Here is where we begin to return to my original statement about God being on trial.  Paul lays in the next two verses what he will be arguing about in the rest of the letter: 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’  If you just read through these words quickly, you can gloss over it and not think much about them. However, if you read through these words slowly and try to understand them, you will find yourself scratching your head.  What in the world is Paul actually saying?  Why does he have to state that he is not ashamed of the Gospel?  What and how is the righteousness or justice of God revealed?  What does through faith for faith mean?

Let me begin by reminding you that the Gospel hinges upon the person of Jesus.  Jesus would have been considered a failure from a Jewish perspective because he failed to bring about the promises surrounding the Messiah.  He did not free the Jews from oppression.  He did not usher in world peace.  He did not cleanse the Temple system.  Everything continued to run as before despite what Jesus said.  AND, Jesus was also hung on a tree–which meant, according to Jewish scripture–he was cursed.  All of this amounts to tremendous failure from the standpoint of Jews.  From the standpoint of Rome, he was also a failure.  Jesus was considered a criminal who was seditious.  He was crucified because He challenged the power of Rome and proclaimed allegiance to another kingdom–God’s kingdom.  No Roman citizen was happy about knowing someone who was crucified.  It was a source of shame.  But Paul was not ashamed of any of this.  Not in the least.  In fact, Paul saw the Gospel as power. Paul had traveled throughout the Roman empire and preached Jesus.  Whenever he preached Jesus, hearts were changed; minds were changed; lives were changed; people acted and spoke differently–all because of the story of Jesus.  A story.  Mere words changed people deep within.  One commentary even said that some must have thought this to be magical.  But Paul saw it as power because of what it revealed about God.

For the Gospel showed that God is indeed just.  God is indeed righteous.  Now, we will be spending a lot of time on this in the coming weeks, so I will try to summarize and keep things as brief as possible in the limited time we have.  First, Paul will show that humanity has rebelled against God.  No one has an excuse when it comes to knowing what God would have us do.  Deeply embedded in creation is the knowledge of right and wrong.  Deeply imbedded in our being is the idea of fairness and justice.  Deeply imbedded in the core of our being is the knowledge of the way things should be.  We know what we should do, but we do not do it.  Justice; righteousness demands that such rebellion must be punished.  Justice; righteousness demands that wrongs be made right.  Justice; righteousness demands that evil be reversed and dealt with.

Every one of us knows this deeply.  Every one of us knows what it is like to be wronged by someone else.  Every one of us knows that for the wrong to be righted, some payment must be offered up–an acknowledgment of wrong; repayment of that which was lost; the repairing of what was broken.  Until we feel satisfied with repayment; restitution; apology; we do not feel as though justice has been served–we do not feel as though all is right.

But now we run into a problem.  Two problems in fact.  First, we run into the problem of our own inability to right the wrongs.  We are incapable of righting the wrongs that we do.  You may disagree with me here.  You may say, “Yes, I do some bad things, but I also do a lot of good things.”  I understand what you are saying, but let me get you to think about this a little bit.  Let’s say that one day you are careless and you back into anther person’s car.  You are embarrassed, and the damage isn’t too terrible, so you leave the scene.  “It was just a little ding,” you say to yourself.  You know it’s wrong.  So, later that day, you see a homeless person with a sign asking for donations to get food.  You put a $20 bill in the guy’s cup.  You instantly feel better about doing some good.  Things have evened out right?  Wrong.  They other person’s car still isn’t fixed.  Until you right the wrong you committed, you are still in debt to the other person.  Until you right the specific wrong, you haven’t made things just.  And if you break God’s commands...can you become completely right?  Can you become completely just with God.  The answer, we will see is no.  We cannot become right with God.  That’s problem one, and it is certainly not Gospel–good news.

Problem number two is the amount of injustice that permeates the world.  Very, very few of the world’s people ever get justice.  Very few of the world’s people ever have the wrongs committed against them righted.  People who died as slaves never received freedom.  There are people who were murdered whose killer were never found.  There are people who have been swindled out of money who never received a dime back from it.  People who try to do the right things end up having terrible diseases are killed by natural disasters and suffer terrible loss.  The powerful take advantage of the powerless, and not much ever happens.  Things are not right.  They are not just.

What is God’s answer to both of these problems?  Jesus.

First, God’s righteousness/justice is revealed on the cross. God pays your debt that you have accumulated with Him.  Revisiting the car analogy: the owner of the car fixed the ding without asking you to pay damages.  What became free to you, cost him time and money.  And if he decides not to press charges, you have a lot to be thankful for.  When it comes to sin, God changes our status before Him.  He reveals our righteousness and our justice by paying the price for our sins.  He does this out of His great love: for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all of those who believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

Secondly, God’s righteousness/justice is revealed in how Jesus lived as He announced the breaking in of the kingdom of God.  When the news of the Gospel takes root in your heart and mind, you are changed.  You are transformed.  You want to live and move differently.  You want to participate in a world where there is no more hunger, thirst, or poverty.  You want to participate in a world where all people are treated as children of God with dignity and respect.  You want to see reconciliation take place, and so you seek out others who share this view.  You seek out others who want to be a part of such a kingdom and you form a culture within a culture.  You form a church–a church which seeks to be the kingdom of God in the world; engaging the world; without becoming a part of the world.  In the church, justice/righteousness is practiced because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

Finally, God’s justice/righteousness is revealed in the resurrection.  For in the resurrection all the evil that had been done was undone.  All the darkness was transformed into light.  All the sadness was transformed into joy.  The promise of the resurrection is the promise that all evil will one day be overcome.  Death will be defeated.  God will reign supreme.  The resurrection says that God will have the final word, and so we live in hope.

And we put our trust in God.  We put our faith in the one who died to make us right with Him.  We put our faith in the one who has established His kingdom on earth and made us a part of it.  We put our faith in the one who will make all things new.  When you focus on God revealed in Jesus, you too can say as St. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”  You can see that God is indeed just.  You can see that He is indeed righteous.  You can see that there is no need to bring God to trial.  There is simply a need to trust in what God has, is, and will accomplish.  For He transforms you through the Gospel.  He transforms the world through the church, and He will transform heaven and earth in His good time.  Amen.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Romans 1:1-7 Salutations and Greetings

One of the authors of one of the commentaries I consulted said it best when describing the book of Romans.  I will paraphrase what he said to avoid wordiness.  Basically, he said that when the ancient readers first heard Paul’s letters being read, they would have had quite a few head scratching moments because the theological arguments and implications were so deep.  Today’s readers, the commentator said, are not much different.  We, like those ancient readers often scratch our heads in bewilderment as we try to read through the book of Romans and grasp its heady theology and philosophy.  It’s not an easy read.

However, on the flip side, this book has been extremely influential throughout history.  Many great pillars of faith–those who have managed to wrap their heads around the message of this book–have had their lives completely and totally transformed by the message included in its pages.  Not the least of these is the namesake of our church–Martin Luther.  I confess to you that there are parts of this book that I still do not fully grasp, so as I begin this sermon series, please know that I will be learning as you learn.  Hopefully you and I will experience some of the same awakenings and transformations others have experienced as they encountered the powerful, transformational message included in these pages.

We begin today with the greeting and salutation.  These seven verses are jammed packed with a ton of loaded language, and if you gloss over them–as we often tend to do, we miss a whole lot.  Paul opens this letter by proclaiming his credentials, offering a brief summary of what this letter will entail, and finally by bestowing grace and peace upon the readers.

Paul is writing to a church that he has never personally encountered.  He knows no one there.  He does not know the dynamics of the church or who its main leaders are, so he begins the book of Romans by offering up his credentials.  Now, I am pretty sure that the people of Rome had heard of Paul by this time.  Paul was a monumental figure in the early church ranked right alongside the 12 disciples who were Jesus’ hand-picked followers.

Paul had begun his life as an extraordinary Jew.  He was a Pharisee and by his own account, “blameless under the law.”  That means, Paul claimed that he had not broken any of the commandments–at least in his understanding.  He had been taught under a famous Rabbi, and he had tremendous zeal for following the Jewish faith.  His zeal was so consuming for the Jewish faith that when this upstart religion called “Followers of the Way” arose–we know this religion now as Christianity–Paul did everything in his power to squash it.  He participated in the arrest, persecution, and even murder of Christians, and he sincerely believed he was doing God’s work in the process.

During one of his forays to arrest and persecute Christians in Damascus, Paul encountered the risen Jesus.  The experience struck him blind before he was finally healed by a disciple.  And Paul was dramatically transformed.  The one who first persecuted the church now became one of its greatest missionaries.  Inspired by his encounter with Jesus, Paul traveled throughout the Roman empire starting churches and proclaiming the gospel.  The one who used to persecute the church became persecuted, but so deep was his experience of Jesus, he never stopped preaching the Word.  As Paul traveled, he often corresponded with the churches he started, and some of the letters of that correspondence were considered so important and noteworthy that they began being shared and passed from congregation to congregation.  We have several of these letters included in the New Testament.  Hence, as I said before, it is highly probable that the church in Rome knew of Paul, but they did not know him.

Therefore, Paul takes a few moments to establish his credentials before the Roman church, but he does so in a very interesting fashion.  He begins with the words, “Paul, a slave or servant of Jesus Christ.”  The readers of this book would have taken notice at these words because Paul was also a Roman citizen.  As a Roman citizen, he would have had certain rights and freedoms, but Paul claims none of those.  Instead, he claims a life of servanthood; a life of bondage; a life of submission to a crucified, Jewish Messiah.  By calling himself a servant or slave, Paul shows that he is not here to lord anything over the Roman church.  He is speaking as an equal, but an equal with a very, very important calling.

For Paul describes himself as an apostle called by God and set apart for the gospel of God.  Paul’s apostleship is not his apostleship, and the message he brings is not his message.  The apostleship and the message are from God.  Period.  This is an astounding claim–a claim of major authority.  Paul is not speaking on his own behalf, but on behalf of God.  What Paul is about to say in this letter should be understood as coming from God Himself–it is that important.  This letter is not primarily about us.  It is not primarily about our hopes and dreams.  Our hopes and dreams are certainly bound to this letter, but this letter is not about them. It is primarily about God.  It is primarily good news.

Paul condenses that good news into the next several verses, and we will unpack all of this as we go through the book of Romans in the coming months.  For now, let’s revisit the word, “gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, “

It is important to note that the gospel is about Jesus–‘his Son.’  The gospel isn’t about you.  The gospel isn’t advice to be followed.  The gospel isn’t about our church, our denomination, our lifestyle.  The gospel is about what God has accomplished through Jesus.  Sometimes, I think we forget this.  Sometimes, I think we get caught up in all the trappings of a society which seems to focus on our actions–the “what have you done for me lately–syndrome.  What can your church do for me?  What can you do for me?  Why should I come be with you?  Why should I worship?  The tendency is to give a laundry list of all the things that we are doing and how this will help you in your life.  The best response you can give to any of these questions is: Jesus.  What can your church do for me?  Jesus.  What can you do for me?  Jesus.  Why should I come be with you?  Jesus.  Why should I worship?  Jesus.  It’s all about Jesus.  And if someone asks, “Well, what does Jesus have to do with all of that?”  Then, you can say, “Go talk to our pastor.”  That’s a joke, by the way.  Hopefully, by the end of this sermon series, you will be able to respond to that question because Jesus has everything to do with it.

For the good news of Jesus is deeply rooted in God’s work in the world.  Paul announces that as well when he points to what is contained in the Old Testament.  Paul says that God has been working up to this moment in history all throughout his engagement with the people of Israel.  The promise is rooted deeply in their story, and the revelation of God in the Old Testament is pointing to the revelation of God in Jesus.  You cannot separate what God has done in the past from what God has accomplished in Jesus.  All the lines merge together in Him.

And Jesus is fully human–descended from the line of David and born of the flesh.  Hence, Christianity does not worship a God who is removed from the human experience.  Jesus knows what it means to hunger, thirst, laugh, cry, dance, celebrate, suffer, and die.  This God knows what it means to be fully human, but He is also fully divine.  He is the declared Son of God who was raised from the dead–conquering sin, death, evil, and promising us the transformation eternal life brings.

Through this human and divine Jesus, we have received grace.  This is absolutely key to understanding the book of Romans.  This is absolutely key in understanding the heart of Christianity.  We have received grace.  We will elaborate this much more fully as we go through this sermon series, but let me just touch on it here.  Grace means that we are forgiven without compromising God’s justice.  Grace means that we are sinful beings who deserve punishment and death, but through Christ’s actions in his life and death, we are forgiven.  But we are not forgiven without great cost.  The forgiveness of our sins, of our rebellion is paid by God–by Jesus in his suffering and death on the cross.  Again, we will delve into this deeply in the coming weeks, but it is so central to the understanding of this book.  Christ died for us when we were still sinners; unrepentant; and enemies to God.  The fact that Christ would die for us while we were and are in such a state is truly amazing and a reason for the pronouncement that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

Again, to remind, this is good news.  It is not advice.  It is not something that can be lived out.  It can only be told.  But this news has an effect.  This news does something to those who hear, and that effect is obedience.  In a very real way, Paul is announcing to the church at Rome that there is an new Kingdom emerging.  The head of this new Kingdom is not Caesar but Jesus.  Jesus is the rightful King who has emerged from death to life and is gathering the world unto Himself.

And Jesus seeks our obedience.  This is where the rubber hits the road for many in our society today because many do not see Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  Many respect Jesus tremendously as a great moral teacher.  They admire His call to love everyone including one’s enemies.  They admire his admonishments to care for the poor and needy.  But they are not willing to submit to Him as King and Lord of their lives.  Too often, we are not desiring to submit to Him in our lives.  We want to control our own destinies, or we submit to the false gods of wealth, prosperity, property, sex, justice, knowledge, science, technology, race, ethnicity, identity, or what have you.  The Christian is called to walk away from all of these things and submit to Jesus.  Another way to put this is: the Christian life is lived when you do not put your ultimate trust in anything–even good things–except Jesus.

And through Jesus and Jesus alone, you will receive grace and peace.  It is my prayer that as we begin this sermon series traveling through the book of Romans that each and every one of us may hear the Gospel anew; that we may have it touch our hearts deeply and profoundly; that we, like so many before, may be transformed by this message; and that we may become obedient to the true King of kings–Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Hanging with the Wrong Crowd

What is your test for deciding who you will and will not hang out with?

Don’t pretend that you don’t have one.  We all do.  It’s part of our nature.  How can I say such a thing?

Well, let me make a view observations, and let’s see if you have ever seen or done these things.

Have you ever been in a store just walking up and down the aisles and seen someone you know but don’t want to talk to, and then started looking absentmindedly at all the items on the shelf–hoping that the other person won’t notice you–or if they do see that you are obviously engrossed and not able to talk?  Ever done that one?

Have you ever purposely skipped a party, church, or social gathering because someone you know might be invited or come to that same event?

Have you refused to purchase a red and white shirt or a gold and black shirt because of the proximity to a certain town?

Here’s one that I used to do at my previous congregation.  Every month we did nursing home services, and there was one particular resident who I did not care to visit with.  Every time we went in to give her communion, she would go through a laundry list of everything that was wrong with her.  One time, she even showed me pictures they took during her colonoscopy.  After several months of this, I would approach her room on padded feet; I would crack open the door ever so slightly in hopes that she was asleep; I would do it as silently as possible because if even the slightest squeak happened, this lady would wake up and see me.  If I managed to crack the door and see that she was asleep, I would happily walk on to the next church member.  Hence a revelation of one of my tests as to whether or not I want to hang out with someone: I don’t like someone who constantly seeks attention by talking about how bad they have it.

But, as bad as that might sound, I’ve also been on the receiving end of such tests.  Years ago, when I was a senior in seminary, I preached at a little country church in Rosebud, TX.  It just so happened that one Sunday, they were having a pot luck, and my wife and I were asked to join.  We were also invited, as guests, to head to the front of the line.  We did, and we sat down at one of the tables there.  Interestingly enough, all of the other tables filled up first, and then the table at which Dawna and I sat started to fill up.  However, it filled up at the place farthest from us first, until the folks who went through the pot-luck line last ended up taking the seats closest to us.  We were definitely the outsiders there.

And the question becomes, do you ever get from being an outsider to an insider?  In some places, the answer is unequivocally no.  I remember being at Crossroads one day a couple of years ago sitting and shooting the breeze with Bonnie and some of the customers.  I was listening to a conversation behind me where one of the old timers from here made the comment about another person, “I don’t know why he thinks he has any say around here.  He’s only lived here for 25 years.”  You know, I had heard that such things were said in some places, but that was actually the first time I had ever heard it.

What is normally behind such comments is–you are not like me.  Between you and me are certain social norms, and unless those norms are removed–in other words, unless you become like me, then we cannot be considered on an equal plane.  At the extreme, these divisions can cause all kinds of conflict.  The media highlights those extremes: Republicans versus Democrats; male versus female; black versus white; homosexual versus heterosexual; liberal versus conservative; rich versus poor.  And in the extremes of these movements, you are not welcome if you share another view.  In fact, oftentimes you are escorted out of the room; out of the venue; shouted down; even threatened with violence.

The question fast becomes: can we ever achieve some semblance of a peaceful and respectful society if we hold onto such divisions?  Can we make place for the other if we become so entrenched in our own positions that we avoid people because they do not live up to our standards?

Let’s see what the Gospel has to say to this as we look at this next story from the book of Mark chapter 2.

This text begins with Jesus moving out from the house in Capernaum where he had just established that He had the power to forgive sins, and teaching crowds by the Sea of Galilee.  As Jesus travels, He comes across Levi sitting in his tax booth–now, the actual word in Greek is toll booth.  While traveling from one part of the country into another, there were certain tolls that needed to be paid much like the tolls we pay on toll roads today.  There were no electronic passes that you put on your car to drive back then, and the toll system was set up in quite a different way.  You see, to get a job monitoring a toll booth, you told the government how much revenue you would provide for them.  The government granted you the job based upon how much you said you could make for them.  Then, not only would you charge enough to pay the government back, you would also tack on your own fees to pad your own bank account.  This led to a system which was ripe with fraud, and toll collectors were absolutely despised.

How much were they despised?  Let me quote to you Mark Edwards in his commentary.  I personally think this is priceless, “The Mishna and Talmud [Two commentaries on the first five books of the Bible–...register scathing judgements of tax collectors, lumping them together with thieves and murderers.  A Jew who collected taxes was disqualified as a judge or witness in court, expelled from the synagogue, and a cause of disgrace to his family.  The touch of a tax collector rendered a house unclean.  Jews were forbidden to receive money and even alms from tax collectors since revenue from taxes was deemed robbery.”

How would you like that job?  Most of us might not appreciate the social stigma associated with such a job, but these jobs were actually in high demand because it was a quick and easy way to get rich.  Levi had such a job, and was probably doing quite well.  Though despised by many in society, he was well off, so it is actually quite surprising that when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Levi simply got up and went.

What makes this so surprising is the fact that Levi has a government job.  You see, Simon, Andrew, James and John could always go back to fishing if following Jesus doesn’t work out.  Levi will not be able to return to his.  Someone else will take the position, so Levi is giving up quite a bit to follow Jesus.  But he is going to go out with a bang.

The scene quickly shifts to a dinner celebration where Levi and his associates have joined Jesus and the disciples.  As they feast together, the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’

The scribes of the Pharisees are very much put off by what they see.  Jesus has made a name for himself proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God; He has healed the sick; and He has shown authority to forgive sins.  Why in the world would he associate with toll collectors and others who were considered sinners?

Robert Guelich says it very well when he writes:

From the standpoint of the Pharisees, Jesus was doing that which was ritually defiling through disregard for the laws concerning table fellowship and clean and unclean foods.  Neusner has pointed out the importance of those concerns among the Pharisees before A.D. 70.  Part of the concern grows out of fear that one not only will be ritually defiled but also be morally contaminated by such company.  Eating with someone had special connotations.  “It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life.”  Eating together created a special bond or fellowship through the eating of the broken bread over which the host had spoken the blessing.  Therefore, guests were selected very carefully.

In the scribes’ eyes, Jesus was not being selective enough about who he kept company with.  Jesus was defiling Himself by being around those who were corrupt, deceitful, sinful.  They were scandalized by what they saw Jesus doing.

Jesus retorts with a common saying nearly everyone agreed upon, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  This is actually a profound statement of Jesus’ purpose as the Messiah.  It’s a profound statement about the Kingdom of God.

First, let me quote William Lane as he adds an important detail about what Jesus was doing, “The expression used in Ch. 2:15, “they reclined at table together with Jesus,” suggests that Jesus–the Messiah–and not Levi, was the host at this festive meal.  When this is understood, the interest of the entire pericope centers on the significance of Messiah eating with sinners.  The specific reference in verse 17 to Jesus’ call of sinners to the Kingdom suggests that the basis of table-fellowship was messianic forgiveness, and the meal itself was an anticipation of the messianic banquet.  When Jesus broke bread with the outcasts, Messiah ate with them at his table and extended to them fellowship with God.”

The Messiah was extending fellowship with God toward tax collectors and sinners.  However, this in and of itself wasn’t a huge deal.  Most Jews agreed that God wanted fellowship with sinners.  God wanted sinners to follow Him.  That wasn’t an issue, but something else really was.  And what was that something else?

We return to what Mark Edwards says in this extended quote:

But what exactly was it about Jesus’ association with such people that offended them?... Their opposition is the more explainable on the ground that reform was not the fundamental assumption of Jesus’ ministry, as it had been for John the Baptizer, for instance.  There is no word in the call to Levi and in the dinner with sinners about repentance.  Repentance, in fact, is curiously absent from Jesus’ proclamation in Mark.  The scandal of this story is that Jesus does not make moral repentance a precondition of his love and acceptance.  Rather, Jesus loves and accepts tax collectors and sinners as they are.  If they forsake their evil and amend their lives, they do so...not in order to gain Jesus’ favor but because Jesus has loved them as sinners...The fact that Jesus can be found in the company of people such as Levi reminds us of the difference between his mission and that of the scribes.  They come to enlighten; he comes to redeem.  Given that mission, it is as senseless for Jesus to shun tax collectors and sinners as for a doctor to shun the sick.  The grace of God extends to and overcomes the worst forms of human depravity.

Do you see the radical nature of God’s grace here?  Do you see the radical nature of what Jesus does here?  Do you see how this flies in the face of what we normally practice when it comes to our associations with others?  The scribes and the Pharisees would not associate with you until you cleaned up your act.  It was assumed that God would not associate with you until you cleaned up your act.  It is assumed by many of us that we will not associate with another until they agree with us.  But Jesus does the exact opposite.  He sits down in fellowship with unrepentant sinners; calls them into a relationship with Him; and then watches the transformation occur.  It’s completely and totally backwards according to the world’s standards.

But in reality it is the only way God can have fellowship with us. For there is no way we can completely clean up our act.  The scribes and the Pharisees show this in their own self-righteousness.  They believe that people can cure themselves.  They believe that people can become righteous before God on their own.  And because righteousness–to them–is a self-help project, they hold others in contempt.  And when you hold someone else in contempt, are you practicing genuine love and compassion?

If our relationship with God is up to us, then we will inevitably become self-righteous.  But if our relationship is dependent solely upon God’s grace, then no one is allowed to boast.  No one has the right to be contemptuous.  No one has the right to shun another because that other fails to live up to certain expectations.  You don’t live up to those expectations either!!  The scribes need Jesus just as much as those toll collectors and sinners need Jesus!!  Oh, and we know that Jesus will also dine with those scribes and Pharisees in His ministry.  Jesus will fellowship with them as He held fellowship with Levi and the other toll collectors and sinners.  God’s grace is to be extended to all.  And our sinfulness will indeed rub off on Jesus.  He will become tainted with our hatred, our self-righteousness, our discontent, our desire to draw lines and avoid people who do not agree with us.  He will take all of these things upon Himself and put them to death with Him on the cross.  He will become sin who knew no sin so that we can be forgiven.  It is He who hosts the heavenly banquet; who welcomes all not based upon what we do but based upon what He has done.

And when you realize that you are at the banquet not because of who you are but in spite of who you are...

When you realize that your place at the table was not earned by you but given to you...

When you realize that Jesus has invited others who are not like you; who desperately need His love just like you need His love...

You realize that the heavenly banquet is made up of people who are not like you, and you have the opportunity to show a different reality “on earth as it is in heaven.”  You realize that the love of God in Jesus Christ provides a tremendous basis and foundation to overcome differences that arise.  You and the other are both sinners; Jesus has sought both of you out; and Jesus has redeemed you both through His death on the cross which revealed the nature of the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

If you focus on what God has done for you and for those who are not like you, then you will not shun the other; you will have compassion and understanding, and you will work toward peace.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The ELCA Sexism Study

This weekend, my bishop invited those of us on our synod's leadership Facebook page to consider studying the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's proposed social statement Faith, Sexism, Justice.  I confess that in the past, I haven't given these statements much time, energy, or effort.  They tend to be rather bland, written in such a broad fashion that produces as little controversy as possible, and passed despite any particular criticism which may or may not surface.

But this one was a bit different for me.

Recently, I was introduced to the "Factual Feminist": Christina Hoff Sommers.  After watching more than a few of her YouTube videos and reading two of her books: Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys, I felt myself overwhelmed and astounded at discovering the root of much of the ideology driving those in power in my denomination.  I also discovered much factual information that I had never been exposed to in all my years of study.  To say I was disappointed in the current state of affairs in my denomination would be an understatement--the release of the Faith, Sexism, Justice draft only added to that disappointment.

I took time to read through the entire document, and I would encourage readers to do the same.  Module one lays out some of the governing assumptions in this draft including the idea of systemic sexism.  To quote:
It can be difficult to talk about, let alone grasp that there is a system or set of powerful invisible “forces” that connect to or set in motion individual incidents. It can be quite a challenge to accept that individual incidents involve multiple causes of: a) personal responsibility and b) social and religious beliefs and c) policy, laws, rules or common practices. Yet, if you step back, it becomes clear that something more than individual choices is needed to explain what’s going on in our society.
And further:
This is what the task force has come to realize; that is, the members believe there are systemic connections in U.S. culture that harm women in many ways. It is only when these many connections are recognized that one can explain the whole story adequately. Some of the concepts used in this study to describe these forces or systems include SEXISM, PATRIARCHY, and sexual and gender harassment. (Throughout this study, terms identified in capitalized bold will be found in the glossary.)  It is important to stress that everyone, men and women, participates in and is affected by these and can contribute to them.
So, what examples of sexism, patriarchy, and gender harassment are used throughout the study?  Personal illustrations include: feeling singled out because of unfairness in enforcing dress codes at school; comments about giving birth and assumed gender roles; being questioned about one's sexuality; a congregation's vote to call a pastor being undermined by those questioning her ability to hold the pastoral office and be a mother.  Other examples of sexism include: gender stereotypes; objectification of women's bodies, particularly in the media; the majority of eating disorders affecting women; politicizing reproductive rights; the wage gap; expectations of care giving; gender-based violence including sexual harassment, rape, and assault.

Add everything up, and you have a patriarchy which seeks to oppress women:
A patriarchal SOCIAL SYSTEM is dominated largely by the voice and authority of men. A patriarchal social system is centered on males; the world is portrayed with men as the main actors in life and reflects their ideas and values. Patriarchy is supported through means of power and control, such as sexual discrimination and gender inequality.

Now, it might be entertaining to address each of these issues one by one, but others have already done this.  What I want to call into question is the worldview of those who have perpetuated this one-sided Sexism study on the larger church.  For I believe their worldview is absolutely warped beyond imagination and does not reflect the reality of the current U.S. society.

I am of the opinion that any study or statement should describe reality as it is. Any study or statement of sexism should be a balanced ordeal reflecting the reality of the world in which it addresses. This study's one sided reflection of reality is very troubling especially since it leaves out some important evidence regarding men.  How well do men fare under this so-called patriarchal system intended to keep them in power and control?

Undisputed facts:

95% of those in prison are men.
90% of work related deaths are men.
75% of suicides are men.
60%-70% of homeless are men.
Only 40% of bachelor degrees go to men.
Only 40% of masters degrees go to men.
48% of doctorate degrees go to men.
Young girls do far better in school than young boys.
Women live five years longer than men.
Women pay less for auto insurance.
Women pay less for life insurance. (Balanced by the fact they pay more for health insurance.)

Women are better educated, less likely to be injured or killed on a job, less likely to kill themselves, less likely to end up in jail, and live longer than men. (Hardly a pinnacle of male dominance in this "patriarchy.") Women have gender studies and all manner of organizations specifically geared to their issues (with hardly any for men). Media coverage for women's health issues soars with even the NFL devoting a month to breast cancer awareness--there is nothing comparable to men's health issues.  Luckily, we have plenty of commercials for ED, though.  (Okay, perhaps that was a bit over the top...)

These facts are hardly representative of a patriarchy.  They are hardly representative of oppression of women.  In fact, if these numbers represented women, there would be alarm bells ringing all over the place!!!  But there are not.  Not even close, and the question of, "Why?" must be asked.

I am sure that there are many factors, but I will focus on just one: the ideology introduced by Marxism of the oppressor/oppressed dynamic.  This worldview permeates much of the leadership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and it has a blinding effect.  It virtuizes the "oppressed" and demonizes the "oppressor."  It leads to confirmation bias and a willingness to seek out any example to confirm one's position including warping the facts on studies and using dubious methodology to enhance one's position.  Truth is thrust aside so that the worldview is not damaged.

Take for instance sexual assault.  Please watch the following two videos:

Sexual assault on campus is a reality, but it is not a culture.  The statistics used to bolster this assertion are false, but you would never know that if you didn't take the time to actually dig into the studies as Dr. Sommers has.  It is a willful distortion of reality.

The reality of our world is that there indeed is sexism, but sexism isn't a one way street.  The facts provided above show unequivocally that men face some truly oppressive issues in the current system--as do women. 

There is a rich irony that Faith, Sexism, Justice quotes Martin Luther's famous statement about a theology of the cross versus a theology of glory, "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is."  While the study in no way calls the evils perpetuated against women good, it does not call reality what it actually is.  It falsely asserts that there is a patriarchy and then omits evidence which shatters that claim.

If the ELCA wishes to do a study on sexism that includes the realities faced by men and women in this society, then I will gladly jump in with both feet with my congregation; however, if the ELCA wishes to perpetuate myth, then I will say to it as I said to my bishop, "Until the ELCA decides to describe reality better and gets away from wonky statistics, I won't be using this study any time soon in my congregation."

(I highly doubt that any criticism I give to this study will have any impact what-so-ever.  Whenever you challenge such things, as I did, you receive quite the backlash as facts are not engaged, and you are simply labeled misogynist, ignorant, or privileged.  No matter.  The truth is the truth.  The facts are the facts.  My denomination continues its rapid decline, and one can argue it is deserved as it carries a particular agenda which is not rooted and grounded in the Gospel--a Gospel which says yes, we live in a world where all are fallen; all are oppressed; all are oppressors; all face sexism, racism, hatred, and the like.  And the answer is the cross: Jesus who died for sinners in whom we find our identity.  Through Him WE GIVE UP our gender, our sexuality, our ethnicity and become clothed with Him.  This is not what the pundits within the ELCA preach.  Instead they proclaim: hold onto your identity; hold onto your sexuality; hold onto your gender; hold onto your ethnicity because this makes you authentic.  God loves you just the way you are.  In reality, God loves you in spite of who you are.  This was the radical nature of the Gospel.)