Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 15, 2015
Genesis 8:6-19, Mark 9:2-9
“Can I take a look at your paper?” It was a question that I had gotten used to from one of my freshmen year college roommates. He and I were taking the same Intro to Philosophy class, though in different sections, and we were both having a very difficult time with it. In many ways I am a very concrete guy and doing the kind of abstract stuff we were doing in class was not my cup of tea. Nonetheless my roommate was having a much more difficult time than I was because he was not often in class. Our entire grade for the semester was based on the three papers we were to write. We had written two and he had made Bs and I had made Cs. This seemed a bit odd since before writing each of his papers he had asked to see mine. Finally when he asked to see my completed final paper, I asked him why, if he was making better grades than I was did he want to see my papers. His response? He had copied my papers verbatim, and then turned them in. I don’t remember what went through my mind at that moment, but it was one of those lessons that there are people in this world that you just can’t trust; my roommate because he copied my papers and my professor because he gave my roommate better grades for the same paper.
This is one of the great dilemmas for all of us, figuring out whom you can and can’t trust. Let me ask, how many of you have someone that you can trust? How many of you know someone that you can’t trust? And lest you think that this trust dilemma is something new, all you have to do is look at the Noah story. Here Noah is floating around in a boat with all sorts of flesh eating animals and a limited supply of food. Sure God was nice to him and his family. God had him build a boat so he could escape the flood. God had shut the door on the ark to protect them. It certainly appeared that this God could be trusted. But really, it had been forty days and there was no sign of land…just water…nothing but water. Noah kept checking the water. He sent out a raven…no luck. Then he sent out a dove…no luck again. We might imagine that Noah was beginning to wonder if this God was as trustworthy as a God might be…and for those of you who are adults…this is the point of the story as Genesis tells it.
Our second story is about Jesus and his disciples…and before we get to the story let’s remind ourselves that the disciples all had to decide if Jesus is trustworthy; if Jesus is who Jesus says he is, the messiah of the world. I ask this question for several reasons. First there had been other messiahs, or at least people claiming to be messiahs. All of them had ended up being killed by the Romans, because Rome had no desire to have messiahs running around all over the place stirring up the people. Second, the disciples had been asked to give up everything; their homes, their families, their businesses. They had cut ties with almost everyone and everything that they knew. Third, they were completely dependent on the kindness of strangers. Food to eat, clothes to wear and places to sleep would only come their way if some kind soul provided or paid for it. Considering all of this, there must have been times when the disciples wondered if Jesus was a guy they could trust.
Fortunately for all involved, our stories allow us to see how Noah and the disciples discovered that they could trust God and Jesus. First, consider Noah. The waters dried up. It did not happen overnight. It took a while. But it happened nonetheless. Slowly the land dried up and everyone got off of the boat alive. They did not end up as lion or tiger food. The provisions had been sufficient. The end result was that Noah and his entire family were not only saved but were given a new lease on life. This God that had cleansed the world turned out to be a God that could be trusted. And the Jesus story? The entire story is one in which Peter, James and John are given the assurance that they need that Jesus is the one for whom they had been looking. In a sense it was an Angie’s List moment. For those of you unfamiliar with Angie’s List it is a service where you can turn for unbiased references for services from a wide variety of individuals or companies. At the top of the mountain, in the midst of the transfiguration of Jesus, the disciples got Jesus references. First it is Elijah, the greatest prophet of all time who gives his approval to Jesus. Next it is Moses, the law giver, who does the same. Then it is the very voice of God who tells the disciples that Jesus is the one to whom they ought to listen. You are not going to do much better than that.
In one sense then it would be easy to say, “I trust God, therefore I trust Jesus.” We see the track record that demonstrated a level of commitment by God to God’s people, and in some sense to the entire creation. Thus there is trust. There is, however, one thing missing from this sense of trust discussion…and that is that Biblically, trust means a willingness to follow; follow wherever God leads. Trust is not an intellectual agreement with a proposition that God is trustworthy. It is instead a commitment to risk everything, trusting that God will be with us through the journey to which we are called. Noah risked everything by building and sailing on the ark. The disciples risked by giving up their previous lives and traveling with Jesus. This is the essence of trust. This is trust through action. The challenge for each of us then is to ask ourselves, do I trust God enough to follow? Do I trust God enough to risk?
My challenge for you this week is to ask, How am I demonstrating trust in our God who has demonstrated that through Jesus, God can be trusted?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 8, 2015
Genesis 6:11-22, Mark 2:1-12
It was the late 1800’s and the city of Delhi was overrun with Cobras. The British Authorities made the decision that something had to be done. Their solution was to set up a bounty system on dead Cobras. When people turned them in they would receive a reward. This worked well for a while until people realized that they could breed Cobras and make more money. So that is exactly what they did. When the government discovered this, they ended the program, at which time the people breeding the snakes simply let them loose and there were more Cobras then, than before. It became known as the cobra effect and was one of the proofs for the Law of Unintended Consequences. And for those of you not familiar with this law, it is not quite Murphy’s Law, where if something can go wrong it will, but instead it proposes that for any action or decision there are consequences, good or ill, that we can never foresee. Why this matters to us this morning is that because of the law of unexpected consequences, what mattered most to Jesus matters very little to most of us, and that is sin and forgiveness. And this ought to matter to us because by not taking sin and forgiveness as seriously as Jesus did, neither we nor the world are what God has created them to be.
In order to understand this however we need to once again hop into our church time machine and take a trip back to medieval Europe, where there was only one church, the Roman Church. Within the life and workings of the Roman church at that time the concepts of sin and forgiveness played powerful roles. They did so because the salvation of every believer hung in the balance on a daily basis based on sin and forgiveness. In fact, think of a set of scales. On one side of the scale is sin and on the other is forgiveness; forgiveness which is earned through participating in the sacraments; by doing works of merit. At the end of someone’s life how the scale was weighted determined one’s eternal destiny; heaven, purgatory or hell. Needless to say this would make people pay attention to sin and forgiveness.
In the early to mid 1500s suddenly there was more than one church. There were many and they were called the Protestant churches. These churches viewed salvation in a very different manner. Taking the scale metaphor with sin on one side and forgiveness on the other, what we have was that God, in and through Jesus, placed God’s thumb on the scale of forgiveness so that it was always more heavily weighted and one’s salvation was no longer in doubt. For Presbyterians God simply chose whose scales to tip and for others, all one had to do was profess faith in Jesus and the scales were permanently moved. Either way there was no longer the daily fear of hell. So, where is the unintended consequence? The unintended consequence was that sin and forgiveness were no longer as important as they once were. They were not because Christians no longer had to fear eternal punishment. Christians could pretty much do as they pleased and God would take care of them.
This view then, especially within the 20th century even led to the image of God being transformed. God was no longer the stern, angry father, but was now instead the loving grandparent who gave all of us grandkids salvation trophies for just showing up. Many of you may be asking, “OK John, why is this bad? Why ought we to once again be concerned about the ideas of sin and forgiveness when in fact we are saved by grace through faith?” My response would once again be, that we ought to be concerned about sin and forgiveness because only by so doing can we and the world be made better.
In order to understand this we need to understand the nature of sin. Often when we speak of sin, we are actually speaking of sins…individual acts such as those we see on the nightly news or read about on-line. But you see sin itself is the disease that causes those symptoms. And sin is a disease of the heart that infects individuals and societies. What sin does is it constricts the heart and so the heart rather than being able to reach outward in love, can only constrict inward in fear. Sin causes us to be afraid of people who are different from us, who might have more than us, who see the world differently from us. We become afraid of losing what is ours. We become afraid that we will not have enough. The results of this fear are all of the symptoms we see every day; racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, hatred and violence. These all come out of a fearful restricted heart. This is why I believe that Jesus moves first to dealing with sin and then to healing; because all the physical healing in the world while wonderful, will never liberate someone to be fully who God intends them to be. It will never liberate the world to be what God designed it to be. Only healing a constricted, fearful heart will do that. In a profound sense this is why Jesus came. He came to deal with sin and its power in our lives.
This is where the second half of our sin-forgiveness equation comes in, when we see forgiveness for what it is, a transformational act of God. What this means is that forgiveness is, as D. M. Baily writes in his book God Was in Christ, not merely a good natured indulgence. It is not a simple, “Oh, don’t worry about it. What you did was not nice, but I love you, so go on out and play. It’s all right.” Forgiveness is instead what happens when we bare all that we are and all that we have done to God and God’s response is that of forgiveness; when God tells us that God will not leave us or desert us, but will continue to be at work within us, making us new people. In that moment fear loses and love wins. In that moment our hearts begin to be open to loving God and neighbor. In that moment we are changed; but only when we are willing to receive it; only when we are willing to risk everything in order that God’s forgiveness becomes real in our lives.
His life could be the basis of Dickens novel or a made for TV movie. At age seven his mother dies and he is sent to a boarding school. After two years he is sent to live with his stepmother. Then at age eleven he goes to sea with his father and sails the Mediterranean. After his father retires he continues sailing on merchant ships until he is kidnapped by the British Royal Navy and pressed into service aboard a Navy ship. Hating the navy he tries to desert where upon he is given 84 lashes. He finally is freed from his service and begins working with slavers. Not getting along with the crew he is dropped in Africa where he becomes a slave to an African queen. He is saved by friends of his father who bring him back to England where once again he embarks on sailing on slave ships. One night, in the midst of a great storm that should have sunk the ship he was on, John Newton prays to God, is saved and has a religious conversion. He soon becomes an evangelical Christian. Now at this point in his story, most of us who know John Newton as the writer of Amazing grace, believe that he begins to work for the abolition of slavery in England. But that is not the case. Though he has some sympathy for the slaves he either actively or passively works in the slave trade for 34 more years. And it is only then, that he comes to see the sin of slavery, confesses his part in it and works to eliminate it. In other words, he was a Christian, saved by grace, yet who was blind to the sin of human bondage. But in forgiveness he was able to help change the world.
You and I live in a world in which in many ways has come very far from the one in which Newton lived. Slavery is outlawed. We have laws protecting the rights of minorities and women. This is a better world. Yet at the same time we have not come that far at all. Human trafficking, domestic abuse, terrorism, continuing racism; all of these things still keep us and the world from being the creatures and the creation God desires. The question for us this morning is are we willing to do the difficult work of looking for the sin within and then receiving the forgiveness that will change us and through us the world. My challenge to you then this morning is for us to ask ourselves, am I willing to take sin seriously and then receive that forgiveness that will make me a new and better human being?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 1, 2015
Genesis 4:1-16, Mark 1:29-39
I want to be begin this morning with one of my quizzes? I will give you two names and we will see if you know who they are. OK, so the first person is Tom Brady. How many of you know who Tom is? Good, as I thought almost all of you know that he is the quarterback of the New England Patriots and will be playing in the Super Bowl later today. And he is famous for? Yes, deflate-gate, the infamous deflating footballs in the first half of the Conference finals against the Packers. My guess is that it would have been virtually impossible not to know about Tom and deflate-gate because people have talked about little else. Here is the second name, Robert Ladd. How many of you know who he is? Ok, a couple of you. So who is Robert Ladd, he is a man with a 67 IQ who sits on death row in Texas waiting to be executed. He was convicted of two horrific murders years apart, one in 1980 and the other in 1996…and there is little doubt about the fact that he committed them. The question that confronts the courts, the State of Texas and I would argue the church and all of us in it, is whether or not it is legal and morally appropriate to execute not only someone with a minimal IQ but anyone at all.
I realize that even by asking that question many of you are having a visceral response. I say that because this is a religiously, politically and emotionally charged issue. In Michigan it is not as much of an issue because the death penalty has been banned. Yet we live in a nation that, if there was an execution Olympics, would finish in fifth place, just out of medal competition. The nations ahead of us are China, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The question which I believe that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we ought to ask ourselves is, should we to be in this company? My guess is that some of you would say absolutely and others of you would disagree. If the Bible spoke with one voice on this issue it would be easier to come to an agreement, but it does not. It offers us two trajectories. The first is what I call a trajectory of Law…and to be clear law is good. It protects us. It helps to order our lives. So what we see in the Torah is a trajectory of law which contains a list of crimes for which someone should be executed; murder, adultery, striking or cursing one’s parents and wearing cotton-polyester (actually the death penalty is prescribed for those who wear clothes of mixed fabrics). The Apostle Paul also makes it clear that governments have the right to use the sword, meaning going to war and execution. In some ways crucifixion was taken for granted in the Roman Empire. So there are portions of the Bible where law rules and takes capital punishment for granted.
The second trajectory is what I call the trajectory of life; a trajectory which implies that the goal of God is life and not death. I would offer both of our stories this morning as clear examples of this trajectory. First we have the story of Cain and Able. They are brothers and each strives to please God. For some reason Able does and Cain does not. Cain, being the jealous kind, kills his brother and attempts to bury the evidence. God will have none of the hiding and punishes him not by executing him, but by placing him in human solitary confinement as a loner. And as God does so, God insures that his life will be protected…the so-called “mark of Cain.” In our second story Jesus is confronted by people who are sick and demon possessed (meaning they are controlled by powers which oppose the rule and reign of God). Jesus, does not simply do a little preaching, he does a great deal of healing. He defeats the powers which would rob people of life; just as he will do on the cross, when he finally defeats the powers of sin and death. These stories, along with many others show us the trajectory of God’s work in the world; the saving and restoration of life. It reminds us that God wants to restore creation to its original purpose which is to be a place of wholeness and well-being for everyone.
As with many difficult ethical issues, the correct answer is not always clear. That being the case it is easy for us to let the issue pass…to focus on deflate-gate and pay no attention to the struggle over the death penalty. Yet if we as Christians are to be the conscience of the nation; if we are those who are supposed to let our beliefs impact the world around us, I don’t think we ought to simply let it continue without speaking out about it. This morning I will not tell what you ought to do…remember that this sermon series is, The Voice-Your Choice. What I will tell you is where I stand…and that is on the side of God’s trajectory of life. I believe that God is calling us to reject death whenever and wherever possible so that life and new life has a chance.
My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, what trajectory will I choose, when it comes to the lives of those who have taken life? Will it be to take theirs, or will it be give life one more chance.