The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 24, 2019
Genesis 15:1-6; Romans 4:1-8
I want to begin this morning with a math problem. For some of you this will be easy and for others, perhaps, it will cause you to dig deep into your past. And when you have the answer just say it out loud. No need to raise your hand. Here it is. What do you get when you multiply negative one times negative one? That is correct, you get positive one, because a negative-number times another negative-number yields a positive number. We all know that this is the way negative numbers work…but I have to say, that for me, it makes no sense at all. After all, how can you take less than nothing, multiply it by less than nothing and get something? Would that work with bank accounts? If two people were both overdrawn and they multiplied their accounts together would they then have money? I ask this because this is the way I feel about the way that the church has used the word “Righteousness.” They use it in a formula that seems to work, but which again, never made any sense to me. Let me explain.
The way righteousness has been used by the church goes something like this. The first part of the righteousness formula is that, God is, by definition, righteous, which means God is perfect; perfectly holy, perfectly loving and perfectly just. And because God is perfect, God cannot be in relationship with that which is imperfect. Instead God must condemn that which is not perfect, which leads us to the second part of the righteousness formula, us. This part makes clear that we human beings are not righteous, because we are not perfect. And regardless of how hard we try to be righteous, we cannot be. Thus, we cannot be in relationship with God, and so deserve God’s judgment. The third part of this formula is that, God, because of God’s love, wants to do something about this broken relationship. God does so by sending Jesus, who as the only fully righteous human being, can, by sacrificing himself on the cross, balance the formula. And this is how he does so. First, he “covers our sins”, meaning he hides them from God’s view. Second, he shares his righteousness with us. Thus, when God looks at us, God no longer sees our sins, but only Christ’s righteousness. As a reconciliation formula it works, but for me, it never made sense. It never made sense for several reasons. First, in Genesis, Abram is declared to be righteous without Jesus or the cross. Second, I think that God is smart enough to still see our sins for what they are. Third, I don’t think righteousness is a commodity that can be shared. Even so I had no better way to understand righteousness until two scholars led me back to the original Biblical meaning of righteousness…which is to be in right, or appropriate relationships.
It was in the writings of N.T. Wright and Paul Achtemeier (one of my professors) that I “discovered” that righteousness was not an inherent condition, perfection, but was instead a description of appropriately ordered relationships. One way, I hope, to make this clear is to look at my relationship with my mother. My mother was righteous. She was righteous not because she was perfect, but because she lived out her appropriate role as mother in relationship with me and my brothers. She loved us. She prayed with us. She disciplined us. She encouraged us. She kept her promises to us. She did what mother ought to do. At the same time my brothers and I were righteous…certainly not because we were prefect, but because we were appropriately related to our mother. We loved her. We listened to her (most of the time). We obeyed her (most of the time). We learned from her. We prayed with her. We were all righteous because we lived out our relationships in appropriate ways and so, most importantly, this righteousness allowed us to live in loving, growing relationships.
Now back to the scriptures. We begin with God’s righteousness, which is the foundation for our righteousness. God is righteous, not because God is someone who is this distant, perfect unapproachable being, but because God lives in right relationship with humanity. This right relationship is based on the reality that God is God and we are not. God is the creator. God is the redeemer. God is the promise maker and the promise keeper. God’s righteousness is based on what Hebrew calls, hesed. Hesed is covenant faithfulness, meaning that God makes promises and keeps promises. We see this in the story of Abram and Sarai, when God promises them if they leave their home and travel with God, they will receive land, offspring and blessing, and through them all the nations of the earth will be blessed. This is the promise that God will keep not simply in the birth of Isaac, but in the entire Biblical story, culminating in the birth of Jesus. This promise keeping is the Biblical basis for God being referred to as righteous.
God’s righteousness then leads us to our righteousness. If God is righteous because God rightly relates to us as creator, redeemer and promise keeper, then we relate rightly to God when we follow Abram’s example of trusting and obeying. This is the point that Paul is making in Romans, that we become righteous not by some mystical formula, or by perfect obedience to some religious laws, but we become righteous by trusting that God, in and through Jesus the Christ, has begun the recreation of the world and then living as if that new creation has begun. This is where righteousness and faith meet. If you remember from last week, Joanne spoke about faith as trust and faithfulness. The result of that trust and faithfulness is that our lives are lived in appropriate relationship with God. We can see this in the use of a word which has caused more theological debates than Amazon has products, and that word is “reckoned”, as in God reckons righteousness. In the Greek and Hebrew it is a legal term that means to be declared innocent, or if you will, to be forgiven. But I would like to offer a slightly different take, and that comes from my Texas roots. That when God reckons someone righteous, it is God saying, “I reckon we understand each other now and so we’re good,” meaning both sides in a relationship have worked out the problems of the past and through God’s faithfulness and our trust and obedience, we are living in a loving and growing relationship; that our lives are set on the right trajectory.
God desires that all humanity be in appropriate loving and growing relationships with God’s self and with one another. God desires to say to us, I reckon we’re good. In other words, we are invited to be righteous. And we can be when through faith, we trust in God’s recreating work in Jesus Christ and we live as if that new reality is coming into existence, even when a world event seems to say otherwise. Which leads me to my challenge. The challenge for this week is to ask ourselves, How is my righteousness reflected in my trust in and obedience to, the world-renewing work of Christ in the world in what I say, do and believe
Rev. Joanne Blair
February 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-8; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
As we continue our series on “The Vocabulary of our Faith” – looking at the words we use regarding our faith and what they mean – it only makes sense that we look at the word “faith” itself. What does faith mean?
Needless to say, I “googled it.” Faith is:
The common denominator here is that faith is believing in, or believing that, something is true without concrete evidence. According to these definitions, there must be some room for hesitancy or questions – otherwise it would be defined as “knowledge” instead of “belief.”
Abraham is the epitome of someone with questions, while still trusting and believing. Earlier in Genesis we learn that God told Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household to go to a land God would show him. And based on the promises of land, descendants and blessing, he went. How many of us would leave just everything behind – everything that is familiar to us – and just go without knowing how things would unfold, or at least knowing the destination? The concept of family meant everything to a person living in the time of Abraham, and it was very unusual for family members to live hundreds of miles apart from each other. But by faith, Abraham went.
Abraham’s faith was certainly tested, especially later regarding the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. We can only guess at how Abraham really felt about this command. While we know that God holds him back from the sacrifice, the point is that Abraham’s faith in God was stronger than his love for his son.
We also learn from scripture that Abraham was not without sin and failure, but that God held fast to God’s promises. Abraham’s life teaches us what it is to have relationship with God. Abraham shows us not only what it is to have faith, but what it is to live faithfully. He believed in God without any concrete evidence that God’s promise would come to fulfillment. And this is what the writer of Hebrews is attesting to in his letter. Written to a church in Rome, the writer is concerned that they are drifting away from their faith. While not being persecuted at the time (though they would be later), Christians were unpopular, and the writer is concerned that they will not hold fast, and that many will return to Judaism. The book of Hebrews begins with the statement that God, who in ancient times revealed Godself through the prophets, has in these last days revealed Godself through the life and teachings of a Son.
Leaning on the faith of Abraham (and many other ancestors), the author encourages them (and us) to remain strong in faith. We are told that faith does actually provide substance and reality, giving us a ground to stand upon. Not only that, but faith provides the courage to move forward into the unknown. But again, what is faith? In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg (based on Niebuhr’s work) writes that faith has four primary meanings in the history of Christianity. Faith as Assensus (Assent – assenting to the truth of a claim or a set of claims; believing that a statement or a set of statements is true. This really took off during the Reformation and the Enlightenment, as believers started to write new creeds and doctrines or dissect older ones. Faith as Fiducia (Trust) – having a radical trust in God.
Soren Kierkegaard gives the metaphor that faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float. (Ring a bell to any New Testament stories?) Faith as Fidelitas (Faithfulness) – a radical centering in God. Being faithful to a relationship. Not to doctrines and creeds, but to the God to whom they point. Not faithfulness to statements about God, but faithfulness to God. Faith as Visio (a way of seeing) – a way of seeing the whole; of seeing what is. Faith, as a set of eyes through which we see the world. Seeing the world as spoken of by Jesus. For how we see the world affects how we respond to it.
The first meaning of faith, Assent, is primarily a matter of the head. The remaining three: Trust, Faithfulness and Way of Seeing, are primarily matters of the heart. Someone once told me, “I love worshiping here because I don’t need to leave my intelligence at the door.” I couldn’t agree more. It is important, crucial even, to use our critical thinking skills. Faith certainly involves the head. But perhaps more importantly, faith involves the heart.
Faith is taking God at God’s word. Faith is trusting that the promises of God have been, or will be, fulfilled. Faith can include doubting, and questioning, and arguing and challenging God, but in the end, trusting and following God. Faith is not something we can put on a shelf and dust off each Sunday to bring to worship. Faith is not a thing we simply attain. It is not enough to say, “I have faith” and expect God to do the rest. Faith leads to action. Faith is something we live out as faithful people. Faith is filled with momentum, leading where God calls us into the known and the unknown.
Faith is being faithful. It is a matter of aligning our lives with the purposes of God and living in relationship with God involving both our hearts and our heads. And this relationship leads to transformation. Again, faith is taking God at God’s word, and living our lives in active, grateful response. Faith is traveling into the unknown with the trust that God’s promises have been, or will be, fulfilled.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looked out as he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. There certainly wasn’t any concrete evidence for the end of racial segregation. But his dream of a just and integrated America was not based on fact. It was based on faith. His faith in God’s transformative power was, to him and many others, the assurance of the things they hoped for. He stepped forward in faith, because he was called and he believed God’s promises of justice and righteousness. Being faithful, he traveled into the unknown.
We tell faith stories of Martin Luther King Jr. much the way the writer of Hebrews tells the story of Abraham. The hope of heaven is not separate from the hope of a transformed earth. Neither King, nor Abraham, nor the other ancestors mentioned in Hebrews saw the promise of their call fulfilled in their lifetime. They only saw it off on the horizon. Yet by their faithfulness, they continued to move forward into the unknown. They held fast to the promises of God, knowing that the future belongs to God, while also knowing that faith calls us to action.
Abraham’s faith wasn’t a blind faith. His faith was based on the promise of, and trust in, the God who had already proved to be faithful and true. Abraham didn’t live to see the full fruition of the promises, but he remained obedient and faithful. And this is the message in our scripture from Hebrews today. This message is as timely today as when it was written.
And if we ever find ourselves doubting or waning in our faith as the church in the book of Hebrews was, we need only look at the promises fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our faith need never be a blind faith. Our faith should be based on the promise of, trust in, and relationship with our Lord and Savior who has already proved to be faithful and true. The constant call of scripture is to live our lives on the basis that God is both good and steadfast and Jesus exemplifies this.
Our faith is to be expressed in trust, love, obedience and action. The more we express our faith in active faithfulness, the more our theology will expand while the simpler and more childlike our faith will become. What a beautiful thing.
And so, our challenge this week is to ask ourselves: Do I trust the promises of God? How am I putting my faith into action?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 10, 2019
Heaven and hell. As I was preparing for this sermon I decided to see what people were thinking and reading about them. That led me to my online place of worship, Amazon. I typed hell into the search bar and got back 100,000 hits. In the top ten were 23 Minutes in Hell: One Man’s Story about What He Saw, Heard, and Felt in that Place of Torment and Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up (which I have read). I then did the same for heaven, and two of the top ten out of the 300,000 results were Visiting Heaven: Secrets of Life After Death and Heaven is Real. I think this tells us two things. First, that heaven is more popular than hell by a three-to-one margin. Second, it tells us that human beings are fascinated by concepts of heaven and hell and how they relate to life after death. And this is nothing new. Ever since some time in the Middle Ages people have been preaching about, writing about and painting about heaven and hell. One of the most vivid images of this is the judgment scene in the Sistine Chapel where there are graphic images of people going up to the bliss of heaven and down to the torment of hell. But this morning, I have to say I wonder what all the fuss is about, and I do so for two reasons.
The first reason is that heaven and hell are simply put, not all that important in the Bible. If they were characters in a movie, they would not be on screen long enough to be in the final credits. There would be no “heaven and hell played by themselves.” Let’s start with hell. Hell is not in the Old Testament at all. There is only a shadowy place called Sheol where all the dead, good and bad go. In the New Testament, Jesus mentions hell or hades, which may or may not be the same thing, no more than a handful of times. And even if you add in his mentions of things like the chaff being burned up in fire, we only add a few more instances of a fearful afterlife. As a focus of the New Testament it is dwarfed by love. Heaven, as a home in the afterlife, is even less used than hell. In the Old Testament, heaven is where God and the angels, but not humans, live. In the New Testament, there are only a couple of mentions of heaven being a place where the righteous go after death. So once again, heaven and hell as retirement locales, barely get a mention.
The second reason for wondering about all the fuss, is that scripture makes clear that heaven and hell are only temporary housing and not permanent retirement homes. I realize that for most Christians this comes as a shock. We have been taught for hundreds of years about these places either being the eternal home of good people, heaven, and the eternal home of bad people, hell. But this is not what scripture teaches us. First, heaven. Heaven, according to Revelation, as we read this morning heaven comes down to earth. In other words, the final locale for humanity is not a disembodied spiritual existence with God, but a bodily existence with God here on this earth. Which by the way is the point of Paul’s great discourse on resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians. Now, hell. As we read this morning as well, hell is emptied out and then is thrown into the Lake of Fire where it is destroyed…sort of an after-life urban renewal. In other words, hell has a limited life span and will eventually be unnecessary. So why ought we to consider heaven and hell at all. The answer, scripture tells us, is that they remind us that the trajectories of our lives, matter in this life and in the next. Let me explain.
Scripture lays out two life trajectories. The first is the trajectory of loving God and neighbor. It is a trajectory of compassion, forgiveness and sharing. The second is a trajectory of loving self, more than God or others. It is a trajectory of greed, revenge and selfishness. I use the term trajectories because no one is either perfectly good or perfectly evil. Even so, our lives bend in one direction or the other. They arc toward God and neighbor, or they arc toward self. And the reason these trajectories matter (and this is the key) is that the trajectory we are on in this life is the trajectory we are continue into the next. Think about satellites. Some are launched with a low orbit trajectory, while others are launched with a high orbit trajectory. This is the what happens with the trajectories of our lives. A trajectory of loving God and neighbor launches us into a high orbit that brings us rest and peace in the presence of God. The trajectory of self-centeredness launches us a low orbit where we find distress as we live outside the presence of God. The terms heaven and hell, as Jesus uses them, are reminders that the trajectories of our lives in this life matter for our lives to come.
This is the point of the story in Luke 16. There are two characters, the rich man and Lazarus. Each has a different trajectory. The rich man had a trajectory of self-centeredness. He dressed in expensive clothes, had the best of everything and every day ate more than he needed. And then he would walk past Lazarus, not even sharing the scraps from his table. Even the dogs had more compassion that he did. The second character, Lazarus, had a trajectory in which he was totally dependent on God because he had no one else to turn to him. At death, their trajectories carried them into different orbits. The rich man went into a low orbit of distress and distance from God because of his trajectory of self-centeredness. Lazarus on the other hand is where he is because God has taken pity on him because his trajectory was that of dependence on God. And this story is not a stand-alone image of the outcome of these two trajectories. We see this every time Jesus speaks of hell, hades or fire. One of the most used is Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats in which the ultimate destination of either a high or low orbit is determined by how one treated the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and those in prison, or as Jesus’ puts it, the least of these. These stories are reminders to Jesus’ listeners that our trajectories in this life matter in the next.
I realize that it might seem like an overwhelming task to set the right trajectory. Yet we do not set it alone. The triune God is there to help us. In God the Father, we have the one who calls us, woos us, loves us and urges us to take the high trajectory. God also gives us the manual of operations for what this trajectory looks like. Through the stories of the scriptures, the Law and Prophets. They describe the upper trajectory. In God the Son, in Jesus, we have the one who, as Hebrews puts it, is the pioneer and completer of our faith. In other words, in Jesus we have the one who has not only shown us what the trajectory looks like in his words and deeds, but we have the one, who in defeating the power of sin through his death and resurrection has made it possible for us to be high trajectory people. This means we not only see the upper trajectory clearly, but we can set our lives upon its path. Finally, in God the Spirit we have the one who becomes our navigator once the journey has begun. The Spirit goes with us, offering course corrections when our trajectory begins to veer off course. The Spirit thus ensures that we will reach our destination of peace, rest and presence. We have been given all of this because God’s desire is the renewal of all of humanity…not just a few practically, perfect people.
The trajectories of our lives matter. They matter to those around us now and they matter to us in the future. My challenge to you then is this, as you go through your week, note how you spend your time, how you treat others and what you do with your money and then ask, what does my trajectory look like?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 3, 2019
Exodus 15:1-7; Romans 1:16-17
“Have you been saved?” Those were the first words a member of my former church heard when he visited another congregation in San Antonio. He told me that he was running late for church, but rather than skip, he would try out the new Presbyterian congregation that had opened about a mile from his house. His first impression was that the building was nice and that worship time on the sign out-front insured him that he was not late there. As he walked in a man with a greeter badge approached him and the first words out of the greeter’s mouth were, “Have you been saved?” Needless to say, my church member was a bit taken aback. He was taken aback because as a good mainline Presbyterian he had no idea what he was being asked. Had I been there to translate, I would have said, friend, you are being asked, have you made a profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, which insures that at the end of your life you have your ticket to heaven and not a pass to hell. I could have translated it because I speak fluent southern evangelical. For better or worse though, this understanding is not limited to certain churches. It has become, since the Middle ages, the way the church in the West has talked about salvation, which is a shame, because it is, in the end, not Biblical.
To understand this, I want to take us to our two texts this morning. First, our story from the book of Exodus. To set the scene, recall that God’s people had been living in Egypt initially living the good life. But over the years they moved from being free-people to being slaves. They were oppressed and beaten down. It had become so bad that Pharaoh desired that all male children be killed. The people cried out to God. God heard them and sent Moses to seek their release. Though Moses had no real power, God used him to challenge the king. Ultimately God acted and brought about their freedom and release. In other words, God saved them. This is what the people in the story were celebrating. They were celebrating salvation. They sang this song. “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation.” And, what is important to remember, is that God freed them not only because they were God’s children, but because God had a job for them to do, which was to make possible the blessing of all the people of the earth; to help people find peace, flourishing and justice. This is what salvation meant in the Hebrew scripture, and I would argue meant to Paul, the good Jew that he was.
Now we turn to Paul and his words to the church at Rome. As a reminder the similarities between Egypt and Rome were uncanny. They both were powerful and domineering empires. They both were ruled by kings that claimed to be gods. They both claimed that they were the saviors of the world. And, most importantly they not only oppressed the world around them, but they oppressed God’s people. With that in mind let’s listen again to Paul’s words to the Roman church. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When Paul used the word salvation, I would argue that the concept of salvation being a ticket to heaven was not even on his radar. Instead he was pointing his readers back to God’s great acts of salvation; the Exodus from Egypt, the return from Babylonian exile and others, and saying, in Jesus God is not simply setting one nation free but is liberating the world that it might find peace, flourishing and justice in real time. To understand this, I offer my translation of Paul’s words. “The God of Israel, the one true God of the universe, having promised to repair a broken creation, sent Jesus into the world to not only defeat the powers of sin and death but to also become the true King of the world, who would liberate creation by initiating a new kingdom in which all humanity could share in the peace, flourishing and justice God intended.” For Paul, to speak about salvation was to speak about how God, through Jesus, was liberating both individuals and creation from the power of sin and creating a new reality, in real-time.
What this means for us, is that salvation, or being saved, is not about getting our ticket to heaven but it is about participating in the life and world liberating work of Jesus, which sets individuals and the world, free to find peace, flourishing and justice. How do we participate? First, we sign up to be part of God’s liberation adventure. We do this by professing that Jesus is Lord, meaning the real king of the world, and savior, the one who transforms us and creation. By signing up we receive the benefits of membership, which include the continuing work of God in our lives making us into new and ever being renewed people. Second, once we have signed up to be part of this liberating work, we are live faithfully by loving God and neighbor. This second part is a reminder to us, that just as God liberated Israel because they were supposed to be blessing all of creation. We are liberated for the same reason, to be a blessing to the world. As our tradition puts it, we are liberated for service through salvation.