Rev. Dr John Judson
July 26, 2915
Ephesians 6:1-4. Exodus 20:1-17
Absolute authority. That is what fathers in the Roman Empire had, absolute authority over their children. And they had it from the moment a child was born until the father themselves died. They had it at the birth of their children. When a child was born the child would be laid at the feet of its father and if the father picked up the child it lived. If the father did not pick up the child then the child would either be sold to be raised as a slave or simply left to die. When a child was still a child, the father could, and often did sell them into slavery, especially when times were tough. When a child reached adulthood the father still ruled their lives. A parent directed who they would marry, what they would do and where they lived. If the adult child did not obey, they could be disinherited and be without family and all alone in the world. Though some fathers were kind and caring, most were not, seeing their children as mere means of production and not human beings to be cherished.
We might imagine then the shock and awe of the content of Paul’s letter when it was read by the community; a community made up of men and women who had been raised with the tradition of absolute fatherly authority. It would have blown their minds. It would have blown their minds first because it said that those who followed Jesus Christ were to completely rethink parent-child and child-parent relationships. They were to discard all of the traditional Roman values and replace them with those of the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. They were, in other words, to rethink their family values.
This transformed way of thinking about relationships meant first rethinking child-parent relationships. While on the surface nothing appeared to have changed, after all Paul writes, children still have to obey their parents as children, and then as adult children they still have to honor their parents, the reasons for obeying and honoring had radically changed. For Roman children and adults, the primary reason for obedience was fear. There was fear of punishment. There was fear of being sold into slavery. There was even fear of being disowned and left penniless. There was also custom. One obeyed because that was what good Romans did. To not obey parents was to bring down the wrath of society upon one’s head. Now however one was to obey and honor “in the Lord.” In other words children were to obey because it was a way of showing the love of Christ to parents. What we need to remember is that Paul’s comments here are based on the opening verses of Chapter 5, where he writes, “…live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us…” Children are to obey as a means of giving of their love to their parents.
The second half of this child-parent relationship is intended for adult children. We are to honor our parents for the same reason that our children are to obey us. We are to show honor because by so doing we are showing the love of God in Jesus Christ toward those who gave us life and reared us. We do so as well so that, as the Ten Commandments puts it, it may be well with us. What this means is that when children show honor to their parents it reminds everyone that the value of us does not diminish as we grow older, but that we are valued in and for who we are. Such a recognition creates a society in which life is valued, and so it will go well with that community. .
The transformed way of thinking about relationships meant a second rethinking of parent-child relationships. At this point Paul addresses fathers. And he does so because, as we noted a moment ago, it was fathers who held absolute authority and the power of life and death over their children. And his directions to fathers were ones that completely changed how fathers related to their children. To understand this though I want to go back to my sermon from last week because it will help to understand what Paul is saying here. Last week we talked about the fact that Paul instructed the Ephesians to live in such a way as to move away from those things such as anger, malice and slander, which were intended to diminish and destroy others, towards a life which encouraged and built up others with actions such as forgiveness, kindness and compassion. In a sense this was the direction in which they were to walk. I offer that reminder because that is what Paul is telling fathers that they are to help their children do. Often when people read verse 4 they want to break it up and talk about not making children angry and then about instructing them in the Lord. But I think we ought to view that as a single concept; that fathers are to help set their children on the same path that they, the parents, are to walk. And that is a path away from harming and toward helping others.
Finally a note I do not believe we ought to miss is that Paul uses the word children. This is remarkable because in the Roman world it was only boys who were trained. It was only boys with whom fathers were to concern themselves. Here Paul makes it clear that fathers are to nurture both their sons and their daughters.
As someone who has been both a child and a parent, I realize just how difficult this all is to do. I say this for a couple of reasons. First if you Google how to make children obey, you will get nineteen million hits…so maybe it’s a problem. But it is a problem in the most basic sense because as human beings we want to be in charge; we want to be in control. From the moment we turn two and learn the word “no” we engage in a struggle over who is really in charge. And so parents have to find the right balance of discipline, love and nurture that encourages without crushing; creates independence without callousness; shares our faith without forcing it upon someone. It is never easy, and in fact is one of the most difficult things in the world…hence Paul writing about it 2,000 years ago, and millions of websites and articles today. But it is possible. I know that it is possible because I know you. I see in so many of you the ability to obey and honor parents and as parents to nurture your children.
The challenge then for all of us is finding the balance; the balance as loving parents and respectful children. So that is what I would challenge you to do this week, to ask yourselves, how am I balancing my independence with my obligations to children and parents.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 19, 2015
Isaiah 57:14-24, Ephesians 4:25-5:2
We weren’t exactly lost. But we weren’t exactly found either. My partner and I were at Boy Scout camp and we were learning about orienteering. Orienteering is that skill where one uses a map and a compass to find one’s way from point “A” to point “B”. I think that I might have been able to do, and in fact have done it since while backpacking in Colorado. However, this time we were at a scout camp where there were no maps. So what we were given was a set of instructions that we were to go so many feet in one direction, change course and go so many feet in another direction…and you get the point. Not only did we have to know how to use the compass, we also had to know how to measure distances. And…as most of you can imagine, it didn’t take more than one mistake…not walk the right distance, get off course a couple of degrees and it was all over and you were lost. In the end the best thing about it was that the Scout camp was small enough that we would not starve to death trying to find our way back to camp.
In some ways I have always seen that event as a metaphor for the Christian life. In the Christian life we are given some very basic directions. I say basic directions because Jesus never gave us a step by step set of instructions for exactly what we are to do in every circumstance. He did not give us an ethical Garmin that will tell us exactly how to respond in every instance. Instead he taught his disciples with parables, such as the one about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. He taught with aphorisms, short pithy statements such as if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; not one we like to remember. Jesus taught by example, he forgave his enemies. Jesus taught with stories, such as the Good Samaritan. Then Jesus, by calling disciples and saying, follow me, became the compass. He became the one whose life and death were to be the guiding star, if you will, for our lives. So we are supposed to make our way in a very complex world using a few basic teachings with Jesus as the compass. As many of us will admit, while all of this is helpful, it is not foolproof.
I say this because the church has clearly demonstrated that two different people can, to the best of their ability, read the same passage, follow the same Jesus and end up in two very different places. One of the great examples of this is the place of women in the leadership of the church. Even within the Presbyterian tradition people differ in their understandings of this issue. In our denomination, the PCUSA, women are ordained as ministers, elders and deacons. In the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which was started at Ward Presbyterian Church, the ordination of women is local option. Individual churches and presbyteries (local governing bodies) each decide for themselves. In the Presbyterian Church in America women are not ordained to any positions and in some churches are not even allowed to teach classes in which men are present. In other words just like all of the scouts at camp had the exact same set of instructions, many of us ended up in very different places.
We would think then that someone in the scriptures would give us a much clearer set of directions so that we would not be lost as we made our way through the world. And if there ought to be one person who would do that, it would be the Apostle Paul. After all Paul was a Pharisee, a group of people who were known for their almost infinite set of rules and regulations that governed almost every possible event in life. Yet when we turn to Paul, we don’t really find that. Instead we find the same sort of basic, but not overly specific, set of instructions. Our morning’s text is a perfect example. Paul appears to give us, what some might call, good folk wisdom. He offers us the same advice that my wife and I got on our wedding day from Cindy’s grandfather. He took us aside and said that we were never to go to bed angry with one another. Little did I know that Paul had essentially given people that same advice two-thousand years ago. We are told that we are not to steal….duh. That is a rule in every culture and society. We are told not to lie…and well, you get the point. These are sort of folk norms. Surely Paul could do better than that…and in actuality he does. For in fact this short pithy section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, while not giving us an exact play by play script for our lives, offers us a set of directions that ought to give us great clarity in the choices we make. And Paul does so by pointing us away from one kind of life, and toward another. Let me explain.
Paul points us away from a life which diminishes, demeans and dominates others. Listen again to the list of those things we are not supposed to do. We are not supposed to lie, to be angry, to steal, to speak evil of others, to be bitter, to carry out wrath, to slander and to be malicious. While these may all appear to be things we were taught not to do in kindergarten, they actually all have a single common factor; they are intended to destroy and diminish the image of God in another person. Speaking evil of and slandering someone takes away a piece of their integrity just as surely as stealing takes away a physical good. Lying not only breaks relationships, it says the other person is not worthy of knowing the truth. And being angry…well I have decided that being angry is now America’s favorite pastime. This week I watched as two people in the Kroger parking lot yelled at each other over a close call with their cars. No damage was done. No one was hurt, but they had to try and diminish the other with anger and accusations. Again, Paul tells us that this is the life from which we ought to be moving away.
Paul next points us to a life which enhances the value and worth of others. Listen to his list. We are to speak the truth, we are to make amends if we have been angry, we are to work honestly…so that we can give to those in need, we are to build up others with our words, we are to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving and to love as Jesus loved. In other words we are to be those whose life not only sees the other as being valuable but builds up the other by the way they are treated. Telling someone the truth implies they are worthy of receiving it. To make amends implies that the other is worth being in a relationship with. Building up others with our words means the other is worthy of being encouraged. Being kind, tenderhearted and forgiving says that the other has worth and value, and that we need to acknowledge that with our actions. Finally, loving like Jesus loved, says those around us are worth sacrificing for. This is the kind of life toward which we ought to be moving; one in which the image of God in others is being allowed to shine more and more through our actions.
For more than half of my life I have studied this book (the Bible) and have come to three fundamental conclusions. The first is that every human being has been made in the image of God and because of that we have intrinsic worth and value. The second conclusion is that God wants to redeem every human being; redeem them from hunger, fear, addiction, pain, war and violence. The third is that our lives are to be lived as those who are agents of redemption. This is what I believe that Paul is telling us. This is the direction in which Paul is pointing us. And it becomes a good measuring stick for our lives. As we come home each day, or as we reflect on our interactions with others, we can ask ourselves, am I moving in the right direction? Have my words and deeds been used to enhance or diminish the image of God in others? In what direction am I moving? Am I truly reflecting the love and grace of God in how I interact with and treat others? So that is my challenge for you for this week…and I hope for a long time to come. To ask yourselves, on a daily basis, in what direction am I headed, and does it reflect God’s desire to redeem all people so that they know that they are created in the image of God?
Rev. Amy Morgan
July 12, 2015
Psalm 133:1-3, Ephesians 4:1-16
“The Encyclopedia of Immaturity” boasts that it is the world’s most complete guide on how to never grow up. It covers such important topics as “How to Make Noises Under Your Arm” and “How to Do a Wheelie.” I bought this book for my husband for his 40th birthday knowing full well he was already an expert on the subject.
I sometimes need to be reminded that immaturity isn’t such a bad thing. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven? But for some reason, I don’t believe Jesus meant that God’s kingdom is only open to those who can make a perfect spit ball or wiggle their ears.
I also don’t think Jesus was advocating the sort of immaturity that permeates our culture today. Public figures making social media faux pas, excessive celebration of sports team victories, and our constant clamoring for the latest and greatest bit of tech are just a few examples of the childish behaviors that might not have been on Jesus’ mind when he encouraged us to become like children.
The letter to the Ephesians offers a corrective of sorts to Jesus’ instruction, encouraging followers of Jesus to “no longer be children” and instead come to “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
This is all well and good if you know what it means. But the greatest problem we have with maturity in our culture is a lack of definition. We have no threshold for adulthood in American culture, no demarcation of the time when we must “put an end to childish ways,” as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians.
In first century Rome, adulthood for boys meant a ceremonial first shave, a new toga, induction to military service, and a visit to the local house of ill repute. For girls, it meant giving up your dolls and preparing for marriage.
In 21st century America, we have a number of legal thresholds for adulthood. You can drive at 16, vote and buy cigarettes at 18, purchase alcohol at 21.
However we define adulthood legally, this tells us very little about how to be a grown up. A 45-year-old can still drink and party too much, and a 16-year-old can maturely balance school, work, and relationships. Does voting for someone who is as immature as you are make you an adult? How grown up is someone who can legally drive but chooses to text her babysitter at the same time? It is challenging to define maturity around a system of laws.
The fourth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians gives us a different set of criteria to use in helping us grow up.
The chapter begins with a reminder to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” In Greek, it says something more like “walk in your vocation.” The word used here for walk literally means to go back and forth, implying that you are intently busy with something.
I think about all the things that we are intently busy with: planning vacations, watching soccer games, catching up on episodes of the Walking Dead, playing Game of War, and renovating our kitchens. None of these seem to be too intimately connected with what I would consider to be our vocation or calling.
The call of God on each person’s life is secured in our “one baptism.” For many of us, this is an event we were not even cognizant of, much less something of which we could be considered worthy. But Ephesians describes what this “worthiness” looks like: humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, unity, peace.
When I asked a group of parents what qualities they thought of when considering what it means to be an adult, the number one response was independence: financial, emotional, physical independence. When you no longer have to depend on your parents for anything, you are a grown up.
This quality of independence is rather contrary to qualities like humility, gentleness, patience, mutual forbearance, unity, and peace. These are all relational, dependent qualities. You humble yourself to others, you are gentle toward others, patient with others, bear the burdens of others, unite with others, make peace with others. These are outward-looking qualities.
And if these qualities define our worthiness, our maturity, we have a lot of growing up to do, I’m afraid. Where is the humility in a presidential candidate with a fragrance called "success"? Where is the gentleness in scathing and hurtful comments posted to blogs, online news articles, and social media sites? Where is the patience in our constant consumption? How are we bearing with one another in love as we shrug off relationships we deem to be too much work or not meeting our needs? Where is the unity in our country fractured by constant partisan bickering and a diminishing concern for the common good? Where is the Spirit of peace in our quest for blame and revenge?
We have a lot of growing up to do. But here is the good news: “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.” And Christ’s gift is truly immeasurable. The one who descended to the lowest parts of the earth and “ascended far above the heavens so that he might fill all things,” has equipped us for the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ.
Notice that again there is no mention of independence or personal fulfillment. The end goal is to be a “whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, each part working properly, promoting the body's growth in building itself up in love.” Maturity isn’t about having stronger muscles, it’s about creating stronger ligaments, stronger connections. Growing up means working toward the overall health of the body using the gifts of God which are present everywhere and in everything.
Within our little limb of the body of Christ at FPC Birmingham, we can keep growing up, keep strengthening the body. We are blessed with many, many spiritually mature body builders who we can look to as examples.
I am always awed by those humble saints in this church who model spiritual maturity by doing all the little, invisible tasks that no one even thinks about: filling the pew racks with prayer cards and other materials; giving the kitchen a deep cleaning; stocking up the hospitality baskets in the bathrooms; stuffing envelopes for church mailings; printing the bulletins each week. Humble tasks taken on by humble people. These are grown-ups in the faith from whom we can all learn.
And then there are those who are so beautifully gentle, strengthening our connections with compassion and kindness. Those who teach and care for our children, and those who visit the sick and the homebound members. These, too, are grown-ups in the faith.
Patience is, for many of us, the greatest struggle in growing up, but we have models for that as well. Those who will wait patiently for someone who can’t move quickly or give a ride to someone unable to drive. Those who will take the time to listen to someone trying to sort out their thoughts without interjecting their own foregone conclusion. These are patient grown-ups in the faith.
I’ve seen so many of you bearing with one another, carrying each other’s burdens, praying for each other, caring for each other’s children or bringing a meal in difficult times. There are many grown-ups in the faith who do those things around here.
Our vision statement has been a unifying force in this congregation, helping us share a common purpose. Even when we disagree over how to carry out that vision, we maintain those strong ligaments of connection.
The bond of peace is strong here, too. This congregation, like any, has seen its fair share of conflict. And we have grown up enough to know that peace is preferable to victory, that peace is necessary for the health of the body and must be prioritized over our individual desires and concerns.
We’ve had over 180 years to grow up, and we’ve come a long way. But as any truly mature person will tell you, there is always room to grow, always more to learn. And sometimes, as we age, keeping the body strong becomes more difficult. We can get set in our ways or complacent. We can become too attached to our ideas and stop listening to others and trying to understand their point of view. We can isolate ourselves from others. We might even become a little grumpy at times. So it is important to keep in mind our need to grow, to strengthen our ligaments, to regularly check up on the health of this body.
What is more difficult, perhaps, than maintaining the health of this FPC Birmingham limb of the body of Christ is growing with the whole body of Christ in all the world. The Presbyterian Church (USA) sees itself as a connectional church at its core, yet in recent years we’ve been fractured over a number of controversial issues. We’ve been losing limbs and have disintegrating ligaments.
And once we look outside our denomination, and outside of mainline Protestantism, the body looks to be in even worse shape. The behavior of the church is simply infantile.
After the Supreme Court’s recent decision on marriage equality, Christians have been gloating on one side and throwing dirt on the other. I don’t hear gentle words spoken from many of us about anything we disagree about in the public sphere. We don’t patiently listen to those with differing viewpoints or those trying to figure these things out for themselves. Instead, we follow along with whatever camp reinforces what we want to believe. The unity of the body of Christ worldwide is in shambles, and very few of us are actively working for peace and reconciliation.
We need to grow up. In order to do that, Ephesians tells us that we must “speak the truth in love.” The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Perhaps this is the true definition of a grown up. Someone who can speak the truth in love.
So let us speak the truth – but not with a bullhorn, not with a sword. Let us wait patiently to speak the truth. Let us understand that the truth will hurt, and be compassionate as we speak. Let us speak the truth politely, humbly, generously, honestly. And let us speak the truth in love no matter the consequences. And perhaps then, finally, we will grow up into the full measure of Christ. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 5, 2015
Lamentations 3:22-33, Ephesians 3:14-21
He stopped me in the hallway after our second service at my former congregation. He stopped me because he had a concern that he wanted to share with me. His concern was that I wasn’t preaching on hell enough. “John,” he said, “You really need to preach on hell more. In fact I have never heard you preach on the punishment of hell. If you want people to take faith seriously, you need to let them know about hell.” In some ways this piece of advice did not surprise me. After all we were in the Texas which is, as I have said before, the buckle on the Bible Belt and many of the people I knew there had cut their theological teeth at revivals where the perils of hell were front and center. It didn’t surprise me either because hell has been a central part of Christianity since the early 300s. Roman Catholicism made it clearly a place that ought to be feared. Artists and authors wrote about and painted it. Our Puritan ancestors took up the cause and offered sermons where we are like spiders hanging by a slender thread over a roaring fire. Finally it was taken up by preachers of every sort as a means by which they could scare people into believing. In other words, hell has staying power.
What is interesting about this staying power is that in the end, hell doesn’t work. Hell doesn’t work to make believers or to change behavior. While the fear of hell might encourage folks to take out spiritual fire insurance by professing faith in Jesus, it doesn’t produce long-term committed disciples. I say this because studies have shown that only a minute percentage of people who make a profession at revivals, in order to be saved from hell, are still actively living or pursuing their faith a year later. And this makes sense because people see no need to pursue faith because they are now insured. Secondly, hell doesn’t work to change behavior. It doesn’t for the simple fact that people seldom worry about consequences which might happen sometime in the far, distant future. This is why people continue smoking or fail to save for retirement. The consequences of those actions are “out there” somewhere, so I don’t have to worry about them now. So even if hell exists, well, that is a worry for another day.
What is interesting as well about this staying power is that hell is a bit player in the grand scheme of scripture. It is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament. There we find Sheol, which is the place where all of the dead, both good and evil, go. There is no concept of hell as we know it. And then in the New Testament it is mentioned….actually why don’t you all take a guess as to how many times it is mentioned in the New Testament. Anyone want to venture a number? Well you are close. It is mentioned 13 times. And if we deduct for repetitions between Gospels it is mentioned about 9 times. Yep, that’s it, nine times. The Apostle Paul doesn’t mention it at all. Jesus only mentions it about 7 times and some of those are rhetorical. Consider some other themes. Grace is mentioned 125 times. Forgive and forgiveness are mentioned almost 170 times. Compassion is mentioned 80 times. Faithfulness, which is usually God’s faithfulness to us, is mentioned 79 times. And finally love is mentioned 730 times. I say all of this to remind us that Biblically speaking, hell just isn’t all that important.
What is interesting as well about this staying power is that hell cannot compete with love. As I said a moment ago the love-hell score is 730-13. It is this lopsided because love is the underlying foundation for all of scripture. Love is the description of God…God is love. Love is the reason Jesus came…God so loved the world. Love is the heart of the community…if you love you know God. Love is the heart of Paul’s message. In this short section from Ephesians we read what it is that Paul desires for us. Paul prays that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love…not fear. Paul prays that we might know the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge so that we may be filled with the knowledge of God. In other words what matters to Paul and to the scriptures themselves is that we know that we are loved by God. For if we come to realize the power of this love it will cause us to deepen our faith in and relationship with God. It will cause our behaviors to change. Love will make us new people.
You and I are loved by God. It is that simple, and it is that powerful. The creator of the universe made each of us to be loved and to love. The creator did not make us to live in fear. And there is no better place to see a visual demonstration of this than at this table. For here we see that height, depth and breadth of God’s love for us. We see the love of God poured out. My challenge for you then this morning is this, to ask yourselves as you come to the table, how am I allowing God’s love to drive out fear and to change me forever?