The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 28, 2019
Psalm 100; Luke 2:41-52
It was the same thing every week. On Sunday morning, my family would be up early. There would be breakfast and then my mom and dad would load my brothers and me into the station wagon and we would head for church. There we would set up the chairs in the temporary sanctuary and take our places. During the next hour we would sit in worship where every week we said the Apostle’s Creed, the same prayer of confession, the Lord’s Prayer, sang Holy, Holy, Holy…or so it seemed…and then waited for the lights to come down except where the pastor stood as he expounded on something that I could not understand. My brothers and I contented ourselves with drawing tanks, planes and battles on our bulletins, with our parents insuring that we were silent. In other words, it was boring. As soon as I turned sixteen and could get a job working on Sundays, I was out of there, planning never to return. Which I suppose might be the definition of irony considering what I do every Sunday. What happened? What happened was that in my early twenties when I was a newbie Christian, needing encouragement, I wandered into a church worship service and found the encouragement I needed to continue trying to discover what it meant to walk in the way of Jesus. In that moment worship went from boring to encouraging.
Before we move forward I want us to have a working definition of worship. The definition I will give you is my definition based on my understanding the scripture and worship’s place in it. Worship then, is the intentional encounter of God and God’s people for the purpose of encouraging God’s people to walk in the way of God and Jesus. Let me say that again, worship is the intentional encounter of God and God’s people for the purpose of encouraging God’s people to walk in the way of God and Jesus. I realize that this makes worship appear to be all about us. But it isn’t because it is about God encountering us and us encountering God. It is about us intentionally coming into the presence of the living God in order that God might encourage us in the mission that God has given us…to live in the way of God and Jesus…to bless the entire world. We can see this in Psalm 100 where the people “come into God’s presence with singing” and “thanksgiving” because they know that God’s “steadfast love endures forever” as does God’s “faithfulness to all generations.” They are intentionally coming into the presence of the living God to be encouraged by God’s love and faithfulness.
To understand more fully how worship encourages us I would like us to see it as a recipe for encouragement that has three ingredients. The first ingredient is people. Let me ask, how many of you here this morning have ever tried to lose weight, exercise or deal with an addiction on your own? How many of you were successful doing it all by yourselves? Yep, me neither. This is why organizations like AA or Weight Watchers have meetings. They have meetings because there is power in people. There is power in knowing that we are not alone in our struggles. There is power in the support that others give us. I would argue that this is one reason that worship in the scriptures is almost always communal worship. Worship is seldom if ever personal worship. It is communal because God understands that encouragement comes not only directly from God, but from those with whom we travel on the way. Look around you this morning. We are all here to encounter God. We are all here to be encouraged. We are here together. Here is encouragement…in people.
The second ingredient is place. A while back I was out in the hallway during the week when a woman and two children came out of the sanctuary. The woman told me that one of the boys wanted to show his friend “God’s house.” Now, we know that God isn’t contained by walls or only exists in one space. God can be worshipped anywhere. Yet God’s people have always been led to create sacred spaces. Whether it was a stone altar, or a tent of meeting in the wilderness, or a Temple in Jerusalem, God’s people have found that having a space dedicated to encountering God helps us to be focused and open to being encouraged by God. We can see this in the only story we have about Jesus boyhood. He and his family have traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. When the family leaves, Jesus stays behind, in what he describes as his Father’s house. Jesus understands the power of that sacred space; that in it he can be in God’s presence in a way that might be difficult in any other place. This is why this sanctuary matters. It matters because when we come here we can block out so much of the hustle and bustle of life and prepare ourselves to encounter God and to be encouraged. My hope is that this sacred place can be for us “God’s house” where God’s encouragement can be found.
The third ingredient is pattern. What I mean by that is that there is a pattern that offers us encouragement in and through worship. One of my vivid childhood memories is of coming home from school and seeing my mother bent over our dining table, with cloth spread out on it. On the cloth was pinned a pattern. I once asked her why she used patterns and her reply was because she wanted to be sure that the dress turned out exactly as it should. This is the same for the pattern of worship God offers us. If we follow it we find ourselves where we desire to be, encouraged in our desire to follow in the way of Jesus. This pattern has five pieces. First God calls us into encounter and we respond. What I mean by this is that we come to this sacred place to be with these people because God calls us, invites us to be here. This encourages us because we know that God wants us to be here regardless of who we are or what we have done or left undone. Second, God claims us as God’s own and we acknowledge that claim. This morning we were fortunate enough to have two baptisms in which we heard God claiming and parents responding. This is encouraging because it means not only that there are no “orphans” in this world, but that God will never abandon us because we are God’s children. Third, God forgives, and we confess. I know that that sounds backwards, but it isn’t. God’s forgiveness is always waiting for us ahead of our confession. Just as the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son runs to embrace his lost and found son, before his son can confess/ God does the same for us. This encourages us because it means even when we fall short, we can begin again with God’s help. Fourth we are fed. We are fed with the Word and with the table. This is encouraging because we have been given the strength we need to go back into the world to follow in the way of Jesus. Finally, we are sent back out to try again. This is encouraging because it means God believes in our ability to live in the way of Jesus.
Last Sunday we talked about the fact the in the resurrection of Jesus we have been given the power and freedom to follow in the way of Jesus. We also acknowledged that to do so we need encouragement along the way. Today we have made our first stop of the way of encouragement, worship. My hope is that you will see worship not as some boring repetition of weekly rituals, but as an intentional opportunity to encounter the living God to find encouragement for the week ahead. And that is my challenge to you for this week, that when you return next week, you open yourselves to being encountered by the Living God, so that you will be more encouraged when you leave, than when you arrived.
Dr. John Judson
Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
Exodus 14:21-27; Romans 6: 1-11
I was discouraged. I was discouraged because all I ever did was die regardless of how many times I tried. What was I trying and where was I dying? I was trying and dying on Super Mario Brothers. I don’t remember the exact year that we bought our son his first Nintendo, but he took to it like a duck to water. It was as if the controller was an extension of his brain. He would then say, “Dad, its your turn.” And dutifully I would take the controller in hand and almost immediately die. I knew what I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to do it…jump here, slide there, but it was no use. Granted with my son’s help I did make it past level one, but in the end, no amount of instruction was going to help me be good at Super Mario Brothers, or any of his other games for that matter. It was incredibly discouraging to try so hard and to always come up short.
In some ways this is the way I feel about my life of faith, my following in the way of Jesus. I know what I am supposed to do. I know that I am supposed to love God with all of my heart soul, mind and strength and my neighbor as myself. I know that I am supposed to forgive as I have been forgiven, that I am to love and pray for my enemies, that I am supposed to share all I have with the poor, that I am supposed to be continually humble and self-effacing rather than proud, that I am to give to all who ask, that I am to pray without ceasing, that I am to work for justice in this world, that I am to honor the sabbath (which is often hard for ministers since it is the only day we work) and the list goes on. Each day I get in the game of following the way of Jesus, but then something happens. I drive into the parking lot at Kroger’s, I read a story about people who hate and harm others, I am tempted by something new on eBay and suddenly all that knowledge and practice seems for naught. It is very discouraging to die one more time. Any of you ever feel that way? That you try so hard to follow Jesus and then something happens and it’s as if it just flies out the window and you feel discouraged? If you do, know that this is nothing new, because it was where the Roman church found itself as Paul wrote to it.
The church at Rome was not a church that Paul had established but it found itself completely discouraged. They were so discouraged in fact that they had given up trying to follow in the way of Jesus and had returned to following in the un-way of Jesus. When I say the un-way of Jesus I am referring to a style of life that is the exact opposite of the way of Jesus, meaning a way of life defined by power, prejudice, hate and selfishness. In his letter, Paul calls this sin, but I like the un-way of Jesus better because we often limit sin to mean those things we don’t like, whereas for Paul it entails a way of living. Why were the Roman Christians so discouraged? I believe they were because living the way of Jesus made them outcasts in the Empire. They were outcasts because the way of Jesus was exactly the opposite of the way of Rome. Christians were viewed as odd and even un-Roman. People lost employment, friends and family members because of their faith. To follow the way of Jesus was incredibly discouraging. Which is why Paul, in his letter to them, tells them that they should not be discouraged, but encouraged, because in the death and resurrection of Jesus, they had given the power and freedom they needed to follow in the way of Jesus.
I realize that this may sound a bit odd, that the resurrection of Jesus gave them the power and freedom to follow in the way of Jesus. I say this because most of the time when we think about resurrection we think about life after death. Resurrection is what we talk about at a memorial service or a graveside remembrance. It is that assurance that our lives here are not all there is to life. And that is certainly true. Paul puts it this way in verse nine, “We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” And by extension over us. But, for Paul that is not all there is to resurrection. Resurrection is about the here and now. Resurrection is about what happens to us in this life. As Paul puts it, the death and resurrection of Jesus break the power, not only of death, but of sin, or as I have called it, the un-way of Jesus. What Paul means by this is that all those things that lead us away from the way of Jesus, no longer have control over us. What has control over our lives is the power of Jesus offered to us each day. And for that reason, we are not to be discouraged, but encouraged because even if we wander off, we have the power to try again.
Paul offers two images of the origins of this power and freedom to follow in the way of Jesus. The first is the image of our dying to our old selves that were trapped in the un-way of Jesus and being raised to be new persons who have the power to follow the way of Jesus. In verse four he writes, “Therefore we have been buried with him in baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness life.” Notice first, that Paul links resurrection with life in the here and now, not in the eternal. Second, Paul says that something happens in our baptisms. That in baptism we are no longer children or adults of the un-way of Jesus, but that we have become people empowered to follow the way of Jesus. Let me ask, how many of you know who Peter Parker is? Right he is Spiderman. Consider his story. He is an ordinary kid until he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Then he is imbued with super powers and is capable of great good. This is the image Paul offers. We are no longer ordinary kids, but people capable of doing great good by living into the way of Jesus.
The second image has to do with being freed from slavery. In verse six he writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” The image here is of the Exodus. Remember the story. The people were trapped on one side of the sea with the Egyptians in pursuit. God opens the waters and the people walk through them to the other side where they became free people, capable of living in the way of God in the promised Land. In other words, just as the people of Israel moved from being slaves in Egypt, to being free people in the Promised Land, so too we have moved from being slaves to the un-way of Jesus, to being free people capable of living in the way of Jesus. This means that the un-way of Jesus no longer holds us captive. We have the freedom to do what is right and good in God’s eyes.
I wish I could say this morning that because of the resurrection and the power and freedom it offers us, that we will be able to live perfectly in the Jesus’ way. I can’t because we won’t. Like me trying to master Super Mario Brothers, we will give it our best and sooner or later, we will find ourselves once again in the un-way of Jesus. We won’t slide, duck or jump in the right place…and it will seem as if we are back to square one. Yet, the good news is that not only will we never move back to square one but that we have infinite lives; infinite opportunities to try again and again to live in the way of Jesus. We have them because we are new people who have been given the power and the freedom to follow Jesus. What we will need then is continuing encouragement along the way. We will need opportunities to find the encouragement to keep moving forward. If you are looking for that kind of continuing encouragement, I have some good news for you. Over the next six weeks we will be showing you where you can find encouragement along the way. I would challenge you then to make a commitment to be here for the next six weeks during Eastertide as we explore those places where encouragement awaits in order for us to live fully into the Jesus’ way, blessing the world and blessing ourselves.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
April 14, 2019
Psalm 30; John 16:20-24
Our vocabulary word of faith today is Joy. Palm Sunday is a great time to talk about what Christians mean when they use the word joy because this is the day Jesus finally lets his disciples and followers express the joy that he has inspired in them. They have been told to remain silent after seeing Jesus perform miraculous healings and after he cast out evil spirits. They have been told to not tell anyone about Jesus’ teachings about inclusion and equity and justice. That must have been incredibly frustrating! Imagine having such good news and not being able to tell anyone!
Palm Sunday is the day Jesus does not hold them back. The time for silence has passed; the authorities know what Jesus is up to. Finally, the people are free to express their joy! After keeping it bottled up it must have been a powerful expression. John’s gospel gives us an exceptional example of what Christian joy is all about. John’s retelling places the joyous Palm Sunday parade as a direct reaction to Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. The people have experienced a great loss and their pain has been turned to joy through the resurrection of a friend. But the miracle is also the cause of Jesus’ death. Once authorities hear about what Jesus did for Lazarus they turn against him and plot his demise. Joy and pain are close companions in John’s gospel.
Joy is in short supply in Jesus’ world, largely because the Pharisees and Roman authorities deal out joy like a drug. Their power depends on their control and careful dispersion of joy. The Pharisees and the Roman authorities are the ones who keep sorrow and trouble at bay. They keep out invaders and create order in society. They make sacrifices and keep God’s favor on the people. They create a barrier to keep sorrow and pain away so that the people have more joy. When these powers hear that Jesus is offering another access point to joy they become afraid and plot to get rid of the challenge of their joy monopoly.
After the joyous parade of palms in the streets Jesus reteaches the basics of God’s joy. He wants them to remember how God’s joy works because they will need to hold on to it for the painful days ahead. Jesus talks about grains needing to die and fall to the earth before they can grow and become what it was made to be – a giant, strong stalk of grain. Jesus teaches about the light shining in the darkness and how darkness is needed to see the light. He invites his betrayers to eat with him, welcoming the cause of his pain to sit next to him. He teaches repeatedly about existing in pain and struggle until we get to the passage I read today. You will weep, you will mourn, you will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy.
Jesus compares this process of pain turning to joy to a woman giving birth. There is pain, but when the child is born healthy, the woman no longer remembers the pain. It has turned to joy. Do you hear what Jesus is saying? The very thing causing the pain – the child – is what causes the joy. There is no substitution happening. The thing causing the pain is not taken away and a joyous thing put in its place. The child causes the pain and the child causes the joy. The pain is transformed into joy. Joy is not a substitute for pain; joy is the transformed state of pain.
When scripture talks about joy, there is always pain in the verses preceding it. Joy does not exist in scripture without pain. But the world takes the verses about joy and cuts out the parts about pain. The transformation is lost and we are left with substitutive joy. A concept that leads us to believe that joy and pain cannot exist together, that they are opposites. Substitutive joy is problematic. If every time we break something it is replaced with a shiny new thing, we become spoiled. And when we finally face a loss that cannot be replaced, we become desperate to find joy again. Substitutive joy tells us we must get rid of the pain to receive joy. We must cover our pain, dump our pain, before joy can take over our lives. If we think joy is a substitute for pain, then after a great loss we can try to cover our pain with other things. Material goods, other people, experiences, drugs. If we still feel pain, we keep trying to cover it up with joyful things.
The opioid epidemic is a result of substitutive joy. Pain is covered by the rush of a high, a rush that needs to get bigger and bigger to bring the same level of joy one had yesterday. In 2007 500 people in Michigan died of opioid overdoses; ten years later, in 2017, the number of deaths was 2,033. There is pain in our community and the only way the world has taught us to deal with it is substitutive, to cover it up.
Substitutive joy tells us that joy and pain cannot exist together. If you want to feel joy you must find a way to get rid of the pain. If covering the pain up does not work then try unloading the pain on others. Substitutive joy convinces us if we can just make the other person feel our pain it will transfer from us to them and we are free to let joy take the place of the pain. Hate, abuse, and violence all stem from people trying to unload their pain onto someone else. 2018 had the highest reported incidents of hate crimes in the United States ever. There is pain in our nation and substitutive joy is how we deal with our pain.
Spend one day working in retail or a service job and you will see the pain that people cover or unload every day. In college I worked in a hardware store and by far my favorite assignment was the paint department. I would come in early if I heard we got new paint chip samples because I wanted to be the one to put them out. They always had the most ridiculous names and I dreamed of having the job of naming the colors. (Go through paint samples!)
I also liked mixing the paint. When a customer needed something mixed, the message would go out over the PA system and I would run to the paint counter. The way paint is mixed is by taking a can of base and mixing in concentrated colors according to a formula in the computer system. The regular concentrated pigments were red, blue and yellow but we also had black and some other secondary colors for specific brands.
One day a woman was buying a beautiful sunflower yellow for her child’s room. I went to the computer typed in “brilliant sunflower” and the formula popped up on the screen. There were only two pigments called for but those colors made me second guess the system. There was yellow, of course, but also a fair amount of black. The system had never been wrong before so I went along and followed the formula, carefully measured out the pigment and hoped for the best as it clambered around in the mixer. When I opened the can to check the color, it was brilliant sunflower yellow. I was genuinely shocked that it wasn’t grey with the amount of black put in. Don’t tell my boss but after the customer left I tried a sample can with just the yellow pigment. The color that came out was yellow, but not the brilliant yellow that child was about to have on her walls. The yellow without the black was weaker, fainter. I doubt it would have looked much different from a yellowing old white wall. The black is what made the color have depth and presence.
When scripture and Jesus talk about joy the understanding is that pain and joy exist in the same can. Pain is an essential ingredient of joy. And if we can avoid covering and dumping our pain to allow it to mix and process and develop, God transforms it into joy. Joy without pain is not rooted in reality. There is no contrast in painless joy to really make the joy stand out as special. Joy is stronger when it is allowed to develop alongside our pain. In God’s care pain is never the final state. When we look at our pain we see black but God sees the start of brilliant, yellow joy. Jesus says this kind of joy will never be taken away from us because it is not just a covered top coat that can be chipped away; it is an enduring color and pain is only a few shades away from joy.
To us it is obvious why this is the message Jesus leaves the disciples. We know the week ahead will be filled with every painful emotion one can think of. What Jesus does not want to happen is for the disciples to cover up or unload their pain. He wants them to remember substitutive joy does not work. It is shallow and fleeting. He wants them experience God’s joy. That will mean sitting with the pain and with God but knowing that that pain will transform into their greatest joy. He allows them to express joy today on Palm Sunday. On Thursday he leaves them a meal to remember their joy when he is gone, so that when they get to Friday and the cross they have the tools to make it to Sunday. We as a community will walk that same path this week. Celebrating today, remembering Thursday, sitting in the pain of Friday … then, when we are here again in a week, Easter will shine so much brighter because we have experienced the whole journey, the whole depth of holy emotion together.
This is the week to give your pain a chance to see the light. Uncover, hold on to it, treasure it even. Pain is not our enemy. In God’s hands it is the beginning form of joy.
Dr. John Judson
April 7, 2019
Leviticus 19:13-18 ; Matthew 5:38-49
Where do I begin to talk about hate? Maybe I should begin with the mosque massacre in New Zealand, or perhaps the Tree of Life Synagogue horror in Pittsburgh. Or perhaps I ought to talk about the Muslim woman in Ann Arbor who was threatened with being set ablaze if she did not remove her hijab, or the Muslim woman in Minnesota who was beaten when she would not remove hers. I could start with the mother of a two-year-old who died from the flu and the hundreds of hate filled entries on her Facebook account from antivaxxers, or perhaps the parents of the children who died in school shootings and the continuing hate filled assault on them claiming that it was all a lie and they never had children to begin with. But then there was Matthew Shepherd killed for being gay. Or, I could list all the times black Americans have been the target of hate filled rage for entering their own apartments, speaking on the phone in hotel where they were registered guests, cleaning up their own front yards or swimming in a neighborhood pool, where they were members. Oh, and one last one, the 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets in 2018.
Hate, it is all around us. But it is not new. Long before this moment there was hate in Selma, Boston, Tulsa and Detroit. There was the Klan, slavery and segregation. There were the Texas Rangers who were above the law when it came to killing people of Mexican descent. There was Wounded Knee and the hatred of early colonists toward native peoples. But to fully understand hate, I think we need to stop and consider what we mean by the word. Biblically it means feelings of animosity toward another, or hostile words or deeds directed toward the innocent. What this means is that hate is a spectrum disorder. It begins on one end of the feelings spectrum that lead to jokes which demean persons because of their race, gender or language. It moves from there to hate speech, then to discrimination, then to threats of violence, then to actual acts of violence and then to genocide, again against others who are considered to unworthy of acceptance. It is a spectrum disorder, but it is also a disease that destroys both the hated and the hater. It is an act of mutually assured destruction. Hate leaves no one unscathed.
This is the kind of hate that Jesus witnessed around him in Galilee. The Romans hated the Galileans because they were always struggling for political independence. The Galileans hated the Romans because they were an oppressive, occupying power. The Galileans hated the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem because they considered those authorities to be corrupt and illegitimate. The authorities in Jerusalem hated the Galileans because they didn’t consider them real Jews. Then the Pharisees hated the Sadducees, and they all hated the Samaritans and the tax collectors. Hate was consuming Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem. And not long after Jesus’ death it would destroy the nation. And so it was in that air, thick with hatred that Jesus spoke words which would have shocked his audience. Rather than hating, they were to love. I believe that Jesus spoke these words because he believed that hatred was destroying Israel’s ability to live out its vocation as the one’s who were to bless all the nations. Only loving the world like God loved the world would make blessing the world possible. Only loving the world would lead to its transformation into the renewed creation. Hate would merely destroy.
Jesus then, in this passage addresses both those who are hated and those who hate. And he tells them that their escape will be through rehumanizing the other. First, he addresses how those being hated are to respond to the hate; and that is by creatively rehumanizing themselves in the eyes of the haters. Jesus does this in his three commands to turn the other cheek, to give up all of one’s clothes and to go the extra mile. These are not humility building exercises. They are rehumanizing exercises. In each of these actions, the one hating is forced to acknowledge the full humanity of the other because the actions, striking a second time, taking all of someone’s clothes and of allowing the person to go the extra mile were socially unacceptable. Thus, they are acts of defiance against the hate, which force the hater to acknowledge the humanity of the hated as someone deserving to be treated according to the law. Second, Jesus addresses those of his followers who hate. Rather than hate they are to rehumanize the ones they hate. They are to do so by praying and not hating. By loving and not taking revenge. I don’t know if you have ever tried this or not, but it is very hard to hate someone you are lifting to God. Through prayer, one is forced to see the other as a child of God, even if they are not the most likeable people. Jesus’ followers were to love and not hate, hoping that their enemies would become their friends.
We have been given a mission from God and that is to bless the world. We cannot do this if hate is part of our lives either as individuals or as a community. My challenge for all of us then, and especially in the intense atmosphere in which we are currently living, is to love and not hate and to pray for those with whom we are at odds, that God might use them to bless the world as well. So here is the question I would like you to ask for this week, how am I praying for those with whom I disagree and not merely for those whom I like?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 31, 2019
1 Kings 12:1-11; Matthew 20:20-28
He had a decision to make. Which way would he go? To understand Rehoboam’s decision tree, let’s take a quick look at our morning’s story. Rehoboam had been named king at the death of his father Solomon (who was not as wise as people make him out to be and was an incredibly brutal monarch). Following Rehoboam’s coronation, a delegation from the ten northern tribes of Israel came to him with a proposition. If he was nicer to them than his father had been, which would not have been difficult, they would be happy to be his subjects. Rehoboam, not sure what to do, asked them to come back in three days. To facilitate his decision, the king went to his older, wiser advisors. He asked them what he ought to do. Their answer was to agree to all the terms and conditions offered by the tribes. Not really liking that advice, the king went to the young men who had grown up with him in the palace in places of power and privilege. Their advice was to threaten the northern tribes with even worse treatment then his father had imposed. So, which would he choose? The answer unfortunately seems too obvious. He chose the latter...the way of absolute power. It proved again Edward Abbey’s comment that “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.” Oh, and the result of his choice? It was violence, civil war and the destruction of the kingdom.
While we might want to criticize Rehoboam for this decision, my guess is that deep down inside all of us is a desire to run the zoo; to organize the world, the nation or our lives, exactly the way we think that it ought to be. Unfortunately, this desire for power, when it leads to real power usually leads to death rather than life; to diminishment rather than to empowerment. One of the great experiments dealing with power occurred at Stanford University in 1973. One of the psychology professors was tasked with determining why prison guards tended to abuse their prisoners. Was it the prisoners? Was it the conditions? Was it the guards? He was not sure, so he created an experiment in which he would have students act the parts of prisoners and guards. He recruited 24 mentally healthy students to participate. Half of them were prisoners and half were guards. The prisoners were rounded up from their homes and placed in prison cells that had been created on the campus. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks but was cancelled in the sixth day because the “guards” had become so abusive to the prisoners that the professor feared for the prisoner’s mental health. One of the student guards later said he could not believe his own vicious actions. Again, “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.”
This understanding of power is on clear view in our Jesus’ story this morning. Jesus was moving toward Jerusalem and what his followers believed was that there would be a consolidation of power over the Roman legions and their Jewish colleagues. Not wanting her sons to miss out on the most powerful positions, Jesus’ aunt asked that her two sons, Jesus’ cousins, be given the most prestigious and powerful positions in the new kingdom; the seats at Jesus right and left hand. This made sense because positions of power were almost always consolidated within families. Though Jesus tried to explain what those positions entailed, which they did not understand, he then made it clear they were not his to give. Needless to say, when the other ten heard that they might miss out on being power brokers in the new kingdom, they went ballistic and their anger toward the two brothers boiled over. They were not about to be left out of the positions of power. they wanted their opportunity to dominate not only the Romans but the corrupt Jewish administration in Jerusalem. It was in that moment that Jesus decided to give a two-lesson short course on power in the Kingdom of God.
The first lesson could be called, “Uh, Uh, not in my house you don’t.” If any of you ever came home and said or did something you learned elsewhere, which was not acceptable in your own home…and your parents said, “That is not acceptable in our house”, then you know what was happening here. These are Jesus’ words. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you.” Jesus wanted to make it clear that this new kingdom was not like the old kingdom; that the Kingdom of God was not the Kingdom of Rome. And because of that, the way one operated was going to be different. And I want to be clear here what I believe this means. Some people, including Luther, interpreted this to mean that lording it over and being tyrants was OK out in the secular world; the world of governments and military might be like this, but it was not acceptable in the church. This is what some people refer to as two kingdom theology. In other words, Christians can be brutal to others in the public square, just not in the church. This is not what Jesus is saying. He is saying it is never acceptable, whether in the church or in government or in families, for his followers to act like Romans and use power to get their own way while oppressing others. It is not acceptable because it destroys rather than gives life; it tears down rather than builds up. And God is about life and building up.
The second lesson could be called, “Now this is real power.” Originally, I was going to go straight to Jesus’ words, but I think we need to pause. We need to pause because the words I am about to read have become such throw away words that I believe that they have lost their power. What I want us to do is to rethink them even before we hear them. Let me ask, how many of you have ever been in an airport? Used a restroom in an airport? Noticed the person cleaning up the restrooms? OK, keep that person in mind as we read Jesus’ words. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be the person who cleans the toilets in the airport. And whoever wishes to be first among you must be the one who cleans them forever without pay.” I say this because Jesus’ words about being servants and slaves would have hit his disciples in the gut, because his followers had servants and slaves. And the thought of having to trade places with those servants and slaves would have been unthinkable. Thus, when Jesus tells them that greatness and real power comes in serving others, it would have blown their minds. He would have been calling for them to radically rethink all their relationships, both with each other and with the world. And in so doing they would have discovered that service is real power because it lifts people up and helps them to understand that they are valued by God and others.
One of the great sins of the church is that we have either forgotten or ignored these words from Jesus. And that decision is what has led to the ongoing sexual abuse scandals in not only the Roman church but far too many protestant and independent churches as well; because that kind of abuse is not about sex but about power. It has led good church going folk to seek power in politics and to forget that they are to be servants and not overlords. Is has led to tens of thousands of women and children fleeing their homes because of abuse, some of the abuse even sanctioned by clergy. We have forgotten that this kind of power leads to diminishment rather then the empowerment of the image of God in others. What should we do then? The answer to this comes in a practice I will give you this morning. First look around you at the people sitting close to you. Now turn to them and say, “What can I do for you?” That’s right, turn and simply say, “What can I do for you?” See it isn’t that hard to say…and it isn’t that hard to do. But in so doing we become servants. We become those who, like Christ, serve others and in so doing help transform people and communities and the world into the realities that God desires them to be. That then i my challenge is that wherever you are this week, to look for opportunities to ask others, “What can I do for you” that you might help to transform the world.
Youth Sunday, March 24, 2019
Anger is consuming.
As you heard Emily say in this morning’s announcements, I am in the MRP’s production of West Side Story. Our final show is today at 2pm, in Marian’s auditorium – tickets are $10 at the door, but I’m not here to give a shameless plug. Some of you know how competitive landing a role in theatre can be; which is something very relatable to obtaining or climbing the ranks of employment. Now when I was auditioning for this year’s production, I was fairly confident in my position. Last year, I was the lead in the Little Mermaid, Prince Eric, and had taken up a leadership role in Choir at Marian. My goal was to receive the lead role of Tony, and I was determined, even a little conceited. I was on my game throughout the audition process. After the dancing and monologue portions, however, they didn’t even give me a chance to sing for Tony. I must have impressed the dance coach more than I expected though. Some of you may know, West Side Story is a dance heavy show. With dancing being something I have never been experienced in, I was shocked when I saw the cast list come out; I got casted as Riff, and a buddy of mine got the role of Tony. I was furious - I immediately went into my basement, hung up the punching bag, and unloaded on it. Still have scars on my knuckles to this day. The following days, I used some select words with my friend who got the role over me. I was very brutal with him, and I never knew how much it would affect him. All of these things I didn’t mean. I was blinded by anger and I never took into consideration how my friend would have felt, and I was wrongly searching for my own peace. Even though I was still jealous, I made amends with my friend and I have actually really enjoyed my role.
Of all the things in the human heart, anger can be one of the most intense, destructive, and unhealthy emotions that we can experience. If not handled in the proper way, it can have drastic life-changing consequences. Anger may be caused by pressures of work, family or even from being the innocent victim of another’s wrong-doing. If left unresolved, anger creates a deep desire to destroy.
Psalms 103 may be the “Mt. Everest” of praise psalms. The speaker here is David, written in his later-life. David begins by praising God for personal benefits, then moves on to God’s mercy toward all the people and how even sin cannot destroy that mercy. Slow to anger. He can be angry, and can deal out righteous retribution upon the guilty, but it is his work; his love remains long, giving space for repentance and opportunity for accepting his mercy. That is the grace of this passage, the good news. The Lord’s patience to anger with us is a virtue that we can only repay by becoming acquainted with asking for forgiveness. We ourselves must learn from this passage to be slow to anger.
This is the message of anger throughout the Bible. Ephesians 4:26-28 states “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” What should be taken away from here is that anger is a normal, human response to things that provoke anger. God gave us anger as an emotion for a reason. The harm caused is when we act upon our anger; that is when we are left to deal with the repercussions. This passage also tells us to “not let the sun go down on our anger.” This can be interpreted as an instruction to make amends with our neighbors when we do get angry. Many times, I’ll get angry at someone for something, and through human nature, I act on it. Then my actions cause that person, or another person to become angry. Now we are left with this pile of anger, and the more that time passes sitting on this anger, the larger the pile will grow. This can be due to many factors. Whether it’s lack of communication, past ordeals, or differing opinions, the expansion over time is the bane of anger.
There are also different levels to anger that should be deciphered very carefully. The angry we get when you stub a toe is incomparable to the anger of breaking your phone. The more substantial anger is especially hard to recognize because the anger can be so deep that we are unaware of the situation, or what is at stake. This is rage. I can say I have felt rage only a few times in my life, and they’re intensely surreal. Dealing with this type of anger is something that I struggle with as a Christian. Remember when I talked about hanging up that punching bag? That was my “healthy” way of exerting that anger. Various methods call for: a nap or some exercise – just a way to blow off the steam. Finding what way works for you is important.
In saying that, there can be such thing as healthy anger. We should be angry when our favorite basketball team loses a game, messing up all of our March Madness brackets. I’m looking at you Wisconsin. Anger can also motivate and inspire. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox came back from a 3-0 game deficit to win the World series, an event that would later go on to be on the most incredible moments in sports history. I can’t even imagine how upset those guys were by the end of the 3rd game. But see, they acted correctly on that anger. They translated the anger they were feeling into a positive energy, and it led them to greatness. As unbecoming as the thought of anger is, there is grace, it just needs to be utilized correctly.
Anger is consuming. But, there is a right and wrong way to handle it. God placed anger into us for a reason. We must be slow to anger, and never let the sun go down on our quarrels. We must be mature to anger, and never let it get the better of us. We must be cognizant to anger, and always be aware of the situation.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 17, 2019
Deuteronomy 24:17-22; 1 Timothy 6:710
Twenty-three billion dollars. It may not seem like a lot of money to some people in D.C., but it seems like a great deal to me. And it ought to seem like a great deal to most of us because it is the value of commercial fishing and recreational boating on the Great Lakes. In other words, the Great Lakes are a significant economic generator for all the states that border the lakes. Unfortunately, all of this could be at risk because of a single fish, the Asian Carp. The Asian Carp, even though it is actually four species of Carp, has the ability to destroy the entire Great Lakes eco-system if it is given a chance. It can do so because it has a voracious appetite allowing it to consume between five and twenty percent of its weight each day. It is an eating machine that knows no bounds. If allowed to do so it would consume almost all the food used by all other species of fish in the lake. In addition, they have this nasty habit of leaping up out of the water at the sound of propellers, and hitting people in the face, knocking them down. Thus, making recreation on the Lakes a lot less appealing. So why am I talking about Asian Carp? I am doing so because I want you to think of Greed as the Asian Carp of God’s relational ecosystem. Let me explain.
The Biblical story is that when God created the world, God created it in such a way that all living beings, plant, animal and human, could flourish. God created an ecosystem in which all living things could live together, share this planet and flourish. In terms of human beings, this ecosystem had two components that would allow them to flourish. The first was a vertical component. The vertical component was that human beings were to look “upward” to God for love, forgiveness, guidance and direction. If human beings did so they could flourish by being open to God’s gifts and by giving thanks back to God. The second component was horizontal. This was the interconnectedness of all humanity. Like tree roots in forests that intertwine for shared support and nourishment, human societies were designed to be able to work together to support and nourish one another. In this eco-system, human beings could reach for and find their purpose and reach their potential, each living into their calling to be God’s children. This time, though, unlike the possible consequences of Asian Carp in the Lakes, Greed has already done great damage to this relational ecosystem.
First Greed has damaged the vertical aspect of this system. To see this, we can go to the Greek definition of greed, which is, “An insatiable desire for more.” When it says more, it means greed is not limited to money. Greed is an insatiable desire for more of anything: money, power, sex, fame, tech-toys. The Roman philosopher Seneca put it this way, “For greed, all of nature is too little.” Greed is like trying to fill a bucket with water when there is a massive hole in the bottom. Regardless of how much one puts in, it will run right out. And this type of greed damages the vertical portion of the ecosystem because those who are possessed by greed never “look up.” They never turn their eyes toward God looking to be filled with the good gifts that God offers; the good gifts that God desires to give to human beings, peace and contentment. Instead, greed causes people to keep their eyes on the horizon always looking for more…more of whatever it is that they believe they must have. More of what will not fill them.
Second, greed damages the horizontal portion of the ecosystem. To see this, we can go to a Hebraic understanding of greed, which is, “a selfish or excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved, regardless of the consequences to individuals or humanity.” This understanding lives in the world of the zero-sum game, which sees individual attainment as the only goal. In other words, if you have something, it means there is less for me. Therefore, I must not only desire more than I need or deserve, but I will do whatever is necessary to get it. This damages the horizontal ecosystem because it sees “the other” not as a partner, but as a competitor, an enemy to be defeated so that what they have, I can take because I deserve it. This leads is to injustice. As Julian Casablancas puts it, “Greed is the inventor of injustice as well as its current enforcer.” This is the greed that led to slavery and child labor. This is the greed that allows Payday lenders to charge an average annual interest rate of 400%. This is the greed that damages human relationships, communities and our world.
What ought we to do then? In this face of greed which is damaging God’s relational ecosystem, what ought we to do?
First, we begin by reestablishing the vertical dimension of the ecosystem. We do this by remembering. The writer of Deuteronomy tells his readers that they are to remember that once upon a time they were slaves and that God redeemed them. This reminder is intended to draw God’s people, including us, back into the story of God’s providing love. For it was God who heard the cries of God’s people. It was God who freed them. It was God who clothed and fed them. It was God who gave them this land flowing with milk and honey. It is God who waters the land. In other words, we are to restore the vertical by remembering that all that we have is a gift. And as gifts are not to be greedily sought, they are to be thankfully received. When we do this, we look up and we connect again with the God who desires to fill our emptiness with the goodness of love and communion.
Second, we then move to reestablishing the horizontal dimension of the ecosystem. We do this by restoring. Again, the writer of Deuteronomy tells his readers, including us, that we are not only to look up to God and remember God’s mighty work for them with thanksgiving, but that we are then to restore the fortunes of those who have little hope. We are to ensure that aliens and orphans, those with no power, are given justice, meaning that they are not taken advantage of or harmed in any way. We are not to take a widow’s garment in pledge, meaning we are to insure that the widow is warm and protected. When we take for ourselves the fruits of our work, like wheat and grapes, the very sustenance of life, we are not to take them all, but we are to share them with those who do not have. And by doing all these things, we reestablish the interconnectedness of humanity, which will according to the writer, allow God to bless all of our undertakings.
A tendency to greed is in us and around us. It is part of the context of human existence. Yet it does not have to rule us, which is why this church community matters. For it is here that each week we work to reestablish our vertical connection with God. And it is here and from here that we work to reestablish our relationships with those who struggle by sharing what we have, that all might have enough. Today there is a special opportunity for all of us to help rebuild that wider community of humanity. And that is, at 6pm at the Muslim Unity Center there will be a vigil in support of the Muslim community of New Zealand. I would encourage as many of you as possible to attend as a way of moving away from Greed and toward a greater humanity.
My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I healing God’s relational ecosystem through looking up to God and sharing what I receive with others.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 10, 2019
Exodus 32:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4
I am going to begin this morning by reading you a list of things and I would like you to figure out what these all have in common. Here we go. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, crucifix, statue of the Virgin Mother, drugs, rap music, cell phones, iPads, video games, the Trinity, movies, pornography, sex, nice clothes, expensive cars, church, cross jewelry, the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and all their stadiums, Nike apparel, money, military power, border walls, guns, the flag, restaurants, relationships and my favorite, Alexa. And for those of you who don’t know Alexa, she is not a she, but a voice activated personal assistant. What do these things have in common? They are all, according to the internet, idols. They are things that we worship other than God. While some of these may not come as a surprise, chances are that many of them do. And they do so because we know what an idol is. It is a statue that people worship. It is the Golden Calf of the Great Golden Calf Incident in Exodus 32. However, I believe that a retelling of the Golden Calf story, and its basic theme, meaning the saving work of God, will help us make a connection between that calf and all the things mentioned above.
Let’s begin. The Israelites initially arrive in Egypt because God is saving them from a famine. Unfortunately, they become slaves and their life is hard. They cry out to God for deliverance. God hears their voices and sends Moses and Aaron to negotiate with Pharaoh for their release. The negotiations do not go well, but then God sends a few plagues and the people are given their freedom. As they leave, God has the Egyptians give the former slaves all sorts of parting gifts including gold jewelry. Once the people were in the wilderness, God provides them with water and food. Knowing that the people need guidance by which to live, God calls Moses to Mt. Sinai to receive the law. While Moses was gone, the people began to be afraid. God didn’t seem to be around, and Moses was running late. Rather than wait for either of them to show up, the people melt down their rings and make an object, a calf, which they then declared to be their god, and they worshipped it (note the theme…everything they have is a gift of God). What this means is that they chose to worship the gift rather than the giver (Calvin’s definition of idolatry) and in so doing made something other than God the giver the primary object of devotion. Thus, anything or anyone we make the primary object of our devotion, can be an idol.
Making something or someone, other than God, that is the primary object of devotion; that is the working definition I would like to use this morning to describe idolatry. What I mean by the primary object of our devotion is not simply describing that one person or thing to whom we bring a valentine card, or flowers on their birthday. Something becomes the primary object of our devotion when it becomes that something or someone on which we focus most of our time, talent, treasures and trust because it is the one which we believe will give us meaning, purpose and protection. (Jesus reminds us of this when he says that our hearts are where our treasure is.) Looking for someone or something other than God to become the primary object of our devotion makes sense because, as human beings, we live a tenuous existence. As corporeal beings, we live in a world we cannot control and one from which death will one day take us. This leads to anxiety and insecurity. Because of these two realities we seek that which can organize our lives in such a way that we find meaning, purpose and protection. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it is far easier to find that security in something we can see, touch and perhaps taste, than it is in an invisible God. This seeking explains Calvin’s statement that the human mind is an idol factory…always looking for the next thing that can be the primary object of our devotion in which we can find meaning, purpose and protection. What this means then is that all those things I first listed, if we allow them, can be idols.
Why is that a problem? Why shouldn’t we make something we can see, touch or taste the primary object of our devotion? There are two Biblically based answers I would offer.
First, making someone or something other than God the primary object of our devotion will ultimately bring disappointment, fear, anxiety and not joy. Let me ask, how many of you have ever had buyer’s remorse? Right, and we have it because the things we cannot live without, that we must have, that will make us complete, always let us down. They will let us down because they do not, in the end, possess the power to give our lives meaning, purpose and protection. While they may claim to do so, sooner or later they will fail us, and we will have idolater’s remorse. People will not live up to our expectations, objects will break, politicians will let us down, those things that we believed we could not live without…there will be something better next week. What happens then is that we go looking for the next thing to take their place with a sense of disappointment and not joy. If you want to see how this works, simply look at our beloved Detroit Lions. At the beginning of each season we invest ourselves in them, don our liturgical sports clothing, visit their downtown temples, perform the appropriate liturgy (the wave, making noise when the other team has the ball…you get it) and believe that this will be the year. However, somewhere toward the end of the season we begin to feel disappointment set in once again, leaving us unfilled, disappointed and empty. This is what happens every time we make something or someone other than God the primary object of our devotion...we end up with idolaters remorse.
Second, making persons or things the primary object of our devotion, gets in the way of us receiving what God wants to give us. When I was a child, we only had one television. I know, it is hard to imagine such deprivation, but it’s true. And whenever I would wander in front of it and become mesmerized by its glowing images, I would stop and stare, which proves that some things never change…and then my father would say, “John you make a better door than a window.” At which time I would realize I was blocking the view. This is what idolatry does. It blocks our view of God. It keeps us from seeing and receiving all that God has to offer. For God desires to give us a love that is deep, wide and eternal. God desires to gives us safety that will watch over and care for us regardless of what happens in our lives. God desires to fill our lives with meaning and purpose as God’s own children, called to love and be loved. When we allow objects, people or things, to come between us and God, they become better doors than windows and keep us from receiving all that God desires for us.
How then do we keep the appropriate perspective? How do we keep our minds from making things in this world the primary object of our devotion? The answer is to look up. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Colossians, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above.” What he means is that we keep our eyes, our minds and our hearts appropriately oriented toward God in Christ, such that it is only in God that we seek meaning, purpose and protection. It means that we consciously orient ourselves daily to the One from whom all life and love flows. The gift of doing this is twofold. First, it allows us to receive all the gifts of meaning, purpose and protection that God desires we receive. We can become people who live with hope and not disappointment, with peace and not anxiety, with joy and not sorrow. Second is allows us to enjoy the gifts that God gives us. We can enjoy the Lions without being depressed when they do not win the Super Bowl. We can enjoy our relationships, our tech and our travels for what they are, knowing that we are not dependent on them to make us whole.
My challenge to you then is twofold this week. First, I ask you to make a personal inventory of your life, looking for those things that you might have made into the primary object of your devotion and when you find them, remind yourself that they are gifts and not the giver. Second, it is to daily look up; to look up to God throughout the day, reminding yourself that it is in this giver alone that we can find meaning, purpose and protection.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 3, 2019
Ecclesiastes 1:12-18; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
This morning I want to test a hypothesis of mine, but to do so I need some polling data. So I want to begin this morning by asking you about some popular television shows. How many of you watch Dancing with the Stars? The Voice? Project Runway? Jeopardy? America’s Got Talent? American Ninja Warrior? Your answers confirm my hypothesis that Americans love competition. We love to watch as people compete to be the best in whatever area in life it is in which they excel. What we need to realize though is that this is not only not just an American phenomenon, but it is a world-wide phenomenon. I say this because most of these shows have counterparts in other places in the world. What we also need to realize is that this is not a modern phenomenon. Almost all societies have had forms of competition in which people try and prove themselves to be best, including in the time of Paul in the Roman Empire. And if they had named one of the most popular competitions it would have been called “Who’s Got Wisdom.” It was a show in which philosophers from across the Empire tried to demonstrate that they were the ones who had more wisdom than anyone else.
What was wisdom? It was the ability to discern the fundamental nature of reality and to show people how they ought to live in harmony with that reality. Let me say that again. Wisdom is the ability to discern the fundamental nature of reality and to show people how they ought to live in harmony with that reality. In this game there were Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists, Pythagoreans and others who attempted to convince their audiences that their conception of the fundamental nature of reality was the correct one. They did so with incredible eloquence. They did so with erudite arguments. They did so through particular forms of argument. They did so at great length. Which is why, the Christians were in trouble. They were in trouble because it would be more than two centuries before they had someone who could compete, on Who’s Got Wisdom. What about Paul, you might ask. Well, unfortunately his lack of conventional wisdom and ability to express it was leading the Corinthians to not only vote him off the show, but out of their lives. This Corinthian church, as we discover in this letter, which he had started, was looking for new leaders with a new message who would do more than, “preach Christ and him crucified.”
The Apostle could have walked away and allowed them to abandon their faith, but he refused, and instead, made the argument, even if it was in a very sarcastic manner, that he, and not the arrogant Corinthians, or the local philosophers had true wisdom. This is how Paul puts it. “God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” What Paul is saying is that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection demonstrated the fundamental nature of the universe. And that fundamental nature, as the Apostle will go on to say, was God loves the world. In other words, God’s sending of Jesus demonstrated that there was a loving God who so desired the restoration of creation that this God sent the only Son, in order that humanity could live in right relationship with God and each other as renewed human beings who are free from the power of sin. This is what he means by righteousness, sanctification and redemption. This world-wide transformation then would allow humanity to live together peacefully, as a single community, regardless of any differences in worldly conditions. And it would allow them to do so in peace and harmony. This was real wisdom.
If we were to continue reading this letter, we would see that Paul does not stop with the first half of the wisdom equation. He continues by telling them how they were to live in harmony with this fundamental reality of the universe, God’s love for the world. The way in which they were to do so was to respond with love of God and of neighbor. I realize that we spend a great deal of time talking about this love of God and neighbor, but its importance cannot be over stated, because it mattered to the Corinthians as it matters to us. It mattered to them because the Corinthians were a community divide by wealth, social station, education, freedom, religious background and citizenship. Each of these differences diminished the church’s ability to live wisely; to live in harmony with fundamental nature of the universe by loving one another. And this inability meant that the members of this divided community could not experience life in all its fullness. They would be less than the God of the universe designed them to be. This my friends, I would argue, is where we find ourselves. We find ourselves in families, communities and a nation divided in the same way. We live in a time in which the wisdom of God is not transforming us or the world. Thus, this is a moment when true wisdom from God is needed more than ever. The question is, will we listen to and be instructed by it.
My friends, we have been given a gift, true wisdom. We have been given the insight that true wisdom from God is the willingness to be loved by God and to love in God’s name. These two realities are what will allow this world to live fully into its potential as a recreated world. The challenge that I want to give you this morning is this, as you partake of the elements, ask yourselves, how am I living wisely such that I might help my family, my community and my nation live in harmony with God’s love for the world in and through Jesus Christ?
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
Pastors and Associate Pastors: Dr. John Judson, Rev. Joanne Blair, Dr. Kate Thoresen, Rev. Ted Thode