Sunday, July 11, 2010

Being a Christian in Today's World -- A Sermon

Luke 10:25-37

Growing up, my world seemed pretty simple. Being religious meant being a Christian. I didn't know many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. I didn't really even know anything about them. About as exotic as any of my friends got was being a Mormon. Today things are different, even if we don't always notice it. Mosques, synagogues, and Temples are everywhere. Just go two miles up Adams, and you’ll see a Hindu Temple under construction. Continue on up to Auburn Road and take a right, as you head toward Rochester Road, you’ll see two different mosques, one on the left and one on the right. Further down you’ll find an Albanian Catholic church, and then coming back down John R, at the corner of Long Lake, you’ll find a Romanian Pentecostal church. Turning right on Wattles, you’ll come to a Serbian Orthodox Church sitting next to Troy Athens High School, and then further on down Wattles, you’ll find a Croatian Catholic Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, a Jehovah’s Witness church, and a Reformed Jewish Synagogue. Scattered all along this route you’ll find Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, evangelical, Presbyterian, Methodist, and many other traditions. This is just a bit of the religious world I experience all the time, driving around this community.

It is common to hear people say, I'm not religious, but I am spiritual. People who speak of themselves in such a manner tend to be theologically eclectic and often stay clear of the kinds of religious communities I just mentioned. They’re concerned that such entities, whether big or small, Christian or not, might put boundaries on their ability to pick and choose what they believe and practice. With all of this religious diversity, from the institutional to the non-institutional, what does it mean to be a Christian? Or perhaps better, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in today’s world?


1. Being a Follower of Jesus Today

To get this admittedly rhetorical conversation going, I’ll give you a definition of what it means to be a Christian. Your definition might differ from mine, but that’s okay. This is just the beginning of our conversation.

A Christian is a follower of Jesus whose life is formed by a relationship with the God whom Jesus revealed to the world, when he took on flesh, lived, and died, and then was raised from the dead, so that in him all things might be made new. Yes, and a Christian is someone who loves God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength, and then loves one’s neighbor as oneself.

Maybe your definition adds to or subtracts from this brief statement, but hopefully we can all agree that if we love God and seek to follow Jesus, then this relationship with God will impact the way we live our lives.

In order for us to stay in relationship with God, we must nourish that relationship by spending time in God's presence. There are many spiritual practices that can aid in nurturing the faith we profess. We can talk to God through our prayers and listen for God's voice in quiet meditation. We can read and contemplate the scriptures, aided by other devotional and theological works. There is music and there is nature, which stir our souls and lead us back to the God who made all of this possible. Nurturing this relationship can and should happen both in moments spent alone with God and in moments spent in the company of others – especially as we gather together at the Lord’s Table. This love for God, which is nurtured by our faith practices, should lead naturally to loving our neighbor. As the prophet Micah put it, God has called us to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" (Mic. 6:8).


2. Living in Right Relationship with Your Neighbor


But, who is this neighbor that we’re supposed to love? That’s what the lawyer wanted to know! He wanted to know where the boundaries were. From the nature of the discussion it would appear that his neighborhood was smaller than that of Jesus.

Jesus answered the lawyer’s question with a parable that turned his world and ours upside down. It wouldn’t be a priest or a Levite, the religious leaders of the day, who would exemplify this love of neighbor. Instead, it would be a Samaritan. This suggestion must have repulsed the lawyer, who likely viewed Samaritans as dirty, evil, and detestable! To get a sense of his surprise, think in terms of an illegal alien from Mexico giving aid to a white suburbanite in Phoenix, as a pastor and an elder from a good middle class Protestant church pass by.

Mohandas Gandhi wasn’t a Christian, but he offers us a good example of the kind of neighbor Jesus is envisioning. It’s interesting that Jesus was one of the influences on Gandhi’s ethic of nonviolence. He took seriously Jesus' call to turn the other cheek and he used it effectively to lead his people to independence, in part by reminding the British of the teachings of their own faith. Gandhi would have appreciated the question everyone was asking just a few years back: “What would Jesus do?” Although Jesus didn't give us instructions on how to deal with modern technology or national policy discussions, he did show us how to love God and neighbor. I don't know what kind of car he would drive – remember he was known for walking -- but I do think that Jesus would have agreed with Micah, when the prophet says that God requires of us justice, loving kindness, and humility as we walk with God.


  • JUSTICE:

Martin Luther King had a dream "that one day this nation will rise up, and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." We still haven't reached that day. Racism and discrimination are still with us. After 9/11 many Muslims became victims of prejudice and fear. Christian preachers continue to disparage Islam, Muhammad, and Muslims. Then there’s the issue of immigration, which we as a nation have been unable to resolve. In calling us to love our neighbor, I believe that Jesus wants us to work for the good of everyone, no matter their religion, politics, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, race, or social class.

Although we all fall short in this calling, sometimes things begin to change for us when a new relationship stirs us to action. I had never really thought much about the place of women in church or society until I met Kari. We worked together at a Christian book store when I was in seminary. We quickly became close friends, and since both of us were studying theology and ministry – she at a local Bible college and me at the seminary – we talked a lot about her call to ministry. Although she had the gifts and the calling, her faith community put limits on what she could do. Through our friendship I received a gentle nudge from the Spirit to become an advocate for the equality of women in church and society. Some of you may have felt a similar push from the Spirit on other issues. Being a Christian means being an advocate for justice and that means advocating for the equality of all human beings, even those we don't agree with!



  • LOVING KINDNESS:

Christian faith leads to compassion and mercy toward others, no matter who they are. The Samaritan didn't ask the injured man about his religion, race, economic status, immigration status, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. He was simply moved with pity for a person in need. Consider Mother Theresa, she didn’t ask about the background of the lepers she served in India. She saw the need and got busy. Sharing God’s loving kindness with my neighbor might lead me to volunteer with hospice, serve meals at a homeless shelter, build houses in Mexico or in Detroit, or care for AIDS victims as they face death.


  • HUMILITY:

Being a Christian also means being humble. Humility recognizes that we don't have all the answers. It leaves room for doubt, and it allows us to listen to the voice of others. We like to be right and we want our answers black and white, with no shades of gray. As Joe Friday used to say, "Just the facts, ma'am." But, in today's postmodern, pluralistic world we must be ready to hear God’s voice in unexpected ways. Disciple pastor Jan Linn speaks of living with "clear ambiguity." That is, sometimes the answers we seek are "as clear as mud." (Jan Linn, How to be an Open-minded Christian without Losing Your Faith, Chalice Press, 2002, p.72).

As Christians living in the 21st Century, we face difficult and complicated questions, and often we don’t have a clear and unequivocal word from God. Issues like the environment, immigration, war, divorce, homosexuality, the use of alcohol, capital punishment, abortion, and the role of women in the church all stand before us. Devout Christians take stands on all sides of these issues, so, what should we do? It takes humility to stop and listen to the other side. History can help us in this. Remember that in the 19th century many Christians believed that it was okay to have slaves. After all, Paul told slaves to obey their masters. It took a war to get our attention, but today most American Christians abhor slavery.

It isn't easy being a Christian. But then justice, compassion, and humility don't come easily. Fortunately, we have a loving and gracious God, who is slow to anger and quick to show mercy. God's wondrous grace allows us to take risks. If we fall, the Spirit is there to lift us up. So, as we consider our calling to be a Christian in today's world, let us recite and meditate upon the “Prayer of St. Francis,” (Chalice Hymnal, 468), praying that God will make each of us an instrument of God’s peace in today's world.
 
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith ;
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy



O divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 11, 2010
7th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, July 04, 2010

True Freedom

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Today is the Fourth of July, a day that Americans set aside to celebrate the nation’s independence from British rule. Over the next few days, there will be parades, fireworks, picnics, and more, but, as much as we enjoy celebrating the freedoms we have as Americans, we come to this place and time with a broader sense of freedom and loyalties.

I’m returning to the text I used last year for the Fourth of July weekend, because, like last year, I’d like to address the issue of freedom. This text from Galatians is foundational if we’re to understand what it means to truly be free – not as Americans, but as followers of Christ. The question before is simple: What is the nature of true freedom?

The question maybe simple, but each answer to that question carries with it certain implications. Paul’s definition and its implications differ those of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed that freedom was a natural right, which was self-evident. Paul believed that true freedom is revealed by God, and Paul understood that one could be free even if the political context was repressive. Today the nation celebrates political freedoms that were won on the battlefield, but interestingly enough when this nation declared its independence from Britain, asserting that it was self-evident that “all men” are created equal and had the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it defined “all men” fairly narrowly. It didn’t apply to African-American slaves, Native Americans, and in many ways didn’t apply to women, even white women.

Now, when it comes to love of country, I consider myself as much a patriot as the next person. But, to love one’s country doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to its history and to its errors. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t criticize our country, especially when we see something that is, in our minds, unjust or immoral. Yes, I love my country, but it’s not a blind loyalty. But, whatever it is that we celebrate today as a nation, for Christians it must come must not supersede our love of God and love for neighbors, including those who live far beyond national boundaries.



1. The Nature of Our Freedoms

As we consider the question of the nature of freedom, it might be worth considering the variety of freedoms that are possible. Shortly before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt defined four primary freedoms, which he believed should be guaranteed to every human being.



  • Freedom of speech and expression

  • Freedom of Worship

  • Freedom from Want

  • Freedom from Fear

At the time President Roosevelt defined these basic human freedoms, much of the world was at war. Although the United States had yet to join the battle, Roosevelt understood that freedom was in the balance. By 1941, the Axis Powers seemed unstoppable, and yet Roosevelt spoke with great optimism about a future in which freedom would win out over tyranny. He declared:

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called "new order" of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
He believed that the dictators of his day would be turned back; and he was correct. The Axis Powers were defeated, but at a great cost in human life. Unfortunately, freedom is a rather fragile gift to humanity, and it didn’t take long before new dictators emerged. Yes, we often dream of freedom, but it remains something difficult to achieve and to maintain.

As much as we rejoice in the freedoms that we have attained in this country, it’s important for us as Christians to understand that true freedom doesn’t depend upon our place of residence. The early Christians, the people who received Paul’s word about freedom, lived under imperial Roman rule. If you’re a good historian, you’ll know that Roman rule was a mixed blessing. The Monte Python film we discussed last week reminds us, that not everyone living within the borders of the Empire loved the Romans. Yes, the Romans did bring aqueducts, roads, sanitation, education, safety, and order, many of the things that people enjoy, but there was a trade off. They lost their freedom to determine their own future.

Our freedom, however, doesn’t derive from the political order or even natural law – what Jefferson called “Nature’s God.” Our freedom is a gift of Christ, which we can enjoy no matter the circumstances. Paul writes that we should stand firm in this freedom and never again submit to any “yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Of the four freedoms that President Roosevelt outlined, the one that is most related to what Paul has in mind here, is the “freedom from fear.” Roosevelt, however, had in mind a reduction in armaments, but Paul’s understanding was even more basic. He told the Galatian church not to let others enslave them with opinions, anger, or rules, especially when these opinions and rules stand contrary to the Gospel.



2. Freedom to Serve

When Paul tells the Galatian Christians to not submit to “the yoke of slavery,” he had in mind the question of circumcision, which had divided that church. What is interesting is that Paul proclaimed a message of freedom, but then placed some boundaries on its exercise. Even though we are free in Christ, this doesn’t give us the right to indulge that freedom. Instead, we should become “slaves to one another” through love. Don’t let humanly devised rules and regulations keep you from experiencing God’s healing presence. Remember that it’s not the circumcision of the flesh that saves us, but rather the transformation of the heart. Or, as Jesus noted, it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you, it’s what comes out of it (Matt. 15:11). Because you’re now free in Christ, you can choose to serve your neighbor. You could do otherwise, but if you’re truly free, you’ll serve and love your neighbor as yourself. True freedom may not come from the state, but if we act out of God’s freedom, then our freely chosen acts of service to humanity and to the entire created order will have definite political consequences. That is because, by becoming a slave to our neighbor, we put their needs before our own.



3. The Fruit of Freedom

Despite this freedom, which comes to us as a gift of God, there’s a reason why we have laws. We seem inclined to indulge ourselves, rather than serve our neighbors. Paul tells us what freedom gone to seed looks like, and it’s not pretty. Freedom gone bad produces such things as idolatry, anger, strife, jealousy, and dissension. He tells his readers that people who indulge themselves in this way will not inherit the Kingdom of God. That sounds harsh, but Paul wanted this church to understand the seriousness of this issue.

But, when freedom is rooted in the Spirit of God, we will bear fruit, and against this, there is no law. The fruit of the Spirit consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. If we will focus on these fruit of the Spirit’s movement in our lives, then we will see our lives transformed, and we will then be free to go out into the world, taking with us the message of God’s liberty.



4. Freedom and Responsibility

From this list of fruit, I’d like to pause and focus on self control. Freedom without self-control leads to anarchy, and if our freedom isn’t tempered by self-control there will be much grief.

You might find it a bit ironic, but without freedom there can be no responsibility, and yet the more freedom we have, the more responsibility we must take on. As Paul says elsewhere: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 6:12). If self-indulgence is our goal, we won’t stop to consider how our choices affect others. When that happens our freedom – whether as individuals or as nations -- becomes destructive.

Yes, it’s a good thing to celebrate the freedoms that we as Americans enjoy, but more importantly, it’s imperative that we remember that to be truly free is to serve our neighbors in love, and that goes way beyond being an American.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Sixth Sunday of Pentecost
July 4, 2010