Wonder Boi Writes

Sunday’s Sermon

Alert:  This is not one of my book blogs. This post contains the sermon I preached at Fredonia Presbyterian Church last weekend. Several people have asked to see it so I’m sharing it here. If you’re not a spiritual person, or simply don’t like sermons feel free to pass, but come back later in the week for more news on Perfect Pairing.  For the rest of you, brace yourselves I had a lot to say.

Scripture reading: Acts 5:27-32

When Cynthia first asked me to preach the week after Easter, I thought for sure I’d get ol’ doubting Thomas from the lectionary. I had lots of things to say about Thomas. I was already writing that sermon in my head.

Then I actually checked the lectionary and realized I hadn’t drawn Thomas at all. I’d drawn Peter. Not only did I get Peter, I got him uttering a line that’s been used and abused by so many people that I cringe when I hear it: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

I have to admit, my first reaction was to just abandon the lectionary. I do not like this passage. I find this passage to be dangerous. This passage was used by segregationists to justify institutional racism even after the courts ruled it unconstitutional. This verse was recently used by Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to marry gay couples under her jurisdiction. This verse has even been used by people who bomb abortion clinics. It’s been used repeatedly by people who believe they can say and do whatever they want to make their point because they have God on their side. No. I wouldn’t preach on this.

Then I read it again. The whole passage. People who like to throw the verse around rarely give any context. In fact, I didn’t remember ever hearing any of the other parts, but I did remember the first time I’d heard that particular verse. In college I was with a group observing the National Day of Silence, which involves taking an eight-hour vow of silence to symbolize the way our culture silences gay youth. We were sitting silently on the quad when a religious group surrounded us and began preaching about how we would all burn in hell. We sat silently, helpless, unable to even raise our own voices in our defense. A university official finally came by and told them that what they were doing was not only hurtful, it was against the university’s non-discrimination policy. One of the preachers said, “We don’t have to follow the university rules because the Bible says we must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Later I was disheartened to hear how many of my friends just accepted that viewpoint. One student said, “I don’t believe in God anymore. There can’t be a loving God who lets his followers treat people like that.” No one questioned the verse or suggested it had been misused. They all just took it for granted that Christians had cart blanche to preach hate. I was heartbroken. For them, for me, for Christianity as a whole, and mostly for the God I believe loves me so much he died so I could have a relationship with him. A handful of bigots had ruined that relationship for all of us by claiming to speak for Him.

I guess by now you can tell I decided to preach on this passage after all. I don’t really believe in dumb luck, or coincidence, at least not where scripture is concerned. If nothing else, I can offer a unique perspective on the subject.

I feel well situated to talk about the consequences that claiming to speak for God can have on others. It seems obvious to me that those sorts of actions, the ones meant to silence other people or negate someone’s identity are hurtful. It follows logically that they’d be even more hurt if the person in question actually believed these things are done on behalf of God. And yet so few people who use God’s name seem to draw the connection. Obviously when someone invokes God to make a point, they’re trying to play a pretty big trump card, but I wonder if they actually stop to consider anything beyond affirming their own sense of self-righteousness. Do they ever think about what happens AFTER they’ve made their point?

Once at the Martin Luther King center in Atlanta, I saw an exhibit photo of a man sitting outside his restaurant with a shotgun across his lap and a sign quoting Bible verses about slaves and curses on Africans. He seemed to imply that those verses gave him a moral obligation to refuse service to African-Americans. I’ve often wondered what he thought African-Americans would make of his God. Did he really expect them to read his sign and say, “Well gee, he makes a good point. Maybe I should go back to being a slave”? Did it occur to him that his behavior might make people question the worthiness or even the existence of his God? Did he even care if he turned people away from God? Probably not. In his mind, he was right.

I think that’s human nature. We usually think we’re right. We rarely stake our emotions or our public perception on something we know to be false. We hold onto our core values so tightly because we believe them to be fundamentally true. Especially when it comes to the big-ticket beliefs surrounding things like politics or money or religion or baseball. Even though we all know we have flaws, we tend to think even those come from some reasonable place.

When there was a disagreement recently in the Spangler household, I had to report to a friend that Susie had been right and I had been wr… I was wro …Susie was right, and I was less right. It happens. We’re human. Sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we are less right. And because I’m usually the one in my relationships who is less right, I like to think I have a certain amount of understanding for other people who fall into the same category.

Most of us come from a good place, or even when we don’t come from a good place, we have a good reason. We’re hurt or scared or have been lied to. I have a lot of patience for people who are wrestling with hard things, because I’ve been there. But my fuse grows a lot shorter the moment people drag God into their arguments, because I’ve been there, too. It’s one thing to say, “I believe what you’re doing is abhorrent.” It’s another thing to say, “God thinks what you’re doing is abhorrent.”

Disagreements are part of life. Even disagreements about issues of faith. We’ve all had disagreements with other Christians. Many of us have even disagreed with a stated position of the church. And I think that’s a good thing. It challenges us, but it’s an even better thing that we’re all still here. I think for most of us, the good side of our religion has far outweighed the bad over the course of our lifetimes.

But we no longer live in a time where the bulk of people identify religiously. We cannot work under the assumption that the people we interact with have a lifetime of other experiences to draw from. Recent polls suggest that less than 30% of Americans attend church on a regular basis, and those numbers are dropping steadily for younger generations. For many people, especially young people, we have to assume we might be their only connection to the church, and in some cases their only connection to God. We may only get one shot to show them the God we serve. If we make a mistake in our own name, they could decide they don’t care to be around us any more. But if we make a mistake in the name of God, we could forever turn them away from the very concept of a loving creator.

Maybe in that moment we don’t care. To be honest, a lot of us, myself included, can get carried away. We can get so sure that we’re right, or that the person we’re arguing with too is so far gone they wouldn’t know Jesus if he descend from the clouds right then and there. I’ve been so scared or angry or hurt that all I wanted to do was end the argument by any means necessary, and if that meant calling on God to land a decisive blow, I would gladly do so. That’s not my most Christian impulse, but sometimes it’s really hard to consider the consequences of claiming God when we don’t particularly care about the person we’re arguing with. But what about the consequences to ourselves?

A very good writer once told me to be extra careful when spelling someone’s name. She said a person’s name is how they are made known to the world, and when you misspell someone’s name, you have, in all likelihood, used someone else’s name. What if the same is true for God? If we misuse the name of God, have we indeed called on someone else?

I’m a big fan of the theology of C.S. Lewis. Jackson and I are currently reading his Narnia books. My favorite of them is The Last Battle. It’s an “end of times” sort of story, and in the book the God figure, a lion called Aslan, has come in this rapture-esque moment and welcomes a man into heaven even though he lived a faithful life serving a god of a different name. The man says there must be a mistake because he never worshiped Aslan, but Aslan says that he had, actually. He explains that all good deeds are done in his name because he is the embodiment of all things good. And all bad deeds are done in the name of the devil or false gods.

In some ways it’s a comforting thought that all good deeds are done to the glory of God, but the other side is quite terrifying when you think about it. Anytime we claim the name of God wrongly, we have, in fact, participated in the worship of something other than God, whether that’s a false deity, or an idol cast in our own image.

Damage within and damage without. With one wrong assertion, we could separate ourselves and anyone else we happen to be dealing with from a full and close relationship with God. That’s a lot of pressure.

I wonder if Peter felt that kind of pressure when he stood before the councils in Jerusalem and then Rome. He seems so confident. Peter seems confident in a lot of passages actually, but he’s been wrong before. He’s the guy who denied Jesus three times on the eve of the crucifixion, so there’s kind of a precedent for him mucking these sorts of things up. Yet when most of the powerful leaders in his world had made laws against talking about Jesus, he broke them. Not only did he break them, he looked the leaders in the eye and told them he intended to keep breaking them. And he did, right up until his death. They tortured him for nine months, then crucified him upside down, and still he wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus. There are stories that say Peter was so sure in his convictions, so tenacious and charismatic about the love of Jesus, that he managed to convert his jailers and at least 47 other people in the prison.

Peter broke the laws gleefully and to great results. We call him a martyr and a saint. We revere him as the rock upon which Jesus built his church. We know he was right, as much as we know the guy with the shotgun across his lap in Atlanta was wrong. And yet the guy with the gun thought he had God on his side, too. He had the scripture to prove it. He no doubt saw himself as modern day Peter.

So what have we got from all my rambling? Right now it sort of feels like a big mess and time to wrap this up. What can we take away?

Well for one, if we take anything out of this, I hope it’s an understanding that claiming to speak for God is a dangerous business. There are potentially dire consequences for the people around us, for the perception of Christianity as a whole, and for our own relationship with God. No one should assume that risk lightly.

But we’ve also got a powerful example in Peter of how sometimes Christians are in fact called by a higher authority than the laws of man. How can we know what’s the true call? Peter himself offers us the first part of the answer, because unlike people who use the verse as an end to an argument, Peter actually uses it as the beginning of one. He doesn’t just say, I don’t have to listen to you because God says so. He goes on to explain that God exalted Jesus as Savior, that he might bring repentance and forgiveness of sins.” He says, “We are witness of these things.”

So Peter doesn’t actually say, “God gave us the authority to break all the laws we don’t agree with.” He doesn’t say we even have the right to break the laws that we think God disagrees with. He actually only says we have the God-given right to serve as witnesses to Jesus.

That narrows the window pretty significantly, doesn’t it? It cuts out a lot of things we like to drag God into now a days, because Jesus himself didn’t talk about many of them at all. He didn’t talk about elections, he didn’t talk about gay marriage, or segregation. He didn’t even talk about baseball.

He talked about caring for poor, feeding the hungry, and loving our neighbors, even those we consider to be enemies. But even more specifically than all of that, he actually gave us a definitive answer as to how we can tell if we’re acting as witnesses to him. It’s one of the last things he ever said to his disciples. “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

And do you know who is the first of all the disciples to respond? It’s Peter. That’s the moment, that’s the commandment that causes Peter to say he will follow Jesus even to the point of death. That’s how Peter knew he was right when he stood before the council. The Savior Himself had told him go share His love.

Love is the only guarantee we have. We are given no blanket permission to scream at people, to silence them, or write them off as less valuable to God. We’re not given a charge to guard our ideals at the end of a gun or to do harm physically or emotionally to those with whom we disagree. The only way the world will know God is through our actions, and the only way we ourselves know if we’re acting as true witnesses to Christ on His authority is to love others as Christ loved us.

The only law we’re given that supersedes the law of man is the law of love.

Amen

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April 5, 2016 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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