I heard a good sermon last Sunday. Let me explain to you what I mean by that because “good” is one of those words like “nice” or “really” that has so many different meanings that it ends up meaning nothing. Ruth McRoberts Ward, author of Self-Esteem: Gift of God and the blog How to Get Along With Everyone (ruthmcrobertsward.com), was once discussing various personality types and said that the pastor of the church I was attending at the time probably didn’t like it when people left the service saying, “Good sermon.” He laughed and acknowledged that she was right when she said he would rather have them saying that it challenged them, convicted them, taught them, or gave them lots of food for thought. I realized then that when I say “good sermon,” that is actually what I mean – it did one of those things. If I had merely enjoyed it, I would have said it was entertaining or perhaps uplifting.
As I was saying, Pastor Trent Thompson’s sermon this week was a good one. When it comes to food for thought, this one gave me no snack but a full meal! Using 2 Samuel 2 & 3 as the basis for his message, he spoke about the consequences of a group of people — a society, a country — rejecting the authority of God. He gave several consequences of not putting God in the position of authority over our lives that I think are very timely and, as he said in the sermon, relevant both inside and outside of the Christian church.
(to hear the sermon, go to — http://www.westshorefree.org/mediacast/david-the-throne/)
In the passage from 2 Samuel we see the results of Israel asking to have a king placed over them. God tried to tell them through the prophet that it was a lousy idea, but they insisted that they wanted God to put a king over them. And they got their wish.
In essence, by putting a king in that position, they were also putting him as the authority over them instead of acknowledging and submitting to the authority of God. As we follow the historical events, we see that there are consequences of giving authority over to human rule. Trent started with:
- PEOPLE LOSING A SENSE OF A MORAL AUTHORITY OVER THEIR LIVES: We lose our moral bearings, our compass, thus making everything a political battle of wills – where perhaps the loudest, the meanest, or the ones with the most money and power decide what is right and wrong.
- PEOPLE BECOMING PAWNS FOR THE POWER BROKERS OF THE DAY: Individuals are worth something only in so far as they can help the powerful achieve their purpose, otherwise they have no value or purpose and need not be looked after and seen as the image bearers of God.
- REVENGE REPLACING FORGIVENESS: We come to see no need to forgive others but rather seek revenge in some way on those who have harmed, slighted, or even just disagreed with us.
I’m fairly certain that no one would need to argue about whether Americans today accept the authority of God. We have become a society afraid of offending people by stating absolute beliefs. We are given to believe that there are no absolute truths — that there is no right and wrong, just differing points of view. In minor matters like the best way to cook a chicken, which route to travel somewhere, which singer should win The Voice, it just doesn’t matter if we differ. But in terms of moral decisions over our lives, it does matter. If we suggest that there is no right or wrong, that isn’t giving God authority. It’s giving everyone, and therefore no one, authority.
We are expected to be okay with any decision that people make. It isn’t PC to question what others think even on some elements of morality. Not long ago I made a comment on a social media post regarding human trafficking. I was talking about not further victimizing these girls and women by judging them since they didn’t choose to go out and sell their bodies. I had someone who replied to me, “What would be wrong if they had?” I was stunned by the question. It never occurred to me that people would have thought of prostitution as a career option unless they were desperate. I just couldn’t imagine some kid sitting in the guidance counselor’s office saying, “I want to be a hooker. Where do I get training for that? What classes do I need to take?” But here we are.
There are many in society who wouldn’t agree that moral ambiguity and everyone doing their own thing are problematic. They see that as allowing people to be themselves and make their own truths. I see evidence that moral ambiguity are harmful to our country and the world. Watching the daily news quickly gives a glimpse of the results of people losing their sense of right and wrong, of being used as pawns, doing anything to achieve what they desire regardless of who gets hurt, stealing from the poor, cheating each other in business and politics, even going into road rage and killing because they don’t like the way someone else drives! Brian Rice, pastor of Living Word Community Church sums it up well, “We still believe in right and wrong, in good and evil, in morality and immorality, in virtue and vice. Yes, the culture is doing its best to eliminate these distinctions. Yes, the world is doing its best to tell you that you are out of date, out of touch, out of step, and generally old fashioned for believing that if God says something is bad, wrong, and immoral then it is. Yes, the world says you are intolerant if you believe this way.” If we are called intolerant for our beliefs, so be it. But we don’t need to be called hate-filled, angry, judging, and uncaring.
But for me it wasn’t the consequences on society at large that really got the wheels turning. The truths of what he was saying seem so obvious within our society today as to almost elicit a “duh” response in my mind. Yeah, I know. I already said there are those who would argue, but they aren’t the ones I’m talking to at the moment — I’m preaching to the choir so to speak on that part. But…and it’s a large but…what really made me stop to think was his assertion that these are consequences we are seeing within the church.
He is right. I also believe that some reading this are with me. They’re yelling, “Preach it, girl!” And they will continue to do so until I step on their toes too. (I am, after all, an equal opportunity toe-stepper-oner) You see, he didn’t say this was just going on in those “liberal denominations,” or in “mainstream churches.” He contended that it is happening in our evangelical churches as well. And he is right.
In America today the church has gotten a bad name. Some of it unmerited and some of it is rightly earned. People don’t know us “by our love” any more. Often that love isn’t extended beyond the church doors – and sometimes limited within them. Almost everyone has seen the memes, t-shirts, signs, and other things where people list who our neighbors are or who “the least of these” are. But sometimes we just can’t bring ourselves to give that more than lip service. At times we can’t align our actions, our politics, and our works to that. We can’t put our money or our actions where our mouths are so they become lovely ideas for an hour on Sunday morning. We don’t even put our mouths where they should be. Some Christians curse people of other races, ethnicities, cultures, and life styles, they tell racist, sexist, and ethnic jokes, or they dismiss the folks who are not quite like them. Their God looks just like them and likes what they like. And so, many people see Christ’s people as rigid, accusatory, hate-filled, judgmental, and unforgiving. And unfortunately we run into those Christians in our own churches. Maybe you thought of a name. Maybe I just stepped on some toes.
There is a disturbing trend in America today. The church in America and politics in America have become enmeshed, far too intertwined to untangle. When this happens, it is difficult to determine what is a political stance and what comes from the authority of our God. Some believe that “all” Christians register and vote a certain way or they aren’t Christians. I have been told that by fellow Christians and have had Christian women in my Bible study who quit speaking to me because I questioned the words and actions, and therefore the morals, of an individual politician. If we are doing this, then we have ceded God’s authority over us to that group of politicians. As Pastor Trent once said to me in an email (and I’m paraphrasing here), no political party has a stance that would warrant being the chosen one, the one anointed as the voice of Jesus. When we go out of our way to support and excuse the behavior of politicians because they are in the “right” party or to automatically condemn them because they are in the “wrong” one, we have put politicians and a party’s beliefs above any other — including God.
When criticized for being rigid and judgmental we don’t want to see it. “Ah, but,” the response goes, “we are following the word of God and we won’t soften or water down His word.” But are we really? Or are we just being exactly what they have seen? Could it be that we are putting something or someone else in the position of authority over us?
America has come to a point where, in the eyes of many people, the terms “Christian” and “religious right” mean the same thing. On NPR this week I was listening to a news story about a Christian organization that usually only interviews Republican candidates to see who they will endorse. However, as some of the Democrats vying for the Oval Office in 2020 have brought faith into their campaigns, this group is now going to extend an invitation to those candidates as well. That sounded good until the leader of the group added in an angry and challenging tone, “Let’s see if they are REAL Christians, if they can answer OUR questions satisfactorily.” (The emphasis here is not mine, these were words he stressed as he spoke.)
I’m writing as a Christian woman who is not registered with any political party because I won’t align myself fully to any party’s beliefs. I haven’t found one party or even one candidate who fully embodies what I would like ideally in a leader. None of them can pass the test of perfection, of course. I would hope, against evidence, that no one expects that. Most of the time, I’m choosing the lesser of two evils. Every so often I vote for no one in a particular contest or write in someone as my little protest over the fact that, out of all the people in the world, these were the only choices we had. Even when I select a candidate to vote for, I won’t put myself in a position of having to defend every action or statement he or she makes. Instead, I will call out patterns of or repeated incidents of hurtful words, sinful actions, and ungodly behaviors whenever I see them in our leaders. Too many people are so tied to one party that they rail against one politician’s actions but accept the very same actions from the other side of the aisle to justify their adherence to party.
I think the church today needs to read the red letters in the Bible. We need to make our stances based upon them first and foremost. Jesus outlined what our moral beliefs should be, what the roadmap for our behavior should look like. In both Matthew 22 and Mark 12, Jesus said that the two most important things we must do are to love him with all we have and to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. As you contemplate who he means as neighbors, remember that the famous parable of the Good Samaritan was given as a response to this very question. In his book Everybody Always, Bob Goff said that Jesus didn’t tell us who our neighbors are so that we wouldn’t start making lists of who we didn’t have to love.
We as Christians also need to examine our thinking on sin. The Bible tells us at various points that it is breaking God’s law, it is any kind of wrong-doing, and that it is also attitudes and motives for our actions such as being unfair, dishonest, harmful or wrongful. We justify, rightly, that there are many laws within the Old Testament that we don’t need to follow anymore and they aren’t sin. We don’t follow the dietary guidelines. We don’t offer living sacrifices and burnt offerings. We abandoned those because we are told in Romans 10:4, in Romans 8, Ephesians 2 and many other places in the New Testament that Jesus fulfilled the law thereby releasing us from being bound by all of the rules and regulations that we were too weak to keep in the first place. Jesus came because mankind couldn’t follow the rules. But we still want to hang on to a couple of those rules and claim them, because those are the rules we keep and can use to judge others!
There are two areas where I think we get it wrong when it comes to sin. The first has to do with that attitude part. We all know that attitude can be a huge problem. Think back to when you were a child. You gave your mother, father, or teacher a perfectly reasonable response but got in trouble anyway. “Don’t you talk to me in that tone!” Our attitudes come out! And often attitudes are much louder than our words or actions. We can be doing very good things for very bad reasons. And that is sin. Jesus gives us the example of the religious leader who prays openly and with great showmanship hoping to get attention. When we take a stance simply to prove how we are so good and others are so wrong instead of listening to them and loving them, that is sin. When we are judgmental, that is sin.
The second area has to do with levels of sin. Our Catholic brothers and sisters have long been taught that there are levels to sin: venial and mortal. Mortal sins, according to this teaching, keep you out of heaven. While Protestant and evangelical churches don’t adhere to that doctrine, many of us still see sins as coming in a hierarchy. We see little lies, stealing a pen from the office, speeding, and such as way down at the bottom of sin mountain. Everyone does them. They barely count! From there we move all the way up to the peak of sin mountain where we find genocide that the Nazis and other groups perpetrated. Where other things fall along the road are seen differently by different people — usually depending mostly on how they sin.
From what I can see sins don’t come in levels as we see them. Referring to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), it is the ones dishonoring God that come with added warnings that probably elevate their importance. Jesus reinforced this when he boiled it all down to two commandments. Otherwise, as you look at the list “thou shalt not kill” is given the same weight and importance as not lying, not stealing, or not being envious because your neighbor has things that you don’t. Ouch.
Yet in our churches today it would be easy to come to believe that abortion and homosexuality are the ONLY sins. If not the only ones, at least that they are the worst sins. These are the ones preached about from pulpits. They are railed against, protested in the streets, and used as a judgment tool. These are portrayed as the unforgivable ones.
I stunned people one day who said that they wouldn’t associate with homosexuals. I asked them if they would go out to dinner with me. They were puzzled knowing that I am not homosexual. What could I mean? Well, I am fat. Obviously, therefore, gluttony is a sin I struggle with. That one is in the Bible (listed with things I personally put much higher up the scale), but they wouldn’t have any trouble abetting me in it. I’m guessing they over indulge at the all-you-can-eat buffet too.
There are governmental leaders in charge of the country. But we have gone beyond that and made them our authority when we follow them and their ideas without question or by offering excuses. There are Christians who will go out of their way to justify a politician who falls on the right side of the debates on abortion or homosexuality while ignoring where they fall on a host of other sins.
I’d love to find a leader who follows what the Bible spells out for me on those issues AND also believes in giving children after they are born the importance Jesus did (Matthew 19:14, Luke 18:16, Mark 10:14). Someone who believes in feeding the hungry and helping the needy among us (Matthew 25). Someone who wouldn’t treat refugees and immigrants as criminals, who wouldn’t demean them or rip their families apart, but who would follow the biblical teaching about how we are to treat foreigners in our midst (Leviticus 19:33-34, Ephesians 2: 17-20, Jeremiah 22:3, Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 25). Someone who would tend God’s creation (Genesis 2:15, Jeremiah 2:7, Revelation 11:18). Someone who would follow the two commandments Jesus gave us and had way more than a passing knowledge of the ten from the Old Testament. Imagine finding a politician we could believe never bears false witness!
I’m sure not saying that I could be that perfect candidate. I’m always falling too short. But then again, that’s why I’m not running for office and trying to be put in charge. I just offer up some ideas but don’t tell you what to do with them because I’m working that out in my life too.
It is time that we take a close examination of our stances, our hot-button issues, and our methodology to see if we are truly falling under God’s authority. We need to look to him as our authority and our model. We should not be seeking to justify other authorities. We should also not be standing in the light shouting the praises of those authorities. First, they often can’t or don’t live up to the standards we should be expecting. Secondly, we shouldn’t be doing it because our shrill, angry, and judgmental words often sound hypocritical and will turn people away from him.
Pastor Brian Rice from Living Word Community Church in York, PA once centered a sermon around the idea that: There is a God. You aren’t it. Jesus Christ is. I would add to this. There is a God. You aren’t it. No governmental leader is it. No political party is it. No wealthy man or woman is it. No one who has sought out fame is it. Jesus is.