Monday, February 16, 2009

Biblical Sexuality: The Challenge of Personhood

Sermon: “Biblical Sexuality: the Challenge of Personhood”
Bible Readings
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25
Romans 6:1-14
Matthew 19:4-12
Over the next few weeks, God willing, I have promised to share what I believe the Bible says about our human identities, as male and female. I hope to share what I believe the Bible says about how the direction we take in living out our identities, as male and female, relates to the fellowship and ministries in the church, and why it matters; why it is important.
We live in an age of science. We live in an age that worships science as the ultimate truth; and human nature has been studied, and analyzed, and experimented on, and theorized through the sciences of biology, and psychology, and sociology, and anthropology, and biochemistry, and neurochemistry. We claim that all this science makes us wiser about what it means to be human than those who have gone before us. Great discoveries have been made, but I think we are more confused about ourselves than ever.

We live in an age of compassion. We worship the insights that come from our compassion. We claim that our compassion makes us wiser than those who have gone before us.
Compassion is necessary if we want to be fully human. But compassion, alone, will not make us wise. We can be so compassionate that we don’t allow people to take chances and risks for themselves, and we don’t allow them to learn from their mistakes. We can be so compassionate that we spare children and grownups from the hardships of rules, and duties, and responsibilities; and the rigors of honor, and sacrifice, and struggle. We can be so compassionate that we rob people of their freedom and their dignity by giving them too much, or interfering too much.
We should all want and strive to be compassionate, with all our heart. We are often not nearly compassionate enough. But compassion alone does not make us wise.
I believe that we are tempted to allow our science, and our compassion, to make us unwise in our understanding of ourselves, and others, as male and female.
The great Scottish preacher, Ian Pitt-Watson once said something to the effect that, in the inspiration of the scriptures, the Holy Spirit reaches out to you through the scriptures, and grabs you, and makes their story your story.
You and I have actually been written into that story. The story is the history of the one God, beyond all time and space, creating time, and space, and this world we live in, and coming into it as the Creator, and the Savior, and the Spirit. Heaven and earth, the invisible and visible universe, is a story in which everyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, has been created in love, and for love, and in order to give love. Everyone who has ever lived, and ever will live, has been reached out to by the arms of God’s beautiful, rescuing, saving, liberating grace: the grace that was enacted on the cross. Everyone who has ever lived, and ever will live, is loved with what we might call a consummating love: a love that will come to us and complete us, and make our world complete; and heal, and restore, and perfect, and celebrate us at the end of this story, which is just the beginning of an even bigger story that we cannot comprehend. This is the story into which God writes us.
The three readings from the scriptures, with which we began, all say something about how our identities are brought into God’s story. God’s people are always brought into God’s story, and given their identity within that story.
In the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy, families would come to the sanctuary with a sampling of the first fruits, the first portions of each thing they harvested; grains and fruits and all. They would come and identify themselves with the story of the Lord calling Abraham, and the Lord seeing the slavery of their people in Egypt, and the Lord leading them to freedom and to a Promised Land. They said these words to place themselves within the story: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord.” (Deut. 26:5-7)
Every year, when they brought this offering, as a way of giving thanks, they relived the big story which gave them their identity. It was the story of their creation as a people; their littleness and their suffering; and the Lord’s saving grace for them.
In that chapter of Deuteronomy it was the harvest that served as a reminder of the big story. In chapter 6 of Deuteronomy, God’s laws were the reminder of the story. It says that these laws would be talked about everywhere. They would be written everywhere (at least parts of them), even on the doors of their houses.
Children would hear and see this, and ask the meaning of it all. The parents were to tell them that the laws of God were part of their identity in the big story. God’s laws, strangely, came from the story of the gift of freedom that God had given them. Their laws came from their freedom.
Even Christians, as God’s people, share in the story of the littleness and the bareness of the family of Abraham, at the start. We share in their story of slavery and liberation. We share in their story of standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, while God speaks his message in smoke and cloud and fire on the mountain. This is a part of who we are.
We are not under the laws of the Old Testament. We don’t need the laws of the sacrifices, because God himself has provided his own sacrifice for us on the cross.
We are not bound by all the funny little laws about things like not shaving the hair on the corners of our foreheads, which some nations around Israel did, or making cloth by weaving plant and animal fibers together. These laws were ways to make Israel different from their neighbors. They had a calling to be different from the world around them, in a good way.
We also have a calling to be different from our neighbors: not different in terms of weirdness, but we are called to be an alternative society in this world. We are to have something to give that everyone needs and can find nowhere else.
We find our identity even in the Old Testament where God’s laws are a part of his people’s freedom. They have nothing to do with being good; or proving that you are better than others, or earning God’s love. They are given to us as ways of acknowledging the grace of God.
For instance the commandment about honoring your parents (Deut. 5:13) is not for earning either God’s love, or your parent’s love. You honor your parents because of grace; because of the grace of having parents. It is about making relationships holy.
The big story (and our identity inside that story) all have to do with the holiness of relationships.
The story is about a God who desires relationships and makes them possible. The relationship between the Lord and us is holy: it is purposeful and great. The relationships we have with others are holy, because they have a purpose, and there is a greatness in them.
The holiness of all human relationships helps us understand our identity as males and females. Leviticus chapter 18 is an example of the kind of portion of the scripture that I will not read in worship. It is a long list of human and animal relationships where there is no place for sex. In that long list there is plenty of gender going on, but there is no sex in any relationship but that of husband and wife.
In this list men are husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, neighbors and more. There is plenty of gender going on, but sex is only in one place. It is in marriage. It is too holy to be anywhere else.
In this list women are wives, mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, neighbors, and more. There is plenty of gender going on, but sex is only in one place. It is in marriage. It is too holy to be anywhere else.
Even though sex is a holy gift, even though it is a central part of our identity, its holiness is wrapped up in its boundaries, its controls, and its limitations, and its disciplines. These boundaries are part of the story.
In these modern times, we have not stopped being part of this story. The New Testament makes it clear that the story of Abraham and his descendants, and the story of the exodus, are a part of our identity, even if we are not descended from them genetically. Their story is part of our Savior’s story. It is part of the story of Jesus, and what he did for us. We are part of that story by faith.
When we read what Paul says about our identity in the big story, he makes it clear that our spiritual identity in Christ is not separated from our human identity, and this includes who we are as males and females.
In Galatians (2:20) Paul tells us that the cross and the resurrection are at the center of our identity. He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This sounds very simple, and basic, and it is. In Christ we have a clean break with our difficult, old identity. It comes from the grace of God, and the power of God. And yet there is an obvious struggle with our identity that continues to be difficult.
In Romans, Paul writes about the power of this experience of the cross that shapes our identity. We die with Christ on the cross and we rise with Christ in the empty tomb. We share the identity of Jesus in a mysterious way. But Paul says, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” (Romans 6:12)
He wrote this because it was so easy for Christians to let sin reign.
This relates to live out our identity as males and females. Read on through the end of chapter seven, in Romans, and you will see how an identity that is given to you by God’s grace may be a life-long challenge.
People may claim to have a God-given identity that does not fit the model for maleness or femaleness traditionally interpreted in the Bible. They are convinced of this because of the awful agony of their struggle; and because that struggle shows no end. But Paul writes, in chapter seven of Romans 7:22-25), “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then he says, “Thanks be to God--- through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
I think there is no human being who understood himself better than Paul. No one was more full of joy and thanks for the life he was given, and the part he was given to play in the big story, than he was. Also, no one was more ashamed of his failures and struggles. In this way Paul led what truly is a rich, full, intense life.
In the gospels, Jesus described men and women as Adam and Eve. No matter how long human history lasts, we never quite get past the Garden of Eden (even though we are exiled from it).
We are all Adams and Eves. We might be Adam or Eve before God brought them together. We might be Adam and Eve in their full strength. We might be an old, old, decrepit Adam and Eve, long past their prime.
Our age or health, or our circumstances in life, may keep us from the story of creating a little human race in miniature, as humans often dream of doing. But the integrity of our identity, as male and female, is important far beyond marriage and bringing forth a new family on the earth.
The human race, and the people of Israel, and the Church (which is the body of Christ) are all big complex families where we are all sons of Adam or daughters of Eve. We are all brothers or sisters. There is a proverb that says, “There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother,” or, “There is a friend that sticketh closer than a sister.” (Proverbs 18:24)
Men need to belong to a brotherhood, and to be able to say, “These are my brothers and my friends, nothing more and nothing less.” Women need to belong to a sisterhood, and to be able to say, “These are my sisters and my friends, nothing more and nothing less.”
There is freedom and peace in this: blessed freedom and blessed peace. Boys and girls also need to grow up with the same freedom and peace that comes from this identity. This is part of the story into which God writes our part.
Why is this important for the church and its fellowship and its ministries? We are people of the gospel. Gospel means good news. The good news is the story of our creation and our salvation. It is a story that gives us boundaries, and a freedom because of those boundaries.
Our identity within that story may be the hardest thing we have to face. We may have failures, and errors, and struggles. It may take our whole life to understand our life. Yet, in our fellowship and in our ministries we need to live within the story of God, as much as we can. If we change the story to make it suit what we think we are, then we will distort the story in our telling of it.
Living in the story, as ministers or servants (as we all are) makes us partners with God in bringing others to him. Living the story will make us good news to others, and to the whole world.

Monday, February 2, 2009

"Taught by Grace: Our Pattern in the World"

SERMON Dennis Evans 2-1-2009

Based on: Titus 3:1-15; Luke 19:1-10 (actually didn't have time to develope the Luke passage)

In one of the old Peanuts cartoons, I think it was Linus who was telling Charley Brown that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. And Charley Brown says, “How can you be a doctor when you can’t deal with humanity?” And Linus says, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.”

In the third chapter of Titus, Paul teaches us to love humanity and to love people. There are some who love individual people, but who are horrified and outraged by humanity. There are some who profess to love humanity, but their plans to care for the human race would hurt many innocent people. Paul knew how to love both humanity, and people, at the same time, and this grew from the special way he experienced and understood the love of God. This is part of the secret of Paul’s happiness.

Paul was a brave and cheerful Christian in the middle of a cruel and callous pagan world. The church of Jesus was young and revolutionary; and dwarfed by a system that was old, and strong, and proud.

The old, established world of Greece and Rome had been, for centuries, the very thing that some wise people today are saying that our own civilization is in danger of becoming. The world of Greece and Rome was, in many ways, a culture of death (gladiator games and the exposure of newborns, etc.).

But there was no more joyful human being in that empire than Paul. Paul saw his world exactly for what it was, but he was not angry, and he was not indignant, and he was not afraid.
For the Christians who benefited from Paul’s advice to Titus, since they lived in the Roman Empire, Paul’s advice amounted to this: love the Roman Empire. “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be ready to do whatever is good.” (Titus 3:1) (Paul was proud of his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:25-29; 25:10-12)

Paul knew, as well as anybody, that there can be bad rulers, bad governments, bad laws, bad policies and customs, bad traditions and morals. The emperor who ruled at the time of Paul’s writing was Nero, who was a famously bad and foolish emperor; but most of life in the empire went on, as usual, in spite of him.

“To be ready to do what is good” means more than just being law abiding, it means being public spirited. It means to participate in keeping society around you, and the community around you, working in good order. It means being positive-spirited in making things good, and making things better.

Christians are not called to only be specialists in the gospel, and in spiritual things. Christians are called to take part in the life of the world that is going on around them, if it is good. In the Book of Acts (Acts 27), when Paul was being transported, by ship, across the Mediterranean Sea, for his trial in Rome, there was a series of mishaps and bad choices that led, eventually, to the ship being driven off course by a storm, and hitting a reef, and breaking up in a storm. Paul helped, all through that voyage, as a seasoned traveler, giving advice, and (in the end) helping to save the lives of the crew and the other passengers.

The world we live in, the nation we call our own, the community around us, the culture and the society of which we are a part, are like ships crossing the sea. They may be headed for Fair Havens or for shipwreck. Either way, we are called to be involved.
Paul, as a passenger on the ship, did his part to take care of it, and he did this without anger, indignation, or fear. He shared his faith and his hope with others, but he also got to work and pitched in.

He did this without slandering or condemning anyone (even though he was the victim of injustice in his arrest, and even though the trial in Rome might end in his death). He Pitched in peaceably, considerately, and showing true humility toward all, just as he advised Titus to do. (Titus 3:2)
Paul loved the ship and everyone on it. How do we know this? And how did the people who were on board with him know this? It is absolutely clear; because Paul was more than ready to do what was good. And he did it happily, cheerfully, joyfully.

Paul saw the world around him for what it was, and it is as if Paul were saying: “I know what some of you are thinking, about this society of ours; but remember how you and I were just the same. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures: and so on.” (Titus 3:3)

It is as if Paul were saying: “Sure, the empire is like this. Sure, our society is like this. This is the way the world is, but let me remind you about the grace of God.” “But when the kindness and love of God appeared, he saved us not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” (Titus 3:4-5)

There is something very special about the Greek word that Paul uses here to describe the love of God. It is a very rare word in the Bible. The Biblical writers most likely avoided this word because it was a very pagan word. The Greek word is “philanthropia”, from which we get our word philanthropy. It is a social word. It is a word about society and the social network. It was a pagan word because it was used in pagan worship to describe the care that the gods would give to the societies that worshiped them. The philanthropy of the pagan gods consisted of the blessings of peace, prosperity, order, justice, good laws, and wise rulers. In the first century this kind of philanthropy described what the divine emperors were supposed to give to the empire. Good emperors showed divine gifts by fighting corruption and injustice, making good laws, righting wrongs, rewarding virtue and talent, maintaining peace and security, enabling trade, endowing the arts, setting the empire in order so that people could live in safety, and have the freedom to provide for their families and improve their lives.

This was what philanthropia was about. Paul used this concept when he told Titus, and the churches that would be taught by him, to take their proper position toward those in authority, and to be ready to do what was good.

Paul tells us that God loves people, and that God also loves humanity. God loves the whole network of tribes, and languages, and nations, and communities.

God loves laws, and justice, and the righting of wrongs, and the rewards for hard work and honest effort. God loves people teaching, and the work of doctors and nurses. God loves work, and the network of people making things, and growing things, and trading things. God loves people voting and being public servants. God loves people organizing to fight fires and run ambulances. God loves people sitting on councils, and boards, and committees. God loves people gathering to sing, and to make music, and to entertain others. This is all part of what was revealed about the kindness and love of God toward all human beings, as Paul saw it. God takes pleasure in such things.
It is also true that, just as each one of us needs to be thoroughly washed and completely renewed, the same is true of humanity, and all of its relationships, and all its work.

This is why it is so right, and so natural, to be appalled by the horrors, and evils, and injustices of this world; human against human, nation against nation. This is why it is so right, and natural, to react strongly to dishonesty, and hypocrisy, and corruption, and abuse, and greed, and the lust for power and control, and the disregard for freedom, and the disregard for life, and even sheer stupidity and wrong-headedness.

All these evils are calls from God to be “ready to do what is right.” But none of these are calls from God to forget to actually love each single human being (as God does) and to actually love the whole of humanity and trying to make it run fairly and in good working order (as God does).
The kindness and love of God for human beings, and for humanity, appeared when Christ came; when Christ was born into a human family and community, and nation, within which he lived, and taught, and healed, and suffered, and was killed on the cross, and rose from the dead.
In doing this Jesus takes away our sins. He takes away the ugliness of what we are when we live without God and God’s love. He takes away the power of sin to control us and rob us of hope. This is part of what God saves us from.

But God does not only save us from something. God saves us to something. God saves us to hope; to an everlasting hope, an everlasting life in which we are truly and fully alive. God also saves us to a life that imitates his life. As his life is motivated by love for each and every one, and also by a love for the whole human business; and as his love leads him to always be ready to do what is good for us, even at the cost of the cross; so he saves us to the same kind of love that is always ready to do what is good.