Sunday, September 16, 2007

When God Starts Taking Bribes

Follow Christ. Question Culture. Love the Church:
War, Terrorism, and National Security
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; John 18:33, 36-38a; Psalm 131

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Sermon text:
Maybe this was a really bad idea.
Maybe the Worship Committee should have shot it down
when I first brought it to them.
To take nine Sundays at the beginning of our church year—
a time of new attenders, new enthusiasm, new budget pledges—
and plan a worship series organized around some of the most
controversial issues in our culture and in the church.

Maybe it’s a bad idea.
Or maybe, it’s one of the most fruitful ways we can spend our time
worshiping God together.
It’s one or the other.
I guess we’ll soon find out which.

I choose to believe it’s the latter.
I choose to believe that one of the functions of worship
is to reposition ourselves rightly before God.
Life in this world gets crazy and complicated,
and we sometimes forget who we are as a people before God.
True worship reminds us of that.
It gets us back into position.
It returns us to a place where we remember who we are,
and why we were created.

We Christians confess: human beings were created for one purpose—
to love and worship God.

This series is my way of calling us back to that one purpose.
Thing is, we can’t love and worship God in the abstract.
We have to do it in the particular.
So how do we love and worship God with our lives
in our particular time and place,
as 21st-century North American Christians?
as citizens of the only remaining global superpower?
as people inhabiting the post-Civil War rural South?
living in a medium-sized college town?
along with one of the largest immigrant populations in the state?
attending a church located in Mennonite Grand Central station?

All these realities, and many more, shape the culture we move around in.
And we must listen to and follow God’s call... in our culture.
Where we are. It’s the only place we can do it.

It is oh, so tempting, to pursue God in the abstract.
To say we love God, but fail to ask
what it means to love God
in this particular part of the broken world we live in.

In this worship series,
we are going to look seriously at our cultural context,
and a few of the pressing issues in our culture,
and then try to position ourselves before God,
in such a way that we can ask the right questions of our culture.

So right off the bat, I have to dispel any false hopes...or fears...
that I’m going to proclaim the correct authoritative position
on these cultural issues.
I know that Christians, in good faith, arrive at different conclusions
on how we should live in our culture,
on how we should respond when the country is at war,
or where we should live,
or what we should drive, or eat,
or listen to, or do with our money,
or how we should heat our home or fertilize our lawn,
or vote, or express our sexuality,
or dispose of our remains when we die.
In a 20-minute sermon don’t expect me, or any of us,
to cover the whole waterfront on these complex issues,
and then conclude with the one right Christian position.
This is lifelong work.

It’s work that needs to be done!
If we believe that Jesus is Lord of every area of our lives.
Is there anything we do, any choice we make in life,
that is outside the reach of Jesus’ lordship?
We Christians say no.
We don’t relinquish these issues to a culture of
red-state/blue-state politics.
We don’t leave them outside the church walls,
and just focus on “spiritual” things.
These are spiritual things.
They’re about who God is, who we are,
and how God wants us to live in this world.

So rather than proclaim the right answer from the pulpit,
I’m going to call us back to a more basic matter—
the convictions and values that guide us as God’s people.
And then I’ll ask us all to go from here
and do the hard work of moral discernment,
as we live in Christian community with one another.
Sometimes painfully struggling with each other.
Stubbornly clinging to each other in love and faith.

So the goal of this series might sound modest.
To reposition ourselves as a people before God,
so that we ask the right questions.
But actually, that’s a radical goal.
It gets to the root.
It’s something we don’t often do.
We usually take the lazy route.
We let our surrounding culture frame the questions.
We listen to public figures and politicians and celebrities,
and try to answer the questions they are raising.
But if we call ourselves the people of God,
whose main purpose and identity revolve around
our calling to love and worship God with our whole beings,
then maybe we have a different set of questions,
based on different values.

Look at all the issues we’ll be talking about these 9 weeks—
war, sex, politics, media, food, environment, money, death—
It wouldn’t be hard at all to list the values in our culture,
that shape the way questions are asked about these issues.
Values like...individual freedom,
personal happiness.
Not bad values, in the right context.
But when those are the only values framing the questions,
some important questions get missed.

Followers of Christ hold values that were formed by another story.
And it’s different from the story of North American, post-war modernity.
The church, the people of God, are shaped by the biblical story.
That story has formed values in us,
like love of the orphan and stranger and enemy,
and the necessity of community,
and submission to the way of Jesus,
and obedience,
and justice with mercy,
and placing the interests of others above ourselves.
That should make us ask different questions.
It should help us question culture,
in a healthy way that brings greater clarity.
See, I’m emphasizing questions more than answers here.
Not because I want us to muddle around in ambiguity.
No, the ambiguity is already with us.
Let’s be honest.
The way we as Christians can bring more clarity,
the way we can shine some needed light on these issues,
is by helping each other ask the right questions.
When the right questions are asked,
we will be drawn in the right direction.
It’s getting stuck on the wrong questions
that leads us down endless dead ends.

So each Sunday, as we raise these cultural issues,
we’re going to remind ourselves, in light of scripture,
where we are positioned before God.
then, from that position we will try to raise
faithful questions of our culture,
and then go from this place to continue the conversation,
discerning the voice of the Spirit in our midst.

Now that I’ve used up a chunk of my 20 minutes,
let’s jump into the issue of the day,
this small matter of war, terrorism, and national security.
Now you know why I said I won’t cover the whole waterfront.

I invite us to begin, as I said, from where we stand as the people of God.
Look in your order of worship at the item labeled
“Confessing our Faith”

This is where we position ourselves in worship.
It’s just part of our confession.
But it will give us a place to stand as we ask our questions.
There are two parts.
The first is from the “shared convictions” statement
of Mennonite World Conference.
The second is from two articles in MCUSA’s
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
So let’s confess our faith together, in unison,
The Spirit of Jesus empowers us to trust God in all areas of life
so we become peacemakers who renounce violence,
love our enemies, seek justice,
and share our possessions with those in need.
We believe that peace is the will of God. God created the world in peace, and God’s peace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, who is our peace and the peace of the whole world. Led by the Holy Spirit, the church follows Christ in the way of peace, giving full allegiance to Christ its head and witnessing to every nation and society about God’s saving love.

We have just said an awful lot.
But rather than jump immediately to some logical conclusion,
I want to bring us back to the most basic level.
What is it that we believe about God?
What are some of the defining convictions,
those central, unshakable, core beliefs that form our faith?

We just said we believe that “God created the world in peace.”
That’s one of them.
We Christians believe, unshakably,
that God is Creator of the universe and all that is in it,
that God created it in peace, in wholeness, in shalom.
It was good (Genesis 1). It was very good.
And we believe that God has a deep, saving love for this world.
That’s another one.
That God wants all peoples, all nations,
to be reconciled to himself, and to each other,
because God loves them with an everlasting love.
And we believe that in Jesus Christ,
God’s saving love and God’s peace is most fully revealed.
That’s another one.
That Jesus is our peace, and the peace of the whole world.
That the lordship of Jesus Christ
extends to every realm of life, public and private,
and that we can therefore trust God in all areas of life.

• God created the world in peace and wholeness.
• God loves the world and its peoples eternally, and universally.
• And God’s saving love has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

If those were our only three confessions of faith,
and we believed them so deeply that they ordered our lives,
don’t you think we’d still have a lot to say
to a culture steeped in violence?
These are the affirmations that will help us ask the right questions.

But before we get to the questions,
let’s ground ourselves in the story that shaped these confessions.
The biblical story.
These confessions didn’t come out of thin air.
They came from our story.

Psalm 131, which we opened with, put us in the right position with God,
as a weaned child with its mother.
We quieted our souls before God, in a posture of utter trust,
vulnerable trust.
We said we don’t occupy ourselves with matters too great for us.
We simply, yet not so simply, put our hope in the Lord,
from this time forth, and forever more.
That text establishes the relationship we have with God.
One of dependence. One of trust.

Then this posture was reinforced by our Gospel reading from John 18,
where Jesus explains to Governor Pilate
what kind of Kingdom he’s been proclaiming.
“My kingdom is not from this world. If [it] were,
my followers would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over...
for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Jesus explains that the authority of his kingdom
is not secured with military might, or national boundary,
but with truth.
Truth, wherever it is found,
determines the boundaries of God’s kingdom.

But the scripture I want to focus on is from Deuteronomy 10.
This is the God in whom we rest and trust. Listen!
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords,
the great God, mighty and awesome.”
We’ve heard that before. That’s familiar language.
But how about this?
“...who is not partial and takes no bribe.”
Why would Moses make a point to his people,
that God doesn’t take bribes?
That’s an interesting thought.
When someone in power takes a bribe,
they are selling their favor to a person or group.
And that person or group is buying a privileged position.
To be the first in line.
Or a guarantee they will get the goods they need.
Or a promise they will be protected from harm.
Whatever the purpose of the bribe,
it’s a transaction that sets up a special relationship.

Our scripture says, God will have none of that.
Yes, this is the God who chose the people of Israel,
and gave them a special task in the world.
But special favor for a price?
No, God’s favor is not for sale. God takes no bribes.
God is not partial.
Deuteronomy goes on to say,
God loves the orphan and widow and strangers alike,
providing them food and clothing.
You see, in the system of the world,
favor is purchased.
With money, with material goods, with oil, with guns.
Those without access to those things
stand at the end of the line, and often go hungry.
It is the nature of God to love all peoples, without partiality.

You’ve seen that bumper sticker around here,
“God bless the whole world. No exceptions.”
People who display that on their cars
may or may not be politically motivated. I can’t say.
But that’s not a political statement.
It’s a deeply theological statement, grounded in Deut. 10.
God is not partial. No exceptions.

Deuteronomy continues,
“You shall also love the stranger,
for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
You shall fear the Lord your God;
him alone you shall worship;
to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.
He is your praise; he is your God.”

This is what the worship of God means, dear people.
We love those God loves.
And God is not partial. God takes no bribes.

That is our faith. That is our conviction.
So let me start framing the questions.
So we can be sent from here asking the right questions.

If God takes no bribes, is not partial to one class, or tribe, or nation,
how can we who fear God justify our partiality?
How can we so clearly take sides,
and participate in human warfare,
where one group of people God loves
seeks to destroy another group of people that God loves?
Deuteronomy says, “You shall fear the Lord your God;
him alone you shall worship.”
Can we truly “fear and worship God,”
and simultaneously put our trust in weapons of war?

God loves the whole world. Loves all nations and all peoples.
We who fear God, who worship God, who love God—
how do we embody this love of God in the way we live?
Is our love only expressed individually,
by being kind and generous and loving to other individuals?
On what basis can we go to war against beloved children of God,
and claim that by so doing,
we are embodying the impartial love of God?
Maybe when God starts taking bribes...
when God starts being partial,
when God starts anointing certain groups of his children
as being especially favored,
then perhaps we will have a different set of questions to ask.
Perhaps then our job will just be to make sure
we are fighting on the right side of the war.

But in our best understanding of who God is,
God is still not partial.
God still loves the whole world, especially the overpowered,
the under-protected, the weak, the lost, the oppressed.

Now, I’m not claiming it’s impossible to ask these same questions,
and find different answers,
answers that allow limited participation in warfare.
I have not figured out how to do that,
and still be true to these convictions that shape us as a people.
But I wouldn’t saying it’s impossible for someone to do it.

What I am saying, is that we must start with these questions.
How are we to live in this world,
while being true to our deepest shared convictions?
• That God created the world in peace and wholeness.
• God loves the world and its peoples eternally, and universally.
• And God’s saving love has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

I don’t insist that we all believe the same thing about peace and war,
and about responses to terrorism and national security.
But I do insist, that we take seriously who we are as Christ-followers,
who we are as members of the body of Christ in this world,
who we are as part of the faith community called “the church.”
I do insist that we start there,
and let the questions we ask of culture grow out of that identity.

This is too important an issue in our culture right now,
to let the debate be framed by partisan politics.
This is not the kind of question that is best served
with knee-jerk, red-state/blue-state kind of answers.
This is the kind of an issue that needs, I believe,
to be dealt with in a churchly way.

And by “churchly,” I mean people of faith in Jesus Christ,
who are committed to following Christ radically
in all areas of their lives, public and private,
coming together in small face-to-face communal relationships,
where these questions can be asked honestly, and safely.
And where differing answers can be wrestled with
respectfully and vigorously.
All the while grounding these conversations
in the story of scripture that forms us.

We must follow Christ, question culture, and love the church.
When I say “love the church,”
I’m not asking us to love the institution.
I’m asking us to love the people with whom
we are bound in Christian covenant,
as the living body of Christ in this place, and in this time.
Just as we cannot love God in the abstract,
so we cannot love the church in the abstract.

I call us now,
to recommit ourselves to be radical followers of Jesus,
and to come together with other radical followers of Jesus,
in a community of faith formed
by the living Word and written Word
and then, out of that formational community of Christ-followers,
ask the hard questions of our culture that need to be asked.

There are some questions in your bulletin,
at the end of your order of worship.
Consider them part of our worship,
take them with you as you leave this space.
Add more questions to the list.
And take them to “church” with you.
That is, the church I’m asking you to love—
that face-to-face community of disciples
with whom you are in covenant,
who gather with Jesus and scripture at the center,
seeking to be formed in the way of Christ.

Let us go with God.

—Phil Kniss, September 16, 2007

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