Sermon: Nov 12, 2017 – Ancient Cultures

Ancient Cultures

Texts: Exodus 21:12-17, Matthew 9: 2-8, Matthew 11: 28

12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

This may seem like a hodge-podge of unrelated texts and in some respects I guess it is, but if you will bear with me for a few minutes, I hope to be able to draw all of this together in what I hope is a sermon that makes some sense. It has been a struggle all week to come up with the right things to say.

Let me begin with the shooting, another one, in Sutherland Springs, Texas last Sunday. For many of us, while we were in church, the victims were also in church. This is almost incomprehensible. I must say that I am growing weary of attempting to craft a theological response to events like these. I’m not entirely certain what is going on, but it scares me a little. We seem to have zero control over thousands of people who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses who at any moment may decide to enter a place where people gather and simply begin shooting. It may be a church, it may be a concert, it might be a school or college campus, it might be a shopping mall – it doesn’t seem to matter. Adults, children, elderly; it seems everyone is a target. If it’s not a mass shooting, then the deranged person drives a vehicle through a crowded area. We have seen all this in a matter of a few weeks.

What are we to think? How are we supposed to respond? Thoughts and prayers just don’t quite cut it any longer. We need to do better. But how? What is our understanding of God? Where is God when the bullets begin to rain down? What is an appropriate theological response to pure insanity?

When I was in seminary I had the honor of taking several classes from an Old Testament scholar who is simply outstanding in his field. His name is Dr. Peterson, and he is widely regarded as one of the leading authors and scholars regarding the Hebrew Bible, or what we call the Old Testament.

During class one day we had been looking at a text, I honestly don’t remember what it was, but much like the text in Exodus I read a few minutes ago, it was very violent. I asked Dr. Peterson why the Old Testament was so violent and the New Testament was not. How he responded surprised me a little; this was early in my theological education and I had not yet been exposed to a lot of higher theological thought. Dr. Peterson simply said that the God in the Old Testament wasn’t the same God as the God in the New Testament. Like I said, this surprised me a little.

He then went on to explain that the God in the Old Testament is a human construct. It is an interpretation of a people and a culture struggling to understand the Divine and what that Divine presence means in their lives. The New Testament is essentially the same thing, but it has a different cast of characters, a very different message and is a reflection of a very different people and culture.

What my professor was saying is that even if God didn’t change, the interpretation of God had changed significantly from the days of the Old Testament to the days of the New Testament. God may stay the same, but the experience of God can change dramatically.

He also went on to explain that the sanctity of human life had not yet taken root in much of the culture that is reflected in the writings and the stories of the Old Testament. The people in this culture saw death every day, you became desensitized to it, and families always had lots of children, because only half or maybe even just a third of the kids would survive to adulthood. This is part of the reason the Old Testament throws around the penalty of being put to death like it is a slap on the wrist. It just wasn’t viewed as that big of a deal because an attitude of preciousness toward human life was not yet a mainstream tenet in that culture. Death was everywhere. This attitude is reflected in the text I read from Exodus a few minutes ago.

I believe we are experiencing another cultural shift. It may not be as severe as was present in the days of Exodus, but I do believe the sanctity of life is being threatened in our thought processes. At least here in the United States I believe this is true. This cultural shift seems to be happening with remarkable speed. Historians would confirm that a cultural shift normally requires several centuries to impact a culture in any significant way. But I’m talking about cultural shifts like language or the use of tools or even transportation. But cultural shifts have been accelerating in the last few decades. Particularly around communications and electronics; we are now seeing significant cultural shifts in a few decades that would have taken centuries a thousand years ago. Everything is moving faster.

I can see a significant difference in our attitude as a country just in my adult life. I fear we are returning to the attitudes of the Old Testament; a human life is just not that important any more. There are acceptable losses in certain areas of our approach to things. People die because they can’t afford health care, and we refuse to fix it. People die because some don’t have access to the mental health care they need, we could fix it, but we don’t. People die because some who should not be in possession of a firearm are able to get one anyway and we can’t even have a conversation about it. Refugees die as they flee portions of the planet where violence, climate or disease have forced them out. We could do better in caring for these displaced persons, but we don’t. People go hungry in this country because they can’t afford to eat well and eat nutritiously; we could fix it, but we refuse. Instead we cut benefits and make it harder. Storms are stronger and more frequent and more people die, yet climate change continues to be a hoax according to some. I could go on.

We can do better. We must do better.

I want to back up now and take another look at the text from Matthew 9 I read at the beginning.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

As this story unfolds, we find that a group of people had brought someone who was paralyzed to Jesus for healing. When Jesus first sees this man, he greets him with the words “your sins are forgiven”. This strikes me as an odd greeting, the man was there for healing, not forgiveness and yet that is what Jesus seems to focus on.

This text could be an entire sermon all by itself, but my point is that I think the paralysis of this man was both physical and mental. Perhaps it was his fear that paralyzed him. We have all heard about or perhaps even experienced the deer in the headlights phenomenon; where the deer can’t seem to move due to the fear it is experiencing at the moment. I think Jesus sensed the fear in this man; we still talk about the fear of God today, so Jesus addresses that first. It is clear to me the paralyzed man must have had a very Old Testament type of image of God in his mind. Maybe he thought he had done something wrong and was paralyzed as punishment from God. Jesus tries to calm the fears by saying to the man, you have nothing to fear, and your sins are forgiven. Of course the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t like this, but Jesus did it anyway. Once the fear was gone, the physical healing of the paralysis followed right behind.

All the issues I raised a few minutes ago where I said we could fix them but we have failed to do anything about it I think are examples of paralysis. Our congress is paralyzed, our leaders are paralyzed, our local governments at times are paralyzed – it seems like all progress is at a standstill. It is one big log jam. Everyone and everything is paralyzed.

I think the paralysis is a result of fear. Fear of re-election, fear it might cost too much, fear of too much government, fear of diminished campaign contributions, fear of raising taxes; all this fear has a paralyzing impact on our democracy. And until we can deal with the fear we will be unable to deal with the paralysis. And until we can deal with the paralysis, we had better just get used to more mass shootings and people dying. For the moment, it appears that fear is winning.

So now it is time for us to look again at the final text I read a few minutes ago. This one is also from Matthew, and is found in the 11th chapter.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly weary of watching the news and hearing about another mass shooting or another terrorist attack or another assault on humanity of some kind. I’m ready for a respite from all of this. The text says ‘come to me’ and we will experience that rest, we will be able to let go of our burdens. The key to understanding how this helps is dependent upon understanding the function of what it means to ‘come to Jesus’.

When the words were written by Matthew “come to me” I don’t think he meant some kind of mental exercise; I think Matthew’s intention behind the words ‘come to me’ implied action. Perhaps ‘follow me’ might have been more descriptive, but the implication of action is still present.

There is only one thing that overcomes fear and that one thing is love.

If you are weary or hearing about mass shootings, if you are weary of paralysis of our democracy, if you are weary of people being tossed aside like garbage in the streets, if you are weary of witnessing a cultural shift that turns your stomach, then you, like me, need rest.

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

I think the only thing that will make a difference is we must act out our love. We must attach a physical action to the words of Jesus “come to me.” It’s not enough to send thoughts and prayers. It’s not enough to feel bad or light candles or hold vigils and sing songs. If we are to experience any rest and if we are to free the paralysis, the only thing for us to do is put our love into action. We can’t afford to sit around and feel depressed or fearful. Love is what saves us and love in action is what will save the world now more than ever. Find a way to put action behind the words of Jesus “come to me” and you will feel better and if you are experiencing fear, perhaps it will subside.

“Stand up-take up your bed and walk” Jesus told the paralyzed man. We need to do the same.

Amen.

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