Sermon: September 23, 2018 – “Two Kinds of Law”

Two Kinds of Law

Text: I Cor 10: 23-24

23 “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.

This is another one of those texts that can leave you scratching your head.  Of course, not all things are lawful – and yet that is what it says – and the second part of the text says that not all things are beneficial; well, that is certainly true, but there are times when even that becomes a very gray area.

What we have here, I believe, is a text that requires us to look deeper and a text that is challenging in the way we image and comprehend God.  What is Paul trying to say when he says that all things are lawful?  If you read the entire chapter, you will discover that the majority of the conversation centers around food and what is lawful to eat and what is not.  So we could conclude that all food is OK to consume, or all food is now lawful and leave it at that. But what that does is it makes the entire context no longer meaningful or no longer relevant to our lives today. I resist this idea because I happen to think that we can almost always pull something out of a text, even when on the surface it may seem like there isn’t anything more there for us to find.

I happen to think that if we look hard enough we may find something more for us to understand here than just a green light on whatever kinds of food we want to eat.  Paul says that all things are lawful, not just food, but all things; and then he seems to temper the statement with another observation that not all things are beneficial.  So he makes a distinction between lawful and beneficial, he states there is a difference between what is legal and what is good for us.

Perhaps the place for us to begin looking at this scripture is with the word lawful.  What does Paul mean when he uses this word?

In today’s context, lawful means that we stay within the laws of our city or state or federal government; in other words, there are laws we must obey.  We drive the speed limit, mostly; we stop at red lights, we file our taxes, we don’t rob banks – we follow the laws.  There are those who sometimes do not, and there are consequences for not following the laws.  Those consequences range in severity, but they are consequences none the less.  I’m wondering how far I would get if the State Police pulled me over for speeding and I tried to explain to the officer that the Apostle Paul says that all things are lawful and therefore I can drive as fast as I please.  I’m pretty certain that wouldn’t work too well. Although I did notice last time I went through Boise that the speed limit on the Interstate down there is faster than I want to drive anyway, but I digress…

I don’t think Paul was talking about these kinds of laws.  Perhaps you are thinking he was talking about the religious laws of ancient Judaism; that would be a better guess, but I don’t believe that has to be the case for us today either.  I believe it is possible that Paul was talking about a higher law, the law of righteousness or the law of salvation.

As I began to ponder this question, it occurred to me that there are really two kinds of law.  There are those laws which are designed to control you in some way, and most of those laws you can break if you want to.  The speed limit, the stop sign, the filing your taxes, etc – you have a choice if you want to follow those laws, and most of us do most of the time.  But there are other laws, laws which cannot be broken because they just are.  These laws exist and there isn’t much we can do about them.

The law of gravity is such a law.  We might be able to escape gravity and orbit the earth, but the general consensus is that the law of gravity always is followed.  If you drop a ball 100 times, it is a certainty that 100 times out of 100 the ball will fall to the earth.  The law of gravity simply is, it cannot be broken.   Not only that, but the law of gravity is really cool in a lot of other ways as well. For example, you might remember learning in school about the experiment of Galileo, I think it was, who dropped balls if different weight off a tower. Everyone thought the heavier ball would drop much faster than the lighter ball, but in fact, they hit the ground at the same time. The law of gravity has a built-in equality that is really interesting if you think about it in that way. Another interesting example is that the law of gravity works on an object whether or not it is in motion. You might have to think about this one a little, but a good example is a bullet fired from a gun. If the gun is perfectly level, and you drop a bullet straight down at the same time the fired bullet leaves the end of the gun barrel, both bullets will hit the ground at the same time. That may seem unlikely to you, but it is, in fact, the truth.

Taking this idea with the law of gravity for example; does it matter what object we throw into the air to see if gravity works?  Does an apple work as well as a bowling ball?  I would say yes.  So, from a particular point of view, with regard to the law of gravity, all things are lawful, all things, as I said before, are equally impacted by the law of gravity.

There are many laws of nature and physics which fall into this category; Newton’s laws of motion, laws regarding mass or density, laws of heat exchange; there are all kinds of things that just are the way they are.  They are always the same, never to be broken, and we call them laws.

Let me see if I can bring this around full circle for us now.  Within the Jewish faith tradition, the law had a specific purpose and that purpose was righteousness.  The law was to be followed to insure your righteousness before God and to show your diligence and commitment to God.  This was the purpose of the law.

I believe what Paul is saying here, is that the relationship of God to humanity is never in question; it is like the second type of law that we talked about, it is like the law of gravity.  There are two kinds of law, those that we follow and those that just are.

God falls into the category of law that just is.  There isn’t anything you can do to change the way God sees you.  There isn’t any law you can follow that will cause God to love you more; there isn’t any law you can break that will cause God to love you less.  Your status with God, just is and cannot be enhanced or diminished by anything we do.  In that context; all things are lawful.

Does that mean we go out and do anything we please?  Of course not, because as I mentioned earlier, Paul tempers the statement with another when he says that not all things are beneficial.  The key to a fulfilling life is right there in the text as well – don’t seek your own advantage, but rather the advantage of the other.  Don’t put yourself first, but place the needs of others above your own.

A remarkably simple formula; don’t worry about your relationship with God, it is secure, it just is, it’s like gravity.  Worry about others and there you will find all you need to know about life. If you think about it, you might discover this simple formula from Paul sounds a lot like the one that Jesus offered when he said to “love God and love your neighbor as yourself” then Jesus said on these two things, hang all the law.

Two kinds of law; but only one response to the law, God is and you are with God.

And that is perhaps food for thought.

Amen.

 

Sermon: September 16, 2018 – “Not For Sale”

Not For Sale

Text: Psalm 103: 8-13

 8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for his children.

One of the duties of a pastor of a United Methodist Church is to be the spiritual leader of the congregation.  This responsibility is one that I take very seriously; however, it can be misunderstood and often misconstrued.  Being your spiritual leader by no means implies that I can tell you what to believe or how to think.  Those decisions are up to you.  Each of us must work out our own spirituality and relationship with the Divine in our own way.  That is the only way it becomes meaningful and personal for us, it is the only way we make it our own.  If we simply follow someone else’s formula, it is not our own and lacks the power of creation that accompanies a healthy spirituality.

Being your spiritual leader also does not mean that I simply reinforce all the things you already believe and have already been taught.  If I take something you already believe to be true and offer yet another convincing argument as to its validity, what value is that?  Where is the opportunity for growth?  Where is the opportunity for new insight?

I believe that a leader must lead – be out front and he or she must be one of the first to consider an idea or challenge an assumption.  I believe spirituality is not a destination, but rather a journey.  If we are on a journey, then new territory is mandatory – if we do not cover new ground on our journey, then, in fact, we are going in circles.  Far too many pastors lead in circles because they fear the new ground and they fear new ideas.  I’m hoping to cover some new ground today.  But let me be clear; these are my thoughts and my observations – they don’t have to be yours.  I offer them as an opportunity for you to entertain new ideas and possibly create a new perspective.  It is not necessary that we all believe the same thing or approach our spirituality in the same way.

That being said, I wanted us to take a closer look at this thing we call sin and what that means to us and how we are to apply this term to our lives.  I believe there are many misconceptions around the idea of sin – perhaps you have been told or taught some things that you assume to be true, and I am here today to perhaps challenge some of those assumptions.

The first assumption I want us to take a closer look is about the forgiveness of sins.  Let me begin with what I consider to be a valid definition of sin.  Many relate sin to behavior; in our past, there have been some pretty silly things that have been considered ‘sinful’ and they are all based in behavior.  Dancing was once considered sinful, a woman with her ankles showing was once considered sinful, going to the movies has been considered sinful, (I guess it still may be by some) and the list goes on.  In ancient Judaism, the list was quite lengthy and Jesus spent much of his time teaching that following the list will never get you to where you want to be.  Sin is not behavior.  Let me say that again; sin is not behavior.  Sin is a condition. You might need to mull that one over for a little while, and I will get back to this idea, so don’t panic.

This is a very important concept for us to comprehend.  Sin is a condition.  Think of it as a fever – your body has a fever and is fighting off an infection of some kind.  The fact that you have a fever is your condition; it is not your behavior.  Now there could be some things that you do that could lead to a fever – and that is behavior.  In like manner, there are things which we do that can lead us into a condition of sin, or at least we think we are in that condition, and it is those things which everyone seems to get so worked up about.  But give some thought to the idea that there isn’t any behavior which is sin; there is only behavior that may lead to the condition of sin.

This concept, then, begs the question; what is the condition of sin?  My answer to that question is very simple – at least on the surface – and that is the condition of sin is separation from God.  When we are separated from God, we are in the condition of sin.  Now I need to clarify something – I don’t believe we can be separated from God – it is impossible.  So the separation that exists when we are in the condition of sin exists only in our minds.  We think we are separated from God, we may feel separated from God; we may assume God wants nothing to do with us, but all those things exist only in our minds.  So here is the real challenge – if we cannot be separated from God, and sin is the condition of being separated from God, then sin does not actually exist.  Bad behavior certainly exists, but sin does not.

While you mull that one over for a time in your minds, let me give you another something to think about.  There is a lot of teaching out there, even in mainstream Christianity, which teaches the work of Jesus was to pay our debt of sin.  This is called the atonement theory.  Note I used the word theory.  In order for us to truly believe in the atonement theory, we must first believe that God’s love is for sale.  We must believe that God’s love is conditional.  It is not.  God’s love is neither conditional nor is it for sale – at any price.

As you are probably aware, Heidi and I just returned home from a trip to Alaska, which was great. I had the chance to shoot some great pictures, which I hope to have the chance to share over the next few weeks, and for the most part, we had really great weather, which for Alaska, I’m told, isn’t always the case. Our transportation to Alaska for this trip was by cruise ship-if you have ever cruised, you might be able to personally relate to what I’m talking about, but on a cruise ship, there is a lot that is for sale.

There are gift shops full of trinkets and T-shirts, watches and jewelry, jackets and caps and scarves and all sorts of things for sale. Then there are the pictures. They have photographers everywhere shooting pictures or at least wanting to shoot pictures, and then they print them all and put them out on a giant bulletin board and offer them for sale.

On a cruise ship, they also offer what they call shore excursions that are also for sale. Even if it is something simple, like driving around town and visiting gift shops, they are able to package it together and sell it for a price. There are many things that are always for sale in an environment like this and frankly, that is one of the things I like the least about cruising. It seems like someone is always interested in another way to get your money. In some ways, at least for me, it diminishes the entire experience.

Now I don’t know if you have ever thought about the idea of God’s love being for sale, but that is what atonement means and there is more than one hymn in our hymnal that states Jesus has paid a price or paid our debt or in some other language has essentially purchased our favor in God’s eyes. When this idea is put into this context, does that sound right to you?

I want you to notice a couple of things about the scripture I read this morning from the 103rd Psalm.  The first thing to notice is that it is in the Old Testament – this Psalm pre-dates Jesus and pre-dates the execution of Jesus on the cross.  The second thing to notice is that it tells us that God removes our transgressions from us as far as the East is from the West.  God’s love was unconditional prior to Jesus, and God’s love is still unconditional after Jesus and God’s love never has been nor will it ever be for sale.

You will recall that I said separation from God is impossible.  I believe it is.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t move away from God, it doesn’t mean we can’t build walls that block us from God, it doesn’t mean we can’t feel isolated and apart from God.  We can and we do all of those things, and worship and personal meditation and prayer are the opportunities we have to move closer to God, to tear the walls down we have constructed and to feel connected once again to the Divine.

And that, of course, is food for thought.

Amen.