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Sermon – “Merely Humna?” – February 16, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2014

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Merely Human?

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9; Matthew 5: 21-37

People like to have prosperous, important-seeming people pay attention to them, and are less glad being the focus of those evincing material and cultural poverty. We always feel that association with others “rubs off” on us. Thatʼs what name-dropping is about–we feel elevated to be able to claim a connection with someone noteworthy.

Early in the letter of James he criticizes the church for welcoming better-off strangers to its worship service and ignoring more humble visitors. Making these superficial social distinctions is a sin, which James points out, and adds “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

Doesnʼt this sound crazy? One little thing gets counted as though it were a big thing? Nobodyʼs committing murder, nobodyʼs lying, thereʼs no theft– thereʼs no taking the Lordʼs name in vain–how can engaging in a little knee-jerk judgment about the relative worth of strangers make you accountable for failing the whole of Godʼs requirements?

There are people who will tell you they believe there is no hierarchy of sin, that God is just as unhappy with gossip as with adultery. People who say that only say it because their church has taught them that.

Really, though, people accept that some things are terrible to do to other people, and some things God forbids are not as bad. This ranking of wrongdoing is the way most of us get a quiet conscience. The bigger a rascal we are, the more substantial the mischief we offset by reminding ourselves that we are not murderers, thieves, arsonists, or kidnappers. You set the limit of stuff of which we would really have to be ashamed just a bit higher than things we donʼt seem to be able to help, like calling someone a fool, or fibbing when strict veracity would only cause trouble, or underreporting income to the government and shifting the collective burden of our common civic life off onto some other source of funding. Whatever we do that we have to admit is not exactly above reproach, we donʼt feel too bad about it as long as it stays out of the category of really big sin. Itʼs like eating potato chips with our sandwich while telling ourselves that weʼre not going to have a banana split afterward–compared to the possibility of eating the banana split, what are the fat calories from the chips? Compared to the possibility of robbing the jewelry store, whatʼs engaging in critical gossip about some neighbor?

This anxiety to avoid guilt acknowledges that our deserving, and enjoying, happiness depends on our pleasing God. The idea is that if we think the thoughts God approves, and say the things, and do the deeds, which God has asked of us, then our way through the world will be smoothed. There are two ways to think about this. One is to regard Godʼs rules and requirements as a manufacturerʼs instruction manual, careful attention to which will help you enjoy the product as fully as possible. God made everything, God understands everything, so when God tells you, for example, that itʼs bad to undermine your own parents, there must be something to it.

The other way to think about what our scripture from Deuteronomy says–that if you keep these laws, youʼll enjoy a good, long life in the future God is bringing you– is to think of it as your part of a bargain. God provides for you, provided you pay attention to God. Thatʼs the idea of covenant. Itʼs one of the basic notions the Bible has about reality, so even if we donʼt think about it in exactly these terms, the expectations connected with it have become second-nature for most people. Almost everyone will express surprise or indignation if a particularly blameless person suffers a terrible reversal of fortune. Thatʼs not because experience teaches us such a thing canʼt happen. Itʼs because our heritage from the Old Testament insists that it shouldnʼt happen.

When the apostle Paul intervenes in the controversies and conflicts of the churches he knows, he sometimes tells them that their troubles are a result of their not being adequately faithful. In todayʼs reading he says that their having divided themselves into factions within the church is a symptom of their not adequately understanding the gospel. We are so inclined to be skeptical about the relationship between careful attention to the will of God and blessing– because, of course, we know good servants of Christ who suffer unjustly–that we fail to appreciate the truth of this. How can a body of people the existence of which relies entirely on collective service to God and shared effort to follow Christ flourish unless it is united in spirit and purpose? How can mistrust and disagreement among its constituent parts be anything but a symptom of the failure of a spirit of discipleship governing everyoneʼs attitudes and expectations? It is not magical thinking on Paulʼs part to identify their human problems as a sign that they are giving too much power to human concerns like pride, and too little power to things like prayer.

What does Jesus say in the gospel?– that Godʼs overriding concern is that people show their faithfulness to God by building and preserving loving relationships with other people. Thereʼs no sense bothering to engage in a religious obligation if your human relationships are messed up. This is a lesson we get a couple of different ways in the gospel–in one place Jesus asks how we can love God whom we cannot see when weʼre unable to love people whom we can see, and in todayʼs reading, Jesusʼ insistence that gifts not be made at the altar until human differences are settled.

In the fifth chapter of Matthew Jesus makes Godʼs requirements more demanding. Being in the right with God becomes tougher. It becomes harder to see oneself as a responsible person of God.

This touches a nerve, because Jesus includes all kinds of things which make us look bad How can everyone who has a flawed relationship with another person wait until thatʼs resolved in order to go worship? How can a person who recognizes that another human being is attractive avoid guilt if adultery might include attraction? Divorce is simply a fact in many peopleʼs personal stories–how can Jesus be so categorical about it? Then thereʼs Jesus telling us not to swear by anything at all. There are some religious cults which follow this teaching, but nine Christians out of ten will swear on a Bible in a court of law and regard it as a gesture of respect toward their faith, rather than disobedience.

Hereʼs why the sermon began with James equating treating rich visitors better than poor visitors with failing the entire law of God. If, humanly speaking, we know that there are bad actions and worse actions, more easily forgiven wrongs and wrongs harder to forgive, what the Bible says is that Godʼs will for us is that we do right, not just in avoiding huge evils, but right in everything. Thatʼs Godʼs will for us, and our not achieving always being in the right by Godʼs reckoning creates a problem for us. Itʼs a problem we try to solve in various ways. One Iʼve mentioned is to apply the common sense human way of seeing some sins as so much worse than others that we relativize the ways we havenʼt done Godʼs will. We accept who we have been by one sort or another of self-justification, and itʼs easy, because we have good excuses. Life is difficult, things go wrong, we meant well.

All those things may be true, and they are hard not to rely upon, because it is harder for us to rely on Godʼs forgiveness. We dislike forgiveness because it reminds us that God gets to say whether we measure up, and we would like to be responsible to ourselves. We have a hard time believing in forgiveness because we arenʼt good at it, we have little experience of entirely absolving those who wrong us, so to think God can adequately forgive isnʼt easy.

What todayʼs lessons remind us is that Biblical religion prefers to negotiate life as a matter of failing, turning, and being forgiven instead of the ways we make ourselves feel better about whatʼs gone wrong. The Bible deeply believes what Psalm 14 says, “they have all gone astray” and what Paul writes in the third chapter of Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Jesus in the gospels refuses being called good, and reminds the person, “no one is good but God alone.”

We know people have a bad conscience about being defined as doing wrong by some of the Bibleʼs teachings, but the truth is we all deserve to have a bad conscience. It is not enough to be fortunate enough to dodge the bigger condemnations. God has higher expectations of us than that, a greater vision of who it is we really are, the potential to be persons of God. We all ought to feel the need for forgiveness for the little things, the lapses, everything that thwarts love and disturbs peace.

More important, we should rejoice that forgiveness is Godʼs will for us. We should be content to have God to answer to, for God is merciful and abundantly pardons. Life can be new every moment that we turn it back over to God. Our fault, our failure, the things we couldnʼt help, the things we didnʼt mean, all the painful things of the past, arenʼt now okay because we survived, or time heals wounds, or they werenʼt important. They are now okay because Christ indeed has authority to forgive, and has, and does, in order that we each day and year draw closer to being who we really are, sons and daughters of the Most High.


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