(To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
12“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.13“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
One of the knocks we in the church sometimes get when we are careful to be open-minded and welcoming and not super judgey is that sometimes people say, oh, they don’t actually believe much of anything. So I want to center my remarks this morning on the idea of why we bother being good: why bother being good at all.
Now, I happen to believe this way of being is what Jesus would have us do: I think Jesus would have us welcome everybody and be open-minded and all the rest, but it’s sort of a radical idea, and we sometimes get criticized by people who seem to think that the only way to believe things strongly is to look down on people who disagree with you. It’s the old church lady mentality, you know, that character from Saturday Night Live that Dana Carvey played who thought everything that wasn’t super churchy was necessarily of the devil? Somehow, we seem to sometimes think that we need to differentiate ourselves by talking about what we’re against more than what we’re for.
It is a lot easier, after all, to just say we’re against fornication or greed or gluttony than it is to say, “We’re for lifelong expressions of equality and faithfulness in sexual relationships, and here is how we help people live that out” or “We’re for finding ways to live generously and giving money away freely and here is how we do that” or, maybe the most difficult one for those of us who have been sitting in the church pews for a long time, “We’re for eating only as much as we need and sharing the rest with those who are less fortunate and here is how we go about making sure everybody has enough to eat.”
So instead, we talk about being against this or against that, or, the natural extension, saying that God is against this or against that, and it’s not too far a walk before you have Westboro Baptist Church, that contemptible organization that is neither truly Baptist nor really a church, protesting soldiers funerals, all the while using language so vile on their picket signs, in the so-called name of God, that I won’t even speak it from the pulpit of this church.
That’s a lot of baggage we’re dealing with, you and me. It’s a lot of discoloring of the message of Jesus Christ that we have to deal with, and so sometimes, sometimes in the interest of making sure nobody associates them with that kind of hatefulness, churches do the easy thing and just run the other way, say, oh, it really doesn’t matter what you do. Just love everybody they say, which is fine until you realize that many of these fine folks don’t actually have any idea what loving everybody means beyond voting for their preferred political party and saving the whales and washing your hair in organic tofu or whatever.
I mean, I understand that instinct. I really do. I don’t like being tarred with the hateful dreck that is so often associated with the church of Jesus. The Barna group, a Christian research organization, did a study a few years ago of people outside the church and found that 87%--eighty-seven percent!—of people outside the church think the church is judgmental, 85% think the church is hypocritical, 72% think the church is out of touch with reality, and 70% think the church is insensitive to others. These are real numbers, folks, and if the trends have continued, they’ve only gotten worse since the study was done in 2007. I understand why there’s this real desire to move past any specific teaching of Jesus, anything that might inconvenience us or make us feel like we might need to do something differently in our own lives to become more faithful to the call of God on our lives. Besides the fact that we want to run the other way from these kind of identifiers that sting so strongly, we’d rather not be faced with the idea that there is anything we should do differently! Nobody wants to come to church, after all, and hear a sermon about what they are doing wrong!
Rest assured, I don’t intend to preach a sermon about what we are doing wrong. That’s not why you came and it’s not helpful in any case. But I do want to preach a sermon that points to Jesus, because it is not the case that we all have it all together already, that we’ve all figured it out. It’s not the case that we’re all so composed that we can come together each week and talk about how great we are and how awful everybody else is for not being as great as we are. We have brokenness, and sin, and heartache. The world is full of pain and injustice; the struggle for basic civil rights is ongoing. We don’t have it all together. In short: we come to church and we listen to the sermon and we search scripture because we know that in the final analysis, we’re not capable of saving ourselves. We’re not capable of saving ourselves. Every time we try we find ourselves in the midst of another war, another religious conflict, another intractable political problem that we can’t find our way out of.
The bad news is that we aren’t capable of saving ourselves, but the good news is that we don’t have to, because Jesus Christ has shown us a better way. It is a way of love, and care, and acceptance, and justice, and work.
Christ shows us a better way, but it isn’t just about buying Organic. I wish I could tell you that it doesn’t take much work on your part, because I don’t relish standing up here with no shield from all the potential spitballs, but the fact of the matter is that we learn in scripture that all of the change, all of the justice, all of the civil rights and the love that the world needs starts . . . right here. It starts in the heart. I don’t mean to suggest that Christians have it all together, or that nothing good comes from other religions or from people of no religion at all. I’m just saying that the savior I read about in scripture, Jesus Christ: he is pure love, pure giving, pure unselfishness, and while I don’t have it all together myself, my God, do I want to be like that guy when I grow up.
Now, I haven’t always wanted to be like him. When I was a kid, mostly I was just scared of him. I don’t know if you had this experience, but while I didn’t spend much time in church growing up, on the rare occasion I did find myself in church, I heard things like, “Don’t ever sin because God is watching you,” you know, like God was some sadistic Santa Claus who was always watching to make sure you never screwed up. But that’s not how God works at all. God gives us grace. God forgives us. God accepts us. God loves us. God claims each of us as one of God’s children. But that doesn’t mean that anything that is permissible is beneficial! This is about growing up. It is about being an adult, about recognizing that we ought to live in ways that are good for everybody, that acknowledge everyone’s humanity.
We aren’t good just because there is some arbitrary list of rules that says we ought to be. God is not arbitrary! The ways we have been shown to live are the best ways, because they are the ways of love. And yes, your body is a temple, but so is everybody else’s! You don’t get to claim the higher ground and treat everybody else as a play thing. Each of us—each of us!—is fearfully and wonderfully made. And if you aren’t treating everybody you meet as such you aren’t doing justice to the work of the living God.
Friends, this is what it means to be the church, the Body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play, but what is more, we aren’t whole when we aren’t together. We are connected in mysterious, marvelous ways. It is as the poet John Donne says, no man, no woman is an island, entire of himself, entire of herself. We are connected as God’s people, and what you do when nobody is watching matters! Your private life has public consequences, because we are connected to one another and our relationships matter! You can’t hate people in your head without it eventually coming out your mouth. You cannot disconnect your inner life from your outer life any more than you can disconnect your hard drive from your monitor and expect it to still work.
And yet this is the norm, it seems: this idea that I can think whatever I want, I can be however I want, I can be as resentful in my own mind as I want as long as I speak kindly to strangers or whatever. But that is bogus!
Here’s the thing. Of course we have grace. Of course we acknowledge that none of us has it all together yet. But to use grace, to use the fact that we are all struggling together as an excuse to do whatever you want in your private life is to do exactly what Paul says not to do in this morning’s scripture lesson. This is not to say that following Jesus is about following a long list of rules, but it is to say that not everything is good for you. If it doesn’t build relationship, it isn’t good. When the Pslamist says that each of us is knit together in our mothers’ wombs, he doesn’t mean that you were knit together as a child of God and everything and everybody else is to be a plaything. The Psalmist means that each person is a child of God, and if you aren’t seeing each person as an equal, as somebody on the same plane as you because each person, just like you, is a child of God, you aren’t properly following Jesus! And you can try to trick yourself all you want, but you simply cannot treat people unfairly in business dealings, or live in resentment, or end up trapped in the vice of watching pornography and maintain this understanding that each person is made in the image of God. These kinds of behaviors obliterate the relationships we have as God’s children, beloved by God and equal in God’s sight. They aren’t relationships at all, because in the final analysis, they are all about me and my desires rather than our relationship. And they certainly aren’t about God.
Friends, if we want to be people who change the world, who are faithful, who follow Jesus and speak justice and love everybody, we’ve got to start . . . right . . . here.
Now, here is the good news. This business of personal holiness, of tending to your heart: it may not be easy. But you don’t have to do it alone! This is why we have the church: to care for one another, to help deal with issues of the heart, and I’ve never met anybody who didn’t have issues of the heart. Oh, I’ve met people who thought they had it together, but it just never works. And so the church is here. If you are struggling with something—be it pornography, or addition, or prejudice—if there is something you need help with, come talk. And if you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, that’s fine, we’ll find you somebody. This is who we are. This is the work of the church, to help people through difficult times, to struggle together, to—as some people have said—literally love the hell out of people.
You see, you can’t make a bright line distinction between the work of the heart and the work of the hands. Just like you can’t properly act as an agent of God out in the world without tending to your heart, neither can you sit around talking about how holy you are, how much you just looooove Jesus, without sharing that love such that each person knows he or she is God’s beloved child. I remember once meeting somebody who said that her whole deal, her whole reason for living was to just be passionate about Jesus. She said, I just want people to know that I am passionate about Jesus. The problem is: I don’t think she knew what that meant! I sure didn’t. I don’t think she had any idea what it meant to be passionate about Jesus! I think she just knew what it meant to talk about being passionate about Jesus, and that’s not the same thing, because you can't separate your personal relationship with God from your public living as god's child. You can’t love Jesus without loving other people. There is no social relationship with a personal one. Until you’re ready to make changes in your own heart, bit by bit, doing what John Wesley called going on to perfection, until you’re ready to make those changes, you’re missing out on the riches of a life lived in love, in the shadow of grace.
Maybe you were expecting something different today. It is Martin Luther King weekend, after all, so maybe instead of a sermon about why we bother being good, you were expecting a call to service, a stem-winder about freedom. Freedom demands responsibility and the responsibility of the church is to be agents of Christ's love in our hearts and in the world, because in the final analysis you can't separate your personal relationship with God from your public living as god's child.
So let me share some words from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, as he talks about this freedom and this responsibility. There was a time, he says, when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
Friends, we can be that church again. I know we can. This is why we bother being good: not because the life of faith is about following rules, or because we are about earing enough points to get into Heaven. We bother being good because it is a witness to the seriousness with which we take our faith, the deadly seriousness of following Jesus. We bother being good because the ancient evils of prejudice and war and hate persist, and we are called to be more than a thermometer that records the ideas and principles of popular opinion. We bother being good because even in the face of criticism, we believe that we are called to show the world what we are for: the way of love, which is the best way. It is the very best way. Thanks be to God. Amen.