Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Does Faith Cost?

This has been an interesting week. I've been called out on a Fundamentalist blogger's website as a member of the "sinfully ecumenical" Emergent Church movement (which, as an active member of a mainline denomination, is a little strange, but OK). Strangely enough, I wasn't angered or insulted at all - I got mentioned in the same breath with my friend Jay Bakker, and it gave me something for a small part of the sermon - we Christians (at least in the West) persecute one another far more than we are persecuted from outside.

Here it is, not so much a sermon as an unresolved chord. Comments, criticism, etc. are welcomed.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.

Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Romans 10:8b-13
"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I want to say at the outset that this is not so much a sermon as it is a Lenten meditation. What's more, if you're expecting a well-constructed set of arguments with a neat and compelling conclusion, you're going to leave disappointed today. If I can use an analogy from a few weeks back, this morning's meditation is going to leave the chord unresolved.

This is not because I ran out of time writing, or because I just got lazy, but because our readings this morning ask us a question – and while much of Christianity is corporate and is to be understood and undertaken in the fellowship of believers and in the context of the Body of Christ as a whole, the question these texts ask is individual. Personal. Undeserving of an easy, quick, trite, prepackaged answer, and in any case, really unanswerable from any honest pulpit.

With that having been said, let's jump in.

There is nothing easy about the book of Romans. It is a complex and fairly systematic theological treatise, often controversial, and always instructive. Anytime a passage is lifted out of Romans, either to use as a prooftext or as a Lectionary reading, I wonder what was left behind.

And in our series of Lectionary texts this morning, it kind of stands out like a sore thumb. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are instructed to bring their best – the first gleanings of the harvest – and surrender them to God. To forfeit the profit and forgo the benefit of their labors in order to remember that the source of their harvest, the foundation of their success, is God. That without God on their side they would be lost in the wilderness at best, and still enslaved to Egypt at worst.
In Luke, Jesus endures the harshest of tests, plumbing the depths of his soul and the limits of his humanity in preparation for the task before him – namely, our salvation.

Then here's Romans, saying if you think and say the right things, poof, you're a Christian, you get to go to heaven! Now, I'm no Horatio Caine, but either the band of elves that put the Revised Common Lectionary together is crazy, or there's more to the story.

Rome was an interesting place – well, not so much a place as an entity. Bent on world domination, the Roman Empire in the first century AD encompassed most of the known world. While whole cultures were assimilated, governed with an iron fist and heavily taxed, the Empire was remarkably lenient when it came to religion. You could worship whatever gods your culture offered, and were not at all required to acknowledge or accept Roman gods, with one key exception: once a year, every citizen and subject of the Roman Empire (with the exception of Jewish people) were required to burn a pinch of incense to the god Caesar, and to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. You then received a certificate which showed, in effect, that you were politically compliant and not a threat to the Roman Empire. To refuse to make the offering was to announce yourself as an opponent of and a danger to that Empire.

To say “Jesus is Lord,” rather than “Caesar is Lord” was to directly challenge the sovereignty and divinity of the leader of the Empire. It was, in effect, to declare war on Rome.

But there's more to it even than that. Every religious culture in the ancient world was an attempt to reach out to or appease some god or set of gods. Prayers had to be said precisely. Sacrifices had to be made faithfully. Altars and images occupied every corner of the house, the marketplace, the crossroads, and temples to an endless variety of gods and goddesses dotted the landscape. Any natural disaster, failed harvest, or invasion by a foreign army was seen as a failure to properly appreciate the corporate gods.

And while a careful reading of the Law of Moses will show that the God of the Hebrews never intended it to be this way, even the Jews had come to regard their system of laws and sacrifices in much the same way – an effort to reach a distant and sometimes disinvolved Creator.

Contrast this with a God who not only does not require strict adherence to law and ritual, does not require burnt offerings or blood sacrifices, but who has reached out to a disinterested and even openly hostile humankind for reconciliation. It was a completely foreign concept both to Jews and to the Gentile world!
It adds up to grace which is both free and costly. Salvation, a free gift to Jew and Gentile alike, could cost you your home, your family, and could very well get you tortured and killed.

This is the first Sunday of Lent. These forty days, not counting Sundays, commemorate Jesus' forty-day fast in the wilderness. These forty days are not the only time Jesus will be tested. These aren't the only days he will be hungry, will be in pain, will be alone. What is unique about this series of tests is, among other things, that Jesus confirms that there will be no shortcuts in the plan of salvation for humankind, that nothing about his life or ministry is about himself.

It is difficult for many of us in 21st century America to imagine the dangers of being a Christian twenty centuries ago. And while millions of believers worldwide are persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed every day for their faith in Christ, our own confession of faith rarely causes us hardship. Yes, some Christians in our nation, and even in our communities, have been disowned by their family for confessing that Jesus is Lord, but for the most part, the worst we endure is evangelical athiests like Richard Dawkins saying we are stupid or comedians like Bill Mahr making fun of us in a movie.

It is a sad, but quantifiable fact, that we endure more persecution from one another, across denominational and ideological lines within the Body of Christ, than we do from those outside the faith!

We don't have to bring our firstfruits to the Temple; we're encouraged to tithe our income, yes, but no one is inspecting the quality of our gifts, keeping track of percentages, or issuing certificates of compliance.

So what does it mean for you and I to “confess with [our] lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in [our] hearts that God raised him from the dead?” How does both the fact and the ongoing process of being saved change us? Challenge us? Inconvenience us or even put us in harm's way?

What does our faith cost us?

Let us pray.

1 comment:

  1. Many of us who have been "called out" by Ken see it as a badge of honor. If Ken is agianst you, then most likely you are on the road God wants you to be. = )