Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Cup of Cold Water
Mt. 10:40-42; Rom. 6:12-23[1]
Sometimes I think religious professionals may be more of a hindrance to spiritual living than a help. You may find that a strange thing for a religious professional to say! It seems to me, for some reason, we religious professionals tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. We create systems and rules to ensure that everyone winds up at the same place in their spiritual journeys. But systems always have to be tweaked, as any Presbyterian who has tracked the evolution of the Book of Order can attest. And rules always have to be expanded to take care of exceptions and loopholes, as any tax attorney can attest! It might be tempting for us to point the finger at those other religions out there, for “straining a gnat and swallowing a camel,” as Jesus put it. But the reality is that all religions, as attempts to create a systematic way in which all people can approach ultimate things like God and eternity, can become obstacles in the spiritual quest.
In the Hebrew Bible, we see an approach to the spiritual life that essentially defines holiness in terms of carefully conducted ritual sacrifices, and it defines sin in terms of staying pure by eating the right foods and having intimate relationships with the right kind of people. Well let’s look at this: we no longer believe that people have to offer ritual sacrifices in order to please God. And we don’t think that having a plate of oysters somehow makes us unclean in God’s sight. But many in our faith still believe that the essence of sin is having an intimate relationship with the wrong kind of person (even in the context of marriage). And yet, the “wrong kind” of person for the Hebrew Bible was anybody outside the family of Abraham! Do we really believe that marrying a person outside your faith, or marrying a person of another race, or another ethnic group somehow makes us sinful in God’s eyes? I wonder if it’s time to move past this aspect of the Hebrew Bible as well.
I see some of this when read our lesson from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans for today. While we are clearly indebted to the great Apostle for many of the building blocks of our faith, I think his views on sin have some problems. In a very real sense, I think the main problem is that he has a very “First-Century Jewish” notion of sin. On the surface of things, obviously we don’t want to be “slaves of sin” but “servants of righteousness.” But the problem comes when you ask what kind of sin Paul had in mind. With all his talk of your “members,” or body parts (6:13), presented to “impurity” in the “passions” of the “flesh,” it seems to me pretty clear that the kind of “sin” that leads to “death” in St. Paul’s thinking here is sexual sin—having an intimate relationship with the “wrong kind” of person.
But is that really what we believe? When we look around at the world in which we live, where do you see sin leading to death? Well, I see power-hungry dictators unleashing tanks against their own peoples to suppress dissent. And the result of that sin is death—over and over. And I see impoverished people living in ramshackle slums that are swept away completely—with all their residents, men, women, and children—whenever an earthquake or a flood or a hurricane comes through. I see the death that results from the sin of the wealthy in those countries hoarding all the resources and the sin of the government leaders who profit personally from injustice. I would have to say, in all honesty, that I don’t death resulting from having an intimate relationship with the “wrong kind” of person. I’m afraid I’d have to say that the beloved Apostle missed it on this one. His feet are firmly stuck in the Jewish notions of sin prevalent in his fellow Pharisees.
Whenever we make the essence of spirituality and holiness a matter of following religious rules, it seems to me that we have missed the mark. Rigid religious rules always become obstacles to loving other people; it seems to me that means they are obstacles to truly loving God. Jesus called them “burdens too heavy to lift” and points the finger at religious perfectionists of all stripes for ignoring their own sins and focusing on the minor lapses of others. It all becomes just an elaborate way of justifying myself by condemning someone else. But at the end of the day, even we religious perfectionists can’t bear the burden we’ve created for others.
Jesus had a way of cutting through all the hypocrisy and trivia and nonsense that we religious professionals can generate in that foolish effort. He said that true holiness is about loving God and loving others—all others, no exceptions. He said that true spirituality is about embracing a child, caring for the weak and outcast. He said that true goodness is about feeding the hungry person, visiting the sick, and being a companion to those who are in prison.[2] For Jesus, a truly spiritual way of living is about being willing to give someone a cup of cold water on a hot day (Mt. 10:42).[3] It’s really no more complicated than that. No elaborate systems, no obsessions with keeping every jot and tittle. At the end of the day, it’s about having a heart that is willing to give to others the same grace, and mercy, and unconditional love that we have received.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/26/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 126-9, where he says in effect that those who truly follow Christ are to be serving where Christ awaits us, “amid the downtrodden, the sick, and the captives.”
[3] I recognize that Jesus is probably talking about people receiving the “little ones” among the disciples who are traveling as evangelists and teachers, but I think that the same principle of kindness can apply generally. Cf. Ulrich Luz and Helmut Koester, Matthew: A Commentary, 121-22.

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