STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 2, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
WORSHIPPING AT HOME TOGETHER
Call to Worship: Psalm 73: 25 – 28
Lord, You’re all I want in heaven!
You’re all I want on earth!
When my skin sags and my bones get brittle,
God is rock-firm and faithful.
Look! Those who left you are falling apart!
Deserters, they’ll never be heard from again.
But I’m in the very presence of God—
oh, how refreshing it is!
I’ve made Lord God my home.
God, I’m telling the world what you do!
Prayer of Adoration and Confession:
God of Love, God of Forgiveness, God of Reconciliation,
You alone are worthy of our praise. You alone deserve our love and loyalty.
You have chosen us and made us your own.
You welcome us into your heart and invite us into your home.
All that you have, you have willingly shared with us.
Your love for us is as deep as the ocean,
Your devotion is steady as a mountain,
Your faithfulness is as enduring as the sun.
You open yourself to us.
You woo us with tender words.
You promise us abundant life, and the security of belonging to you.
You offer us your very self, and yet we are unfaithful.
Our eyes wander after other gods – idols of wealth, golden statues made in our own image, graven images of people we turn into heroes and stars.
We cheat on you without remorse and lie to hide our infidelity. We break your heart with our betrayal.
But our hearts are hard. We assume you’ll always be there and take advantage of your forgiving nature.
We strike out at you, expecting your compassion.
We abandon you, assuming you will seek us.
Our hearts are false so we pretend to be yours, when all the while, we wander and go astray, looking for love in all the wrong places.
We do not honour you. We do not fear you. We treat you like a fool and feel contempt for your affection.
Lord, we realize how foolish we’ve been, throwing away the best thing that can happen to us. And so, we come, asking you to forgive us. Only you can restore us to your good graces. In wounding you, we’ve also wounded ourselves and only you can heal us. Only you can save us.
Righteous One, our love is like a morning mist that burns away. We are like dew that dries up. But you are the morning showers that seep in and refresh the parched earth of our souls. You are the spring rains that bring the our dead world to life. By your mercy, you have raised us up in Christ and accepted us again. We run to your embrace.
May this time of worship be fresh and pure, real and true. May we offer you words of devotion. Hearts overflowing with love. Spirits completely open to your Spirit. May we know you and adore you, with all our heart, mind, will and strength and may we show our love for you in all we are, all we feel, all we think all we say and all we do, now and forever. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: James 1: 12 – 15
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.
Prayer for Illumination
Lord God, who searches our hearts, as we search your scriptures today, help us to hear your word that we may have clean hands and pure hearts. Amen.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” Matthew 5: 27 – 32 NRSV
“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt. “Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump. “Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure. The Message
Exodus 20: 15
Ephesians 5: 21 – 33
John 8: 3 – 11
Sex permeates everything. In our time, people are encouraged to experiment with every sexual activity possible. Advertisers know “sex sells” so nearly everything we see is tinged with sexuality; including the sexualization of children. Pornography, which is rampant on the internet, takes this obsession further along the spectrum We’re aware of the large profits that are made from human trafficking – the kidnapping of (mainly) teenage girls and children and their enslavement as prostitutes. Shamefully, there’s a market for paying to rape. Sexual abuse is more pervasive than people previously recognized; tragically, the Church shares culpability for wounding people in this way. Sex is increasingly depersonalized. Recently, I was watching a TV show in which two unmarried people had a sexual relationship. After many sexual encounters, the man asked the woman if she’d like to go for a walk. She declined saying, “I’m not ready for that level of intimacy.” In another show where the relationship also was sexual, the man discovered, through a mutual friend, that it was his lover’s birthday. He debated on whether or not to buy a present, fearful it may imply he was “getting serious.” It was unclear if humour was intended. For many, mutually agreed upon sexual liaisons are treated lightly. For some, “a booty call” from an acquaintance is not unusual, neither is “hooking up” with a stranger after a night out with friends. Others have on-going “friends with benefits” arrangements. Recently, a young father expressed his bewilderment (I’d say shock, but is anything shocking anymore?) about an average suburban couple on his son’s soccer team who are open about their “open marriage” and know many couples who have “taken that step”. Their language implies that if we walk far enough “that step” becomes inevitable. In our culture, a sexual encounter has no more significance than going to the toilet. It’s a bodily function for physical relief. With all this, it’s not surprising sexual addiction is an acknowledged illness, STD’s are rampant (even among the elderly), and approximately 90,000 abortions are performed each year in Canada.
Not long ago, I asked some clergy friends if they thought the Church has anything left to say about the spirituality of sex. They gave a resounding “no”, as in no we don’t, and no we shouldn’t. That’s ironic, because Jesus did! “You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.” Of course, imaginative coveting is not limited to men; women also lust. In fact, lust is not limited to any one gender or gender preference. Yet, when people hear those words, they conclude that the Church is moralizing, prudish, restrictive, judgemental, and out of touch. Some Christians have adopted a burden of guilt, joyless repression, an ascetic lifestyle, and even practices such as whipping oneself in penitence, in the hope of taming and controlling the tendency to lust.
In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, this is the second example of Jesus looking beyond the actions of people to their motivations, thoughts and impulses. While not murdering someone is good, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. Murder is born of anger. In the same way, adultery, fornication, rape and other sexual actions are rooted in lust. Actions are important. God also “searches the heart” (Romans 8:27). He wants not only “clean hands” but “a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4). Sexual enthrallment, like anger, is a normal human trait. God has made us with hormones and pheromones, with sight and touch, with desires and dreams. These are all good gifts – some of the best life has to offer! If it wasn’t for that spark of attraction, people would never find a partner; babies wouldn’t be born; romance would be dead. So, what was Jesus’ problem? The problem is, like anger, desire can escalate and become destructive. Unbridled lust causes us to use, abuse and objectify others. When we violate the boundaries of others, people get wounded. When we fail to honour our spouse, hearts and families are destroyed. When we treat ourselves as a thing to be used rather than a person to be respected, we do damage to our souls. Sigmund Freud perceived, “The behavior of a human being in sexual matters is often a prototype for the whole of his other modes of reaction in life.” In other words, how we shape our most intimate relationships shapes the way we go through life. Just as you can tell a person’s maturity by the way they drive, so we can tell a person’s ethics by the role of sexuality in their lives. When our attitude to sexual expression is echoed in songs like, “you and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the discovery channel” or “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” we have removed all meaning from God’s good gift. When Jesus warned against lust, he wasn’t speaking so much against sex, as he was speaking for it, in the fullness of God’s intention for healthy, loving relationships.
Scripture teaches, “God created human beings; he created them godlike. Reflecting God’s nature, he created them male and female. God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth!” (Genesis 1: 27 & 28). It tells us the purpose of a man and a woman’s union was to quell loneliness and provide support for one another (Genesis 2: 18). Within the covenant of marriage, a sexual relationship created “One flesh” (Genesis 2: 24). In many other parts of the Bible (i.e. Song of Solomon, parts of Job, the writing of Paul) such sexual relationships are celebrated. They’re seen as signs of love and fidelity, sacred expressions of intimacy, and even as a symbol of Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5: 21 – 33, c.f. The Message). Nakedness, whether physical, emotional or sexual, is to be praised and enjoyed as a gift of God’s creation (Genesis 2: 25). Pope John Paul II noted, “There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.”
In ancient Israel, the libertine sexual attitudes, and values of the Greek’s, for whom anything went, seeped into the Jewish psyche. Herod Antipas married his brother’s wife and lusted after her stepdaughter. The Corinthian church was known for it’s orgies and incest. Divorce was common among the Jews. Adultery happened regardless of the Law. People lived together. The moral climate of Jesus’ day wasn’t much different from ours. Marriage became a burden necessary to produce children. It was said, “Marriage brings only two happy days – the wedding night and the night she dies”. Under the Jewish Law, adultery was a sin punishable by death (Leviticus 20:10). However divorce, (only a man could initiate divorce at this time) which was not considered a sin, was permissible, “If a man marries a woman and then it happens that he no longer likes her because he has found something wrong with her, he may give her divorce papers, put them in her hand, and send her off” (Deuteronomy 24: 1) There were two rabbinical schools of thought on this – the first said “something wrong with her” must be something serious, like adultery. The second emphasized that “he no longer likes her” and therefore “something wrong” could be as minor as burning supper. Naturally, most people preferred the latter interpretation, so divorce was common. It was said that “a man marries to divorce, and divorces to marry.” If a man’s lust ran deep enough he might commit incest or adultery, take a second or third wife, have sex with a slave, or even marry a woman to use sexually for a time with the intention of divorcing her in the immediate future. By the standard of that time, this left “tainted” or “ruined” with few options for the future. It was to these practices that Jesus objected.
Jesus was so opposed to the sexual degradation of people he gave this counsel, “If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.” There have been some people in history who took this advice literally, cutting off many unruly parts. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the Church outlawed self-maiming. However, our eyes do awaken lust and our hands carry out our fantasies. So, spiritually speaking, we must root those stumbling blocks out of our lives and cut them out of our souls. This past week I was sent a video about eagles. You may want to have a look:
(You likely need to copy the address and put it into your Google search engine).
As it turns out, the biological accuracy of the video (which claims that half way through life, eagles either die or make a choice to go on living by removing their beaks, talons and feathers) is questionable; nonetheless, it teaches us a great lesson. In our sanctification process, some things are so detrimental that we need to choose to rip them out to be free from them by submitting to the Spirit’s discipline. It can be an agonizing process and it takes resolve. Some ways we can co-operate with the Spirit to extricate ourselves from those temptations and habits are by immersing ourselves in self-examination and repentance; in service to others; in keeping our thoughts – and our eyes – focused on “things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse (Philippians 4: 8); in avoiding temptations, and with the Spirit’s strength through prayer. As Lailah Gifty Akita says, “It is better to seek the pain of heaven than the pleasure of hell.” As they assert in the video, while cutting these things out may be painful, it’s necessary for new life.
Jesus also raised the sanctity of loving sexual expression by challenging the common practices of divorce. As we’ve seen, divorce wasn’t considered a sin by the Jews and Jesus doesn’t label it such. Later in Matthew 19, Jesus does focus in on the condition of the spirit of one who divorces, observing that the Law allows for divorce because of the “hardness of the human heart”. He’s aware that lust, selfishness and whim are too often the grounds for divorce. There is the whim that would treat another in a less than dignified way, throwing one’s spouse out when he or she no longer pleases. We see this in what some have labelled a “starter marriage” or a marriage that, like a starter home, is never intended to be permanent. Sometimes it’s not that the other has done anything displeasing but simply that a new object of desire or conquest appears. There is the selfishness that behaves in whatever way one choses and refuses to change, putting self-gratification before love. There is the lust that burns when one covets the wife or husband of another. There is the hardness of heart that comes when, after repeated hurts, one is no longer willing to forgive. The latter must be measured against the degree of offense, the threat to one’s life and the dividing line between masochism and self-respect, bearing in mind that Jesus encouraged us to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22) [as opposed to the Old Testament which promoted vengeance at the same rate (Genesis 4: 24)]. As always Jesus is interested in the motivations behind the actions. He sides with the rabbinical school that insists marriage is not to be taken lightly and divorce is only permitted in the case of adultery. Today, most Christian denominations would add to that other serious infractions such as violence, abandonment, spousal abuse or for the protection of children. Sometimes the Church has taken this to the other extreme, insisting divorce is a sin and therefore never an option. When we think of St. Paul’s statement, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) or as The Message puts it, “work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death”, we see that the “sin” is what goes on in the marriage to erode it and divorce is the price of that sin. I think we can deduce that, as in the cases of murder and adultery, Jesus would be concerned with the heart-felt animosity that grows within the marriage, leading to its destruction. Therefore, an enduring marriage built on duty or a legalistic commitment that’s filled with bitterness, apathy or hatred do not fulfill God’s intention any more than a marriage that ends in divorce. Neither the sin, nor the death of the marriage are to be taken lightly. As in all things, when it comes to marriage, Christian couples seek to extend repentance for the sins they’ve committed, and forgiveness for the sins that have been committed against them – whether through action or neglect. Together they work towards reconciliation and renewed love. In fact, even when divorce is necessary, Christians seek to extend repentance for the sins they’ve committed, and forgiveness for the sins that have been committed against them. Full reconciliation may not be possible, but a peaceful, co-operative separation may be. Beyond that, God wants us to have a heart free from guilt and bitterness.
When it comes to sexual relationships, Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to bring it to its fulness. We find the fullness of sexual expression, in the context of loving, committed marital relationships through which couples bless one another, extend grace to one another, love and care for one another, and show each other the face of Christ. Anything less than that may masquerade as liberty for a time, but will, in the long run, leave us wounded. We are made for something more than meaningless acts of lust. Our deeper longing is for relationship which is more genuine, intimate and significant. When this is God’s purpose for sex and hope for humanity, why allow a moment of lust to rob us of a lifetime (or longer) of pleasure?
Questions for Reflection:
Where in our culture do you notice the promotion of lust?
When has lust led you astray?
How do you rein in or root out lustful thoughts and feelings now?
How does your sexual behaviour reflect or shape the other ways you behave in the rest of your life?
Is there a sexual action in your life – past or present – which you need to confess and ask God’s forgiveness?
Do you need to ask forgiveness of your spouse? (Only do this if your confession will not create new hurt).
If divorced, what sins on your part brought you to that place?
If you are married, what sins or hardness of heart do you need to address in order for your marriage to be a safe, life-giving expression of love?
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
O God, we give you thanks for your goodness in all the times of our lives. When we are faithless, you remain faithful. When we disappoint you, you give us the opportunity to repent. In the uncertainties of life, you are with us. Give us hearts that love you above all else.
We are reminded, by Christ’s compassion, of challenges and sufferings of people throughout the world. We seek your guidance so we may do our part to bring comfort, healing and hope.
We pray for all who are sick or in pain, that they may have the medical assistance they need and the gift of healing in body, mind, and spirit. Hear us as we name before you those for whom we are concerned:
We pray for those who are grieving, that they may know the comfort of your presence and find hope in your promises. We also name before you those whose hearts are heavy with grief.
We pray for people who knew you once and have turned away; for the people who have rejected you out of some church hurt or anger; for those who never have had a relationship with you, but need your grace and salvation. In these stressful days, may you stir the hearts of people to seek you.
We remember those who are infected by CoVid 19 and ask that you will heal them. We remember others who are offering support through medical intervention and care-giving. We pray for those who are worried for one they love or in grief. We pray also for those who care for the well-being of the most vulnerable – parents and guardians of children and youth; families of the elderly; PSW’s and other professional care-givers; those who support people with physical, emotional or mental challenges.
We pray for those who are hungry or homeless, and all those experiencing the stress of poverty and economic uncertainty. We hold up to you also those who are without work or have uncertain employment due to CoVid 19. Throughout the world, help us to find ways to share our resources equitably, to meet the needs of all, and to empower people to provide for themselves, their families and their communities.
We pray for leaders in our communities and in our nation, during these times of tension. Guide them in the best ways to support people through this pandemic. Give them wisdom in their dealings and negotiations with other nations. Move them from self-absorbed attitudes and corrupt actions that they may serve not themselves, but their people. We pray that leaders who are driven by power and ambition for themselves or their country and who are taking advantage of other nations, would be removed from office.
Lord, there is much unrest in the United States as violence spreads between differing factions. We know in our own country there are racial problems that need to be addressed. There is anger and hostility. Help us to come together to find solutions and move forward so we may live together in community.
We pray for those who seek to show hospitality to others in their homes, in their workplaces, in the church and the community, that their generosity will inspire others to open their hearts so that your goodness at work in the world will be multiplied. May we be counted among those people.
We are missing our church family and the many people who share our lives and encourage our faith. We miss the gift of music and the joy of worshipping in song. We miss the blessings of service and fulfilling our calling in the world. We pray for one another. Give each person strength.
We pray for prisoners and for those who work in prisons, including chaplains and volunteers who bring your word of love and grace to the incarcerated. After long months deprived of familiar contact, help us to better understand those who are imprisoned. May those who represent the face of Christ in these environments find strength and wisdom in your companionship, while offering the ministry of reconciliation and renewal through our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Jesus, you walk with us through all our days sharing our sorrows and our celebrations. Be our Bread for the journey of life, to sustain us and encourage us, whatever the week ahead holds for us.
We pray together the words you taught us, saying:
The Lord’s Prayer
Invitation to Mission:
We go from here to engage the world by living in right relationships with others.
Loving our spouse faithfully,
honouring our Christian brothers and sisters,
seeing all people with purity,
so we may lift others up in the love and grace of Christ.
May the Triune God bless and keep you. Amen.