ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 31, 2016
Exodus 20: 1 – 17; Matthew 22: 34 – 40; Romans 13: 8 – 10
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
We live in a time of shifting values. Whether we look to the diverse values of different cultures, to our own society or to the political arena during an election, we know “we’re not in Kansas anymore”. We’re in a strange land we don’t always recognize. There are times when I hear my own words echo of my grandmother’s, “I just don’t understand the world anymore.” TV shows depictviolent crimes and the News stations give us a constant stream of horror; we are fascinated and desensitized to evil. Respect for authority, anyone in a Senior position or anyone of a greater age than ourselves is no longer considered. Where once a server in a restaurant would call older people Sir or Madame, now they casually refer to them as “you guys”, like they’re peers and pals. We hearken back to a time when business was done with integrity and a handshake and the faithfulness of employers and employees to one another was assumed; now people will do anything to make financial gains and no one trusts the other party to be loyal. When I first started in ministry people got married – not so much anymore. 75 years ago there was only one way to make a baby. Our approach to raising children no longer values a child’s need to face challenges and deal with problems. Even funerals are different. Rather than face death with gratitude, hope and courage for the life we have had and the life we will have in Christ, we avoid death and the need to mourn. Technology has made incredible advances and with them have come challenges that humanity has not previously had to face. Where once our values were shaped by The Holy Bible and the Church, the media and website blogs now form our opinions and tells us what is good. The Church is also influenced by the values of the culture. Worship has become entertainment. Some scholars have “de-mythologized” Jesus, reducing him to our human level. Some have even declared there is no God. It seems that “anything goes”.
Do our values matter? What can we hang on to so we aren’t blown away? Throughout the history of Israel, God called his people to remain faithful to him. Their values and lifestyle distinguished them from the nations around them. God calls the Church to be faithful to Christ who gives us our unique identity. While our good works don’t save us, our values and lifestyle are our visible response of love to God’s grace. If we believe we’re called to worship the living God, work with the Holy Spirit to create the Realm of God here and now, and one day be admitted into God’s presence through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then, yes, our values matter.
Are Christian values different? Well, yes and no. There’s a fundamental difference between the Christian values that have shaped the Western world and the values which shape the East. The Christian value system is based on the notion of right and wrong which we believe is defined by God and revealed through Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit at work within us and through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. In the Eastern World the value system is based on honour and shame. This is why in certain countries people would be encouraged to fall on their sword if they’d messed up. We’d say this is wrong – if you mess up you repent and suffer the consequences but you don’t kill yourself. It is why, in certain places, poor parents will sell their children as sex slaves. Because we see this as wrong, our Christian based values have led Christian people to create social supports that help the poor and protect the rights of children. It’s also why, in other countries, if a daughter behaves in ways which “shame” the family, her brother can murder her with impunity. We’d say this is wrong – we’d bear the shame, forgive and love in the hope that our child would change. Today of course, our secular value system is hard pressed to find a behaviour they’d consider shameful.
Before we go on, let’s confess the Church has not always lived our values or done them with love or even done them. We’ve often failed. Let’s also acknowledge that because of our values, Christians have made immense contributions in the areas of science, education, art, architecture, literature and health. We’ve built hospitals and schools throughout the world, given tremendous aid to the poor and are responsible for most of the volunteer work in our own backyards. Let’s also be clear that Christians aren’t the only people with a sense of right and wrong. There are people of other cultures and faiths who share some of our values and who may even live more ethically than some Christians. That underscores that our values are worth striving towards because they’re good and loving; when put into action they please God and create a better world.
It’s tempting for us limit the values laid out in scripture to a rule book. Jesus never did this. He broadened them to two principles, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22: 37 – 39) Paul affirmed this very simply, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8) Here are four reasons for not reducing our values to rules.
1 Jesus resisted and condemned this approach. He broke The Law and criticized the Pharisees.
2 Rigid values rob us of our freedom. Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1). By “a yoke of slavery” Paul meant The Torah – The Law. This also applies to approaching Christ through a strict, narrow, self-righteous moral structure instead of being in a lively relationship with him.
3 With hard and fast rules we become inclined to respond to particular situations and issues – which is to say to people – with a lack of compassion and love. When we see only abstract circumstances, we miss seeing our neighbour. This is how Christians can blow up an abortion clinic with people in it. We become judgmental and condemning rather than vessels of living water that give new life.
4 Life is not black and white. For instance if a person takes wood from a thick forest on someone’s property so their neighbour’s children won’t freeze to death, is their action wrong or loving? If someone is stabbing your child and you kill them because there’s no other way to stop them, is your action bad or good? Furthermore, while God’s values are constant, Christians evolve and change. Calvin said, “Such, then, is the holiness of the Church: it makes daily progress, but is not yet perfect; it daily advances, but as yet has not reached the goal”. (Institutes, 4.1.17) Peter evolved when God revealed to him, contrary to everything Peter had been taught God valued, that Gentiles who believed in Christ were acceptable to God. Peter even ate their (non-kosher) food which the Law forbade. He learned the value of being ritually clean was less important than the value and salvation of people. This is why, every now and then, the Church re-examines our doctrine – the Holy Spirit may be revealing deeper truths to us and we’re called to discern that together. Presbyterians do this by means of the courts of our church. As Karl Barth was fond of quoting, “The Church is reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God”. For instance, many places in scripture strongly support slavery. That is, with one exception, they support owning slaves, not being one. Many Christians in the US took that at face value. With clear consciences they participated in slavery, buying, selling and using people for generations; treating God’s people as less than human. Our Christian values teach that all people are our neighbours and so deserve dignity and freedom. Eventually Christians stopped other Christians from owning people. We discerned, evolved and reformed. Finally, changing technology creates new challenges which Scripture can’t address directly. Henrietta Lacks had cancerous cells removed during a biopsy in 1951. Without her permission the cells were divided, multiplied and sold to research labs and pharmaceutical companies around the world. Many people have gotten very rich while the woman’s family has received nothing. In 1980 her medical records were published without family consent. If people have her cells, they have her DNA. How do we, as Christians, respond? (t time)
When the Israelites found themselves in foreign places, many caved to the gods and values of others but there was always a “faithful remnant”. In an age of changing values, the Church – Christians – are called to maintain our identity in Christ. We are to love and worship our God above all else putting his will and his ways before any other authority. We are to live a moral and modest lifestyle with character and integrity, exercising humility, honesty, forgiveness, generosity, gratitude and joy. We are to love our neighbour as we do ourselves, serving them as we would Christ. When we find ourselves in foreign “places” where God is a stranger, may we be the faithful remnant that values what Christ values.