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Rev. Chuck Rush Sermon

Following Jesus without Embarrassing God

Mt. 23:23-26

In our second reading this morning Jesus continues on the theme of following a path towards spiritual integrity that doesn’t embarrass God. In Matthew 23, Jesus says, “You know how the religiously Orthodox love to walk through Jerusalem with all of their religious garments on, so we know just how spiritual there are. But these are the people that erect memorials to the prophets of old in the town square. Hypocrites all. They are the very same type of people who killed the prophets when they were alive because they didn’t want to hear criticism directed at religion which isn’t about justice and love rather than ritual.

        We have a few texts about Jesus making sport of the religious leaders of his day. Indeed, our texts this morning are from a whole chapter on the subject. There is a quality to earnestly religious people that has been annoying to other people, even religiously inspired people like Jesus, so you have to imagine that they are an embarrassment to God. You probably know some of them. My extended family is from the bible belt, so I have quite a few annoying Evangelical Christians in my family. About 70% of the people around you have migrated from the Catholic church, largely because they also would like to follow Jesus without embarrassing God.

        Like what? What is different at Christ Church. We too, look to tradition, but we are equally pulled by the future that we are becoming. We know what Christians believed 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, but we also want to answer questions that are posed to us from the culture and the world around us, so we have a different piety for today than our grandmother, God bless her.

        Some of you wonder about the difference between us at Christ Church who are Protestants and other Protestants that you hear about on TV, non-denominational churches or evangelical churches that are non-Catholic but traditional like grandma.

        Like what? So, you never hear anyone at Christ Church invite you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. And that is partly because our focus is not really on getting into heaven and avoiding hell in the afterlife. We are more focused on how we live in this life.

        One of the really annoying attributes of well-meaning Evangelicals is that they are trying to convert you. We don’t do that. It is like they seem to have a truth that you don’t have, and they think you need in your life.

        At Christ Church, we just invite you to follow in the way of Jesus. You don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have all the answers either. We just have questions that we pose to you, that Jesus posed to us, questions that our conscience poses to each and every one of us that we have to answer for ourselves, which is much harder because you have to find ‘your truth’ within you.

So we don’t sound like you need to be converted to having a personal relationship with God, although I think if you asked our clergy and almost all of our congregants, they would tell you that God is a living reality in their world.

And people have conversion experiences, life changing moments but we don’t think that should be the norm religiously. It is one of many. And the spiritual life is a lifetime project, not just a confession you make that you are a sinner in need of redemption. The spiritual life is about how you evolve many times during your life, how you manifest grace and courage and love in many different contexts, with very different challenges. It is not just about renouncing sin. It is mostly about embracing love, about learning how-to live-in harmony with others, about learning how to become a living blessing in your family, with your people, through your neighborhood, your work, your leadership in the world.

        We don’t talk much about personal sin at Christ Church like you tend to reflect on when you are in Evangelical church or when you used to head to the confessional when you were a kid in the Catholic church because that is only one small part of the spiritual life. Like Jesus says in our passage this morning, there are serious issues of social injustice that we are all part of because we all live in metropolitan New York. Directly and indirectly, we create climate change, we design racial and economic inequity, we inadvertently expose our children to toxins and socially toxic environments on the internet for example.

We want to help you develop the spiritual practices you will need to be productive and positive in this life. We don’t want to take you out of the public realm because you need to renounce the evils of the world around us. We hope you learn to live in this compromised world with humane values that will actually transform the community around us, not because we have some special revealed truth that other people don’t have, but because the values that Jesus came to teach us about are intrinsically valuable. They prove themselves when tried. Love, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, communal harmony, compassion, understanding.

        These are inclusive values. They are ends in themselves. So, we don’t just look to the bible or the New Testament for validation of what we do. We actually celebrate the places we have in common with Judaism and Islam and Buddhism and we hope you also learn to appreciate the interfaith exchanges as well. We hope you read good devotional literature in different faith traditions so that we can develop what we have in common more than what separates us. Perhaps, the biggest single challenge of our era is how we will all live with each other in our global village and making points of contact is much more important than carping on our distinctive insights that separate us like traditional Christianity used to do.

        You used to go to church to learn how Catholics got it right or Evangelicals got it right because they were more biblical. At Christ Church we don’t teach that the bible is the exclusive truth or that Jesus has exclusive truth that you can’t get anywhere else. We don’t teach that Jesus is going to correct other traditions. No, we just invite you to the positive value in what Jesus taught and how you might deploy that in the world around you rather than withdraw from the corrupt world into a tight counterculture that we develop inside the church.

        Evangelicals especially develop these mega churches that dot the landscape of the bible belt and the Midwest so that you and your family can disappear inside this enormous alternative community. Why do they do that? They teach their congregations, one of their most annoying doctrines, that we are living in the ‘end times’. That is because they teach the book of Revelation like it was originally meant to predict how the world is going to end…. Except that we don’t live in the ‘end times’ and the book of Revelation doesn’t teach us about the future and therefore it makes no sense to withdraw from the decadent world around us.

        The Book of Revelation was just a political/social satire that critiqued the Roman empire when they routinely executed Christians by feeding them to the lions in the gladiatorial contests. Christians wrote these satires to protest being martyred. It was written like the future would judge the present, like God would judge Rome and vindicate innocent victims that were being unjustly killed.

 Centuries later, in the Middle Ages, people who were ignorant of this history, acted like the book of Revelation was prophecy that was supposed to be read figuratively, but literally enough, that they thought history was going to hell in a handbag. Like our actual future was apocalyptic.

        Preachers loved to come up with a list of social woes, wars, famines, plagues, socially decadent movements, all examples of what people become when they are detached from God. For centuries, Protestants and Catholics both had plenty of preachers like Savonarola who wanted to call out the wanton excess, the debauchery and corruption of their era.

People continue to provide plenty of good fodder. But God is not directing history to fall apart and God is not going to send Jesus back to rescue the righteous from the den of iniquity our world has become, as a literal reading of Revelation would suggest.

        We don’t have many of these people in New York, so you may wonder why I even mention this one, except that your relatives who believe that we are living in the ‘end times’ tend to also read all kinds of conspiracy theories that support the idea that there is something inscrutable going on behind the scenes, a spiritual warfare between God and Satan, between good and evil, that the rest of us just don’t get.

        And it does feed the culture wars in our country, and you have probably heard this part from your extended relatives. Evangelicals are fairly convinced that most of our social problems exist because secular liberals are imposing their irreligious vision on the rest of us, promoting moral relativism across our land, making us less and less Christian.  How do you know that? In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberton, James Dobson and the TV preachers were teaching us to look at the “Gay Agenda”, “The Women’s Agenda” of equal rights, particularly abortion rights.

        Secular liberals were blurring the lines on who you could love, upsetting the traditional family values that used to have men in leadership, encouraging students in school to question the moral absolutes of orthodox Christianity (Grandma’s faith)

        But it is not just secular people that question these things. Thinking Christians do too. Right about that same time as these Evangelical preachers were telling us that secular liberalism would destroy traditional values, Christ Church became one of the very first churches in New Jersey to accept gay and lesbian families, to bless our transgender children.

Not because we had some secular agenda. No, two men asked us to bless their pledge of faithful love for each other because they wanted the church to accept them for who they are. They just asked to be loved, to be normal and  they finally worked up the courage to ask because we seemed to have a lot of open minded people that wanted to extend compassion. Would you bless us like every marriage?

Not a secular agenda. Not a liberal agenda. Just a simple request for warm humane acceptance. Will you celebrate with us? Our love? Our life?

Evangelicals act like this is a sign of the end times, that gays and lesbians want out of the closet.

We are trying to emulate something of the warm, humane welcome that Jesus showed other people in his day who had been ostracized for generations before him (like lepers, prostitutes, eunuchs)

At Christ Church, acknowledge that Christianity has condemned homosexuals for centuries, like every other religious tradition. We didn’t know any better in former ages. So we have bible verses that reflect the prejudice against gays and lesbians that existed in every culture, in every age, before, well, just a couple decades ago.

        But when we talked to gays and lesbians, they didn’t have an agenda. They just asked us to love them like we love all of our children, like God loves all of her children. And we just asked ourselves if we could love people with the same respect and understanding that Jesus demonstrated towards people that were outcast in his society. Could we expand the range of our compassion and love?

        This isn’t about a world going to hell, becoming more secular. It is about heterosexual people growing towards heaven, becoming more loving and open in faith. It is not about an end to our traditional moral way of life. This is about expanding our moral values in living to include more families, more children than we ever noticed in former ages. It is full of promise and hope if you are gay, lesbian, transgender, full of promise if your children have been discriminated against, bullied, and maligned just because of who they are in the past.

        No, we decided to stand in compassion with the people that have been subject to discrimination for too long, for no good reason.

        Part of the reason that we do that, so as not to be an embarrassment to God, is that we believe in science. I remember having us read a book as a congregation on sexual orientation and gender identity. It was the leading book at the time by Doctor’s explaining how and why people develop the way that they do. Guess what? It was a whole lot more complex than hardly any of us could understand at the time, just like our world.

        And there is no neat line between male and female like the ancient books suggest, the bible included. So we decided that we would trust science rather than some obscure passage from Leviticus that still presumed the worldview that probably every culture in history presumed in simpler times.

        But, today we have to live in a complex world in diverse, metropolitan New York. We have to figure out how to be understanding, compassionate, respectful, and loving with our neighbors all around us. Our values come from our faith, they come from Jesus, but the complexity of the world around us that we have to relate our values to, for that we use hard science, social sciences, neuroscience, psychology.

        So at Christ Church, you will hear about the places where faith and science converge. Right now, our neuroscientists, our psychologists are converging so that we can understand how spirituality is a resident capacity of the human personality. Daniel Goleman at Harvard, Dan Gilbert at Harvard, Martin Seligman at Penn, Lisa Miller at Columbia, Barbara Fredrickson at UNC are all doing research on how our mind works so that we can better understand what “human fulfillment” would look like.

        In psychology, we focused on pathology for the first two hundred years of research. We studied depression, neurosis, all of the things that can go wrong. And the church focused way, way too much on what goes wrong with the human personality with sermons on various types of sin. That was Grandma’s religion.

        But, only recently have we asked the question, what does ‘human fulfillment’ look like? What is the potential for us humans when we are actualizing what is inside of us? What do we look like when develop our potential? What is possible if we get it all right?

        It would be so much more helpful if we could direct our attention towards what we hope for our children to become, rather than what we fear will go wrong. It will be so much more helpful for us to describe how we should live our lives if we had a clear understanding of what makes for ‘the good life’, the spiritually rounded life, the life that brings us deeper peace and contentment and harmony with each other.

        So, I read all of these books, so we can all better understand the dynamics of human personality and you can see that the way Jesus talks about faith in our life is actually confirmed by neuroscience as a critical capacity for personal transformation and growth. We try to blend the best insights from our ancient spiritual tradition with the best insights from the latest research models and data given to us from science and merge these together for a perspective that is wise as the past and descriptive as the data.

        We don’t juxtapose faith and science. It is not either/or. It is both/and. They are coming at the same reality from two different perspectives. The bible is not scientifically accurate. It was written before the Scientific era. The bible is not historically accurate. Again, it was written before we invented the academic discipline of history. So we let science and historians correct some misperceptions of the ancient world.

        But we recognize that our ancestors had advanced capacities spiritually, like the Buddhists who unlocked the techniques of meditation. And science does not need to recreate the wheel of spiritual values and wise spiritual practices. Right now, I’m reading a book called the science of affirmation, the research into the benefits of focus and presence written by the Harvard crowd. It is both the date of science and the insights of the wisdom of our spiritual tradition.

        At Christ Church, we trust you to think for yourself. We are not here to tell you what to believe from the pulpit. We are here to raise really good questions, so that you think for yourself, which is the point of spirituality.

        You don’t need a bulletin of belief. You just need a body of belonging. You need people you can converse with about things that are a little more profound than how the boys’ soccer team looks this fall. You need a place where you can share the burdens of your life and people will be compassionate and support you. You need people that will spark your noble side, the part that wants to give back, the part that wants to make a difference and live with moral substance.

        You are on a lifelong evolution of our soul, so different from when you were a child that you can hardly remember what it was like anymore and you will evolve spiritually at least that much more before you die.

And our world changes around us so much that our generation has to evolve internally and externally like no other time in human history. You need a faith, a piety for your time, not for Grandma’s world, and we loved Nana.

You are here because you know you have to live your life and guide your people. It is how you roll. May you become a blessing in spite of yourself. May your faith transcend your doubt, your hopes corral your fears, and your potential transform your past.

God loves you. Abide in active faith. Amen.



Our scripture this morning is one of many stories in which Jesus critiques the religious leaders of his day for inauthentic posturing. He contrasts religious hypocrisy with integrity, suggesting a way that we might live our lives spiritually without embarrassing God like so many religious traditionalists. Matthew 23 records several of the sayings of Jesus on this subject. I read from verse 23. “The pharisees teach all of us to tithe on even the smallest earned income, like selling the herbs from your backyard garden. But they neglect the most important teaching of God on justice, mercy, and faith. Sure we should tithe. But what hypocrites they are. They want the rest of us to strain our water, so we don’t swallow a tiny gnat. But they swallow a whole camel.”

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