Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Don’t Just Believe, Do!”
Sermon, Year C, Proper 25, October 27, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Joel 2:23-32 and Luke 18:9-14

We read first from the prophet Joel. We don’t read much from Joel in our 3-year lectionary cycle. But Joel does show up on Ash Wednesday. That day of repentance, the beginning of Lent when we begin the 40 days of a penitent period before Easter. And what we read on Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Joel chapter 2, right before what we read today. The words at the beginning, the Ash Wednesday part, are words that are a call to repentance on the part of the people of Israel. The second part, what we read today, are God’s promise of rebirth and renewal. When these words were first spoken, it was probably during a locust plague, or in the midst of a few years of locust problems.

The words are a promise that the locust swarm is not the end. They are not the final thing for Israel. There will be rebirth and vindication after they are gone. God will rebuild and give back.

This promise is a promise to the people of Israel, that the nation will continue. That as a people they will continue. It is not so much personal promises to an individual person, that YOU will be saved or YOU will be vindicated. It is a corporate promise to the nation. Which is not to say that we do not have a personal God who knows us by name, who cares for us, and loves us as we are. The ultimate concern here is for the community. The nation. The corporate entity of the people. The ultimate concern is for everybody, the gathered people. And that is why there is so much in the Bible that is about compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Why there is so much about feeding the hungry and taking care of the widows and the orphans. It is a constant call to a communal sensibility, and to a community a sensibility.

And not just to take care of those who need to be taken care of, but also in scripture is a constant call to also reform the society, the social, political, religious, and economic structures that lead to people being poor or being left in the margins. It is a call to re-create the community, the society, so that people are not allowed or forced into poverty, bankruptcy, hunger, or homelessness. There is a call to charity, and a call that charity is great and a good thing to do and part of what we are called to do, but beyond that is a more overwhelming call for justice. Justice is what God wants from us. It is God’s concern for the whole people. For everyone.

And then there is also in Joel this promise that God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh. On all flesh. I think we can see some fulfillment of that promise on the first Pentecost that the disciples were gathered and the Spirit came upon the people. That day that we think of as the birth of the Church. Also, the Spirit that we receive in baptism. The age that we live in is in the Age of the Spirit, since the beginning of the Church. The Spirit will come to ALL flesh. All flesh. All people. And especially, as Joel names them, the people who are powerless: the Spirit will come to women, children, old, even the slaves. They all get the Spirit. Impressive.

I think there is in here also a sense that Joel is only talking about Israel: “The Spirit will come on all flesh, as long as you are Jewish, or part of the people of Israel.” Since the beginning of the Church there has been a constant expansion of that idea. The promise is not just to this particular people, but is a promise for all humanity. We have been pushing the boundaries of that prophetic promise. First it was to include the Gentiles and the foreigners into the Church. And then as the Church grew and expanded, it had to keep enlarging that vision of who could be part of the Church.

As we have been struggling with this question if God can send the Spirit on all flesh, then Who may God speak through? Who may God be speaking through? Can God speak through atheists? Can God speak through Muslims or Buddhists? Can God speak through children, or the mentally ill, or mentally challenged? Who can God speak through? Who might we need to listen to?

Even with all the progress that the Church has made, there are still those who seem to believe that God cannot speak through women. Or that God cannot speak through our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Or that God cannot speak through foreigners. Let alone whether God can speak through non-Christians, there is still a lot of struggle about whether God can even speak through all Christians. I think God can. I think God can do whatever God wants. So might God be speaking through non-Christians, or the marginalized Christians? Who might God be speaking through, and what might God be speaking to us through them?

I follow some of the discussion that some atheists and other critiquers of religion and of Christianity have to say. Some of their critiques are unfair and not worth giving a lot of time to. Those who critique religion by saying simply that anyone who is religious is a moron, is one we need not listen to. But there are many legitimate critiques of Christianity and of religion. Some of these folks know the scripture, even if they aren’t believers. They know at least who Jesus is, and what Jesus did. And they look at the Church and see people who are not living the way the guy they say they are following told them to live. So of course they look at us and think, “Meh, why would I want to join that group of people? They don’t even follow the guy they say they’re following.”

So what might they be saying to us, what I think they are saying to us is to calm down. Don’t be so haughty. Don’t be so obnoxious about the rightness of your faith versus any other kind of belief. I think they are saying don’t be narrow. Don’t be afraid of science. Include more people in the sphere of people you believe that God loves. Be more generous, more just, more merciful. Be less dogmatic, less doctrinal, less worried about your theology and your beliefs, and be more worried about your neighbors. Spread the love. Be more loving.

I think that is a legitimate critique of the Church, and something that we ought to listen to. They know what Jesus said, and are holding us to it.

It is also the critique that Jesus lobs at the Pharisee in this passage from Luke. The Pharisee is very self important and sure of himself and his righteousness. He has looked out at people he thinks are sinners, and thinks, “Oh, I’m better than them, so I’m as good as can be! I’m not an adulterer or a thief or a rogue or a tax collector, therefore I am great! I give a tenth of my income, the tithe to the synagogue. I fast twice a week. How wonderful am I, God? Thank you, God, for making me so wonderfully excellent, and such a good example to this idiot, this collector. Thank you for letting him see what we’re supposed to be like.”

And Jesus tears him down here. He says that is not the way to be. Be more like the guy who says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The one who doesn’t even want to look up to heaven – he looks down. I think God would rather have a humble sinner with compassion, or even a humble non-believer with compassion, than an obnoxious believer. The one who can ask, “God have mercy on me” is likely the one who is willing and ready to have mercy on others. That is what God wants.

And sometimes people have asked me what our church believes, or what the United Church of Christ believes. We do talk about beliefs, and that they are important. But I don’t think they are the greatest part of the faith, not the specifics of what we believe. So I try to answer and say that we trust in scripture but don’t take it literally. We trust in science, and that what it reveals is true and accurate. We in the UCC and Plymouth are open to all sorts of people. We don’t believe that anyone ought to be denied access to the Communion table. We believe in Jesus, the resurrection, and we’re Trinitarian. We are a bottom-up not a top-down denomination – the top doesn’t tell us what to believe, but instead we as the people of the church try to come to consensus by talking to one another about what we believe. We are a big tent church trying to embrace the world. We have testimonies of faith, not tests of faith. And that’s usually more than anyone really wants to hear. Because it is hard to explain when you have a church that does not have a doctrine or a dogma that we can say, “We believe this, this, this.” That is not who we are. So I say that ultimately, what we really believe (and this is certainly a big part of the Reformed tradition, especially the United Church of Christ), what we believe as far as we can sa we believe anything, is that what Jesus said and did is what is most important. Our faith is not a set of propositions or points of beliefs, but it is that life that Jesus called us to live through his teachings and actions.

That’s my religion and my faith, and one reason I am not so big on creeds or dogma. I think they are important. They are historical artifacts, and creeds have been developed over the years as snapshots of what was important to the church at the time they were written. And we will be saying one of those ancient creeds during the baptism today. Which is not to say that we have to believe everything in that creed. We are the United Church of Christ, and we are free to disbelieve where we wish. They are important, but one thing that really bugs me about creeds is what they leave out. They tend to begin with great poetic words about God and creating the world and watching over it, and then it goes to Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary. Then they skip to his crucifixion and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit and so on. We get, “He was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified by Pilate.” And I think, “Hey! Wait a minute! What about the 25-30 years of Jesus’ life? Where is that in the creeds?” It so rarely shows up. Those years that Jesus told us what to do are glossed over. It has things we believe about Jesus, but nothing about what Jesus told us to do, and who we are supposed to be!

And what Jesus said most is to love your neighbor. Be fair. Lift up the poor. Do right by the weak. Resist evil. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Do these good things. Take care of your neighbor. It is an outward faith. Not an inward faith about what we believe, but an outward faith about who we are, what we do, how we live in our community. I like to say that what we believe is that what Jesus said and showed us to do is far more important than any of the particulars of our faith. Whether we believe in consubstantiation or transubstantiation and so on doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether we are living in love the way that Jesus told us to.

So we as Christians can look out at our broken world. We can look out at the poor, those who are caught up or trapped in sex trafficking or slavery. Those are very real today, even in the United States. We can look at the under-employed. Look out to the war-torn. Look out to the geniuses and the talented who never get a chance to show their genius or talent because they are killed as children, or they don’t have access to schools or the resources they need for that genius to bloom. We can look out at the environmental destruction. At the injustice of peoples’ retirements being wiped out while their CEOs get billions in bonuses. Look out at the obsession of individualism that says my wants are more important than the community’s needs. This lack of consensus, and our toxic politics. We can look to the broken parts of the world and declare, “This is not the world that God imagines!”

We know that because Jesus showed us what things ought to look like. We are the holders of that sacred story, of God’s imagination. Not that we are the only ones. God can speak through whomever God wants. But definitely we who are the Church have a special responsibility to hold that message, and to share that message, to embrace it, to use it wisely, and to make it a reality. And we can live it as the antidote to all that anxiety and fear and bad stuff going on out in the world. We can live this as the antidote to suffering, starting with the humility to pray ourselves into God’s hands, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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