Sermon for February 2, 2020

Aaron Rodgers, quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, recently gave an interview where he gave his opinion of religion. He was raised in a home where the Christian faith was a big part of family life. But he has stepped away from that faith, and his remarks about the Christian Church are highly critical. For example he said “Religion can be a crutch. Religion can be something people have to make themselves feel better. Because it is binary—dividing into two camps—us versus them; it is saved and unsaved; it’s heaven and hell; it’s enlightened and heathen, it’s holy and righteous and sinner; that makes a lot of people feel better about themselves—I’ve got Jesus and I’m saved.” Rodger’s point of view is becoming more and more heard from younger adults, who believe in God, but stay away from the church because they find many churches unwelcoming and exclusive, restrictive and judgmental. Rodgers has his issues with God saying “I don’t know how you can believe in a God who wants to condemn most of the planet to a fiery hell.” I have shared Mr. Rodger’s comments with a few and I get the response of ‘Well, he ignores the good and emphasizes the bad so he can have an excuse to criticize and stay away from the church’. I thought to myself, where did Rodgers get that idea about God? But sadly many believe God is ready to fill up the place of eternal punishment not so much for a notoriously wicked life, but because they did not follow certain formulas for being saved; one’s life of compassion for others would not make any difference. At funerals I shudder when someone comes up to me and says “I would like to say a few words.” The ‘few words’ turn out to be sermon length and usually contain little comfort but more warnings of being condemned to hell if you don’t believe as the speaker does. On this Super Bowl Sunday, where many of you had hoped the Packers would be in today’s championship game, we can see if Aaron Rodger’s words about religion have any merit or has he fumbled the ball.

Aaron Rodgers has a controversy with the church and in the lesson today from the prophet Micah we heard God had a controversy with Israel, and God was going to contend with his chosen people. This is a technique used by prophets that can be known as a divine lawsuit. This can be scary and we fear the prophet will have God sounding like Judge Judy. But what did we actually hear? “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me? God sounds more like a broken-hearted lover than a hard-hearted judge. God reminded Israel of what God had done for them: I brought you out of the land of Egypt and a dehumanizing and destructive slavery; I called Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead you; don’t your remember how an enemy king hired a magician named Balaam to curse you, but he ended up blessing you instead? Remember how I brought you to the Jordan River, and the waters parted so you could cross into the land I promised you, a Land flowing with Milk and Honey. God certainly could have continued with further examples of saving acts. Does this sound like a God quick to condemn? Is it not an example of God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Now God did have a controversy, a lawsuit, and further in chapter 6 of Micah he listed the sins of the wealthy and those in authority who abhor justice, and pervert all equity, who build up Jerusalem with wrong—your judges take bribes, the priests and prophets speak what you want to hear depending on how much money you are willing to give.

Well, maybe God can be bought or bribed. The prophet wrote, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the God on high? How many burnt offerings shall I bring… about thousands of rams, or ten thousands of rivers of oil? How about if I sacrifice my first-born child?” We know the prophet was speaking with exaggeration. Today the prophet might say, ‘just what does God want, ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars annually for offerings? Does God want me to donate my houses and cars? Just what do I have to do or give to get back in God’s good graces?

We have not fallen from God’s grace. God doesn’t look at our track record of sins, what we have done and left undone, and say “Well, that does it, I am done!” God is not asking for offerings like a mob boss demanding protection money. Israel knew they were saved by grace—could they have escaped from slavery in Egypt by themselves, no; it was God who saved them. Could Israel have made it through the wilderness and into the Promised Land on their own, no; it was God who guided them. Was God going to just sit there and allow Israel to be ruined by sin because God could have cared less? No! At the end of Micah we read, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgressions of your people? God does not retain anger forever, because God delights in showing clemency. God will again have compassion upon us, and will tread our iniquities under foot; you will cast our sins into the depth of the sea. You will show faithfulness to your people” This is the God we see in Jesus our Savior. Jesus who taught God blesses the poor in Spirit with the kingdom of heaven, God who comforts those who mourn, God who promises the meek will inherit the earth, not the proud and the pushy. The apostle Paul said I prefer the foolishness of God over all the wisdom of the world.

Jesus warned “What shall you profit if you gain the whole world but forfeit your soul, or your life?” The prophet Micah said “You shall eat and not be satisfied, there shall be a gnawing hunger within you.” Isn’t that true, the gains of the world look good, but there still can be a deep emptiness. What fills this emptiness is the cross. This is the foolishness and weakness of God. God, who became a human being in Jesus, would allow himself to be nailed to the cross, a cruel punishment for criminals and the disloyal. Jesus’ crime was his friendship with sinners, not condemning but calling them to repentance and forgiveness. Jesus disloyalty to the gods of power and wealth meant his loyalty to the true God, who loves this world, who loves you with and everlasting and steadfast love. So the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Saved by grace, forgiveness wiping away any record of past sins, clemency and peace with God, what does God then require of us—not material offerings first of all, but most of all the offering of ourselves: “to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly or attentively with God.” To do justice in the Scriptures does not mean “law and order” and “lock them up” but righteousness. More than 37 million people struggle with hunger in the United States, and this includes 11 million children. A hunger for righteousness recognizes hunger in our communities, that is why on this Sunday, when a 30 second ad for Super Bowl, costs $5.6 million, still we have the heart to collect soup for food pantries, collect money for FORK—Feed our Rural Kids. A hunger for righteousness is spiritual hunger seeking God to guide us to help the needy and poor.

We are called to love kindness. Basically this is call to imitate God. A woman writing in Christian Century told the story of being described as ‘kind’ by her peers, and she thought it wasn’t a great compliment, but was bland, like the word ‘nice’.  But then she did some research of the origin of the word “kind”; it is related to the word “kin”. In Old English God was referred to a ‘kindly Lord’. In those days, ‘Lord’ meant royalty and power with no kinship with poor peasants. But God is a different Lord, who is kin to all the people of the world, all people are family of God. To be kind is not bland, but the blessing of seeing others as made in the image of God. In the New Testament language of Greek, the word for “Christ” is similar in sound to the word for ‘kind’.  This was recognized and Christians were called the “Kindly ones”.

When pollsters asked Americans recently to offer a word to describe the times, among the top eight offerings were “worrisome, chaotic, exhausting, hectic, and even hellish.” To walk humbly with God means to walk wisely with God, intent on living according to God’s word and guidance. So as the church we know we cannot solve people’s debt problems, or have a satisfactory answer about why there is cruelty and suffering in the world. A waitress came to me and not only wanted to take my order, but she wanted to ask me a question. A friend of hers recently lost her child and she wanted to know what she should say to her friend. I said it is not what you say, but your willingness to give of your time, listen with love, and be kind, showing the truth we are all kin in a world of suffering. This means a humble walk with God, for God does not walk away from suffering, but uses us to be his servants of compassion and healing.

Before bed the other day I was watching one of those old black and white episodes of “Gunsmoke”. The bad guy in this episode was some man who thought it was his calling to punish sinners. If he found you working on the Sabbath, he would tie you up and whip you. God for him was vindictive and violent toward commandment breakers. This behavior had to be stopped and it led to the man’s death. His son mourned his father’s death, telling U.S. Marshall Dillion that he meant well. Dillion responded your father should have read in the Scriptures, “He has shown thee, o man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Even Marshall Dillion can quote the Scriptures.

We began with Aaron Rodger’s criticism of the church, claiming it was better at dividing people instead of uniting them, and wondered why anyone would believe in a mean-spirited God. We hear such negative comments today, but be confident Jesus has intercepted them, and calls us to follow him to his goal of mercy and steadfast love.