Monday, August 24, 2015

Aug 23, 2015 Sermon: "Marriage: Going Against the Grain"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Joshua 24.1-2a, 14-18
NT: Ephesians 5.21-33
Marriage: Going Against the Grain 

I officiate my fair share of weddings.  One of the many things couples often agonize over is which Scriptures to read at their wedding, so I make suggestions to them.  Today’s reading from Ephesians is about husbands and wives, but it is not one I have ever recommended for a wedding.  Let’s read it. 

How many of you have heard that at a wedding?  I have.  Perhaps you read it at your own wedding.  I don’t suggest it to couples because not because it’s out of place at a wedding but because I’ve heard such horrible sermons about it in the past from people who completely misunderstand it.  I actually think it could be a beautiful wedding scripture, but we need to set some things straight first. 
First, men and women were both created equally in God’s image.  According to Genesis, both were created by God out of love.  One is not more important than the other.  They are equal.  For crying out loud, if I hear one more time that it was Eve’s fault that Adam ate the fruit I think I’ll just go sit under an apple tree.  Because being hit on the head by falling apples would be less painful than having that conversation again.  They both ate the fruit. 
Second, don’t pick and choose.  This is one of those infamous passages people like to pull one sentence out of and therefore totally miss the point.  And you can guess how that goes.  Guys pull out verse 22: Wives, be subject to your husbands.  Ladies pull out verse 25: Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.  And somehow those verses become weapons we launch at one another in moments of anger or disappointment. You can’t pick and choose one verse from a larger context.  This passage is about something much bigger.
Third, this is about marriage.  Not just marriage in a general religious sense, but marriage in the ancient world in a legal sense.  Our society is once again fighting about the legalities and religious nature of marriage, and guess what…that’s nothing new!  Two thousand years ago, Romans and Greeks and Jews all lived in the same communities but had different ideas about marriage.  What a shocker! 
According to historical records from the time of Ephesians, marriage regulations existed for three main groups of people--Romans, Greeks, and Jews.  Romans were Roman citizens.  People of the Roman empire.  A married Roman woman was considered legally subject to either her father or her husband.  But if she was not married and had no living father, a Roman woman was considered legally independent and lived subject to no one.  As a result, marriage wasn’t very popular.  Women chose not be married, so the Emperor Augustus passed a new Roman law requiring men and women of a certain age to marry.  The law even required those who divorced or were widows to remarry within a certain time frame.  So if you’re upset about the state getting too involved in marriage today, know that it was way worse in ancient Rome. 
In Greek culture, it was ever worse for women.  Aristotle taught that women were by nature inferior to men, and therefore wives should submit to husbands.  There was no follow-up saying husbands should submit to wives.  Their law simply said that wives must submit to husbands.  They were to do so even if the husband was unfaithful, as it was common and accepted practice for husbands to engage in casual adultery with slave girls.  And this week we learned things haven’t really changed that much, as 40 million people’s names were hacked from a website called Ashley Madison that sells affairs for married people.  
Last but not least, in Jewish marriages, marriage was technically viewed from a legal point of view as a transference of property.  Everything she owned belonged to her husband.  However, a Jewish husband did have to sign a marriage contract (a pre-nup, if you will) saying that in the event of his death everything that belonged to him would be hers.  Believe it or not, that was progressive for the day!
Now that all the women in church today are sufficiently offended and the men are sufficiently frightened as a result of their wife’s offense, let’s talk about where Ephesians fits into this scenario. 
New Testament scholar Craig Keener says that in such a context where women were routinely viewed as inferior to men, it wouldn’t have been surprising for anyone to read verse 22: Wives, submit to your husbands.  That would have been common practice anyway. 
But to tell husbands to submit to their wives as in verse 25, to love them as Christ loved, that was a radical redefinition of the way their culture viewed marriage!  The man who society told to be head of the household was instead being told by God to be its servant.  God is full of surprises!  The Bible is rarely what it seems and never the same as the world around it, because it is a counter-cultural book.  It goes against the grain. 
So the next time you’re at a wedding where this is read or you’re in a heated conversation where you start throwing around Bible verses like swords, “Wives should submit to their husbands…husbands should submit to their wives,” remember the radical and counter-cultural intent of Ephesians—to throw society’s notion of one gender being dominant over the other out the window.  Instead, Ephesians tells us, “Be subject to one another.”  Only those who are equals can be subject to one another. 
That’s why I think it could actually be a powerful wedding scripture.  God leads us to view our partner as an equal to whom we mutually submit in love for a lifetime.  But it can also be a powerful testimony to a church family. 
Do you remember what reason Ephesians gives after it says, “Be subject to one another.”  It says, “Be subject to one another…out of reverence for Christ.”  As we discussed last week, reverence is more than respect, different from fear.  It’s a sense of utter astonishment.  We are subject to one another because we are in total awe of Jesus Christ, and if he loves us then what business do any of us have doing anything except loving one another, treating one another as equals, and being subject to one another in mutual relationships? 


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Aug 16, 2015 Sermon: "Fear the Lord"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Psalm 34.8-14
NT: Ephesians 5.15-20
Fear the Lord

People often ask me if I get nervous preaching every week.  No.  Not nervous.  But my knees do tremble.  And my heart sometimes flutters.   That’s because, as today’s Psalm says, I fear the Lord.  When I was a child, I loathed that phrase, for I could not imagine why anyone would be afraid of the God who loves and cares for us?  But my mind has changed over the years. 
            How do you feel about it?  Do you fear God?  Over and over, mostly in the Old Testament, the ancient authors admonish us, “Fear the Lord.”  For those who fear God want for nothing.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Preachers who like to wag their fingers in your face often say with a red face and a stern voice that they want to put the fear of God in people in their sermons.  In our faith, to fear the Lord is seen as a great virtue.    
            So it was a surprise to me to learn this week what the most frequent commandment in the whole Bible is:  “Do not fear.”  Seventy-five times the Bible tells us, “Do not fear.”  Do not fear, for I am with you.  Do not fear or be dismayed.  Do not fear; I will help you.  That command occurs more frequently than all others…by a country mile. 
            So which is it—to fear or not to fear?  Shakespeare famously asked, “To be or not to be?  That is the question.”  But for Christians, “To fear or not to fear?  That is the question.” 
            There are many things of which we are afraid, and I’m not just talking about fair traffic and eating one too many Ben Ellen donuts before hopping on the tilt-a-whirl.  We’re afraid of death, so much so that we’re sometimes afraid to live.  We’re afraid of terror, so much so that we’re afraid to leave our comfort zone.  But afraid of God?  Do we cower in fear of the Lord?  Do we fear God’s punishment and wrath?  Do we fear God like we would fear our worst enemy?  I hope not. 
            The verb “to fear” in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament can take on different meanings in different contexts.  In the verses when it commands, “Do not fear,” it clearly means that we should not be afraid of the little things in this life, for they are little things.  Do not be afraid of what people think of you.  Do not be afraid of the darkness of the night.  Do not be afraid of what you do not know.     
            But when it says, “Fear the Lord,” it takes on an entirely different context.  It means, “Revere the Lord.  Respect the Lord.  Be in awe of God’s majesty.”  You see, the verbs “to fear” and “to see” are nearly identical, and that points to their similarity, for in the sight of God fear becomes reverence.  Once you see life as God sees it, then everything changes.  You revere every blade of grass.  You respect every life.  You are in total awe of God’s grace in every breath. 
            For some folks, that’s the end of the lesson.  When the Bible says, “Fear the Lord,” they hear, “Respect the Lord.”  Be reverent.  Come to church.  Sit quietly.  But that doesn’t grasp the fullness of the teaching.  Someday I believe we will meet our maker, and I doubt respect or reverence even begins to cover what we will need to show on that day. 
            The best illustration I’ve ever known of what it means to fear the Lord comes from The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.  It’s an allegory about Christianity set to a children’s story.  The main character is a lion named Aslan who dies so that others might live before being resurrected.  But before the children meet Aslan, they’re very curious to know what he is like since they have heard so many stories.  One child asks, “Is he a man?” 
“Aslan a man!  Certainly not.  I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“Ooh!” said the child, “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake.  If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said the child.
“Safe?  Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
At the risk of sounding too much like a preacher, I think that sense of fear and reverence for God is at risk.  We treat God like a WalMart which is open 24/7, gives us just what we want for a few bucks, and never asks anything in return.  We treat God like a genie in the bottle, and the truth is that we prefer for God to stay in the bottle instead of coming out and changing things.  We treat God like a lion at the zoo that is neither feared nor respected but simply gazed upon now and then when we feel like it behind the safety of fences. 
We need to do better.  In our prayers.  In our songs.  In our worship.  In our outreach.  In our ministry.  In our relationships.

We need to do better.  For God’s sake, because God deserves it.  But for our own sake as well.  By fearing and respecting God, our lives necessarily take on a certain order.  We recognize God’s place at the top of our lives, and the rest falls into place.  We find contentment with who we are, where we are, and whose we are.  We find joy in everyday blessings.  We find wisdom in knowing our place in God’s world.  It’s the way of life described in Ephesians.  A way of life tempered with a healthy dose of both fear and respect that makes the most of our short time here on Earth.  Amen.