March 15, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Has anyone ever scoffed at your faith or laughed at your religion? Have you ever gotten into a debate over the existence of God or the usefulness of practicing your faith? Many of us Christians have engaged in those kinds of conversations or debates many times over the years. And sometimes we’ve left them feeling frustrated because we couldn’t think of many great arguments in favour of Christianity. Or we’ve left them feeling guilty because we got angry with a person who couldn’t seem to accept our perspective. Or perhaps, once in a while, we’ve finished those conversations feeling good about the experience because we got a chance to share our faith – not to defend it or to justify it, but simply to tell our neighbour what we believe about God and how our beliefs affect our lives.

I don’t know very many Presbyterians who aren’t scared to death of sharing their faith with their neighbours, co-workers, and friends. And one reason for that may be because of past negative experiences — when they seemed to lose the debate, when they left the conversation feeling angry, hurt, guilty, or like a failure. It’s like how I tend to avoid getting into debates about controversial topics like religion with my brothers-in-law. I know those conversations never end well, so I figure it’s better to avoid them altogether and to stay on good terms.

I think that the apostle Paul identifies the problem accurately when he writes to the Corinthians that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Believers and non-believers consider exactly the same historical event — the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth — and they conclude something completely different from each other.

Without the gift of faith, Jesus’ death is nothing. He was just another troublemaker who refused to keep quiet and save himself. He was put to death in the usual way of the Romans at that time, alongside common criminals and other troublemakers.

The cross of Jesus was foolishness, they might say, because he could have avoided it. He could have stopped preaching. He could have fallen in line with the religious leaders. He could have let it go when he went into the temple and found people selling cattle and sheep and doves, and when he saw the money changers seated at their tables.

And even if Jesus was short-sighted enough to keep on standing up for what he believed to be right and got himself killed… it’s still just a sad story, they might say. The historical record seems to indicate that Jesus of Nazareth was an inspiring teacher who helped a lot of people, but it’s too bad that all his efforts came to nothing. He seemed promising as a leader… but he made a bad choice and got himself killed.

As believers, Christians interpret the cross of Christ differently. It’s not a symbol of failure and defeat, and it’s not only a symbol of suffering and death. It is about standing up for what is right and good, even at great personal cost. It is about shouldering a burden — not for the sake of suffering, but for the sake of freedom from suffering, from oppression, and from death.

The cross is about choosing to forgive instead of to fight. But it’s not about being trampled or conquered by the powerful. It’s about hoping and trusting that God has the power to bring life out of death, and that God’s love and power will eventually win out. While some will point to the bleeding dying man on the cross and see failure, disappointment, or even foolishness… Christians will point to the empty cross and place our hope in the resurrection power of God to be victorious over every evil power in the world.

I wonder what non-believers think when they look at our religious lives as well. Do we seem foolish to them, as the cross seems foolishness? When they hear the commandments that we heard today from Exodus, do they think us strange or naïve for attempting to live by them, or for confessing our sins to God when we fail to live by them.

There was a recent episode of “Little Mosque on the Prairie” in which the non-religious radio host, Fred Tupper, shows his complete lack of understanding of the religious laws that his Muslim neighbours live by. Raeann makes a comment about not eating gooseberries (because she doesn’t happen to like them) and Fred says, “Oh, is that one of your Muslim rules — no eating gooseberries?” She sarcastically replies, “Oh sure, Fred, Muslims aren’t allowed to eat gooseberries.” Well, Fred completely believes her, assuming that the religious rules are just strange and random. And as Raeann and Jay-Jay make up more and more pretend rules, Fred concludes that they are more and more weird. You see, religion and the commandments that go along with religion are just foolishness to him, so he just doesn’t get the fact that they’re joking.

Though the commandments that Christians commit to following may seem pretty straight-forward and logical… still, outsiders may look in and wonder at our commitment to them. Especially during a season of the church year like Lent, they may find it odd and incomprehensible that we would choose fasting or prayer or other religious disciplines. Why would we bother to give up some negative practice or take on an extra commitment to serve? It doesn’t sound fun at all! They may even laugh at our Sunday morning gatherings for worship. Why get up and go to church when you could sleep in instead, or maybe do something productive with our morning?

But the commandments do not exist to make our lives difficult or to make us suffer. They are part of the covenant relationship that we have with God. God has created and loved and cared for us. And we, in response to that love, want to be faithful in return. It’s like someone suggesting that being faithful and loving towards your spouse is too much work, too hard on you, and not really worth the bother. Would you really choose not to be married because you don’t want to work at loving and being faithful to your spouse? I suppose some people do choose that, don’t they?

But imagine if your spouse was perfect… absolutely faithful, unconditionally loving, and consistently forgiving even when you mess up and hurt him or her. That is the kind of God that we are invited to love and to follow. That is the kind of God that has been revealed to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

Some may laugh at our way of life… at our continual commitment to keep on learning to live according to God’s commands. And some may scoff at the cross of Christ, saying that it is a sad failure, that it is defeat, that it is foolishness. But to us who are called to live in covenant relationship with God, and to us who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

May God help us in all our conversations with our neighbours… not to win an argument, but in humility and patience to share the faith that we have been given. Thanks be to God for the cross and for the commandments — for God’s amazing grace and the opportunity to respond to God’s love. Amen.