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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Feb 9, 2005 - Ash Wednesday
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to Lorene K. Ahrens and Helen Smith for 90 years of dedication and love to First and Second Timothy and always to the glory of God!

Moral Values: Which Values and Whose Values? (I of VII in series by the same name)

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Perhaps no words in scripture better capture the prophetic judgement and indictment AND hope and expectation than the words from Joel 2:12-17, now reinterpreted by Eugene Peterson in The Message:

...It's not too late - this is God's personal Message - Come back to me and really mean it! Come fasting and weeping, sorry for your sins! Change your life, not just your clothes! Come back to God, your God because God is kind and merciful! He takes a deep breath and puts up with a lot, This most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe, Who knows me? Maybe he'll do it now, maybe he'll turn around and show pity. Maybe, when all is said and done, there'll be blessings full and robust for your God!"

The Prophet Joel understood what we must understand as we begin this Lenten journey today. First and foremost, we must return to God! We must confess our sins (which simply means the places in which we have missed the mark) and return to a God who is kind and merciful (slow to anger and resistant to judgement without cause). We must return to our God who is a most patient God - a God who embraces each of us with extravagant love. Confession, forgiveness, return, renewal. Now is the time for God!

There has never been a time we need God more than times such as these. This is a time of crisis. The crisis is visible. It is public. It is an emergent and urgent in nature. The crisis is close at hand. It requires a response. The crisis is economic in nature. It is political in nature. It is spiritual in nature. It is familial in nature. But, underlying each of these, the crisis is moral in nature.

Morality is concerned with right conduct or virtuous behavior. Moral conduct and behavior is the undergirding belief system which directs thought and action. Into our national vocabulary has grown an expression based on morality which has captivated the political right and alienated much of the rest of America. That expression is "Moral Values." Moral Values has become a watchword and a launch pad for certain issues narrowly defined by a small group of people of the political and religious right. At the heart of their definition is division. The division is political, spiritual and yes, familial, in nature. It is a moral division.

Having said that, I also believe from the depth of my heart, moral values and morality, need to be dealt with and addressed. So the initiative is meritorious, while the method and message are problematic.

In his book, Moral Politics, Dr. George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at University of California Berkeley writes:

(This division) is about what you think makes a `good' person and what is the `right' thing to do. And goes even deeper than that: it is ultimately a family-based division, about what you think the right kind of family is - whether your parents were good parents, whether you are a good parent to your children, and whether you were raised right. This political division is personal. It has to do with what kind of a person you are (and) this division is ultimately a division between strictness and nurturance as ideals at all levels - from the family to morality to religion, and ultimately, to politics. (George Lakoff, Moral Politics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill., 2002, pp. IX-X).

A division between strictness and nurturance. How true! If you are to break down the analysis to its most commonly held value, the difference in moral values boils down to a systemic approach in parenting and politics, in faith and values to one of strictness or nurturance. Lakoff makes the case that the reasons for this division are part of what cognitive scientists call the Cognitive Unconscious. In other words, we come to our standing places on issues of moral values from a ground of being that is largely unconscious in nature. That deserves more unpacking than I can do today - but I will attempt to explore this further in the weeks ahead.

Based on Lakoff's understanding of the Cognitive Unconscious, this moral crisis is existential in nature. It is a very personal crisis. It is about each of our core values. It is about what we teach our children, how we live our daily lives, what we value in family, in education, in interpersonal relations, in budgets, in individual and societal justice issues, in biblical teachings, and our moral underpinnings. I can guarentee that this crisis will not be resolved through this one preaching series.

In my saying that, I am presenting a value and belief system which I hold close to my heart - humility, based on a seeking, searching heart and mind of faith. This value of seeking, searching humility is juxtaposed to a value which other well-meaning pastors and preachers hold of absolute certainty and rock solid confidence that words flowing their mouth reflect the truth of God.

Since, moral values are personal, let me tell you a personal story which illustrates the crisis we are facing. Four months ago, I was dropping off a jacket left behind at a soccer field by one of my players. As I pulled into the driveway, my player's mother came outside to greet me. With a Bush/Cheney sign on her lawn, (and Bush lawns signs all around the neighborhood), I commented, "Your neighborhood seems solidly for Bush." (I thought it was a rather innocuous comment). She responded very matter-of-factly, "We are a heavily Christian neighborhood, so yes, of course, we are for Bush. As a pastor, I am sure you are for him, too. After all, he is the only candidate with moral values." We talked for a while about her comment and my views, too. It was a little rocky, but ended well. When I got back in the car, Sarah said, "Dad, what did she mean when she said, `as a Christian and a pastor,' you must vote for Bush?" Now I was really on the spot! I answered Sarah this way, "She means that she believes there is only one choice for Christians because she believes there is only one way to interpret Christian faith and values....And Sarah," I continued, "I don't believe that."

In his new book: God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, Jim Wallis brings some very interesting analysis to bear on the conversations on faith, politics and moral values. He says there is a changing wind. It is time to take back our faith because our faith has been co-opted by the right and dismissed by the left. There is a lack of vision in our times which has created a right with such narrow vision it cannot see beyond a small subset of so-called moral values and a left which has no vision for morality at all. He continues, it is imperative that each of express our faith in God - which is always personal but never private. You and I have much to explore and add to the personal valuation of God's presence in our moral lives and our daily walk with Christ Jesus.

Each of us has been created by God as moral beings. Each of us hold moral values close to our heart. In the weeks ahead, we will reflect upon which moral values and whose moral values we live with and accept as our own. I pray that beginning with the spirit of Joel, we will return to God in this season of Lent. There in the embrace of God's extravagant love, we will feel God's mercy, kindness, patience, and forgiveness. Amen.

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church