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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Feb 20, 2005 - Second Sunday in Lent
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Ronald Botts

Love As a Moral Value

Part III of VIII in Lenten Series:Moral Values: Which Values and Whose Values

Genesis 12:1-7; John 3:1-17

In developing this series of sermons on moral values, your pastors share a deeply held concern: namely, that the current debate in America on this topic has often been limited to a very selective and narrow set—those primarily having to do with sexual matters.

Some politicians and conservative religious leaders have been very deliberate in concentrating on this single area. As a consequence there has been less emphasis on what it means to lead a moral life in broad terms, then it has been to define morality by how one comes down on a few controversial issues.

Last week Tim lifted up "generosity" as a moral value, and this Sunday I want take a look at "love" in the same way.

An English barrister once said that there is a downside to becoming a lawyer. Quoting him: "A man who has had legal training is never quite the same again, never able to look at things free from his legal habits or beliefs. It is not easy for a lawyer to become a political scientist. It is very difficult for him to think as a sociologist or historian [for] he is interested in rights and rules."

Now the attorneys in our congregation might regard this as a bit overstated, but there is some truth here. However we are trained or raised, it inevitably influences how we look at life. For example, teachers would naturally consider how specific situations can be turned into learning opportunities. Physicians understand that bad can often be changed into good through knowledge. Architects see the interrelationship between design and function. Managers know that teamwork and efficiency can make the difference between failure and success. Our background does affect our approach to living.

This may help us to better understand the Pharisees of the bible, those men who were steeped in the legal minutia of the religious law and who were often the antagonists in the stories we read about Jesus. The Gospels record numerous occasions when they had difficulty with both the teachings and the lifestyle of Jesus.

The Pharisees believed that God desired the Jewish people to strictly abide by the Law; hence, they were concerned with living by a complex set of rules and regulations. It was clear to them that to adhere to the Law was to serve the Lord and to ignore it was to be unfaithful.

Ritual cleansings are an example of their concern and the directives were quite complex. Consider these instructions for the washing of one's hands before eating:

Take at least a quarter log of water, that is , a measure equal to 1 and 1/2 eggshells of water. Hold the hands with the fingertips upward, pour the water over them until it runs down the wrists. Cleanse the palm of each hand with the fist of the other. Having done this, then position one hand with the fingers pointing downward and pour more water on the wrists so that it runs off at the fingertips. This is then repeated with the other hand. Clearly, there couldn't have been any Israeli equivalent for fast food stops, at least not as far as the Pharisees were concerned!

This practice was less one of hygiene than it was a religious ritual. Even if the hands were spotless, it must be done. To do so was to please God; to fail to do so was sin. It was as clear as that. No Pharisee would ever forget to go through this rite before eating.

So perhaps this provides us with a little background on why members of this particular religious group were so upset, for instance, when some of Jesus' disciples failed to perform the cleansing ritual before taking food. They wondered how he, a religious teacher, could overlook such obvious laxity in his followers. Surely they couldn't allow what was sacrilege to them to go unchallenged.

In one encounter with Jesus they say: "Tell us why it is that your disciples don't follow the teaching handed down by our ancestors, but instead eat with ritually unclean hands?

The question is not being posed to gain some new insight from Jesus; rather, it is intended to force him to make a defense for this improper conduct. The Pharisees had already passed sentence on this and now were anxious to confront Jesus on this issue. It was an open and shut case to them. Jesus responds the accusation and, in so doing, puts Law and love in perspective for them and for us.

In his response to the Pharisees, here and elsewhere, Jesus did not disregard the need for laws and rules. Clearly, life without structure is chaos. Religion without tenets is arbitrary. But rules, he cautioned, are not to be so totally and rigidly followed that some degree of latitude and common sense is lost.

Ritual has its place. Cleanliness has its place. These weren't points of argument for Jesus. What he was concerned with was the arrogance and the rigid, unbending attitude toward religious practice as displayed by the Pharisees.

They were often so caught up with the letter of the law that they really failed to catch the intent of the law. They were so concerned with the `don'ts" of their religion that they were prone to overlook the "do's." They were so quick to condemn the transgressors of the law that, in their zeal, they couldn't see the truth underlying the statutes.

Perfect adherence to ritual practice is, by itself, no guarantee that the will of God is being carried out in a particular situation. It would be nice if the proper response could always be determined in advance in all situations. That way a person could always be assured that he or she had done the right thing.

Jesus was concerned that sin be understood in its full dimension. There are sins of commission—doing what you shouldn't. But there are also sins of omission—failing to do what you should. In the case of the latter this might be the greatest flaw in the ethical conduct of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees knew what to avoid and generally did, but too often they stopped right there. More action may have been called for, but they were satisfied that they had fully discharged their obligations. It's no wonder then that Jesus' emphasis on positive action contrasts so sharply with the largely negative prohibitions of the Law.

Consider how much more encompassing is "Love your neighbor" than just saying "Don't treat your neighbor badly." To love means to be sensitive to others' needs and then doing what is required by the circumstances. Avoiding intentional hurt is a start in the right direction, but not a stopping point. When legal practice and compelling human need are in conflict, then Law must always give way to love.

Love is the energy we bring to our living. It is the compelling force within that generates our response outward to others. The love of God inherent in our soul, the love of God as manifest through Jesus, the love of God as realized and received through others is what provides our standards and defines our actions.

True love cannot condone the exploitation of others. Love cannot tolerate the affliction of pain on others. It cannot limit the normal freedom of others nor force another to believe as we believe.

True love cannot stand by while others suffer, cannot justify privilege while others starve, cannot regard others as inferior because they are different from us. It cannot be conditioned on what another can do for us.

Love, if it is real, must be expressed in a way that meets another person at the point of their need. Love must go the extra mile rather than be limited to the least of our obligation. Love must treat all others with equity simply because they are siblings to us in the human family. Love must be practiced as a demonstration of faith rather than be talked about in theory.

Jesus taught us that our lives have to be built around ethical standards. There have to be guidelines and parameters or else conduct is totally subjective. He cautioned, however, that rules alone will not ensure faithful discipleship. Rather, a follower of his must look for the human need in any given situation. Law and life must be brought together. It is against this standard of unconditional love that our actions will be judged.

Dwight Hopkins from the University of Chicago Divinity School cautions us about a change he sees taking place in America's prevailing moral values. This is moving us from a nation of caring to one of indifference to those who are disadvantaged. He writes:

To add insult to injury, federal and state governments are slashing safety net programs that in the past were taken for granted. There has been a radical shift in the country's culture psyche: a citizen no longer has an obligation to help those who are worst off. There has been a further shift in the ideology of the federal government: the government should not use our tax monies to help the poor; instead the needs of the poor should be taken care of by the private sector, faith-based initiatives, or, in the worst-case scenario, the national government simply allow the poor to become poorer.

It seems to me that this, too, should be part of our national debate on what our moral values are and whether we are prepared to do what it takes to live as a moral people. I hear a lot of talk about who should make up a nuclear family, but considerably less about what we need to do regarding disparities in the human family.

To live a Christian life means to approach it with love, a searching love which goes beyond the bare minimum and which seeks to respond creatively and fully in all our daily situations. It causes us to commit ourselves to positive action, not just to omit our destructive behaviors. It aligns us with the ways of discipleship as taught by Jesus and lived by the saints of our faith. And it speaks most expressively to us today in the words of this morning's scripture: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church