God is still speaking—and we're trying to listen.

by Ellen Sims
texts: Genesis 2:15-17, 3: 1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

Surprisingly, I received no pushback when I posted last week our Transfiguration Sunday sermon with the intentionally provocative title Trans Jesus. That title acknowledged the way Jesus crossed or trans-gressed boundaries, but the sermon itself could have been considered transgressive for encouraging people to transgress and go beyond generally acceptable boundaries at times.

In contrast, today’s sermon title may suggest a sermon as conventional as most being preached right now in pulpits across Alabama. Ironically, what I’m about to say may garner pushback from you, you spiritually adventurous folks, because in this sermon I intend to encourage the maintenance of boundaries.

Some of you may now be starting to feel some initial resistance and are worrying that I’m backtracking from my liberal sermon of last Sunday, afraid I’m going to pull out wounding words from the scriptures we’ve just read, words like “sinner” and “temptation” and “the devil” and “Satan.” You’re wary because many of us have been called sinners for being who we are, many of us can no longer worship a punitive God, many of us insist that a generous and loving God permits our questions and doubts, and many of us like to color outside the lines.

I hope what I’ll say next will not be heard as contradicting last week’s sermon so much as balancing, nuancing, and clarifying it. Truth be told, I have at times wanted to preach a sermon series called, “On the Other Hand,” in which every other Sunday I’d argue against or at least qualify the previous Sunday’s thesis. Maybe this is the start to that series.

At any rate, we must acknowledge that in this morning’s Hebrew Bible reading Adam and Eve defy a boundary that God established, while in our Gospel lection Jesus (the new Adam, as Paul named him) faithfully maintained God’s boundaries despite the devil’s three temptations. These scriptures force me to qualify last Sunday’s support for crossing boundaries. As the eco-centric lyrics of one of today’s hymns underscore, some boundaries do need to be maintained. Of course. As the song says, boundaries are especially necessary in protecting creation from human greed and carelessness. Just as the sea is delineated from the sand, so, too, there must be clear separation between what is ours and what is not. The story of humanity’s loss of the Edenic garden teaches that when we overreach, when we grab for what is not ours and what we do not need, we harm God’s creation, which has terrible, maybe irrevocable consequences for us. There are, says our hymn, “sacred bounds” that must be kept.

Yeh, there are rules to follow. Excesses to avoid. Well, be dismissive of boundaries at your own peril, but it’s at OUR peril, too. You and I and our children and their children are losing Eden all over again when we violate the lines between what we want to do and what this earth can sustain. Our planet is overheating not because an angry God is punishing us for our sins but because there are natural consequences for disregarding the sacred boundaries that a healthy ecosystem requires. We humans have egregiously violated boundaries within my lifetime that had been keeping our planet healthy for human habitation since our species emerged several million years ago. The consequences of violating creation’s boundaries are grave, so progressive Christians dare not make light of boundaries. Maintaining boundaries that nature requires is vital to our survival.

Also necessary is the maintenance of interpersonal boundaries, especially within churches, where too often children and adults have been victims of the very people they had believed were most trustworthy. God forbid that we be lax in screening our employees and volunteers or in upholding our safe church policies (which you’ll find on our website). Let me take advantage of today’s theme on boundary maintaining to urge you to reread our Safe Church Policy.

We are a tolerant congregation, but we have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and exploitation. That means we have strict boundaries in this matter. These boundaries are necessary to protect our children and all of us both from the harm of exploitation and of false accusations. To transgress these rules is to injure one of God’s children. We cannot assume a passive stance when we know children and adults have been easily manipulated and harmed in church contexts. Love demands that we be proactive in establishing and monitoring safe and appropriate interpersonal boundaries. And thank God, we have thus far never had to investigate a complaint. But we are prepared to do so.

Before we can decide if a situation requires us to maintain or cross social/religious/moral boundaries, we have to decide if observing that boundary is healthy or not, ethical or not, wise or not, selfless or not, loving or not, life-giving or not, necessary or not. What will be the consequences to ourselves and to others? The godly choice isn’t as easy to determine as our Sunday school teachers once suggested because it’s not always helpful just to quote from the Bible, which isn’t entirely internally consistent. Besides, the contexts for the Bible differ from our own. Charting a moral course is similarly complicated by our culture’s competing values and expectations. Then, too, laws, social mores, and religious instruction can change significantly in a short period of time.

In my lifetime alone the Church’s ethical stances have evolved. Thank God most churches now acknowledge the sin of racism, although we have far to go to eradicate and atone for that sin. Thank God a growing number of churches and entire denominations, though still not enough, are welcoming and affirming LGBTQ folks.

Yet in my lifetime, as some ethical stances have liberalized in American churches, others have become less tolerant and more rigid. As others have noted, Joshua Holland recalls in “When Southern Baptists were Pro-Choice” that the religious right’s signature cause is very recent:

“Conventional wisdom holds that the rise of the religious right as a political force to be reckoned with during the 1970s and 1980s was driven by conservative Christians’ intense opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.” But the Republican Party initially SUPPORTED Roe. V Wade, so “the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. . . When Roe was first decided, most of the Southern evangelicals who today make up the backbone of the anti-abortion movement believed that abortion was a deeply personal issue in which government should NOT play a role. Some were hesitant to take a position on abortion because they saw it as a ‘Catholic issue’ and worried about the influence of Catholic teachings on American religious observance. It wasn’t until 1979 — a full six years after Roe — that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but. . . because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools” (Moyers).

Right-wing strategists believed the abortion issue could become a wedge issue in politics and, as we know today, abortion is perhaps the central ethical issue for Southern Baptists and most fundamentalists. Alcohol had previously been another ethical issue that had both a political and religious response. During my childhood the Baptist prohibition of alcohol was reinforced by a covenant which was sometimes read aloud in worship almost like a creed. In it church members promised not to drink or sell alcohol. However, many Baptists who read this creed in church nevertheless drank with their Catholic friends at social events. It was said, “Baptists don’t drink . . . with other Baptists.”

Some progressive folks today likely consider a church with restrictions on drinking alcohol (or maybe condemnation of marijuana) as backward, but actually the prohibition of alcohol in 19th Century America began as a progressive movement led by women aiming to protect women and children from husbands and fathers who drank away the family’s grocery money and became physically abusive when drunk. And today some progressive folks are teetotalers because, like me, for instance, alcoholism can run in families and I’ve never wanted to risk alcoholism.

I’ll tell you a story if you promise NOT to pull this on your next pastor. The liberal church in which we raised our daughter and where she and her family are still members called Mark as their pastor within a year or so after George and I and our then 1-year-old moved to Nashville. Mark’s first Sunday happened to fall on April Fools’ Day. So some church pranksters dotted For Sale signs all across the church lawn, much to the consternation of the new pastor as he arrived that morning. After Mark’s sermon later, and before the chairperson of the deacons officially acknowledged the pastor and his wife as new members of the church, the choir members were asked how they felt about Mark’s sermon, and they responded by holding up Olympic-style score cards with their (positive) ratings. But most surprising was the shot of vodka someone added to the water in Mark’s water glass that had been freshly filled for him and placed on the pulpit before the service. Imagine how eagerly the pranksters awaited Mark’s first sip. I say his first sip because, after a pause, Mark took a second slow and, it seemed, deeply appreciative sip. That’s how he passed the “liberal” and “crazy like us” test on his first Sunday.

Of course, progressive Christianity, for me, is deeper than that. It’s about a loving, liberating, and intellectually coherent theology with a selfless ethic of service to the “least of these.” Today’s ethical quandaries and boundaries can change fairly rapidly. And unless they are attached to legal issues settled by social and political processes, you get to decide where you draw the ethical boundary lines for yourself. My boundaries may need to be different from yours, stricter than yours with regard to some things, more lenient with regard to others. I don’t think we as a church have to hold the same opinions on all the ethical questions of the day. I do think that being church together offers us a way to struggle with important questions that impact how we live out our faith. We should WANT to hear how others in our church and denomination grapple with the Big Questions. But I would encourage you to look at the ethical matters of the day and not assume that you need to adopt a strictly “progressive” or “conservative” stance.

There is a tendency among those who generally identify as progressives to prefer freedom and self-expression and the flouting of tradition over conformity and rules and rigidity. But today’s hymn from the UCC’s New Century Hymnal reminds us that the Bible’s creation story is both about expansiveness and limits, about freedom and self-restraint. Care for creation is the best argument for appreciating boundaries and limits. Let us recognize that within the word conservative is the verb conserve, and it has a kindred noun: conservation. And those are good words.

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