A Future With Hope: Acceptance

First United Presbyterian Church
“A Future With Hope: Acceptance”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 1, 2017
Listen to sermon audio

Jeremiah 29:11
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Matthew 21:23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

I have here an expensive piece of paper, which, in Latin, reads, “Since the right has been granted to us by the State of New Jersey not only to teach sacred letters but also to promote to degrees of sacred theology, and since the candidate, Amy Renee Morgan, a woman of blameless life, Christian Faith, well versed in humane letters, learned in theological studies, upon due examination held before us has demonstrated herself to be worthy of public honor, therefore let it be known that we have determined that the above said candidate be made a Master of Divinity.”

I cannot think of anything more authoritative than this document. It bears the seal of the revered institution of theological studies, Princeton Seminary, and the signature of then-President Dr. Ian Torrance. If anyone should question my authority, I could inform them that I am certifiably a “woman of blameless life.” It doesn’t get more official than this.

And yet. This piece of paper means very little to someone who is struggling with questions of faith. My mastery of divinity is little comfort to someone wondering who they are and where they belong in the world. Someone who wants to know where God is in the suffering of humanity will not be looking to the State of New Jersey to grant me the right to offer them guidance in these matters.

I dearly love this piece of paper, as I loved my experience of theological education. But I have had to come to terms with its relative uselessness. I have discovered that each person who walks into the church is another Jesus, turning over tables, confounding tradition, threatening authority with the authenticity of their experience. Each person I talk with who will no longer darken the doors of a church building is one of those “tax-collectors and prostitutes,” if you’ll pardon the crude comparison. They are those despised by church authorities for being self-centered, undisciplined, misguided, and uncommitted. Meanwhile, they are leading the way into the kingdom of heaven.

According to agnostic thinker Robert Ingersoll “To doubt is heresy, to inquire is to admit that you do not know. The Church,” Ingersoll asserts, “does neither.”

The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word “to choose.”  What we, as Christians, over the centuries have labeled as misguided or wrong or outright evil is, in fact, simply people choosing for themselves what to believe or how to live their faith. Rather than relying on the authority of church doctrine, of institutional dogma, heretics choose what they believe, typically based upon their experience.

But people choosing for themselves terrifies those in positions of authority, especially in times of turmoil.  The chief priests and elders questioning Jesus’ authority were desperately trying to keep the peace between their people and the Roman governement in a time of high tension. In the early life of the church, Christians were fearful for their lives and livelihoods.  During the Reformation, Christians were fearful of corruption.  And today, we’re fearful about the survival of the Christian faith itself.  We must seriously consider the possibility that the faith as we know it will no longer exist at some point in the foreseeable future.  And so doubt, inquiry, heresy, choice are all dangerous things.

But we live in interesting times. As those of you participating in the study of Diana Butler Bass’s book, Christianity After Religion, will note, the church’s grip on authority is slipping, along with other institutions in our society. Bass asserts that we live in a “choice-based society, one driven by preference and desire instead of custom and obligation.” This has led to a “crisis of legitimacy,” a questioning of assumptions and long-held beliefs.

And churches have been reacting to this crisis for some time now. Many are holding up their papers scribbled in Latin, their official seals and signed documents, their Books of Order and Robert’s Rules, and asking the heretics, “by what authority are you questioning our beliefs, stepping outside our practices, claiming you belong?” And when they answer our question with a question, as all good heretics do, we are left as speechless as the temple authorities.

Many churches are confessing their faith, writing new creeds and issuing official statements, requiring potential members of their club to sign documents attesting to their beliefs and agreeing to what they say are the tenets of orthodox faith. But they are not going out into the vineyard to work. They are not doing the work of Jesus, the work of bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing and justice and peace.

Meanwhile, those claiming no religious affiliation are faithfully tending the vines, pruning back the powers that oppress the poor, tending to the imprisoned and advocating for their restoration, fighting off disease and injustice, and creating an environment where all life can flourish. These “unaffiliated” heretics, who choose what they believe and do without the approval of any religious authority, are the fastest-growing religious group in the United States today. They are following Jesus, tending the vineyard, and leading the way into the kingdom of heaven. All the while, churches and denominations sit wringing their hands, questioning their authority, and claiming exclusive rights to ultimate truth.

These authorities are guilty of the same charge Jesus leverages against the temple leaders: they refuse to accept Jesus, even when the evidence of who he is and the authority he wields is right in front of their faces. Tax-collectors and prostitutes, those despised and degraded by the religious authorities, are heading out into the vineyard, doing the work of repentance and restoration. And the temple priests and elders still won’t accept the message of John the Baptist, the message preparing the way for Jesus, the one he declared to be “the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the world.”

But this church, I think, is a little different. We claim acceptance as one of our core values. Not authority or orthodoxy or tradition. Acceptance. Acceptance of the heretics, the ones making their own choices. Acceptance of the tax-collectors and prostitutes, the ones on the margins of society. Acceptance of Jesus, wherever we see him at work, inside these walls or outside our doors.

We are a group of heretics ourselves, which is a crazy thing to say to a bunch of folks that includes numerous retired clergy and life-long church-goers. Nobody knows what we’re supposed to believe and do better than you all. But you all know that authority doesn’t come from official seals or historic landmarks, years of tradition or approved hymnbooks and biblical translations. While all those things may be very important to some of us, we still accept one another’s choices. We don’t always agree with each other, but we accept each other.

We accept the widows and widowers who experience Jesus in the companionship of friends and choose to believe they have a friend in Jesus. We accept those without a home who experience Jesus in the shelter of our building and choose to believe God will provide for their needs. We accept families of all configurations who experience God as a loving parent and choose to believe God has made us into one human family. We accept those whose lives are effected by substance abuse or mental illness who experience Jesus in 12-steps or treatment and choose to believe in a power stronger than their affliction. We accept those with disabilities or chronic illness who experience Jesus in compassionate care and choose to believe God can use their gifts and abilities. We accept people who come from a variety of faith traditions and experience Jesus in a variety of faith practices and who choose to believe that God is bigger than all our theological boxes.

We accept all these, and more, at 1st on 4th, because we accept Jesus Christ. We accept him as the one who ate with outcasts and sinners; the one who healed the blind and raised the dead; the one who welcomed children and touched lepers. We accept Jesus Christ, the host of this table we will come to today, this table where all are welcome and accepted.

God knows we live into our value of acceptance imperfectly. There are times we say we will help and do not. There are times when we are tempted to trust in an authority other than Jesus Christ.

And there is always more we can do. There are so many good heretics in this town who do not know they are accepted – by God, and by the followers of Jesus. They’ve seen the “keep out” signs posted around Christianity by the defenders of religious tradition, orthodoxy, and self-righteousness. They need to hear the good news of acceptance. They need to know there is a place for them here.

And so, in the coming year, our communications team will work to improve our ability to share this good news of acceptance. Our Christian Education team will work to develop faith formation that engages our heretical questions and doubts. Our Deacons will continue reaching out, member by member, with love and acceptance. Our Mission and Social Justice team will meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our town. Our Buildings and Grounds team will continue to create a space that is accessible and hospitable and safe for all. Our worship team will encourage all of us heretics to gather – with all our questions and doubts, all our courage and hope – to accept and praise God in Jesus Christ in word and sacrament and song. Our personnel team will make sure the contributions of our staff are valued and accepted and that we, in turn, share that acceptance with you all and with our community. Our stewardship and finance teams will ensure that all gifts are valued and accepted and used wisely and well to promote acceptance.

As we prayerfully consider what we can each give to the work of acceptance at 1st on 4th in the coming year, we don’t need to appeal to the authority of a church doctrine or ascribe to a formula of stewardship derived from an obscure Old Testament reference. We are heretics. We can choose. We can choose to give in a way that is filled with meaning and rooted in deep gratitude. We can choose to give whatever amount or percent will help us to grow in faith. We can choose, with Jesus, to turn over the tables of the money changers to make room for an authentic expression of faith. We can choose to give to a church that accepts tax-collectors and prostitutes, heretics and doubters, and follows them into the vineyard to work, follows them into the kingdom of heaven.

To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.


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