Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sermon: Jealousy and Injustice

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15

As human beings we like to think that we will always do the right thing. We like to think that we have values, that we know what is good, and that we would never commit an awful act of injustice. I mean, I’m a good person right? But . . . as human beings one of the challenges is that we don’t always act according to our principles, sometimes we act out of raw emotion. The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of those. The brothers know how you are supposed to treat family, and yet they get caught up in a cycle of jealousy that leaves them acting in horrific ways towards one of their own.

Joseph is their father’s favorite, and Joseph himself isn’t the easiest to live with. So when one day the brothers are fed up, even though they are from a religious family, and even though they know what is right and wrong, their anger gets the best of them. At first they are going to kill him, but at least a little bit of their moral values intervene and they don’t do that. Instead they choose to sell him into slavery, and fake his death. This is slightly better, but only slightly. Slavery has no guarantees for Joseph’s safety. He could be put to work in a deadly job, he could be beaten and abused. Plus, imagine the emotional pain they are putting their father through! They are telling him that his favorite son has been killed, and he is going to grieve him, and it is all a lie.

Few of us like to think that we would be capable of such things. We are certain that we would treat our family members better than that. Oh, sure there are days we think about selling our brothers and sisters, there are days we want to murder our kids, but would we ever do it? No, of course not! Or would we? Could we? The suggestion of the passage is that unless we are very diligent, unless we work on what is in the very depths of our hearts, we are capable of exactly those kinds of things.

Now you may be saying to yourself, never! Impossible. But I have seen good people, people with good values do things that they themselves admit they never thought themselves capable of.

Jealousy, grief, anger: these are emotions which can take over our lives and tear us from our normal day to day lives with such force that we lose track of what is right and wrong and we do things we never should. At other times we go with the crowd, and allow ourselves to be pulled into a mob mentality, not realizing that mobs don’t have a moral compass. So we do what others are doing, trying to fit in, or even believing that what others are doing can’t be wrong, until suddenly we have crossed a line so horrendous we are startled awake by what we have done. Perhaps that’s what happened with Joseph’s brothers. Individually they would never have done what they did, but together they fed off one another’s anger and frustration. It can happen far too easily.

I see it most clearly when a violent act happens. Good people, nice people suddenly start wanting revenge. The emotion of anger grows out of control. Particularly lately when there is an act of terrorism. What happens? People are so angry at the person who committed this act of evil, that they lose sense of their own values. Although they say that they love their neighbor, although they know that killing is wrong, and yet they want to vengeance. An eye for an eye.

You see when someone does something wrong to us, it is so easy to want to do something wrong to them – to return injustice for injustice. Unfortunately what also often happens is that the fear and anger that they feel is turned often toward innocent people.

And so well-meaning people, good people, talk about putting people who are of the same nationality or race or religion as the perpetrators into internment camps, kicking them out of the country, doing things that they know are just plain wrong. So recently there has been a strong anti-Muslim sentiment in our country even though the vast majority of Muslims are also good people who would never commit an act of terrorism. But the emotions that we feel have clouded our moral judgment, and we don’t act out of our moral principles. We start doing things that we know Christ would not have us do. Instead of loving our neighbors, instead of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, we do the equivalent of selling our brothers and sisters into slavery.

Likewise with racism. If we simply treated everyone as Christ would treat them. If we simply lived out the value that all people are created in the image of God, then there would be no problem, but instead we treat people differently. And in the end innocent people end up dying in Virginia and elsewhere because bigotry and hatred rear their heads in unacceptable acts of jealousy and injustice. When we lose track of our primary Christian values it is as though we have thrown our brothers and sisters in a pit and left them to die.

So what do we do? How do we keep ourselves from doing things we know are wrong? How do we stay filled with integrity and live our lives as Christ would have us do?

It is vital that we work on our ability to calm our emotions, to center ourselves on the teachings of Christ, and to resist the emotional appeal of acting unjustly. We must strengthen within ourselves the love of righteousness to such a point that our inner guide is not shaken by the ups and downs of life.

In Romans Paul references Mosaic law reminding us what it means to be righteous. The word he uses for righteousness, means literally equity of character and action, and it implies the approval of God.

Romans 10, starting in verse 5 Paul says:

Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them. But the righteousness that comes from faith talks like this: Don’t say in your heart, “Who will go up into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will go down into the region below?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach). Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.

Like I said, a couple of weeks ago, Paul can be difficult to understand, but it is worth it when you start reading what he is saying. As I see it, Paul is saying that there are a couple of types of righteousness.

The first is the righteousness of the law, it is the righteousness of action: I quote: “The person who does these things will live by them” (they won’t just be ideals we never use). It isn’t just a bunch of principles, and ideas, but it is a law to be lived out, to be obeyed and heeded. But we all know that the nature of human beings when it comes to law – we obey it as long as it is convenient. So we honestly need more than just the righteousness that comes from the law.

Paul then says, there is also righteousness that comes from faith. Again I quote: “and the word is near you, in your mouth, and in your heart”.

I think he is reminding us that at some point wanting to do what is good and right moves beyond being law, to being something that is deeply imbedded in our heart and mind. We long to do what God wants. We love what is good, so that the righteousness of God is not just what we say, and in fact is not just what we do, but affects how we respond emotionally, it is the very desire of our hearts to do what God wants. For Paul faith is intimately connected with not only being forgiven and accepted by God, but also with doing what is right. Faith should inspire us to live and be what we believe.

Thus Paul concludes: Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. Allowing our hearts to be consumed with the will of God leads us to actually do and say the right thing.

I think that this shift from a righteousness of the law to one of faith is accomplished by the continual seeking of our hearts after the will of God. As we call on God, God helps us, guides us, and fills our spirit with the strength to do what we know is right, to allow ourselves to overcome emotions which might sidetrack us into acts of injustice. God helps us to overcome our humanness and helps us to do what is right.

It was the belief of the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, that by doing this, by striving always after the love of God and living out that love in our daily lives by loving others that we could be perfected in love in this lifetime.

Not that we wouldn’t make mistakes, or that we wouldn’t fail at things, but that we could really have a righteousness of faith that inspired our every action. That God’s Spirit filled us with such love, that it guided our ways and our words and as such those mistakes were not really sins because they were motivated by love.

If we want to avoid those the pitfalls that Joseph’s brothers fell in, if we want to be able to overcome our emotions and truly always do what is right, if we want to overcome racism, hatred and violence we must open ourselves to God’s Spirit of love and seek a deeper righteousness. We must live striving to be perfected in love. So that it really is absolutely impossible for us to do that which is intentionally evil. But getting there is a lifelong journey. It takes living and loving God and our neighbors every day. Step by step, inch by inch. Growing in righteousness.

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