December 6, 2015
Baruch 5:1-9, Canticle 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
Since the Church is called to proclaim resurrection I want to see today if we can resurrect a word that has become dead to most of us. Not dead in the sense that no one uses it, but dead in the sense that we run from it like we are running from a zombie.
The word is Righteous or Righteousness.
We have it in two of our readings: in the first reading from Baruch—which is not in the OT or the NT but in the Apocrypha which are books written between the OT and the NT. (The Apocrypha is considered part of the OT in the RC Church. It is not included in Protestant Bibles—probably the Bible on your shelf at home doesn’t contain it—and in the Anglican Church of which we are a part, it is included in our Bibles and our readings but it is not seen as authoritative as either the OT and the NT.)
Baruch says: For God will lead Israel with joy…with mercy,…and with righteousness that come from God.
Then Paul writes in the Second Lesson: And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow…so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Righteousness– The only time we use that word is in the phrase self-righteous: At Thanksgiving dinner Uncle Joe was a self-righteous party pooper who didn’t have any wine, never laughed at jokes, and told us the things we were doing wrong.
To call someone self-righteous is to accuse them of being rigid, judgmental, and holier than thou.
We all know such people and if we’re honest we’ve probably been such people ourselves at some point in our lives, maybe after we quit smoking, quit drinking, found a new diet, or found Jesus at college.
Once we wake up to our own self-righteousness we may then run in the opposite direction and end up in the opposite error of believing that there are no boundaries to behavior and that we are free to do whatever we feel like doing.
From this “anything goes” place we may try to talk friends into doing destructive and dysfunctional things by saying, “Oh, don’t be such a prude, so holier than thou!”
Back in the late sixties there were some parents who thought it best to set no limits for their kids, letting them run wild across all sorts of boundaries, lest their little psyches get bruised and feel judged.
Of course what this produces is not saints but narcissists who believe the world exists only for them and that it is God’s job to support their narcissism 24/7.
But there is a middle way, or better a third way:
Will Willimon, preacher at Duke University Chapel for many years, before becoming a Methodist bishop, says a woman he’d known back in college called him when he was chaplain at Duke and says, “Help, have you seen my son Robert’s girlfriend?”
“I’ve seen them walking hand in hand across campus.”
“Are you aware she’s Muslim. Get out there and talk to them. This is crazy—we’re Baptist, she’s Muslim. Come on talk to him!”
Willimon responds he doesn’t have very much luck talking people out of whomever they’re are in love with, but he’ll give it a try.
So he calls him and says, “Robert, tell me about Ramona.”
Robert says, “She’s wonderful. We’re very much in love….planning on getting married after graduation and spending our lives together.”
“Curious”, Willimon says, “what is it about her that you’ve found loveable?”
“Oh I think it’s kind of obvious.”
“No, I don’t think its obvious.”
“Well, we have so much in common.”
Willimon says, “Wait a minute: really. You’re South Carolina, Baptist and blond, and she’s from Pakistan, Ohio, Muslim, very dark. What the heck do you have in common? You’re very different.”
Robert says, “She’s the only girl I’ve met at the university you could be intimate with without having to get drunk on the weekend and go to bed with her. She has my values.” William Willimon podcast titled “Other Religions”
Jesus lives this third way.
On one hand, people who society labels as moral failures are deeply attracted to Jesus. They do not detect even a whiff of self-righteousness coming off of him. In his presence they fell accepted, forgiven, understood, and welcomed. They love being around him.
On the other hand, Jesus never leaves these moral failures stuck in their personal hells. He loves people too much to see them continue to be slaves to their destructive behavior, so through his acceptance and forgiveness he also heals them, transforming them into men and women who are capable of reflecting Christ’s love back into the world.
We see the same dynamic in the Parable of the Prodigal Son: on one hand, the father runs off the porch to embrace his screw-up son, but, on the other, he does not allow him to keep wearing his clothes filled with the stink of pigs and vomit. He gives him new clothes—shoes and a robe—as the Father’s love removes the taste for dysfunctional living. No longer will the son waste money on buying sex.
In a word, the Father takes a sinner, welcomes him as a son, and restores the young man to his true identity.
Of course both Baruch and Paul get this. They are not writing about our righteousness but God’s righteousness. So what is “righteousness”?
In his translation called the Kingdom New Testament, scholar N. T. Wright translates “righteousness” by the phrase “Covenant Faithfulness.” God’s righteousness is God’s faithfulness in maintaining the covenant with Israel in spite of all they do to forsake it. God’s covenant faithfulness is God’s power to take people like us and make us faithful and fruitful.
Righteousness is best read as a verb, not as a noun, because it is a force for reclaiming those God loves.
Summer after 9th grade I took a typing course at another high school with my buddy Eric. One day Eric typed out for me the true lyrics for the song ‘Louie, Louie’… which I then put in the pocket of my jeans…which my mother found the next day when she was doing the laundry.
In addition to telling me to always respect women, she said to me, “you need to remember who you are. You are not someone who treats women as objects to be used.”
She could have said: be faithful to who you are through your baptism into Christ.
Of course, as most of us find out when we leave home, just because momma tells us to do something doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Without the Holy Spirit we can’t begin to live into the fullness of who we are in Christ.
Only God has that power to transform us, so that we find life not through trying to produce our own righteousness but through accepting Christ’s faithfulness toward us, Christ’s Presence in us.
When we try to make ourselves righteous we end up making ourselves self-righteous, which is to say we become disconnected from God, neighbor, and our true self.
Only God’s righteousness saves us—and that’s why we’re here today: to let the Father take off our filthy rags, to surrender to Christ, and to let the Holy Spirit do her work in our hearts, minds, and bodies.
When we rely on God’s righteousness, and not our own, we find the broken and the hurting are not those people over there who are so different from us, but rather we find that they ARE us and that together we are one in Christ.