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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Messy Ways of God and Man

This is a sermon for Shabbat Vayera, presented, November 11, 2006 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA. In the sermon, I call for us to reconsider our hard and fast categories, especially as applied to other people. The text under discussion is Genesis 20.

If the Bible is not a book that surprises you, you either are not reading it at all, not paying attention, reading it superficially, or simply reading your own views into it.

The Bible just may be the world’s most surprising book. Just when you thought you had God down, just when you thought you had everything buttoned down and figured out, you will read something which causes all but the dead to rise up and say, “What?”

Today’s passage is one that surprises us. Let’s pause for a while to notice how and why.

The first surprise is that Abraham fudges on the identity of his wife so as not to tempt the people of the land to take her and knock him off. I remember being on a plane about 25 years ago, and having a conversation with an Orthodox Jew who suggested that Abraham was merely being ingenious here.

But you can see from the context, that what Abraham did was politically savvy but spiritually wrong, because Torah records Abimelech’s righteous rebuke.

The second surprise is the moral compass of the pagan king, Abimelech. He is appalled when God tells him who Sarah really is and reacts in all the right ways to the information he is given. This should remind us of the Book of Jonah, where it is the pagans who get things right, and the prophet who gets things wrong.

The third surprise is that even though Abraham is a trifle smarmy in this account, God still considers him a prophet. As a prophet, he has authority in prayer, which, when offered, brings healing to Abimelech’s household.

What shall we make of this?

First, we need to reconsider the sharp lines we often draw between God’s good people and “the world.” These lines make for tidy thinking but have little to do with reality. Here in our story, we see the “believer,” the “good guy” doing the bad things, and the “unbeliever”—the outsider, responding rightly to God.

All kinds of people have their pet ingroups and outgroups. People in the ingroup are viewed as always behaving properly, as having wise things to say, as being people in the know who are worthy of imitation. The outgroup people are categorically yahoos. They don’t know how to act, think, or talk.

That’s the kind of rhetoric we have been hearing on the political scene for years. George W. Bush has been represented as being an illiterate, fascistic idiot, barely able to speak, think, read, write, or dress himself. On the other side of the spectrum, the leadership of the Democratic Party has been represented to us as a bunch of pot-smoking, baby-aborting, marriage destroying, mindless peaceniks prepared to give in to Islamic Fundamentalism if the other side smiles nicely for the camera.

This kind of categorical thinking about religion, politics, and people, is wrong. One way we know it’s wrong is that life is not like that—good people do bad things, bad people do good things, and sometimes it’s impossible to tell the bad guys from the good guys.

Religious people, who ought to know better, are often the worst offenders in this area. They, really “we,” have well-defined boundaries as to who is in, who is out, who speaks nothing but the truth, and who speaks nothing but lies. So Zionists are always right, Palestinians, always wrong. Conservative theologians always right, Liberals always wrong. For such people, Evngenlical Protestants are all saved,
Catholics, seldom, Christians are in always better than Jews, or. conversely, Jews are always better than Christians. Christians know the truth about God, and people who don’t believe in Yeshua know nothing about God. Hooray for our crowd, and to hell with everyone else.

But the truth is, as in today’s Torah reading, sometimes you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys without a score card, and our score cards are not usually the same as God’s.

That’s why I like this statement by Christian writer Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
She’s got it right, doesn’t she? No, wait a minute, she can’t have it right: she’s a Liberal Christian. O well, you see how it goes.

Last week, Ted Haggard, a prominent, respectable and powerful evangelical leader, Pastor of a 14,000 member church, and President of the thirty-million member National Association of Evangelicals [NAE], was ousted from both positions when it came to light that he had been using the services of a gay escort, on a monthly basis, for about three years.

He has resigned from his position with the NAE, and been removed from his position as Pastor. He now faces a three to five year process of hard-nosed “Church discipline,” involving deconstructing his large ego, probably narcissistic as is often the case with public figures, being raked over the coals in a take no prisoners manner, but also receiving prayer and support. It will be hard.

Do Haggard’s peccadilloes reveal him to no longer be a good guy, but simply a bad guy who was finally exposed as such? Are all conservative religious leaders in the end simply hypocrites? For many people, used to hard-boundaried categorical thinking, the answer to either or to both questions must be, “Yes.”

But reality is different. God’s people do bad things and those we think of as not being God’s people at all, at times do good things, great things, holy things. If you’re trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys by who’s wearing the white hat, don’t waste your time. All hats are shades of grey.

There are many lessons we need to learn here. First, we need to learn to not pile on or desert someone who falls from grace, which often means that he or she disappoints us by failing to measure up to our image of them. They are not bad people, at least not usually. Rather, they are more likely good people having a bad time, going through a time of weakness, stress, and compromise. They can pull out it, but not if we throw rocks at them or turn our backs instead of standing by them and giving them a helping hand.

Second, we need to learn not to idolize people, putting them on pedestals. If we idolize people we worship a lie. People are not perfect, not even close. When we treat them as icons of perfection, we set ourselves up for disappointment, and we set them up for a fall. It’s a dangerous thing to be Ted Haggard with 14,000 people thinking of you as an Anointed Apostle of God. It’s so easy to fall from such great heights.

Third, we need to realize that everyone is a work in process. Sometimes the people we admire will disappoint us. This doesn’t meant they stopped being admirable. It does mean that even giants stumble. The flip side of this is that people we have written off are also works in progress. Often it is just such people who will end up astounding us with their righteousness, goodness, self-sacrifice and holiness.

I don’t like Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker of the House. My impression is that she is strident and smug, which is how I view Barbara Boxer, whom I also dislike. But I need to be prepared to believe and see that Nancy Pelosi and even Barbara Boxer may prove a beneficial and memorable moral voice in our nation. They just might do that. And the Democrats may just do better than the Republicans. At times, the most righteous things we can do is wait and see.

Abraham only expected unrighteousness from pagans. He was wrong. Some of us may expect nothing but disaster from Democrats. Or we may think that now that the Democrats are in power in the House and Senate, we just got rid of the dodos. We may be wrong in this too.

We need to seek and be prepared to find the grace, truth, and the goodness of God manifest in unexpected places. And we need to make sure that wherever we are, we make our light shine. Feed the hungry, help the poor, comfort the grieving, be forbearing with one another, love your enemies and pray for those who despitefully use you, become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, instead of simply standing off to the side saying, “Ain’t it awful.”

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. But don’t be surprised if you find them in unexpected places.

At 11/30/2006 6:52 PM, Blogger Teknigram said...

(From Us and Them ©2005 MH)

I’ve been irrevocably changed

(And to those who question or condemn)

Well, is your compass out of range?

And is your precious "us" a "them"?


I’ve been ir-re-vocably changed

(And to) those who question or condemn,

Does it seem to you so strange

That it's the "them" that I now am, now am?

At 1/01/2007 10:44 AM, Anonymous MJinPDX said...

So very well said!
I think I need to read this as a weekly reminder to be more forgiving of myself and others.
This could be a cure for all the people who are searching for the "right" church.


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