The Root of Trust

Psalm 146

The Crash

In 2008, I was serving a fairly wealthy, well-education, and self-reliant community in suburban Chicago. Many among the church membership were professionals in their fields—white collar workers who lived rather comfortable lives, eating out and entertaining regularly. They may not have loved their jobs, but they took pride in what they did and in the security they were able to provide for themselves.

In 2008, we entered a recession unlike any our nation had seen for at least decades. The stock market tanked, the housing market imploded, and our economy bled jobs at such a rate that one 99 year-old church member felt compelled to declare it “worse than the Great Depression,” a sentiment that many economists and historians came to believe as well.

The repercussions of this crash were (of course) felt throughout our nation. But it seemed to me that affluent, white-collar communities like that one were hit especially hard. They, after all, were the ones with the most to lose—and lose they did. Many remarked how their 401k’s or their homes lost half or more of their value virtually overnight. Some lost their jobs, something that was inconceivable to them a year prior. Others did the math and realized the retirement hopes they had been building towards for decades were now never going to be possible. No one realized prior to that point how deeply they had come to trust in their money to guarantee their future, their security, and their hope.

Their experience, of course, was not unique to them. The economic woes that began in 2008 caused many in our nation to come unmoored—vulnerable and susceptible to the waves and storms of life in ways many never expected.

False Anchors

There are countless places we choose to anchor our trust: money, family, friends, possessions, politicians, education, even ignorance!……

But all of these will betray our trust, sooner or later. In each case, the time will come (eventually) when our anchor doesn’t hold, and we are ripped from our moorings.

I remember a machinist with nearly 40 years experience—virtually all of it at the same employer. He had never used a computer before, and every job required an online application. Talk about disorienting.

I remember an HR person whose whole identity was wrapped up in her work when she found herself suddenly looking for a job. Unemployed, she did not even know who she was.

From other contexts, I could tell stories of grieving spouses, of the victims of fire or natural disaster, and—yes—even of politicians I have known—all of whom found themselves adrift and uncertain when the relative dies, or the dream home is destroyed, or the party betrays them.

In every case, they lost an anchor point. In many cases, it was their only anchor point.

Psalm 146

The testimony of the Bible is that there is only one anchor strong enough to hold something as precious as our trust—and that is God.

Here in Psalm 146, we are warned not to put our trust in politicians—”princes”—nor any human beings. After all, the psalmist reminds us, we are dust and our schemes perish with us. No human being is worth trusting as our anchor, because no human being is capable of escaping death. No human being can do the impossible.

But God, now God is something different. God can do what no one else can do.

God—the Psalmist tells us—is the faithful creator of everything that is. Yet it goes beyond that. God is the only one who can transform our fate—who can change us from what we are to what we can be.

[The LORD] upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets prisoners free,
the LORD gives sight to the blind,
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down…
The LORD watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow
(Ps 146:7-9)

In these actions, God does more than simply love us—God redefines us. We are no longer the oppressed, the hungry, the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the broken down, the alien, the powerless, or the marginalized.

What then do we become? Who are we? We are the redeemed of God.

Jesus

The root of our trust in God is our belief that God can do what no one and nothing else can do. This becomes most concrete (of course) through the person of Jesus Christ, who also happens to be God-made-concrete—incarnate—tangible—enfleshed—for us.

In a world plagued by cycles of violence that ensnare and enslave us, Jesus paves a path of liberation, demonstrating how we are to live and serve and ourselves liberate those drowning on account of the concrete boots of sin.

This, Jesus tells us over and over, is what the Kingdom of God looks like—a kingdom both “now” and “not yet.” A kingdom initiated by Jesus in the world, but one that we are charged with advancing and living into as God’s kingdom comes, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

But even beyond this—in the resurrection, the bonds of death are destroyed once and for all. No longer can the powers of darkness use death against us unless we submit to them. No longer does death have the final say.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we see the transformative power of God at its fullest. The power that transforms even death into life again is capable of bringing about resurrection from even the most broken and dead parts of our lives too.

No matter how broken and sinful I am—no matter how broken and sinful my neighbor may be—no matter how broken and sinful my enemy may be, God is able to redeem good out of their evil, hope out of their despair, and unity out of their burned bridges. No matter how impossible it seems, our God is able. Such Jesus reminds us in Luke 18:26, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (ESV).

Wrap Up

“What is impossible with man is possible with God.” That, friends, is the root of our trust. If we trust God, we trust that the impossible may well become possible. That means we are always on the lookout for the ways that pesky Holy Spirit is going to interrupt and interfere with our expectations. And it means we are always seeking to look at others through compassionate eyes, ready with grace to offer those who have been deceived into sinful choices and actions.

The storms of life will toss us about—there is no escaping that. But when you are anchored to the solid rock of Jesus Christ, we also know that: “in ev’ry high and stormy gale my anchor holds within the vale.”

You know, there’s a lot of songs that talk about the importance of being anchored to God in Jesus Christ. Another of my favorites is “In Times Like These.” The chorus on that one ends with the charge: “Be very sure, be very sure, your anchor holds and grips the solid rock.”

That’s really my challenge as we wrap up our communal worship of God today: Have you anchored your life to the Solid Rock of Jesus Christ? Where is the root of your trust?

Let us pray.

Prayer

Loving and saving God,

Reveal to us those things we substitute for you:
be they family or friends,
be they a job or money,
be they politics or principles,
or be they even even the Bible and our interpretation of it.

You alone are God—
one in three, and three in one;
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
beside you there is no other
in heaven or on earth who is able to save us,
(as James 4:12 reminds us).

We praise you, God,
proclaiming to all the world
that you are a God who can do the impossible.
You are a God who can redeem us.
You are a God who makes us new.

We need your grace.
We need your transformation.
We need your love.
Thank you.

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The Worst Sin

 

Amos 8:4-7

The Worst Sin?

What do you think is the worst sin?

That’s a question I have asked many Christians over several years, with largely predictable results. Even among those rare folk who give the (quote unquote) “right answer,” most of us never allow that truth to sink from our brains and lips into our hearts.

Most of the time, when I ask what the worst sin is, folks say things like: murder, rape, adultery, and the like. Maybe they mention some sort of sexuality they term deviant. Maybe they reference drugs. Often, folks name the sin they believe has hurt them the most or that they were taught is the most appalling.

There are two things that are interesting to me about this. The first is that we tend to condemn public sins more vehemently than private ones. Sins like lying, gluttony, gossip, and jealousy get more of a pass, since they are not as regularly visible as sexual sins or “arrest-able offenses.” But this only shows that we have forgotten what Jesus taught in Luke 12:2-3 and other places:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (NIV11)

In God’s eyes, public and private have absolutely nothing to do with sin’s severity.

The second thing that is interesting to me is that our evaluations are deeply disconnected from the Bible.

There are topics the Bible spends hundreds and thousands of verses talking about and there are topics that appear in only a handful.

There are words of condemnation about offenses that may be found in nearly every book of the Bible, and there are those found only in one.

And far and away, there is one sin that is spoken against most vehemently, most frequently, and most absolutely. It is: injustice against the poor and needy. As we read in our scripture lesson, it is one sin God swears to never forget.

Human life matters to God, and those whose lives are most at risk of being extinguished are of primary concern to the God who imbued each of us with the Divine image.

OT Survey

God expresses concern for human life before the first folks ever leave Eden. The consequence of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—according to God in Genesis 2:17—is that “you will certainly die” (VOICE). The Hebrew conveys a much greater sense of immediacy to their death; the sense is “On the very day that you eat from it, you will absolutely, certainly, and completely die” (my own paraphrase). But God is (as Psalm 145 reads) “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (Psalms 145:8 NIV11); so God allows them to live, albeit with other consequences.

This concern for human life continues as a dominant theme throughout the Bible—concern not only for those who do right (like Abraham), but also for those who do terrible wrongs (like Cain). God is concerned not only for those through whom God seeks to make his name known (Israel), but also through the many aliens, sojourners, orphans, widows, poor, and marginalized of the day (think Rahab, Naomi & Ruth, Blind Bartemaeus, the Syrophoenician woman of Matthew 15, the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8, and so many more).

Over and over we hear God calling God’s people back to justice, such as in Jeremiah 7:5–7:

If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. (NIV11)

Over and over we see God repelled by our worship because we sin against these at-risk bearers of God’s image, such as in these verses of Isaiah 58:5–7:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (NIV11)

With such obviously clear instructions, we too often blatantly ignore or manipulate biblical texts, so as to make them about other people instead of ourselves. Genesis 19 is one of these, a chapter that tells the all-too-familiar tale of Sodom and Gemorrah, which we make about other people by claiming the sin of Sodom was sexual in nature. That interpretation has even entered the English language through particular vocabulary we have developed.

But the Bible tells a different tale. The Bible reminds us that the sin of Sodom is one that we all commit when we commit injustice toward one another. Look in your Bibles—Ezekiel 16:49—and read the real reason for Sodom’s destruction: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (NIV11). It’s right there—in black and white—the sin of Sodom is that “they did not help the poor and needy”—they were instead self-centered, self-indulgent, and self-absorbed.

Pastor and scholar Christopher Wright has observed:

“Ironically, the one thing for which Sodom is famous in traditional Christian interpretations, the attempted violent homosexual rape in Genesis 19, is the one thing Ezekiel does not mention explicitly… Rather, he lists four things which all fall into the category of social and economic wickedness. The people of Sodom and its whole surrounding culture and society were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Sodom, then, was a culture of great pride, of affluent gluttony, and of complacent ease. It sounds familiar” (Christopher J. H. Wright, The Message of Ezekiel, in “The Bible Speaks Today,” pp. 147-148).

“Justice”

Theologians Glenn Stassen and David Gushee note in their book Kingdom Ethics that

“By a conservative count, the four words for justice (two in Hebrew, and two in Greek) appear 1,060 times in the Bible. Hardly any concept appears so often. By contrast, the main words for sexual sin appear about 90 times. Yet we skip over the huge biblical emphasis on justice as central in God’s will” (p.345).

This is exacerbated by our translations, which do not clearly convey the Bible’s insistence on justice. The primary words for justice in Hebrew get translated as “righteousness” or “judgment,” which communicate something very different. In actually, these words mean a “delivering, community-restoring justice, andjudgment that vindicates the right of especially the poor or powerless” (Stassen & Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p.345).

Jesus & the Powerless

This primary concern for justice for the poor and powerless is the cornerstone on which Jesus’ entire ministry rests. Three gospels relate the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. All three tell us that the Holy Spirit descended and God spoke: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22 NIV11).

God’s words at Jesus’ baptism are universally understood to be a reference to the Servant Song in Isaiah 42. Listen to the symbolism and (more importantly) the mission that is communicated herein:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope…

I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon
those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:14, 6-7 NIV11)

That last part should sound particularly familiar. The reason? Because it reads very similarly to verses found in Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus chose to read from for his inaugural sermon. As Luke tells the story in chapter 4, Jesus seeks out a particular place in the scroll, and reads these words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18–19 NIV11)

As he begins to teach them, Jesus proclaims: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 NIV11).

Jesus did not only teach about God’s deep concern for the poor and powerless, he embodied it. He incarnated it. He fed the poor and hungry. He touched and healed those no one would even look at. He taught his disciples to share with those in need, to bring healing and wholeness to those who were broken. The Kingdom began in Jesus (cf. Kingdom Ethics, p.359).

Back to the Present

Why do you think so many Christians through the ages and in our world today choose to gloss over the more than 1000 verses that speak of God’s concern for this kind of justice?

I wonder if a primary reason is that most of us do not routinely suffer injustice. When this is the case, it is easy to become complacent and eventually deny that others suffer at all.

There is a battle raging in our nation right now—a battle that is fueled our failure to acknowledge that others’ experience of the world may be different than our own. It is pride to a ludicrous dimension. But peace can only be achieved by genuinely listening to one another—especially to those with vastly different experiences.

Our world is going to keep on fighting—the devil will continue sowing seeds of dissension in order to tear God’s good creation apart. But:

Perhaps we Christians can find the courage to follow the path of our Savior.

Perhaps we Christians can renew our commitment to God’s pursuit of justice for those on the margins of society.

Perhaps we Christians can”shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79).

And perhaps in doing so—in avoiding this “worst sin” of injustice and in living out God’s heart for true justice—God will indeed “guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79b).

Amen.

 

The Case for Grace

 

Exodus 32:7-14

 

The Case for Grace

The story of Exodus 32 is one of the darkest chapters in the relationship between humanity and God. Moses has been gone a little too long; people get impatient. So Aaron allows himself to be persuaded to assume the mantle of Moses. The people want a god who will lead them out of the wilderness, so (by golly) Aaron is going to make one.

They gather as much gold as they can—they’ve no doubt learned in Egypt that golden gods are more impressive—and it is fashioned into the shape of a calf. The choice of that shape was probably obvious—that area has a long history of worshipping gods appearing as bulls or calves: there was Gugalanna in Mesopotamia, Apis in Egypt, Baal of the Canaanites, Seri & Hurri of the Hattians, Gavaevodata and others in Zoroastrian Iran, and so on. In the agrarian world of the Ancient Near East, bovids were obvious symbols of power, strength, fertility, food, and wealth—everything you might want in a god.

The golden calf whose construction Aaron oversees hardly seems to have cooled after coming out of the mold before the Israelites proclaim it to be the “gods…who led [us] out of the land of Egypt” (v.4). Aaron, seeing how quickly they have taken to the statue, tries to give their awe some religious shape. He builds an alter in front of the statue, and he proclaims the next day to be a feast day to YHWH. Aaron does seem to be trying to steer them back from the brink of idolatry, but his nuance—that the festival is to YHWH God—seems lost on the reveling Israelites, who are quite pleased with the god they have created.

Meanwhile, however…… Moses is with YHWH God, as he has been these past weeks, and when God sees what the Israelites are doing, God…flips…out…

Every parent has a breaking point. Your children can push and push and push and you can handle it……until you can’t. When the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back gently alights on top of the heaping pile that has been slung at you…… well… you’re done. In our house we remind the children that grown ups need time outs too.

My own mother had a particular “tell,” you might call it—something that she always did when you crossed that line. It was simple enough and quiet enough, but it never happened unless you were unfortunate or stupid enough to cross that line. When that happened: silence would descend on the room, as though all the oxygen was being sucked out of the space. And we would instantly recall her reminder that we were the four children who survived……so far.

When God realizes what the Israelites have done, I imagine the already thin mountain air seemed even more scarce. I imagine the silence and solitude of this mountaintop became suddenly crushing. And then God spoke.

God no longer feels a personal connection with these people. These are Moses‘ people. People who never do what I, God, have asked. These are people who have not and will not learn. They are too stubborn. They are too selfish to be who I, God, want them to be. I…am…done…with them.

God wants to quit the Israelites altogether—to wipe them off the face of the earth and start over with Moses.

But Moses won’t leave. Moses makes a case for grace.

A Case for Grace

It’s important to see that the argument Moses makes has nothing to do with the Israelites—not really.

He does not offer promises he cannot fulfill, claiming it won’t happen again (which, coincidently enough it does—1Kgs 12:28-29: golden calves set up by Jeroboam at Dan & Bethel, which are claimed to be the “gods…who led you out of Egypt”).

Moses does not try to make commitments for them (we Baptists know and profess that no one can make a commitment for anyone else).

Instead, his entire argument rests on who God is.

God is concerned about the Israelites belittling God’s name, but Moses reminds God that destroying them will do the same.

Not only that, but it was God who chose the Israelites—they are “your people,” Moses says (v.12). These are folks with whom God has a history and a relationship—not something to be tossed aside lightly.

And God is a God who keeps promises—that is what all the ancient stories are about, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You can’t be a God who keeps promises if you’re going to break promises.

Moses argues (in a nutshell) that it is not true to God’s nature to destroy people who do wrong. God’s nature is faithfulness, loyalty, steadfast love, and mercy. That is who God is, so that is how God needs to act.

Our Relationships

I can’t imagine being half as gutsy as Moses. But I’m glad for what he does here, and I’m glad that those putting together the canon of the Bible didn’t try to edit out the scenes where things went wrong. This story tells us a lot about who God is—then and now—and it can similarly reveal much of who we are.

If God’s actions need to be rooted in God’s nature, rather than the nature of those God interacts with, then the faithful should do likewise. Our actions should be rooted in our nature as faithful followers of God through Jesus Christ. Our relationships should be marked not by who others are, but exclusively by who we are. In other words: how we treat people should have nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with who we are.

Moses makes a case for grace, which should be the dominant characteristic of the Christian life, as well. Second Timothy 1:9 reminds us who we are in this regard when he says “[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (NIV11).

The “holy life” for which we are saved and to which we are called is one that spreads God’s grace throughout the world, like the smell of something delicious and wholesome—like fresh baked bread.

In the Bible—and especially in the wake of Jesus Christ—grace is tied up in the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness might well be defined as “grace in action,” and reconciliation is simultaneously the will of God, the work of Jesus, and the ministry of Jesus’ followers—you and me.

According to Colossians 1:20, “[Jesus] bled peace into the world by His death on the cross as God’s means of reconciling to Himself the whole creation—all things in heaven and all things on earth” (VOICE).

This activity of grace—this work of reconciliation—is made possible through the cross of Jesus Christ. But without faithful people leaving into such a calling, God’s desires will not be achieved. That is why 2Corinthians 5 speaks directly about how we are to embody Jesus’ work of reconciliation by extending grace into the world.

There, we read that “[God] has given us the same mission, the ministry of reconciliation” (v.18, VOICE).

There, we read that “[God] charges us to proclaim the message that heals and restores our broken relationships” (v.19, VOICE).

There, we read that we are ambassadors—representatives!—of Jesus, charged with “urging all people on behalf of Christ to become reconciled to God” (v.20, VOICE).

This is who we are. Paul proclaims in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive—but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s son, the One who loves me and gave his body for me” (VOICE).

This is the reality of who we are that must drive all of our interactions.

Prayer of St. Francis

Today is the 15th memorial of the Sept 11 attacks. A colleague shared just this week of a chaplain friend working in New York City. She said over 1000 firefighters are experiencing illnesses related to 9/11, and they are doing a funeral every other week on account of it. Though a decade and a half have passed, there are many who are still in desperate need of physical, emotional, and spiritual healing from the trauma inflicted that day. The culture of our nation has shifted dramatically toward fear, a motivation (the Bible tells us in 1John) is diametrically opposed to the love we are called to breathe back into the world. Families and friendships are torn apart by offenses real and imagined, and we still have a month to go before the most polarizing election in our nation’s recent history finally comes to a close.

If we, sisters and brothers in Christ, do not make the case for grace in our world, then we have abandoned our calling and turned away from our Savior and from God’s desires for creation.

But if you, like me, want to repent of the idols you have built……

If you, like me, pray for God’s steadfast love and mercy to be enough for another second chance……

If you, like me, need your heart changed—aligned with God’s desires once again……

Then please join me as we pray together the Prayer of St. Francis, included as an insert in your bulletin today.

Let us pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

God in the Gray

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

God in the Gray

This is my camera. I have a digital camera too, but this is the camera I would use all the time if I could. It’s an Olympus film camera, manufactured a few years before I was born. It’s entirely mechanical, and that precision engineering can be felt with every advance of the film, every press of the shutter release, and every clap of the mirror and snap of the shutter.

I only load this camera with black and white film. That lets me save money by developing it myself, but it’s also the way I see the world. Even my digital images usually end up black and white. Stripping out color somehow simplifies a photograph, allowing it to evoke and depict emotion with more vigor and depth.

Of course, calling film or an image “black and white” is a bit of a misnomer. For most images, there is very little true black or true white. Instead, the frame is filled with a range of gray. Photographer Ansel Adams is noted for his iconic images of Yosemite National Park, but he also forever affected the world of black and white photography by developing the Zone System. It was Adams’ belief that the human eye is capable of observing ten gradients of gray, with pure black at “Zero” and pure white at “Ten.” More than any other photographer before his time, Adams stressed the importance of the gray values.

When making photographs in black and white, it’s pretty easy to see that most of life falls outside pure black and pure white. Most of life takes place in zones 1-9—various shades of gray—and yet it is precisely this grayness (what photographers call “tonality”) that gives an image its certain “je ne sais quoi“, a certain something that makes it meaningful, worthwhile, and valuable.

Scripture

Our scripture text today has a certain something about it too—something that draws us in, something that we want to be true, something that draws a line in the sand. It is a text that has been preached any number of ways over the ages, but today we focus on the element of choice—”Choose today whom you will serve”.

Moses has called the people of Israel together; he knows he is at the end of his life. Moses knows he won’t be around much longer to keep them in line, and he wants to set up Joshua (the new leader) to be as successful as possible. So he recounts their journey, the avenues God has provided, the ways they have failed to live up to their covenant with God, and the expectations that must be met if covenant will continue. And then he draws a line in the sand—black and white:

Are you going to follow the one true God, or are you going to follow other gods?

It’s a clear-cut question, and it cuts to the chase in terms of Moses’ experience and expectations of them. Reading ahead, we learn that they will choose to follow God, but as Joshua leads them in to the Promised Land, the world they encounter is less the black and white of Moses’ choice and a lot more gray—and as a result, their commitment to follow God becomes less confident and more cultural.

You see, Moses paints the world in black and white, as if all a preacher (or a parent) needs to do is say “don’t do bad things” and everyone will make good choices from then on. Maybe, with the kind of relationship Moses had with God, there was a lot less gray in his viewing. But on some level, presenting the world as black and white to the Israelites left them ill-equipped to live life in the gray of the world they encountered.

Gray of the Bible

I feel for the Israelites. In the little country church I grew up in, preachers presented everything as black and white.

This is good and that is bad;
This is what God loves and this is what God hates;
This is what a good Christian looks like and this is what a bad Christian looks like.

Every choice—from the clothes you wore, to the haircut you had, to the Bible translation you read, to the denominations that made up the “true church”—everything was black and white. If it wasn’t black and white to you, then you probably weren’t part of the “true church” and needed to repent.

But like the Israelites, the world I encountered wasn’t black and white—heck, the Bible I read wasn’t black and white.

Genesis 6 says Noah took a single pair of everything onto the ark; but Gen 7 says Noah took one pair of unclean creatures and seven pair of clean creatures.

God tells Abraham that the covenant he is making is an everlasting one; yet God tells Moses he wants to destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses and his family.

Isaiah clearly identifies the “suffering servant” as Israel; yet the NT writers believe it prophesies Jesus.

Jesus commissions a woman—Mary Magdalene—to be the first evangelist, communicating the message of Jesus’ resurrection to the (male) disciples; yet Paul forbids a woman teach a man anything.

Paul is so sure 2000 years ago that Jesus is coming back any day that he suggests people refrain from getting married; yet we are still waiting today.

These are gray places in the Bible—and there are many more. But life in the real world is filled with gray as well. Of course, you don’t need me to remind you of that.

Is Everything Moral?

I want to suggest (though) that much of the gray looks that way because we try to fit every single thing into moral categories: it’s right or it’s wrong; it’s a sin or it’s God’s will; it’s black or it’s white. But many of the choices we make every day—perhaps even most of them!—are not moral choices. Take:

My decision to wear gray or tan slacks.

My decision to eat Grape Nuts instead of Honey Nut Cheerios.

My decision of what time to leave the house this morning.

All of these are choices—some perhaps more prudent than others—but none of them are moral choices. None of them (for me, in these instances) involve a risk of sin. None of them are black and white. They are simply the day-to-day usually gray choices that make up life.

Making Gray into B&W

We create problems for ourselves and others when we try to make gray spaces black and white. If you start suggesting that my cereal choice is black and white, you are speaking only from your own preferences. To force your preferences onto another human being (or to suggest that your preferences are God’s intention for every other human being) is the height of pride and a denial of God’s image.

We do this with the Bible too. We pretend that the gray places of the Bible are black and white, picking and choosing a few obscure verses out of their literary and historical context and pretending that these rare references indicate God’s black and white will for all humans everywhere and for all time. This, too, is a sin against God and each other.

Muddling B&W into Gray

But just as severe are the cases where we muddle true black and white into gray. Throughout the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—there is clear concern expressed for those on the margins of society: widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor, and other marginalized and victimized people. Jesus is clear in his actions and teachings in rooting himself into this tradition and understanding—it is a black and white issue for Jesus and the Bible: God cares for these people and faithful followers will do the same. But we try to make this black and white requirement a muddy gray. By asking our own 21st century versions of “who is my neighbor?,” we continue to act contrary to our calling and promote our own interests above those for whom God and Jesus show the most concern.

Conclusion

So what do we do? How do we discern true black and white in a world of gray? How do we separate our moral choices and obligations from the mundane decisions of life? And maybe more important: Where is God in all this?

Let me start with the last question: God is in the gray because that is where we live. God loves us so much that Jesus emptied himself and broke into our gray world, living and breathing and loving and suffering and dying among the gray, just like the rest of us.

But not just like the rest of us, because Jesus’ death is not the end of his story, nor was it another death of another rabble-rousing Jew in the first century. In his life and death, Jesus reveals for us the most complete picture of who God is and how we humans were made to be and live. In his death on the cross—innocent as he was—he broke the cycles of violence and hate, providing a way for us to live a new way. In his resurrection, we have hope of being raised to new life when he returns.

The way we learn to discern true black and white in a world of gray is to disciple the Truth. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” If you want to know black and white, you need to know truth. You need to disciple the truth. That means you need to so completely internalize the life, teachings, actions, and way of Jesus that your choices and actions and interactions are identical to those of him. If Jesus is the Truth, then even the Bible itself needs filtered through the sieve of Jesus in order to determine true black and true white. If it doesn’t align with Jesus’ teachings or actions, then perhaps it is best left gray.

But gray can be beautiful too. Just like the photographs I admire, the author of Ecclesiastes repeatedly urges his audience to find joy and purpose in the mundane gray of life. Over and over his remedy to life’s bleak outlook echoes: Recognize the good gifts that come from God, find joy in work and in companionship, and celebrate life.

It’s that beautiful tonality that the photographic greats pursue. It’s that beautiful life that allows us to walk the path of our Savior through this very real world and into the next.

Pray

We thank you, God,
that you may be found in the gray of life.

Help us to mentor the Truth:
recognizing black for black,
white for white,
and gray for gray.

In all of life’s circumstances,
teach us to find joy,
to discover friends,
and to recognize that every good gift comes from you.

In every decision and circumstance,
give us courage to follow Jesus,
regardless of consequence,
and regardless of expectations.
Give us the faith
to take him at his word.

Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Amen.