A number of years I had the privilege to become the friend of Dean Grieman. Most of us, if we are lucky, run into people like Dean. He is one of those guys—you know the type—when they enter a room, make every conversation a little bit more enjoyable, make every joke a little more funny, and make every person feel just a little more welcome. I met Dean while I was student at Bethany College of Missions, a missionary training center in Bloomington. I remember sitting spellbound and fascinated as Dean would tell story after story of his exploits. I, as a young whippersnapper of 18, had seen very little of the world, and Dean—with 30 in his sights—was the oldest friend I had ever had, and had experienced a world of adventure that I had only heard of in novels.
You see, Dean had served on the Coast Guard for a tour or two before God called him to mission work, and had experienced just a few traumatic events. I remember sitting in my closet sized dorm room, shivering in my mind as he described his daily routine. Dean was assigned to a coast guard ship stationed just off of the Alaskan coast, and from his telling of his life on the coast guard, his life from dawn to dusk revolved around trying to stay warm as he did his mundane tasks on the external portions of the ship in wet and subzero temperatures. He described the whale sightings, the drug busts (yes, they happen in Alaska as well as Miami) and one rather regular but curious event.
One of the main places that Dean’s Coast Guard Crew patrolled was the Aleutian Islands. The Aleutian Islands, for those of you that weren’t expecting a geography intense sermon, are a chain of islands that stretch out from to the north and east of Alaska. This chain of islands actually stretch all the way to the former Soviet union, and at one point the Russian and American islands are separated by only a few miles.
So this is where the Coast Guard is patrolling. They are remaining on either American Waters or Neutral Waters, depending upon where their patrols take them. Usually the Coast Guard is primarily concerned with what is taking place in the water, what happens over their heads is usually not that relevant to their task. This was true for Dean’s Crew as well, except… Early one morning the sound of a supersonic jet could be heard, a mig 29 as it turned out. It was still miles away, performing patrols and exercises from the Russian base located in the Soviet Province of Kamchaka. From the rumble the sound quickly approach and then the plane could be seen. Finally the sortie of Russian planes, two as Dean recalled, flew over the Coast Guard position and quickly crossed over into American airspace as they flew directly over the Aleutian Islands toward mainland Alaska. They quickly flew out of view, but in just a brief moment later, the planes could be seen flying back—as quickly as before, this time followed by American F-14’s, who broke of their pursuit once the Russian aircraft returned to their own airspace. Apparently what had happened was that the Russian aircraft were testing the American readiness. They wanted to see how far they could “push the boundaries” and how deep into American airspace they could encroach before the American Air Force responded and sent them scurrying back home.
These drills were done by both sides, a type of cat and mouse game, that continually occurred until Dean described that it was no longer eventful at all. Each time the aggressing pilots intruded into the defenders airspace, the defenders would scramble their pilots, and by so doing indicate their readiness and willingness to enforce their borders.
You see borders are a touchy thing for nations. What seems to the casual observer to be just simple lines drawn on a map is actually a result of hundreds of years of strife, turmoil, political machinations, and even world wars. So borders are important things.
I’d like to talk to you today about borders, but a different type of borders. For most of us, we don’t know much about political borders, but we do have other borders that serve the same purpose in our lives. The borders that we are more familiar have more to do with moral geography then they do with world geography, and revolve much more around the locations of our lives then upon the locations on a map. Because, though we oftentimes don’t like to admit it, we are confronted by boundaries continually in our lives. And for many of us Christian believers, the sound of these boundaries, the “Do’s and Don’ts” of life are continually oppressive. They seem to us strike a seriously discordant note. They seem to place our temporal prosperity, not to mention our eternal destiny in our hands, and that makes us uncomfortable.
So what are we left with? Are we left to our own devices, to attempt to obey the law to the best of our abilities. Are we to follow the letter of the law so stringently, like the Pharisees of Jesus time did, that we become morally legalistic and spiritually moralistic? Of course, the answer of this congregation has been an emphatic No! We have identified ourselves as a community by our positive accomplishments rather then by our moral restrictions. We have attempted to view each other with a graceful understanding rather then a judgmental moralism, but the question must still be raised, what do we do with these clearly defined rules and regulations?
The only way that we can interpret these rules and regulations in our context today is through understanding the purpose they served in their original context. So if you are all interested, I’d like to take you all on a journey with me. Let’s pack our bags and head back about four thousand years. As you prepare for your journey, I want to let you know that there will be a few things you won’t need to bring along. Credit cards, keys, cellular phones, daytimers, all can be left at home….but loose hanging clothes (think layers), good sandals, sunglasses, and a few rolls of duct tape would probably be really helpful. Because you see we are going back to Mt. Sinai just following the people of Israel’s remarkable deliverance from Egypt.
So that you are not surprised, here is the situation that we are entering into. This people of Israel hasn’t really been a nation at all. They have been slaves for generation after generation. They have been subjected to infanticide, persecution, and racially based mistreatment for as long as they can remember. They have not known freedom, nor have their parents, nor have their parents’ parents. These are people that have never had the freedom to order their own lives or determine their own destinies. They have been given enough internal authority to keep their own population up and to stay out of the ruling Egyptian classes hair. Their rights extended as far as their owners determined, and they had no self-determination, no future, and no hope.
Moses, through God’s miraculous intervention, entered the scene and was not subject to the “slave mentality” that the rest of the people suffered from. He was raised as a prince of Egypt, was undoubtedly given a superb education, and was perfectly primed to lead his people because he was not raised among them.
So imagine with me, this people has now been freed from who knows how many years of captivity into a seemingly boundless freedom. How will they respond? Well we are given a really good example of just how they responded in Exodus 32, where we are informed that when Moses delayed coming down from the mountain that the people created a false idol and performed all sorts of lewd, immoral, and unacceptable activities in front of it. When the authority was removed from the people of Israel, the people of Israel were morally incapable of choosing the right thing. They were moral infants who had for so long been under authority that they no longer knew how to function individualistically. So God, knowing the people’s needs and limitations, provided a structure that would allow them to grow socially, morally, and spiritually into the people He had planned. God’s provision of the law, and the books of Exodus, Leviticus and some of Numbers, are all accommodations to the needs of the people of Israel. The law is written the way it is written because of the needs of the community to whom it is written. God knew their needs, and provided a perfect answer.
Now if you’ll come back with me to the 20th century, please be sure to shake your cloaks out at the door, sand really is difficult to get out of the carpets. Hopefully you’ve picked up some lovely trinkets during your stay in Israel, myself I picked up a glove made out leather, perfect for a cerEgyptian Parrot, maybe I’ll bring him out sometime…
.When we approach the law, here 3,500 years later, it is oftentimes so easy to forget the distance that separates us from the context of the scriptures, and we oftentimes apply it personally and socially in a manner which is destructive. Over the past few years I have heard one particular phrase echoed again and again, that phrase being, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” But the simple truth is that psychologically we can’t function in a love/hate mode with a great deal of success. It is too difficult psychologically, and for all our technological advancements, that project is too difficult for us morally.
If I can give an example from my own experience of dis-grace. A woman with whom I graduated from high school had, through a series of choices, come to be with child, got married when she shouldn’t have, then got divorced. She was a good friend of mine and so I regularly visited with her and her son. After one of the meetings, I commented on how well I thought she and her son were doing. I was told by another woman who had been one of her closest friends all through high school “Yes, but doesn’t it bother you that certain people flaunt their behaviors in front of us.” She had gone through an unplanned pregnancy, a marriage then divorce, and then on top of all this was told by the Christian community she had been raised in…You are not good enough.
The truth is that we, as Christians, have a very difficult time loving the sinner and hating the sin. We have a difficult time determining when the sin ends and the person begins, so we usually err on the side of hating the sinner as well as the sin, but we don’t think they can tell. We think we have fooled them, and even though we are judging them in our hearts, they won’t be able to tell the difference.
We believe that we can fool the sinner into feeling comfortable with us, while we reject “the sin” that is the essential part of who they are. My friend from high school rarely visited following that exchange, and I am convinced it was because she knew that both she and her son were judged, measured, and weren’t good enough. She was not welcome as she was. She needed to change…or act repentant…or something…in order to be “in favor” with the people of God.
The funny thing about churches is though they claim to be part of the body of Christ they bear very little resemblance to the communities where Jesus hung out. Jesus was known to hang out with prostitutes, swindlers, tax collectors and the like. His best friends were a bunch of fishermen, a dreamy eyed philosopher, a wild and wooly zealot, and a respectable citizen who betrayed him. The funny thing was that Jesus spent very little time criticizing those who were living sinful lives, he had a much more harsh view of the religious community of his day. Why was it that Jesus never struggled with the love the sinner/hate the sin dichotomy. I would maintain because it didn’t exist for Jesus. Jesus loved each person completely as they were, regardless of whether or not they changed. He loved them, though they were mixed bag full of their sin, their shortcomings, their hopes, their dreams, their failures. The people that surrounded Jesus recognized that acceptance and wanted to be around it continually. They saw who He was, that there were no pretenses and no qualifications to His love, and they wanted that.
I’m here to tell you something today, Riverside Church, this is who we are to be….as disciples of Jesus Christ. And because we are his disciples we need to be aware of this very important truth. Unconditional love is just that, unconditional. That means that we don’t place spiritual agendas, moral requirements, or religious expectations upon one another. Over the last year my wife and I went through a marriage enrichment course in association with my seminary work, and I realized something…listening is really hard. Because truly listening means you don’t push a conversation where you want it to go, it means you allow the other person to have the control and go where they want. This is what unconditional love looks like. The fact that we have received this unconditional love also means that we do not live under the weight of the law, for we are empowered by the Spirit of the Living Christ. We have immediate access to the “Word of God”, and by that I do not mean simply the Scriptures, but the Author of the Scriptures, God Himself.
If I were lost in a woods, and had at my disposal a map, and the author of the map, whom do you guess would serve as the better guide. Let’s see, yes, the map would serve admirably, assuming that every possible detour was captured therein. But if you had the creator of the map with you, the one who had painstakingly measured and indicated where everything was, your choice would be simple. You would not need to consult the map as much as follow the map maker.
So follow the map-maker, the Author, and allow that One to release you from your experiences of oppression under the law. Instead encounter the unrelenting love of Jesus Who loves you. And spread it around. Extend this unrelenting, unconditional love beyond the normal scope of these four walls and let’s create a community so full of love, acceptance, and healing that those who are hurting, those are in pain, and those who are sinners are too attracted to stay away.