Freedom Of Religion

Sermon Text – 01.21.2018
[Luke 19:1-10 and John 8:1-11]

          This is a book called “Jesus Freaks, Volume 2” put together by a group called Voice Of the Martyrs alongside a band named DC Talk. They were a big deal in the 90’s. It’s a collection of stories of people who were killed for their faith. I wanted to read part of a story. The story is true, but they change the names to protect the families. It comes out of North Korea in 2001, about a young man named “Kim.”

      [read p20] – that young boy gave his life to Jesus that night, and his brothers did the same. He grew up and became a smuggler – bringing bibles illegally into North Korea – that’s how his story got told. You ever read a story, and just weep because you’re so thankful you live in America? We got problems, yeah – but not like this. The Constitution of the United States of America reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assembly, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Simply put – America has freedom of religion. Praise God. But it’s not all good news is it? Freedom of Religion is a VERY tricky concept.
       Today is part two of our sermon series State of the Union. For the month of January we have been looking at the State of Our Union – and honestly? It’s kind of disappointing. The world continues to let us down. We’ve talked about political parties, but today I want to talk about freedom of religion. The struggles of our country and how Jesus would respond. Today, I want to talk about tolerance.

    So, the project today is to take the example of Jesus and apply it to the struggles of a country that has freedom of religion. We’ll look at two case studies (Zaccheaus and the Adulteress woman) to see if we can figure out a way to live in an intolerably tolerant society. First, I’ll introduce the problem, and then we’ll look to Jesus for the answer. 
    We live in a country that has freedom of religion. You can be any religion – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Atheist – and practice that religion with freedom. This freedom is the law in America. One idea that has come out of freedom of religion is the separation of church and state. Church should NOT be in control of the state. We’ve had that in the past – and it was a disaster. Major corruption. The church should not be in control of the state. So we try to keep them separate, when framing the laws. We try to create a government that can be over multiple religions at the same time.  But almost immediately the question rises – in a country that claims freedom of religion, how do we construct laws when our morality is not the only option out there? For example – we have laws against the basics, stealing, murder, adultery, but why do we think those things are bad? For most people, they get their moral construct, their sense of right and wrong from their religious background. As Christians we believe that God’s truth is universal truth. We believe that God gave us some rules, things like the 10 commandments, because that will lead us to live the best possible life – but other people in our country do not agree. They do not think the way that we do – so how do we craft a social construct? How do we make laws that cover both groups of people? Think about the really difficult issues – abortion, homosexuality, divorce, marijuana legalization. A lot of it comes down to a difference of opinion on evil. Very few people do something they think is evil. Most people you meet are convinced that they are good people. Not perfect, sure, but good enough. How can we craft laws when we cannot agree on what is moral and what is not? Our morality, our hearts, inevitably bleed into our politics. The problem with Freedom of Religion comes when we have a fundamental disagreement on what is good and what is not. It gets really complicated, really quickly.
    And what I’ve found is that the conversation about how to have different religions under the same social construct pivots around one very important word. Tolerance. Can we co-exist with one another, can we tolerate one another, can we live in the same community as someone who disagrees with us? What is tolerance? What is the difference between tolerance and acceptance? Lot of people get those mixed up, yes? Some people think tolerance is ignoring each other. I’ll just ignore what you’re doing. I’ll just pretend it’s okay. But that doesn’t really work. I heard one person say one time, “I simply cannot tolerate people who are intolerant.” I mean, seriously? I get what she was saying, but that’s very intolerant. I heard another fella who said, “You can believe anything you want, as long as you agree with me.” There is a tension inside the word tolerance. We exist with the freedom to disagree, but we want people to agree with us. We have this fighting urge to change someone else’s mind. We want to convince them that we are right. I think maybe tolerance is a LOT harder than we think. Acceptance is easy, almost lazy – just yeah, do whatever you want, I don’t care. But tolerance is the ability to look at someone and say, “I disagree with you, with the choices you are making, but I will still love you like Jesus taught me to.” So here’s the big question – how does Jesus teach us to love people we disagree with? What was his method for changing hearts?   


    So, with all of that we turn to our scripture in Luke 19. Pretty familiar story, Zacchaeus the tax collector. Basically, he was really short guy who was a cheat and a thief. Tax Collectors were notoriously corrupt, but it was all legal, blessed by the Roman Occupation. He was a bad guy. We get to verse 5 and Jesus tells him, [read verse 5]. So the first thing we see is Jesus starts with hospitality. I must stay at your house today. I need to sit down with you and eat a meal with you. We are different religions – you worship money, I worship God. You are wrong and I am right – but Jesus starts with hospitality. Hospitality > accusations. Jesus could have started with a list of all the reasons Zacchaeus was wrong. Why he was a bad person. He could make an angry sign and picoted Zacchaeus’ house, or something – but instead he starts with hospitality. No lecture, no appeal to the law, no argument – he started with a meal. Jesus starts with grace. Too much grace actually. Verse 7 [read it]. People are upset – Jesus is too tolerant. He didn’t make Zacchaeus feel bad, he didn’t point out how evil and wrong Zacchaeus was. He didn’t do any of that – he starts with grace and hospitality.
          Verse 8 we get Zacchaeus’ response, [read it]. In response to Jesus’ hospitality, Zacchaeus’ heart was changed. He could have argued with Jesus. I’ve never broken the law, what I’m doing is legal, all the other tax collectors do it. Your buddy Matthew the disciple, did it. He could have justified, or rationalized – but he knew the truth in his heart. Standing in front of Jesus, faced with grace and hospitality, all of his excuses fell away and he had nothing left to do but repent. And the story ends with, [read v.9-10]. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost – remember that line, because it’s going to be important later.
   Then we move over to our second scripture lesson – this time in the book of John, chapter 8. Again, Jesus is doing his thing – this time he’s in the temple, teaching a big group of people. Then the teachers of the law, draw a woman in front of them. Now there’s some sexism of the fact that they only brought the woman, and not the man too – but that’s another issue. They bring her before the group of people and verse 4, [read 4-6]. I love that response. He ignores them. Again, Jesus starts with grace. Jesus starts with too much grace. She has done something wrong, she has done something illegal – they have every right to prosecute her, to condemn her, to kill her. Jesus ignores that part. They are in a frenzy, but Jesus protects her from prosecution, by not engaging. He does not focus on legal or illegal. But they persist, they nag him. What do we do? Who is right? Can we kill her? See, Zacchaeus was a cheat, a bad guy – but it wasn’t illegal. Zacchaeus was immoral, but perfectly legal. The woman caught in adultery is both immoral and illegal. They have everything they need to persecute, to attack, to strike her down with righteous hand of God’s judgment. Verse 7 [read 7-8]. Do you see what he just did? He took this situation and made it about their relation to her, not about the rule. The story finishes, [read v.9-11]. Again, Jesus starts with grace. But notice that it’s not acceptance of what she did. It doesn’t make what she did okay. He said, Go now and leave your life of sin. Jesus takes a hard line on repentance. She must change her ways. It’s almost like that was Jesus’ goal – not to condemn, but to save. 
          John 3:16 is possibly the most well known and most quoted verse of the bible. [read 3:16], but if you keep reading – verse 17 is also amazing. [read it]. What was it that he said to Zacchaeus? The son of man came to seek and save the lost. Jesus had a very specific goal when interacting with the people of the world – people of other religions. The good news for us this morning is that Jesus seeks and saves the lost. That’s what he does, that’s who Jesus is. He saves the lost. His goal is to reach the lost. And he starts with grace. Romans 5:20 tells us [read it]. Maybe you think your sin is too big for Jesus. Maybe you think if God really knew how terrible you were – he would never accept you. But the bible tells us that as sin increases, so does God’s grace. No matter how lost you are, no matter what you have done, what you have gone through – Jesus is searching for you. Jesus wants to save you. The son of man, Jesus Christ, came to save broken people. To seek the lost.  
          See, here’s the thing – most people choose grace OR truth. For most of us tolerance is acceptance. If I tolerate, it means I’m okay with it. Most of us cannot disagree and still love. How many of us, look at our kids or grand-kids and think – I don’t like what you’re doing..? But it’s either “get over it” or lose my kids. If I’m honest with my children, they won’t love me. If I’m too harsh, they’ll run away from me. We think in terms of black and white. I agree with you OR I hate you. Most people choose grace OR truth. But Jesus chooses both. Jesus chooses grace AND truth. Jesus speaks the truth in love, bringing people into the light. His tolerance was amazing. He started with love, started with grace – and at the same time he held a hard line on sin and repentance. This was wrong. Reading those two stories – Zacchaeus and the woman caught in adultery – would you say that Jesus was a push-over? Was a doormat? Was he wishy-washy with his convictions? Of course not. Jesus held to grace AND truth. And he did that by remembering that his goal is to seek and save the lost. When your goal is transformation, when your goal is to help someone – your method changes. If you goal is to condemn, if your goal is to judge – you will act different than if your goal is to save. Now think about freedom of religion – when you interact with someone who worships something different than you – is your goal to judge, to condemn or is your goal to save? To transform their heart and bring them to know Jesus. The people around Jesus accused him of offering too much grace, of being too forgiving. Because he started with hospitality instead of accusations – he ignored prosecution in favor of relationships. Because Jesus’ goal was not to be right, not to win or beat the enemy. His goal was to seek and save the lost. Maybe that should be our goal.

            The application today is very simple. Be something different than the broken world. What I’m trying to tell you by showing you the way Jesus acted and reacted is that you can be like that too. Jesus is our Lord and savior, but he’s also our example. The guide for the way we should treat one another. The world thinks in black and white. You are either on my side, or you hate me. You agree with me and support me 100% or you are my enemy. We are afraid of conversation. We are afraid of people who try to change our minds, to show us new information and open us to a different perspective. We have lost the art of disagreement. But Jesus calls us to a deeper connection. We have to get better at disagreeing. We have to be smarter in a social construct as hostile as ours. We have rise above. Sometimes, in a world with freedom of religion, we will disagree with people. We will hold convictions that are 100% the opposite of what they believe. Sometimes they will be wrong – but instead of making angry signs or facebook posts. Instead of branding them, with name-calling and closing our ears – what if we followed Jesus’ example. Grace AND truth. This is what you can do if you follow the example of Jesus. Sometimes I see people condemning, you know – attacking one side or the other. And I point it out, and they always, “Well, I’m right. Well, it’s true.” So was Zacchaeus. So was what Pharisees said – they were right, that woman committed adultery. They were right, it was true. So ask yourself is your goal to be right? Or is your goal to save the people around you. Being right doesn’t change hearts – grace changes hearts. You have to let go of condemnation and judgment – and to make seeking and saving the lost your goal. To engage and love someone so much that their excuses are stripped away like Zacchaeus. To ignore the prosecutions, and lift someone up so that they can walk away from a life of sin – like the woman caught in adultery. We are not guardians of morality. We are not the police academy for the law of God. We are the lost, and God found us – and we just want to show everyone else the way back home. Rise above. Be something different than the broken world.


          I love that we have freedom of religion in this country. I am so grateful that I can worship without fear. But it makes things complicated. It makes things hard. Tolerance is hard. A lot of people do it wrong in our country. A lot of people don’t even try. But with the example of Jesus, we could be something better. By remembering that Jesus came to seek and save the lost – we remember our goal, which changes our methods. We can rise above the broken world and show them a better way. So I’ll leave you with this – May you follow the example of Jesus in dealing with people who worship something different. May you cling to both grace AND truth. And May you never forget the goal is not to condemn, but to save. Amen. 

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