Sermon Text – 11.24.2019

[Psalm 139]

          If your volume knob is always at 11, eventually you will go deaf. From a very young age, I have always had a deep and abiding love of music. I was the generation that moved from cassette players to cd players, and from cd players to mp3 players, and then back to old school records for a while for some reason, and then on to smart phones. We did over the ear headphones, and then behind the head headphones that we always wore on our neck, then we created ear buds, ear pods and then back to over the ear headphones. And through all the changes there was one thing that remained consistent – one constant that never changed: I always, always listened to my music too loudly. My parents tried over and over to encourage me to turn down the music. You’re going to hurt your ears, they would tell me. Even now in my adult life, when I’m driving by myself with noone else to notice – one of my favorite things is cranking those tunes up high enough to blow out the windows. But if your volume knob is always at 1, eventually you will go deaf.

      The same can be said for controversy in our lives. When we scream and rage and attack over and over, day after day – we start to grow numb. We stop listening, our spirit starts to calcify, to scab over. Today is the final sermon in our sermon series – Controversies in the Church. For the last month we have been taking on the most difficult and challenging issues facing the modern church. And it’s been good. We have grown, we have learned and we have been stretched.  But I think I echo the heart of this church when I say – I am tired. I’m so glad this is almost over. It’s been good, but it’s also exhausting! Sort of feels as though we’ve been clenching our muscles for an entire month and we need to release or our muscles are going to just plain ol’ give out! If your volume knob is always at 11, eventually you will go deaf.  If everything is a crisis, if everything is an emergency, if everything is the end of the world – you can’t keep it up for very long! I am so tired of controversy. I’m tired of arguing, of the back and forth of biblical ping-pong. This argument, that counter-point. This scripture versus that interpretation. But what I hope you are beginning to realize in this sermon series is that these are not cold, calculated clinical academic positions. The things we talk about – these are people, real lives with hopes, and fears and shame. In any issue – it’s not arguments that convince us. Often times, it’s stories. It’s life. Experiences – both hidden and shared. What I’ve found is that for many of us our position on abortion depends on which side has told us more horror stories. As I approached this sermon, I wondered – which horror stories do I tell? Both sides of this fight have plenty. You hear stories of women injecting themselves with poison, or using lysol in procedures that have a more than 50% chance of failing and killing the mother – which shows us how desperate these women are. Terrifying nightmares of  coat-hangers and knitting needles and back alley procedures for women who are so desperate and helpless and in need. But the other side has stories too. Stories of legislation that allows a mother to choose whether she wants the baby or not, even after the child has been born. Partial birth, or even after birth abortions. Or the stories from Iceland – a country that has eradicated Down Syndrome, through genetic testing and abortion. They encourage parents to get a test – your baby might have downs – you should probably get rid of it and try again. And most do. They did it, they solved a societal problem – by ending the life before it has a chance to begin. This is a loaded conversation, filled with emotion. And so to open ourselves to a conversation, to move past judgment and bumper-stickers requires vulnerability, humility and strength. Today we are talking about abortion. This one is tricky because it is a conversation cloaked in embarrassment. It is a conversation full of judgmental whispers, and repression. Fear and shame and anger and sadness and hope. But I am eternally hopeful. I believe we can do this – we can have this conversation. We can turn down the volume, sit down and have a conversation.  Once more unto the bridge.

          And so to start I would like to propose a better way. Rather than turning the volume up to a horrendous level and then screaming horror stories at one another until our throats are sore – how about we approach an issue from a more… methodical way? You see, John Wesley had this method for how we approach a new topic, how do we figure out what is right and wrong in the modern world. It’s called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – you don’t need to remember that, but you do need to remember the pieces: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. Scripture is primary, scripture comes first. What does the bible say on an issue. Then you look at tradition – what does the church teach. Then reason – which is where we engage our actual brain, does the way we are using it seem to make sense, is it coherent and consistent? And then finally experience. Experience can be a bit of a wild card, but it’s also a powerful piece of how we make decisions.

        So what do the scriptures say about abortion? Truth is, the word abortion does not exist in the bible. This concept did not really exist in the ancient world – at least not in any sort of organized way. It’s hard to get scientific or even very specific. Now there are a few verses we can work with, and we’ll look at those in a second, but there is no law that says “thou shall not have an abortion” – so we have to look to the other pieces. First scripture, then tradition. What does the church teach about this issue? Here I’d like to take a second and introduce you to the book of discipline. For those who don’t know this is a 250 year old living document outlining the organization for the United Methodist Church. It includes all the super exciting rules about how to organize and run the structures of the church (I know, fun), but it also includes a gem. A little document called the social principles. If you go home tonight and google “social principles of the UMC” you can find all of it digitally on their website umc.org. Basically, it’s the official Methodist position on just about every ethical issue out there. From homosexuality to war to capital punishment, abortion, medical testing on animals, divorce, adoption and more. You name it, there’s probably an official position on the issue. Now, remember – this is not scripture. This is a living document that gets updated every four years. It’s not concrete. It’s the culmination of hundreds of years of discussion and debate – so it’s really solid stuff, but it is also a living, changing text. I know, this is really sexy stuff. But let’s take a closer look. Section 161, section J states, “our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother.” Now, we’ll come back to this later – but basically, Methodists believe that this is a very serious issue that should not be taken lightly. We believe that abortion is an absolute worst case scenario acceptable only when the life of the mother or the child is in danger.  So that’s the book of discipline.
     But let’s dive into the scripture a bit, starting with Genesis. Now, this… is an uncomfortable scripture lesson we’ve got here. Did you know that Catholics and Methodists have different opinions about birth control? Does anybody know how Catholics feel about birth control? Right, it’s not allowed – but a lot of people are a litle fuzzy on why. Back in 1968 there was a teaching that came out in the Catholic Church rejecting birth control – but the true sources goes all the way back to our story in Genesis. [Read v.6-8]. So, from the beginning let us realize that this is a VERY different cultural setting – so it takes a little explanation. At this time, in this world, it was incredibly important for a man’s line, and family name to continue through having a son. And there was an old custom that said if your brother dies, you have to marry his wife and have a kid with her – and that son will be your brother’s heir – so his bloodline doesn’t die out. It’s all very strange, but then it gets worse. [read v.9-10]. So Onan is uh… spilling – preventing the possibility of a baby and so God strikes him dead. If you want to know where the argument against birth-control is – it’s right there. That’s it. So the catholic teaching is that a couple’s intimacy should always carry the potential for procreation – based on this story. Now, I have to resist the urge to make fun of it – because some people read that story and that’s the real message they get from it. They believe sex comes with risk, and it’s supposed to – and on some level they are right! If you are ready for sex, you should be on some level ready for the possible consequences.  However, using Wesley’s method we use reason and scripture to realize that this story is more about a brother being selfish than it is about sex and birth control. The problem wasn’t birth control – the problem was denying his brother an heir, he was being selfish. As proof of this interpretation a lot of people point to the fact that birth control doesn’t stop God. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Condoms break, pills interact with medications – nothing but abstinence is 100% effective. Here me teenagers – nothing but abstinence is 100% effective. And if you count the virgin Mary – nothing is 100% effective. The official Methodist position is very supportive of birth control as a way for a family to be ready for the addition of children. But what I want you to see is that reason and experience can help us with scripture which can craft church tradition.
     So now let’s switch over to our second scripture lesson, which comes from Psalm 139. If you’re ever feeling bad about yourself – go check out Psalm 139. [read v.1-6]. God knows everything about you, every good and terrible thing about you and he still loves you. God gives life. God knows you. God loves you. God values you. You are precious to God. [read v.13-16]. You knit me together in my mother’s womb. It’s sort of strange, but I love imaging like little old lady God, like sitting in a rocking chair, crocheting people. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. Now, think about that. I don’t know about you – but I’ve got some days in my life I’m ashamed of. I’ve got some moments in my life that I feel – if God saw me, if God knew me – he wouldn’t really love me. But God knows the whole story before a single day had come. God has every moment laid out. But it doesn’t stop there, [read v.17-18]. God knows you. God thinks about you. You are precious to God. Even knowing all your deepest, darkest secrets – still you are so precious to God. God values you. So let me ask you the all important question: does God love you more when you are a fetus or when you are an adult? Like which version of you is more important? Like, which is more important? The life of the fetus or the life of the woman?(pause..) Well, let’s walk through it. [read v. 13-15]. God knit you together in your mother’s womb. I mean, obviously it’s poetry, but I love that image. God cares a LOT about the life of the baby in the womb. He is active in the creation process. But then we keep reading [v.16-17]. God thinks about you all the time. God has so many thoughts about you they outnumber the grains of sand on the beach. He knows about every day you will endure, every moment – God loves you through it all. It’s very clear form the text – God cares a LOT about the life of the people he has made. So who is more important? The woman of the fetus?
      We struggle to answer! Because it’s a ridiculous question – God loves you the same at all levels, at every stage of your development – as you have grown in this life, whether you were growing fingers or armpit hair, God is with you every step of the way.  And so I’d like to introduce you to a concept called the Tyranny of the OR. You see, in our culture sometimes people will attempt to force you to choose – what’s more important? This OR that. The woman OR the baby. But the answer is neither. The answer is both. The problem is that you are using the wrong word. We feel trapped, unable to answer because we are living under the tyranny of the OR. But what I want to show you this morning is that we can move from the tyranny of the OR into the freedom of the AND. This conversation is so difficult, but the answer is not in choosing one side over the other. The answer comes when we throw out the question. It’s not the woman OR the baby. God loves the woman AND the baby. The life of the woman is valuable to God, the life of the baby is valuable to God. There is no OR, but there is an AND. Reject the tyranny of the OR and embrace the freedom of the AND.

          The good news this morning is that God values life. Life at all levels. The book of discipline states that the boundaries of life and death and sacred and only God gets to decide where they go. He created you, as he created all human life – in an intimate, incredibly loving way he put each of us together. A lot of the abortion conversation centers around – okay, but when do we consider it life. Is it life when the cells start dividing? Is it life when the heartbeat shows up? Is it life when it is viable, able to exist outside the womb. When does life begin? But the truth is that Life begins before conception, before time – because God has every moment laid out. You are precious to God. God values your life, and he always has.

       So the response on our end is to respect life. God values life, so we must respect that life. Life at all levels. One problem we have seen in our culture is that some people are pro-birth. Meaning they care about the life of the child very deeply, right up until the moment the baby comes screaming into the world. If we are to be pro-life, we must be pro-LIFE, not just pro-birth. If we insist on life, we must insist on support and love for that entire life. Because God values that life at every stage. Quick story: there was a blogger who was at the grocery store with her five children, and inevitably struggling a little bit to keep them under control. And she was in line, and there was a young couple in front of her. The young lady in front of her, turned to the man she was with and said very loudly, “some people just don’t know when to stop having kids.” Which is rude, but it’s not the worst thing I’ve heard in a grocery store. But then as the mother was leaving the story she saw the couple get into a car with a “pro-life” bumper sticker. Actions have consequences – pro-life means pro-life for life. It means we help each other when needed. If we’re doing it right, it should call us to a deeper love of neighbor, a deeper care for the other people God created and values as well.


       Two quick applications and then we’re done. First, we must be consistent in love as God is consistent in love. Value life at every stage. Reject the tyranny of the OR and embrace the Freedom of the AND. We must support and stand up for the life of the unborn child AND the life of the mother. We should be working as Christians to ensure that there is no such thing as an unwanted or unloved child or adult inside or outside the uterus. So we create ministries that care for single mothers. We provide child-care so people can work and earn and eventually stand on their own two feet. I don’t know if you know this – but the Flint Mission Zone of the UMC in Michigan is already starting to do this. Asbury is working on sustainable urban farming. Bethel has a freedom school to teach kids literacy. Calvary houses the Family Promise program, among many other things. Hope UMC has an incredible diaper ministry – and we are on the verge of creating a network for all of those things to come together. And our church, in addition to our support of restoration place and many other groups – today we do pillows. Today we value life by valuing dignity, valuing hope – giving these women pride and self worth by showing them how precious they are to God. There’s a lot more to being valuing life as God values life than bumper stickers and horror stories.
      The last thing I want to talk about this morning, the last piece of application is simply that in order for this to work – we have to turn down the volume, stop screaming and have a conversation. We need to talk about these things. I know it’s uncomfortable – but we need to talk about birth control with our children. Don’t leave it to the schools, don’t leave it to Youth Group – talk about it in the home. We have to remove the shame from the conversation. Other traditions may not like birth control, but using the same scripture and our process of scripture, tradition, reason and experience – we come to a different place and so I strongly encourage you to give your kids all the information. Talk about sex, talk about the beautiful covenant of marriage. Talk about birth control. Talk about abortion. Talk about the struggles of women in a broken world that does not care enough about them. Talk about how much God values life at every level. Talk about ways that we can love and support life, both before and after birth. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable, but we have to stop avoiding it. We have to stop loading these conversations up with shame and horror stories, but instead turn down the volume, embrace the freedom of the and and love one another instead.   

Every step of this conversation has been an effort to teach us how to love like Jesus loved. We are trying to love our enemies. We are trying to be people of grace and not people of offense. We are trying to shatter the glass foundation of the boogeyman principle, and actually see the other side for the humans that they are. We are trying to turn down the volume, to sit down and and have a conversation where we go deeper than bumper stickers. We are trying to value life and love the way that God values life and love. We are trying. And failing. And trying some more, and failing some more. And succeeding a little. It’s hard work – to love God and to love each other at a deeper level – it’s hard work, but it’s work worth doing. Amen.