Do you come to church to follow a list of rules?
This past week, an interview with pop star Justin Bieber was released where the notorious bad boy discussed his Evangelical Christian faith. Bieber said that he loves Jesus and wants to be like him, but that Christians have left “a bad taste in people’s mouths” by being “overly pushy with the subject, overly churchy and religious.”
I think, unfortunately, that this is a view that many have about the church. Many see religion as being told what to do, being given a catalog of instructions to obey, being “overly churchy and religious,” taking away our free will and our ability to think for ourselves.
That’s one of the stereotypes that we try to change in the United Church of Christ. Our polity is set up as a democracy, each member is given voice and vote; UCC clergy aren’t viewed as infallible or perfect; and we do our best to avoid telling anyone what to do.
In fact, sometimes we try so hard to avoid giving rules that it becomes laughable. I often hear the UCC described as a denomination of soft verbs. We never tell anyone what to do, we invite people to discern their next course of action.
So, I imagine that many church goers in the UCC don’t come looking for a long list of rules. If they do they probably won’t find any from me or my fellow clergy.
However, I guess that some of us do come to church looking for guidelines to follow, boundaries to keep us on the path of life. The traditions of our faith and scripture certainly give us plenty to choose from. Today’s list from scripture is probably the most well-known, commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments.
Some Christians and Jews have this list is at the center of their faith even glorifying and lifting it up. Some even believe that the Ten Commandments should be at the core of the U.S. government and they have fought to place monuments listing the commandments on government property.
Do you have the same relationship with this list?
In today’s scripture Moses introduces these commandments by talking about the covenant that God made with the Israelites. He points out that God has formed a relationship with their parents and with them. I think he’s also inferring that this sacred friendship is meant to last for generations to come, even including us.
The commandments reflect that sacred bond between God and God’s people and the list can basically be divided into two sections. The first is centered on our relationship with God: have no other gods before the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; don’t make anything else an idol that could replace God in your heart; don’t use God’s name in vain.
The second section is focused on our relationship with each other: honor your parents; don’t kill anyone; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t lie about someone else; don’t desire things that belong to others. As Jesus pointed out centuries later, this list can be summarized by two important points: love God and love your neighbor.
But there’s one commandment that I haven’t mentioned yet because I wasn’t sure where it belonged: it’s the one about keeping the Sabbath day holy. It certainly could be argued that we’re told to honor the Sabbath because it’s the day we’re supposed to be centered on God and so that would mean it belongs in the “love God” section.
But, do you come to church just because there’s a rule that says you have to be here to worship God? Or do you come to be in community? Do you come here to gather with your neighbors as we all seek God together?
In his interview, after saying that Christians can be overly church and religious, Justin Bieber – “the Biebs” – said “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell that doesn’t make you a taco.” It’s not the most profound statement one could make but it does raise the question: why do we come to church?
I think – I hope – that coming to church is a transformative experience. Each week we encounter God’s words through scripture and song and prayer. But more importantly, we do it together. We listen together and pray together and sing together. We experience God together. When I take this time to share my thoughts on the Bible and church, I hope that I’m planting a seed and that you continue the conversation with each other and together with others in your community.
I hope that you come here because you want to, not because you have to. See, I think that they commandment about keeping the Sabbath holy is a bridge between the “love God” section and the “love each other” section. Because it’s here that we deepen our relationship with God by working on our relationships with each other. We learn that God loves us and we learn to share that love with our neighbors.
And when we leave here, I believe that we are called to let our faith lead us in all that we do. Not by being pushy or overly churchy or religious – we don’t want to upset the Biebs. We’re not supposed to be forcing our faith on someone else or tearing down the separating wall of church and state by placing monuments to the Ten Commandments in government buildings.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow our faith to guide us.
This past week I did something that I’ve never done before. I attended a public hearing at the State House. Massachusetts lawmakers have been presented with a bill that would add “gender identity” to existing civil rights law for public accommodations. Current law prohibits discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming persons in the areas of credit, housing, employment and public education but, transgender persons can still be denied access to public accommodations such as restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. This past Tuesday, the judiciary committee invited the public to give testimony on the issue.
Now, yes, I went to this hearing because this issue affects my family. But I also went as a Christian. In fact, I specifically went as Christian clergy. I wore a clerical collar and a stole to witness to my support for the law. I didn’t do this to force my religion into politics but to live out my faith – a faith that teaches me to love and respect my neighbors as much as I love myself. See, I’m not sure that rules and laws are what make the church function, but I know that the laws of our government affect me and my neighbors. So, when I encounter God here, with you in church on our Sabbath, I encounter a God that teaches me to love everyone – especially the outcasts. The Bible that I read and teach from tells the stories of Israelites freed from slavery, and people chased from their homelands, and lepers and prostitutes and people that live on the edges of society. I believe that the Bible shows us their stories because we are called to identify and fight for the oppressed in all that we do. And part of that is by holding our government accountable for creating laws that protect our neighbors so that we are all afforded the same rights. And calling lawmakers out for creating laws that hurt others – loopholes that allow guns to be bought without background checks, voter ID laws that disproportionately target people of color, laws that declare that corporations are people or that the rich can take away the private property by rights of eminent domain, laws that allow discrimination based on gender identity.
When I attended the meeting on Tuesday, I was being blatantly Christian – maybe I was putting my faith out there in a way that makes some of us uncomfortable. I’m not saying that’s what everyone should do. Hey, I’m a UCC pastor, I’m not telling anyone to do anything. But I am suggesting – I’m inviting you to discern if there are ways that your faith affects the rest of your life. Does the faith that you encounter and explore each week with your friends and neighbors at MCC call you to influence the world around you?
Do you come to church to follow a list of rules or do you come because your heart yearns for a relationship with God? How does God’s love for you influence your love for others? Take a minute or so to wonder.
Let us pray.
Dear God, thank you for entering into a sacred covenant with us. Be with us in our relationship with each other. Help us to remember the outcasts and the oppressed and give us the strength to share your love with everyone we encounter. Amen.