Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Father of Righteousness

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Romans 4:1-17:

The first request I received on what to preach about after Easter was the issue of righteousness.  It was a request made on behalf of the Thursday morning women’s group.  They came into my office and said, “What is righteousness?” and my response was “you’re looking at it.”  The question is actually a very good one because one of the major themes of scripture is righteousness, although we don’t really talk about what it means, hence the question, and more often deal with it as if everyone knows what it means, probably because we don’t know what it means.  But today we are going to try and tackle the subject, although I want to set your expectations a little low that we are going to be able to completely cover the topic, because there are just too many different ideas to be covered all at one time, so this will be sort of 30,000 foot view.

The word righteous or righteousness is found 630 times in the bible, and that doesn’t include other times that it might have been used but is translated differently.   To give you a comparison, the word love is found 872 times.  The Hebrew word is tsedheq or tsedhaqah, and it is also often translated as justice or integrity or sometimes deliverance.  Its fundamental meaning is to do the right.  The Greek word found in the New Testament is dikaiosyn─ô, having a similar meaning to the Hebrew word, and it too is often translated as justice, but also sometimes blamelessness, mercy, or compassion.  In the gospel of Luke, after Jesus dies, a roman soldier at the foot of the cross says, “surely this man was innocent.”  The word translated as innocent is this same word, so really the centurion is saying that Jesus was righteous.

Surprisingly, Jesus does not talk about righteousness all that much, and when he does it sort of has an ironic characteristic, such as saying that he came not to call the righteous but sinners, where righteousness is really about self-righteousness.  But there are people who are called righteous.  Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, are said to be blameless, another word for righteous, and one we see applied to several characters, including Job, Noah and Abraham, who will get back to.  Joseph of Arimathea was said to be a good and righteous man, and John the Baptist is said to be both holy and righteous, a combination of characteristics that is also plentiful.  Paul is one of the few people to proclaim himself righteous, well besides for the righteous brothers, and it is in Paul’s writings, in particular in Romans, where we find most of the consideration of righteousness in the New Testament.

For Paul, and this is key to understanding this term, righteousness is proclaimed or announced only by God, thus Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him by the righteousness of God.  Abraham did not proclaim himself righteous, God proclaimed it to him.  To proclaim our own righteousness is to proclaim self-righteousness. Pride leads to self-righteousness and self-righteousness leads us away from God. So what is righteousness and how is it conveyed or reckoned to us?  Well that’s where it gets a little confusing and convoluted.  In the Hebrew Scriptures righteousness is used in several different ways.  The first is to claim that God is righteous.  How do we know that God is righteous?  Because God does righteous things, God’s righteousness is found in God’s actions.  For us as humans, righteousness is not simply about not doing the wrong things, but about actively doing the right things in all aspects of our lives, both in relationship to God and in relationship to each other.  It is more about a relational covenant than it is about strict adherence to rules, more about actions than with our mind-set.

There is an old Jewish folktale about a man who went out into the world in search of true justice.  Somewhere, he believed, a just society must exist, and he would not stop until he found it.  He traveled until he had reached the end of the known world, where he found a vast, mysterious forest.  The man bravely crossed over into the shadows and wandered deeper and deeper into the woods, until at last he came upon a small cottage. Through the windows he spied the warm glow of candles.

He knocked at the door, but no one answered.  He knocked again, but all was silent.  Curious, he pushed open the door and stepped inside.  The moment he entered the cottage, it expanded in size to become much bigger on the inside that it appeared on the outside.  His eyes widened as he realized the cavernous expanse was filled with thousands of shelves, holding millions upon millions of oil candles.  Some of the candles sat in fine holders of marble and gold, while others sat in holders of clay or tin.  Some were filled with oil so that the flames burned as brightly as the stars, while others had little oil left, and were beginning to grow dim.  The man felt a hand on his shoulder.  He turned to find an old man with a long, white beard, wearing a white robe, standing beside him. 
“Shalom aleikhem,” the old man said.  “Peace be upon you.” 
“Aleikhem shalom,” the started traveler responded. 
“How can I help you?” the old man asked. 
“I have traveled the world searching for justice,” he said, “but never have I encountered a place like this.  Tell me, what are all these candles for?” 
The old man replied, “Each of these candles is a person’s soul.  As long as a person’s candle burns, he or she remains alive.  But when a person’s candle burns out, the soul is taken away to leave this world.” 
“Can you show me the candle of my soul?” the man asked. 
“Follow me” the old man replied, leading his guest through a labyrinth of rooms and shelves, passing row after row of candles.  After what seemed like a long time, the reached a small shelf that held a candle in a holder of clay. 
“That is the candle of your soul,” the old man said. 
Immediately a wave of fear rushed over the traveler, for the wick of the candle was short and the oil nearly dry.  Was his life almost over?  Did he have but moments to live?  He then noticed that the candle next to his had a long wick and a tin holder filled with oil.  The flame burned brightly, like it could go on forever. 
“Whose candle is that?” he asked.  But the old man disappeared. 
The traveler stood there trembling, terrified that his life might be cut short before he found justice.  He heard a sputtering sound and saw smoke rising from a higher shelf, signaling the death of someone else somewhere in the world.  He looked at his own diminishing candle and then back at the candle next to his, burning so steady and bright.  The old man was nowhere to be seen.  So the man picked up the brightly burning candle and lifted it above his own, ready to pour the oil from one holder to another.  Suddenly, he felt a strong grip on his arm.  “Is this the kind of justice you are seeking?” the old man asked. 
The traveler closed his eyes in pain and when he opened them the cottage and the candles and the old man had vanished.  He stood in the dark forest alone.  It is said that he could hear the trees whispering his fate.  He had searched for justice in the great wide world but never within himself.*

Abraham Heschel said that “the word justice implies the ability to discern between good and evil,” that is what the man might be searching for, but righteousness, Heschel suggests, “is the innate quality that drives one to act on that ability to discern.”  Thus righteousness goes beyond mere justice, it is about right living, about aligning yourself with the world in a way that sustains rather than exploits.  It’s about being in right relationship not only with God, but also with everyone else.  Righteousness is ultimately about putting the concerns of others, all others, before our own desires and self-interests, and appropriate message for father’s day, which brings us back to Abraham, whom Paul says is the father of the faith for all of us, and we might proclaim the father of righteousness for us all.*

But, Paul says, that Abraham was not reckoned righteous because of his actions.  He was not made righteous because of his works, but that he was made righteous because of his faith in what God had promised.  If he was made righteous because of what he did, Paul says, he would have something to boast about, but the work was done by God, not by Abraham.  As Protestants we believe that we are saved by faith alone, not by works, one of the differentiations between us and the Roman Catholics, and this passage is one of the places we get that from.  Abraham was claimed righteous before the giving of the covenant of circumcision, so righteousness has nothing to do with faithfulness to the covenant but instead with faith itself, not with actions but with belief.

Now I’ve spent the past week reading a lot about righteousness and in particular about Paul’s thoughts on the subject, and some of the arguments could make your head explode, not because they are so deep, but because the arguments become very much like arguments over which came first the chicken or the egg.  We can say that Abraham was deemed righteous because of his faith, but his faith was also lived out.  It started with him listening to God and leaving his home land to go to the Promised Land, it continued with him being told by God that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, even though he had no children, and believing that God would make it happen.  It was not just belief and faith, but there was also action there as well.

I would in fact argue that it is impossible to have faith without action, that if you are going to believe in something then you better live as if it has actually made a difference in your life. This is not about doing something in order to earn God’s love and grace.  God gives it to us freely, we can’t earn it.  But once we have claimed it and proclaimed Jesus Christ as our savior, that proclamation better make a difference not only in our lives but in the world.  As I said when we were looking at the parable of the sheep and goats a few weeks ago, we do not do good works in the world because it will save us, we are saved by faith, but we do good works because that is what Jesus commands us to do.

How can we tell if you are living in right relationship with God, or right relationship with others, unless we actually see that played out in our lives?  Righteousness then cannot be something of who we are unless it is also something of what we do.  It’s like Voltaire’s quote, which I have referenced before and will be sure to reference again, never trust anyone who tells you they are a Christian.  Why?  Because if they were truly a Christian they wouldn’t have to tell you.  So we might say the same thing about righteousness: Never trust anyone who tells you how righteous they are.  Righteousness is reckoned to us because we live in covenantal relationship with God and with each other, that our faith calls us and requires us to be fundamentally different people and to live differently than how the world tells us that we are to live.

But there is one other piece of righteousness that needs to be taken into consideration.  Righteousness is about being in line with God and with each other, but what Paul says just before today’s passage in talking about the righteousness of Jesus that justifies us is the simple fact that we all fall short of the glory of God.  All of us.  As Methodists we say that we are moving onto perfection, but we are not there yet, that we all fall short of that glory.  And so that means that righteousness is also about humility, about recognizing how we fail God and how we fail each other, and admitting to that, of being more concerned about the log in our eye than about the splinter in someone else’s, of doing unto others as we would want to them to do unto us, every other.  It’s about humbling ourselves to kneel at the feet of the other in order to serve, rather than demanding to be served, and it’s about asking the fundamental question of ourselves, what if I’m wrong?

It’s been said that “A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice.”  Why we naturally ask?  “Because a surplus of virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience.”  When we are certain, absolutely certain that we are right and others are wrong, is when we get off the path of righteousness to the path of self-righteousness which leads us away from God.

Righteousness is not something we can claim, it is something which is attributed to us, because of our faithfulness, and because we are faithful what that faithfulness leads us to do, including being honest with God and with each other.  It has been said that at birth, “we are each tied to God with a string, and that every time we sin, the string breaks.  To those who repent of their sins, God makes knots in the string, so that the humble and contrite are once again tied to God.  Because each one of us fails, because we all lose our way on the path to righteousness from time to time, our strings are full of knots.  But it turns out that a string with many knots is shorter than one without knots.  So the person with many sins, but a humble heart, is closer to God and on the path of righteousness.”*  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

* Taken from A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans.

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