September 9, 2012

Pastor Joe Wittwer





    It’s an election year, and people are polarized.  Republican vs. Democrat.  Liberal vs. conservative.  Right vs. left.  Gay vs. straight.  We’re polarized—driven into different camps by angry, inflammatory rhetoric.  There’s lots of shouting, but not much listening.  There’s lots of spin, but not much truth-telling.  There’s lots of name-calling, but not much respect.  It’s not good for our democracy.  And it’s not good for the church or the cause of Christ.

    Because gay marriage is on the ballot, I have been asked repeatedly about it.  So I decided I ought to talk about it—but I wanted to do it within the larger context of my concern for our nation and the church.  This is one issue that polarizes us, but it’s an expression of the larger issues of religion and politics.  So I decided to talk about it—more importantly, I decided to talk about how we should talk about it.  How does Jesus want us as Christians to engage our culture?  And how does He want us to talk with our neighbors about these polarizing issues?

    That’s where we’re headed the next three weeks.  Fasten your seatbelts!


Introduction and offering:

    When I was a freshman in high school and a new Christian, I was getting a haircut and asked my barber what he thought about Jesus.  

    He said, “Two things we don’t talk about in here: religion and politics.”  End of conversation.  In those days, religion and politics were considered taboo in polite public conversations.  Compare that with this story.

ILL: At the March 24 “Reason Rally” in Washington DC, Richard Dawkins told 20,00 atheists and agnostics, “Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all ‘too polite’ to talk about religion.  Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged – and if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.” So if you talk with someone with religious convictions, “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” Dawkins said, “I don’t despise religious people; I despise what they stand for.” In fairness to Dawkins, he believes all religions are false and harmful and we’d be better off without them.  So if reason won’t convince the religious to recant, then maybe shame and humiliation will. “Mock them!”

When Ravi Zacharias was asked what he thought about Dawkins’ comments, he said, “Fine.  Let him start in Saudi Arabia.”  

Dawkins is able to mock religious people here precisely because of religion—our notions of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and separation of church and state are all grounded in a Christian worldview.  He mocks the very thing that allows him to mock it in public!  By the way, my dear wife pointed out while Dawkins says to mock those with whom you disagree, Jesus says to love them.  

Things have changed, haven’t they?  From not talking about religion in polite conversation, to openly mocking it.  We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.  But I think my wife is right.  We ought to listen to Jesus on this one.  How does Jesus want us to behave in a culture that is polarized?  

The Big Idea: Love your neighbor as yourself.  But who is your neighbor? Anyone—including those of different faiths, politics and sexual preferences.

Let’s begin with Jesus—a story about Him and a story He told.  This text will be our core text for this three-week series.


1. The Big Question and Jesus’ story-answer.

Luke 10:25–37

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

This expert in the Jewish law asked the Big Question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answers his question by asking one of his own: “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”  Jesus knew that the guy was an expert in the law, and he should know the answer.  

He does.  Love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself.  

“You’re right.  Now go do it and you’ll live.”  It’s one thing to know the answer; it’s another to live it.  And this guy has an issue: “who is my neighbor?”  It says that he wanted to justify himself.  Many Jewish rabbis and scribes taught that “neighbor” meant your fellow-Jew, and you were therefore not obligated to love non-Jews.  He wanted to define “neighbor” narrowly, as someone like himself: his race, his religion, his political persuasion.  We’re all like this guy.  We’re most comfortable with “our own type”—people who look like us, think like us, vote like us.  We love those like us; we’re suspicious, cautious or even hostile toward those who are different.  “Define neighbor,” he says to Jesus.

And Jesus tells a story—it’s a whopper!  A Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is accosted by robbers who beat him and leave him unconscious in the road.  

Along comes a priest—like a pastor…like me.  Everyone thinks, “Oh thank God.  The pastor is here.  He’ll help.”  But the priest walks on by and leaves him there. “Pastor Joe!”  

Then a Levite comes along—the Levites assisted the priests, so they would be like a church staff member—like David, our student ministry director who spoke last Sunday.  Everyone thinks, “Pastor Joe must have been really busy, but thank God, David is here.”  But the Levite walks on by too.  “Pastor David!”  

Then a Samaritan comes along—play sinister music here!  The Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies.  A Jewish person coming from Galilee to Jerusalem crossed over the Jordan River and came down the east side to avoid going through Samaria.  It wasn’t safe.  Everyone thought, “Oh no, it’s over.  This guy will finish him off.”  But he doesn’t.  He stops, helps the man, takes him to the nearest ER, and pays his bill to boot.  

To put this story in our context, the man in the road is an American.  Along comes a Republican—he doesn’t stop.  Along comes a Democrat—he doesn’t stop.  Along comes a Taliban member—he stops.  Oops—wrong hero, Jesus!  The Taliban member helps his enemy.

“Who was a neighbor to the man in the road?” Jesus asked.

“The one who had mercy on him.”  He couldn’t even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan.”

“Go and do likewise.”

Who is my neighbor?  Whoever is in front of me.  Whoever is in need.  Whoever.  Friend or foe, Republican or Democrat, American or Taliban, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight…whoever.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  

    Jesus redefined neighbor to include anyone, including those who are different from us.  The Samaritan was a different race, country and religion; the man he helped was his enemy.  But he showed mercy—that’s love—and that’s being a neighbor.  Love your neighbor as yourself.

    This will be our guiding light as we traverse this dangerous ground.  Jesus says we must love our neighbor: period.  


  • We must love our neighbor when we think he is wrong.  

  • We must love our neighbor when we disagree with her.  

  • We must love our neighbor regardless of his political affiliation.  

  • We must love our neighbor when she worships a different god…or no god at all.  

  • We must love our neighbor when he or she has a different sexual orientation.  

We must love our neighbor: period.  This doesn’t mean we have to agree with them—just that we have to love them.  And love means treating them well, actively seeking to do good for them.

    Today, we’re going to talk about loving our neighbor when we have religious differences.  And there are profound differences.


2. The new climate in our culture.

    For many years, Christianity enjoyed a favored position in our nation and culture.  For example, remember when public schools used to do Christmas pageants?  We considered ourselves to be a Christian nation, even though we guaranteed religious freedom and many people were not Christians either in name or practice.  Still, the vast majority of people considered themselves Christian.  You could ask someone if he was a Christian, and he might say, “Of course; I’m an American aren’t I?”  

    Those days are gone.  

    There is a new climate in our culture, and it’s characterized by pluralism, tolerance and ironically, an intolerant new form of atheism.  

    Pluralism is “the existence of different groups within society.”  Religious pluralism means that different religions co-exist in our society: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and dozens of off-shoots of each of these.  Add to that a growing number of atheists and agnostics.  In fact, do you know which is the fastest growing group in America right now? The “nones”.  (No, not the nuns…the nones.)  More people are identifying themselves as having no faith, no religion, and no religious affiliation.  They check the box marked “none”.  

    Religious pluralism means that all these groups exist in our society; but more than that, it means that we expect them to get along, to play together well.  This requires tolerance.

    Tolerance is “acceptance of different views.”  The dictionary in MS Word defines tolerance as, “the acceptance of the differing views of other people, e.g. in religious or political matters, and fairness toward the people who hold these different views.”  This raises a question: does tolerance mean that we accept these different views as equally true or right?  No.  That is not tolerance; that is lazy thinking.  But some people want you to believe that tolerance is accepting every view as equally true and valid, or in the case of religion, every religion is equally true and valid. So when a Christian makes an exclusive truth claim (“Jesus is the way to God”), these folks get offended and call us intolerant.  Of course, you can see the contradiction immediately.  By getting offended and calling us intolerant, they are being intolerant.  It’s a very weird deal—we’ve developed an intolerant tolerance.  I tolerate you as long as you don’t say anything that offends my sense of tolerance.  

    I don’t like the word “tolerance”.  Who wants to be tolerated, anyway?  What we all really want is to be respected.  I think respect is a better word, and a better way to treat people.  And as a Christian, I believe that I owe every human being a measure of respect as someone who has been created in the image of God.  I can respect you, your views and your right to hold your views—without having to agree with them.  And if I treat you with respect, it means we can talk about our differences…respectfully.  That’s much better than just tolerating you.

    Religious pluralism isn’t new—as a nation that values religious freedom, we’ve always been pluralistic.  What’s new is that we’re much more pluralistic than every before.  There are more options to choose from and Christianity isn’t the favored child anymore.  

    And tolerance isn’t really new either.  “Live and let live” has been around a long time.  What’s new is the intolerant tolerance—the idea that tolerance means accepting every view as equally true.  

    And what’s really new is the rise of the new atheists.  I call them the evangelistic atheists.  In the past, atheists and agnostics were pretty quiet.  Now they’re loud and proud.  But more than that, they are evangelistic—actively trying to convert people to their point of view.  People like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchins are trying to convince others to abandon their faith and join the ranks of the “nones”.  Why?  Because they believe that all religions are fundamentally wrong and harmful.  They trace much of the evil in the world back to religion—they believe it’s harmful and we would all be better off without it.  They also insist that science has made religion obsolete.  We no longer need God to explain the world, or to be good.  So if religion is harmful and useless, chuck it!  The sooner, the better!  And if mocking people helps them chuck it, then mock them!

This is the new climate: more pluralistic than ever, an intolerant tolerance and an evangelistic atheism.  So are they right?  Would we better off without religion?


3. The problem with religion.

    Are there problems with religion?  Lots!  One example: many people have died in religious wars.  I agree with our critics that this is a tragic fact.  They would argue therefore that we’d be better off without religion.  However, the last two world wars resulted in over 100 million deaths—more than all the wars (religious or otherwise) before them.  Those two wars were national, not religious, in nature; but no one seems to be arguing that we would be better off without nations.

Are there problems with religion? Yes.  Another example: there are so many of them!  Which one is right?  When you have many religions making contradictory claims, one could be right and the others wrong, or they could all be wrong.  But they can’t all be right.  So which is it?  Is one right or are they all wrong?

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other critics of religion say they’re all wrong and we should abolish all of them.      But are they right when they say we would be better off without religion?  Do the problems outweigh the benefits?  I would argue no, that the benefits far outweigh the problems.  There are many good books on this subject, but I want to steer you to the one I just finished: Who is this man? by John Ortberg.  Ortberg carefully traces the influence of Jesus through the centuries, and it is astonishing. Jesus has changed how we view and value the individual person, women, children, the weak and marginalized; our understanding of marriage and sexuality; education and learning; and politics.  He introduced humility as a virtue; elevated forgiveness, and love of enemies; sowed the seeds that lead people to fight slavery, poverty, hunger and sickness.  He is the biggest single influence in the arts and humanities.  Read this book and you’ll see that the benefits far outweigh the problems.

Do you know who may be the most scathing critic of religion ever? Jesus.

    When Jesus was on earth, he was loved and hated.  Who loved him?  Irreligious people, sinners, and outcasts.  Who hated him?  Religious people.  Almost all of Jesus’ conflict was with the religious.  And Jesus was often scathing in his criticism of them.  The most glaring example is in Matthew 23, where Jesus delivered his famous “woes” to the religious.   For the sake of time, I’ll let you read that on your own, but Jesus takes the religion of his day to task for not practicing what they preach, doing everything for show, majoring on the minors, and most of all for hypocrisy.  He finishes his scathing indictment:

Matthew 23:33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild!  Jesus was hard on religion, especially religious hypocrisy.  We would do well to learn from our critics, especially Jesus—and much of what he says in Matthew 23 applies to us!  

    Let’s talk for a moment about the big problem with Christianity.


4. The problem with Christianity.

    In a culture that values pluralism and tolerance, the problem with Christianity is its exclusive claims to be the truth.  The moment you say, “this is true” or “this is right”, you are also saying, “that is false” or “that is wrong.”  Many people find this arrogant and offensive.  

    Does the Christian faith make exclusive claims?  Yes.  Here are four passages, two by Jesus and two by his followers.

Matthew 11:27 All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Acts 4:12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”

1 John 2:23 No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.

No one but Jesus can save us.  He is the only way to God.  These exclusive claims are what have fueled Christian missions taking the gospel around the world for the last 20 centuries.  If Jesus were just one way among many, there would have been no missionaries, no evangelism, no attempt to spread the message.  Let everyone find his own way.  But that’s not what Christians believe.  We believe that Jesus is the way to God, and no one comes to the Father except through him.

    Does that make us arrogant?  It could…but it doesn’t have to.  

    First, remember that every religion, including atheism, makes exclusive truth claims.  It’s the nature of truth.  Truth is exclusive.  If 2+2=4, then it doesn’t equal 6 or 44 or anything else.  So when Christians make a truth claim (“Jesus is the way to God”), they are no more arrogant than a Muslim who says “There is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.”   Or an atheist who says, “There is no God.  There is nothing but matter.”  Or a person who says, “I am right, you’re wrong”…about anything!  Every belief system makes truth claims that are exclusive.  It’s the nature of truth.

    The big question of course is, “is it true?”  This is very difficult to prove.  Can I prove there is a God?  No.  Can I prove there is not?  No.  Can I prove Jesus is the Son of God?  No.  What I can do is look at the evidence and form a reasonable conclusion.  One reason Christianity has not only survived 2000 years, but thrived and grown is that the evidence stands up under intellectual scrutiny.  

Truth claims can be discussed and debated—and should be.  But that is best done in an atmosphere of mutual respect.  “Mock them,” is not good advice; it only adds to the polarization of our culture.  We need to listen to each other, learn from each other, and learn how to disagree respectfully.


5. Loving those who disagree about religion.

    How many of you have ever had an argument with someone about religion? They could be Christians (do Christians ever argue with each other?  All the time!); they could be of another faith; or they could be an atheist or agnostic.  How do you handle the disagreement?  One word: love and respect.  We must treat others with love and respect, because they deserve that as people made in the image of God who are loved by God.  Here are a couple practical suggestions when you find yourself butting heads over religion.

Listen respectfully.  Often we argue because we haven’t really listened and understood the other person.  Failure to listen leads to misunderstanding and polarization.  Listening is our best and only hope of understanding each other.  

So ask questions and then listen.  What do you believe?  Why do you believe that?  How did you come to that conclusion?  Ask them to explain.  Really try to understand them.  

Try to find the common ground and celebrate that—it is a good way to respect other traditions.  You can do this without sacrificing what you believe. In fact, you can use the common ground as a platform from which to share the gospel.  A great example of this is Acts 17.  While visiting Athens, Paul was distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  He discussed and debated with many people and finally had the chance to speak at the Areopagus—sort of like the city council of Athens.  Here’s how he began:

Acts 17:22-23 “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

Paul commended them for being very religious, and then found common ground—in this case, an altar to an unknown God—and beginning there, shared the gospel with them.  

Listen respectfully.  When you do, you’ll find some things you agree with, celebrate those.  And you’ll find some things you disagree with.

Respectfully share your beliefs.  Listening first usually wins you the right to be heard.  Listen first, then ask the other person if you can share what you believe and then do it respectfully.  Here’s how Peter put it.

1 Peter 3:15–16 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

Give an answer—but do it with gentleness and respect, and make sure your life backs up your message.  

    More than ever, it is important that Christians stand up and speak up.  More than ever, we need to share the gospel with gentleness and respect and a clear conscience.  In the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:15, “Speak the truth in love.”  

    What if after all that you still disagree?

    Love them no matter what.  Jesus said to love everyone from our neighbors to our enemies.  Love means doing what is best for others no matter what it costs us.  We do good for them, even though we disagree.  We disagree agreeably.  

ILL: Recently, a friend of mine who claims to be an atheist disagreed with me about something I said about God.  At first, I felt my heart quicken and my mind race.  I like to be right! I want to win—whether it’s arguments or games.

    By the way, one night this week I beat Laina at 3 straight games of Quarto and then skunked her at cribbage.  I texted this to my kids and told them how awful I felt and what a bad husband I was.  My son Andy texted back, “Bragger.  You’re not a bad husband, just a gloaty winner!”  Ouch.  Polarizing!

    Back to my story: I like to be right and I like to win, so my heart starts beating faster.  Then the Lord whispered to me, “You don’t have to convince him, just love him.”  So we talked about the issue, but I did it with respect and love, and made sure the relationship is intact.  

    Later, I thought of an old story about a contest between the wind and the sun.  The wind bet the sun, “I can make that traveler take off his cloak before you can.”  The wind went first and blew and blew, but the harder it blew, the more tightly the man wrapped himself in his cloak.  When it was the sun’s turn, it beamed its warm rays down, and before long, the man happily took off his coat.

The harder you blow, the more you argue, the louder you shout, the less likely you’ll convince someone to change.  You’ll probably just drive them deeper into their current convictions.  But the warm sunshine of love and respect may lead them to change.  “You don’t have to win the argument or convince them; you just have to love them.”  

    I’m not called to win arguments…just people.  

    And the best way to win people is to love them and treat them with respect.  Love them no matter what.