Hero or Villain?


Sermon for February 17, 2019


Hero or Villain?


A British politician was asked this week whether he considered Winston Churchill to be a hero or a villain. Now before I even mention or address the politician’s response to that question, let me just take a moment to point out that this is the Devil’s question. The question is a setup and the intention of the question is to be divisive. The question represents a world-view where everything is black or white: you are either good or evil, you are either for me or against me, you are either this party or that party and that’s it. It is an either/or choice or question and if you will allow me to be philosophical for a moment: be very careful when presented with either/or questions, because sometimes they are a trap. This question was a trap and boy did the politician jam his foot right in it.


He said that Winston Churchill was a villain, a judgment he came to based upon his evaluation of mistakes that Churchill made earlier in his career, before he became prime minister. Well predictably, that little comment created quite a kerfluffle, with people on both sides rushing to either defend Churchill’s legacy or to catalog his shortcomings. Now my personal feelings about Churchill are fairly well known here….after all, my dog is named Winston. I am, or course, a fan. But my respect and admiration for the man, doesn’t come from a whitewashed or sanitized view of him. My fandom has not blinded me to his shortcomings. Quite the contrary; my respect for Churchill comes from a recognition that he, like every human being was deeply flawed, and yet, despite his flaws he was still able to accomplish great things.


Human beings are complex creatures. They are rarely just heroes or villains; we have the capacity to be both, sometimes at the same time. We can do amazing and wonderful things, and then we can turn right around and be selfish and cruel. But we are always being challenged by the devil into categorizing people into just one column or the other. We celebrate people and build them up and cheer them, and then we find out that maybe they did something wrong once or made a mistake, then we proceed to tear them down and ridicule them. This plays out on a daily basis in social media. We want people to be either heroes or villains, because that makes life and relationships neat and tidy. We put ridiculous expectations on leaders and celebrities to be our heroes, and then when they make the inevitable misstep and disappoint us, we take a sadistic glee in tearing them apart publicly, even long after they are dead.


Why do we do this?


I think that the answer is misplaced hope. We like to put our faith, our hope, and our trust in human beings, in mortal men and women. I think deep down we want our leaders and our celebrities to save us. We want them to have the virtues we lack. We want them to be the source of all that is good in the world, and then, when they fail to live up to that impossible standard, we assume they must be villains. The devil has told us that people are either heroes or villains. If they are not a hero, then they must be a villain. But what has God revealed to us?


The prophet Jeremiah rarely minces words, he makes it very clear:

“cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.”


Human beings who put their ultimate faith and trust in other human beings, have set themselves up. They are bound to be disappointed sooner or later. And Jeremiah used terrific imagery, he says they are like shrubs in the desert. They have nothing to drink from, they have no source of real nourishment, vitality or life.


But humans who learn to put their trust in God before their trust in their fellow man, well those are like trees planted next to living waters, whose roots run deep into the soil and draw nourishment and vitality from a well that never runs dry. When hard times come, when the sun shines hot and the land is parched, those trees can still live, those trees can bear fruit, because they are connected to living water. People who look to God as the source of what is good in the world, people who look to God as the fountain of virtue and blessings, those people will not be disappointed.


In church circles I have what is called a “low anthropology.” Now that is a churchy phrase, but basically what it means is that deep down I believe and am convinced that people are sinners. Us human beings, men and women, we are broken. We are capable of doing good things, but we are not capable of being consistently good without fail. So few things are as boring to me as having someone’s sins placed on public display, as if the fact that human being’s are sinners is in some way newsworthy. It is not. Every week we come together here and read scriptures that are thousands of years old, and what I walk away with every week is further proof that human nature has not changed. Our technology has changed, our instincts have not.


One of the great things about the bible is that the characters we find there are not one dimensional. Even the greatest heroes are depicted with their sins and flaws. King David was an adulterer. He had huge sins, he made mistakes. If you think that just because someone is mentioned in the bible or that their image has been carved in marble or set in stained glass that they are somehow free of sin, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. What inspires me though when reading the scriptures is how over and over again, God manages to do amazing things with incredibly flawed people.


I would say the same thing is true of our modern day leaders, celebrities and heroes. If you think that someone must be free of sin in order for God to be using them in the world, or working through them, then you are missing the point. No human being is ever consistently good all the time. If we can accept that, then we won’t need to clutch our pearls, be overcome by the vapors or ask for the smelling salts every time we learn that someone famous might have at some point made a mistake. If we can accept that, then maybe we can stop putting ridiculous expectations on each other.


Life gets a lot easier when you learn to accept that people aren’t perfect. They never were and they never will be. Once you accept that, once you learn not to put all of your faith in the flesh, in mankind, in men and women, in other human beings, once you learn that God is the true source of goodness and salvation in the world, then you can really be amazed at what God is able to do with some sinful human beings.


The devil wants you to separate everyone in the world into heroes or villains. The devil wants you to see everyone as either perfect and lovable, or flawed and unloveable, but if having flaws makes you a villain then we are all in deep trouble. What my God has revealed to me and to countless others in the gospel that the church proclaims, is that we worship a God who loves and uses sinful, flawed people. Our God can make a hero out of a villain and ultimately only God and God alone can know which camp we really belong to.


I have lots of heroes; I do not expect them to be perfect. In fact, most of them are deeply flawed in some way. We don’t need to whitewash history and pretend our heroes never did anything wrong, nor do we need to catalog their faults and pretend that sin is news. I think the approach that is most reasonable is what God has revealed to us: accept that only God is the true source of goodness and salvation; place our faith and our hope in God, and then rejoice in how he uses and inspires and loves, sinful human beings.

What is the Good News?


Sermon for February 10th, 2019


When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Corinth, he was writing to a church that was in the midst of a lot of division. There was quarreling and fighting over a number of issues. There was disagreement about the leadership of the Church and which apostles were the greatest; there were (as there always are) arguments about sex; there were arguments about food; there were arguments about which spiritual gifts were the greatest. And one by one, Paul tries to address each one of these divisions and every time he does so he points the church back to Jesus. What does the Good News or the gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about this issue? How important is this issue in the light of the good news of Jesus? Is it worth beating each other up over? Is it worth killing over? Are these issues that you are so preoccupied with, are they more important than the central message that we have been called to proclaim? Paul has to constantly redirect them to the message.


And part of his message you heard last week, the most famous part, and that was Paul’s conclusion that the most important thing we can do or show as Christians is love. Love is our greatest gift, love is our strongest power. Pursue love, that is what Paul tells the church. Pursue love is his conclusion, and he argues that it is to be the Church’s overriding principle: love. Love for God and love for each other.  “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” that is what Paul said to the church in Ephesus. Love is the conclusion that Paul comes to, it is where the gospel leads him, BUT it is not the gospel. Love is not the good news that Paul has been sent to proclaim. Love is where the good news should lead us; love is Paul’s conclusion; love should be our response to the good news, but it’s not the news. So what is the actual good news, or gospel that Paul proclaims?


Well fortunately Paul is not shy about reminding us:


I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved….


are you ready for it, cause here it comes, and this is simultaneously the most simple and the most bizarre thing you will ever hear…


That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.


That, my friends, is the gospel. That is the good news. That simple, short little statement is the most important thing Paul ever has to say, because that statement is the power behind everything Paul does. It is the reason why. If love is the life-blood of Christians, then this little message is the beating heart that pushes that love out into the world. It is the force behind it. But this statement unsettles people, it can make us uncomfortable, because it is weird.


A man died for our sake, for our sins, because of our failures, someone died. He didn’t just get really tired or really sick. He was dead. Cold dead. They buried him. He was in the grave for days…and he came back to life again. Not in some mystical vision, not in a fantasy or hallucination, but in flesh and blood real life. And people saw him, not just a couple people, but hundreds. And when Paul was writing, some of those people were still alive. And weirder still, part of the message is that this was all in the scriptures before it happened. Meaning that this wasn’t just something that happened, but that it was a part of a divine plan.


That is a weird story. It makes people uncomfortable. We are twenty-first century people, we know that dead bodies don’t come back to life. You might be able to resuscitate someone with the right equipment, under the right circumstances, but once they are really dead, there is no bringing them back. It’s crazy. We don’t want people to think we are crazy, or foolish. So we try to focus on other things. Jesus was a great teacher, so we will talk about his lessons, or his ethics, or his morals and we will try and steer clear of this weird stuff.


And you get people that argue, that maybe we should cut some of this weird stuff in our scriptures out: Let’s cut out the bizarre miracle stories, and this stuff about a dead body coming back to life, and all these supernatural visions. Let’s just focus on the practical advice that Jesus gave and his role as a teacher, and not worry so much about what did or didn’t happen in the grave a couple thousand years ago. Well guess what, that is not a new argument. People have always found the story of Jesus being raised from the dead to be unsettling. People in the church in Corinth were making that exact same argument and Paul’s words to them was this:


If Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.


Those are some tough words right there, but hear what Paul is saying: the message that Jesus died and rose again is THE message. That’s the good news, the gospel, the proclamation. That is the force behind everything we do, say or think. That is our power and without that this faith of ours is futile and we are to be pitied.


What does it mean when a dead man comes back to life in a world where that does not happen? That is the question that Christians are always forced to struggle with. If Jesus of Nazareth actually died and came back to life, as Paul and so many others say he did, if this story is true, then what does that mean for me, and how I live my life and the hope that I have for the future?


Well the conclusion that Paul came to, was that death, which seems to have the final say in this world, which seems to have the power to separate us from God and from each other, actually doesn’t. Paul’s conclusion is that God’s love for his creation is stronger than the power of death.


Death has been swallowed up in victory, he says. Where O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting?


If the son of God was crucified and died and rose again to give us victory over death, then what does that say about how we are to live as Christians and followers of this man Jesus? That I think is the question that Paul continually puts to the churches he is writing to and it is a question we must continually ask ourselves. It is a deep question. It is a difficult question. It is a question that pushes us to ponder the meaning of our existence. As followers of Jesus, we are called to view everything in this world in the light of the resurrection. If we can do that, then we might just see that the things we argue about and invest huge amounts of energy in, those divisions really don’t matter that much…in fact nothing matters more than the love that God has shown us by giving us a life that death can not conquer.



Make no mistake, Jesus can and will meet you where you are. God can burst into your life at any time and in any place. You may encounter him as you go about your daily business, and he has some important things to say about how you live in this world. Listen to him, but also know that when he calls you to follow him, he is likely to call you to places away from the shore where you feel safe and secure. Don’t be afraid to go there. If you really want to be a follower of Christ, you can’t be afraid of fishing in deep waters.