What’s Up With Church? Using God’s Name to Justify Exclusion

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on May 16, 2021. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.

Exodus 20:1-7

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

These next four weeks, we’re going to be asking an important question, What’s Up With Church. We’ve designed a series that focuses on a Gallup poll whose results said that 52% of Americans don’t affiliate with a religious institution. As people of faith, we have an obligation to ask the question, why. I want to be clear that this isn’t a series that places judgment on those who aren’t religious or Christian. Instead, it asks the question of what we as people of faith, and we here as Christians might not be seeing that is hindering people from being a part of our church family.

I want to start us out by asking you what you think an answer to that might be. 

Why aren’t 52% of folks in America part of a religious institution?

Over the past two months, I’ve been surveying folks on social media about what they see as the biggest problem in the church, and we got hundreds of responses. Together with the staff, we combined those responses together and ended up with the four themes you’ll be hearing over the next month. This series is meant to be both an encouragement and a challenge for us, because we are doing so much good work, and we don’t want to stop here. My prayer is that beginning today, we embrace this opportunity for growth and discernment, so that together, we can continue making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Today, we’re starting off with our first “What’s Up With the Church”: Using God’s Name to Justify Exclusion. We’ll be talking about this in relation to Exodus Chapter 20. Contextually, we begin this passage right after Israel had been liberated from slavery. They’d been set out in the wilderness, where God provided bread from heaven, and then God makes a covenant with Israel, and Israel in return makes a covenant with God, a holy promise. If Israel is to follow God’s commandments, they remain God’s people. 

This holy promise from the Hebrew Bible is expanded on in the passage we read today, and it answers the question of “what does God command”. We’re looking at the two of the ten commandments, which are having no gods before God and not using the Lord’s name in vain. The first half roughly of the ten commandments deal with loving God, which we spoke about last week, including these two. But each one of them serves an important purpose for how we should interact with each other as well. 

Let’s look at the first one, “You shall have no other gods before me”. In other words, don’t have any false idols. This means that if we are to follow God’s commandments, we are putting God first intentionally, before our other commitments, before work, before the things that draw us further from God’s call on our life. Don’t give into temptations if they are pulling you from God’s truth, it says. 

And then the next commandment, from verse 7, says this “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God”. Other translations talk about this as not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which you may be familiar with. This is where I want us to focus today. I’ve always grown up thinking that this commandment referred to swearing, and I’ve certainly heard it cited when an f-bomb gets thrown out in a movie or tv show in front of an overbearing religious parent character.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that in fact, saying a swear word when I stubbed my toe perhaps wasn’t a cause for my soul being lost. It turns out, that what’s being talked about here, is the idea that if we are to be representatives of God, as Israel was when they covenanted with God, then we need to represent God well and truthfully. As image-bearers of God, we are to bear God’s image wherever we go. Both our words and our actions reflect how well we are doing that. 

Perhaps you can think of a time you had a great experience at a restaurant. Maybe the server was especially helpful or funny. You’re more likely to go back there, because the employee represents the restaurant well. Similarly, when we as Christians encounter people and we bear God’s image in a loving and kind way, whoever we encounter is more likely to come out of that interaction in a positive way. Unfortunately, the reverse can be true as well. 

I asked on social media for examples of when someone used God’s name to justify exclusion, and there were a lot of responses. Here are a few:

“I’ve been told by several pastors that I am not a woman; that I will never be a woman, and as such I will not be allowed to participate in women’s activities and events within the Church.”

“Christians tell me that I’m going to hell because of something I can’t control, and that they wish it weren’t true, but God said it was, even though Christ makes no mention of my sexuality being a sin.”

“The churches I grew up in wouldn’t let me lead my youth group’s mission trip because I’m female, and they cited Paul’s letter that said women should stay silent.”

I think you get the idea. 

Taking the Lord’s name in vain means using a relationship with God to represent God in a way that is for our own personal gain, or to further our own agendas in ways that aren’t of God. This is to say that when we exclude, dismiss, mis-quote, or use scripture as a weapon, we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. 

Unfortunately, this was the biggest of the four responses we got for this series, and it’s worth talking about. Wouldn’t it be nice if God thought the way we did, and believed all the same things we do, and even liked and disliked all the same people? It would be easy, right? But when we treat our religion as if God is on our level, versus treating God like the Savior and Creator God is, we misrepresent God and we communicate that God isn’t as powerful as God actually is. 

Some of the most helpful examples of this being done well, representing God accurately, comes from Jesus and his actions. Because God’s word became flesh and dwelled among us, through Christ, we can look at the way he lived as our guide. Jesus stood up for the marginalized, healed the sick, befriended everyone, even those looked down upon by society. He took care of himself and rested. He took the kindom of God into his own hands, even when it caused trouble. This is the way we are to live too. 

Rather than justify our actions that are not Christlike, where are the places where we can look to Christ as our guide in acting? What are the ways you see yourself upholding that commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain, serving as a representative of God, as one of God’s beloved?

Friends, I invite you to reflect on this as you go from this place today. May you practice representing God well in the communities you belong. And may you look to Christ as your example and guide for who God calls us to be and how God calls us to act. 

Let us pray: 

God of justice and promise, you have covenanted with us, a holy promise that we are your beloved. Help us to remember your word, that we are to love you and represent you in the world. Guide us to look to you in moments of uncertainty, ego, or exhaustion. In your name we pray, Amen.

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