Slideshow image

He is a little man in a long dark coat and a cocked hat, standing with one leg on a steep roof, playing the fiddle. He’s called the fiddler on the roof…and yet, he is all of us…trying to make some meaningful music out of our lives but lacking a level place to stand upon. “We are all fiddlers on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant little tune without falling down and breaking our necks.” And how do we keep our balance? Tevye, in the opening song says that we find balance in ‘tradition’.

To know in advance what God expects us to do–before a new wind threatens to blow us off the roof, before a new crisis shakes our foundations–would be a wonderful thing! But modern morality poses more questions than answers. And many of the questions we have today about issues like stem cell research, corporate finances and abortion are not directly addressed in the Bible. These are modern issues, some of whose elements may be found in the Bible, but not discussed in entirety.

The prophet Micah wrote, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This passage suggests that there are at least two distinct, but inseparable, dimensions of faithful living. First, there is a public, or social dimension identified as doing justice. Second, there is a personal, or interpersonal, aspect expressed by Micah as loving kindness. In both cases, we are to walk humbly with God. That means we are to let God guide both the public and the personal activities of our lives.

Today (and perhaps for centuries), the church is divided over moral issues. Author Jan Linn writes that “nothing among Christians is more common than ‘epistemological vertigo,’ a spinning of the head due to intellectual bewilderment, only we hardly ever realize that is what we are experiencing. We usually think it is frustration caused by people who refuse to see how wrong they are about something or other. Being absolutely sure of our point of view, it strikes us as totally enigmatic that others could think whatever it is they are thinking or believe whatever it is they believe. Thus, epistemological vertigo.”

Do you ever feel like a fiddler on the roof–perched atop an uneven roof trying to play the fiddle of life and not really knowing if you’re about to topple off the side or if you can hold on a little longer? Do you wonder about what it means to be a good person? Are you confused about moral issues and what you should believe as a Christian? Then today’s sermon may add more confusion to your life! (I’m actually serious; I would love to give you pat answers in a box but the fact is that tough issues put our Christian maturity to the test.)

Have you ever been at dinner with a person, or sitting at Sunday School with people around you and someone out and out tells you their opinion about a current moral issue without any apology? And if you disagreed, have you ever just kept your mouth shut? Sometimes, it just doesn’t feel safe to speak up. Many people refuse to discuss their deepest-held beliefs because they are afraid of being attacked or condemned. It should not be this way, especially in the church. It’s inconsistent with the Jesus we find in the gospels for churches not to foster an open and free dialog. But it takes spiritual maturity to disagree with someone respectfully, especially when our convictions run deep.

I actually think our church does pretty well at allowing diverse opinions. We have a lot of discussion and prayerful consideration of issues around here. But I’m not as convinced that we affirm those with whom we disagree as well as we could. In other words, we’re quick to have open discussions, but we aren’t as good at listening to the opposing view as we could be.

Nonetheless, we must remember that none of us is God. None of us can claim we have all the answers to society’s ills or that we know the right way to handle all of life’s questions. Nothing makes for a poor witness to our faith more than a self-righteous attitude. Self-righteousness leads to horrible things being done in the name of God. One of the basic requirements for respectful dialogue is humility.

Another challenge to answering moral questions is that there is moral ambiguity because of the nature of human life. Theories and principles can be clear, but living them hardly is. For example, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues often lied to protect themselves or someone else from the injustice of apartheid. We know that lying is wrong, but it can also become a necessary told for protecting innocent people from evil.

We have been discussing the book “How to be an Open-Minded Christian Without Losing Your Faith” by Jan Linn. This week’s sermon is obviously about what open-minded Christians can believe about morality. In his book, Linn addresses issues such as premarital sex, divorce, homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, separation of church and state, and prayer in public schools. My original intention was to follow his major points, but I quickly realized that 50 sermons could be preached about these topics–and, I have preached about the majority of those issues before.

On the information table in the foyer are copies of each of the previous sermons for you to pick up. And, at the end of the sermons I have included a short list of the books I have consulted for the sermon. All of these books are available for you to borrow from my library if you would like to do some additional exploration on a specific topic. On today’s list of resources is a book, “Teaching Your Children Values” that I heartily recommend to parents – it is a 12-month program to teach children morals and ethics, complete with activities and suggested conversations. I think every Christian parent should read this book.

What I want to do with the rest of the time here is to talk about what moral traits open-minded Christians need to foster as we teeter on the roof pondering life’s questions.

Our scripture for today provides an outline for morality from Jesus’ own teachings. Read Matt. 7: 1-5, 12-20.

Do not be judgmental. Although this is one of the basic teachings of Christianity, we Christians have a very difficult time learning to be non-judgmental. Perhaps it is easier to explain away someone else’s problems by believing that something they did contributed to their problem and therefore, it couldn’t happen to us. We’d love to be able to find a reason for mental illness, for alcoholism, for poverty, for HIV/AIDS because then we could be “safe”. But until that time, we tend to blame the one suffering for their illness or problem in hopes that if we can just come up with why they have it, we will be safe.

But the scripture is specific: “Do not judge lest you be judged.” In other words, if I complain about that heavy-set woman at the checkout stand having no business buying Twinkies, then I need to be ready for someone to think poorly of me for the way I raise my children or keep my house. Passing judgment on others becomes a very slippery slope that ultimately leads us into self-righteousness and superiority. And those are not Christian qualities.

That is why Jesus explains that, “Forgiveness is given to us in the measure we offer it to others and that a Christian’s major concern should be for his/her own sin and moral judgment.”

The second trait for Christian morality is: Take the road less traveled. Or, as the scripture puts it: “enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.” If everyone else is doing it, it’s probably not the morally upstanding choice. Just because everyone speeds doesn’t make it right. Just because everyone takes a few office supplies home from their employer doesn’t make it appropriate. Just because “little white lies” are socially acceptable doesn’t mean those lies are morally acceptable. And yet, we like to justify our morally questionable activities by citing those around us. The path of least resistance is not necessarily the Christian way.

Jesus also cautions us to be careful of the teachings of charismatic personalities. Jesus calls them false prophets in sheep’s clothing, ravenous wolves. In our culture, they come as slick politicians, eloquent speakers, smooth talking preachers, and cultural icons. They are the ones we love to follow. And yet, somewhere along the road we realize that we’ve lost our own identity and values in exchange for a feel-good leader’s teaching. Those who wish to build strong moral character must learn to read and think for themselves.

It’s been said that actions speaks louder than words. The root of that saying is part of our text for today. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but the one who does the will of God who is in heaven.” Many times this verse has been manipulated to explain why those people are not going to get to heaven. No. To use this text (which starts by saying no to judge) as a way to judge others is a perversion. Instead, each reader must consider the words in relation to him/herself. “Am I doing the will of God?” Period. Not, am I doing the will of God as compared to others. Not, am I doing the will of God except for these things everyone understands. The question is am I doing the will of God. Yes or no. Am I living the way I say I believe? Yes or no. Christian morality is about putting into practice what you believe.

These are the beginnings of moral living non-judgmental living, taking the road less traveled, being careful to avoid the teachings of charismatic personalities and paying attention that our actions echo our words.

When we are perched up on a rooftop, standing on only one foot and trying to fiddle our way through life, these moral traits will provide balance and sure footing.


Resources Utilized:

Eyre, Linda & Richard. “Teaching Your Children Values”. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Hannigan, James P. “As I Have Loved You; the Challenge of Christian Ethics”. New York: Paulist Press, 1986.

Linn, Jan G. “How to Be an Open-minded Christian without Losing Your Faith”. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. “The Responsible Self”. San Francisco: Harper, 1963.

Smedes, Lewis B. “Mere Morality; What God Expects from Ordinary People”. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 198