Sermon #2 in Deconstructing Theology: Unlearning the Rules of Church

Here’s yesterday’s installment. What do you think?

The Idol of Certainty: When ‘I Don’t Know’ is Good Enough

I’m not exactly sure about the complete makeup of our audience this morning, so I’ll try to speak the next several minute in a bit of code. If you do not follow the code . . . don’t be alarmed, we’ll explain it all a little bit later. I want to begin by discussing the pandemic ruse of little children in Western culture about one Kris Cringle. Take a moment and decipher the code . . . pandemic . . .ruse (trick . . . deception) . . . Kris Cringle . . . got it? OK
I don’t know how everything went down when the ruse was exposed to you, perhaps by your parental units, but all children get to a certain age where they begin to ask challenging questions. They begin to figure things out. There is a bit of unraveling that each child has to go through. What about this and what about that? The big hang up before I could see the light was . . . let’s see if I can be diplomatic again . . . I was very skeptical about the financial capacity of my legal guardians to afford the commercial offerings with which I was given each year – got all that . . . by the way, if your kids are following this discussion, it’s probably time to let the cat out of the bag, Mom and Dad. Although it might be cool to see if you could get a snipe hunting expedition out of them before they get older. In any case, I can still remember trying to rationalize and think through things when it was all crashing down around me.
The fact is we all go through some kind of rite of passage when it comes to some of our childhood fantasies . . . there are others, but I think we’ve risked enough already. In any case, Donald Miller tells a very humorous story on his investigation of this current ruse that I felt is relevant to our discussion this morning. It happened in the bathroom, so be forewarned of some bathroom content. Donald was at a mall to see the big guy, and, before he got in line, he walked into the bathroom. As he stood at the urinal, who should walk up beside him, but the big man himself. Donald’s retelling of the event is worth repeating. . . .
“I remember being at the mall when I was eight and seeing [him] relieve himself in the men’s restroom. I was excited because we were going to see him that day, but I didn’t want to disturb him as he was hardly in his element. I watched him, though, his red suit, his white beard coming down his belly, his loud echoing belch coming off the walls, his spread-legged stance and the way he looked straight up at the ceiling as [he finished up] (original is “shook the dew off the lily, as they say” but I won’t read that]. It was quite an honor to stand next to him and use the big urinal and act like it was nothing substantial to be standing next to him, as though I didn’t even believe in him the way my friends Roy and Travis Massie no longer believed in him. I believed in him, though. . . . edited for reasons of exposing the secret . . .
[Him] In the bathroom was a very tall man, younger than you would think, a bit depressed in the eyes and unshaven under his beard (if such a thing was possible). [He gave his familiar laugh to me,] (ho, ho, ho) zipping up his fluffy pants. I didn’t say anything back. I just stood there and peed on my shoes. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders and walked out.
That is when I realized the most terrible thing I’d ever realized: [HE] doesn’t wash his hands after he used the bathroom. How awful, I thought to myself. And I was horrified. All those little bacteria, the little flus and colds and cancer bacteria that grow in small villages on a person’s hands if he doesn’t wash them. I could see in my mind the village of bacteria on [his] hands; a kind of Tim Burton version of the microbial North Pole; all the textures and contours of the villages correct, but the colors off; grays for greens, blacks for blues, lots of coughing, lots of mad cows.
I washed my hands and joined the family already in line. I watched [his] dirty hands grab kids to pick them up and set them on his knee. I watched as he patted their backs and, heavens no, their heads. It made me want to throw up, if you want to know the truth. I asked my mother if I could skip my meeting, and she told me I could go across the aisle to Ladies’ Underwear and sit quietly on the floor, which is what I did, sitting there quietly on the floor, pointing women toward lingerie I thought might fit them best, trying to be helpful, trying not to think about the fact that Him, of all people, doesn’t wash his hands.”
Maybe your experience of revelation was similar to this, maybe it wasn’t. We laugh and joke about it now, but when we are faced with that mind-blowing revelation, it’s not the best day of our lives. It’s tough. We get thrown off our equilibrium. It’s like we’re inside a box and the box has been shaken up and turned over multiple times and we have no idea whether we’re on our heads or our feet. “What?” We ask ourselves. “How could we have been so wrong?” It’s a grand revelation that begins a series of dominoes falling on top of the next ones.
And the more confident of that reality that you were, the “righter” that you were . . . the dumber you feel. The harder it is to take. And that may have been the first time when you were that wrong, at least that wrong – and we think to ourselves, we will never be this wrong about anything ever again. But we will be. We all live a lifetime coming to terms with various things that we just knew to be true . . . but aren’t. I’m not sure you can ever get used to that.
And sometimes, I think that what people most want out of their church experience is to know, for a fact, that they are right. They want to know that, at least about one thing in their lives, they can hang their hats on their doctrine, on their belief, and know that beyond a shadow of a doubt, they’ve got it nailed down, they’ve gotten it right. It’s comforting. Reassuring . . . not to mention a little good for the ego.
So, maybe that’s why you’ve come here this morning. For answers – right answers, anyway. Perhaps you’ve come here to sing the right songs, sung the right way, and hear the right message preached, preached the right way.
And in your defense . . . through the years . . . the church has become very good at being answer providers. Give us your questions, we’ll give you the answers. You leave happy because you got an answer to your question and we’re happy because you asked us a question and we still feel needed in society. But last week we looked at how the church’s answers haven’t always been right. They were experts of astronomy assuring everyone that the earth was the center of the universe . . . and . . . yeah, they had Scripture’s support for that. And we share in that same question . . . “How could they have been so wrong?”
I wish I had more answers. I really do. I wish the Bible gave us more answers. I wish the Bible would be more direct and specific at times. I wish God himself would come down and whisper the answers to the test questions in my ear. I wish that, when my son asks me “Dad, why did Jesus have to die on the cross for me?” I had a better answer to give him. I wish I didn’t have to stammer and stutter through something that is at the core of my faith.
There’s an old story in the Bible that teaches about someone who wish he had more answers. Many people believe that the story of Job is the oldest text in the Bible. It’s one of the most compelling stories in all of literature. The story of this fine, upstanding citizen, who has everything taken from him. Job, you may recall, had things figured out pretty well.
Read Job 1: 1 – 5.
Job was deeply religious. He watched out, not only for himself, but his entire family, offering sacrifices for their behalf and purifying them after feasts. You have to imagine that Job had a pretty good hold on things. He didn’t ask a lot of questions as he may not have felt the need to.
He was the guy you went to when you wanted advice, when you had questions. And then the tests begin . . .
In the first test Job loses his wealth and his children.
In the second test Job loses his health and his well-being.
After the storm of events, the only thing he has left is a wife who tells him to curse God and die, three friends who are going to spend the rest of the book trying to convince him that he obviously did something wrong to deserve this punishment, and many, many questions:
· “Why didn’t I die at birth as I came from the womb?” – 3:11
· “Why should light be given to the weary, and life to those in misery?” – 3: 20
· “Why won’t you leave me alone, even for a moment?” – 7: 19
· “What have I done wrong?” – 13: 23
· “Who can create impurity from one born impure?” – 14: 4
· “Where do people find wisdom?” – 28: 12
What was happening to Job didn’t fit in his way of understanding. That, perhaps, was
the cherry on top of his trial – he didn’t understand it. Notice how so many of the questions begin from the lips of Job . . . Why? He just wanted some answers. He wanted to be able to understand it. He wanted to place it into some kind of frame of reference, have some bearings about the whole thing. Anytime you are around someone who is experiencing a devastating tragedy the question they are quickest to ask is, “Why?” “Why is this happening?” If he had an answer it would make the pain at least a little more bearable. Job really makes this clear in the questions he asks in chapter 31:
– “Have I lied to anyone or deceived anyone?”
– “Have I refused to help the poor or crushed the hopes of widows who looked for me to help?
– “Have I been stingy with my food and refused to share it with hungry orphans?”
– “Have I put my trust in money for felt secure because of my gold?”
– “Have I looked at the sun shining in the skies, or the moon walking down its silver pathway, and been secretly enticed in my heart to worship them?
– “Have I ever rejoiced when my enemies came to ruin or become exited when harm came their ways?”
– “Have I tried to hide my sins as people normally do, hiding my guilt in a closet?”
“Just tell me what I’ve done!” comes the plea from Job. In tragedy we often focus
solely on the emotional aspect because it is so important and so fragile, but there is also a cognitive or rational aspect that has been effected – a side that says, “This doesn’t make sense.”
And then God speaks . . .
Read Job 38: 1 – 7.
And on and on God goes justifying His position as the God of the universe. The final chapters of Job are perhaps the most emotive of the entire Bible. The entire book has been building and building to this moment. Questions flying back and forth. Accusations flying back and forth, and then, finally, comes an answer . . . but not really an answer.
Job first responds with these words from Job 40: 3 – 5:
“I am unworthy – how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice , but I will say no more.”
In other words, Job is finally moved to saying, “I don’t know.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to say, “I don’t know.” Have you seem that commercial where the guy can’t get, “I love you” out of his mouth to his girlfriend”? That’s how I am about saying, “I don’t know.” Really, that’s how we all are. But being a parent has made it a little easier. Clark is full of questions, and I try to shoot back as many answers as I can, but he always gets to a question where I finally have to give in and tell him, “Clark, I don’t know.”
I think that the church is a lot like that when it comes to saying “I don’t know.” It’s almost as if we feel like telling someone “I don’t know” exposes us or lets them down. After all, we are Christians, part of the church, and we are supposed to be answer people. In reality, however, I think a lot more people would care more about what we had to say if we said, “I don’t know” more often. I like this quote from Donald Miller, which he writes just before the story we opened with:
“The very scary thing about religion, to me, is that people actually believe God is who they think He is. By that I mean they have Him all figured out.”
I know it is a lot more appealing for me to stand up here and give you all the answers. However, it is a lot more realistic to stand up here and tell you that more times than not, “I don’t know.”
This doesn’t mean that we jettison all the things that we believe. Instead, it means that we preface our beliefs with . . . this is how I understand God for now – but I’m certainly open to new ideas and new conversations. Consider some of these difficult questions:
· Does a person who has never heard about God go to hell?
· If a person isn’t baptized but shows all the fruits of the spirit in their lives, are they a Christian?
· What’s the “biblical” role of women in Christ’s church?
· What does the Bible teach about homosexuality?
· Are all people from other faiths hell-bound?
Imagine the difference in starting a conversation on these matters in humility stating,
“I really don’t know, I have some opinions . . . but I’d like to talk to you more about it” instead of, “I’ve got a pretty good idea, but you can try and convince me otherwise.”
I know this probably scares some of you to death because it speaks so contrary to everything you’ve ever heard in churches your entire life. Doesn’t the church have any authority? Isn’t there any truth to hang our hats on? I want to close with this story I ran across in my reading this week that I think speaks volumes for a new understanding of the identity of the church.
In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences up around their properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighboring farms out. This is a bounded set. But in rural communities where farms or ranches cover an enormous geographic area, fencing the property is out of the question. In our home of Australia, ranches (called stations) are so vast that fences are superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a well, a precious water supply in the Outback. It is assumed that livestock, though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die. That is a centered set. As long as there is a supply of clean water, the livestock will remain close by.”
We are so preconditioned by the idea of putting up doctrinal fences all around us, that most of us have never thought about another way. When there are fences erected, absolution is the stated case. We are stating, “We are right, absolutely, and there is no room for discussion.”
“But there are some things we know we are right about,” comes the response. Let’s make those the well at the center of who we are that keeps us together. Read 1 Corinthians 15: 3 – 8. Paul shares with us what those things are. As a church, let’s place these things at the center of who we are and anchor there, and leave some room for those who may differ on the other things.

I lost my footnotes on the copy – the Santa story comes from Donald Miller’s book Searching for God knows what and the ending story from Hirsch and Frost is from The Shaping of Things to Come.

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