#metoo and the Bible

Our theme at Alum Creek for 2018 is “This is Us.” At the end of 2017, we gathered hundreds of pictures of the people who make up our church and through the website Picture Mosaics, we created this image of our stained glass windows. We had a large 3′ x 4′ canvas printed that we will display throughout the year as a vivid reminder of who we are.

I love the symbolism of all of these pictures bleeding into the larger image that represents our church (the stained glass hangs in the center of our sanctuary as a focal point). We are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and this image illustrates our small role in a larger picture. In conjunction with this theme, every Sunday in 2018 our sermon focuses on a different character from the Bible: 52 different individuals highlighting the mosaic of people who make up the story of Scripture. It was difficult to narrow the studies down to only 52, but I did my best to select a group of diverse men and women from the Old and New Testaments who help highlight many diverse voices that are a part of Gods’ kingdom. With such a diverse cloud of witnesses, it is easy to find ourselves voices that are sympathetic to our own.

As I was compiling our list of studies for 2018 at the end of last year, the number of women outing male predators, offenders, and criminals had grown from a steady trickle to an outright avalanche. Accusations rained down on some of the most powerful and successful men in Hollywood and Washington sparking a movement that coalesced under the hashtag “metoo” and more recently “time’sup.” From Weinstein to Spacey and from Keillor to Franken, accusations have ranged from the inappropriate and uncomfortable to the violent, manipulative, and outright criminal.

The Bible has more stories than we’d like to admit that victimize (the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19), ignore (Bathsheba), and undermine (1 Timothy 2:11-15) the voice and standing of women. Any honest study of the people in the Bible must confront these difficult stories.

At the end of the 2017, I settled on the 52 different people we would study and matched each of the 52 names with a Sunday. It just so happens (call it the Holy Spirit; call it coincidence), our character study yesterday was Tamar. There are actually two different Tamars in the Bible, and they both are the victims of sexual crimes. As I prepared for yesterday’s sermon with Larry Nassar’s trial unfolding as a background soundtrack, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a more timely topic. I attempted to weave the stories of the two Tamars with those of Larry Nassar and Andy Savage (a Memphis, megachurch pastor who recently was forced to deal with a skeleton from his closet.) It was not an easy message to try and orchestrate and it’s not as if a bow can be tied on a neatly wrapped up conclusion. Instead, I tried to live in the tension and get out of the way and listen to the victims that are so often ignored. The manuscript is below if you are interested in reading it.

Tamar and Tamar

January 28, 2018 (preached at Alum Creek Church)

As the idea for this year’s theme came to me back at the end of last year, I spent several days compiling a list of the characters that we would study this year in our sermons. One of the things that really drew me to this overview was that our stories would come right out of the Bible and we would cover all kinds of topics. “This is us” is the glue that holds this year together, and, like those of us in this room, God’s kingdom is a diversity of people with all with kinds of stories to tell. I came up with about 100 different people we could study, and many of them would have similar stories to tell, so as I weeded down the number to 52, I tried to provide the most diverse group of characters I could.

As we go through the year there will be a few mini-themes – for instance, during Lent we’ll consider several different people who have a story to tell from the Passion of the Christ, and we’ll study Esther on Mother’s Day and Jacob on Father’s Day, but generally speaking there was a lot of randomness as to when each particular person fell.

As sexual misconduct, abuse, and even violence against women was beginning to make major news as national figures like Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo movement or trend began to take shape and it felt like something we should talk about. As a matter of fact, there were many stories of women in the Bible who could say #metoo. Their voices are crucial to the Bible’s story and it just so happened that one of those stories fell today. I had no idea, when I determined the dates of these studies that this week would be the week of Larry Nassar’s trial and sentencing. This couldn’t be a more timely message from the Bible, but I have to warn you, it won’t be pleasant.

This morning I am going to try to get a lot said in our time together. As I set out to really tackle this story this week, my passion and conviction grew stronger and stronger. I began with an appreciation that we had stumbled upon a relevant topic and figured many of you would be interested in listening, but I ended with a broken heart and a conviction that this message is long overdue in our church.

One of the challenges that we face in this day and age, and it seems to get more difficult as the years pass, is we have a tendency to allow the world of the media, politics, academia, and social media to determine the rules and language of our discussions. If we are honest, many of us – maybe all of us – have allowed the media and our social media circles to provide the framework by which we think through and discuss important matters. We start with the news, our favorite talk show personality, a trendy hash tag, some article we saw on Facebook, or other media outlet, then sprinkle on a Bible verse or some quasi-Christian perspective to try and justify our voice on controversial matters.

I believe that God calls us to something much more radical than that. Jesus wasn’t calling his people to separate their “personal spiritual lives” from their lives of activism and action. A faith in Jesus Christ is one that mandates an awareness and calls our voice to social concerns. How do we address trendy and timely social matters without getting sucked into the debates, the pandering, and the fickleness of it all? I believe it is through knowing the story! When we immerse ourselves fully in the biblical text, it’s amazing how relevant that we will find it to be! And we are going to see that from two stories in the Bible this morning.

Today we study the story of Tamar, but the first thing that you need to know is that there are two Tamars in the Bible and each of them have a #metoo story to tell. We are going to hear from them both this morning.

We are going to talk about the second Tamar first – just to confuse you! – she was the daughter of David and her story is told in 2 Samuel 13. The scene is set for us right out of the gate, and we can all paint the picture clearly with our mind’s eye. This is a story that is familiar to us all – it’s one that has been told way too often.

Tamar was Absalom’s sister and she was beautiful, and their brother Amnon was smitten with her. There is some ambiguity here as to whether Amnon was Tamar’s half-brother or full brother (the way the text is written, they are most often seen as half-siblings), but that gets us away from the story. Amnon was obsessed with Tamar. She was so beautiful he couldn’t think of anything else. The text says that “he was so obsessed with her he became ill.”

I want to make this very clear as we set out to study this story, Amnon is a predator. It may be his sister, but as I read the story, notice how eerily familiar the story sounds.

2 Samuel 13:1-20

At several points in this story, we see the work of a predator.

First, there was the manipulation by Amnon to make his friend feel sorry for him. “What’s your problem?” he asks. Predators, somehow, have a tendency to make themselves out to be the victims of their own poor choices. He was just hung up on this young women’s beauty? Really? There even seems to be an inherent belief here where Amnon is showing that “he can’t help himself.” How often do we hear that from predators?

Amnon displays the manipulation of language that is common in predators. He tells Jonadab that he’s in love with “Absalom’s sister” – distancing himself from her. However, when she is in his presence, he tries to appeal to her care and concern by referring to her simply as “sister.”

He invokes pity and plays off the good intentions of his sister. She has genuine concern for him, and he uses that against her. He goes through this long process of creating the perfect setting by which to take advantage of her, sending everyone out of his room and being left one-on-one with the object of his obsession.

Tamar protests. At least marry her – she pleads. There’s disagreement about whether this would have been a legitimate option anyway since they were related, but David had been known to bend the law, so who knows? She’s trying to come up with any kind of excuse or alternative she can because she is threatened and she sees where this is going. But it turns out he wasn’t sick at all, and he jumped at her and overpowered her and raped her. And then he casts her aside. For as much as he loved her, now he hated her even more. Maybe it was a guilty conscience, but mostly it was the selfish disappointment of finally taking what he wanted. While Tamar . . . we’re told that she lives as a desolate woman.

What an unsettling story. Everything about it makes me feel dirty and want to think happy thoughts to try and rid my mind from it.

In many ways it’s the story of Larry Nassar. Some sick person with a twisted view of sex and a selfish drive to use his situation to take whatever he wants and prey upon the vulnerable and well-intentioned. And just like Larry Nassar was protected at different levels by the institutions he served, Tamar receives no justice. The text goes on to say that when King David heard about what happened he was very angry . . . but we get no sense that he did anything about it. As a matter of fact . . . as the story unfolds in 2 Samuel, their brother Absalom takes revenge into his own hands and kills Amnon. Perhaps what may be the most shocking of all parts of the story, we are told that David mourned many days for his son Amnon. And while we may not expect him to rejoice over the death of his son, we are left with that lingering thought, “What about Tamar?”  David was angry about the rape, but did he ever mourn for Tamar? The absence of such a sentiment speaks volumes. No further mention is made of her and we are left with the impression that she never gets over it – living in desolation – like so many victims kicked to the side of the curb and forgotten.

The other story of the other Tamar is told in Genesis 38. The circumstances surrounding that story are different, but the same. I’ll do my best to summarize this story without reading through it entirely. The story is really the story of Judah and his three sons: Er, Onan, and Sheilah and the plot revolves around the ancient practice of levirate marriage. If a husband dies before providing an heir to help care for his wife, the husband’s brother would (in a way) inherit the widow and would be responsible for providing an heir. It’s an ancient practice that is a tradition in many parts of the world, and was practiced at this time (as hard as it might be for us to wrap our heads around it).

We are told that the eldest brother, Er, married Tamar, but he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and was put to death. Thus, Onan is left to provide an heir for Tamar, but (in one of the more sexually explicit passages in the Bible) he had sex with her but released his semen on the ground, so as not to get her pregnant. He was subsequently put to death because that was evil in the sight of the Lord. (We could spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out all of this since it seems so strange to us, but we’re not going to take the time to unpack that story now).

By this point, Judah is heartbroken because he has lost his two oldest sons and only his youngest is left and he’s worried about losing him too. Therefore, Judah sends Tamar away until Sheilah is older, and he tells her they will send for her when his son is older. From the beginning of that story, we hold out very little hope that Judah actually has the intention of ever giving Sheilah to Tamar and he doesn’t.

Years later, Tamar gets word that Judah is coming to the town she has been staying, pretends to be a prostitute, and solicits Judah. Judah accepts, and as payment he promises to send her a young goat from his flock. He allowed her to keep his staff and his seal at collateral. When the goat was sent back for payment, the prostitute was nowhere to be found, and so the matter was forgotten (apparently, Judah thought he got a free night with a prostitute).

Tamar becomes pregnant and word gets around after a few months when she can no longer hide it. Judah . . . of all people . . . Judah is outraged and suggests she be put to death as an adulterer. Tamar wisely uses the staff and seal to prove that it was Judah who had had sex with her. The end of the story is one of the more dramatic in the Bible:

Genesis 38: 24-26

 

To fully understand this story, you have to consider the context. It is told directly before the story about Potiphar’s wife and Joseph. There is an intentional stark contrast between the actions of two of Israel’s sons – Joseph and Judah. But just as with the other Tamar story, we see again the trappings of what the whole #metoo movement is bringing to light.

If we see Larry Nassar in Amnon, I wonder if we don’t equally see Andy Savage in Judah. If you aren’t familiar with the story of Andy Savage, it broke during the first week of the year. Savage is the teaching pastor at a mega-church in Memphis, TN. During a service on January 7, he read a statement when he confessed a “sexual incident” that happened when he was the youth pastor for a church in Texas. As he was driving a 17 year old teenager home from church, he drove past her house, into a secluded wooded spot, groped her breasts, and made her perform oral sex on him. Then he told her to never tell anyone – that she needed to take it to her grave.[1]

Much like Amnon, Savage knows the manipulative power of words, and as he read his statement used many slight variations to minimize his assault.[2] He was “in college” (although he was in college, he was 23 – she was 17); “over 20 years ago” – it was 20 years almost to the day; it was a “sexual incident” – he never mentions oral sex or that he groped her breasts; he says he “resigned from ministry” – though the congregation threw him a going away party; he says he “accepted full responsibility for his actions” – though it does not appear he nor the congregation ever reported the incident to police for the crime that it was. This story highlights breakdowns in responsibility and accountability. He went on to work as a pastor of young adults at a church in Memphis and you wonder if it was ever told to them.

This story reeks of the deception and dysfunction of these two biblical accounts. As someone who has been in personal and one-on-one situations with girls my entire ministry, when I read this story it made my stomach wrench. This was too close to home. And the Nassar case has reminded us of just how powerful these positions of power can be.

This is a difficult sermon to wrap up. I don’t know how these stories hit you. You could be a man who needs to repent of the way you treat or think about women. You could be a man who has skeletons in your closet that need to be dealt with. You may be a woman who hears these stories and knows the hurt they bring more intimately than you’ve ever told anyone. You may be a woman who hasn’t had such heinous acts done to you, but you know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable and objectified.

There are lessons here for us all, and I just don’t have time to give any of them justice, so I will leave you with these.

1 – You are the loved and cherished child of God. No one can take that away from you.

2 – You have been created with dignity and filled with meaning, regardless of your gender.

3 – God desires harmony and mutual respect between all people – and calls his people to be examples.

Mostly, I just wanted to get out of the way this morning. I am far from perfect, but this is a topic that (and I am grateful to say) has not landed close to home. I empathize as much as I can, but it is impossible to fully comprehend. Towards that end, I can think of no better way to end than with the words of the very first woman who spoke out against Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults. She was the first one who bring accusations forth paving the way for over 100 others, and she was also the final victim to read a prepared statement at the trial. Her words are a perfect closing to this morning. Her name is Rachael Denhollander. The boldness and conviction it must have taken to stand face to face with this man, and to utter these words of truth and grace are beyond my ability to understand. This is what the Gospel looks like. [You can view the entirety of her remarks here. We played the excerpt below which comes around the 27:08-29:02]

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

[1] Her story originally appeared here: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2018/01/05/i-thought-he-was-taking-me-for-ice-cream-one-womans-metoo-story-of-molestation-by-her-former-youth-pastor-andy-savage/

[2] Full service was broadcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyKdluNR95I

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The Book of Tobit and Entertaining Angels

Over the past two months or so, I’ve been preaching a series entitled, “Through Their Eyes.”  In it, we have considered the perspective of various people in Scripture who are often overlooked, neglected, or ignored.  We considered the story of David and Bathsheba from Bathsheba’s perspective, Ezekiel from the perspective of his wife, Jesus through the eyes of children, etc.  As we have neared the Christmas season, we have considered the perspective of those in the Nativity story – particularly those whose voice is fairly absent.

This past week, I tried to get behind the eyes of the innkeeper.  What would his thoughts have been?  How would he understand the unfolding Christmas story?  As I considered his perspective, I was drawn to the following passage: Hebrews 13: 2 – “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This verse has always been a mystery to me.  I think we’ve tended to over-sentimentalize it thanks to the likes of Roma Downey and this sense that there are angels walking around among us and we may get a glimpse once in awhile.  While I don’t want to flatly deny that, I don’t think that is the point of this text.  Instead, I think the Hebrew writer harkens back to the days of Abraham when he had three visitors that ended up being angels with a message from the Lord.  I think that’s the point – we never know who may come into our midst with a message from the Lord.

Which made me think of the inn keeper.  How could he ever have known that his inn was going to be host to the birth of the Messiah?  If he had known, surely someone would have given up their room!  In any case, I think the exercise is helpful, and inspired, what I thought was one of my better sermons.  Unfortunately, it didn’t get recorded, but I thought I would include it here on the day after.  In it, I tell the Apocryphal story of Tobit.  I chose this story because I knew it would be largely unfamiliar to the folks in our church.  At the same time, it is an endearing and encouraging story that highlights the ever-present working of God in our midst.  I used a little creative fiction to place it in the context of Mary and Joseph showing up at the inn – I thought they complemented each other nicely.  I hope you are encouraged by it.

December 15, 2013 –  Alum Creek Church

A Message from the Inn Keeper

            Very seldom do you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “Today is going to be the greatest day of my life.”  Equally true, we never wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “Today is going to be the worst day of my life.”  The greatest days . . . the worst days . . . they just seem to happen, usually when we least expect them.  We’re never looking for them – most of the time that’s what makes them great . . . or awful.  I can still remember the greatest moment of my life.  I didn’t know it was at the time.  As a matter of fact, I didn’t know it was for a few days.  I can still remember it like it was yesterday.  But I probably should back up a minute.

            I’m an innkeeper in Bethlehem.  I like my job because I get to meet a lot of different people.  Bethlehem isn’t exactly a happening place, but being an innkeeper you get to meet a lot of interesting people who happen to be passing through.  We would have our busy times, but most of the times business was sporadic, but I did get opportunities to talk with people and learn their stories.  People are interesting – I think those conversations is all that gets me through living in such a small town.  They give me a lot of stories to tell. 

            Once in awhile, however, things would get pretty hectic.  Life under Roman rule could be pretty unpredictable.  The armies would just show up and issue edicts completely out of the blue letting us know that things in Rome had changed and for some reason that was going to affect us.  Way out in the boonies, we always seemed to be the last to know.  A few years back, Caesar had issued a decree that everyone needed to report back to their hometowns so that a census could be taken.  We all knew that meant more taxes and a lot of extra expenses on our behalf having to travel back to our hometowns.  But for me, that meant big business because people didn’t stick around in Bethlehem for long.  Most people couldn’t wait to get out of here.  So, when the government started telling everyone that they had to go back to their hometowns, I could hear the dollar signs cha-ching-ing in my head.  There were a lot of folks that would have to be heading back here. 

            I don’t think we had ever filled up the inn as fast as we did during that census.  I had people who had never met each other staying in rooms together so that we could squeeze as many people in as possible.  I had people laying all over the floor of the lobby, until I couldn’t squeeze a single other person in.  It was stressful and you can imagine how it can be living in such close confines to each other.  For the most part, we made due, and everyone just wanted to get the business taken care of so that they could go back home. 

            At night, we would all gather in the lobby and tell stories to help pass the time.  I can still remember the story that was told on the most memorable night of my life.  As a matter of fact, I can remember the most memorable people I’ve ever met came in and interrupted this story, because they were looking for a room. 

            The story came from time of the exile, when Israel had been ruled by the likes of the foreign kings like Shalmaneser, Sennacherib and Esar-haddon.  Maybe these names don’t mean anything to you, but these were foreign kings that completely destroyed the pride of Israel.  They took us captive.  These were dark times for Israel, and stories like this of hope and overcoming are what helped us keep our optimism.    

            It was the story of Tobit, a faithful follower of Yahweh.  Tobit was a righteous man much like Job was a righteous man.  His acts of charity and care were well known throughout the land.  He was the only one out of his family who kept the festivals, maintained a kosher diet, and upheld the laws of Moses.  He tithed, as commanded, in Jerusalem, but went beyond the required tithe.  He distributed an additional tithe around Jerusalem, and gave a third tithe away to orphans and widows.  By all accounts, Tobit was a righteous man. 

            God rewarded Tobit’s faithfulness by making him the buyer for King Sennacherib.  He would travel to other nations to buy things for the kings.  With his high position, Tobit maintained his devotion to Israel: he still kept a kosher diet, if he came upon any Israelite corpses, he would wait until evening and provide them proper burial, and kept feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and anyone the king would have killed, Tobit would make sure the body was buried.  That is until someone told the king about what Tobit was doing.  When the king found out, Tobit ran away so that he wasn’t killed, and all of his property was confiscated. 

            Only a short time later, 40 days, Sennecherib’s sons killed him, and his son Esarhaddon took over the throne.  He appointed Tobit’s nephew to an important role within the cabinet: chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and accountant.  He helped Tobit return to Nineveh.  He returned to his practice of burying the dead, until one night, after he had buried someone, he went to sleep next to a wall.  He didn’t know there were sparrows in the wall, and one of the birds pooped in his eye.  It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.  It blinded him.  He went to the doctor but it just made it worse.  He was left to the care of his wife who took care of the family as a seamstress.

            Tobit becomes depressed and prays for death.  At the same time, a woman named Sarah prayed that God would end her life.  Sarah had been married seven times, but each time she was married the husband died before he was able to consummate the marriage.  A demon named Asmodeus was in love with her and killed all of the men who were married to her.  No one knew that this demon was involved, so they all believed that she was cursed, which made her distraught, and she, like Tobit, cried out for God to end her life. 

            The Lord heard both of their prayers. 

            Tobit had a son named Tobias.  Tobit’s dying wish was for his son to be taken care of.  Tobit told Tobias about some money that he had in a far away land that would be his if he went to get it.  Tobias found a guide named Raphael to help him on his way.  As they went along their journey, a large fish jumped out of the water and attempted to swallow Tobias’s foot.  Raphael told him to capture the fish.  When they had done so, he instructed Tobias to cut the gall, heart, and liver out of the fish.  Raphael told Tobias that the smoke from burning the heart and liver would keep evil spirits away, and the gall was a powerful anointing oil that could be used to heal people’s eyes. 

            Raphael led Tobias to the household of Sarah – who happened to be single and was his kinswoman – someone who in the ancient world could be taken as a spouse.  Tobias was told of the woman’s problems with her previous seven husbands, but was reminded by Raphael of the ability of the burning fish liver and heart to keep demons away.

            Tobias took Sarah with great delight, and Sarah was delighted to have Tobias.  They were married, and as they set out to consummate their marriage, Tobias remembered the words of Raphael and put the fish’s liver and heart on the fire.  Asmodeus fled to the remotest part of Egypt where Raphael chased him and bound him. 

            Sarah’s father was so sure that Tobias was going to die, that they actually had a grave buried for Tobias.  When they sent in a maid to check on them, and she reported that she had seen them both lying there, they immediately praised God. 

            The family threw a huge wedding party – by the way, they filled the grave in while they slept so Tobias never knew their doubts, and Tobias subsequently went and found the money that was his father Tobit’s.  By this time, Tobit was becoming worried by his son’s long absence.

            Tobias’s mother became overwhelmed by grief, certain her son had died.  She would rush out to the last place she had seen him, and look down the road as far as she could, and for as long as she could, just praying for his safe arrival.  When he didn’t arrive, she would go back to her home and cry herself to sleep before arising to do the whole thing over again the next day. 

            Then . . . finally . . . one day as Anna looked down the road down which she had last seen her son, off in the distance, she began to make out what looked like him and his traveling companion – though there were additional members of the party now.  In a scene similar to your parable of the prodigal son, Anna, Tobias’s mother, came running toward him and embraced him, and kissed him, and said, “I can now die in peace knowing you are alive and well.” 

            Tobias has already had his servants prepare the gall from the fish and as soon as he saw his father, he rushed to him and rubbed the gall on his eyes.  He rubbed the ointment on his eyes blew on them, and then peeled the ointment back.  Eyesight came flooding back to Tobit and he cried out to his son, “I can see you!  I can see you!” 

            Tobias introduced his wife to his mother and his father, and the rest of his family.  They celebrated with yet another wedding festival. 

            It came time to pay their guide Raphael, and Tobias had no idea how he could ever repay him.  He had helped him find a wife and remedy her demon problem, he had led him safely to recoup his father’s money, and had healed his father’s blindness.  He and Tobit both believed that he was due half of all that he had brought back with him. 

            They called a meeting with Raphael and prepared to tell him how grateful they were and how they could never truly repay him for his kindness and over-and-above job as a guide.  As they met with him, he was about to tell them something that would blow their minds. 

            And it was right here . . . right at the perfect moment in the story – the climax, when everyone is on the edge of their seat there in that jam packed lobby, that two wayfaring Jews made their way into the lodge.  They were exhausted and looked distraught.  “Sir, forgive our intrusion,” the man began, “but we have had a long and difficult journey.  My wife is near full-term with our child, and we have returned to Bethlehem for the census, but can’t find a room.  Can you please help us?  We’ll take anything – even a space here in the lobby.  Just a corner, a floor – anything to get us from the exposure outside.” 

            My heart was moved, but what could I do?  We had already turned away many.  If it wasn’t for his pregnant wife I would have been less patient and certainly less cordial in my response, but my hands were tied.  If exposure was their concern, we could grant them safety, but nothing in the way of personal accommodations.  We had a stable that was secure.  They could stay there.  I didn’t feel as though I had done them much of a favor, but I had done all that I could do.  Tired from their travel, they were glad to have come to some kind of destination, even if it meant sleeping next to a horse and cow. 

            We helped them move their things into the stable and did the best we could to help her get comfortable.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone more exhausted.  She was asleep nearly as quickly as her head hit the straw.  Once they were settled I came back to the lobby and was surprised to see several who were still there waiting my return.

            “How does the story end?  What did Raphael say?
Something none of them saw coming.  Tobit and Tobias had prepared to give Raphael half of all the money and possessions he had returned home with – this was no small fortune.  But, Raphael had had a secret the whole time.  Raphael was the answer to Tobit’s and Sarah’s prayers.  God had heard them and sent Raphael.  Raphael was one of the seven angels who stand before the Lord.  God had sent him especially to minister to Tobit and Sarah, and none of them had ever known it. 

            At that, everyone in the lobby burst out into a rambunctious applause – I had to get them quieted down and remind them that people were sleeping!  But that was how the story always ended.  People like to know that God is involved in this world.  People like to know that God works among us. 

            And that’s the moral of the story isn’t it?  You never know when you are in the presence of one of God’s servants.  You never know when someone comes your way who will alter the way of your life forever.  But seldom do they come with a tee shirt on them that says, “I’m here to change your life” or “I’m here on God’s behalf.”  Instead, we fumble around and do the best we can to figure it out on our own.  I figure we miss opportunities here and there, but hopefully we catch them once in awhile. 

            Oh . . . and that couple that stopped by in the middle of the night when there wasn’t any room in the inn and they had to spend the night in the stable . . . there was something about them too.  She ended up having her baby out there – you know.  And I haven’t gotten that all figured out yet . . . but . . . something tells me . . . there’s more to that story too. 

Home: A Sermon

My summer schedule makes it nearly impossible for me to post regularly on my blog.  Whenever I do have a few moments to sit and plan and write, I always feel the urge to sit down and let my writing pour out.  Unfortunately, I have too many other responsibilities to make that possible.  I had just a moment – not long enough to post anything new, but thought I would share one of my sermons.  We are in the midst of a study of the movies and last week I preached from the Wizard of Oz.  Our theme for the summer movie series is entitled, “Our Deepest Longings,” and in it I am considering how movies prick our hearts at their deepest level.  All of our other studies are of more recently released movies, but months ago when I conceived this series, I had a real tug on my heart to preach this message from The Wizard of Oz.  It spoke a lot to me, and I hope you can find something moving it in as well.  Our sermons our posted online, but unfortunately, I haven’t had time to upload them in the past few weeks.  I hope to catch up soon.

We leave in just over two weeks for New York City and my final doctoral class – then things will begin to settle in for the fall rush.  Until then, here’s some musings on Home.

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 Longing for Home

Sunday, July 7, 2013

            When it comes to remembering my dreams, I’m a total failure.  I have heard from psychologists much smarter than me, that I have to dream, otherwise I would go crazy, so either I am insane (which would explain a few things) or, apparently, I am having dreams every single night, but I almost never remember them.  And when I do remember them – I get excited.  I wake up and tell Mary Beth – I remember my dream!  And as I begin to recount it to her . . . it’s really hard to remember the details, and slowly my words trail off – it’s like I was dreaming on an Etch a Sketch.  I realize that even when I “remember” my dreams . . . I don’t remember them very well.          

            Even those of you who do remember your dreams very well, for the most part, by the next day or week, you don’t remember anything about it.  You’ve completely forgotten the dream.  You’ve had other dreams to replace that one.  No doubt there are probably exceptions, and a few of you right now may be thinking of a dream you had years ago or a journal of strange dreams you keep  – but for the most part, dreams come to us like a Snap Chat message – it’s here for a few seconds – and then gone. 

            At the risk of entering the dangerous waters of psycho-analysis, most people realize that dreams somehow channel our deepest longings.  That they matter.  When we dream, it is the opportunity for our subconscious to let us know what it’s been thinking.  Most of us probably stay busy enough that we may not even realize that we’ve been thinking about certain things in our deepest places, but they often come out in our dreams.  Dreams are important, and interpreting dreams is an important part of psychiatry. 

            Our dreams are very much tied up in the movies.  Our movies appeal to our subconscious and, as has been my premise throughout the past few weeks, movies speak to us at that deep level – they reveal our deepest longings.  And so we’ve talked about our destiny and about redemption.  Today we take a break from the more recently produced movies, and go back to one of the best known classic movies, The Wizard of Oz. 

            Dreams, of course, figure greatly into The Wizard of Oz.  The audience is taken on this hour and a half journey, only to find out in the end, “You were there, and you were there,” and we had all been brought into Dorothy’s dream.  But just as our dreams tell us something, Dorothy’s dream tells her something and – I believe – tell us something. 

            We dream, typically, to see the world the way that we want to see the world.  N. T. Wright uses this realization to help argue for the existence of God.  Why is it that we all have this longing in us for things to be the way they are supposed to be?  Why do we know injustice when we see it?  Why do children scream, “That’s not fair!” when they have yet to learn what is fair and what is not?  How do they just know? 

                        How does it happen that, on the one hand, we all share not just a sense that thereis such a thing as justice, but   a passion for it, a deep longing that things should be put to rights, a sense of our out-of-jointness that goes on nagging and gnawingand sometimes screaming at us – and yet, on the other hand, after millennia of human struggle and searching and love and longing and hatred and hope andfussing and philosophizing, we still can’t seem to get much closer to it than peopledid in the most ancient societies we can discover?[1] 

            There is this longing of discontent that exists in the deepest recesses of every human being.  Even on our best days, even in our happiest moments, there is this feeling of fleeting – that those feelings are gone as quickly as they arrived.  This desire for things to be better, for people not to hurt other people, for beauty to be complete, for our needs to be fully met, for loved ones to be returned to life, for pain to cease . . . and on and such a list goes. 

            The Wizard of Oz is a movie about such a place.  A place where the scarecrow gets a brain, the tin man gets a heart, and the lion gets courage.  A place where the wicked witch is defeated and the road ahead is an easy-to-follow yellow-brick-road.  But even such a place does not fulfill Dorothy’s deepest longings.  She just wants to go home. 

            Home is more than a house or a hometown.  As the old folk saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.”  The ironic thing about “home” is that you can’t ever really go home, can you?  Home is this elusive idea of things being set just right, just the way you want them to be, just the way you remember them – but, home seems to always be just out of reach. 

            You go to your childhood home just to be reminded of how few things there are to do there.  You go to your high school’s homecoming just to be reminded of how different things are now.  You go to your home – your house now – just to be reminded of all the household chores that are waiting for you.  In all of our quests, we are reminded that this is not home. 

             When we close our eyes, when we tap our heels together three times and recite, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home,” what is home?  Is it where you grew up?  Is it your childhood house?  Your grandparents house?  With your grandparents who have passed away?  With your parents who are gone?  A child who has passed away?  In the hospital room at the birth of your first child?  Your wedding day?  What is it your longing for?  Where do you want to go back to?  Into the arms of your mother who took care of all of your needs when you were a baby? To a previous time in your marriage when you didn’t fight so much?

            We have this longing inside of us – we understand where Dorothy is coming from – but we also realize that Kansas isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Home is more a feeling and a deep longing than it is a reality in and of itself.  How  many times have we felt like we just needed some time at home – maybe back home with your parents or in your old town, or wherever, and you get there – and you just can’t quite find what you’re looking for. 

            It’s because this world is not our home.  Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14 as he is preparing to be taken away and crucified, listen if he doesn’t seem to be speaking to this very notion of home. 

            Read John 14: 1 – 14.

            In our discussion of longing for home, we get at one of the most fundamental and important theological teachings in the Bible: the already and not yet dichotomy of God’s kingdom.  On the one hand, this world is our home.  We pay its taxes, drive on its roads, listen and help create its music, watch its movies and television shows, inhabit its environment, love its people, work towards change and the betterment of all who live here, etc. etc.  Clearly, this wonderful and beautiful creation is from God and we are here to love and enjoy it. 

            And at the same time, we have this innate realization that it is not complete.  This world is not my home.  Jesus was going to prepare a place for his disciples.  If we push this text too far, we may think that there is an escape route and that all will be destroyed and God’s kingdom has nothing to do with this place.  However, if we push too far the other way, we fail to realize the utter brokenness of this place.  And how we long for another place. 

            Our deepest longings for home will never be satisfied by high school homecomings or family reunions.  Home is bigger than that – deeper than that.  Genesis explains that man was created in the image and likeness of God.  We will never truly be home, until we are with him. 

            Read 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18.

            This is one of the most unique passages in the New Testament.  It’s one of the few places that talks in detail about Jesus’s second coming.  It’s this picture of Jesus coming to take us home. I don’t understand how it will happen, exactly.  I don’t know all the ins and outs of the end of time, but this passage is a clear statement that, while there will be some continuity between this world and the next – there also will be some changes.

            With all the many things that our lives grow full of, it can be easy to take our eyes off of this ultimate goal.  We can be distracted from understanding of what home truly is.  Home is such a powerful emotion – we listen to songs about it, we watch movies about it, we schedule events to try and promote it . . . but we must always be reminded of what exactly home is.  Home is where our hearts are.  And hopefully our hearts are with Jesus. 

            [Play Carrie Underwood’s video to the song “Temporary Home” to close.]


                [1]  N. T. Wright.  Simply Christian.  6.

“Let the Little Children Come to Me” . . . in the Nursery

We had a really strange experience this past Sunday morning at our church.  Our congregation is small (100 folks or so), and with the flu going around and folks traveling, etc. our crowd was especially small this week.  A young couple walked in with two small children – looked like they could have been twins – maybe two years old.  A few of our members chatted with them briefly before the service and then one of our elders introduced me to the husband.  “He was asking about the nursery,” I was told.  As we have such a small church, and so many of our families have little children, we find it difficult – well, impossible – to provide a staffed nursery for parents.  Some of our parents will take their children out of the service if their child is particularly fussy or restless, but for the most part, we try to incorporate our children into our services and generally welcome the distraction of them crying out or running around.  It can be a little hectic and often is distracting . . . but so is life.  But it’s not just because “we can’t staff the nursery,” that we don’t have one.  It’s actually pretty intentional on our behalf.

Well, in regards to the young couple, it was a little difficult for them to understand and so they slowly and quietly left – before our services ever started!  I was astounded.  They never gave it a chance.  They, like many other people who visit our congregation’s Sunday services, they were looking for an hour-long service when they can focus on God and energize themselves without the distraction of their children.  And I get it.  We’ve got three kids of our own, and I remember the challenge of the years between when they became mobile and when they could sit down quietly and be entertained.   I know how difficult that was, particularly for my wife – and nothing I am about to say is said without that very legitimate concern and realization.

There’s nothing wrong with a church offering a nursery during their services – I need to affirm that as well.  However, there is something very pure, authentic, and important about our worship gatherings being truly family-oriented.  There is something to be said for having a time for age-appropriate messages and expressions, but that can never come to dominate our structure – as if that is the rule instead of the exception.  The idea that we need to “sanitize” our services of all distractions is disingenuous to what life really is.  We fall into the temptation of making them smoothly packaged with the outcome predetermined – a far cry from the realities of life.  I know that it can be difficult for older folks to “drown the noise out.”  I understand it can make it challenging for those without children to empathize.  We should be cautious and thoughtful about affirming that to those people often.  However, again, I wonder if that should be the exception instead of the rule (that is always making concession for those people). At the same time, it is an opportunity for us to be humbled.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think alot of this discussion revolves around the pastor’s ego.  We don’t want an entire week’s work (ie. sermon) to be “wasted” when the most poignant moment is drowned out by a screaming child.  I have been there.  I have done that.  And . . . now . . . it honestly just makes me smile.  I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously.  I think that’s what more church folks  need to do.  Most people could probably affirm the fact that a baby’s coo or a little child’s outburst is just as God-honoring and glorifying as my exposition on Ecclesiastes.  Postmodernism has knocked us off our pedestal, and we need to continue to let it due so.  Our worship gatherings should be collections of numerous worship experiences throughout the congregation.  It’s not dictated and directed by the leaders up front.  I look at it as if we are hoping to help create an atmosphere (with the guidance and participation of the Holy Spirit) where people can connect to God.  I hope that happens through the sermon, sometimes, through our worship in song, and our other public experiences.  However, I think more often, and more powerfully, those experiences are happening through side conversations, shows of affection, spontaneous prayers, a cup of coffee, and even (GASP!) unruly or disruptive children.

My wife probably had the best perspective on this event from Sunday.  A couple from our church recently adopted a baby – after waiting for several years and going through the ringer as nearly everyone who goes through the adoption process undergoes.  We prayed with them for years that this day would come.  And in my wife’s great wisdom she points out, “How can we go through those many years of praying and longing, and then finally celebrating alongside them . . . and then expect them to spend most of their time together with us . . .  out in the nursery?  That little baby is as much a part of our church and a part of each and every service as the oldest members among us.”

This is where we come to terms with being an intentional and missional church that doesn’t do things because they are “more palatable” or “attractive” to outsiders, but instead, are driven by our theology to make decisions that are holistic, God-focused, and . . . often times . . . more difficult.  Ironically, in our sermon on Sunday, we spent some time talking about not making your family your idol . . .

One Last Sermon

OK, this will be the last sermon I post for awhile – I don’t intend to make a habit of it. However, I thought the content of this series would make for a good series of posts. We’ve worked through a six-week series really of philosophy on what was hopefully a practical level. This final installment was intended to be a case study through the series of topics we covered in the earlier weeks. It seemed to me that the best topic that would make this as real as possible is one as controversial as the role of women in the church.

I find this an incredibly difficult topic to maneuver in the existing church (at least those churches like ours that have a patriarchal tradition so in-grained in their psyche). Something that seems to fundamental to me is so incredible offensive and troubling to many. I suppose the easiest thing to do is to find a group of people who agree with me and move on to somewhere else. Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem Christ-like. So, we plod on in our efforts here. Our folks were generous to hear these words, words that were contrary to the thoughts of a good many of our folks. Hopefully you find these words helpful to you.

I knew it would take some time to work through this material (which it did), so I ended up cutting out my personal examples of women in the church early on in the sermon.

Deconstructing Theology #7
Alum Creek Church – February 14, 2010

Women in the Assembly: A Case Study

When it came time to choose a topic as a case study for a postscript on this series on deconstructing church, I don’t know if I chose the topic as much as the topic chose me. There are a number of different “controversial” topics of discussion that we could have chosen in our attempt to engage in our past few weeks’ study, but one stands above the others in scope, diversity of thought, and the breadth of its implication.

Mary Beth and I have been a part of this church for six and a half years now, and this topic has been a constant source of conflict and disagreement since we arrived. We have had small group discussions, Sunday school classes, surveys, numerous private conversations, the elders have been studying the topic for a year . . . and as far as I can remember, we’ve never addressed it through sermon. The topic, of course, is the role of women within the church, and, primarily, in the church service. What else could we talk about this morning? As best I can tell, we pretty much are divided down the middle on this topic. There’s probably as many of you who think we should expand the role of women in the life of the church as there are those of you who think we should keep it as it is, or even pull it back a little.

This morning, we’re going to take a little more time than usual because of the scope of our study. Let it be said first and foremost, this is not some type of official statement leading way to everything changing next week. I am not as interested with the conclusions we draw, as much as I am with the process that we explore together.

This morning there are people here from a diversity of backgrounds. Some of you are thoroughly “Church of Christers” – born and raised, and others of you are probably not overly familiar with the Churches of Christ. It’s rare that you’ll actually hear our beliefs laid out specifically in the Churches of Christ – partly because there isn’t a lot of agreement about them, and partly because we like to keep it nebulous and by default are guided by tradition. If you aren’t from the Churches of Christ, here are a few examples from my experience in the Churches of Christ in regards to our stance on women and their role in our churches that I think seem humorous to anyone from the outside.

· I was baptized at the age of 12 and began attending men’s business meetings soon after (our church didn’t have elders and the decisions were made by the men of the church – as the Bible commands????) So, there I was a fifteen-year-old men with a stronger “vote” than my mom.

· Later I remember a woman of the congregation who taught the young teenagers in Sunday school who felt she could no longer teach the class because her son was in the class and he had just gotten baptized.

· There was a blind woman at our church in Defiance who had a wonderful singing voice – better than anyone else in the congregation. She sang loudly and led every song from her seat, but would have never been allowed to stand up and lead the congregation in worship.

· There was a woman at our church growing up who kept all the books for her husband’s business – was much more qualified than the man who kept the church’s books – but she was not allowed to keep the church’s books because she was a woman.

· At a church I worked at in Nashville we had a preschool ran by a woman. She could make announcements in front of the church regarding the preschool but was not allowed to be part of the regular announcement rotation.

I’m not trying to make fun of anyone’s beliefs, and I’m not trying to be trite about
a very challenging situation. I’m simply trying to give some specific examples of the implications of our teaching on the role women have within the Churches of Christ.

As I stated before, there is a developing diversity within Churches of Christ. There are a few who have women elders. There are a few that have women preaching ministers. There are some where women serve publicly. This is not common or usual. This is not what you have experienced here at Alum Creek. We fall in a very patriarchal tradition, and we have, by and large, maintained that tradition – for better or worse.

If we were to summarize our beliefs, more or less, for better or worse, here is what the Churches of Christ have taught . . . and what Alum Creek has followed.
1. Men are the spiritual leaders of their families
2. Men are the spiritual leaders of the church.
3. Elders are to be men.
4. Deacons are to be men.
5. Men conduct all parts of the public service done in front of the congregation.
6. Women are not to teach men (at least men who are baptized).
7. Women are not to lead public prayers in front of men (again, men who are baptized).
8. Women are not to lead men in worship.
9. Women may teach children who haven’t been baptized (with children who are baptized there is some uncertainty)
10. Women may pray in front of other women and children (and here we allow for women to pray in front of baptized men, but not on Sunday’s during our public services).
11. Women may not read Scripture in front of the church during its assembly.
12. Women may prepare communion, but may not serve it.
13. Women make announcements only on rare occasions and do not do so regularly.

The list could go on and on as we’ve confronted an ever-changing world. Circumstances and situations are constantly changing presenting new challenges and new understanding to our foregone conclusions on these matters. We’ve created new jobs that women are allowed to do. We’ve come across various exceptions and hypothetical circumstances that open some opportunities and close others for women.

This is one of those topics that everyone’s got an opinion on . . . and almost always a pretty strong one. Some of you stand diametrically opposed to the case I’m going to lay out this morning. Some of you are right there with me “Amening” and “That’s righting.” I don’t want to cause division. I don’t want to cause a fight. I don’t particularly like conflict. But this is an issue that cannot be avoided. I don’t like conflict, but I’m not afraid of it, and I believe that it is often the path that leads forward to the brightest future.

In order for this morning to be productive and beneficial, you must be able to see through your bias and strong opinions and listen to the approach. Watch how we go about this. The conclusion is not the objective today – it’s the process. When we’re all done today, I don’t care if you disagree with me or not – sure I’d like to think I will convince all of you. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about learning to live together amid our differences. It’s about allowing for diversity – diversity not just in thought, but in practice and action. I want us to learn from the process and help guide us into a new way of addressing disagreements and division attaining a new reality of unity. That’s why we’ve chosen to talk about something so divisive and controversial.

This directly affects half the world, and since there’s almost always more women in church than men . . . more than half in churches. And since we’ve all got mothers and wives, sisters and aunts, nieces and daughters . . . it affects us all. So . . . yeah . . . it’s kind of a big deal.

Through our time together this morning, we are going to attempt to work from the groundwork we have laid over the past month and a half. We’re going to go through the work we’ve done, week-by-week, and discuss how we address this specific issue and the implications each week has for this particular topic.

Confronting our Belief Structures

The first thing we talked about in this series is that we must come to terms with the reality that there are a number of elements that help predetermine our thinking on certain matters. In some ways, this may be the most challenging part of our journey together. It’s here you have to come to terms with why it is that you think the way you do.
I want you to do that right now. Just quietly, to yourselves. The first question you’ve got to ask yourself is: Am I a man or a woman? Pretty simple, but the more challenging question is – how does this impact your perspective?

· If you are a man and you believe women should not have a place in public worship
o Is it because you are afraid of listening to a woman?
o Are you intimidated by women?
o Do they make you feel insecure? Do they intrude on your machismo?
o Does that go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?
o Would you be open to giving up some of the power that has been given to you because you are a man?

· If you are a woman and you believe you should have a more open place in public worship
o Are you just envious or jealous of the men empowered to make decisions?
o Is this really about getting more power for yourself?
o Are you just succumbing to the prevailing winds of culture that tell you you can do anything a man can do?
o Does being kept from leadership positions go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?

· If you are a man and believe that women should have a more open place in public worship (as I strongly do), I’ve got to ask myself some pretty tough questions myself:
o Are you just trying to get out of a very important role that God has called you to?
o Are you being sidetracked by your desire to open doors for your wife and daughters and taking your eyes off of God’s desire for you?
o Is this really just a rebellion against the establishment? Are you against it just to be against it?
o Are you just succumbing to the prevailing winds of culture?

· If you are a women who believe your place is not in the public service:
o Is this your personal belief because of your preference? Is it just not your personality?
o Does this go against the way you were raised? The way you were taught?
o Are you afraid of an “Uncle Ben” like God will damn you to hell if you expressed a desire to be part of a public assembly of faith and thus paralyzed by fear?

Listen to the importance of all these questions. Hear how our experiences and
our education and our personality help shape our understanding of the world around us.

Consider how differently an ivy league-educated world-class lawyer would understand this topic versus a high school drop out who lives on the family farm out in Boondock, Iowa. Has God given the farmer special spiritual insight because of his maleness? Is there a “right” way for these two to understand this topic? How can the two of them ever agree about this? How he ever let her lead him? How could she ever let him lead her?

Our personality, our family situation, our education, our background, the culture in which we were raised – all this is going to heavily jade our thinking on this matter. It all impacts how we understand women. It all impacts our understanding of authority and power. And before we ever read a Scripture or enter a Bible class, all this is already at work within us.

So now, we’ve got to ask the question that we introduced that first week . . . what if I’m wrong? Your upbringing and education and family life has helped predetermine what you believe about this matter – so what if you’re wrong. I had to go through this process. I didn’t always believe that a woman’s role should be expanded, but I had to wrestle with this – my mom was wrong, my church growing up, and preachers I knew growing up – they were all wrong . . . and maybe I’m wrong now.

Pursuing Biblical Humility

We have to be able to chill out sometimes. We can very easily assume in churches that the stakes are so high that there’s never a time to laugh or joke or have fun. Even on vitally important matters like this, we’ve got to enter into discussions with the mindset, “I don’t have all the answers.” We have to be willing to look like a fool on occasion. To laugh at ourselves, and to be wrong from time to time.

In the second week of our study, we saw how Job’s prepackaged understanding of God was completely undone when his family and fortune were taken from him. We saw that God is often not who we had in mind. He doesn’t always work the way we’d expect.

In our discussion of women today, there are some unsettling aspects of our study. No matter what perspective you are bringing to the text, you are going to have some issues to deal with. There are two pretty critical texts that have to be dealt with if you believe women should have an expanded role in the church – both from Paul.

Read 1 Corinthians 14: 33b – 35.
Read 1 Timothy 2: 9 – 15.

Can I be honest for a moment? I hate these verses. I don’t know it if is OK to hate anything in the Bible, but I really wish these weren’t here. I get so tired of studying them. I get so tired of them being misused. And I have to be honest; I’m not sure what they mean. I have some ideas, but nothing I’m so convinced of I would die for.

I know those of you who really believe in male leadership and male dominance in the public worship assembly have lots of trouble getting past these passages. You hang a lot on them – especially the Timothy passage since Paul ties his argument to creation –though I don’t usually hear too many men argue very loudly that their wives are saved through childbearing, and I’m not sure anyone is ready to argue how this applies to our wonderful women here who don’t have children. I understand your apprehension. I respect your desire to be biblical.

However, I think your inability to get beyond these passages shows a bit of myopia. The biblical witness is much larger than these two passages. In the Old Testament, women were very much submissive to man, and yet Judges 4 tells the story of a woman leading the entire nation of Israel – she was the most powerful person in Israel. That’s not a prepositional statement like the ones we just read, it’s a reality that has to be dealt with.

And as for a woman teaching or having authority over a man, the Book of Acts tells us that the evangelist Phillip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21: 9). The closest thing you are going to find to prophesying to what we do today is preaching. These daughters no doubt taught and preached the Word of God. And then, earlier, in 1 Corinthians 11, a few chapters prior to what we just read above, in the midst of a discussion of headship (which is another passage many of you like in stating male leadership) the assumption is women prayed and prophesied (1 Corinthians 11).

There is so much study and more to be said here, but for our purposes this morning, I simply want you to see that it isn’t a black and white issue – that folks on both side of this issue have to acknowledge there are some things that you just don’t know.

Questioning Uncle Ben

In week #3, we talked about the Uncle Ben like God who paralyzes many with fear. If this is the picture you have of God, it makes this issue incredibly difficult. Decisions to change anything will be riddled with fear. “If we change our practice or our thought, he might damn us to hell.” Hopefully, we’ve been able to show through this series that this is a false idol that some serve, and is not the true picture of God.

The God that we serve is not afraid of our questions. As we experience new realities in our world, it forces us to ask new questions of our traditions and our belief structures. In regards to our understanding of women in society, culture has changed immensely. Less than 100 years ago, women could not vote in our nation. The women’s liberation movement continues to fight for equal pay with men and overcoming prejudice in hiring processes. For the first time ever, there are more females in the workforce than males.

We are crazy if we don’t think this doesn’t impact our understanding of God. As I typed out this sermon I asked myself, “What would it be like if Hillary Clinton or Condoleeza Rice went to my church?” These world leaders, two of the most powerful women in the world . . . but they wouldn’t be able to make decisions here. They wouldn’t be able to make announcements here or pray in front of the group, or ever address the group publicly.

I don’t have the answer . . . only more questions. How does a widow feel in our churches? Or a single mom? Or a mom whose husband isn’t a Christian? How do they find their place in our churches? Don’t they have some place at the leadership table? Are they really restricted simply because they are a woman? Our culture tells women they can do anything that a man can do? I happen to believe that and intend to teach my daughters that . . . but does the Bible teach that?
And the questions abound as we consider the structure of our churches. Is reading Scripture publicly really a position of authority? And serving communion? Is there ever a time to restrict anyone from praying in front of others – especially because of their gender? Where does our structure come from? So many questions remain – we must stop pretending as though we have all the answers or that we are even consistent.

Dealing with Disagreement

In a perfect world we could all agree on this issue. In a perfect world, we would simply have each person offer their arguments, we’d vote on the better choice, and move on. That’s not the way this is going to work. As I stated at the beginning, it’d be great if I could stand up here and convince you of my opinion, but we’re all pretty set in our ways.

When we discussed the topic of disagreement, we read from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that demanded unity of the Spirit. The topic of women and their role in the church has divided just about every denomination. Some people have wanted to allow for women pastors to be ordained and lead the church, others have felt this to be unbiblical – and so divisions have prevailed.
We could allow this to divide us. We can say to ourselves, “Well, let’s see what’s going to happen and then we’d decide if we can stick around.” Or, we can say to ourselves, “This is my church family, I must figure out a way to make this work.” We stated that our source of unity in the Spirit can be found in the Apostle’s Creed – a creed we read aloud together. The tenets of that creed have united Christians for centuries. Missing from that creed is any statement regarding women and their place in church. This is not something to allow the church to be torn apart over.

Growing Pains & When all Structure is Gone

Disagreements, however, will come, and they will be incredibly difficult to deal with. In our fifth week, we looked at how early division and disagreement led to the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. The Jewish-Christians were met with some new information as they interacted with the Gentiles. Here, the apostles Paul and Barnabas stood up and told the people what they had witnessed.

In the same way today, I believe we must stand up and share what we have witnessed as of first and foremost importance – even when it doesn’t fit into our structure. I have heard women preach the Gospel and been encouraged. I have seen women lead churches and have felt the Spirit upon them. I have heard women pray and read Scripture aloud – and been immensely blessed from it. I have seen their gifts of the Spirit . . . and as Paul stated to the Thessalonians, we must not allow that Spirit to be quenched.

But God would not contradict himself, you say. We saw last week that he has done just that in the past. He has allowed for new movements of the Spirit. He has allowed for exceptions in faithfulness. I know many of you believe this goes against the very order God has made . . . that’s the proposition that you see embedded in the text. But I am here in front of you as Paul and Barnabas was in front of the people in Jerusalem to tell you that as we saw last week, it hasn’t always happened the way you would think.

· In Genesis 1 – 2 Adam and Eve were created as equals, side by side, Adam not perfected until Eve was made from his side. It wasn’t until the curse entered the world in chapter 3 that Eve’s “desire will be for the man.”
· In Exodus 15, it was Miriam a prophetess who led the entire nation of Israel in worship alongside her brother Aaron and Moses. Miriam was a spiritual leader.
· In Judges 4, we’ve already mentioned how Deborah was the ruler of Israel – political leader over all Israel.
· In a story similar to what we read last week when Josiah found the Book of the Law in the temple, he went to the prophetess Huldah to affirm its content – this was at the same time the better-known prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk were working. But he chose a woman.
· In Luke, it was Jesus’ mother Mary who receives all the attention and blessing from the Most High.
· In the list of thanksgiving at the end of the Book of Romans, a name listed as Junias is almost certainly a woman whose name was actually Junia but was changed to cover her women-ness.
· Priscilla is quoted as teaching with her husband Acquilla taught Apollos together.
· Phoebe is listed as a special deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

Perhaps in our desire to maintain our structures, we’ve become so concentrated on
our structure that we have missed the Spirit of God moving all along through history. God has not created a hierarchy in this world of men over women. We have seen throughout Scripture women have served as political leaders, spiritual leaders, and even the very bearer of the Savior in Mary.

On the one hand, there are those of us here who believe the Bible is very particular about the ordering of men and women. We want to be biblical. On the other hand, there are those of us here who believe the Spirit of God is calling us to move beyond archaic structures that have been the work of sin working within social structures. Both perspectives have worthwhile objectives.
What we’ve tried to do this morning is work through a series of challenging steps to help open our eyes to what we’re bringing to the text, seeing the ambiguity that is there, and beginning conversations in how we move forward.

As I stated earlier, this is not statement as to what’s going to happen next week. Actually, I’m doing the best thing I could think of after preaching this sermon – getting out of town! Ha. I hope this is the beginning of a renewed conversation. There are many among us who feel passionately about this topic. As the father of two daughters I have become even more committed to changing our practices here. However, as soon as I state that, I realize how challenging this is for so many of you. I understand how much you have vested in this. I hope the things we’ve covered over the past few weeks have been helpful to you. I hope that they’ve made you think. I hope they’ve challenged you. And I hope, more than anything, you’ve been blessed with them. I don’t know where we go from here. All I know to do is to press on in what I believe in . . . just as you press on in what you believe in, and somehow, through the amazing providence of God, he will bless our endeavors. [End with a prayer shared with Mary Beth.]

I ended up leading the prayer sans Mary Beth. She felt uncomfortable leading unless the elders were fully aware . . . and I didn’t think it was worth the long conversations and discussion. I figured the women prayed in Corinth (as we just read in this sermon), so they can pray here . . . but the conversation continues I guess.

Sermon #6: Deconstructing Theology Series

This sermon wraps up our series on Deconstructing Theology, though I will follow it up with a postscript this week with a case study working through a specific issue in light of what we’ve done the past six weeks. I will post that sermon on Monday and be done posting sermons for awhile. I try to reserve this space for other random thoughts, so I’ll get back to those soon. Here’s last week’s installment – thinking about things that don’t “fit” the structure . . .

We began with this video clip from the Today Show accessible here:

Deconstructing Theology #6
Alum Creek Church – February 7, 2010

When All Structure is Gone

Last year, while Mary Beth and I were forced indoors with our newborn (who turned one yesterday!) we spend some time reading through Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically. Jacob’s intention of following the Bible literally is an overstated attempt to obey the laws since he doesn’t leave any room for metaphor or poetry, but the work is still an interesting reflection on obeying the Bible. Have you ever considered what it would take to keep all the laws of the Bible? Jacobs has a Jewish heritage so he is more interested in the Old Testament than the New Testament, which makes his foray into the Law of Moses especially interesting.

One of the most memorable experiences that I remember from his yearlong experiment was his concern over purity. You may or may not know that in the Old Testament, a woman was considered unclean when she was on her period. She was instructed to go to the edges of the community for the duration of that week. The law goes on to instruct that anything a woman touch while she is on her period is unclean as is anything she sits on. (Leviticus 15: 19 – 23). This caused quite a problem for Jacobs as he set out to follow the Bible as literally as he could. He lives in New York City, regularly takes the subway and eats and rests in public places. How could he be sure the seats in which he was sitting would be clean?

His wife, a bit embittered from the weeklong abstinence of touch demanded by the law, took this simple fact to really challenge his commitment.

The no-sitting-on-impure-seats presents more of a challenge. I came home this afternoon and was about to plop down on my official seat, the gray pleather armchair in our living room.
“I wouldn’t do that,” says Julie [his wife]
“Why?”
“It’s unclean. I sat on it.” She doesn’t even look up from her TiVo’d episode of Lost.
OK. Fine. Point taken. She doesn’t appreciate these impurity laws. I move to another chair, a black plastic one.
“Sat in that one, too,” says Julie. “And the ones in the kitchen. And the couch in the office.”
In preparation for my homecoming, she sat in every chair in the apartment, which I found annoying but also impressive . . .
I finally settle on Jasper’s six-inch-high wooden bench, which she had overlooked, where I tap out emails on my PowerBook with my knees up to my chin.

His solution is a creative one – a Handy Seat, which he describes as his “little island of cleanliness.” The Handy Seat was a portable seat that he took with him everywhere he went to ensure his cleanliness remained intact.

I have spent so much time talking about A. J. Jacobs this morning because I believe he illustrates the problem the Jews had with the Mosaic Law well – they couldn’t keep it. Last week as we read about the council in Jerusalem, in the midst of their considering the Jewish implications for Gentile converts Peter stood up and said, “Why should we expect the Gentiles to keep the Jewish laws? Our forefathers weren’t able to keep the laws!” “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are now.” (Acts 15: 11).

We are saved by grace, through faith. What of everything else? What about the way we understand everything else? What about your stance on gay marriage? What about your stance on the environment? What about your stance on communion? What about your stance on salvation, and the salvation of others? What about these questions . . . and what about a million others? Where’s the line? Does grace eliminate the need to seriously address these things?

As we’ve spent six weeks now deconstructing our thoughts and ideas about God and faith . . . where do we go from here? All of our understanding and beliefs are laying on the ground before us in pieces, how do we put it all back together? What are we left with when the structure is gone?

I want to share with you five snapshots from Scripture that don’t’ fit into the structure. I think these snapshots help shed light onto what we are to do when our structure of knowledge and understanding is shaken – when we begin to realize that we don’t know as much as we thought we did and we’re unsure of the way forward.

Snapshot #1 – The Priest Melchizedek

I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this first snapshot, mainly because there isn’t much to say. We begin in the story of Abraham. Abraham had been called by God and was blessed by God in all he did. He began amassing great wealth and notoriety in the area. Genesis 14 tells the story of two kings coming to see Abraham: the King of Sodom and the King of Salem. It is the King of Salem that brings our attention this morning. Read Genesis 14: 18 – 20.

We aren’t told much about Melchizedek and, for the most part, is an unimportant character in this story. He is mentioned again in Psalms and Hebrews which is very interesting, but for our purposes here, we just want to note one thing about Melchizedek – who is he? Not only is he a king – he is also a priest. Where does his priestly credentials come from? The priestly line through Aaron won’t be established for a long time. The extent of our knowledge of God’s working in the world are through Abraham and his family. Where does Melchizedek go back to? What is the nature of his priesthood? How many are blessed through his work?

Obviously, these are all questions that we can’t answer, and that is exactly the point. We don’t know. What we do know is that God was working in a way that we are completely unaware of and that completely does NOT make biblical sense.

Snapshot #2 – Celebrating Passover (Numbers 9: 1 – 14)

Two years after Israel is led out of Egyptian bondage, as they continue their traveling through the desert, it is once again time to celebrate the Passover. The Lord tells Moses it’s time to celebrate the Passover and all the preparations are made. Read Numbers 9: 6 – 8. Some of the Israelites had a problem. Many of them were not ritualistically clean as required by the Law of Moses prior to participating in Passover. There were some families that had funerals recently and had come into contact with dead bodies. What were they to do? Must they be excluded from this celebration? Moses inquires of God. Read Numbers 9: 9 – 13. Here, a very noticeable and obvious exception is made to one of Israel’s most fundamental laws.

You can interpret this text as an extremely rare exception to the norm . . . but you have to ask the question, why was an exception allowed? On what grounds is the appeal granted? Was God feeling nice that day? Had he not thought that far ahead? Or, was there a higher law He could appeal to?

Snapshot #3 – Finding the Book of the Law (2 Chronicles 29 – 30)

A similar situation comes about in 2 Chronicles when Hezekiah uncovers the Book of Law that was lost long ago. Upon finding the book, they realize the temple has become unclean, and Hezekiah had it cleaned and purified. Read 2 Chronicles 29: 35b – 36. With the temple back up and running, the regular worship of the community could begin. Central to the religious way of life for Israel were their festivals and they had just missed Passover. Passover was celebrated in the first month and it was now the second month.

Read 2 Chronicles 30: 1 – 6. The leaders consorted and determined that it would be good to go ahead with Passover. They sent letters out throughout the nation inviting everyone to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. This was to be the greatest Passover celebration ever.

Upon the arrival to the city, many people had not been ceremonially cleansed. Read 2 Chronicles 30: 13 – 20. Again, the question remains, why the exception? Was God so excited to have his people back in conformity that he gave them a little leeway on how they went about the celebration? I can envision a group of devout old Israelites sitting on the outskirts of the party pointing and saying, “You know they haven’t been cleansed? What is this world coming to?”

Snapshot #4 – The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11: 27 – 30)

Read 1 Corinthians 11: 27 – 30. 1 Corinthians 11 is a passage that we often read before taking the Lord’s Supper. It speaks to the seriousness of the Lord’s Supper. But, have you ever known anyone to get sick because they weren’t observing correctly? Paul indicates that that is exactly what is happening in Corinth at the time. Have we not experienced that because we have never done so inappropriately? Was that just something that happened back then?

Again, we can’t answer those questions, but we’re left with the idea that there is something going on here that is out of our typical experience and understanding of God and of the church.

Snapshot #5 – Deathbed Salvation (Luke 23: 32 – 43)

And we come to the final of our snapshots – on the cross of Calvary. Jesus is crucified between two thieves. Read Luke 23: 32 – 43. Of all the snapshots, this one is most difficult to fit into our structure. This criminal is given the promise of eternal life right here on his deathbed. He probably wasn’t a Jew. He didn’t know the Torah. He wasn’t circumcised. He wasn’t baptized. He wasn’t religious.

Yet this final professional of belief in Christ brings him the promise of eternal life. There are a few questions glaring back from this text. Was this a one-time exception? Granted, this is a unique, never to be duplicated event, but is there nothing timeless we can glean from this episode? Does this not say something about our attempt to figure things out? Doesn’t it provide us with at least a small dose of humility to realize that God is going to do what God is going to do, and we should be careful about telling people what God is like, or what God is going to do, and simply stand back and testify to what he is doing and what he is like and what we’ve seen – just as Paul and Barnabas do in their explanation of the Gentiles inclusion in Christ?

The passage of Scripture that is on the front page of the bulletin brings us to a fitting conclusion to this series. The questions the prophet asks reflect the same question we’ve been asking throughout this series, “What do you want from us? How do you want us to be your people? What are the rules of church?”

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Sacrifices and offerings were all commanded by God. They were the “right” way
to do things. But there was a better way. There was a higher way. There was something that was more important.

I subtitled this series “Unlearning the Rule of Church.” I’m afraid we’ve spoken in far too many places in establishing the rules of church. We have become more concerned with “doing church” right than with living out the kingdom right. If I were to pray Micah’s prayer in this setting this morning, I think it would sound like this:

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I ensure my singing is done in the right way, without instruments, and from the heart? Will the Lord be pleased if women are excluded from all forms of public service during our assembled times? Shall I present my certificate to him – baptism by immersion upon the age of accountability? Maybe I should be baptized seven times – just to be sure. Must I keep track of my how many times I celebrate communion? Should I insist that everything that happens during a two-hour window on Sunday mornings at the church building is exactly perfect – exactly the way that I want it?”

The answer that comes so boldly and powerfully to Micah screams from the pages to our ears this morning . . . “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Perhaps as poignant as what is said, is what is not said. No sacrifices. No burnt offerings. No temple rituals. Justice. Mercy. Humility.

In a similar vein, Paul ends his letter the Philippians with a memorable teaching:

“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent of praiseworthy – think about such things.”

Sermon #5 – Deconstructing Theology Series

Deconstructing Theology #5
Alum Creek Church – January 31, 2010

Growing Pains

I often wonder what it would have been like to be one of the 12 disciples spending a couple of years walking around the greater Jerusalem metropolitan area with Jesus. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Sometimes I wonder if Jesus was a practical jokester. I wonder if he give nooggies to Peter. Did he pull the chair out from underneath Simon before he sat down to eat lunch? Did he have a big appetite? What was his favorite food? What was he like when he hadn’t slept in awhile? Did he ever get irritable? Was he constantly pointing out nuggets of godly truth, or was he more reserved and waited for just the right moment to speak the deep truths of God?
I wonder about those things, mainly because I really have trouble seeing Jesus as fully man. But, I also wonder about those things that would have come about because he was fully God. If I was God, I don’t think I’d have much patience for a lot of things. I definitely wouldn’t have had patience for the disciples listening issues. Just a cursory glance through the New Testament shows you how difficult dealing with the disciples would have been. Here are a couple of times when, if I was Jesus, I probably would have blown my top:
– They were in a boat out on the water when a furious storm came about, and all the disciples were worried like they were going to die or something. Jesus got up and commanded the storm to go away. “Why are you so afraid?” Jesus asked (Matthew 8: 23 – 27)
– Jesus tells the disciples one of his greatest parables in the parable of the soils. He finishes telling the story and the disciples have no idea what he is talking about. He has to explain the parable to them. (Matthew 13: 10 – 23)
– Jesus was walking on the water to get out to the disciples in the boat. Peter piped up and asked Jesus to allow him to walk on the water to Jesus. He took a few steps and then began to sink. (Matthew 14: 29 – 33)
– There were a bunch of children trying to get to Jesus and sit on his lap. It was causing quite a scene, so the disciples stepped in and tried to get rid of the children. Jesus rebuked them and told them to let the children come to him. (Matthew 19: 13 – 15)
– Some of the disciples were arguing on the road who was the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus had to rebuke them and remind them of the way of the kingdom. (Luke 9: 33 – 37)
– Later the disciples saw a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name, but he was not part of the disciples. They told them to stop, but Jesus told them not to stop them. (Luke 9: 49 – 50)
– Then the disciples were not welcomed by the people of Samaria and they asked Jesus if they should call fire down from heaven and destroy them. Jesus turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9: 51 – 56)
– When Jesus was in the garden praying through the things that were about to happen, he went back to check on his disciples – three times – and they had fallen asleep each time. (Matthew 26: 36 – 45)
– When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus and take him away, Peter lunged at the soldier and cut his ear off. Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear. (Matthew 26: 50 – 56)
– Peter disowns Jesus in his final hours. (Matthew 26: 69 – 75)
– Jesus faces the cross alone as his disciples all leave his side.
When you go back and consider these many gaffes of the disciples, it’s amazing,
really, when you think about, that they couldn’t just get it. I mean there he was, every day, sleeping right beside you, eating at your table, patting you on the back, teaching you the truth. Why was it so hard for them to understand? Why was it so hard for them to get it?
Really, the crucifixion was like the disciples’ final exam. They had spent the good part of three years traveling with Jesus, listening to him, and doing their best to get it. He’d been telling them all through the years, “I’m going to tear down this temple and rebuild it in three days”; “the Son of Man did not come to live but to die”; “the Son of Man must suffer a great deal of things.” And they didn’t get it. They failed the test. All of them. They didn’t get any of the questions right. It was like they got the test from the teacher and blank stares fell on each of the disciples as they read the questions. “I wasn’t expecting this.” “I was not prepared for this.” “I don’t think we covered this.”
In the face of the many shortcomings of the disciples, right there in the presence of the messiah, is the glaring theological arrogance with which we so often approach others. As if we have it all figured out. As if our understanding of God and of the Bible and of faith are ironclad. I sometimes wonder if we believe that the disciples failed their final exam at the cross, but then, by the time Pentecost came around and the Holy Spirit descended He fixed them so that they never got anything wrong again and everything was always hunky dory. If you continue to read through the Book of Acts, however, you realize that the Spirit didn’t come and immediately fix all their problems freeing them up to sit around and sing Kumbayah. People started bickering and disagreeing pretty quickly.
Last week we acknowledged that we are going to disagree with each other, and we’re going to disagree over some pretty important stuff. Actually, the Bible has a very pertinent story in regards to navigating our differences.
If you remember back a couple of weeks, we spent some time looking at Peter’s vision of the inclusion of the Gentiles. That week we talked about the challenges Peter had in accepting such a radical vision from God. Peter’s vision, however, didn’t immediately universalize the acceptance of Gentiles by the Christian movement. There was still a great deal of division and disagreement from new Christians, and this disagreement all comes to a head right in the thick of Acts.
Read Acts 15: 1 – 21.
A great debate has arisen. Do the Gentiles have to accept certain Jewish customs to become Christians or don’t they? You can make quite the biblical case that they, in fact, do need to become Jews. That was the point of pretty much the entire Old Testament! But upon hearing the words of the Gospel, these early Christians saw no demand to uphold these Jewish laws. So what do they do? How are they going to decide? Do they take a vote? All in favor of letting them in say, “Aye.” “All opposed, Nay.”
It’s probably important to note here that the important American concept of “majority rules” is not in the Bible. More times than not in Scripture, majority doesn’t rule. In this important matter of the Gentiles, it was not up for taking a vote. Instead, the leaders appealed to what they had witnessed. They didn’t get involved in abstract arguments in regards to interpreting texts, working through backgrounds, contexts, and grammatical nuances . . . instead, they told stories of what they had seen. They couldn’t necessarily explain it. They just told what they had witnessed.
This is where things get kind of tricky. A few weeks ago we talked about how one of the most difficult things in the world to say is, “I don’t know.” Yet, we decided, it was imperative. This morning we go to what is probably the most difficult thing to say, “I was wrong.” This entire group of Jews has to come to terms with the fact that they were wrong. They were all wrong.
I really like that cartoon that is on the front of the bulletin this morning, “I’m not always right, but I’m never wrong.” We may acknowledge up front we’re not always right . . . but to acknowledge that we’re wrong just takes on a more drastic tone – a more humbling tone.
What might be even more threatening to these people than the fact that they were wrong is that their parents were wrong, their grandparents were wrong. Their teachers and rabbis of youth were misled. Everything they knew . . . was wrong. And this is no overstatement. For the Jews to accept the Gentiles was a paradigm shift of monumental proportions and to accept that fact was going to take a great deal of humility.
In the passage Jim read earlier, as Paul ends his letter with several instructions on kingdom living, one of his admonitions is “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire.” What would it look like to put out the fire of the Holy Spirit? That would be a tough question to ask, “Are you putting out the fire of the Holy Spirit?” How would you answer it? How would you know?
Let’s consider the situation in Acts 15. The Spirit was moving the people of God forward. The Spirit was revealing to the people a new way. The Spirit was making them rethink the things that had been handed down to them. This situation in Acts is quite peculiar. Paul boldly proclaims that the Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be saved, but, they still give them a list of “Jewish” requirements they should uphold: “abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
Why would they still insist on the Gentiles upholding these laws? Here, built into a revolutionizing of the way they understood things, was a sentimentality for those who were having to change. There was a built-in appreciation for how difficult it is to change your mind – to acknowledge that you were wrong.
So as we consider this example for theological division and disagreements, we’re left with a couple valuable insights:
– The leadership of those appointed in invaluable. Over and over again, the Bible cries out in support of our spiritual leaders. When it comes to difficult decisions, this is a very difficult pill for Americans to swallow. We’re used to having our own vote. We’re used to things being settled in our own terms. And yet, the Bible insists we follow our leaders.
– However, this is not a free pass for leaders to do whatever they want. They are to follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Working against the way we typically understand the world to operate, it is not always the voice of the majority trumpeting the way forward. Paul is clear in his admonition to “Do not quench the Spirit’s fire.” It is important that all of us, especially our leaders take a look inside and consider our openness to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It is my fear that we are so uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the Holy Spirit that he may very well come and we won’t recognize Him and we will shun him away.
– In the midst of division and disagreement, we have a responsibility to those who are being forced to say, “I’m wrong.” We don’t get to sit back and revel in their loss and pain. Instead we are called to walk beside them, helping them understand that the way forward is better, that we understand their difficulty. “They still got their way,” you may be thinking. Yes, but their way gave way to the Holy Spirit in His time. We don’t still follow those admonitions from Acts, many of those practices are archaic and don’t even make sense any more. Acknowledging that is to take an important step forward in our quest for unity.
In all of this discussion, it is my belief that we must be sure we consider the prompting and calling of the Holy Spirit. How might he be calling us forward today? What changes does He seek in our lives? In our understanding of God?
As we set out to understand God more, as we set out to come to a deeper understanding of him in our life, consider these questions that David Dark asks.
“Will we let the double-edged indictments of the scriptures cut us to the quick creating problems in the lives we are living? Or will we enlist the words to serve only in our projects of self-congratulation, skipping the bits that question our beliefs and practices? Will we read the Bible only to reaffirm our own take on the world?”
When is the last time you said, “I am wrong.” I mean really wrong. When is the last time you were convicted from a passage of Scripture to change a habit or practice that is central to your being? When is the last time you changed your mind? When is the last time when you actually said, “I’m wrong . . . you are right”?
This business of transformation by the renewing of your mind is challenging. If you’re in it for self-affirmation and pats on the back and thumbs up and “Good job!” you better look again at your motives. If you are here to convince everyone of your opinions and positions, if you are here to talk and then listen . . . you need to do some looking inside.
God loves you and He cares for you. He wants what is best for you. And just like when you were a child, what is best for you often times is something that you would not choose for yourself. May God continue to renew your minds, may he continue to reveal your flaws and shortcomings, and may he continue to sweep you up in His grace and goodness.

Sermon #4 in Deconstructing Theology Series

This week’s installment focused on dealing with the inevitable outcome of the previous weeks’ work: divisions are going to happen – so how do we deal with each other in the midst of our disagreements? More to the point: How do we maintain the Spirit’s unity in the midst of such diversity? Hopefully, there’s something helpful here. Enjoy.

Deconstructing Theology #4
Alum Creek – Jan. 24, 2010 – Alum Creek

Why Don’t We Burn Heretics at the Stake Anymore?

Have you ever thought about the fact that some of the most horrific torture devices ever created by humankind were created or at least used by Christians? Have you ever thought about the fact that some of the most horrific atrocities that have ever occurred on the face of the earth, have occurred in the name of Christ? Spend a moment describing the following torture devices from the Inquisition . . .
· Judas Cradle
This horrendous torture device is a chair with a steep and sharp point in the middle of it. The victim was tied up with chains around all their extremities. They were set on top of the chair and weight was added to the chains so that they were slowly, and painfully impaled by the sharp point.
Image here

· Strappado
This device is designed to dislocate the victim’s shoulders arms by pulling them up by their arms and then lowering them quickly, and then coming to an abrupt stop. To make matters worse, weights would be added to the victim to make the abrupt stop even more painful.
Image here

· The rack
This device is probably one of the most well known torture devices. In this one, the victim would have their extremities tied down on a board and the board would slowly move apart from each other pulling the body parts of the victim away from each other.
Image here

· Burning at the stake
And one final example of torture, probably the most well-known – burning at the stake. People whose views were deemed heretical were often tied up so that they could not escape, and then publicly burned in front of the rest of the community as a public spectacle of what happens to those who cross God (or, in reality, the church).

The idea behind the Inquisition was that if the church could just sniff out all the false teachers and anyone else who they didn’t feel lived up to the godly standard . . . in other words, anyone who didn’t agree with the church’s position on an issue . . . and have them publicly dealt with, there would be no opposition left. The opponents would either be killed or forced by fear to repent. The end goal was, then, that by force, the church could be the one, pure, united people of God. Force, however, is never a good answer to the problem of disunity and disbelief. Force is not the way of the one who was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

We have a bad track record as the church when it comes to dealing with those who see things differently than we do. The history of the church is really the history of those with “orthodox” opinions defeating those with “heretical” positions, and sometimes the defeating was an actual physical beating and defeating. With the stakes so high, debate within the church has often come at a costly, costly price.

We have set down some important touch points in recent weeks in this opening sermon series of 2010. We have seen that transformation begins with the renewing of our minds and the renewing of our minds often begins with the realization that we could be wrong. If we could be wrong, we next found out that we have to be willing to say, “I don’t know” more often. And then, last week, we discovered that at the heart of our faith must be a spirit willing to ask questions. Questioning our beliefs steadies the rocks beneath which we stand.

But now, an important question remains: What do we do with each other when we disagree? How do we coexist in such an environment? How far do we have to go?

If everything that we’ve said is true, so far, the inevitable fact is: disagreements will come. Major disagreements. Big ones. About big stuff. Important stuff. It seems there are a couple options on the table . . .

– The Inquisition presents us with one – rise to power and do away with those who think differently. If you believe that you are right, that God is on your side, then you just may decide to hand fate over to God – go on a murderous binge and whoever is still standing at the end of the day . . . . clearly must have been on God’s side. Below is an excerpt from the Edict of Worms where Martin Luther was officially branded a heretic by the Catholic Church. It illustrates this “identify and conquer” mentality:

To the honor and praise of God, our creator, through whose mercy we have been given kingdoms, lands, and domains hereabove mentioned, it is our duty to help subdue the enemies of our faith and bring them to the obedience of the divine majesty, magnifying the glory of the cross and the passion of our Lord (insofar as we are able), and to keep the Christian religion pure from all heresy or suspicion of heresy, according to and following the ordinance and custom observed by the Holy Roman Church. We are rooted in that faith with a true heart, like our predecessors and progenitors, who by the grace of God also persecuted the enemies of our faith and banished them from their lands. Through their labors, expenditures, and indescribable perils, they have augmented and preserved the faith of our Savior Jesus Christ. They were unceasingly concerned that no appearance or suspicion of heresy or unfaithfulness appear in their kingdoms and domains.

For this reason-after having learned of the mistakes and heresies of a certain Martin Luther, of the order of the Eremites of Saint Augustine, who teaches iniquity, preaches false doctrines, and writes, in both Latin and German, evil things against our Catholic faith and the Holy Roman and Universal Church, things which have already been spread throughout almost all of Christendom, and abusively into some of our lands and domains, greatly diminishing the honor of God and the Catholic faith, imperiling and endangering Christian souls, and bringing future confusion to all the public affairs of our Holy Mother Church-if we do not put an end to this contagious confusion, it could lead to the corrupting of all faithful nations and to their falling into abominable schisms.
Note the fear embedded in this perspective. An alterative voice to the understood “orthodoxy” is deemed destructive, harmful, and potentially eternally impacting (“corrupting of all faithful nations and to their falling into abominable schisms”). This is some harsh language. The answer . . . get rid of them.

Hopefully, it goes without saying, this option is not really an option. The church continues to pay the price for our violent, oppressive history. However, I did see an article in the paper this week about some gun sights that are being issued to some in the American military that have Bible verses quoted on them. So, just in case, I’ll be looking into getting some of those for us, if we choose to set orthodoxy the old fashioned way.

– Perhaps aiming for the same goal, only through a more non-violent means, another possible option could be to quietly leave the established church and begin a new – purer one. As Protestants, we are pretty good at this one. If you don’t agree with the direction or teaching of a particular church find another one . . . or start your own.

While, on the surface, this may sound like a great, nonviolent approach to
achieving some doctrinal purity (and truly the absence of violence is always a better alternative), the reality has created an incredibly splintered church that has polluted its witness to the world. I went to an area pastor’s meeting this past Wednesday and met with pastors who lead churches all over our area. One meets right back here at the Alum Creek Elementary School. One meets over there at the new Freedom Trail Elementary School. Another from the Anglican Church down the road. Another from the Christian Church over on Peachblow. Another from the church that meets in office buildings over on Orange Rd. All these churches, all over the place. What’s the point? Imagine what we could do if we ever united! That’s what I appreciate about the Just for Jesus gathering that the Berlin Church hosts up the road.

So . . . what is the answer?
The first thing we must do is realize the incredible importance the Bible places on unity. Paul pays special attention to the idea of unity in his letter to the Ephesians. Read Ephesians 4: 1 – 6. Paul tells the Ephesians to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” . . . notice that he doesn’t tell them to make every effort to keep their doctrine pure (though he certainly wanted the pure message of Christ maintained). And, as if to remind all of us in our moments of individuality he reminds us . . . “there is one body and one Spirit . . . one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

I don’t think Ephesians gives the answer of what we are supposed to do when we disagree, but it does insist that whatever we do in our disagreements, we some way, some how, maintain our unity of the Spirit. That, then, presses our question further, “How do we maintain the Spirit of unity in the midst of disagreement?”

We must overcome our tendency to think that the answer lies in some yet-to-be-achieved consensus. That all will be better when I am done convincing everyone of my way while allowing for some slight improvement from your way. The Bible declares that we should be united but nowhere indicates we must be uniform. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament shows a great deal of variety of practice, thought, and language.

In John 17, Jesus cries out to God in His prayer that His people would be one. Read John 17: 20 – 26. “May they just remember that they are in this together,” Jesus begs of His Father. “May they unite in Me as I have united in You.”

We live in a world of division and diversity. Everyone has an opinion about everything. Now, thanks to the invention of the Internet, everyone has a platform to express his or her opinion to the rest of the world. There was an interesting article in the paper a few weeks ago about global warming. It was during the Climate Summit in Copenhagen that brought about quite the rhetoric from everyone. No doubt there are people here who trumpet the “climate change” cause . . . and others of you who think its some big sham. We could probably have quite the exercise in diversity with an open forum on that this morning.

Instead, I want you to consider a few things from this article entitled, “Climate ‘Debate’ Pits Loud vs. Louder.”

“Consider the global warming debate: The skeptics shout. The skeptics’ opponents shout back. The scientists insist they have research in their corner. And public debate shifts from the provable and the empirical toward the spectacle of argument.”

“Because whatever side you are on, to sample the worldwide conversation in the age of the broadband connection and the constant, instantaneous comment is to be confronted with one recurring thread: Knowing what you’re talking about ain’t what it used to be.”

And this diversity of thought and skepticism of expertise is nowhere more alive than in discussions involving faith. And in the smattering of questions and opinions we can quickly lose our minds and our bearings. The fact of the matter is that we’re never going to have a consensus on alot of important matters. There’s always going to be “experts” and “professionals” who disagree and have opposing “facts” supporting his or her side. It can leave us discouraged, frustrated, and cynical. Questions remain: What is worth fighting over? What is worth complaining about? What is worth arguing over?

I don’t have years and years of ministry experience to make this following comment especially impacting, but I can say that in my ten years of ministry, I’ve never witnessed a “church fight” or a “church dispute” that I felt was worthy of the time. Never once have I seen a silver lining in the cloud that was being pursued. We all need to be reminded of what is worth the fight, what is worth protecting. If we move away from the fence line that we have been talking about in recent weeks, and move to a central fountain in our midst, then we must understand what that fountain is. I have a proposal for us this morning. Across denominational boundaries and through a long and prideful history, there has been a creed that the church has proclaimed as a summary of her faith. I believe it is this creed that stands as the fountain in our presence, and anything not in this creed . . . and I believe this, and yes I know how broad-sweeping it is, anything, is not worth the fight. We can disagree, we can argue and even get kind of loud once in awhile, but the Spirit of unity must be maintained. Let us stand and read this great and glorious document as we close. Read the Apostle’s Creed together.

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of the heavens and earth; and in Jesus Chris, his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; on the third day he was raised from the dead; he ascended into the heavens, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from where he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; in the holy Catholic church; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the flesh; and eternal life.”

Sermon #3 in Deconstructing Theology Series

Here’s Sunday’s sermon from our deconstruction series . . .

Deconstructing Theology #3
Alum Creek – Jan. 17, 2010 – Alum Creek

The Grain of Salt: Learning to Ask Questions

Every once in awhile, a line is uttered in a movie that jumps off the silver screen and is forever etched in the psyche of popular culture. Often times one or two lines of dialogue from a movie forever represent an entire film. Before we get into the lesson this morning, I want to hear from you some of the greatest movie lines of all times. Some of my favorite:
· “I see dead people.” – The Sixth Sense
· “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” – Dirty Dancing
· “I feel the need, the need for speed.” – Top Gun
Who remembers this line? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
That line, obviously, comes from the Wizard of Oz, one of the many famous quotes from this movie. As we move into our third lesson in our series on deconstructing theology, this scene becomes a very good starting point for our discussion. We began two weeks ago by asking some questions about the way we think. We acknowledged that our knowledge, our perspective, is circumstantial. There’s not getting around that. We think the way we think because our environment, our training, our personality, our tradition, our teachers, and an infinite number of other things affect what we know in addition to affecting the way we know what we know. In acknowledging this reality we came face to face with the fact that we could be wrong – about a lot of really important things, and thus, should always ask the question, “What if we are wrong?”
We looked to Paul and saw that his call for transformation of the mind in Romans 12 was really a call to acknowledge that we have been wrong. Paul states that transformation happens by the renewing of your minds . . . and the renewing of your mind is an ongoing process of stating, “Well, I’m wrong about this,” and then subsequent growth from righting the wrong.
Last Sunday we pressed on further by calling for some cognitive humility – confessing to others that we don’t have all the answers. We saw that Job was completely undone by not just the undoing of his life, but by the undoing of his mind. What happened to Job didn’t fit in his box – his understanding of things, of God. We will never be able to grow until we are readily able to admit, “I don’t know.”
But . . . is that allowed? Aren’t some things just given? Aren’t some areas just the way they are because they are?
David Dark begins his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by telling the story of a small tight-knit community. The community is close and they watch each other and take care of each other. Anyone visiting from the outside would quickly notice their blatant and constant affinity to “Uncle Ben.” It was very common to hear members of the community say, “Isn’t Uncle Ben awesome?” Even in tragedy, the locals acknowledge, “It just goes to show you how much we need Uncle Ben.”
At the beginning of each week there’s a meeting at the largest house in the town where the people get together and talk about the events of the community and each family. They talk about Uncle Ben until a bell rings and all the people get up from their seats and moves to a staircase that goes to the basement. The entire community descends the staircase where they see an enormous, rumbling furnace. There is a man in black overalls with his back to them. They wait in silence until the man turns around.
He turns and his face is slightly contorted with anger and he yells at the people, “Am I good?”
They respond to him in unison, “Yes, Uncle Ben, you are good.”
“Am I worthy of praise?”
“You alone are worthy of his praise.”
“Do you love me more than anything?”
“We love you and you alone, Uncle Ben.”
“You better love me, or I’m going to put you . . . in here” – he opens the furnace door to reveal a gaping darkness – “forever.”
Out of the darkness can be heard sounds of anguish and lament. Then he closes the furnace door and turns his back to them. They sit in silence.
Finally, feeling reasonably assured that Uncle Ben has finished saying what he has to say, they leave. They live their lives as best they can. They try to think and speak truthfully and do well by one another. They resume their talk of the wonders of Uncle Ben’s love in anticipation of the next week’s meeting.”
The Uncle Ben in this story shares a striking resemblance to the God that so many have directed their worship. They live their lives the best they can. They do good to others. They acknowledge their shortcomings. They pray, read their Bibles, and attend church services. And all along the way . . . they are completely paralyzed by fear. The God that they serve is Uncle Ben . . . the who threatens fire and damnation to the one who looks behind the curtain . . .
If your image of God resonates with the Uncle Ben portrait there is no place for questioning. Fear stymies questions. It extinguishes all hope of growth. It does not allow for transformation. It forces us to walk on eggshells hoping not to get anything wrong. It creates an environment of insecurity and unease – far from the peace that God promises His people.
There’s a great parable in another movie that I want to show you, it’s a very brief clip from the movie Bridge to Terabithia. The movie tells the story of two 10-year-olds, Jess and Leslie, who find a magical land in woods surrounding the homes. One day as their play date was rained out, Jess bemoaned the fact that he wouldn’t be able to return soon since he had to do chores the next day, and the following day was Sunday and he would have to go to church. Leslie asks to come along to church, but Jess is sure she won’t like it – after all, she’ll have to wear a dress. Listen to this amazing exchange the two of them have (with Jess’ little sister) on the way home from church.
[Play Bridge to Terabithia clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swcEExbjVMQ).]
“You have to believe it, and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” What an incredible quote! If you have an Uncle Ben picture of who God is, then you have to believe. You can’t take a chance. It must have been what the philosopher Blaise Pascal had in mind when thought through what is now known as Pascal’s wager. Basically, he asserted that the existence of God cannot be determined, but if there is a God and he can condemn you to hell forever, it’s better safe than sorry. If you work your whole life believing there is a God and turns out there’s not, you’re not out nearly as much if the opposite proves to be true.
At this point I have to ask you the question, “Is this the God of Scripture?” Does the Bible portray a God who demands dogmatic precision and theological perfection? Is He the kind of God who will zap you if you miss too many answers on the final exam? Is our God really a “better safe than sorry” God? Is there really no room for error? Does it really have to be either/or when eternal torment is at stake?
Obviously, if our God is like that of Uncle Ben in the story we just read, the answers are always going to have to be pretty straightforward. But . . . what if God isn’t like that? What are the implications of a God who is different than Uncle Ben?
The Bible is full of stories of men and women who were forced to ask some very difficult questions . . . questions that called into question all that they have ever believed. This morning, quickly, I want us to consider two especially relevant stories from the Book of Acts.
As chapter 7 comes to a conclusions in the Book of Acts, we are told that, as Stephen was lying dead on the ground at the hands of Jewish leaders who had stoned him, a man named Saul stood giving his approval. Saul was an up-and-coming Jewish leader who was working his best to eradicate a Jewish sect of false teachers who were followers of a man named Jesus. He knew all the answers to religious questions. He had been trained in theology. He knew who God was. He knew who he was.
Then . . . Acts 9: 1 – 9.
What do you think those three days were like? What do you think he was thinking about? I bet a lot of the same questions we’ve been asking: What if I’m wrong? How could I have been so wrong?
The story of Saul is one we have grown up hearing. We talk about it all the time to the point where it nearly becomes dull to us. But we must not allow that to happen to us. Listen to the story. Saul is standing there watching some of his friends throw stones at a man who is tied up so that he wouldn’t run away. And they threw stones until he died. He watched every gory detail. And then he and his friends went back to the place where they were staying and had dinner and joked and went on their merry way.
And then . . . in just the matter of weeks, days, this same man is out promoting the very Gospel that he had been out to kill with force. He had been completely and totally wrong. Now, he was left with the ominous task of convincing others in the Christian movement that he wasn’t attempting to simply infiltrate the group and turn on them all.
And if the story of Paul doesn’t make the point well enough, another chapter over and we learn of the great Apostle Peter and his strange vision.
Read Acts 10: 9 – 23.
Something major was about to change for Peter as well. He knew that the Jews were the exclusive people of God. This was still their understanding after Christ was resurrected. The Christian movement was a Jewish one. Peter knew this. They all knew it. But now the vision . . . Cornelius . . . read verses 34 – 38.
And then what happens . . . challenges you a bit, too, doesn’t it? Read verses 44 – 48. This is a problem for those of us who have grown up in the Churches of Christ. We all know that the Holy Spirit comes on us at baptism – as it does to those who are baptized on Pentecost in Acts 2: 38 and at other places in Acts. But here, this is not what happens. They receive the Holy Spirit . . . then they are baptized.
But this is another time, a unique time, with the apostles and all that you may wish to argue . . . and maybe so, but in moving away from the Uncle Ben image of God . . . it becomes less important to argue the case for the proper practice of baptism and defining who is in and who is out and more important to simply revel in the glory of God’s goodness revealed to us. To rejoice in all that God has done and is doing.
Last week we spoke of the difference between putting up fences to bound our practices and define the boundaries of our pastures versus digging a deep well for all to come and drink from, knowing that no one will venture too far away from the spring and well of life. With fences up all around the property, some questions are off limits. In that kind of atmosphere, there are some things you just can’t ask. They are too threatening to the man behind the curtain. But with the God of Scripture, no questions are off limit. Yahweh is no deceiver hiding behind some great production. “Come and seek me,” he asks us, “I have nothing to hide.”
Paul was forced to ask incredibly penetrating questions. “How could I have been so wrong?” Peter is left with the far-reaching implications of his visions, “This changes everything!” And both men leave their ‘Aha’ moment changed forever. Forever. There was no going back. It’s as if the boundaries that they were so focused on maintaining kept them from standing back and seeing that outside of the boundaries were acres and acres of more property in the fold of God, but they couldn’t see them because their attention was so myopic.
What are we afraid of? When changes come? When new beliefs take hold? When new ideas prevail? What are we afraid of? If, indeed, Uncle Ben is our God, there is much to fear. But if our God is too complex to box in, if He’s too diverse to be defined, if He’s too deep to fathom, then we are left with nothing but questions. David Dark’s words are helpful again here:
God is not made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys. Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence. God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off from the complexity of the world we’re in . . .
Leaning on our own understanding of God in this way is idolatry, an inappropriate and unfaithful dependence on our pictures, concepts, and broken ideas that can’t hold life-giving water. Nothing we claim to know or have hold of or pretend to believe as children or as adults places us on the winning side of God’s affections . . . Standing firm in our beliefs will often take precedence over seeing what’s in front of us.
If we never ask questions, we allow ourselves to stand before the great Wizard of Oz and never realize that the one we’ve cast as God is nothing more than a fraud. Our questions force us to delve deeper. Our questions tell us that we don’t have to be afraid any more. God isn’t afraid of our questions. God likes our questions. God wants our questions.
Read Psalm 100. God is not the God Jonathan Edwards describes having us dangling like spiders above the pit of hell held in place by a “slender thread” ready to knock us in for every doctrinal ineptitude.
The psalmist rescues us from such a God. Our God is to be worshipped with gladness. Our God is a god that can be known. Our God is one who is worthy of praise and adoration. And our God is a God who welcomes our questions.

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.