FUMC News

"Crosses"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/16/2018
Mark 8:27-38
“Crosses”
September 16, 2018

 

            The passage we have heard from Mark’s gospel this morning is one of the most profound descriptions of what Christian discipleship may hold and indeed has held for Jesus’ followers across the centuries.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8:34-35]

Taking up your cross has been more than an expression of duty.  In the earliest days, that was exactly what the disciples had to do.  Tradition says that Peter was crucified, but asked – asked! – that it be upside down, since he felt he did not deserve to die the same way as Jesus, since he had denied him before his own execution.

            As a preacher, I also feel some trepidation speaking about suffering and trial from the relative comfort and safety of this time and place.  Who am I to speak, when Chinese Christians go about under governmental suspicion every day, or when Coptic churches in Egypt are bombed, or when Pakistani Christians have been condemned to death on charges of blaspheming Muhammed or disrespect for the Q’uran? 

            Even so, as one writer put it,

“Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him [or her], a cross destined and appointed by God.  Each must endure the allotted share of suffering and rejection.  But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear.  But it is the one and the same cross in every case.”[1]

The writer here knew what he was saying.  This was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who spent the 1930’s building and strengthening the “Confessing Church” in Germany that refused to implement Hitler’s policies and Nazi laws.  In June of 1939 he escaped to New York City and was given a professorship at Union Seminary in New York City, but when he learned of the imminent invasion of Poland, he resigned to return to Germany just so that he could do his part to keep the Church faithful to Christ in its hour of need.  He knew what his cross was.  It found him.  He had the right to speak about martyrdom.  He was imprisoned by the Gestapo and hanged in 1945 as the liberating armies approached.

            Bonhoeffer had about a decade to train (if that’s the word) for the ordeal to which he was subjected, and when the time arrived he came through it honorably.  I say, “Came through it,” because when we follow Christ to Calvary, he carries us the rest of the way beyond.  That’s how we can sing

 

“I will cling to the old, rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.”

Not everyone gets the kind of warning he had, though, or sees trouble coming from far away.  Tuesday was the anniversary of 9/11, which was a horrible, horrible day.  Nevertheless, it brought with it stories of heroism, where people risked (and sometimes lost) their lives helping others, and I have no doubt whatsoever that there were many more stories of faith and courage that we will not know before we get to heaven because the faithful, courageous witnesses died that day.  Yet one thing we might still learn from that tragedy is to set our minds and resolve our hearts so that whenever we face a tragedy (at the same time praying that day may never come) that we do so in the full Spirit of Christ, who said,

“those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” [Mark 8:35]

I haven’t been able to find the source, but I’ve often heard that John Wesley insisted his preachers be ready “to pray, preach, or die at a moment’s notice”.  I’m thankful that I have so far had adequate warning.

            Not all crosses are dramatic, either, though all of them are holy.  When people get married, they promise to express the love of Christ through their relationship to their spouse.  They promise to stick by each other

 
“for better or worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish
till death do us part”.

In other words, they promise to give up living for themselves alone, to lose a big portion of their own life for someone else.  It is all wonderful and good, but for the most part they only find out what they promised to do down the line, when their spouse loses a job and money gets tight, or becomes depressed and needs to be loved through it for an indefinite period, or is confined to a wheelchair by an accident, or any of thousands of situations that call for conscious and deliberate sacrifice on the part of the other person.  Yet it happens every day. 

           Yes, there are times when it doesn’t turn out that way, and human frailty or normal limitations intervene.  What about those?

           The absolute worst persecution of Christians by the Romans took place beginning in the year 303 at the order of the emperor Diocletian.  Many believers were killed.  There were even more, though, who were tortured or imprisoned and survived, who came to be called “confessors”, because they confessed their faith at great risk.  (Think, if you will, of hundreds or thousands of people like John McCain.)  When Diocletian lost his power and the Great Persecution ended, the question arose of what to do about those who had weakened under threat or under torture, and some Christians wanted to ban them entirely from the community.  After all, hadn’t Jesus said,

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels”?  [Mark 8:38]

At the same time, there were people who pointed out that the disciples themselves had fled when Jesus was arrested, and only John stood at the cross with the women as witnesses to Jesus’ death.  Jesus himself reconciled with Peter after the resurrection, and must have done the same with the others.  So the Church said that only the survivors, the confessors who understood firsthand what it is like to face those terrible choices, had any standing to judge the others.  For the most part, the confessors, in turn, said they wouldn’t condemn anybody and only Jesus could truly see anyone else’s heart.  They might ask for signs of repentance, but they wouldn’t cut anyone off from mercy.

            For some people, there is the cross that comes with being forgiven, with the struggle to live with the deep sense of human weakness, but also (once the full awareness of Jesus’ love breaks through the guilt) the job of being living witnesses that the cross shows the infinite richness of divine love and compassion, love that led Jesus to speak forgiveness even to his executioners.  And, by the way, that sin and that forgiveness takes in each and every person born.  One way or another, the cross is the beginning of life, not its end.  So

 

“‘Take up thy cross,’ the Master said,
‘Nor think till death to lay it down,
For only those who bear the cross
Can hope to wear the glorious crown.’”
 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Discipleship and the Cross” in The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1963) 98-99.

"The Woman Who Argued with Jesus and Won"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/9/2018
Mark 7:24-37
“The Woman Who Argued with Jesus and Won”
September 9, 2018

 

            More and more, in recent months, whenever I listen to the news or read the material coming over my news feed, I have a strong urge to curl up on the couch, pull an afghan over my head, and shout, “Make it go away!  Just make it go away!”  I have tried to turn it all off.  I have tried not to look at the newspaper for twenty-four hours or read any article that does not include a recipe.  I still feel on-edge because I’m half-afraid of something awful happening and not knowing about it until it’s too late.  What if a war starts?  What if the dollar crashes?  What if lead is discovered in our local water system, or if a hurricane forming in the Atlantic is headed this way?  What if football is outlawed or ebola is discovered in New Jersey?  I know I’m not the only one, either.  Consider this cartoon by Lila Ash that was in The New Yorker last week:

“You can have the pillow fort back
When you bring Mommy some good news.”

 

            Here’s some good news: even Jesus felt overwhelmed at times.  More than one place in the gospels describes him doing what he had to do to manage the demands that the world put on him.  Today’s gospel lesson tells of a time he went all the way up into Lebanon, near present-day Beirut.  He

“went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”  [Mark 7:24]

He tried to arrange some down-time.  Why should you or I feel bad about trying to do the same thing?

           Now back to the harsh realities.  Jesus’ attempt to hide away for a few days didn’t work.  Even outside Jewish territory, somehow he was recognized.   He

“could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.” [Mark 7:24-25]

One summer when I was in college, I worked in Acadia National Park in Maine and I was manning the cash register at a gift shop one evening when somebody handed me a credit card with the name “Paul Nitze”.  (This is geeky, I admit.)  I recognized the name as belonging to the man who six years earlier had led some groundbreaking talks with the Soviets on reducing nuclear arms.  I didn’t saying anything to him, but got some really weird looks afterward when I said to the other workers, “Do you realize who that was?”  Another time, at the same store, I sold some bedroom slippers to Carter Heyward, one of the first women to be ordained an Episcopal priest.  (I had seen her give a lecture about two months earlier.)  In that case, I did thank her by name as I handed her the bag, and watched her try to figure out if I was someone she knew.  And every Wednesday morning we sold a package of cocktail napkins to a certain Miss Wanamaker for her afternoon bridge club.  If those people could not fly under the radar, then how unlikely is it that Jesus could go unrecognized for long?

            If it was bound to happen, though, the woman who found him found him a little bit too soon.  He had not had enough time to rest and (I trust he’ll forgive me for saying this) he comes across in Mark’s retelling as a little bit cranky, which goes along with being seriously tired. 

“Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” [Mark 7:26-27]

 Again, he’s trying to set boundaries.  He is telling her, “Look, lady!  My job is to reach out to the people in Judaea.  Sorry, but you just don’t qualify as part of my assigned demographic.  I work with Mac, you’ve got an Apple.” 

           And here’s where the absolute genius of this woman comes into play, and she becomes the only person in all the gospels who argues with Jesus and wins.  For one thing, she has compassion on him.  We can only guess where it comes from.  Not many people would take a rebuff like he offered lightly.  But she, too, probably knew what it was to be tired to the depths of her soul.  Here was a mother who was troubled for her young daughter, scared of what was going on.  You can hear the sleepless nights in her voice and imagine what terrible scenes she had had to witness helplessly.  There must have been a mixture of exasperation and hope or desperation to drive her to approach a foreign man, one she had never met, and to keep pressing him for help after a pretty clear, “No.”  My guess is that she heard something in his voice that was regret at his own answer, or that she sensed that her weariness and his weariness were alike on some level.  She saw a connection that was deeper than the surfaces of their lives would suggest. 

           On that basis she persisted, overlooking his analysis of his own ability to help.  Jesus said that

“‘it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’” [Mark 7:27-28] 

He was not uncaring.  It took this woman whose need and weakness mirrored his own to open his eyes to a depth of calling beyond what he had yet fully grasped.  You know, the Bible says that when he was a child,

“Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in divine and human favor.” [Luke 2:52]

His wisdom never stopped increasing.  She did not deny his understanding of his calling, but she offered him a chance to broaden it, and he had the wisdom to learn from her.

“Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” [Mark 7:29-30]

He came, he had realized, to save his people.  He came, he now realized, to save the world.

            I suspect that this interchange stayed with him whenever he might have been tempted to see his human limits as a limit on the power of his Father.  Jesus would later tell a parable about having compassion on those in need that started this way:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”  [Luke 16:19-21]

All that talk about dogs and tablescraps, and sharing what is on the table!  Where had he heard that before?

           Notice, though, that when he talked about the poor man in need, he gave him a name, which he didn’t do for anyone else in any of his other parables.  We use the translated name “Lazarus”, but it comes from the Hebrew name “Eleazer”, which means, “God is my help.”  I suspect – and here I am speaking for myself and not from the text – I suspect that Jesus also learned in his interchange with the Syrophoenician woman how to recognize the depths of God’s Spirit at work within him as a help not only for the people, Jew and Gentile alike, who had been coming to him and who would continue to come to him with all sorts of problems and demands, but also as the help that he himself needed to respond to them without the shortness he showed to that woman outside Tyre. 

           Jesus would continue to go off by himself to pray, often early in the morning before other people (including the disciples traveling with him) were even awake.  And we would see him pray about his own weakness in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Still, those were moments when he opened his heart to the Father’s renewal through the Spirit, and he always came away from them prepared for whatever awaited, knowing where his help lay.

           Odd, isn’t it?  -- how it may be better sometimes to lose an argument than to win?

"Human Traditions"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 9/2/2018

 

 

Mark 7:1-8
“Human Tradition”
September 2, 2018

 

            Jesus criticized his own generation for getting so caught up in the externals of religious practice that they forgot the aspects that touch the spirit.  It’s a little convoluted as Mark describes it, because there were practices that were part of the Law, written in scripture, that the Pharisees refer to as “the tradition of the elders”.  Jesus doesn’t stand against them, and he doesn’t exactly defend his disciples when the Pharisees criticize the disciples for non-observance of those rules.  Frankly, I’d be a lot like them about some of this.  I want my vegetables washed before I eat them.  I want people to wash their hands before they sit down at the table.  Maybe a farm hand or a fisherman cannot do that, but if it’s possible, washing your hands and doing the dishes would be on my list of best practices.

           Jesus does, however, seem to say that it isn’t really respect for God or even concern for health that motivates the Pharisees as much as it is a sense that there is a proper way to do things, and if you don’t do it that way there must be something wrong with you.

“So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me; 
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’”

            Long ago I was looking over the traditional Christmas Eve service of lessons and carols.  (Mind you, “traditional” here means that the practice is about a hundred years old, which isn’t really very long in terms of church history.)  It occurred to me that the logical placement for “Silent Night” is right in the middle, after reading about Jesus’ birth.  (You can hear what’s coming, can’t you?)  We did the whole “Silent Night” and candle moment, but not at the end.  I got a note the next week from someone telling me I had “spoiled” her whole Christmas.  I was doing a more thorough job than the Grinch when he took everything away from Cindy Lou Hoo, who was only just two.  Really?  Is that what Christmas is about?  The familiarity of one, ritualized, non-essential element? 

            Tradition and usage must be at the service of God, or it can become idolatrous, and can do harm.  A friend of mine, a pastor in the United Church of Christ who lives and serves in the Lehigh Valley, is thinking about buying about a half-a-dozen new dress shirts.  Like a lot of U.C.C. clergy in that part of the state, for years he has worn a clergy collar every day.  After last week’s release of the report on child abuse by Roman Catholic priests across Pennsylvania, and the identification of a large number of predators in the Lehigh Valley specifically, the sense of trust that a collar carried in that area is gone and, in fact, it has become a source of suspicion.  So for the sake of the Church’s witness, he may have to change his wardrobe.  If you knew him, you’d know that’s a big step in his eyes.

            Do our practices in worship and our practices in daily life draw us and others closer to the heart of God?  That is really the question and the measure of success. 

           American culture has a tradition of breaking with tradition.  The nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell wrote:

“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires!  We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.”

Maybe the tradition of breaking with tradition is a tradition that needs to be broken, when it becomes an end in itself, or when something is being broken down without something else being put into its place.

            Last Sunday afternoon I was talking with Doug Hagler, the pastor at First Presbyterian.  He had been talking with Paul Davis, who’s the pastor of the Grace Valley Fellowship that meets at the Middle School on Sunday mornings and has its office down on Bridge St.  Grace Valley are not the hipsters; that would be the Iron Bridge Church that meets at Franklin Commons.  They are the with-it, “contemporary” (although that word is going out of use) bunch that emphasizes their cultural relevance and pride themselves on how relaxed they are, with a sort of latte-and-praise-band vibe going on.  Anyway, Paul was telling Doug how he has recently heard several of his members independently lamenting that they don’t ever hear organ music and aren’t set up for that.  Meanwhile, Doug has been trying to find a drummer.  So it is possible that on World Communion Sunday in October, the Grace Valley folks will pay a visit en-masse so that they can hear a traditional prelude, offertory, and postlude.

            What’s going on?  This is a very strange and unsettled time for the Church in North America.  Every time it seems that everyone is safely ensconced in his or her proper niche, the Holy Spirit seems to poke somebody and make them squirm just enough to throw the rest off-balance, too.  But that is a good thing.

            Tradition itself has to live and grow like a plant, where one branch gives way to another and then comes back another season.  T.S. Eliot, who pondered a lot about what tradition means to literature, said,

 “…if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. ... Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”[1]

The same is true of what we experience as people of faith.  There are practices that come into being and do great good, but when they either grow stale or take on a greater importance than the purpose they serve, of pointing to God’s love in Christ, then they need to be set aside.  Perhaps they will be taken up again at a later time, perhaps not. 

            Perhaps when they reappear they will be changed and reinvigorated.  In the Middle Ages, there were people who spent years in some cases going on pilgrimage from place to place, from France to Jerusalem or from Scotland to Spain, and in their travels they reminded others that life itself is a journey toward God.  But when it became a sort of holy tourism, then it was time to stop the practice.  Among Protestants, the practice went away for five centuries.  Yet in our own day there are people who travel to other places as short-term missionaries and carry with them the message that no part of the Body of Christ is forgotten by the rest, and that has become a gift of grace.  The danger of it sliding into tourism, though, remains and needs to be monitored, which we know exactly because we’ve been through it before.  Human tradition can be good, but put God’s ways first.

            Since I started this sermon talking about organ music, I’ll finish on the same note.  Johann Sebastian Bach, when he wrote whatever he had in mind for that Sunday’s masterpiece, would begin by writing three letters at the top of the page: “SDG”.  That stood for “Soli Deo Gloria”, “Glory to God Alone”.  Maybe it was his intention, the prayer of his soul, going into his work that has given it the staying power that it has. 

            As Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.  Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” [I Corinthians 3:10-11]

 

[1] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” at https://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html .

"Haggai and the Origins of Ebenezer Scrooge"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 8/26/2018
Haggai 1:1-6
“Haggai and the Origins of Ebenezer Scrooge”
August 26, 2018
 
 
            The fear of poverty can be as harmful to some people as poverty itself. 
 
            Some people think that Ebenezer Scrooge was modeled on a man named John Elwes.  He was a Member of Parliament who had inherited money from his uncle and eventually had built up an impressive list of real estate in the West End of London, but he continued to live as frugally as he could, to the point of stinginess.  He would live in whatever rooms of his properties were not rented out at the time, to avoid maintaining a house.  He went to bed at sundown every day so he would not have to buy candles.  There are stories about how he put off buying new clothes so long that people on the street would walk up to him and hand him a couple of coins because they thought he must be a beggar.[1] 
 
            There was more to his story, though.  His father had died when he was four and his mother, apparently, was so scared of running out of money (even though her husband had left enough for them to live comfortably) that she eventually died of starvation because she wouldn’t spend the money to buy enough food for herself, although she made sure her son lacked for nothing.  In the same way, Elwes believed he was doing all this to save his fortune for his heirs.  So he went along walking in rainstorms when he could afford a cab buy wouldn’t pay for one, nor for an umbrella, getting home soaked and sitting there wet because he would not pay for firewood to dry himself out.
 
            The fear of poverty and the experience of loss may have underlain what was going on in Jerusalem at the time of the prophet Haggai.  He lived at a time when Judah had been reduced to a province of foreign empires that kept trading it around every few decades.  In his day, the people of Jerusalem had returned from exile in Babylon and had rebuilt much of the city from ruins into a liveable place, but there they stopped.  They saw to their own immediate need and comfort, and kept all that they could beyond that.
 
            Part of what Haggai, and other prophets like Malachi, would preach about was how the people withheld funds needed to rebuild the Temple. 
 
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” [Haggai 1:2-4]
 
But Haggai knew it went deeper than that.  
 
“Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”
[Haggai 1:5-6]
 
The people’s withholding was a symptom of the fears that they had inherited, the troubles that they, as a nation, had undergone.  There was some healing left to take place and the people needed their confidence rebuilt no less than the walls of Jerusalem.  To use a cliché, they needed to learn how to move from fear to faith.
 
            When there has been some sort of trauma, it leaves its mark.  On the one hand, it can leave someone weakened.  On the other hand, it can call forth a greater strength than was previously known.  In between there is a stage of caution where the desire to move forward and the fear of repeated tragedy live side-by-side.  That was where the people of Judah were stuck.  That’s where a lot of people get stuck.  It can help to set clear steps or definite challenges, and that was what the Lord was doing through Haggai’s words.
 
            Rebuilding the Temple would be a sign of renewed faith, but it would also be a means for renewal to happen.  You know how someone learns to swim, right?  They get into the water.  You know how you get over the fear of flying?  You sit down on an airplane and close your eyes and grip the arms of the seat as tight as you need to grip them, and when you open your eyes you tell yourself that you are riding on a very tall bus. 
 
            A friend of mine became a widower a couple of years back, and something that he did the first six months of being on his own was intentionally to go out to places they had liked to go as a couple.  He said that the first couple of spots were painful, the next run were awkward, then came the sad ones, and on and on.  When he went back to any of those a second time, it was a little better, and eventually he realized that no matter what, at least he wasn’t just sitting at home, staring at the TV.  Then one evening, he said, he went to the movies and had a good time and didn’t realize what had happened until the next day.
 
            The problem isn’t so much that the Lord’s blessings aren’t there.  The problem is that we see ourselves as needing more all the time or let our fears or sorrows get in the way of enjoying what we are blessed with:
 
“Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”
 
How different that is from the awareness expressed in as familiar a way as the twenty-third Psalm:
 
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil,
my cup runs over.”    
 
How different that is from the promise that Jesus offers us:
 
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?”  [Matthew 6:28-30]
 
            There is no denying that the world is full of trouble, and people get hurt, and all sorts of things go wrong.  Nobody knows that better than Jesus.  No one ever felt the weight of the world the way he did.  Nobody ever could.  We feel our own burdens and our own sins and our own griefs.  He feels them with us and for us, and for all people, every last one.  And it is exactly Jesus who said to his disciples, and who says to us,
 
“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  [John 16:33]
 
“Take courage”: have you ever thought about that expression?  Maybe sometimes we can find courage inside ourselves, but that isn’t always the case.  What we can do, though, is take courage from Jesus’ hand, because it is one of the many gifts that he holds out for us, and it calms us down enough to see how very many other blessings are already ours, thanks to him.
 

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1228112/The-Real-Scrooge-As-Dickens-miser-gets-3D-makeover-meet-MP-lived-like-tramp-inspired-story.html
"Practical Agnosticism"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 8/19/2018

 

Zephaniah 1:1-12
“Practical Agnosticism”
August 19, 2018

 

            In the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche declared, “God is dead.”  In the 1960’s a group of American theologians pointed out that as far as a large segment of the American public was concerned (and it’s become a much larger group since then), Nietzsche might as well have been right, because even if they use the word “God”, it means nothing to them.  As far as they are concerned, “God” is a quaint concept left over from the Middle Ages.  To answer the situation, the “Death of God” theologians tried to formulate a theology without God at its center.

            A writer for Time magazine heard about this project and wrote an article for the April 8, 1966 issue.   The cover that week made quite an impression. 

            Of course, there was a backlash.  One of my favorite responses was printed in a Methodist student magazine called Motive.  It was written in the format of a newspaper column and under that headline was the subheading, “Eminent Deity Succumbs During Surgery; Succession in Doubt As All Creation Groans; LBJ Orders Flags At Half Staff”.  I won’t read the whole thing, but I’ll quote some of it to give you the idea.

“…God, creator of the universe, principal deity of the world’s Jews, ultimate reality of Christians, and most eminent of all divinities died late yesterday during major surgery undertaken to correct a massive diminishing influence.  His exact age is not known, but close friends estimate that it greatly exceeded that of all other extant beings.  While he did not, in recent years, maintain any fixed abode, his house was said to consist of many mansions. …

Plans for the deity’s funeral are incomplete.  Reliable sources suggested that massive negotiations may be necessary in order to select a church for the services and an appropriate liturgy.  Dr. Wilhelm Pauck, theologian of Union Seminary in New York City, proposed this morning that it would be fitting and seemly to inter the remains in the ultimate ground of being. …

Public reaction in this country was summed up by an elderly retired streetcar conductor in Passaic, New Jersey, who said, ‘I never met him, of course, never saw him.  But from what I hear I guess he was a real nice fellow.  Tops. …”[1]

That’s satire, using humor to teach truth.  However, you really do meet that kind of condescending attitude in real life, and it is insulting to a living God, who is not just “a real nice fellow.”  Do not trivialize God.  One contemporary politician speaks of his own self-described spiritual practice,

“When we go in church, and I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and eat my little cracker, I guess that’s a way of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as I can because I feel cleansed.”[2]

That demonstrates – at best – a magical view of the sacrament, treating communion like swallowing a handful of Flintstones vitamins.  At its worst it is outright blasphemy.  It totally ignores the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; it laughs at the real death of the real God incarnate; it discounts the true cost of our pardon and ignores the source of real spiritual cleansing.

            And yet, such attitudes, decry them as we might as the result of modern skepticism or secularism, were known even to the prophet Zephaniah, around seven centuries before Christ.  To push God out of the picture or to treat him as a disinterested, ineffectual, distant figure of song and story who has nothing to do with the here-and-now, Zephaniah [1:12] warns, is to stir the Lord up in a way that you do not want to do.

 

“At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people who rest complacently
on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’”

Do not presume to treat the Lord of heaven and earth as expendable or beside-the-point.

            Our relationship with God is exactly that: a relationship.  It is not a tool to pull out of the box when you need it and put back when you’re done.  Exactly because God’s love never ends or grows less, God can be hurt.  There is not an exact correlation between human and divine ways – far from it – but we can say, in a way, that God has feelings and feelings that are far, far, more intense than our own.  Think what it means to be disrespected or trivialized by your own family, and then multiply that by whatever degree to imagine what it does to God’s heart.

            How often, though, do we do exactly that?  How often do we set one side of life over here and God over there?  How often do we act as if there is no place for God on the ballfield or in the courtroom or balancing the books?  How often do we make decisions in terms that are, for all practical purposes, those of an agnostic?  (That’s somebody who says, “I don’t know whether or not God exists, so I guess I’m on my own.”)  So we don’t spend any time asking what God wants us to do or how God wants us to live.  Maybe we operate on a vague sense that we should be good or do the right thing, but it never makes its way into specifics like choices about when to speak and when to remain silent or how to use our money or what medical treatments we go with or pass up. 

            The whole “God is dead” movement was right in some ways; modern people, even people of faith, do not ascribe every last detail of what happens in the natural world to specific divine commands.  Of those who do, only a handful of people like Pat Robertson have the hubris to claim that God is directing wildfires to burn California or hurricanes to hit Texas, and they can tell you why. 

           But the “God is dead” movement was wrong in saying that God has no hand in anything that happens anytime or anywhere.  God is very much involved in human life and human history.  God is so intimately involved that he became part of it.  He lived the life of a Middle Eastern peasant whose protest of the world’s ways was crushed by the unjust rule of a local theocracy and a multinational empire.  God is so intimately involved that he undid the wrongs perpetrated at the cross, going against all that is natural and normal and raising Jesus from the dead.

            And God still goes against all that is expected, working wonders in the lives of people who live in a world that pushes him aside.  God blesses the poor in heart and the pure and the merciful and those who mourn.  God fills those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  God brings new life to those dead in sin, including the sin of pride that so troubled the prophets – and rightly so. 

           By the way, Time published another cover story, the day after Christmas, 1968.

I think that Zephaniah might have felt better about this one.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Anthony Towne, “God Is Dead in Georgia” in The Best of Motive (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1990), 127-128.

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