Sermon: March 26, 2017 – “Re-visioning Christianity Part Two”

Re-visioning Christianity Part Two

Text: 2Corinthians 5:16

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

I think what the Apostle Paul is talking about here is really important for us to take a minute and understand what he is saying in this text. Of course, there can always be multiple interpretations of a text, but from my perspective what Paul is saying is that the perspective of how he views Jesus has changed. What is important for us to recognize is that Jesus did not really change, but based on circumstances surrounding Paul, the perspective of Jesus has changed.

Now I want to be really clear about this. Looking at the text, Paul says from now on; that implies a dividing line of sorts, we view no one from a human point of view. So, something has happened that creates this imaginary dividing line for Paul. There is the past when he viewed Jesus and other people from a human point of view, but now he says we know him no longer in that way.

Of course, for Paul, I think what we are talking about here is the appearance of Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus. I think that experience was a dividing line that changed the perspective of Paul and he now saw Jesus in a new way. An important question to ask, however, is did Jesus actually change, or was it just the perspective of Paul that changed? If we can begin to understand this question, then we can begin to understand what has happened to Christianity in the past four or five decades.

Last week I mentioned I was reading this book in which Marcus Borg has written a chapter about re-visioning Christianity. It is packed full of information and we cannot begin to unpack everything that Borg says in a sermon or two. But one of the things which is brought to light in this chapter is that things have changed for us significantly over the last 100 years or so. We are now asking questions that we would not have thought to ask a 100 years ago. We are facing moral and ethical dilemmas which did not exist a 100 years ago and as all of these changes have taken place around us, Christianity for the most part has remained unchanged.

For those of us that grew up with this Christianity, we have managed to work some of these questions out in our own minds. We have perhaps gained a slightly different perspective over the years, without even being aware that our perspective has changed.  We don’t necessarily believe everything that orthodox Christianity teaches, but we haven’t called for a complete overhaul of the system either. I think many of us just sort of give Christianity “a pass” when it comes to the tougher questions.

But here is the problem. Those that did not grow up in the church, when confronted with some of these tougher questions are much less likely to just give Christianity “a pass”; they are far more likely to reject the entire package and look elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment.

There are many different manifestations of what I am talking about and we simply do not have time to talk about them all. So I’m going to pick just one. The inherent doctrine of exclusivity for Christianity has become problematic for the sustainability of our faith tradition. Let me explain.

I don’t think most of us actually believe that Christianity is the only true religion. I don’t think most of us believe in a God that is willing to sentence 2/3 of the world’s population to eternal torment, and I don’t think most of us believe that all other world faith traditions worship false Gods and are evil. I believe that most of us embrace a certain level of inclusiveness, we want to honor other faith traditions and I think we generally feel that if everyone can get along and come together on points where we can agree, everyone will be better off.

Like I said, I believe that most of us believe this to be true. One of the reasons we believe it to be true is that our world has changed. We have become much more aware of other faith traditions, our neighborhoods and workplaces have become multi-cultural and in many cases multi-faith tradition. As we work beside and live next to and learn more about other faith traditions, it becomes harder and harder to believe that a relationship with God is only available through faith in Jesus Christ. It becomes even more difficult to believe that the only path to God’s grace is through Jesus as well. For centuries it seemed that Christians were able to rationalize the hypocrisy in the idea that faith in Jesus alone somehow switches the grace of God into the “on” position. If that is true, then we’re not really talking about grace, but that is another topic.

Because we love the church and we grew up in the church and our attitudes have evolved over a significant period of time, we don’t react negatively to traditional hymns and creeds which reinforce the exclusivity of Christianity. “It’s just the way it has always been” we tell ourselves, or we look past the shortcomings and offer the explanation that “it’s our tradition, no one really believes it.”

While we may have changed over the decades, Christianity has not. The basic core concepts have remained unchanged for at least 1500 years. Perhaps we need a new perspective, a new way of seeing Christianity.

I want to take just a minute and give you another way of thinking about this. I’m going to show you a video of a 3-dimensional sculpture. I’ll tell you in advance what you are going to see. The sculpture is rather simple, it is just wire arranged in a specific pattern. The video begins from one perspective and then the camera moves around the sculpture to view it from a different perspective. Watch carefully to what happens.

Play video

If I were to ask you if what you just saw was a sculpture of an elephant how many of you would say yes? How many would say no? How many of you wouldn’t know how to answer? What if I were to ask you if it was a sculpture of a giraffe? Same problem, right?

How you answer the question depends entirely upon your perspective. We can view Christianity from more than one perspective and not necessarily change it. We can allow the many perspectives to expand Christianity into multiple meanings for multiple cultures. But if we are going to do that, we have to let people know that is what we are doing. Right now, no one talks about this.

I want to call your attention to the photo on the cover of your bulletin. Many of you know that a few weeks ago, Heidi and I were on vacation and we were on a cruise. One of the ports where we stopped was in Guatemala. I have always wanted to see Guatemala, ever since I was a kid. That is because my oldest sister, when I was about 9 or 10 years old, graduated from college and entered the Peace Corps, where she served for two years in Guatemala. There is more to that story, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

If you know about cruises, you know there are shore excursions you can sign up for. Our shore excursion for Guatemala was to travel by boat into the jungle and visit a school that has been established there to help educate the indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala. It was a fabulous shore excursion and I would love to tell you all about the school-perhaps another day.

As part of our tour, we passed a table where the students were displaying some of the things they used in ancient ceremonies and rituals they were learning about in the Mayan culture and history. Many of these artifacts represent customs and traditions that pre-date Christianity by thousands of years. If you look carefully at the objects, you will see masks, and incense burners, different figures of birds and other animals and you will also see a cross.

I asked our guide about how they use the cross in these ancient ceremonies. He said the cross represented an attitude of honoring the many Catholics that are now part of the culture. They know who Jesus was and the cross represents compassion and personal suffering in some of the ceremonies. The students at this Mayan school didn’t see any conflict of faith traditions with the incorporation of the cross as one of many artifacts that are used. For them, Christianity offered another perspective of what they honored as the Divine in their ceremonies.

The school is not as advanced as what we would find here in the United States. We didn’t see any computers or TV monitors. We didn’t see any cell phones or any reference to anything on-line. We didn’t see any video games, we didn’t see any automobiles, we didn’t see much of anything that was modern or techno-savvy. We might say the school was well behind the schools here in the states.

We could say that, but we must also acknowledge that the students in his primitive Mayan school may possess a much greater understanding of inclusiveness and the wonder of multiple world faith traditions than most of the Christians I know. And for me, that makes them very advanced indeed.

Food for thought. Amen.

 

 

Sermon: March 19, 2017 – “Re-visioning Christianity”

“Re-visioning Christianity”

Text: Mark 7: 5-8, 13, Isaiah 29:13

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live[a] 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.”

thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;

I am fascinated with this particular confrontation of Jesus with the scribes and the Pharisees as it is recorded in our text from the Gospel of Mark. I find it so interesting because Jesus seemed to have the text from Isaiah that he quoted right at the tip of his tongue. If the conversation went as it is recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus didn’t have to think about a response, he didn’t have to check his concordance of the Hebrew Bible, he didn’t get on-line and do a quick search for scriptures to rebut scribes and Pharisees with, he just knew right away what he wanted to say and was able to reference it as well. This is a remarkable talent. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, we are, after all, talking about Jesus.

I also find this text intriguing because it seems to have a timeless nature to it. Timeless in the sense that it was appropriate for the time when it was written and recorded in Isaiah, but also appropriate in the situation Jesus found himself in many years later. I think it is still timeless, because now, 2,000 years after Jesus quoted the ancient text it is still applicable to our situation today. Have we become a collection of “vain worshipers” who abandon the commandment of God in order to hold to human tradition? Jesus said this kind of worship makes void the true word of God. Isaiah said that this style of worship is what you have learned by rote.

This is pretty harsh. To be clear, Jesus was observing some of these symptoms within the practices of ancient Judaism. I believe that Martin Luther may have observed some of these symptoms during the Protestant Reformation. There is a growing number of contemporary theologians who now have observed these same symptoms in Christian worship today.

I am currently reading a book that is a compilation of thoughts by 9 of those contemporary theologians who have observed this behavior with the Christian church. This book, “The Once and Future Jesus” is quite fascinating and may be a subject of a book study later on, so stay tuned for information on that.

I mentioned that there are 9 contributing authors to this book, each theologian has taken a topic and expanded on that topic with their own thoughts and ideas. So by reading this book you are exposed to a lot of different perspectives, writing styles and innovative ideas when it comes to contemporary Christian theology. One of these topics was examined and expanded by a favorite author of mine, the late Marcus Borg. The title of his chapter in this book is what I borrowed for the title of this sermon, “Re-visioning Christianity”.

In his chapter Borg presents some rather important concepts and ideas about the transformation of Christianity that he thinks will be necessary for us to have take place over the next few decades if Christianity is going to survive as one of the major world faith traditions.

Of course, it is necessary for me to say that I believe these changes are important, Marcus Borg believed these changes to be important, but that doesn’t mean you have to as well. You may think that Christianity is doing just fine, just the way we are and nothing needs to change. You have every right to believe whatever you want to about this topic, but I will say that just because you have the right to believe something, doesn’t make it the right thing to do. That statement is also borrowed, but it packs a punch and you might want to think about that for a while. I’ll leave it on the screen long enough for you to make a mental note or jot it down, if you want to.

So what does Borg have to say about re-visioning Christianity? I wish I could condense his chapter in this book to a few sentences that would tell the entire story. Unfortunately, I think that Marcus Borg already condensed his sentences at the time of this writing so rather than condensing the sentences, what we really need to do is unpack each sentence. I hope you don’t have lunch plans.

In all seriousness, I will try to give you a flavor of what I have found to be compelling from Borg in this chapter from this book.

For starters, Borg describes the orthodox or traditional concepts of Christianity to be an “old way of seeing Christianity”. The new way of seeing Christianity has not yet arrived nor has it been fully developed; as a result, the old way of seeing Christianity has “come undone” as he puts it, for many Christians over the last 30-40 years. This has been evidenced by a mass exodus of many out of the mainline Christian denominations. This exodus has not taken place because people no longer believed in God, or no longer felt a need for a spiritual connection, but rather because the Christian faith tradition has “ceased to be persuasive” to millions and millions of people. Borg goes on to state that he believes the re-visioning of Christianity into something that is persuasive is in fact “the most important theological task of our time.”

At this point I want to interject some personal thoughts and perhaps a rhetorical question or two. If re-visioning Christianity is the most important task of our time, as Borg thinks it is, and I would have to agree, why then, is it likely that on this particular Sunday morning that this is the only pulpit in the entire LC Valley that you are likely to hear anything about this? When I was with Habitat I counted about 90 churches here in the Valley. If we are the only one talking about this that gets us pretty close to one percent and I don’t think that is enough. I think we need some help; but that help may still be a few years ahead of us. I’m really not sure.

A second thought I have about this is that I know it is frightening to a lot of people. The “old way” of seeing Christianity as Borg describes it, is in many cases the Christianity that we grew up with. If we were taught as young children and then again as young adults that our faith tradition was the only way for us to enter into the kingdom of God and escape from eternal suffering, then you bet it is scary to start messing with what we have been taught.

And that’s the rub. Rather than face that fear, we remain in status quo. While the rest of the world no longer believes what we might believe, and while the rest of the world is searching for a faith tradition that connects with them and empowers their spiritual lives, we remain in status quo because we are afraid. The result of that situation is where we find ourselves today. Massive declines in traditional mainline denominations, declining numbers even among evangelicals and non-denominational churches and a population of people under the age of 50 that are starving for a spirituality that makes sense to them. I think we can fix this. But it isn’t going to be easy. And for many of us it might be a little scary. But it simply must be done.

I have maybe unpacked the first two pages of the chapter in this book by Marcus Borg; obviously there is much more to come, so let’s call this part one and see where it takes us. Hopefully, what we have unpacked so far has provided enough information to get your curiosity awakened and you will find some food for thought.

Amen.

 

Sermon: March 5, 2017 – “Earning a Gift”

“Earning a Gift”

Text: Matthew 20: 1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This story sends me back to growing up in Iowa and working on the farms surrounding my hometown in the summer months. When Heidi and I first moved away from the Midwest, we had to learn the language of the new part of the country we had moved in to. As it turned out, we had to make an adjustment in our thinking with regard to what dinner was. In the Midwest, dinner is the noon meal and supper is the evening meal. I don’t really know if it is still that way or not, but when we moved out of the Midwest we would hear about people going to dinner in the evening and it didn’t make sense. It sounded a little foreign. Now, 40 years later, and having traveled quite a bit, I would say that dinner for the evening meal is the standard in most parts of the country and supper is exception rather than the rule. But when we heard it for the first time it did seem a little odd.

In this story of the vineyard, the manager keeps coming back to the town square or the market place as the text calls it. This makes sense to me and it has to do with calling dinner the noon meal and supper the evening meal. Let me explain.

As I was growing up in Le Mars, Iowa, I had the opportunity often in the summer months to earn a little extra spending money by working on some of the nearby farms. Usually this work was pulling weeds in a soybean field, which we called “walking beans” or it was baling hay. I did a lot of baling hay. It was hard work, but the pay was good and so was the food. There was sort of an unwritten rule that not only would you get paid for your labor on the farm, but you would also get fed. I think the farmers figured you would work better on a full stomach. This is how it worked.

The farmer or the manager would cruise through town and pick us kids up early in the morning; sometimes as early as 5:30 or 6:00 at the latest. We would then drive out to the farm and the first thing we did was have breakfast. This was a full meal. Meat, potatoes, pancakes, eggs, juice, bacon, actually almost anything you can think of, it was there for breakfast. Usually by 7 or 7:15 we were fed and ready to hit the fields.

Around 9:30 or 10 in the morning, we would take a break and the kitchen crew would show up out in the field with lunch. At least that is what they called it. Lunch consisted of cold meat sandwiches, chips, fruit and lemonade or cold water to drink. But they brought all of that out to us in the field; we didn’t go back to the farmhouse for lunch.

Then at noon we would stop again for dinner. This was another full meal served at the farmhouse. Just like breakfast, there was almost anything you could imagine. Usually several different types of meat, chicken or ham or beef, with potatoes and salads and fruit and biscuits and you get the idea. We would eat for an hour and then head back to the field.

At around 3 in the afternoon, it was time for lunch again and we got another break. Again, like the morning lunch, this was brought out to the field and we sat around on the equipment and ate our sandwiches and drank our lemonade.

At 6 or so in the evening we would go back to the farmhouse for supper. Another huge meal was prepared and waiting for us there. After supper if there was any clean-up or light chores to do we did that before it began to get dark and then the farmer or the manager ran us back into town in his pick-up truck.

If I remember correctly, by the time I was a junior or senior in high school, the average daily wage for a full day of baling hay was about $15 cash, but with all the food benefits thrown in as well.

As I read this story of the manager of the vineyard, it brings back all these memories. I can imagine him returning to the marketplace, perhaps to buy food for the laborers, and while he is there, he sees more people who need the work. The spacing of the times that the manager returns to the marketplace line up pretty well with my experience working the farms in Iowa as a young man. This might help explain why he kept returning to the marketplace and each time he did he found more people there willing to work in the vineyard.

As the story goes on, each worker in the vineyard gets paid the full amount. This didn’t ever happen to me, but I can just about imagine what it must have felt like for the laborers who had been out there all day. I can tell you that at times it was hard to stay awake during that last meal of the day that we called supper. By the time we rode the truck back in to town, many of us were nodding off and certainly ready for bed when we got home. If someone new had shown up at the 3 o’clock lunch and worked the afternoon and gotten paid the same as the rest of us, it would have seemed a little unfair.

Think about that. I had to be outside at the curb ready to be picked up at 5:30AM and had worked all day. Then some joker who shows up at 3 in the afternoon gets the same pay as I did? Yeah, I would think I’d be a bit upset by that. But as the text points out, what exactly am I going to be upset about? I did agree up front to work all day for the $15 and the food. It was my choice. But I can imagine it still wouldn’t sit quite right with me. Something about it seems unfair.

But that is the point of the story isn’t it? Grace isn’t fair. As much as we want it to be measured out in proportion to how good we have been, grace isn’t fair. God’s grace is universal and it covers all of us regardless of how long we have been in the field. And sometimes that just doesn’t seem right, but that is the way it is.

If you read the history of the Reformation and the inspiration of Martin Luther you might discover that Martin Luther based much of his reformation theology on the writings of Paul. In some of the Pauline letters, you can find the references to “faith alone” as the foundation for our belief and faith in salvation. And that became the rallying cry for Martin Luther as well; “faith alone.”

You would think that Martin Luther would have read this text and realized for himself that the grace of God, the kingdom of God as the text says, is a gift which cannot be earned. It doesn’t matter how many hours you have in the field. It doesn’t matter what time you showed up for the work party. It doesn’t even matter if you worked or not. The grace of God is a gift which cannot be earned.

But I want to take you back to my farm experience. You see, if someone had shown up at 3 in the afternoon, even if he got paid the same amount, he would have missed all those meals. There was the phenomenal breakfast and two lunches served in the field. There was dinner, which was the noon meal, which was a repeat performance of the phenomenal breakfast, but only better. So what if the newcomer gets paid the same amount of money. He missed all the food and fellowship of those other times we have spent together.

In a few minutes we will have the chance to enjoy another symbolic meal together in the form of communion. I realize that sometimes it is taught that communion is a requirement of our Christian journey and through the sacrament of Holy Communion we help earn our own salvation. That doesn’t exactly square with what Jesus said. The grace of God is a free gift and cannot be earned. Communion is the bonus time you get to spend in the presence of the Divine because you had sense enough to show up early.

And since this entire sermon has sort of been about food, it seems appropriate to say it is also food for thought.

Amen.