Vision Check

Sermon preached Sunday, August 30, 2015 at Euless First United Methodist Church


Can you see the future from here?

What does it look like?

Which direction should we look?

Some of us, as we age, do a whole lot more looking behind us than in front of us.  It is tempting; we know the past, we’ve been there before!  Things look familiar.

Yet, we have to admit, the farther they get behind us, the harder it is to focus. The distant past gets to looking real good – so we say things like “back in the day…” or “remember when…” or even “kids these days…”

Maybe it’s just a matter of getting older, but it seems like I hear more lamenting about the present and the future than I used to.

But the future is where we are going, so we may as well face it, and prepare for it.

To move forward, we have to look back.  The past, all that is behind us, has played a role in making us who we are today. It has shaped us for better and for worse.  This Church has a long, rich history that will affect – that we want to affect – where we go from here.

Cars are equipped with mirrors for a reason; the safest driving forward includes checking your mirrors regularly.  But the mirrors make up only a small part of what you see as you drive forward.

So, let’s look back, and let’s look forward.  

Euless First United Methodist Church was founded in 1876. Since you don’t remember 1876 here’s a bit of an historical snapshot of the year this church was founded.

U.S. Grant was President. Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for an invention he called the telephone. (patent #174,466)  The Transcontinental Express reached San Francisco on June 4, 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left New York. Texas A & M opened for classes on Sept. 4.

In 1876, the year this church was founded, the Dow Jones Industrial Average didn’t even exist.

Well, the Dow Jones exists now, doesn’t it?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened this past Monday to a drop of more than one thousand points.

To be fair, markets around the world dropped, too.  UK, down almost 5%. Japan, down 4.5%. You get the idea.

The stock market is not the economy, and the economy isn’t the stock market, but Monday told us all one thing, at least: there is a lot of uncertainty to go around.

How are you with uncertainty?

How are you with certainty?

We’ve been reminded this week that life is uncertainty.  Even if you are completely, absolutely, 100% confident that your faith in Christ has locked down your eternal guarantee of God’s favor and presence, It is very likely that you don’t always feel this way.

Certainty of the head does not equal certainty of the heart.

For that matter, I have found that, over time, what once counted as certainty might, a few years later, be considered, upon reflection, naivete.  Or maybe youthful exuberance.

Because there are these stages throughout life when you change, or shift.   Don’t you remember that time when you got back together with your parents as a young adult and realized they weren’t out of touch anymore?  As Mark Twain put it:

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

And that’s just in your early 20s. I don’t know about you, but when I pause and reflect, I’ve had several of these shifts. Enough, I suppose, to worry or frustrate my parents. Except that, as I get older, I realize that parents go through their own shifts as well.

So, while we can complain about, and lament about change, I suppose even the way we lament about change changes.

And we move forward, into the future.  Sorry, but I can’t help this: time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin, into the future. And it is dragging us along with it.

Maybe you can imagine how God’s people felt, then, when Jeremiah wrote these words to them:

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

Like us, they knew their past. Like us, they didn’t know their future.

They knew they were God’s people – God’s chosen people – chosen to share the good news of God’s intent to bless all humanity, even all creation, through them.  

We know we are God’s people, chosen to share the good news of God’s intent to bless all humanity, even all of creation, don’t we?

This is why our mission is to try to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. Unless we follow Jesus, we are not living faithfully as God’s people. Our living faithfully as God’s people is necessary for us to be part of what God wants to do and is doing in the world.

Last week we looked at the end of Luke chapter 9, which was a concentrated dose of what following Jesus means. This week, we pick up the story right after that.  Jesus sent out 72 “others” – this is above and beyond the 12 – to go in pairs ahead of them.  They were sent, like we are sent, to prepare the way for Jesus.

Let’s face it: you and I don’t “bring Jesus” to people.  One of the things we learn as we go out into mission – whether on mission trips or in service to the school, or the Food Pantry, is that God is already at work in the lives of other people!

As we learn to follow Jesus better and better, we also begin to realize so many ways that God is already at work in the world around us, and that God invites us to come be a part of what God is already doing!

In the Jeremiah reading, the prophet and God are encouraging the people to develop an attitude h  of blessing toward Babylon.  Toward their captors – the ones who came into their land and hauled them off into exile.

“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”

Sometimes a church can get its focus off of the bigger picture and begin to worry about itself. This would be an easy time for us to fall into this trap. Airport Freeway is going to be widened, and that’s taking some of our land, including our playground and our oldest building. The Main St. bridge could be closed for as much as a year and a half. Our sanctuary was struck by lightning and we haven’t been able to use it for 17 weeks. Attendance, and therefore giving, have both been down for the past four months.

This would be an easy time to circle the wagons, and start to worry about us.

And yet, We’ve been here since 1876.  We have been through more challenging times than this, and we will face more challenging times in the future.  What are we to do in challenging times?  “Promote the welfare of the city.”

We have taken great steps into South Euless Elementary over the past few years, but there is so much more to be done!  So many students in our area would go home after school to empty houses or apartments, that they don’t go home – many of them go to the library or rec. center. How could we help those facilities handle so many kids – and how can we help so many kids know that they are not alone?

There are many single parent households around us – and there are projected to be more in 5 years than there are now.  There are also more grandparents raising their grandkids than there were 20 years ago, and this number, too, is likely to rise.  Some of you are raising grandkids!  What kinds of things can we do to to promote the welfare of these folks who have step up to try to raise children as well as they can?

We have 50,000 square feet of building space here, that has been built and paid for by you all and the 139 years of Euless Methodists before you. (did you know our entire indebtedness is only $30,000?)  How can we make this space available to those around us and promote the welfare of our city?

What things can we be doing – on our property, and off it, inside our buildings and miles away, that will promote the welfare of the city?  The vows we take at baptism – and renew at each new baptism we witness, remind us that God calls us to promote the welfare of the city.  For some, stepping out there seems too risky for now.  Fair enough.  Can we all at least agree that promoting the welfare of the city as a church requires more from every one of us than merely occupying a pew on Sunday morning?  Where and how is God calling you to be involved?

The kicker, to me, of the Jeremiah passage is the “your future depends on its welfare” line.

We had an 7 person team meeting with a consultant for 6 consecutive weeks.  On top of the 3 hour meetings we had each week, we had homework. One week our homework was to interview people from the surrounding community – city leaders and people who just live and work around here.  When asked what they knew of our church, too many of them knew only that we had a Preschool and a Food Pantry.

Our future as a Church depends on the welfare of our city!

Can you imagine the conversations that happened in that Woodlawn Grange Hall 139 years ago?  What kinds of things do you think the early Methodist and Presbyterian congregations had then?  What were the issues they faced?  How much uncertainty do you think they felt toward the future?

The Grange organization, by the way, was a national fraternal organization “that encourage[d] families to band together to promote the economic and political well-being of the community and agriculture.”

The Woodlawn Grange helped us get started. That was across Main Street from where we are now.  Did you just picture 7-11 or a Chinese restaurant that used to be a Taco Bell?  Or the Euless Lumber Company?

We moved over to the east side of Main Street in 1891.  124 years ago.  Perhaps we owe a debt of gratitude to the Grange for getting us started.  Perhaps we owe God a debt of gratitude for leading us to this city at this point in time.

To whom do you owe a debt of gratitude for who you have become?

We do well to look forward by first looking back, but also by maintaining an attitude of gratitude.

If we are to follow Jesus faithfully into the future, we really must stay aware of all we have to be thankful for! We will need the energy and raised spirit that gratitude brings because “the harvest is bigger than you can imagine,” Jesus says, “but there are few workers.”

If we stopped there it might seem like Jesus intends to overwhelm his followers. I don’t believe Jesus ever intends to overwhelm his followers because he is trustworthy and offers all the support and resources that are needed for what he calls us to do. Paul wrote in bringing 1 Thessalonians to a close that “The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.”

What Jesus tells these 72, I believe he tells us:  basically, it is this: establish relationships, build trust with the people you go to.  You can’t make them trust you, you can’t make them like you, but I think Jesus agrees with Paul here, where in Romans 12:18 he says, “ If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.”

It seems like we are sometimes looking to be offended.

Hear these words of Jesus again:

Whenever you enter a house, first say, ‘May peace be on this house.’ If anyone there shares God’s peace, then your peace will rest on that person. If not, your blessing will return to you. Remain in this house, eating and drinking whatever they set before you, for workers deserve their pay. Don’t move from house to house. Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come upon you.’ (Luke 10:5-9)

and even if they don’t accept you, welcome you, agree with you, Jesus says this:

Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’ I assure you that Sodom will be better off on Judgment Day than that city.

We enter a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We pray for a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We promote the welfare of a city with the intent to bless and to be a blessing. We do this because our future depends on its welfare.

This is why we have adopted these Mission, Vision, and Purpose statements as a Church:

Mission: Euless First United Methodist Church’s mission is to follow Jesus Christ a bit better today than yesterday. Through these efforts we develop a relationship with Christ and thus transform people, their lives, our community and the world.

Vision: Our vision is to be a community of God’s love and grace so that the larger community and world see God by our actions and outreach.

Purpose: We seek to follow Jesus better by moving people from knowing God, to growing in relationship with God, to going forth with God to serve others, and finally, glowing for God by witnessing to their faith to others.

Our desire, intent, and plan are to follow God into the future that God is setting before us. Our mission, vision, and purpose can help us become, perhaps, an MVP on God’s team.

Next year we celebrate 140 years as a congregation.  We face the future with uncertainty and certainty.  Uncertainty in that we don’t know what the stock market or the economy will do; we don’t know what tomorrow holds.

But we have certainty in that, as the old song goes, “we know who holds” tomorrow.

And God, our God, the one who holds tomorrow, calls us to pray for and promote the welfare of the city to which God has sent us.

To God be the glory for the next 140 years!

Vision Check

The Challenge of Discernment

One Monday I heard both of these claims:

  • First, someone shared the exciting news of a special ministry event in which he had participated.  What made it so exciting, he said, was that “Satan was trying to stop us at every turn.”  He went on to describe a long strings of challenges and threats to the success of the event.  The team, with God’s help, overcame all the challenges, and had a wonderful, blessed time!
  • Then, less than 2 hours later, another man shared that he had been learning the lesson of discernment from this fabulous Christian book.  To sum it up, one can discern one is on track to follow God’s will as obstacles are overcome through seeking counsel, logic, wisdom, and God. The lowering of obstacles is a sure sign of God’s will!

So, which is it?  Do you know you are on the right track when Satan is throwing obstacles in your way, or when God is providing an obstacle-free path to follow.

Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices
Person With Red Arrows Shows Many Choices

Call me cynical, but the answer is obvious.  We discern we are following God’s will, or the right way, when we do what we have determined we will do. If obstacles arise, we ask God to overcome Satan. If obstacles don’t arise, we assume, I suppose, God has already overcome Satan.

The Christian tendency is to turn to “Biblical Principles” to direct discernment.  You know as well as I do that given enough time and practice at ‘spin,’ almost anything can be made to sound like a “Biblical Principle.”  Let’s face it: for years, slavery was accepted as a “Biblical Principle”!

What has your experience been in your quest for discernment?  Have you moved beyond finding the proper steps to under gird your own will? If so, how?

The Challenge of Discernment

Got (Theological) Questions?

Preached Sunday morning August 2, 2015 at Euless First United Methodist Church, at the 11 am serviceGotQuesitons
One of you, last week, asked me if reading the Bible would make God answer prayers faster.

I’d like to try to tackle that with you this morning on our way into today’s Got Theological Questions?

But first, I want you to know something about yourself that you might not know.  You are a theologian.

If you have ever wondered how or why or when or where or who about God or gods, you might be a theologian!

If you have more than one translation of the Bible, you might be a theologian!

If you ever pray, and ever wonder exactly how this prayer thing works, you might be a theologian!

If you hear the term “SUV” and wonder if it might be a new version of the bible, you might be a theologian!

If quadrilateral makes you think of Wesley, not geometry.

If you have questions after repeating the Apostles’ Creed, you might be a theologian!

In fact, let’s try that one

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Amen.

So: you might be a theologian.

I’m pretty sure you are a theologian.  Some of us pursue this more than others, but if you ever wonder, you are a theologian.

And if you are a theologian, you have theological questions.

Like, “does reading the Bible make God answer your prayers faster?”

The simple answer, I’m sorry for this, is “Yes and No.”

Yes, reading the bible will make God answer your prayers faster because reading your bible will almost definitely give you a better understanding of God.  Reading your bible will almost definitely deepen your relationship with God, your recognition of God’s love for you, and your desire to allow God to transform you as the bible offers.

People with a deeper relationship with God have their prayers answered faster because their prayers are more in line with God’s will.  They find themselves developing an appreciation for the complex ways God interacts with and works in the world, and their prayers are likely to show this difference.

and

No, reading the bible will NOT make God answer your prayers faster.  One of the first things we learn in the Bible is that our God, the god of the Bible, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses, David, and Elijah, of Mary, Peter, and Paul, is not a God that can be controlled by formula. You cannot make God answer a prayer by praying in a certain way. You cannot trick God or force God into agreeing with you – or disagreeing with you – based on who you are, what you think, how you act, or whether or not you read the Bible.

So, yes and no.

If you are left with more questions now than you had 3 minutes ago, you are definitely a theologian!

Since we are all theologians, and, I’m going to guess most, if not all of us consider ourselves Christian theologians, then it’s a good thing we are here this morning. Because I am quite sure it is critically important for us to faithfully wrestle and struggle with these things together. After all, Jesus said wherever 2 or 3 are gathered, he’s right there in the midst.

I’m not always good at this. For example, there is a card game that I won’t play with Rachel. I think it is called “Blink.”  I don’t remember for sure because we haven’t played it in more than 5 years.

It’s a game we got, I think for Christmas before Eliza was born.  We love games.  One of us doesn’t love this game.

I don’t like this game for the very simple reason: I never win.  We got “Blink” out and played it.  once, twice, three times, and I never won. Never even came close.

I’m not so competitive that I can’t take a loss here and there, but I NEVER won!

I hope I’m not the only one to have had this kind of experience. If I am, you can come and shame me after the service.

What does this have to do with theological questions?  Everything.

Perhaps the most important thing we bring to theology is our attitude.

How does it make sense to talk about a  loving God if most of what comes out of my mouth is bitterness? James 3:11 asks: Both freshwater and saltwater don’t come from the same spring, do they?

I am firmly convinced God welcomes our questions – when we ask with an appropriate attitude.

Theology isn’t just questions; it is questions with an appropriate attitude.

How is your attitude toward God?  How is your attitude toward people?

From what the Bible seems to indicate very clearly, your answer to the second question is the honest answer to the first question.

Our attitudes matter!  And, to paraphrase 1 John 4:20, if we say we have a good attitude toward God but a lousy, or bad, or bitter, or hateful attitude toward our neighbor, we are liars.

So I’m going to start with the first theological question I received: How do we handle/deal with/understand the idea of “eternity”? (It terrifies me)

First, based on what I’ve just said about attitude, maybe a little terrification is a good thing.

Second, When I was a young fundamentalist planning to be a preacher someday, I really wanted to use this: stand silent for one minute – 60 seconds – and then say something like, “that minute felt like a long time, didn’t it?  Just try and imagine how long eternity is – infinity minutes!

But time is not such a statically defined thing as that.  You know time isn’t always measured by seconds or minutes or days or years.

Sometimes time slows down. Our honeymoon, which we took on our first anniversary, was a week in Germany.  We had such a great time that it felt like it lasted for weeks!

Last week one of our families spent several days in the hospital.  One of our members had a stroke – a blood clot in the brain – then bleeding in the brain.  It didn’t look good from Sunday afternoon until late Monday night when, after 2 ½ hour brain surgery, he awoke with better than expected reaction and movement.

But that 36 hours from Sunday through Monday evening felt like a month and a half to the family.

Gretchen Rubin has put it this way: “the days are long but the years are short”

So, time is relative. But what does this have to do with eternity?

30 years ago I was convinced eternity was about forever – and that this meant a long, long time.

In the 90s, though, in youth ministry, I was confronted with the fact that not everyone wants to live forever. In other words, people would look around them, take stock of their lives, and say, “If this is what life is, I don’t want it to go on for ever!”

So, the answer to the question: the way I deal with eternity, and this is energized first and foremost by John 17:3 where Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God, that eternity is the kind of life that one would want to go on forever, and that this is exactly what God wants for us: the kind of life that one would want to go on forever!

In the same Gospel where Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God, he also says that he came so that we could have life—indeed, so that [we] could live life to the fullest.

The more I pursue God and a relationship with God – loving God and loving my neighbors, the more I find myself moving toward this kind of life – eternal life.

Which leads to this question, that one of you asked and many of us ask from time to time: Why does God allow/let such terrible things happen in the world to good people?

We could spend a year on this question and not satisfy everyone.  Books have been written – every year! – about this.

Here’s where my brain takes this question:  We want to have our cake and eat it, too.

When we ask the “question of evil” or “why bad things happen to good people?” most of us include ourselves, generally, in that category of “good people.”

But, when someone starts talking about holiness, or living as God called us to live, or accepting or seeking the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, most of us whip out, “but we’re all sinners!”

Well, which is it?

Are we good people who expect, or wish, God would protect us from all evil and malady, or are we miserable sinners, unable ever even to do one thing good?

Further, sometimes we say we want a God who would protect all us “good people” from harm and evil, yet we want free will.  Do you and I always make choices that protect us from harm and evil?  Don’t we sometimes make choices that put others in harms’ way?  Are you now or have you ever worn clothes produced in some sweatshop in south Asia?

We live in a world where evil exists. It exists on our actions as individuals and as societies – as nations, and as a whole.

These next two questions I’m going to tackle together:

How does creationism reconcile the laws of thermodynamics?  For example 6,000 years is not long enough to evaporate 26,000 ft. of water over the entire globe.

If humans were on earth before animals, how do we explain the science of pre-historic life?

Maybe I should have taken these last week, as my answer depends upon a crucial point about the Bible.  The Bible, as contained in the Old and New Testaments, contains the word of God as far as is necessary for our salvation.

The Bible is concerned about our salvation.  It is not so much concerned with current debates about science or history. No part of the bible was written to be a science or history textbook.

The Bible IS all about truth, but the truth that the Bible is about is not the kind of truth that science or history seek.

Now, it’s time for your questions:

Finally, I want to share this question with you: If there is sufficient grace for all, is there grace for Judas?

I cannot help but believe that, yes, there is sufficient grace for all, and that all means all.  Even Judas. Even Hitler.

At Annual Conference Juanita Rasmus told us this beautiful story of a vision she had of this all-sufficient love and grace of God.  In her vision, she imagined even seeing the likes of Hitler in the afterlife – she imagined God’s love and grace being that strong, that powerful, that sufficient.

Can you believe in a God whose grace is sufficient for anyone? Wouldn’t you like to know a God whose grace is sufficient for everyone?

Here’s the rub – it comes back to that pesky free will and eternity.

If God’s grace is sufficient for anyone and everyone; even Judas, even Hitler, even Paul ( “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9), the question remaining is “Will God’s grace overcome your free will?”  or “Will God allow you, or me, or anyone, to choose to remain outside of God’s grace?”

That’s a great theological question, and one that isn’t settled in the scriptures or in the nearly 2,000 years of debate, reflection, wrestling, and arguing since.

But you know what?  While I’ll still ask the question, and love to discuss the possibilities, I’m with Joshua on this one: “as for me and my house, we’ll serve the Lord.”

I will pursue this God whose grace is sufficient.  I will seek to follow the example and teachings of Jesus, and I will learn to trust that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness.

Would you join me?

Got (Theological) Questions?

Got Questions? (Biblical)

Here’s my sermon from Sunday, July 26th. This opens the “Got Questions?” series. In the video, which will be available later in the week, we will include questions taken and answered during the sermon. This is only the part I prepared ahead of time.
Enjoy!GotQuesitonsLet’s start our “Got Questions” series with one of the few questions I’ve received.  I’ll offer something of an answer, then share some thoughts, then invite you to ask questions as well.

Ready? Here’s the first question for the series.  It starts at the very beginning; which, I’ve heard, is a very good place to start:

Did God make man on the sixth day (Genesis 1:27) or after the seventh day (Genesis 2:7)?

Well, now. That’s a question!  In case some of you had not noticed, Genesis seems to tell of God’s creating humans two different times. In Genesis 1, male and female are created together on the 6th day.  In Ch. 2, though, we get the longer version of the story: where first the man is created, and then woman is created out of Adam while he sleeps.

So, my answer to the question is: “yes.”  God created man and woman on the sixth day AND afterwards. Although, actually, the second story seems to indicate that the first human was created on the first day of creation.

If you read further into the second chapter of Genesis, you notice that only one human is created, and that human is created before the animals.

This might leave some of you wondering, “well, which one is right?”

Which is a great place to start this message, and, for that matter, a whole sermon series called “Got Questions?”

I am attempting to divide the questions over these three sermons in this way:  biblical, theological, and social.  There is lots of overlap; that’s ok.  This week, we look only at, or at least primarily at, biblical questions.  In a few minutes, I intend to give you the opportunity to ask some yourself.

Back to the “which one is right?” question.

Asking the question, “which one is right?” between two bible verses says a lot about the kind of people we are.

We are, or tend to be, people who want straightforward, clear-cut answers.  We want  no interpretation necessary.

The Bible does not offer straightforward, clear-cut answers.  In fact, I would go so far as to say the Bible REFUSES to offer straightforward, clear-cut answers.

It starts that way. Two different stories of creation in the first two chapters! The first is about God being the author of order, the second about God being our Creator

Before I pursue that any further, here’s what our church, the United Methodist Church, says about the Bible:

Article IV (EUB) We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.

This is NOT a “B I B L E stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” understanding of the Bible.

I don’t see how the Bible is an instruction book.  This takes us back to the way the world we live in works; the age we live in thinks: We want instructions. Even better than instructions, just google your “how to” question and watch any of 17 to 70,000 videos on Youtube for “how to” do whatever you want to learn how to do!

The Bible, in fact, is not a book at all. It is a collection – a library if you will – of 66 books written over the course of more than a millennium.

Or, if it is a book, it is a book that “reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice.”

If the Bible were an instruction book, I expect Jesus would have answered questions differently!  Matthew 13, for example, is full of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God. To explain the Kingdom, instead of a set of marching orders to political dominance and enforcement of proper social behaviors, Jesus tells them
A farmer went out to scatter seed…
The Kingdom of heaven is like someone who planted good seed in his field. while people were sleeping, an enemy came in and planted weeds among the wheat…
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field…
… is like merchant of fine pearls…
… is like a net that people threw into the lake and gathered all kinds of fish…

The vast majority of the Bible is narrative, or story. But, then, if the Bible reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true guide for faith and practice, it makes sense that it is story; we LIVE IN STORY.

Think, for a minute, about what Jesus’ bible was.  Do you know what Bible Jesus read? Not only did Jesus NOT have an iphone or a tablet computer to carry around to look up scriptures, but he didn’t even have a book – a bound version – to carry around.  It is, in fact, very likely that Jesus did not own a copy of the Hebrew Bible – what we call the Old Testament, but in a different order.

It is most likely that Jesus learned what he learned about the Bible in school and from listening to adults talk about it.

The Bible, and what it says and what it means belongs to the community of the people who claim the Bible as their book; as authoritative in their lives.  We read it, collectively and individually, because we believe it reveals the Word of God as far as is necessary for our salvation.

And we must remember that reading it together is as important as reading it apart.  Each of the 66 books of the Bible was written more than 1000 years before the printing press, so there was no expectation of personal daily reading.

Our modern expectation of personal daily reading has sometimes replaced reading and wrestling with the scriptures together as God’s people.

Jewish culture in Jesus’ day, as now, I’m told, was full of discussion and debate about the stories that make up the scriptures. Here is a parable that expresses this value:

Two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, “What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them.”

So, Jesus learned from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.  The Jewish faith also has the mishnah, writings of oral traditions from Rabbis interpreting the Hebrew Bible, as well as the Talmud, a written compendium of all of this.  The Talmud is 6200 pages long, and it is all about what the Bible means.

We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation. But we don’t always use it that way!

Here is something else I feel it is important to say, then I’ll answer two more questions, then we’ll take some questions from you. There is no plain meaning, obvious, interpretation-free way to read the text.  Some preachers will tell you there is. In fact, isn’t it convenient that the one person who gets to stand in front and hog the microphone claims there is one meaning to a scripture.

That one true, plain, obvious meaning is, of course, mine. The one I’m telling you.

Except the Bible doesn’t work that way!

For example: Some still (amazingly to me!) throw out Paul’s “Let your women keep silent in the church” verse which seems, right(?), to have a pretty obvious meaning.  Except that Paul also writes that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

Which is it? Well, I suppose that depends on what you intend the scripture to do.  If you intend to weaponize the bible, to use it “at” someone else to put them in their place or prove yourself right and them wrong, then you have to decide which it is.

If you are reading the Bible as revealing the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation,” then I suppose you’ll get a different answer to that question.

Do you ever read the Bible ‘at’ other people? Have you ever had the Bible read ‘at’ you?

The other question is this: “Is homosexuality immoral from a biblical standpoint?

Scripture interprets scripture.” Here is my answer: It seems that way to most people. However, even this, I am convinced, brings up more challenges than we want it to.  First off, as I’ve pointed out before, the bible NOWHERE mentions homosexuality as an orientation.  It does, in as many as 6 different places, refer to some forms of homosexual behavior.

Which leads me to this: Who is asking if “homosexuality is immoral from a biblical standpoint?”  Now, I know who asked the question, but that’s not what I mean.

Typically, it seems, confirmed, even adamantly heterosexual individuals ask if homosexuality is immoral. Sometimes they are curious, sometimes they intend to weaponize the scriptures.

Maybe more heterosexual folk ought to spend more time wondering if gossip is immoral than if homosexuality is immoral.

Most of us are probably following Jesus better if we question our own behaviors and motivations and attitudes than those of others.

The final question, before I take yours, is Christ said “my body GIVEN for you”, but in your serving of Communion you say “Jesus’ body BROKEN for you”.  Why do you do this?

Great question!  The first time I was asked this, I admit, I got a bit defensive.  I mean, I absolutely understood the question.  Isaiah and John both make it a point to say that the Savior’s atoning death would occur without the breaking of a bone.  Why, then, did I say, “Christ’s body, which is broken for you.”?

When I was first asked, I didn’t know why I do this.  It didn’t take me long, though, to find out.

I do this because the translation of 1 Corinthians 11:24 that I grew up with said “And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.” I say it this way because

  1. it’s in the Bible that way; and
  2. that’s the way I learned it when I was younger.

On this second point, I have a confession: I used to get really irritated when people would say, at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, WHO art in heaven….”  Because the King James CLEARLY says “Our Father, WHICH art in heaven….”

Each of us read the Bible the way we have learned to read the Bible, and not exactly the same way as others read the Bible. But we are invited to wrestle, struggle together WITH the Bible because it reveals the Word of God so far as is necessary for our salvation.

taking questions

Conclusion:

Josiah became King of Judah when he was 8 years old.  At 26, he determined the Temple would be renovated. Part of the clean up of the Temple for this project was the discovery of the “Covenant Scroll” – the torah.  When Josiah, the king heard it read, it broke his heart and he ripped his clothes – a cultural way of expressing deep sorrow, guilt, and grief.

The Word of God can have this effect on us.  When we use it only, or even mostly, against others, though, we build walls around our own selves. When we weaponize God’s word against others, we dull ourselves to experience the power God’s word can have in us.

Contrast this with Jesus calling out the Pharisees with the way they use the Bible.  They read some of it literally to the minutest detail, and then ignore other parts.  More accurately, they use some of God’s word to rationalize why they don’t have to obey other parts of God’s word.

So, what are we to do?  We all, like the pharisees, run the risk of using some parts of the Bible to trump others.  In fact, John Wesley taught his followers to interpret the more difficult to understand parts of the Bible in light of the more straightforward.  Or, perhaps, the more specific in terms of the broader.

For instance, how can Paul tell women to keep silent and also say that in Christ there is no male or female?

Because, clearly, one is more general, a broader, more universal reading, while the other is for some specific case.

We all interpret some parts of the Bible in terms of other parts.

It shows in the way we live.  When we use the Bible against others, we find others assuming a defensive posture when we dare bring up the Bible or religion.

When we use the Bible to help us and others connect with the God who has this incredible long tradition of faithful love and commitment to people created in his own image, I suspect we find people more willing to listen.

What about you would make someone want to read the Bible the way you do?

Closing Story:

I keep an old shoebox on the shelf in my closet.  I take it down every once in a while and look through it.  Usually, no more than once a year.  But when I do, I cherish it!

This shoebox is where I keep letters and cards from Rachel from when we were dating.  She lived in Fort Worth and I lived in McGregor.  We talked most every day, but in this kind of relationship, there was always more to be said.  So we wrote to each other. Rachel being more artistic than I also drew and painted on cards that she would send.

So, every so often I pull the box down and I read through them. It warms my heart and refreshes our relationship.

I feel like this is a pretty good image for what the Bible is or can be for us.  Think of it as love letters to God’s people.

May you find the life and hope and forgiveness and faithful love in the Bible that the Bible is meant to offer.  May you find it so clearly that you glow at the thought of it and that others see, and hear, and want to know more!

Got Questions? (Biblical)