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)

Pop Culture Finale: Back to the Future!

Here is number 6 in a 6 part series on Pop Culture.  Sunday was titled “Lead, Follow, or…”  In honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of Back to the Future, I’m re-titling this.

Popculture2015summerbanner


I don’t know about you, but along about this time of year, I enjoy thinking of cooler weather. “Christmas in July” is a thing, isn’t it?

One of my fond memories of Christmas as a child was the spate of tv specials. You remember them, don’t you?  The claymation “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the “Peanuts’ Christmas,” and “Frosty the Snowman” where Burl Ives voiced the narration?

I was at a youth bible study on a Wednesday night almost 15 years ago.  It was early December, and someone brought up one of those shows.  I think maybe Rudolph.  Anyway, this young person had rented Rudolph from the local video store and was going to watch it right after we were through.

Which story made me wax nostalgic for my childhood.  “I remember watching that as a little kid,” I said. “Only back then, it was on one night in December, and if you weren’t home, in front of the tv, you missed it.”

I saw this strange look on the face of one of the youth.  “What is it?” I asked.

“What… did Blockbuster do back then?”

Instantly, I got this picture in my mind of hundreds of Blockbuster stores sitting empty all across the country in the 60’s and 70’s waiting for the invention and mass-production of video recording and marketing.

Of course, hundreds of Blockbusters was an understatement. At their peak, Blockbuster had 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees.

And Liam and Eliza, or anyone under 15, will likely never know what they were.

It is interesting to me that the shows last (well, some of them), but the way we watch them, or the way we get access to them to watch them changes.

The 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is not currently available on Netflix, by the way, but it is available for purchase to stream or as a dvd on amazon, google play, and maybe itunes.

The better stories last, but the way we access them and take them in changes.

I wonder what truth there is in that statement about the stories you and I know as scripture.

It used to be, and by “used to be” I mean way back in 2012, most of the people in most of our adult Sunday School classes carried a bible, a paper, printed and bound bible with them, or at least picked one up if they wanted to find a scripture or if it was their turn to read aloud.

Now, more often than not, each person has their smartphone or tablet open, youversion or bible gateway app going, and can read from any of 80 or so translations.

The better stories last, but the way we access them and take them in changes.

So, this week, our final week with Pop Culture – if there really can be such a thing as  final week with Pop Culture – we want to look at the vicious cycle or feedback loop that we all have with Pop Culture.

Like it or not, Pop Culture drives our society, to some degree. Many people around us are strongly influenced by pop culture. Because our task is to make disciples – followers of Jesus – of those around us, we cannot ignore Pop Culture.

We have to, we are called to, engage pop culture in whatever ways we can to make disciples of Jesus.

Does it feel sometimes like Pop Culture has run off and left you?

Does it feel sometimes, like you want to run off and leave Pop Culture?

That’s the really insidious thing about Pop Culture: you can only get so far away from it.

Eminem tried to get away from it.  In his early music, he railed against the music industry.  The music industry, it should be said, has hurt a lot of musicians in the name of profit.

Wonder why Boston quit recording for several years?  Wonder why Prince changed his name to this  ?  Because, at least in part, the music industry can be very hard on musicians.

So Eminem fought the power!  He still became very popular – popular enough to be invited to sing at the Grammies – with Elton John!  Was anyone really surprised that at the end of his song he raised both hands, flipping off the music industry that had played a role in making him a global star?

What kind of relationship do you have with Pop Culture?

It’s complicated.

Everyone’s relationship with Pop Culture is complicated.

So what are we do to?  Does Pop Culture lead, follow, or get out of the way?

Yes and no.  In some ways it leads – styles and trends and tastes and marketing draw us all in certain directions. Disagree?  Well, as I don’t see anyone in a leisure suit or a hoop skirt this morning, I’m going to assume we all get dragged along, and this isn’t all bad.

But in setting trends and styles, there’s this cyclical thing.  In the 70s, Happy Days brought back some of the style of the 50s.  In the late 90s, That 70s Show brought back the 70s.

Things go, and things come back. A little different next time, but there’s this spiraling process.

So, again, what are we, as followers of Jesus to do?  While we are engaging Pop Culture and seeking to be disciples and make disciples, how do we grasp all of this together.

First, we learn something from the lessons of God’s people in the scriptures.

Take today’s reading from Judges, for instance. I want to focus on verse 10, but first, a recap.  Joshua had led God’s people into the Promised Land.  They had taken possession by God’s mighty hand, and now they were settling in and enjoying the land God had given them. So what happened?

Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel

“Another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

We see this pattern throughout the life of Israel: you’ll have a great judge and the people excel, then, that judge dies and the people fall into evil practices and worship of false gods. You’ll have one King that recognizes God, and the next “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

In fact, this phrase, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” appears 17 times just in 2 Kings!

A new generation comes along and does what is evil in the sight of the Lord.”

Some of you might be thinking, today, “yeah, that sounds about right.”

But here’s the deal: whatever the new generation comes up with, the older generation cannot simply wash their collective hands!

We, the previous generation, are at least partly culpable for ANYTHING we think is wrong with the next generation.

We need to own this folks: no generation grows up or comes of age in a vacuum!

We, like the God’s people throughout the Old Testament, too often fail to connect across generational lines in meaningful ways.

And, folks, those of us over 50 don’t get to decide what is meaningful to the younger among us.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

We do get to influence the next generation. If we are careful, we may even get to influence them in ways they appreciate, and find meaningful and important.

The landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, authored by Christian Smith and interpreted in really helpful ways by Kenda Creasy Dean, offer us hope.

Here is how Dr. Dean, on the faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary and a United Methodist Elder, suggests we can positively influence the next generation for the Kingdom of God:

Let them catch you practicing your faith.

I don’t mean tell them to read their bible and pray. I don’t even mean telling them how much you read your bible and pray. I mean let them catch you – firsthand – reading your bible and praying!

Do your kids know you pray for them, other than your telling them you pray for them?

Do you and I spend as much time in the Bible as we say other people, especially those young people should spend in the Bible?

For your children to catch you practicing your faith, of course, you will have to practice your faith.

Maybe some of you can remember how your parents and or grandparents practiced their faith. Not how they lamented about the problems your generation was, but how you saw them – caught them- following Jesus.

Here is a proven truth that we need to remind ourselves occasionally: the BEST predictor for whether or not a young person will grow up to be an active member of a church is whether or or not their parents were active members of a church. Not programs, not paid staff, but the participation of the parents.

Which reminds me of the Harry Chapin classic, “The Cat’s in the Cradle,”?  Yeah, it speaks a lot of truth. Here is the last part of the song:

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said I’d love to dad, if I could find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle, and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

They will tend to grow up like us. Like we ARE more than like we tell them we are.

Now, to be fair, this still isn’t a perfect thing.  There are people who model church participation and don’t have their kids follow suit.

I have an adult child who, as far as I know, has nothing to do with any church. We could go into the reasons – all of which I’ve made up in my head because she hasn’t actually given me any reasons – but the reasons are not important right now.

What is important is that you and I are here, that we are trying to follow Jesus, and that, from today forward, we have to be about making disciples. One of the most important things to making disciples – people who follow us as we follow Jesus – is to be the kind of people someone might actually want to follow.

I haven’t always been.  You haven’t always been.  There. We are even, let’s move forward.

The gospel reading for this morning has got to be a lament by Jesus.  He says:

“To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

My short summary is this: You can’t win!  John presented living within God’s will one way, Jesus another.  They appeared to be categorical opposites.

John the Baptist, about whom Jesus had just said earlier in the chapter, “no one greater had ever been born,” and Jesus couldn’t prove to everyone that following them was following the will of God.

You and I cannot either. So, what are we to do? “Wisdom is proved right by her works.” What is wisdom? There’s a whole lot about that in here (hold up a tablet). I mean, in here (hold up an actual bible).   I hope you get the idea. Remember: The better stories last, but the way we access them and take them in changes.

Seek wisdom. Follow Jesus and you will find yourself seeking wisdom.

So, there were once 9,000 Blockbuster stores. There are now maybe 50 left, the closest to us being in Pleasanton, Tx, about 30 minutes south of San Antonio.

There are  43,000 of these kiosks at 34,000 locations around the country. More than 60 million people around the world subscribe to Netflix.

People still want the product, they have just found different ways to access it.

People still want God’s love and forgiveness, they are looking for different ways to access it.

I am pretty sure that the next generation wants reconciliation with their creator, and forgiveness and the real possibility of a life of hope as much as the last generation.

It is on us to find ways to help them access it.

Pop Culture Finale: Back to the Future!

Ban the Ban!

This just in: TVLand has banned Dukes of Hazard reruns!

Ok, technically, that’s just not right.  A TV channel doesn’t “ban” shows.  A TV channel chooses which shows to air and which not to air.

So, to say that TVLand has decided to pull Dukes of Hazard episodes from its arsenal would be correct.  But to say TVLand has banned Dukes of Hazard would ONLY be correct if one went on to characterize EVERY OTHER show that TVLAND doesn’t air as similarly banned.

Of course, if one is trying to rally the troops against the rising tide of removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the American Public, then throwing the word “ban” in may be very helpful.

We Americans don’t like being told what to do or what not to do.

TVLand refuses to allow Americans the freedom to watch Dukes of Hazard!

Well, no, not really; TVLand has merely decided that if Americans want to watch the Dukes of Hazard, they will do it somewhere besides TVLand.

TVLand, along with a growing number of other commercial enterprises (Walmart, Sear, Ebay, Etsy, Amazon, and others), is no longer participating in selling products that feature that flag. I believe it is within their rights to so choose.

And we all knew, didn’t we, that businesses deciding to stop selling such products would lead to a run on these same products?

Yeah, that’s kind of how we are as Americans: we don’t like being told what we can and what we cannot buy.

Just don’t confuse the freedom to buy something with the ability to find someone willing to sell it.

Ban the Ban!

God and Country

This is the 5th sermon in our Pop Culture Series.
popculture4


I believe I should start today by saying that it’s easy to get this wrong. Preachers, and Christians, and people of all faiths have, for all time, often misrepresented either their faith or their nation in the interest of the other.

About God and country, it is easier to get things wrong then to get things right. So please pray with me that we get things more right than wrong. And that whether we get things right or wrong, that we do so motivated first and foremost buy our intent to follow Jesus no matter what.

<prayer>

I wanted to start this message with this: 8-10 seconds of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA“, but then thought better of it.  How would that go over?  Would I just be using that song to evoke a particular emotion or response?

What response would I want you to have if I played it?

Lee Iacocca tried to pay Springsteen for the rights to use it to represent Chrysler Corp.

Ronald Reagan didn’t ask for permission; he just used it. You get to do that if you are President.

I’m not sure either Iacocca or the Gipper ever actually listened to the song. Have you actually listened to “Born in the USA”?

I’ve told some of you that along my path as a Jesus-follower I was, for a time, a fundamentalist.  I do not use that label derogatorily at all: I described myself that way at the time.  That time included the period in my late teens when I burned all my rock and roll.

It was “devil music,” you see.  Or at least that’s what I came to believe at the hands of some pretty convincing preachers.

I owned some, so I burned it.  Why not just give it away?  What, and contribute to someone else’s delinquency?  Not a chance.

It’s been more than 35 years since I burned those albums.  I have, I’ll admit, re-aquired some of the music – of course, now it is in digital form.

One of the things that I gained from those experiences, though, was a strong desire to hear the words – to listen for the words of a song – and to understand the message.

Sometimes that isn’t easy with rock and roll, but I learned to do it.  It’s easier now, of course, with any search engine.

One of the arguments those pretty convincing preachers used against rock music was about the music itself. Some of them even referred to it as “African tribal rhythms” which were, of course, demonic.

I’m not sure you could get much more racist than that, but back then, I was just an impressionable teenager. I didn’t realize how racist we could be without even trying.

I think maybe we are learning how racist we can be without trying.  In fact, I believe that if we aren’t trying NOT to be racist, those of us in the majority, those of us with privilege, should learn to assume we are being racist at least some of the time. We ought also to befriend people who are different than we are.  I learned last fall during the uproar in Ferguson, that the average white american has one black friend.

Are you and I better than average?  We can be. We should be. We must be.

So, in 1984, when “Born in the USA” came out, I listened. To the music and the words.  The music makes it feel like it’s really upbeat, maybe even positively patriotic.

The words present a different message.

However, I don’t think this means it isn’t a patriotic song.  I think this means that Patriotism is probably best lived as something other than “MY country right or wrong.”

Countries are sometimes wrong.

This country, the US, was founded on such recognition!  The breakaway from the crown of Great Britain was, to a large degree, about freedom to be able to say what they feel needs to be said.

Sometimes today we forget this.  Sometimes it seems like of one questions the decisions of an elected leader one is said to hate the country.

My observations lead me to this conclusion: If your guy (or woman) is the person in elected office, opponents are un-American to question his or her actions.  If the person in elected office isn’t “your” person – is someone you didn’t vote for, you can not only question decisions, but motivations, personality, anything you want.

I don’t believe that kind of bickering and hateful arguing is patriotic. What’s more serious, I am pretty sure people who are trying to follow Jesus better every day don’t treat other human beings that way.

But I’m not here today to lecture or preach on how to be patriotic.  I’m here today to worship God and, particularly today, to offer some thoughts, hopefully inspired thoughts, about how we, as Christians in America, navigate being Americans and Christians in a world that is often mostly steered by Pop Culture.

First, we can and ought to give thanks that we live in a land where people are free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.  This is one of the earliest truths and longest held truths about the US.

On the other hand, in a land where one can freely worship literally anything one wants to worship, it is hard to keep people focused on what or who ought to be worshiped.

And this is a place that Pop Culture really challenges us.  Worship means “expressing, feeling, or showing that one values – holds worthy – the object of worship. Typically a deity.”

What do we worship?  Let me ask this differently: What do we value? To what do we attribute worth?

Some of us worship sports teams.  Some of us worship particular bands.  Some of us worship some specific restaurant, or car company or band or television channel. Or shampoo or soft drink or caffeinated beverage (oouch!)

Pop Culture cultivates this wide-spread worship within us because producers of pop culture like money and advertisers like to sell product.

Which makes for a perfect marriage.

We worship what we want, and, as Americans, we are free to worship anything we want!

I’m pretty sure this is not what either the Founders of the US or Jesus had in mind.

I believe we are missing the boat with this understanding of freedom of worship. We’re missing it on worship, and we’re also missing it on freedom.

Just briefly here’s how we are missing it on freedom. The kind of freedom Jesus talks about, and he does a lot of this talking in John 8, such as “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” A few verses later he says, “therefore, if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”

Jesus is not talking about his followers about freedom of the press, freedom to assembly, of religion, or any of the other “freedoms” Americans know and value.

Because, let’s face it, we don’t follow Jesus because a government says it’s okay for us to follow Jesus. We follow Jesus because the One who created us calls us to follow – whether any government allows it or not.

Now, on to how we miss it on worship:

There’s a good reason the 10 commandments start this way:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me.

Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God (Exodus 20:2-5)

God knew then and God knows now that we are creatures hungry to worship. We’ve proven this true: you can find a person who worships anything!

But, of course, before we go pointing fingers at people who worship cats or dogs or trees or anything else, what do we worship?

Sure, we say we worship God – after all, we are here, right?! But on Thursday morning at 10:00, if we were to ask 5 people who knew you well what you worship, what would they say?

What does your calendar – the way you spend your time – say you worship?

What does your bank account or your credit card statement say you worship?

We worship God – the God we know first and foremost in Jesus – but this God is a passionate God, and wants, even demands, our worship.

While we are thankful that we live in a land where we are free to worship, we have to continually check our focus – what are we worshiping? Do I put God before every other thing that clamors for my attention, my money, my time?

Fast forward from Exodus 20 to 1 Samuel 8. The people, God’s people, have settled in the land God has given them. They have lived through several generations since Exodus 20.  They still tell those stories – reminding one another that God has delivered them; that God loves them!

By now, they’ve added other stories.  They’ve added stories about  Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and others.  God had raised up someone – called a Judge – to deliver God’s people whenever it was needed. But now, Samuel, the last Judge, was nearing death and the people wanted something else.

They wanted a king. Why? Because everyone else had a King!

So many years, so many generations, so little change!

We still want to be like everyone else. (But if everyone wants to be like everyone else, then who starts it?  We’ll talk more about this next week.)

God gave in to their request for a king.  Samuel wrote that this request for a king, driven by a desire to be like everyone else, is the people’s rejection of God.

We run the same risk when we want a king to take the place that God rightly holds in the lives of the people God has delivered.

Which brings us to the gospel reading for today. Which starts with this: “Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words.”

Have you ever known someone who tried to trap people in their words?  Are you someone who tries to trap people in their words?

Religion and politics were as challenging then as they are now!  God’s people had returned to their homeland, the Promised Land, but remained under the thumb of a king – Caesar.

The religious – the Pharisees – sought to trap Jesus – to catch him offending either church or state.  “Should we pay taxes?” they asked. If he answered yes, he favored Rome. If he answered no, they could turn him over to Rome for treason.  Either way, they would no longer have to deal with Jesus.

Yet Jesus was too wise for them.  We all know the middle way he chose: “show me the coin used to pay the tax,” he said.  It had Caesar’s picture on it, so, Jesus concluded that they should – and we should – “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

This sounds SO wise, so simple!

But how do we know the difference?

We learn the difference by following Jesus.

This passage is, of course, about far more than paying taxes.  It is about divided loyalty.

The challenge we have, even in America, is divided loyalty.  How do we know when to give Caesar our loyalty and when to give God our loyalty?  Please understand – though we don’t have a king (1 Samuel 8) and we don’t’ have a Caesar (Matthew 22), we have both.  I’ve called the President Caesar for more than 20 years now. Some like it more when I call Obama Caesar than George W. Bush, but the truth I believe God wants us to hear is that either, or both, in their elected position, function as Caesar.

Ah, but this is America!  The greatest Republic, the best representative democracy the world has ever known!  We have no Caesar!

There is some truth to this:  the place and time we are in history, this age of exceptional individualism, the rule of law being what it is, maybe the President isn’t Caesar.

If not, if we have been set free from the bondage of external royalty, then each of us has become his or her own King or Queen.

So: you are Caesar. I am Caesar.

And still, we must give to God what is God’s.

How do we learn, how do we know, what is God’s?

By following Jesus.

Sounds simple, right?  Let’s try it together.  For God and country.

God and Country