Advent sermon series – The Beginning of Mark

SCRIPTURE – Mark 1:1-8 – The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, 

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In the Beginning Sermon Series
#1 – In the Beginning of Mark
Nov. 29, 2015

In my former life as a journalist at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, one of my jobs was reviewing movies, which I enjoyed, mostly because I got free popcorn. I wasn’t the primary reviewer, so I didn’t get the blockbusters and Academy Award winners. I got movies like Weekend at Bernie’s 2. That was actually one of my first assignments. The first movie in that series was about a pair of young businessmen whose boss – that’s Bernie – gets killed by the mafia. The two men have to act as if Bernie is still alive in order to pull off a big business deal, so they spend the movie doing zany things like propping a corpse up in a chair and putting a cigarette in its mouth. Let the hilarity ensue! Now, realize that someone thought Weekend at Bernie’s was so life-changing that they said, “We should make ANOTHER one of these!”

As you can imagine, I was less than thrilled about reviewing this one, so much so that I showed up about 10 minutes late. I managed to stay awake through it, then went back to the office to write my review. After it ran, I got a call from the head movie reviewer who was not very happy with me. Apparently, there was a major plot point that took place in the first 10 minutes of the movie that I had completely missed. I just assumed the movie was incoherent on its own merits. A reader had called into to point out this fact, probably the only other person in Louisville who actually saw the movie besides me. To punish me, my editor made me go watch it again. But you know what that meant…more free popcorn!

Reading the beginning of the gospel of Mark is like walking into a movie 10 minutes late. You read the opening paragraph expecting angels and mangers and lowing cattle and the like, and instead you get Isaiah and a prophecy and some guy eating locusts. Did we miss something? Why doesn’t Mark begin at the beginning? For our Advent sermon series, we’re going to look at the beginning of each gospel to see what it does or doesn’t tell us about the birth of Jesus Christ.

To understand why Mark’s gospel begins this way, you have to understand the context in which it was written. Mark is most likely the first gospel that was written, but that didn’t happen for a good 20-30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Up to that point, the stories about Jesus had been passed down orally, as the gospel spread by word of mouth. The first written accounts of Jesus we have are some of Paul’s letters, but he almost never says a word about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. That has led some folks to question the authenticity of the birth stories. Did they really happen, or did the other gospel writers make them up?

I’m not sure, but there’s no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of the stories. When I reviewed movies, I rarely commented on the musical score or the lighting, but that didn’t mean those things didn’t exist. I just chose not to focus on them. To me, they weren’t important to the story. Likewise, for Mark, the birth narrative wasn’t important to the version of Jesus’ story he was trying to tell. We want to know all that had happened, his birth, his childhood, what kind of grades he got in school, who he hung out with. Not Mark’s point. It was only about 10-20 years later that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels and decided to add the birth stories.

So what WAS Mark trying to say? That’s an important question to ask about any biblical passage. Mark wasn’t writing an unbiased biography of Jesus; he had an agenda for everything he included and left out. He gives us his thesis statement in the very first line: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Right away, Mark is making a proclamation about who Jesus is that would have caused quite a stir among his readers.

Mark was writing in the time of the Roman Empire to a group of Jews and Gentiles who were fully immersed in that culture. The “Pax Romana” they experienced was forged by the iron first of the Roman emperor, who was so powerful that he was considered divine, sometimes by his own decree. And when the emperor says he’s divine, you’d best not argue with him. But Mark is doing just that by making this claim. He’s saying that the true son of God, the true Messiah, is Jesus Christ, not Caesar, and that Jesus’ arrival is good news.

But before we even meet Jesus, we meet John the Baptist, who has an important message for his listeners and for us today: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We know all about preparation for Christmas, don’t we? That’s what Advent is about, right? “Let every heart prepare him room.” We decorate our sanctuary. We put up Christmas trees and lights. We buy presents and attend parties. We know how to prepare for Christmas, but do we know how to prepare for Christ? Is that all we need to do to prepare him room in our hearts, John the Baptist asks, or is there something more?

The kind of preparation John is calling for doesn’t ask us to do more during this season, but less. Or maybe it’s a call to do what we do, but with a different focus.  It’s a call to slow down, to pay attention, to take inventory of what in our lives keeps us from preparing room for Christ. It’s a call to not fall into the same holiday routines, which might numb us to the true joy of what’s taking place. Do we get so caught up in mall traffic and wrapping paper and family gatherings that we actually take away from the peace of the season rather than add to it? Are we adding to the hope and joy Christ brings, or are we stumbling blocks? What needs to be cleared out to prepare room?

One year when my family put up our Christmas tree, we decided to put it in a new spot in our family room. Making it fit meant moving some furniture around. When we moved my beloved recliner, I noticed that it was a little dirty under there: candy wrappers, tissues, a coupon that expired six years earlier, a LOT of stale popcorn. So to make room for this new arrangement we had to do a little cleaning.

What do we need to clean out in order to make room? That’s Mark message to us that we so easily miss: slow down, pay attention, look around. What needs around you aren’t being met? What distractions are competing for your focus? I admit to being guilty of this every season. I get caught up in the gift exchanges and the holiday sales that I sometimes take my eye off the ball. I saw a commercial this weekend that talked about this being the season of “Thanks-getting.” Part of me wants to stick my nose in the air and decry the blasphemy of such a statement, but another part of me admits, “I like getting things.” And the more things I get, the less room there is.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Make room. Something is coming! And this something is a game-changer. This one is powerful, holy, the Messiah, the Anointed One. We are about to welcome a special guest into our midst who has the power to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, to ignite a fire in our souls, to fundamentally change our lives, to call us out of our wildernesses of violence and selfishness and divisiveness and greed into a Promised Land of peace and generosity and harmony and service. That’s the kind of life we want to live, right? A life that helps make this world a better place for our kids and grandkids. A world in which we feel safe, a world in which everyone is loved and fed, a world in which there is no fear. We want that world, right? Well, someone is coming who can help us make that world a reality. But there’s still these questions: Are we prepared? Is there room?

To be prepared, John says all Israel has to be baptized. Everyone has to recommit their lives to Jesus. No one is exempt. The 1% and the 99%. Those who believe certain lives matter and those who believe all lives matter. Those who prefer turkey and those who prefer ham. Everyone needs a fresh start, everyone needs to do some cleaning in their souls, everyone needs to make room. The Jews who were baptized by John in the Jordan left the city, left their routines, got out of their daily ruts to experience something new, a cleansing, a purging, a new start.

For us, that starts today. That starts with us saying in our hearts that we will make room.
We experience the anticipation of Advent when we turn around from our routines to pay attention to who’s coming. We may have to give up some things. We may have to pray more and spend less. We may have to slow down and say “No.” These preparations aren’t always easy. But someone is coming – someone is coming! – and I would hate to miss him because we were just too busy, we were unprepared, there wasn’t room.

I’m kind of glad Mark doesn’t start with the birth of an eight-pound, six-ounce newborn baby Jesus. It’s such a familiar story to us that we might miss the deeper message. By starting with John the Baptist, Mark smacks us upside the head and says, “This season isn’t about all the things you think it’s about. It’s about being prepared.” Instead of a manger, Mark gives us the wilderness, reminding us that even when we are in dark and desolate places, there is a chance for a new beginning. Do you need a new beginning? Do you need a message of hope this season? Mark tells us that it’s coming, so we better get ready.

Are you prepared? I’m not asking if you’ve started your Christmas shopping or baked all your cookies. I’m asking if you’re prepared. Christ is coming once again, bringing a message of hope and love and justice. There will be so many other things this holiday season demanding a place in your schedule, in your wallet, in your soul. Will Jesus come to us if we’re not prepared? Will we miss him and the message he brings? Will we wake up on Dec. 25 and feel the same we did on Dec. 24? “Let every heart prepare him room.” Is there room?

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The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series – How to Read the Bible Today

SCRIPTURE – 2 Timothy 3:14 -17 –  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancyyou have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
How to Read the Bible Today
November 15, 2015
At first glance, the Bible looks a lot like a book, doesn’t it? It has a cover, a spine, a table of contents. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were supposed to read it like you read any other book. Start at the beginning, read through the middle, if it gets boring, skip to the end. The only problem with the Bible is that if you skip to the end, you’ll be smack dab in the middle of Revelation, which is at times scarier than a Stephen King novel. No, the Bible is not just any old book. So how do we read it?

Today we finish our sermon series on the Bible. We’ve spent a lot of time immersed in the Good Book. We’ve looked at what’s in the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as who wrote it and how it got into our hands today. We’ve asked tough questions like, “Is the Bible true?” and “What authority should it have?” We’ve looked at the various ways God is portrayed in the Bible and talked about how the Bible is relevant for our lives today. All of those sermons, which you can find on our website, aren’t worth a hill of beans if we’re not willing to actually open the book and read it for ourselves, so that’s what we’ll talk about today.

As I said, the Bible isn’t meant be read from front to back. It’s not just one book; it’s a collection of books, with diverse material ranging from history to poetry and from biography to prophecy. So where do you even start? I’ll give you some suggestions later, but before we talk about how to read it, we need to talk about why to read it. We all know we’re supposed to, but most of us probably don’t as often as we should, if at all. It’s an intimidating book, and if you don’t know where to start, it’s easy to get lost in a whirlpool of begats and Jehosephats. And to be honest, it’s not always a page-turner. So before we read it, we have to be motivated by something other than our grandma’s voice in our heads cajoling us to do it. Why read it?

One reason people read it is for information. After all, the Bible contains the history of the Jewish people, which sets the stage for the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to know about who Jesus was, what he taught, how he died, the Bible is a storehouse of great information. The Bible tells us what God wants us to know. But that’s not the only reason to read it.

Some people read the Bible for formation. They want to know what they need to do in order to obtain their “Get into Heaven Free” card or to figure out how to make up for their mistakes. I visited an elderly lady once in the hospital, and when I walked into the room she had the Bible open in front of her. I remarked that scripture must be important to her, and she said, “Not really. I haven’t read it very much.” I asked her why she was reading it now, and she said, “I’m cramming for my final exam!” That’s reading the Bible for formation. It tells us what God wants us to do. But that’s also not the only reason we should read it.

We don’t read it only for information, and we don’t read it only for formation. We read it for transformation. We read it to learn what we should know; we read it to learn what we should do; and, I would say most importantly, we read it to learn who we should be. That’s what I love about the passage we read from I Timothy today. Paul says all these great things about scripture and how we’re supposed to use it, and then he adds a “so that.” It’s as if someone said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Paul, I get it, reading the Bible is important. So what?” And Paul answers, “So that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

The Bible has the power to fundamentally change the orientation of our lives away from ourselves and toward God. The story it tells has the power to reorder our priorities and question our assumptions. The words on its pages has the power, as Paul writes, to make us “new creations.” We read the Bible to figure out how to be more like Jesus today than we were yesterday, how to reflect the image of God inside us rather than distort it, how to do the “good work” we’ve been called to do. That, in short, is why we read the Bible.

But the problem is not all of the Bible is transformative in that way. We’ve talked in this series about how the Bible is rooted in a context much different than our own, and not all of what the Bible says applies to us today. We talked about how we pick and choose what we give authority in the Bible, and what we give authority determines how we are transformed. So when we read a passage, we have to discern within it if there’s a message for us about God and about who God is calling us to be. And if there’s not, we don’t give that passage any authority. We choose not to follow it.

Pastor Adam Hamilton offers an instructive metaphor here. He says we all have three buckets we use when it comes to reading scripture, and every passage goes into one of these buckets. In the first bucket are passages that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings, like the command to love God and love our neighbor. The truth in this passage never changes. In the second bucket are passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time, like some of the laws in the Old Testament. Those were God’s will for that time and place, but are no longer God’s will for us today. And in the third bucket are passages that reflect the cultural and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like Paul’s command for slaves to obey their masters. So a passage is either a timeless truth, a “that was then, this is now” truth, or a statement written by the author that never reflected God’s will. So when we read a passage, we choose which bucket they go in, and which bucket they go in determine what kind of authority those passages have for us.

Women’s role in the church is a great case study. Paul clearly says that women are to be silent in church and not to have authority over men. There are some churches that put that in the first bucket as God’s timeless will. But there are other churches, ours included, who put that in the second or third bucket. I put it in the third. I don’t think God ever wanted women to not play a role in church leadership. Otherwise, why would God gift them with such skills? I think that passage reflects the patriarchal society of that culture, but not God’s timeless truth. When we choose to ordain women, we’re not choosing between the Bible and ordaining women. We’re choosing between a certain view of the Bible and ordaining women.

So, when you read the Bible, you need to figure out for yourself which bucket is best for you. When God calls the Israelites to kill the people in the surrounding nations, which bucket? When Jesus tells the story about the Good Samaritan helping the stranger, which bucket? When Jesus calls the rich young ruler to sell what he had and give it to the poor, which bucket? When Paul writes about issue like keeping the sabbath or slavery or same-sex behavior or the relationship between husbands and wives, which bucket? That’s part of the work we are called to do as Christians who have been given the gift of a brain. Sure, someone else can pick your buckets for you, but then you lose the power of the “so that,” the power to choose for yourself what to believe and how to live out your faith.

I think we have a great example of how to do this, and it comes from the Bible itself. In the book of Acts, Paul is out recruiting new Christians from among the Gentiles, and the Jews are getting upset because these new converts aren’t going through all the membership rituals necessary to join the Jesus as Messiah Club, like being circumcised. The leaders say, “You have to follow God’s rules,” and Paul is like, “Who cares? They believe! That’s what matters!” So the issue is taken to the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, like the Supreme Court of its day, to make a ruling.

The council listens to arguments from both sides, and then hands down a verdict on what new Christians should do to be considered a part of the body of Christ. And they start their decision this way: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond a few requirements.” Notice the amazing humility in that statement. They’re not saying, “God told us to say this.” They’re not claiming to know God’s heart or to speak in God’s voice. They’re not stating, “The Bible says it so that settles it.” They say, “It seemed good.”

It seems good to me to place some biblical passages in the first bucket and some in the second and some in the third. It seems good to me to interpret the Bible in ways that support my image of God as loving, creative, inclusive. I don’t claim to have it right. I might get to Heaven and God will say, “ Dude, totally the wrong bucket on that one.” It seems good to me to believe what I believe and live out my faith the way I choose. Doesn’t mean I’m right. Doesn’t mean someone who believes differently is wrong. I’ve studied the Bible my whole life, I take it very seriously, but I don’t have the presumption to know God’s heart. I learn something new every time I read it. That’s why I read it.

Once you get a grasp on why you read the Bible, then you can move onto the how, which is pretty simple. First, you need a Bible. There are a plethora of versions out there. Some are more readable paraphrases, like the Message. Some are more faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew, like the New King James Version. And some are a balance, like the New International Version or the New Revised Standard Version. Go to a bookstore, browse through some different ones, read the same passage in different versions, and find the one that works best.

Next, I recommend your Bible be a study bible, or that you have a commentary near you. A commentary simply provides historical background, context, and some interpretation of what you’re reading. A good study bible does the same thing. If you want to see samples of either of these, come see Trish or me. We’ve got you covered.

So, where to start? I would start with a gospel. That’s the essence of our story as Christians. I prefer Luke, so I would recommend reading Luke and then Acts, which is the history of the early church. After that, go back and read another gospel, then Paul’s letter to the Romans. And then after that? Well, after that, pick a book and dive in. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. And if you get to a section that bogs you down…skip it. You have my permission. And if that’s the wrong thing to do, then at least we’ll be in trouble with God together. And keep your buckets handy, because you’ll have some decisions to make about what you believe.

We read the Bible to know God; and we read the Bible learn what to do; and we read the Bible to learn who we are called to be. The Bible is a great conversation partner for us on this journey of faith. I believe we should converse with it, complain to it, talk back to it, interrogate it, and disagree with it, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust. And ultimately, I believe we should let it change us, because our faith is called to be in motion, not stagnant. I believe a certain faith is a rigid faith, but an unsettled faith is a growing faith. But none of that can happen if we don’t read it.

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The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series – Is the Bible Still Relevant?

SCRIPTURE – Deuteronomy 30:11-14 – Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.


The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
Is the Bible Still Relevant?
November 8, 2015

Think of some of the classic books you read in high school and college. Works by Jane Eyre and Ernest Hemingway. “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Tiger Beat magazine and the latest Goosebumps book. Hey, we each define a “classic” in our own way! We probably read works that were centuries old, like “Cantebury Tales” and “Beowulf.” All of them are masterpieces, timeless stories. But do we turn to any them today for how to live our lives? Do we get relationship guidance from “Romeo and Juliet?” Do we learn how to treat others from “The Scarlet Letter?” Sure, those books may have nuggets of wisdom for us to mine, but there’s only one book I know of to which we turn, sometimes on a daily basis, to hear a story that’s as old as the hills yet as relevant as today’s news. How can one of the oldest books we know, written in a much different time and place, be a bestseller every year and still have such a strong influence over us?

Today we continue our sermon series on the Bible, asking hard questions like is the Bible true and what kind of authority should it have for us. Today, we’re going to ask if the Bible is still relevant for us today. And that’s a legitimate question. If we believe that the Bible was divinely inspired but humanly written, then we have to acknowledge that its pages are smudged with the fingerprints of history and its stories are saturated with the culture in which they were written, a culture which blatantly accepted slavery and openly oppressed women, a culture rooted in violent conquest and lacking in scientific or medical knowledge. In other words, a culture about as far removed from ours as the moon. At yet, we still read the Bible today to hear this story and learn how to live our lives. Why? Wouldn’t we be better served reading something more modern, like “Chicken Soup for the 21st Century Soul?” C’mon, even Tiger Beat magazine had helpful relationship quizzes! Why the Bible?

I’ve told you all before about my first experience crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I assumed a bridge was a bridge; I’d crossed back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana hundreds of time. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is 4.3 miles long, and climbs to a height of 186 feet above the water. When I looked down, I saw right through the grated floor to the water 186 feet below. When I looked up, I saw how much the bridge was swaying in the wind. Before our trip, I thought it was laughable when I heard they offer a service where you can pay someone to drive your car across the bridge for you while you lay down on the back seat. But at that moment, I would have paid one million dollars for that service so that I could crawl in the trunk until we were off that Satan-designed instrument of torture.

Keeping the Bible relevant is like trying to cross a very long, treacherous bridge. On one side you have our modern world and culture; on the other side you have the Bible’s very different world and culture. And in between us is this huge swaying bridge, spanning 20 centuries, across which must travel all our interpretations and understandings. Too often what we do is try to drag the Bible’s words across the bridge into our world and apply them literally without doing any of the interpretive work. “If the Bible says it, then it must be right.” Unfortunately, those words don’t always travel well, and much of the meaning can get lost along the way. Instead, we have to be willing to do the hard work of traveling across the bridge to learn about that world in order to bring back our understanding and application, with the understanding that the meaning may change as we travel back to our side.

I know a lot of people who believe we shouldn’t mess with the words of the Bible. It sounds sacrilege to some to even think about taking the words of the Bible in any way other than face value. But thankfully, we have a pretty powerful example of someone who said, “I know the Bible tells you this, but I think it actually means something different today.” Sounds a bit scandalous, doesn’t it? Who is this vagabond who dares to tamper with the Holy word of God? Who is this rogue theologian who shows no regard for the Good Book? He was a woodworker named Yeshua from a small town in the Middle East, but you may know him by his alias: Jesus Christ.

In the gospel of Matthew, during his Sermon on the Mount, five different times Jesus takes a piece of scripture and reinterprets it for his modern context. For example, in the book of Exodus, the law states, “ But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” That’s nothing less than God’s law, handed down to Charleton Heston himself! If anything in the Bible is timeless and unchanging, it should be that.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

Right there, Jesus sets the precedent for reinterpreting scripture for a current context. The rule of an eye for an eye was no longer applicable in Jesus’ society, but rather than throw out the Bible as an antiquated rulebook that no longer applied, Jesus imaginatively reinterpreted God’s law so that it spoke a fresh word to his hearers. He does this dozens of times in the gospels. Because of that, the Bible remained a living document for his hearers.

This precedent has been followed down through history. Theologians and biblical scholars have worked hard to figure out what word the Bible had to speak into their current context. There was never any belief that the Bible was meant to be this static document to be read literally for all eternity. It wasn’t written that way and was never meant to be used that way. But in the last hundred years, a system of belief has developed that is built upon the Bible being a rulebook with no errors or inconsistencies, rather than it being a love story about God and God’s people. And I would argue that the more we try to make the Bible speak to us today without bringing it across that interpretive bridge, the more irrelevant it becomes. The more we try to make the Bible fit our worldview, instead of letting it shape our worldview, the more we are creating God in our image, not the other way around.

We need to find a way for the Bible to speak to the challenges of secularism and religious pluralism without minimizing or disrespecting them. In other words, we can’t say, “Our truth is right and yours is wrong.” We can’t say, “What the Bible says is more important than your experience.” We can’t say, “God tells us that some people matter and others don’t based on who they are or how they look or who they love.” As soon as we try to thump the Bible as a black-and-white answer book to all this world’s complex dilemmas, we lose all those people who live the in the gray every day, the shaded nuances that call for a fresh interpretation that takes into consideration their real-world issues and the doubts they have about the Bible.

We have a neighbor who is a great example of the challenge of keeping the Bible relevant. He’s an evolutionary biologist. I enjoy talking with him about his work, and he’s tolerant in listening about mine. He’s not a believer, and I would have to guess part of the reason is because what he studies in his work and what the Bible says don’t match up for him. I’ve told him that we Christians believe God speaks to us through the Bible, but also through nature, through science, through our experiences. But still, to him, the Bible is completely irrelevant. So how would you help someone like him see the Bible differently? It’s not by asserting we’re right and he’s wrong, but so often, that’s the stance the church takes. If we just shout loudly enough, people will realize we’ve got the answers. There are so many people like him, people who have been told the Bible says one thing (probably by someone who doesn’t really know what the Bible says) but who experience something completely different. “Because the Bible says so” is no longer a valid answer when what the Bible says is used to promote hate or exclusion or an elitist attitude. Just because the Bible says it doesn’t automatically make it a relevant word for today.

I’m in a conversation right now with someone struggling to understand how God could love him, because all he’s been taught growing up is that God condemns people who are like him. I’m trying to help him see that that story he’s been told isn’t the only version. There’s another story we can tell, a story of love and hope and acceptance. He’s been told that his actions violate the capital-T truth of the Bible. But there’s another truth we can offer, the truth of God’s grace and God’s image in each of us. It’s been pounded into him that his identity is one of a sinner. There’s another identity we can help shape, the identity of God’s beloved child. The Bible is relevant in that it helps us find our story in the bigger picture of God’s story, and it speaks a word of hope to us.

In this age of consumerism, we have a story to tell about who we are, not what we have. In this era of racism and sexism and homophobia, we have a story to tell about how God created us all and all lives matter. In this time of violence and despair, we have a story to tell about a hope that is so incredible, so out of this world, that it just might be true.

We can’t tell that story if we insist that the Bible fits within certain parameters. We have to be willing to let scripture speak a new word to us in our world today, one that may challenge our previous assumptions. We have to be willing to disagree with parts of the Bible that contradict our understanding of God. And we have to be willing to let go of parts of the Bible which no longer have a relevant word to speak. Are we willing to admit that some of the passages in the Bible are no longer relevant for us, and actually may be doing more harm than good in our world today? When the Bible was written, God let God’s children tell God’s story in their language and culture. And now God wants God’s children of today to tell the story in our language, in a way that speaks a word of hope and comfort and welcome into our world. We are called to continue the conversation that scripture started using our tradition and reason and experience to inform that conversation.

It probably seems absurd to an outsider, how much time and attention we give to this ancient document. But what we know, and what we are compelled to share, is that this book contains truth and hope and power that goes beyond anything our world has to offer, that it tells the story that makes sense of all the other stories in our lives. Our challenge is to speak it and live it in a way that balances the timeless nature of God’s word with the urgency to hear a relevant word for this moment today. That word is there, if we have ears to hear it, a mind to be open to it, and the courage to live it.

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The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series: The Gods of the Bible

SCRIPTURE – Genesis 1:26-27 – Then God said, “Let us make humankind[c] in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
The Gods of the Bible
November 1, 2015

“Who made God?” That was the question the precious four-year-old girl asked me after church. I get that question a lot, mainly from little kids. “Who made God?” she said, then quickly added, “my daddy told me to ask you.” Thanks, Dad. So I put on my best thinking face, waiting a few seconds, and gave her the best answer I knew: “You should ask Rev. Trish!”

“Who made God?” is not only a kids’ question, is it? I bet you’d like to know the answer. I know I would. In fact, I have a LOT of questions about God to which I’d like to know the answer. And you would think that the best source of answers to questions like that would be the Bible. But I think when it comes to knowing God, sometimes the Bible raises more questions than it does offer answers.

We continue our Bible sermon series today in which we’ve gotten to know the Good Book a little better and then went deeper with questions like “Is the Bible true?” and “What authority should the Bible have in our lives?” Those previous sermons are on the church website if you’d like to listen to or read them. Today, we’re going to tackle a subject that may not go over very well. In fact, I’ve started collecting moving boxes just in case. Here is the basic premise: there’s more than one God in the Bible.

Now, don’t worry, we’re not going to set up a pagan altar in the sanctuary and start animal sacrifices to Baal and Zeus and Anubis. We still believe in the one God, who the Jews call Yahweh, and we believe God was definitively revealed to us through Jesus Christ. We’re still monotheistic. But we also have to reconcile that belief with all the ways the Bible presents God to us, sometimes in ways that directly conflict each other. Remember the old game show “To Tell the Truth?” Three people would pretend to be someone, and the panelists had to guess which one was really that person. And the host would say, “Would the real John Smith please stand up?” Today, I would like to ask, in the midst of all the ways God is portrayed in scripture, “Would the real God please stand up?”

If you think I’m off my rocker here, it won’t take you long to see what I’m talking about. In fact, only 27 verses into the Bible, we have our first conundrum, which I read a few minutes ago. “Let us make humankind in our image.” As my dad used to say, “You got a mouse in your pocket?” Who is this “us”? Some argue the passage is referring to the Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That’s one theory, but the original writers of this scripture knew nothing about Jesus Christ, and had a much different understanding of how God’s Spirit worked. It’s tempting to read into the text something we want to see there, but that distorts the original writers’ purpose. So who’s “us”?

We can get a clue from the Psalms. Psalm 82 says, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’” In this psalm, we have the Israelite God presiding over and placing judgment upon the other gods in the divine council. In other Bible passages, God’s power and sovereignty is asserted over the gods of the surrounding nations. The Israelites lived in a world where multiple gods were a given. Each nation had their fair share of gods, and there were even household gods, usually represented by carvings or statues. There was no question about whether or not these gods actually existed; of course they did! But Yahweh was greater than all of them. It was only much later that Israel would truly develop a monotheistic understanding that there is only one true God.

What we learn about God in the Bible is filtered through the authors and the culture in which they lived. The authors could only write what they knew, and for many of them, the existence of multiple gods was assumed. This understanding is pivotal for us as we try to make sense of the different ways we see God portrayed in the Bible. I would go so far as to say that the Bible is as much a word about God as it is the word of God, and that word comes to us through the imagination of the authors.

Biblical scholar Peter Enns puts it this way: “The God we meet in the Bible sometimes knows everything, and at other times seems stumped and trying to figure things out. God is either set in God’s ways and in full control or changes God’s mind when pressed. God gives one law in one place then somewhere else lays down another law requiring something else. Sometimes God is overflowing with compassion and at other times has a hair-trigger temper.” And that’s not to mention things like Sophia, the feminine characterization of God in the wisdom literature. All of these representations of God are in the Bible, as written by the human authors.

This perspective can be helpful for us in dealing with what I think is one of the most difficult challenges of the Bible, and that is the violence we read there. Let’s take one example we find in Deuteronomy: “But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded,  so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.”

Think that’s bad? Here’s one that’s even worse. King David wanted to do a census, so he does it, but without consulting God first. God gets angry and sends a pestilence on Israel. Seventy thousand people die. As it reads in the Bible, God kills 70,000 of God’s own people because God was angry that David took a census.

Right there is one of the main reasons people give up the faith or never even give it a try. Why would I want to worship a capricious God who commands people to commit genocide or who kills God’s own people? Unfortunately, we’ve seen through history Christians who’ve taken this as a mandate to wipe out non-believers, from the Crusades to Hitler. So how do we reconcile this God with the God of love and mercy we meet in other parts of the scriptures?

I don’t believe God commanded the Israelites to kill all those people. I just don’t. That’s not the God I worship or have come to know through Jesus Christ. I said last week we pick and choose which passages we give authority, and this is not one I choose. I actually think this passage tells us more about the people writing it than it does about God.

The Israelites existed in a tribal culture, in which taking land and defeating enemies with the blessings of the gods was commonplace. If you won a battle, it was God’s will. If you lost a battle, you were being punished by God. If the flu broke out in your tribe and a bunch of people died, then you must have somehow angered God to cause this punishment. Back in the days before medicine and science and meteorology, God got the credit for good things and the blame for bad things.

I don’t believe God commanded the Israelites to do those things. I just think they said God did as a way of making sense of it. I don’t believe God killed people for David taking a census. I believe a disease swept through the Israelites, and the only way they knew to explain it was God’s wrath. The authors of the Bible wrote what they knew, and so they portrayed God as a warrior who led them into battle and punished them when they did wrong.

That understanding of God evolved as culture evolved, so we see in the Bible an evolution in the relationship between God and God’s people. At times God seems like a grumpy father around whom they have to tiptoe; at other times, God is a merciful judge who encourages Jonah to speak a saving word to the enemy so that they will repent; and at other times, God is a rock and rescuer during times of hardship.

We have to realize that the Bible wasn’t written as these things happened. In most cases, it was written as many as hundreds of years afterward. So the biblical writers tell these stories in a way that explains who God is to them and why these things happened. How do you picture God right now? An old man with a long beard and flowing robe? A king with a scepter and crown? Morgan Freeman? A source of light with no bodily features? However you picture God, that’s how you will write about God. That’s what the biblical authors did.

As Christians, we’ve had what we believe to be the definitive revelation of God in the form of Jesus Christ. As we put our faith in him, we can leave behind the other images of God we’ve been presented that give us trouble, and we can filter all we know and believe about God through Jesus. But we also have to realize that Jesus’ story is told four different ways and they don’t always agree. So even our picture of Jesus is a little blurry as it gets complicated by images of Jesus welcoming children and violently turning over tables, blessing women and cursing the Pharisees, teaching parables and crying out for help.

Ultimately, we have to know God for ourselves. No one else can tell us who God is for us. We do that using the four sources I mentioned last week: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Using all four of those – not just one – we can each determine who God is for us, and then live out that interpretation in our daily lives. We can also use that to rule out other images of God that don’t fit. For example, if we believe God is peaceful, then we can rule out images of God that are violent or vengeful.

And finally, we have to admit that no matter how much reading and praying and studying we do, we can never fully know God. God is so much greater than we can imagine, and so much more than the biblical writers can capture. I don’t believe God changes, but I believe our concept and understanding of and relationship with God does change. I wish this weren’t so complicated, but if faith were easy, everyone would have it. We have to do the hard work of getting to know God as best we can, realizing that we can only do so in part. Someday, scripture promises us, we will fully know. Until then, may we believe that even if we don’t fully know God, God fully knows us, from the moment we are born to the moment we leave this earth. As our final hymn tells us, God was there to hear our borning cry and will be there when we are old. And along the way, we’ll know God in many different ways, each speaking to us a word of hope and comfort. And really, that’s all we need to know.

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The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series – The Authority of the Bible

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 22:34-40 – 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment.39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
Does the Bible Have Authority?
October 25, 2015

When I was a kid, I remember showing off to a neighbor friend by telling him that when my mom wasn’t looking, I would sometimes sneak a cookie before dinner. For a six-year-old, this was very rebellious behavior. Rather than being impressed, he was horrified. “Uh-oh! You know what that means? You’re going to Hell!” I don’t know if he really believed this or just wanted to take that opportunity to say the word “Hell.” I said, “What? How do you know?” He said, “The Bible says you can’t eat cookies before dinner!” I later learned in seminary there’s no such passage about that in the Bible…or at least that’s what I tell myself to justify my behavior. But what do you do when what the Bible DOES say and what you know through experience of reason conflict? Which should have the most authority?

We’re continuing our sermon series on the Bible to try and get a better understanding of what it is, what it says, and how we’re supposed to use it. So far we’ve taken a closer look at what’s in both sections, the Old and New Testaments, as well as who wrote it and how it got into our hands today. Last week we asked the loaded question, “Is the Bible true?” We learned that while it’s not always scientific or historically true, it is absolutely true in much deeper, spiritual ways. Knowing that the Bible holds certain truths for us, what sort of authority should it have in our lives?

To answer that question, we first have to answer for ourselves the purpose of the Bible. I say “for ourselves” because each of us may define the purpose of the Bible differently. For example, if you think the Bible is a book of rules for how to live or not live your life, then you’ll grant it a certain kind of authority. That being said, I don’t the Bible was written to be a rule book. To be fair, there are plenty of rules in there. God gave the Israelites over 600 laws to help them know how to live Godly lives. But as culture changed and developed, so did the role of those laws, especially for Christians. If we were going to read the Bible as a rule book, then we shouldn’t eat lobster or pork, shouldn’t wear clothes of mixed fabric, and we should stone to death rebellious children…ok, so maybe some of the rules have merit.

I also don’t think the Bible is meant to be an instruction manual on how to live life so you can guarantee a seat on the Heavenly Express. I once heard a pithy quote that says the word “Bible” stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Isn’t that cute? Too bad the Bible is anything but basic and doesn’t provide clear instructions.

Here’s just one example. In the book of Proverbs, a collection of wise sayings, there are two proverbs side by side. The first one says, “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” That’s sound advice, right? The very next verse says, “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” WHA? But you just said to not answer fools! If the Bible is meant to be an instruction book on how to live, we’re going to end up pretty confused.

The Bible isn’t a spiritual Magic 8 Ball that you can open up to find answers to questions like, “Should I quit my job?” It’s not a systematic doctrine of everything you should and shouldn’t believe. And it’s definitely not a comprehensive collection of everything God has ever wanted to say to us. We have to be careful about putting expectations upon the Bible that it was never intended to bear. Remember, a few weeks ago we said the Bible was a God-inspired, humanly written document that bears the holy handprints of the God who inspired it and the flawed fingerprints of the people who wrote it. When the authors wrote the Bible, they never thought what they were writing a book that would become the all-time bestseller in the history of the world, not to mention the centerpiece of grandmothers’ coffee tables and the rationale for horrible genocides. They weren’t writing to tell people in the 21st century how to live their lives. They were simply writing their version of God’s story, a love story between God and God’s people, a love story that we continue writing today. So, if we believe that, what kind of authority should ti have for us? How should we use this story to help us know who we are and how we are to live and treat others?

To answer that, we have to recognize that the Bible is God’s word for us, but it’s not ALL of God’s word for us. Some folks treat the Bible like it contains the totality of everything God ever wanted to say to us, as if, when the ink dried on the last word of the last book of the Bible, God dropped the pen and said, “Well, that’s done! I’ve got nothing left to say.” Do we really believe God has nothing left to say to us? I love the United Church of Christ’s recent slogan, which read, “God is still speaking,”. If you believe God is still speaking to us, then it’s important to discern what God is saying and how God is saying it to us, and then to place that alongside the Bible as a source of authority.

It may be helpful here to turn to our Methodists brethren and sistren. Their founder, John Wesley, came up with a way of theological discernment that involved four sources: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. All four were conversation partners in determining what God had to say and how we were to incorporate that authority into our lives. Notice that scripture is one of those sources of authority, but not the only one.

How does this work? Well, you take an issue and you see what each of these four have to say about it, and then you do your best to be faithful to what God is saying to you through each of them. And sometimes, the Bible isn’t the definitive word. For example, we Disciples take communion every week during worship. There’s nothing in the Bible that says you should take communion weekly. Not a word. But our tradition as a denomination is to practice communion this way, so our tradition best informs our practice.

Here’s another example: Paul clearly says in scripture that women should be silent in church and hold no authority over a man. It’s right there in the Bible! But our reason tells us that women have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit to lead and to teach. Our experience tells us that women have held prominent leadership positions across culture. And our common sense tells us that if women didn’t speak and lead in the church nothing would get done! So on this issue, we have chosen to give priority to our reason and experience over what the Bible says.

I believe Jesus models that for us in the passage we read. Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment. He says to love God and to love our neighbors, and then says, “on all this hangs the law and the prophets.” “The law and the prophets” to which Jesus is referring is the Hebrew scriptures, which were the Bible Jesus would have known. So in other words, he’s saying that authority of the words of the Bible is predicated on our experience of loving God.

I think this is a crucial point in order for the Bible to be a living, dynamic presence in our lives. I know a lot of people who’ve left the church and faith altogether because what they read in the Bible and what they’ve experienced in the world don’t match up. The Bible tells us that anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is going to Hell, and yet they’ve met non-Christians who are better Christians than some of the Christians they know! The Bible tells us to honor our father and mother, and yet an abusive parent makes that impossible. The Bible defines marriage or sin one way, but our experience or reason may conflict those definitions. So when we factor in our experience, reason, and tradition, how do we determine what scriptures are authoritative?

Here’s the truth when it comes to how we use the Bible in our lives. You can pick out a passage of scripture to support just about anything you want to believe, from handling snakes to stoning rebellious children. But all of us…ALL of us…pick and choose. We have to. There’s just too much in there, and like our Proverbs passages, some of it contradicts itself. We pick and choose what to believe on hundreds of issues presented in scripture, from tithing to divorce to keeping the Sabbath. We all pick and choose, and what we choose determines the type of authority we give the Bible.

With tens of thousands of passages to choose from, the task of determining what the Bible has to say for us can be paralyzing. So how do we decide what should be authoritative for us? I think what we do is we take the Bible, our tradition, our experience, and our reason, and we formulate a picture of who God is for us. Then we pick and choose passages that most closely match that image, and we make those passages authoritative. For example, if I experience God as a disciplinarian or judge, I’ll pick passages that reinforce that picture. If I experience God as a friend of the outcast and poor, I’ll pick passages that support that over and against ones that don’t.

And then – and this is key – we will read all the other passages through that lens. For example, my tradition and reason and experience tell me that God loves and welcomes everyone, so I choose not to give authority to passages that portray God as excluding those who don’t believe in Jesus. While I believe that those passages contain some form of truth, they have no authority for me in how I understand God and live my life. Other people may choose to interpret those passages differently, which is completely legitimate. It’s not a matter of right and wrong; it’s a matter of what we choose to give authority, and we all pick and choose.

The Bible has authority because we give it authority, and we choose which parts of it we give authority, in conversation with the other parts of the quadrilateral. We give authority to the parts that support our understanding of God. The important thing for us to do, as we continue to grow in our faith, is to keep listening for the ways God is speaking to us through all four parts of the quadrilateral. The words of the Bible aren’t going to change, but the words God speaks to us may very well go beyond the words of scripture. So we have to let those words inform the words of the Bible, and we have to be OK with the fact that sometimes what God says to us through our reason or experience or tradition supercedes what God has said to us through the Bible. That may sound blasephemous, but to believe otherwise is to turn a deaf ear to the other ways God speaks to us.

Using the authority of the Bible to end a debate, settle a question, or get the “right” answer is never how it was meant to be used. The Bible is our companion, telling us the story of who God is and how God loves us, inviting us to ask our questions, voice our doubts, wrestle it, disagree with it. The Bible is meant to be an authority in our lives, but not the sole one, and not the ultimate one. The ultimate authority for us is God revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and I think it’s safe to say that he ain’t dead yet. He is still speaking to us every single day, through our experiences, through our reasoning, through tradition, and through the Bible, helping us to understand who we are called to be. Thank God we have the Bible to be a partner in that conversation with us.


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The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series – Is the Bible True?

SCRIPTURE – John 18:33-38 – Then Pilate entered the headquarters[i] again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Is the Bible True?
John 18:33-38
October 18, 2015

I’ve said throughout this sermon series on the Bible that first and foremost the Bible is a story. So let me tell you one of its stories. It’s one you’re probably going to know.  “God said to Noah, ‘I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.  Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.”

Great story, isn’t it? We grew up hearing about Noah’s Ark and the animals that came two by two. Now, let me tell you another story, and let’s see what you think of this one: “Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth.”’

OK, we know the first story. That one is in the Bible, right there in Genesis 6. So where does the second story come from? Some knock-off translation? Some creative author’s paraphrase? Believe it or not, the second story comes from…the Bible. Right there in Genesis 7, just a few verses after the first one. There are actually two different Noah’s Ark stories woven together, and they contradict each other on several points. And yet, they’re both right there in the Bible. So here’s my question for you: Which one is true? This one example alone destroys the argument that the Bible is inerrant, and I’ve got hundreds more of them. But it’s still the Bible and we are called to take it seriously. So rather than being sacrilegious, it’s responsible of us to ask the question, “Is the Bible true?”

Before we can answer that question, we have to make sure we’re answering the RIGHT question. A four-year-old boy came to his mother one day and said, “Mommy, where did I come from?” The mom was completely caught off-guard, so she began hemming and hawing, trying to figure out how to appropriately answer. She mumbled something about when a man and woman really love each other, they hold hands until a stork comes to give the woman an epidural and brings a baby in a basket. The boy looked puzzled for a second, then said, “That’s weird, because Jimmy said he comes from Indiana.”

The key to finding answers is asking the right questions, and “Is the Bible true?” isn’t the right question. It’s a fair question, for sure, but it needs to be followed up, not with an answer, but with another question: What kind of truth are we talking about? Webster’s defines “true” as “in according with fact or reality.” In that case, the Bible isn’t true. For example, in Genesis 1, when God created the world, the writer tells us, “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky.” As we know today, that answer is not in accordance with fact or reality.

Back when Genesis was written, they didn’t have NASA and space shuttles. They didn’t even have a VHS copy of “E.T.”! So they could only write what they knew. They looked up and saw this blue expanse, which was the same color as the water around them, so they assumed there was a dome holding back those waters. And they called the dome “Sky.” That was true for them, so that’s what they wrote. We know now there is no dome holding back the waters. From a factual standpoint, from a scientific standpoint, that’s just not true.

But is that the only kind of truth? When I walk out on my deck in the morning and see light appear in the sky, I say, “The sun is rising in the East.” Now, a meteorologist or astronomer would be quick to point out that statement is factually untrue. The sun doesn’t rise or set; it stays still while the earth moves. But my experience tells me that the sun rises and sets. That is true for me, even if it’s not true in other ways. Could there be more than one kind of truth?

A quick history lesson may help us answer that. A change occurred in the mid-17th century that fundamental altered the understanding of what is true. Until that point, the church had a lot of control over what was considered true, and the Bible was a primary authority on all truth. But in the 1500s, people like Galileo and Copernicus began asking questions the Bible couldn’t answer, and that set off a seismic cultural shift. Instead of using religion to explain the natural world, people started using reason and science. The only things that were true were things that could be proven true. The scientific method was born. Experiments were conducted. Telescopes were used. And the Bible was no longer the primary source of truth. This was the beginning of the Enlightenment.

But people knew there were other truths that were beyond proof. Does love exist? Of course! Can you prove it using the scientific method? Not a chance. During this time, a division occurred called the fact-value split. Facts can be proven, the can tell you what something is or how it works. Values cannot be proven, but are no less true. They tell you what something means, why it is important. There are truths out there that go beyond our ability to prove them as being true. Some things are true as facts, like 2+2=4; some things are true as values, like love and freedom.

So here’s the problem when it comes to the Bible. The whole belief that the Bible contains no factual errors and doesn’t contradict itself doesn’t come from the Bible. It never claims inerrancy and infallibility. Those concepts didn’t come along until about 100 years ago, and it created a sinister dichotomy that we still struggle with today. That dichotomy gives us two choices: either believe the Bible is true and explain away the stuff that doesn’t make sense, or don’t believe the Bible is true and question why we even read it at all. That choice set up the horrible, destructive assumption that if you questioned the Bible, then you were questioning your own faith and even questioning God.

That was never an issue for the early readers of the Bible. They didn’t care about the verifiable truth of the Bible, because for them, it was true in more profound ways. For example, archaeology has shown no evidence of a group the size of the Israelites leaving Egypt, traveling 40 years in the desert, and settling in Canaan. No candy wrappers, no discarded maps, no sandal prints. Archaeology and the Bible don’t line up. But that didn’t make a lick of difference to the early readers.

Getting the past right was not the driving issue of the biblical writers. The primary purpose of the Bible was to tell the story of God and God’s people as a way of explaining their current situation, not unlike how other cultures used supernatural stories to explain natural phenomena. They didn’t care that the facts didn’t line up. They didn’t care that in the Bible God spoke directly to people, the sun stopped moving, Jesus drove out demons, and animals talked. Who cares if that stuff doesn’t happen today? The purpose of the Bible is not to explain science or accurately recount historical events. And as soon to use it to do those things, we’re severely distorting the Bible’s purpose. Trying to contort the Bible to be factually true isn’t submitting to God, it’s making God submit to us.

So, is the Bible factually true? Not entirely. We know now the world isn’t flat, that evil doesn’t live in the ocean, and there’s not a dome above us. But is the Bible true in other ways? Absolutely, because for Christians there’s a difference between fact and truth. Here’s the best way I can think of to highlight the difference. To say “Jesus died” is a fact, as best as we know. To say “Jesus died for our sins” is a truth, one that goes much, much deeper than any fact.

There were certain truths the biblical writers were trying to convey, and they wrote in order to convey those truths, truths like God is love and Jesus is the Messiah and we are God’s children. Are those facts? I don’t know. I can’t prove them to you. But are they truths? Absolutely. It’s OK to believe that not everything in the Bible is factually true. It’s OK to have doubts about the historical validity of some of the stories. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian or an irresponsible person. It means you’re human and you’re using your God-given brain to try and make sense of this thing called faith.

Facts aside, I do believe that there is truth in every passage of scripture. Sometimes that truth rests right on the surface, like when writer of Genesis tells us we were made in God’s image. That’s truth, plain and simple. But there are other truths that run much deeper, and we have to dig below the surface to get to them. Paul says, “Slaves obey your masters.” Jesus says, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” God says, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings that I created.” To get to the truths in those passage requires power tools and heavy lifting, and in the end, you still may end up not understanding. No one has yet to figure out all the answers, so you’re probably not going to, either. That’s OK. Faith is not a problem to be solved; it’s a mystery to be lived.

We’ve been told we have two choices: believe everything in the Bible and toss out all we’ve learned through science, astronomy, archaeology, and medicine; or don’t believe everything in the Bible and go to Hell. I believe there’s a better way. I choose to believe the biblical writers wrote what they knew at the time. I choose to believe we’ve used our brains to learn more about our natural world, sometimes in ways that contradict or even disprove the Bible. And I choose to believe the Bible is true in ways that go so much deeper than what we can prove. Thank God that we have been given this book which has a word to speak to every generation, including ours. Is the Bible true? From a factual standpoint sometimes, but not always. But for our lives, our faith, our path of following God, the Bible is absolutely true.


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This Week’s Sermon – That’s Enough!

SCRIPTURE – 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 –

 Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you[d]—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act[f] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.15 As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

That’s Enough!
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
October 11, 2015

I owe you an apology right up front. A few weeks ago, I told you we were going to take a break from our sermon series on the Bible so that we could share a couple of sermons in conjunction with our stewardship campaign. I apologize because that implies that our stewardship sermons have nothing to do with the Bible, which is clearly not the case. I was creating a false dichotomy between spirituality and stewardship that shouldn’t exist in our own lives and certainly doesn’t exist in the Bible.

This passage from 2 Corinthians is a great example of the point the Bible makes that how we use our resources is a reflection of what we believe about God. Paul is writing to the Corinthians to encourage them to participate in a stewardship campaign he’s conducting to raise money for the widows and orphans in Jerusalem. Paul plans on collecting the pledges from the church in Corinth and delivering them to needy, so this passage we have today is his appeal to the Corinthians to give. And unlike a certain preacher who shall go unnamed, Paul doesn’t say, “I’m going to take a break from talking about Jesus so I can talk about money.”

Just the opposite! Notice the crafty way Paul ties those two things together: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Paul labels the incarnation, Christ making himself poor by coming down and dwelling among us, a generous act. We serve a generous God, one who has given over and over again so that we may know the love God has for us.

I said a few weeks ago that the Bible, at its essence, is a story, a love story between God and God’s people. One of the tension points of that story is the counterpoint between God’s offering of abundance and our attitude of scarcity. It is this thread that is woven throughout this story. At the very beginning, we see the abundant creativity of God, who fashions all of creation, lavishing it with wildflowers and butterflies, sparing no expense when creating the blue whale and red rose. God creates this garden and tells Adam and Eve, “It’s all yours! Except for that one tree.” And they think, “All this isn’t enough, we need that tree, too.”

From that point forward, the story is this liturgy of God’s abundance, as God blesses Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and how each of those, in one form or another, live like God’s blessing isn’t good enough. Following suit, when Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the Promised Land, what’s the first thing they do? They grumble that they don’t have enough. So God provides them manna, just enough for each day. If they tried to gather more than they need, it went bad. That had just what they needed for each day, and it was enough.

But that didn’t stop the Israelites from grumbling. They settle in the Promised Land, which God so graciously provided for them, a land abundant with milk and honey. The Israelites have so much! But they start to hoard their blessings, forgetting to take care of the widows and orphans and poor and homeless. You can hear the refrain echoing through the whole Bible from God’s people: we need more, we have to make sure we’re going to be OK, we don’t have enough. And God’s saying, “Really? Haven’t I blessed you enough?”

This polarity between scarcity and abundance was one of Jesus’ favorite topics. Remember the parable about the farmer who had a bumper crop, but instead of sharing it, he built bigger barns to hold it all? Or the story about the rich folks who threw a few dollars in the offering plate, but the widow who gave her very last quarter? Jesus was keenly aware that those around him were living from a perspective of scarcity in culture of abundance.

Do we still do that today? I read a story recently about a family that wanted to see how long they could live on the food they already had in their house – in their freezer, their fridge, their pantry. As a way of testing their definition of abundance, they wanted to be good stewards of what they had and use it all up before going to Kroger and buying more. How long do you think you could last on the food in your house? How long do you think this family lasted? A week? Two weeks? This family of four was able to eat for seven weeks without going to the grocery. Does that remind you of the loaves and fish story? Do we have enough?

I think the key point to that question is how we define “enough.” Webster’s says it means, “as much as is required.” Ah, but isn’t it interesting that our perception of what is required changes, doesn’t it? What I required to live in college is a whole lot less than what I require to live today. Some of that is necessity; I now have a family to take care of, a car to keep on the road, a house to pay for. I need those things. But I also think I need a lot of other things, like a full pantry and stocked refrigerator. Isn’t it interesting how things that used to be conveniences or luxuries – dishwashers, extra bathrooms, heated seats – are now necessities? How much is enough?

I remember going to breakfast one time with a minister friend of mine. I ordered first and got the things I wanted: a bagel with cream cheese, a muffin, a hot chocolate. My bill was $5. He ordered half a bagel with a free pat of butter and a glass of water. His total was $1.25. I ordered my definition of enough, never even considering that there was an alternative. His definition of enough and my definition of enough were very different. How much is enough?

I think our answer to that question is greatly skewed by our society, which will always define “enough” as “just a little bit more than you already have.” “Enough” becomes the carrot we chase which always stays just outside of our grasp. We are conditioned to believe that in order to live the kind of life we deserve to live, we need certain things, and until we have them, we won’t have enough. And underlying that line of thinking are two false beliefs that insidiously worm their way into our psyche: First is the false belief that we can ever have enough, that we will eventually be able to satisfy our desire. And second is the false belief that being good enough and having enough are tied together. If I can just have enough, I’ll be good enough – as a spouse, as a worker, as a parent, as a Christian. But if we don’t believe we are already good enough, we’ll never have enough. That’s living from scarcity.

When we strip away all of our culture’s distortions about what it means to have enough, we realize we do indeed have enough. More than enough, really. We are rich beyond measure. There may be times when we don’t feel like it, but we are rich. How do I know? If you recently upgraded your phone from version 5 to version 6, you are rich. If you push a button to dry your clothes rather than waiting for the sun to dry, you are rich. If the coffee you drink has a name other than “coffee,” you are rich. If your pet is wearing the same outfit you are wearing, you are rich. If you know what “wi-fi” means, and even if you don’t but you still use it, you are rich. We are rich.

So what do we do with this abundance? If we follow the example of the Israelites, we hoard it, building bigger barns to sock it away just in case we need it. We can fill our garages and our shoe racks and our patios because…well, because we can. And there’s nothing wrong with living comfortably. Remember, Paul says in this passage, “I don’t mean that you should give so much that you yourself become poor.” Instead, he says, there should be a balance between our abundance and someone else’s need. And then he quotes from the manna story: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Which one are you? Yeah, me too. The one who has too much. And I’m reminded every day that there are those around me who have too little. The Corinthians, a very affluent congregation, were the same way. So Paul appeals to them to excel in their generosity. I heard another writer put it this way: “Build a portfolio of generosity in which the goal is not to make the most money, but to have the most significance.” What would you put in your portfolio of generosity?
Our Stewardship theme this year is “Your First Gift,” which refers of course to the gift you give through your pledge. But it also refers to the gift you already have. In several places in scripture, Paul talks about the spiritual gifts that we are given by the Holy Spirit. Some of the gifts are pretty specific, like speaking in tongues. But other gifts are more universal, gifts that everyone has. One of those he mentions is generosity. I believe we all have been given the gift of generosity. The question is whether or not we’ve chosen to use it.

We’re finishing up a Capital Campaign to renovate and expand our Children’s Wing. We just built another Habitat House, which you helped pay for. We just took up a collection for the Crop Hunger Walk. And now, we are encouraging you to consider your pledge for 2016. Jesus said, “To whom much has been given, much is required.” Have we been given much? Do we have enough? And Paul said, “Now as you excel in everything, so we want you to excel in this generous undertaking.”

To excel in something is to be exceptionally good at it. It’s the root of the word “excellence.” If you excel at something, then you are gifted in that area. We have been given a first gift, the gift of generosity, so that we may strike a fair balance between our present abundance and the needs of those around us. We have been given so much! The abundance we have is not for us to keep, but for us to give away. What will you give to God through Crestwood so that others also have what they need? At Crestwood, we strive to excel in our fellowship, in our service, in our education, in our music. May we also excel in our giving, so that others experience the grace and love and welcome and divine generosity of God through us. We have enough, don’t we? Thanks be to God.

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