Sunday, January 31, 2010

unChristian: Sheltered (Acts 17:16-32)

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place*every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor* he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God* and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”

29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’

Today we are continuing in our series of messages on the theme unChristian. This series of messages is based on a book by the same name that is a comprehensive compilation of some compelling research done among 16-29-year-olds about their perceptions of Christians and the Church.

Forty percent of people in this age group have turned away from the Christian faith, and I am convinced that is largely to do with the version of Christianity they have been exposed to and the things they have heard from some of Christianity’s most vocal proponents. These young people point out that Christianity in many places is no longer as Jesus intended, in other words, that Christianity has become unChristian.

Today’s message responds to the perception among young outsiders that Christians are sheltered. They think we are backward, old-fashioned, out-of-touch, anti-intellectual, and living in our own protective little bubble. They perceive us to be like an ostrich with our head in the sand, like passengers on the Titanic in the hours before it sank, or a pack of domesticated cats who look like they’re thinking deep thoughts but are just waiting for their next meal. My hope is that we who follow the Christ will be willing to open doors and explore the wonder, complexity, and beauty of all that has been created around us. May we pray.

One of my favorite television shows is The Simpsons. It may not be something you want your young kids watching, but I find it to be brilliant social commentary. An episode in which the fossil remains of a supposed angel is discovered stirs up a controversy and debate in the town that leads to a trial in which the judge says, “In many ways, this case will settle the debate once and for all between science and religion.”

Now personally, I wasn’t aware that there was a debate between the two until I turned about 15 or so, and this is probably a familiar experience for many of you. You raised smart kids. They achieved in school, they excelled, and they went off to great colleges and universities – and those who couldn’t went to Chapel Hill. Because they’re bright and thinking, they come in contact with some of the latest scientific views and research. Then they hear some of the most vocal proponents of Christianity say those exciting new things they are learning aren’t true because those things don’t fit into a certain view of the Christian faith and they’re forced to make a choice. Either, your kids have to give up science to remain a Christian, or they have to give up Christianity in order to be a person who values science. And when you have very loud and vocal and narrow-minded Christians yelling about the evils of science, and very bright and engaging professors inviting them into a world of discovery, who’s gonna win?

JB Phillips has written a wonderful little book entitled Your God is Too Small. The title of this book is at the root of these perceptions about Christians – about being close-minded, sheltered, and unthinking. For too many Christians, our version of God is just too small. Many Christians are closed to the idea of a God that might be a little bigger or broader than our particular worldview. Too many Christians have closed the door on a big and complex God. The perception is that many Christians have already made up their mind about everything in the world, and they simply aren’t open to new ideas or thoughts.

Are we afraid that our faith can’t withstand the questions? Are we motivated by fear, and do our fears force us to take a position on Biblical interpretation and theology and science and faith that are, in reality, losing propositions for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

You think we would have learned, after 400 years of doing this, that this isn’t the right approach. Galileo was a faithful Roman Catholic who loved God and loved science. He had constructed a crude telescope, and based on what he observed, he came to the conclusion that the earth rotated around the sun, that Copernicus was right. At the time, the church taught that the sun rotated around the earth – that the earth was stationary and the sun and stars moved around it. The church taught that because the Bible taught that! In Psalm 93:1: “The Lord has established the world; it shall never be moved.” In Psalm 96:10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30: “The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.” Based upon this and an understanding that the earth was the center of the universe, Galileo’s teachings were considered heresy.

On June 22, 1633, Galileo received this sentence: “Whereas you, Galileo, hold as true the false doctrine taught by some that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth moves, contrary to the true sense of Holy Scripture. The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture.” Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. His writings were banned from publication and were not published again until 76 years after his death. Now, he recanted his teaching on that day, but I’m told he had his fingers crossed behind his back, because he knew what he had seen with his eyes.

Now, today, we know that the earth rotates around the sun, anyone knows this! But for people of that day, it was just as self-evident that the sun rotated around the earth. I mean, the earth was God’s special creation, of course it would be fixed at the center of the universe! It sure doesn’t feel like the earth is hurtling through space at 490,000 miles per hour, and anyone can see that the sun rises every day somewhere in the east and sets every day somewhere in the west. And for people of that day, based on what they observed and three little verses in Scripture, it was a critical matter of faith that the earth didn’t move.

Today, you and I see it differently. You know that the earth rotates around the sun, but you even know more than Galileo did. Because the sun is just one star in the Milky Way Galaxy over here in one corner of the universe as one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. You believe this! You know this is true, and somehow, you’re still Christians! Even though this doesn’t line up with the literal meaning of three isolated verses of Scripture. How’d you do that?

Somehow, you found the ability to reconcile these two different things. At some level, we have to recognize that religion and science aren’t enemies, if, for no other reason, because science and religion are asking different sorts of questions about the same sorts of things. By and large, religion asks “Why” questions and science asks “How” questions. These are two vastly different aims, and it is entirely possible that a scientifically sound answer can co-exist next to a faithfully sound answer.

Think of it this way. You may observe a kettle whistling on the stove and ask, “What has caused the water in this kettle to boil?” From a scientific standpoint, you may know that heat causes the water molecules to speed up their movement. As they got hotter, they move faster and faster, bouncing and crashing off one another like rednecks at a demolition derby. Eventually, some of the molecules crash so hard off each other that they escape their bond with the other molecules and float off into the air – and we call this escape steam. But someone else with a different perspective could ask the same question, “What has caused the water in this kettle to boil?” and their response would be, “Because I would like a cup of tea” or “Because someone turned on the burner.” Now, which of the explanations of the water boiling is true? They are all equally true. Moreover, the truth of one statement does not negate the truth of any of the others.

Where we get into trouble, it would seem, is when we abuse the Bible and ask it to give us answers it was never intended to give. The Bible was written to tell us about God and humanity’s ongoing relationship with God. It tells us who God is, gives us glimpses of what God is like, and narrates our often-failed attempts to live as God’s people. It gives us guidelines about how to live with each other, how to care for each other, how to be good stewards over the earth, and how to better align our hearts and wills with God’s. It gives us strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow with words of comfort about who God is and who we are as God’s children. But then, too many Christians are also trying to read the Bible as if it’s a history textbook or a science textbook, and are asking the Bible to speak to issues of history or modern science, a task for which it was never intended to be employed.

Part of the problem with this debate is the fact that we’ve set it up as a debate. We’ve seen science – or really, too much learning and intellectualism in opposition to Christianity. This seems odd to me, given that for most of Christian history, faith and learning were very close friends. The great universities of Europe were founded by the Church. In this country, universities with names like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Wake Forest, Elon, Davidson, and Wofford were all founded on religious principles. At its best, the Church saw itself contributing to and reaping the benefit of the advances in art and science, in mathematics and humanities, in social sciences and education, in engineering and commerce.

When Duke University’s gothic West Campus was under development, James B. Duke wrote “In the middle of the campus I want a great towering church, because such an edifice would be sure to have a profound effect on the minds of the young people who study there.” Today, Duke Chapel stands at the center of the university. Right in the middle of the school’s seal, you’ll find the latin words “Eruditio et Religio” – learning and religion. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism made famous this line: “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.”

Too many Christians fall prey to the problem evident in a children’s sermon in which a pastor looked at the kids and said, “I am thinking of something that is brown, has a bushy tale, lives in trees, and gathers acorns each fall.” The kids were silent for a moment and one boy finally said, “Well preacher, it sounds like a squirrel to me, but I’m sure the answer is Jesus.”

Friends, unthinking religiosity is sure the answer is Jesus or some other such equivalent even before the questions have been asked. Unthinking religiosity lapses into traditionalism, which Jaroslav Pelikan calls the “dead faith of the living.” Christianity is viewed as sheltered because too many of its followers have substituted visionary faith for lazy formulas.

If our answer to every query is simply, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” based on a rigid and narrow interpretation of Scripture in which we ask the Bible to answer questions it was never intended to answer, it won’t be long before we are declaring any thinking or intellectual person a heretic. Based on these formulations, it is easy to see why so many people perceive Christians to have our heads buried in the sand, unwilling to acknowledge new learnings and discoveries happening all around us. And too often, this is what Christians are actually doing – we cling to antiquated formulas and worldviews because we have been trapped by a picture of God that is too small, because our faith has constructed a house of meaningless cards that threatens to tumble around us, because somewhere we were taught that questioning is the opposite of faith and we’ve been afraid to question anything ever since.

I find it odd that so many Christians are frightened by intellectual advancements or think that the sovereignty of God is somehow threatened by a theory about how something in the world works. We are commanded in the Scriptures to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. “You cannot love God with all your mind and leave it untended. As creatures created in the image and likeness of God, we are called to think, motivated by a desire to know and love God truthfully and faithfully.”[1] I fear too many religious people become religious simply to avoid having to think, finding it easier to passively accept everything on blind faith and never wrestle with the big questions or discover just who this God is. It is, no doubt, in this sense in which Marx described religion as “the opiate of the masses.”

So then, how do we proceed? Galileo gives us some insight. He said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect had intended for us to forgo their use.”

First, Christians need to be viable conversation partners in the towers of intellect and the great halls of learning. In the passage of Scripture we read earlier from the book of Acts, Paul confronts the thinkers of his day on their own turf. He is in Athens, the seat of philosophy and a place where people went to think deep thoughts. It was a place where the intellect was celebrated and a place in love with new ideas and ways of thinking. In that setting, Paul engages the intellectuals with an intellectual argument. He begins by complementing them – he says he can tell that they are very devout! This is a lesson for Christians. Too often our conversations begin as an argument, but Paul begins by acknowledging and celebrating common ground. But then, he presses on and shows them how his teaching about God can actually fill a gap in their worldview. It turns out God was there all along, but Paul was simply giving them some language to recognize it, for those who chose to believe.

Second, Christians need to stop focusing on divisions, particularly between those who are perceived to be right and those who are perceived to be wrong. Have you ever noticed that whoever is setting the definition of what is right and wrong always sets the boundary in such a way that they, themselves, are sure to be included? The goal of Christianity is not homogeneity – making all people the same – believing, doing, and acting all the same. The goal of the Christian faith is unity in spite of our differences. In one of his most formative sermons, “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley said, “In matters that do not strike at the heart of scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.” There are great matters of opinion over which Christians may disagree that have nothing to do with the heart of the Gospel message. And, those things do not threaten the heart of the Gospel in Jesus Christ. Certainly, opinions and theories about matters of learning fall into this category. What would it look like for us to focus not on the places we disagree with others, but the places of commonality? Again, John Wesley, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Third, Christians need to be lifelong learners. God has imbued us with gifts of reason and intellect and does not give them to us that we might forgo their use. Chaim Potok writes “A shallow mind is a sin against God.” We are called to have simple faith, not simplistic faith. But, aren’t we supposed to have faith like a child? True enough, meaning that we are supposed to trust God. But have you ever noticed how children learn? It is the a process of constantly asking questions. Children question everything! One of the favorite questions children ask is “Why?” Everything! When my nephew, Nathaniel, was about four, he called me to the window in their kitchen to look at a car outside on the street. He said, “Why does that car have tape on the door?” I said, “Because the door is falling apart.” “Why is the door falling apart?” “Because it is worn out or was perhaps poorly manufactured.” “Why is it worn out?” By this time, I was ready to end this little inquiry, so I simply said, “Because it’s a crappy car.” And he said, “Yeah! That’s a crappy car, and that’s a crappy van next to it!”

So when we talk about having faith like a child, it’s a combination of a deep trust with the curiosity to discover the world around us. We have all been given varying gifts and ways of seeing the world. We need to have room for people to explore. The world is a complex place, we cannot simply shove simple answers at their complex questions. Christians must be lifelong learners.

Fourth, Christians need to exercise a little humility. It’s okay for there to be questions for which we don’t have an answer. It really is okay for us to recognize that God is a little mysterious some times. What I find is the more I approach life with a measure of humility – and granted, this is something I am still learning how to do – the more I find myself in awe of what God does.

No one likes a know-it-all. Don’t you find yourself innately skeptical of someone who claims to have all the answers? When I was in middle school, a classmate by the name of William H. Brown III impressed us all with his expansive vocabulary. In fact, we all called him Encyclopedia Brown. But then, we went to high school and got into our English classes, and found out he wasn’t using those words even remotely correctly, and we weren’t quite as impressed with him anymore.

Friends, Christians are unChristian when we are close-minded and sheltered. When we think we have all the truth, when we think we have it all figured out, when we think we have all the answers, when we think intellectual advancements have to line up exactly with a literal reading of a few narrow passages of Scripture. Christians are unChristian when we are slow to listen and quick to speak.

We get it right when we’re teachable. We get it right when we have a humility about us and a willingness to say, “You know, I am passionate about certain things and I believe certain things and I have convictions about certain things, but I’m open to hear what you have to say.”

When you hear people boasting and bragging about how much they know and what they’ve got figured out, it’s usually a sign of emotional and spiritual immaturity. Mark Twain put it this way: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Here’s something I find. The people who are most spiritually and emotionally mature have one thing in common. They tend to speak less than other folks. They tend to say things like, “The more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know. And the closer I get to God, the smaller I feel, I realize just how far away I still am from God, and how much I need to lean on God.” So when I meet people who have everything figured out and have all the answers and want to tell me their answers and want everyone to adhere to their answers, I think, “You’ve still got some growing to do.” Because a day will come when we all say, “You know, I don’t have everything figured out, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m learning and I’m growing and I’m seeking them out.”

Friends, my prayer for each of us is that we won’t worry so much about having all the right answers. I pray that we’ll have a faith that is deep enough that we can enjoy the questions.

[1] Jones, L. Gregory. “Why Bother to Think?” Christian Century, Nov 15, 2000.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

unChristian: Hypocritical (Matthew 23:23-28)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Today we are continuing in our series of messages on the theme unChristian. This series of messages is based on a book by the same name that is a comprehensive compilation of some compelling research done among 16-29-year-olds about their perceptions of Christians and the Church.

This series of messages responds to the fact that persons age 16-29 have opted out of the Church at a rate five times higher than that of persons age 65 and over. That should concern us. These aren’t just “some kids.” These are YOUR kids. They’re your grandkids, your nieces and nephews, your neighbors, your co-workers. They grew up here. Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, I stopped going to church about the time I started college or joined the service or started working. I eventually came back. I’m sure they will too.”

But we’re seeing it doesn’t work that way anymore. More and more, those who have grown up in the church are walking away and never coming back, and an increasing number of young people haven’t grown up in the church, but their experiences with Christians has already put a bad taste in their mouths.

It’s not that they just got out of the habit of going to church. They’re saying “We reject Christianity.” It’s not that they necessarily reject God or Jesus, but they’re turned off from church. And their primary reason isn’t theological, it’s the Christians they’ve known. It’s important for us to hear where we’ve gotten it wrong, so we can have the hope of getting it right. May we pray.

When young outsiders are asked about their perceptions of the church, 85% responded that they perceive Christians to be either somewhat or a lot “hypocritical.” Their experience with Christians leads them to believe that we say one thing and do another.

Down in Texas, three brothers grew up working on the ranch. Every day around 5pm, they would head to the local bar and enjoy a beer. As time went on, they all moved away, but made a pact with each other that every day at 5pm, they would go to a bar, order three beers, and drink together, even if by long distance.

One brother found a bar to go to every afternoon. After several weeks, the waitress said, “I notice you always come in and order three beers. You open all three, and take a sip from one, then the next, then the third, and so on. If you want, I’ll be happy to bring those to you one at a time.” The man explained what was going on, which actually sorta made sense, and the waitress was happy to keep bringing him three beers at once.

But one day, he walked in, looking a bit forlorn, and only ordered two beers. He sat over in the corner, gazing off into the distance, slowly nursing the two beers. The waitress came by and said, “You know, I noticed you only ordered two beers, and I’ve just got to say, I’m really sorry about your brother.”

The man said, “No, no, my brothers are both just fine. But last week, my wife and I joined this Baptist Church, and I had to give up drinking, but both of my brothers still have no problem with it.”

Well, that’s certainly one connotation of the term “hypocrite.” The word “hypocrite” comes to us from the Greek, and literally means “one who speaks from behind a mask.” In Jesus’ day, it actually had some positive meaning. For instance, if you were an actor on the stage, you were said to be a “hypocrite.” It meant an actor – someone who was pretending to be someone or something else.

I first appeared on stage when I was about 4, and I loved it. Maybe this surprises you, but I took a shining to the limelight and being center stage. Here I am in one of my favorite roles – playing Felix in the 1996 Niagara Falls High School Production of The Odd Couple.

One of the first and most critical things for any actor to do is understand their character. It’s not just enough to memorize lines – you have to know who this person is whose life you are walking into. What is their motivation? What are their relationships like? How would they respond in a variety of situations? In one sense, an actor is a hypocrite by pretending to be someone else.

But this use of the word is not how Jesus intended it the 13 times he uses it in the Gospel of Matthew. Of the religious leaders, he says that they are hypocrites, meaning they pretend, they are play-acting, as if they are something they’re not. They were pretending to be the people of God, but they just hadn’t gotten the point. Jesus is talking about the scribes and the Pharisees – the religious leaders, in other words. They were the most pious, holier-than-thou, self-righteous people you could find.

Pharisee is Greek for “stuck up religious snob who just doesn’t get it.” Pharisees thought they were better than everyone else because they knew the law better than anyone else, and they were there to enforce it. But while they may have nailed the lesser elements of the law, they failed to follow its most crucial aspects.

Jesus spoke out pretty strongly against that. Jesus was really concerned with people who claim to be seriously-committed Christians and are aggressively telling other people how to be seriously-committed Christians, but whose lives don’t line up with that. People who, sometimes by their judgmentalism or the way they approach their faith can make other people feel really small.

The entire 23rd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is a vitriolic attack by Jesus against the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. What I’d like us to consider here is if there is anything that Jesus said to 1st century Jewish religious leaders that might apply to 21st century Christians.

The scribes and Pharisees devoted themselves to studying and interpreting the law. Over the years, different restrictions and statutes had been added, and it had become a complicated and cumbersome thing. But Jesus reminds the leaders that the point of the law is to facilitate a relationship between humans and God, and to facilitate a better relationship among humans. However, many of the religious leaders had elevated the law to such a high and prominent place that following every jot and tittle was more important to them than the relationship they were supposed to have with God. The law itself, the thing that was supposed to facilitate a relationship with God, had actually become an idol above God and a barrier blocking the relationship with God. It’s a case of missing the forest for the trees.

Before we laugh too much, this is not all that foreign to the experience of many Christians. Far too many Christians are worshipping the Bible more than the God who is revealed in the Bible; far too many Christians are more in love with the words of Scripture than they are with the God revealed in Scripture. When we worship the Bible instead of the God of the Bible, we turn the Bible into an idol, and we simultaneously abuse the Bible and dishonor God.

Jesus exposed their idolatry. Jesus exposed the fact that they cared more about a certain moral code recorded in all those thousands of individual laws than they cared about the God who gave the law.

And, let me tell you, people don’t like having their idolatry exposed. Inevitably this week, I will get a letter or an email from someone saying that I’m down on what the Bible says or that I’m twisting Scripture or that I’m watering down the Gospel. My grandfather had a saying that he used frequently. If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one you hit. As a pastor, I have to constantly ask, “Is the Bible an idol for us? Do we love the Bible or a particular interpretation of the Bible or a particular theological framework more than we love God?” I am here telling you that the Bible might actually say something different than what we want it to say. If we have built our worldview on an idol – even one as important as the Bible – then we’ll likely lash out at anyone or anything who threatens it. After all, that kind of thing got Jesus killed.

Jesus is critical of the scribes and Pharisees who have made an idol out of the law and who think they are better than other people because of their religious convictions. In the chapter immediately before today’s Scripture reading, Jesus is asked to articulate the greatest commandment. He says it is this: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. And a second is like it – to love your neighbor as you love yourself. The entirety of the law and prophets, he says, hangs on these two things (Matthew 22:34-40).

It’s about having a relationship facilitated between us and God and a better relationship among humans. It’s not about following a list of certain do’s and don’ts , about carefully selecting and naming a list of sins or forbidden behavior and avoiding everything on the list.

Jesus blasts the scribes and Pharisees for just this type of restrictive interpretation of the law. He says they tie up huge burdens and place them on the shoulders of the people and are unwilling to lift a finger to help. In other words, they dictate stringent standards for other people to live by, and then fail to live by those standards themselves. They do everything for the sake of appearance – everything in their religious life is aimed at bringing glory and honor to themselves instead of God. It was all about looking good in front of others.

But then Jesus comes round to it in the 23rd verse. Woe to the scribes and Pharisees, he says, for they tithe mint, dill and cumin, but neglect the weightier matters of the law. In Leviticus, the tithe of agricultural produce is discussed (Leviticus 27:30-33). The people were to give this as an expression of thanksgiving to God and for the ongoing work of the temple. Mint, dill, and cumin were the smallest of all herbs; Jesus is saying they painstakingly separated out exactly 1/10 of the leaves from these small plants so they could follow the exact letter of the law, but missed the point entirely. They have neglected the weightier matters of the law. Jesus has already said in the previous chapter that the greatest command in the law was to love God and love neighbor. Here, he names those weightier aspects of the law – justice, mercy, and faith. In the Old Testament prophet Micah, we find these words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Justice, mercy, and faith – the weightier aspects of the law have been ignored while people focus on the tiniest bit of minutia.

And really, it’s a fine line. Because, as a Christian, there are things and attitudes and behaviors we need to let go of as we grow in God’s sanctifying grace. There are things that still cling to us that would be a barrier in our relationship with God and with other people, and we’re called to turn from these things. So maybe you say, “I’m going to stop getting drunk or using bad language or smoking or something else.” And, you find that you’ve stopped cussing or getting drunk or who knows, maybe you stop drinking all together! And then as you begin to experience the freedom from these things, you begin to notice other people doing them around you. And as you notice other people doing them around you, you feel pretty good about yourself because you’re not doing those things anymore. But then you start to tell people around you what you’ve observed about the behavior of others. “Hey – did you notice the sort of language she uses? Hey – did you notice how much he drinks?” And pretty soon the devil has you just where he wants you, because what he did was get you to trade cussing for self-righteousness and arrogance and pride. That’s a winning proposition for him every time. Because, as unpleasant and uncouth as cussing might be, it’s not nearly as dangerous to your soul as spiritual pride and believing you’re better than someone else.

The hypocrisy of the Pharisees stemmed from their failure to grasp the theological concept that comes to us from one of the most formative books of my generation: Everyone Poops. The Pharisees had really convinced themselves that they didn’t! Trust me, everyone does. We all mess up. We all have things in our lives that are messy. We all do things that displease God and we all have sin in our lives and fail to measure up.

The scribes and Pharisees – these who aggressively attacked others for failing to follow every statute in the law – were so concerned with the unrighteousness of others that they failed to see their own self-righteousness.

Jesus talks about how the Pharisees will clean the outside of the cup or the plate, but inside, it remains filthy. Things can look pretty good from all outward appearances in any of our lives, but it turns out that real transformation hasn’t taken place. It’s easy to pretend to be a Christian for a few hours a week – we can put on nice clothes and comb our hair, tuck our Bible under our arm, greet each other at the door, and can do a pretty convincing job of looking holy. We can do all the right things so that, on the outside, it appears that we have our religious act together. But we can ignore all those things on the inside – those matters of the heart that really define our character and who we are – those things that really matter.

All around us are people who are in need of hope, and healing, and the gentle touch of God into their lives, and we are primarily concerned with whether or not we should listen to secular rock music, or if someone lets the f-bomb fly, or if someone spills coffee on the carpet, or if someone wears jeans and a sweatshirt to church instead of a suit.

I wonder if Christians in too many places haven’t neglected the weightier matters of the law and have chosen to follow the smallest details of it. If too many Christians have cleaned the outside of the cup only, and inside their hearts have nothing to do with justice, mercy, or faith.

Now, I have a confession to make. I’m a hypocrite. No big revelation. I see this person I want to be, this person who is full of the love and grace of God, this person who is earnestly striving to be the hands and feet of Jesus, who is kind and patient, who sacrifices himself so others can have what they need, this person who is bold and courageous and always does the right thing and then I see myself – this person who fails time and time again to do just that. I realize just how far I am from the person God wants me to be.

But here’s the thing: most non-Christians don’t expect us to be perfect. They don’t expect us to have it all figured out, and be some great moral example. The problem isn’t that we’re hypocrites – it’s simply being willing to admit that we’re hypocrites. Christians need to be honest with ourselves about the failings and shortcomings in our own lives – we need to admit that we are hypocrites. It’s time to let our walls down, it’s time to stop speaking from behind a mask, it’s time to admit that we don’t have it all figured out, it’s time to simply be real and honest with ourselves. They want us to be like Jesus, but they want us to be willing to admit that we haven’t gotten there quite yet.

One of the consistent complaints against Jesus from the scribes and Pharisees was that he ate with tax collectors and sinners. And an interesting thing here, the sinners were drawn to Jesus. Jesus didn’t make them feel small. He didn’t condemn. If there was anyone who could have been self-righteous, it was Jesus. If there was anyone who could have gone about picking apart other people’s lives and their sins, it was Jesus! He had every right to do it, but he didn’t. Instead, he spent time with them and taught them about God and freely shared the love of God with them. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, someone took an interest in them and recognized them as created in God’s image and believed that God wasn’t finished with them yet, and low and behold, when people are honestly and openly invited to enter into that setting, God can get into their lives and transform hearts.

Jesus wants us to do the same thing. Jesus wants us to be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings and our failures in order that we can continually lean on God’s grace. But then, Jesus wants us to meet with people and share God’s love with them, even and especially with those whom we might be quick to label “sinners.” Jesus made people want to know more, and they soon wanted to be more like him. The more we can welcome people this broadly, the more people will be drawn to us, but not only to us, the more we can be used as a channel to introduce people to God.

Friends, we are all hypocrites. We all want to be like Jesus, and we realize how bad we are at doing that. But rather than congratulating ourselves for being inside and condemning those who are outside, rather than hiding behind a mask of what we think a Christian is supposed to look and act like, I invite us to simply be honest. To be honest about our faults and our failures and our shortcomings and to realize that we are all a work in progress. To lay aside our pretenses and stop keeping up appearances, because an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.

An entire generation is searching for authenticity. They want to find people to trust and confide in, but they often find more transparent, authentic people outside the church. We have opportunities to help others, if we are willing to put aside our unChristian ways of interacting with them.

Phillip Yancey, in his book What’s so Amazing About Grace? makes this candid conclusion: “Having spent time around “sinners” and also around purported saints, I have a hunch why Jesus spent so much time with the former group: I think he preferred their company. Because the sinners were honest about themselves and had no pretense, Jesus could deal with them. In contrast, the saints put on airs, judged him, and sought to catch him in a moral trap. In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.”

If only our view of outsiders was more like that of Jesus. Think of the overwhelming perception among young people that we are merely hypocrites. Are you burying people – insiders and outsiders – under the weight of a self-righteous life? You don’t have to. Your life can point people to a life in Christ that bursts with freedom to love, restoration, purity, and transparency.

When you see the burdens of others, do you lift a finger to help? I have to ask, are you lifting a finger now? Which one?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

unChristian: Get Saved! (Matthew 28:16-20)

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This morning, we are continuing in our series of messages with the theme “unChristian.” This series of messages is drawn from some very compelling research done among 16-29-year-olds about their perceptions of Christians, the Church, and Christianity in general. 40% of young adults have opted out of Christianity, and many even have hostile feelings toward Christianity.

Our goal here is not to say “Let’s listen to young adults who are outside the Church and do whatever they want us to do and be whatever they want us to be in the hopes that young people might come back to Church or show an interest in Christianity or affiliate with us as a faith community.” Our goal is to say, “Do they truly have something to teach us about where we might have been getting it wrong, where we might not have been faithful to doing and being what Jesus calls us to do and be.” I hope we will be open to listening to these insights that we might become better Christians. At the same time, I hope that some of those who are outside the faith might be interested in hearing more about this Jesus and hanging out with us Christians. May we pray.

It is not uncommon for me to have conversations with people who, because of my profession, ask me to “put in a word with the man upstairs,” sometimes thinking that I must have some sort of divine hookup that comes with my job. While I believe prayer is important and that our prayers are heard and do have an impact on the course of events, I also have to remind people that I’m in sales, not management.

The word “sales” may have a host of negative connotations, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I’m using it in these terms from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: to develop a belief in the truth, value, or desirability of; OR to persuade or influence to a course of action or the acceptance of something. It is this sense in which I describe myself as being in sales.

Every time I give a sermon, every time I write a newsletter article, every time I meet with a committee, every time I communicate with you as a group or as an individual as your pastor, I am engaging in sales, in a manner of speaking. I am trying to persuade you to become a follower of Jesus, or be a better Christian or get involved in something or take on some aspect of our common ministry.

In the 1980s, when Apple Computer hit the market with its first version of the Macintosh personal computer, the company hired a select group of sales representatives and called them “Macintosh Evangelists.” These people were absolutely persuaded that every man, woman, and child needed a Macintosh computer. They believed, with everything that was within them, that the Apple Macintosh was a superior product in every way to the other platforms of home computers. Their job was to persuade the world of their convictions.

When nonChristians discuss the attempts of Christians to share their faith, they perceive it to be like a negative experience with a salesperson. The research indicates that we Christians seem too focused on getting converts. Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them. They feel like targets rather than people.

For whatever reason, our attempts at faith-sharing come across as ingenuine. This is one of the biggest gaps in the research – 64% of Christians said they believe outsiders would perceive their efforts as genuine. However, only 34% of young nonChristians actually believe that Christians genuinely care about them. Outsiders often feel targeted, that we merely want a new church member or a new notch on the “get saved” belt.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus leaves us some instruction as to what we’re supposed to be about. This Great Commission is a wonderful summary of what Jesus wants us to do. He says, “Go into the whole world, and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.” And it comes with a promise and a word of comfort – Jesus promises to be with us in this, always and everywhere.

But, let’s talk about what Jesus does say and doesn’t say here. Jesus doesn’t say that we should help people get saved. Jesus does say we should make disciples.

While Scripture is clear that there is a basic starting point to the Christian faith – admitting we need help from God that is outside the realm of what we can do for ourselves – we need to remember that a starting point is not a substitute for the entire journey. However, too much of a “get saved” mentality easily reduces the entire Christian experience to a decision made in a single moment and ignores what Jesus told us to do, namely, to make disciples.

Let me put it this way. Who here can remember a time when you made a specific decision to follow Jesus? OK, who then realized, the next day, three weeks later, six months later, that God still had more work to do on you? Following Jesus is something I have to do each and every morning and several times throughout the day. The Christian faith is a journey and a process, not merely a one-time decision.

Ok, A.J. – so it sounds like you don’t care about salvation. Actually, I care a great deal about salvation. I care so deeply about it that I refuse to cheapen it and reduce it to one solitary decision suspended in time that determines where one will spend eternity.

Contrary to popular belief, the basic message of Jesus was not, “Make a one-time decision about me so that you can spend eternity in heaven.” Any attempts to telescope Jesus’ basic message into this formula are a perversion of the Gospel. Jesus came as the physical proclamation that God was willing to enter into the human existence because some things in the human experiment had gone terribly wrong. You see, in the beginning, God had created humankind in God’s image, and humankind was created for a perfectly harmonious relationship with God and each other. But something went wrong. The human will, it turns out, was a powerful thing, and before you knew it, people had placed themselves as the most important thing in the world. And a gulf of separation grew wider. This separation is technically called sin. And, people grew more and more selfish, and continued to allow their own wills to rule every decision. The result of such self-centered living was horrible – wars, murder, violence, poverty, and suffering. Turns out the human was capable of great selfishness, and the more selfishly they lived, the worse the world became.

But then Jesus came to show us another way – God’s way. Jesus, in fact, was God come to earth. In Jesus, God was willing to enter into the suffering of a broken and bruised world – a world ruled and controlled by everyone’s self-will. Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God – and he invited everyone to turn aside from the ways of the world – the fancy word for that is repent – and believe the good news of the kingdom of God.

What exactly is this kingdom of God? It’s all Jesus talks about through the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark is the relentless proclamation of this kingdom. In fact, in the first 20 verses of the book, it’s all Jesus can talk about. Then, when Jesus goes and preaches his first sermon back in front of the home crowd in the synagogue in which he grew up, it’s all he talks about there, too. He says he is there to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to all who are oppressed. He talks more about the kingdom of God in his famous Sermon on the Mount in the 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, where he says that those who are poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, meek, merciful, mourners, persecuted, pure in heart, and peacemakers are actually greatly and richly blessed in the kingdom of God. You will recognize those who are part of this kingdom because they live like this.

And here’s the cool thing: Jesus taught about the kingdom of God as if it were a present reality. It wasn’t just some pie-in-the-sky thing that good boys and girls might get to experience in the afterlife. It was real! As sure as you and I can look each other in the eye today, the kingdom of God is real! Jesus gave everyone permission to stop trying to get into heaven after they died, because in him, heaven had come to earth, and it was available in the here and now. He taught about and invited people to experience the kingdom – and low and behold, it was a better way to live than living by the rules of the kingdoms of this world. When people lived the way Jesus told them to live, they found that they were all closer to each other and closer to God, and the kingdom of God was born in their midst, and they found themselves saved from living a life as people with no hope, and instead lived as people of great hope.

And their excitement was contagious. The more they lived like God’s people in the world – the more they lived the way Jesus had taught them to live, the more people wanted to be part of their community. Acts chapter 2 talks about the sort of community they became. They were of one heart and mind, and they shared freely and abundantly with anyone in need. They praised God and enjoyed the favor of all the people, and daily, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

They realized that one of the things Jesus had taught them was to pray that his will would be done and his kingdom would come on earth as it in heaven, and the more they lived by the values of God’s kingdom, the more they found themselves living in the kingdom of God. And so they stopped worrying about getting into heaven after they died, because in the person of Jesus, heaven had come to them. And in the teachings of Jesus, they found heaven continually manifest all around them.

Being a disciple of Jesus, therefore, is not a decision that can be reduced to a simple formula or a one-time decision in which we “get saved.” Being a disciple of Jesus is not about giving an answer to a question; it’s about living a lifestyle shaped by Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.

And so we Christians see a Jesus who heals, who teaches, who stands up for justice, who is merciful, and we, therefore, must be an advocate for systems that heal, that teach, that stand up for justice, and that extend mercy.

Too much emphasis on “getting saved” runs the danger of taking everything that Jesus taught about the kingdom of God and salvation and reducing it to a one-time decision. Christians, however, must recover a cross-shaped lifestyle that transforms everything it touches. St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” Our very lives should be a constant proclamation of the good news, that Jesus has come to dwell with us, that the kingdom of God is a present reality, that God’s will really is being done on earth as it in heaven. The Christian life is not some sort of personal and private spiritual cosmetic guaranteeing us a window seat in God’s banquet hall. It is the goodness of God that springs forth from our very being and transforms everything it touches. There is no good news other than this, and our lives must constantly proclaim it.

There is an urban legend that was told as true for awhile, but it’s such a good story, I want to share it with you. This conversation took place between the USS Abraham Lincoln and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in 1995.

Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid collision.

Americans: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Lighthouses have one duty: saving ships from crashing into dangerous geography. But lighthouses don’t run all over the beach saving ships. They simply stand there shining, allowing their light to be seen by all. We Christians could learn something from this. We are charged to let our light shine before people, that they may see the goodness in our lives and give glory to God. In other words, do something that causes people to look favorably in God’s direction.

So, perhaps that’s why attempts to help people “get saved” seem to fall short. Making disciples is what we’re called to do, and it’s a long process. It’s not something that can be done in a 30-second drive-by encounter.

Let me go back to sales for a moment. If I buy something, I want to know several things. I want to know that the person selling it absolutely believes in the value of what they’re selling. I can turn on an infomercial, and here’s the thing, I know that the whole point of an infomercial is to sell me something. But yet, the longer I watch, the more I become convinced that those people on screen really do believe that every man, woman, and child really needs whatever they’re offering, and – depending on how late it is – I become increasingly convinced that I, too, need a Shamwow, a magic bullet, a Ronco rotiserrie, or a PedEgg.

Another thing I want to know is that the person selling something is genuinely interested in me and my needs. When I was a teenager, my parents went car shopping. They had done their research, and they went to a Nissan dealer with the intent of buying an Altima. They had picked out the trim level and everything, but they wanted to test drive both the automatic and the stick in order to see which one they wanted to buy. However, after they had finished the test drive and were walking back into the store to negotiate and close the deal, the salesman said to my mom, “You drive stick well for a woman.” In other words, the salesperson failed to respect his customer, and he lost what was already more-or-less a guaranteed sale.

Donald Miller, a popular Christian author, describes an experience he had in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. He was at the park, and a man walked up to him and said, “If you die tonight, will you go to heaven?” Donald stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Donald. What’s your name? Do you live around here? Are you here by yourself? What do you do for a living? What do you do in your free time? Would you like to sit down and hang out for a bit?” The man was flustered and finally said, “Look, I’m just looking for an answer to the question.” Donald said, “Oh, I’m sorry. You see, that’s a very personal question you’ve just asked me, so I assumed you wanted to be my friend.”

This is putting the cart before the horse. We have communicated that we want people to know something that is critical to their lives before they know us, have experienced us, or have received anything from us – and before we know them.

Sometimes we believe that the greatest Christian virtue is leading someone else to Christ. But Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God, and to love our neighbors. The 10 Commandments and other moral teachings are great, but everything we do MUST be wrapped in love. We are reminded in 1 Corinthians that, without love, we are only a clanging gong or a resounding cymbal.

Scripture teaches that followers of Jesus should love their neighbors and make disciples along the way. Andy Stanley says, “If we were able to rewrite the script for the reputation of Christianity, I think we would put the emphasis on developing relationships with people – serving them, loving them, and making them feel accepted. Only then would we earn the right to share the Gospel. Our acceptance of them would not be predicated on their acceptance of Christ. After all, God loved us before we were lovable; God loved the whole world before the world knew anything about God. This should be our model.”

Loving relationships that expect nothing in return – that is the way of Jesus and that ought to be the way of Jesus’ followers. Loving people with the goal of loving them well with the love of God, radically and recklessly sharing the love of God and building relationships with all.

The unChristian perception is that Christians are only interested in pushing our beliefs off on other people. The new perception can be that Christians cultivate relationships and environments where all people can be deeply-transformed by God.

It’s about relationships. As Rob Neill frequently reminds us all, “Barbeque first.” In other words, cultivate, nurture and build relationships without any agenda or hoping to get anything in return. Build relationships, and watch hearts be transformed, including yours. And as hearts are transformed and we live more and more as the people shaped by the kingdom Jesus was proclaiming, perhaps our prayers really will be answered, as God’s will be done, and God’s kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.