Unapologetic: Making Sense of Our Faith

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Romans 7:14-21

We know that the Law is spiritual, but I’m made of flesh and blood, and I’m sold as a slave to sin. I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate. But if I’m doing the thing that I don’t want to do, I’m agreeing that the Law is right. But now I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it’s sin that lives in me. I know that good doesn’t live in me—that is, in my body. The desire to do good is inside of me, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do. But if I do the very thing that I don’t want to do, then I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it is sin that lives in me that is doing it. So I find that, as a rule, when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me.

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It is great to be with you all this morning. Frankly, it’s great to be out of bed. Some of you know I came down with the flu at the start of the year. I’m thankful for the flu shot I got in the fall, because it kept my fight with the flu to two weeks instead of three.

I’ve talked about this a little bit before, but it’s a helpful reminder to know that germ theory is more modern than the Bible. We can see hints and guesses that point towards germ theory, but Moses didn’t know anything about vaccines.

Trust me, this is headed somewhere.

In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, there are multiple passages about what should be done if someone is sick – the solution, more often than not, was to isolate people to the edge of the camp. It’s written in Leviticus, “Anyone with an infection of skin disease must wear torn clothes, dishevel their hair, cover their upper lip, and shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” They will be unclean as long as they are infected. They are unclean. They must live alone outside the camp.”

So let’s put this in context – this tribe has been liberated from slavery in Egypt and now they are living as a nomadic people in the desert. They don’t know why diseases spread, but they can tell that they are passed from one person to the next. As soon as one person is sick, they are called unclean and are forced to live outside of the camp, away from everyone else, so the disease doesn’t spread.

Which is not all that different than how schools or workplaces function today, is it not?

I was diagnosed with the flu on Tuesday, December 31st, so you all know how exciting New Year’s Eve was for me. By last Sunday, I wasn’t feeling that bad, which is the blessing of better living through chemistry. Medications were helping, a lot, and while I was still dealing with some fatigue, I wasn’t feeling sick.

But I’m willing to bet that most of you were glad I stayed at home last week and isolated myself as unclean. I could have preached and served communion, I just would have shared a few germs with you all while I did.

Our understanding of how the world works has changed over the centuries, and yet our lived reality hasn’t changed all that much.

That’s one of the things that truly fascinates me about the Bible and our lives because while the context has changed and we might see things differently, in many ways, we feel things the same way today as the Israelites did 4000 years ago.

In the United States, 77% of us identify ourselves as religious, around 50% of us claim church membership, and 26% of us regularly go to church. But in surveys, 42% of people in the United States claim to go to church on a regular basis.

16% of the people in the United States lie about being regular church attenders because they believe it will make them look virtuous and respectable.

The opposite is true in England where around 6% of the population regularly attends church and people are more likely to deny going to church then talk up their attendance habits.

There is a passive cultural Christianity that is engrained in England and the United States. Aspects of our culture are deeply Christian, and yet, my guess is that many people only know about modern Christianity through what they learn in news stories of scandals, and if all you knew of Christianity was child abuse, cover-ups, misogyny, and homophobia, you’d probably stay away too.

I doubt that I am the only one here that has apologized for a faith that I don’t believe in.

The United Methodist Church made a splash in the news last week. In a series of backroom meetings, an unelected group of 16 people, all 55 and older, representing some but clearly not all of the diversity of our denomination, met to discuss a plan for our denomination divorce.

Our denomination has always been a big tent. We have tried to live into the hope of John Wesley when he said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” It was Wesley that coined the phrase, “agree to disagree” and in many ways, our denomination has been the only denomination to represent vast theological diversity. Our church has been left, right, and center. This has been a blessing, but it’s brought us some pain as well.

We have been able to love alike, but only to a point. As James Baldwin said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Publicly, the breaking point of our denomination is sexuality and the welcome, inclusion, and support of LGBTQIA folx in the church. In all honesty, the reality is that LGBTQIA folx are being scapegoated, yet again, in a fight that, for the most part, isn’t about them. I don’t want to go too far into the weeds, but the truth is the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the most conservative (or as they prefer to talk about themselves, the most traditional) branch of our church has been looking for a way to leave with money, power, and privilege for quite some time. By their own admission they’ve been trying to do something like this for more than 20 years.

Even though they hold a slim majority in the votes that shape our denominational policies and procedures, and could ensure with that slim majority that nothing changes, they have seized this moment and are going to leave with a golden parachute. If the plan that was made public last week is passed at the upcoming General Conference, the congregations that make up the WCA will walk away with all their assets as well as 25 million dollars. The catch being that once they are gone, they are gone and can never come back for more funding.

There are a handful of passages in the Bible about sexual relations between people of the same gender. I have a few friends that are WCA pastors, and for them, those verses are straight from God’s mouth. For them, if those verses on sexuality aren’t true and don’t represent the will of God, then they can’t trust that any other verse represents the will of God either. I find that really odd because there are over 200 passages in the Bible that support slavery, but those passages get to be understood in their historical and cultural context and somehow don’t carry the same weight.

The feelings that you all have at this moment probably range from – interested and wanting to learn more about what could happen at General Conference, to wondering why this is a debate at all because Jesus made it clear what matters most, to thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch.

Those feelings that surround this debate are the same feelings that sum up faith in the United States – some want to know more, most are settled in their beliefs and habits, and a growing number of people would rather think about anything else.

I have some odd hobbies. If you were here on my first Sunday in July, congratulations, you’ve survived six months with me even though my first sermon was about how I spend my free time on true crime and professional wrestling.

Another of my odd hobbies is watching sermons from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches. Independent Fundamentalists Baptists think that the Southern Baptists Church is filled with compromising liberals. Just so you know how extreme these churches are, they don’t let women wear pants, let alone preach. These churches only read the 1611 King James Bible because they believe that it is the only accurate Bible.

One of the most fascinating things for me with Independent Fundamentalists Baptists is that their preachers rant and rage against church services that focus on entertainment, and they do so by running around the pulpit, yelling, shouting, and sometimes jumping on the pulpit, which is really entertaining to watch

I follow a few twitter accounts that post what some would call the best of the best, and what I consider the worst of the worst of these churches and their sermons. One pastor was going on a rant about how women can’t be bosses because when he worked in a shoe store all his managers were women and they didn’t know what they were doing because they fired him.

This pastor tells an awkward, rambling story, all to get to a point he wants to make about drinking, because his managers would say, “things are so difficult right now I just need a drink”.

He wanted to make a decent point, that we should be able to deal with our stress without alcohol. And that’s a valid point, if we think drinking will cure all of our problems, we have a bigger problem to deal with. At the same time, if I had to work with this guy, I’d probably need a drink too.

In the comments section, which is always such a loving and caring place on the internet, I wrote, “I feel so sorry for this pastor, I don’t know if I should tell him that sermons can have drafts or that sometimes I have a drink while writing my first draft.”

He commented back that I was going to hell and then blocked me from seeing any more of his sermons online.

I wonder if how I see the ridiculousness of that kind of church is how some people see me. If someone has never been to Grace before, is that what they think we’re like?

We could spend a lot of time apologizing for who we aren’t, going out of our way to say we aren’t like that, we don’t believe that, we don’t do that. We could spend most of our time apologizing for what other churches have done, trying to say that we’re Christians but we’re not like those Christians. But I’m tired of apologizing for a church I’m not a part of. I’m tired of trying to explain what I’m not, and I hope, like me, you are ready to embrace who we are.

That’s why for the next few weeks we’re going to talk about what it means to be unapologetic.

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January 13 – 18, 2020

Click on the day to expand the guide.

Monday

Read – Mark 7:5-13

Notice – “Jewish people could vow and dedicate property to the temple (corban means “consecrated to God”). One could thus render property forbidden for others’ use. Some exploited the loophole that this practice created; one could dedicate for sacred use what instead should be used to care for aged parents.”* Jesus clearly took the fifth commandment seriously, even providing for his mother’s care from the cross (cf. John 19:25-27). Are you aware of “loopholes” that you use to avoide caring for yourself and others?

Pray – Jesus, you know I like “loopholes” that let me do whatever I wish. Deliver me from the urge to look for loopholes that allow me to ignore your command to honor you and everyone else. Amen.

Zondervan, NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Tuesday

Read – Psalm 68:3-5

Notice – In ancient times, nearly all legal and financial status came from a connection to a close living male relative. “Orphans and widows” had no such links, so the phrase became a shorthand expression for all powerless or oppressed people. The psalmist extended the thought in verse 6, listing “the lonely” and “prisoners” as others about whom God cared. God, the psalmist wrote, is the uniquely reliable presence with all people, and has particular concern for the hurting and oppressed. “In the tradition of Israel, the victorious divine warrior fights not simply to gain land or power, but to protect the most vulnerable in society.”* Have you ever, in either a brief time of crisis or over a longer time (even a lifetime), needed to turn to God as your primary source of nurture and comfort? Are there ways in which God has provided you the “family” you needed? We Methodists live with the conviction that we are God’s voice, God’s hands and feet, in a hurting world. In what ways can you join in God’s work of caring about orphans, widows, the lonely and prisoners? Do you know anyone who may not be an “orphan” or “widow” in the concrete sense of the term, but whose life you could enrich by extending God’s love and care?

Pray – God, the psalmist said you are “Father of orphans and defender of widows.” Thank you for always caring about me and being my holy parent. Give me eyes to see others who are hurting and use me to bless them with your love and caring. Amen.

*Introductory study note on Psalm 68 in The CEB Women’s Bible

Wednesday

ReadLuke 1:5-25

Notice – We find this effect several times in the Advent story: “When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear” (verse 12). That fear made it hard for him to trust the angel’s “good news” (verse 19). Yet the angel’s first words were, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah” (verse 13). “Don’t be afraid” is the most common Bible command from God and God’s messengers. As we enter the new year,  in what part(s) of life do you most need to take in the message, “Do not be afraid”?

Pray – God, sometimes the vast scope of your purposes, so much deeper or bigger than my “ordinary” life, frightens me. Teach me how to hold myself ready to whatever you have in mind. Amen.

Thursday

Read Jeremiah 31:31-34

Notice – Jeremiah connected God “engraving” God’s instructions on our hearts (an echo of the tables of stone on which God engraved the 10 Commandments—cf. Exodus 31:18) with God mercifully forgiving our sins. In what ways do you believe mercy can change the way a person lives? How, if at all, has your awareness of God’s forgiving mercy in Jesus moved you toward living as God wants you to live?

Pray – God, in your mercy please keep engraving your ways on my heart, so clearly and so deeply that nothing I encounter in this life can wash them away. Amen.

Friday

ReadIsaiah 52:13-53:12

Notice – The prophet didn’t name or title the servant, so the four “servant songs” caused a lot of study and comment in the centuries before Jesus’ birth. The servant, it seemed, suffered not for his own wrongs, but to change people who “have turned to other gods, trusted in politics rather than God, and let people with power and resources take advantage of people without power and resources.”* How have faithful servants, ancient and modern, suffered in seeking to turn such people back to God’s ways?

Pray – Jesus, you succeeded through self-giving love, even to suffering for others—and so did your servants through the ages. Reshape any of my flawed notions of “success,” and help me to live as one of your faithful servants. Amen.

John Goldingay, Isaiah for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, p. 206.

Saturday

ReadJames 3:4-10

Notice – The apostle James found one speech pattern particularly ironic. “With [our tongue] we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth,” writes James. Sometimes we find it easy to lay aside the golden rule. Have you ever made friends with a person, then found out you hold some different views, and realized that the derisive labels you’ve used for “those people” may not be true? How can we learn to speak to one another in a way that is honest, just, and loving?

Pray – God, sometimes those who disagree with me bug me so much that I wonder “where they came from.” But they, like me, ultimately came from your creative heart. Help me to move toward seeing them as you see them. Amen.

 

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