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Questioning Faith May 26, 2013

Posted by phoenixhopes in God, life, Preaching, Sermon.
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There are two things you might know about me – 1.  I’ve been in church all my life (except for a bit of a sabbatical a few years ago) and 2. I have this thing about questions – I like them. A lot.

Some people in my life have seen those two facts as mutually exclusive – One is supposed to accept what one is taught about God and church and the Bible, and not be that difficult person in the back row furiously writing down your questions… or the one in the front row, with a perplexed expression on your face, waving your hand.

Obviously, I don’t agree with those detractors. If I did, I wouldn’t be standing here before you today encouraging you to ask your own questions and keep asking until you get answers. I wouldn’t be here recommending that you question your faith.

Jesus talked about having the faith of a child. Most often I’ve heard this comment explained to mean that children have a simple faith, and believe what they’re told, that children are accepting of their circumstances and trust without question.

 I wonder if the people that say that ever had teenagers. Or a three year old. I wonder if instead Jesus might have been referring to the brutal honesty of children and that prolonged “Why?” stage.

There have been times when my questions have taken me to a very dark place, or maybe it was my dark place that led to my questions. Either way it was a place where I wondered if everything I had been taught and believed was really true, or if it was all an elaborate façade. How could I say that a loving God exists when the world, and my own life, was such a mess? How could I say I believe what’s written in the Bible when parts of it seemed so contradictory or confusing? How could I continue to be involved in church when the people there were such hypocrites? In those periods of intense questioning, I came very, very close to losing my faith.

If you can relate to any of this or have struggled with your own questions, I want to hear an “Amen”.  Did you hear that? You are not alone.

Now before anyone has a panic attack because I’m asking you to question your faith, the first thing I want to establish is what I mean by faith. Very simply, I mean “what is it that each of us, as an individual, believes about God – who is He… or She, how does He relate to us as individuals and to the world in general, and what does it matter what we believe?”

Don’t worry; I’m not going to try to answer any of those questions today. What I hope to do is to encourage you to engage those questions for yourself so that you can better understand your own faith.

The second thing I’d like to say is what faith is NOT, at least the kind of faith that I’m talking about today. Your faith is not the same as your theology. One definition of theology is: The systematic study of the existence and nature of the divine and its relationship to and influence upon other beings. There is a legitimate place for this kind of academic study, but that’s not what I’m discussing today.

 Your theology can be perfect—you can know all the ‘right’ things–and still, your faith can be hollow. You might be able to explain all the points of Calvinism, expound on different views of Atonement, debate Eschatology, Soteriology, Christology and any additional ‘ologies you want to add, and be able to flip to a Scripture to defend every point. And still, you might have no idea who God really is or if any of these points of view matter or is it all just academics?

The second thing that faith is not is Faith is not certainty. I have heard many times that having faith is the same as not having doubt.  Think about when you walked into church this morning, chose your seat and sat down. How many of you consciously thought about whether or not the pew would collapse underneath you or if you could sit down safely? I know when I sit in our pews, I don’t give my safety a second thought.

I don’t believe that the pew will hold me, I am confident, I am certain, the pew is not going to collapse. There is not a doubt in my mind. Now, I’m a big person, there are some chairs that I’m not so certain will hold my weight. Those chairs I sit down carefully and I consciously don’t move around much. I think about how I shift my weight to get more comfortable. I have faith the chair will hold me or I wouldn’t risk sitting, but I’m not 100% certain.

If we are absolutely certain about something, if we ‘know that we know that we know’ and there is no possible question that we might be wrong, then there is no real faith involved.

The third thing that faith is not is that Faith in God is not the same as faith in church. This might be obvious, but we need to be careful not to confuse God with Church. Ideally, God is evident here and we can see how He is working in the lives of our friends and neighbors. Ideally, the form of Organized Religion practiced here at Salem United Methodist Church helps us better understand who God is and enables us to then reach out to the world around us. But the Church is made up of people and, as you may have noticed, people can be pretty messed up. People will break your trust. They will disappoint you, make you angry, hurt you, fight with you, gossip about you. People are going to turn their backs on you when you need them, and sometimes act holier-than-thou while they do it. And guess what? Sometimes you are going to do the same things to them.  I hate to admit it, but sometimes I’m going to do some of these things to some of you.

Why does the Church act like that? Why do we hurt and disappoint each other? I know it might be hard for some of you to accept, but you aren’t perfect. None of us are.  Don’t let your faith, or lack of faith, in people and in the Organized Religion that we call Church, get confused with your faith in God. Love the people around you, give them the grace to be imperfect humans, but don’t confuse their acts and words as coming from God.  Now HOW we do that is a whole ‘nother discussion for another day. Loving and accepting people is definitely hard work.

 I’ve told you what I understand faith to be – what we each believe about God, how He relates to us and why that matters.  And I’ve told you a few things that faith is not – it’s not our theology, it’s not absolute certainty and it’s not our faith in people and the Church – and maybe what I said so far made some of you a little uncomfortable.  Yes! I’ve succeeded!

As you go home today, and over the next week, take some time to think about your faith. Maybe you’ve been in some of those dark places I mentioned earlier. Perhaps you’re there now and you have some serious questions for God. Maybe you’ve resolved those questions, at least for now, and you’re wondering what your faith in God means in relation to how you relate to your neighbors, or even how your faith can be expressed in your politics. Don’t worry, I’m not going there.

The first step is to start right where you are. Drop any notion of “this is what I SHOULD believe” and instead honestly ask yourself “what is it that I DO believe?” We all have a different starting place. Some of you might even be wondering if God even exists. How can we see all the pain and suffering in our lives and in the world and still believe that a loving God is in control?

I once read about a discussion between Rabbi Irwin Kula and an atheist. Kula asked the Atheist “tell me about this God you don’t believe in”. The Atheist spoke of a harsh, remote god who hated groups of people, and who told people to go to war, thereby endorsing murder and genocide. Kula’s response was brilliant. He said “We have much more in common that you think. I don’t believe in that god either.” Once they were able to agree on who God was NOT, they were able to begin to discuss who God MIGHT BE.

Maybe your starting place is that your faith in God isn’t really your own faith. Some of you young people here today, or maybe those of you not so young, might be here because your parent, or your spouse, or someone wants you here, perhaps even forced you to attend today. Maybe you don’t identify yourself as a Christian, or at least not a church attending one.  If you see yourself in what I’m saying, then please take the time to consider what you believe. Don’t simply go with the flow, but take the time to honestly consider who God is and to develop faith that is your own.

And maybe your faith in God is secure. You’ve had your struggles, your doubts, and come out the other end knowing that God is there and He is taking care of you. I invite you to ask questions as well – How can I deepen that faith?  What difference is it making in my life and how I relate to those around me? Am I listening to those around me and helping them figure out their own faith?

None of us ask our questions in a void. We have places to go for answers, or at least places to go to grapple with the questions because sometimes the answers are a long time in coming.

We read about our first resource earlier – the Spirit of truth. Last week Clarissa spoke about God giving us His Holy Spirit at Pentecost and that He is still here today. He may speak to us through Scripture and prayer, or he may speak to us through circumstances or individuals in our lives. Our responsibility is to be listening.

Another resource is the Bible. I will admit that sometimes I read the Bible because I know I am supposed to read the Bible.  And sometimes I go searching for a verse that will prove my point because I want to win an argument (even if it’s just one with myself). Other times I read out of habit, although it is a habit that ebbs and flows, like most of my good habits (why is it so difficult to stay faithful to a good habit and so easy to hang on to the bad ones?).

Even if my approach is wrong, God can still speak to me.

December 4, 2003. I know the date because I wrote it in my Bible. My ex-husband was in prison due to his abuse to the family. I had three children still at home and struggled to pay the bills with an income barely above the poverty level. I would come home after work, change directly into my pajamas, and struggle through the evening on autopilot until the kids were in bed. Then, sometimes, I would open my Bible. I knew I was supposed to find comfort there, but some nights it was just words.  One night I read Psalm 93 and God gave me something to hold onto:

The Lord reigns, he is clothed with majesty:

The Lord has clothed and girded Himself with strength:

Indeed the world is firmly established, it will not be moved.

Your throne is established from of old

You are from everlasting.

God is. He reigns. He is strength. He will not be moved.

The floods have lifted up, O Lord

The floods have lifted up their voice,

The floods lift up their pounding waves.

Life is overwhelming. I’m going under for the third time and I don’t know if I’m going to make it. I’m being pummeled on all sides and I can’t take it much longer.

More than the sounds of many waters,

Than the mighty breakers of the sea,

The Lord on high is mighty.

Your testimonies are fully confirmed;

Holiness befits Your house,

O Lord, forevermore

God is bigger. He is bigger than my pain, bigger than my problems, bigger than my fears. God is there and He is and always was.

 That was the message the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart that night and that I wrote in my Bible with the date so I wouldn’t forget:

God is.

Life is overwhelming.

God is bigger.

Understanding and believing that message gave me an anchor for my faith and a reminder to turn to when the questions popped up again.

I have one last thought to share with you today – it is something I learned from Grace Imathiu at Faith Alive a few months ago. She said:

“Doubt is the ants in our pants that keeps us awake and alert spiritually”

I invite you to embrace that doubt and ask those questions. Think about what your faith in God really means. Let your questions and your doubt bring you to a deeper understanding of what you believe. And then, encourage each other by sharing your faith. Let it change your life so that you can reach out and share that faith with those around you.

Amen

Sermon today at Salem United Methodist Church

The Reign of Christ November 26, 2012

Posted by phoenixhopes in God, Preaching, Sermon.
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Sermon preached at Salem United Methodist Church, November 25, 2012

Today is a bonus Sunday. Thanksgiving is over except for the soup and Advent doesn’t start until next week. We have weeks and weeks until the New Year so there is no need to think about resolutions or how things will be different next year. Not yet, that time will come, but we don’t need to think about resolutions today. Because Thanksgiving was early this year, we have an extra week between the Macy’s parade and It’s a Wonderful Life to pause and reflect

You may have noticed this morning’s readings and music have a theme of Christ the King. On the church calendar, today is the Reign of Christ Sunday. This is a relatively new addition to the Church calendar, begun in 1925 as a day to celebrate Christ the King. This is a day we remember Jesus Christ is Lord of All!

The story of Jesus doesn’t neatly follow the Church calendar. The stories overlap and intertwine and sometimes have more meaning because we know what is to come. Advent and Christmas isn’t only about the baby Jesus but also about the end of His earthly life, His Ascension into heaven and everything in between.

When I think of Christ the King, one of the first things to come to mind is Palm Sunday and the crowds shouting Hosanna! Son of David! Blessed be the Name of the Lord! If Jesus were physically alive today and entering the city, I think we might see crowds filling the streets like when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, pressing against Jesus. Confetti raining down in great clouds…and the whole time, the disciples a bit mystified, trying to understand just what was happening. All along the parade route crowds would be shouting… Hosanna! Son of David! Blessed be the Name of the Lord! Blessed be the King who comes in the name of the Lord!

This is Jesus the King that we celebrate and remember.

And, at the same time, Jesus the King was a tiny, vulnerable, helpless baby.

His parents knew who Jesus was, they knew the miracle of His birth, but I think they were still surprised when shepherds burst into the cave where they were staying. And then to hear what the shepherds were saying… “Really, Angels? Angels filled the sky and spoke to you? They told you about our Son and where to find us? They told you He is Christ the Lord?” …These rough and tumble men, shepherds coming in from their fields, knelt and worshiped Christ the King.

Sometime later, maybe as long as two years later, after Mary and Joseph were settled into a house and neighborhood, kings showed up. Real, authentic kings, entourage and everything. Imagine you are Mary, maybe fixing dinner, keeping an eye on the toddler Jesus, or Joseph working in his shop attached to the house and your neighbor bursts through the door. Mary! Joseph! Kings! Kings are coming! They’re coming to see Jesus!

And then those kings come through your door, look around to find your Son, the child an angel announced and more angels sang about, and knelt before him, worshipping and giving gifts.

This too is the Jesus the King that we celebrate and remember.

I love the familiar stories about Jesus from the Bible, but where is Jesus the King now?

I don’t know about you but sometimes I look around the world and it’s difficult for me to see Jesus. It is difficult for me to see Jesus the King.

Our world is broken.

Theologically I can acknowledge that because sin entered into the world, and because God gives man free will rather than forcing us to obey and worship Him, people do bad things. Some are “small” bad things like holding grudges against our neighbors or co-workers or family members. And some are “big” bad things like violence and manipulating the global economy and war. They are all bad things that hurt those closest to us or people we will never meet.

Scientifically I can understand that the landmasses of our planet move against each other and cause earthquakes and volcanoes. I know enough about meteorology to understand how a Superstorm like Sandy can grow and batter the New England coast.

But at the same time, it is difficult for me to comprehend how there can be so much pain in the world… personal, individual pain and bigger tragedies that affect thousands or even millions of people… and still we can say Christ Reigns. I don’t understand how two seemingly opposite things can be true but I believe them both… Our world is broken and in pain and yet, Christ Reigns. Jesus is still the King, even though there is pain in this world.

There is an old legend which says when Jesus had ascended into heaven, the angel Gabriel asked him, “Lord what plans have you made for carrying on your ministry in the world? How will people learn of what you have done for them?”

Jesus responded, “I left that to Peter, James and John, Martha and Mary. They are to tell their friends and their friends will tell other friends until the whole world has heard the good news.”

Gabriel then asked, “What if Peter is so busy with his nets and Martha so full of her housework and the friends so preoccupied that they all forget to tell their friends? Don’t you think you should make a “Plan B”?”

Jesus answered, “I have no Plan B. I am counting on My Children to spread my name and my love.”

Jesus left it to us to spread His story, to tell our neighbors and friends that He is King.

There are two broad categories of things we know about Jesus from the Bible. First there are the historical events in His life — where He was and what he did. Second there are His spiritual teachings – how He taught us to live our lives. Of those two things, I believe that passing along the historical stories is less important than sharing His teachings. And TELLING others about those teachings is less important than LIVING them out.

My challenge to you today is that you live your life in a way that proclaims Jesus is King.

I got to this point writing this sermon and got stuck… what can I tell you about how Jesus is asking you to live your life that you don’t already know? What can I say that is not trite?

I can tell you to remember What Would Jesus Do. I can remind you “the greatest of these is love”. I can echo Jesus’ question to His disciples and ask “who do you think Jesus is?” and, if you answer that Jesus is Lord, I could exhort you to live your life like you really believe it. Maybe I could remind you that we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Or tell you again to look at the sign above the door as you leave today and Live Love.

But do I NEED to say any of that? Is it just repeating to what you already know? Is it unnecessary and maybe even a little insulting to remind you of all that? Are any of you surprised today that I might say that we can proclaim the Reign of Christ by being kind and loving to those around us?

So I took a break from my writing and went shopping, fervently hoping inspiration would strike. It didn’t.

I procrastinated a little more because, if there is one thing I excel at, it is putting things off until later, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about this sermon. When I came back to it, I read through the lectionary scriptures again and something struck me in John. Jesus said in verse 36:

“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.”

Essentially, Jesus said “I’m not setting up a physical kingdom and so my disciples are not going to fight you to stop your plans.”

Living our lives like Jesus truly is our King means that we are not angry about what we believe. We don’t force it on anyone or berate them if they don’t believe the same as us. We aren’t afraid of their beliefs. Jesus’ Kingship isn’t threatened if everyone doesn’t agree with us.

The last few years there has been a supposed “War on Christmas”. Supposedly if I’m out shopping and the clerk at the register hands me my change and says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” that somehow diminishes the true meaning of Christmas or diminishes the Reign of Christ. According to those who believe there is a War on Christmas, my proper response would be to correct that clerk, then talk to the manager, tell them how offended I am by hearing “Happy Holidays” and never shop in that store again.

In order to fight the War on Christmas, some would say, I should get angry and fight to change the world and proclaim that Jesus is King. However, anger rarely, if ever, persuades someone to your point of view.

It appears my challenge to you today really is a simple one, and the response that is already familiar to all of us. Simple perhaps, but not easy. Living our lives as though Jesus is King and we are followers of His kingdom is a daily challenge. Our challenge is not to fight the world, attempting to force those around us to conform to our beliefs, but instead our challenge is to love.

This holiday season, remember the infant king and the shepherds and kings who worshiped him, but more importantly remember his teachings. Remember His kingdom is not of this world and fighting to convince others that we are right is not the answer. Remember that the simplest and most difficult thing we can do is to honestly love the world around us.

If this is how god works, I refuse to follow him January 13, 2010

Posted by phoenixhopes in God, Haiti, thoughts.
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My heart has been broken seeing the suffering and devastation in Haiti. Port-au-Prince flattened. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, killed. More injured than will ever be counted. Children orphaned. Mothers left childless. Homes of both the rich and the poor damaged or destroyed.

How does one process this much pain? How do we even comprehend it? How do we understand or see the hand of God in the midst of this?

I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t have a well-developed Theology of Suffering. I don’t know how a loving God allows bad things to happen. I don’t know why babies die or floods kill thousands or millions are killed in wars or children are molested. I don’t have answers for the seemingly random pain in our individual lives and certainly can’t answer for the corporate pain caused by disasters such as the Haitian earthquake. I have struggled with the question of pain and found there are no satisfactory answers.  The best I can do is accept the questions, acknowledge the pain and work to alleviate it.

There are some who think they have the answers. They think they speak for God and give reasons for the pain. Today Pat Robertson claimed the Haitians brought this destruction down on themselves, that God allowed it because of the history of the country. I’m angry at his words and angry at how he misuses the name of God to spew his hate. I’m angry that this man soils the name of Christ and that this is the “Christian” reaction seen by the world.

At the same time I feel sorry for the Pat Robertsons of the world. I’m sad that the only God they know is vengeful and angry. I’m sad that their life is lived in fear of doing something to piss off God so much that he could strike them, or their descendants, dead. If their god is the true god, I want nothing to do with him.

It’s hard to see the devastation, to embrace the questions, to accept that we may never understand, and still believe. Keep our hearts broken and let us somehow be the hands of God to the hurting world.