Simple Questions. Simple Answers? Is Science the Enemy of Faith?

From August 20, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

For the next three weeks we are going to be looking at three questions. Three simple questions, at least simple in the terms that they are brief, and only require a yes or no answer.  Today, “Is science the enemy of faith?” And then in the following weeks: “Can God save non-Christians?” and “Will God forgive me for anything?”

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I think it’s important to ask these questions and answer these questions. Why? Because these are questions that some people outside the church are asking. Often assuming the question has already been answered. “Why do Christian think science is bad?” “Why do Christians think God will punish everyone but them?”

Millions of people assume they know what you believe, what I believe, simply because that’s the impression they get from other Christians.  If we don’t actively engage and correct these misperceptions, then we encourage them. I want to share with you a story about Jenny, a member of a church in Arizona.  It’s told from the perspective of her pastor, Eric Elnes. It beings with Jenny saying something a little odd to her pastor.

“I’m tired of being a Christian butt,” Jenny exclaimed with obvious exasperation.

I thought this was rather unusual language coming from a high school choral director and member of my congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s not her choice of words but the sentiment that surprised me. In the past few years, I have only seen Jenny get more excited about her faith, not less. When Jenny first cautiously started coming to my church, she had not actively participated in a church for over twenty years.

She considered herself “spiritual but not religious.” “I have a problem with organized religion,” she had told the friend who originally invited her. “Not to worry,” her friend said. “My church is more like disorganized religion. [Through her involvement in the church Jenny had] her personal “Great Awakening” about Christianity. Since that day, she has been like the Energizer Bunny of spiritual exploration and discipleship. She has rarely been immersed in less than three or four small groups. She has helped with our teen mentoring program and assisted in our outreach to homeless families. Jenny almost never misses a Sunday worship experience and sometimes helps lead it.

So you can imagine my surprise when Jenny used Christian as a modifier for butt. “What do you mean by that?” I asked. “I mean,” she replied without hesitation, “I’m tired of having always to qualify the word Christian when I tell people I’m going to church. I might as well say I’m radioactive. They get a surprised look on their face and say, “Not you, Jenny. You don’t seem like the Christian type.” So I find myself throwing in more and more buts all the time: ‘I’m a Christian, but . . . but . . . but . . .Why should I have to explain to people, ‘I’m a Christian, but I don’t think [people who are gay] are evil.... I’m a Christian, but I believe women are equal to men . . . but I’m concerned about poverty . . . but I care about the earth . . . but I don’t think people who believe differently from me will fry in hell for eternity . . .’?”

If we ignore these questions and aren’t proactive in asking and answering them, then we may simply remain a “Christian, but.”

So let’s dive into the first simple question: Is science the enemy of faith? In 2011 the Barna Group published the results of a study surveying young adults about their perceptions of Christianity and the church. 3 out of 10 young adults feel that that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in.”  1 out of 4 young adults believe that “Christianity is anti-science.”

Are you familiar with the “Jesus fish?”  How about the Darwin Fish?  How about the Truth fish eating the Darwin fish?

Is it any wonder people think science and faith aren’t compatible. So let’s put this to rest right now. Is science the enemy of faith? No. No, science is not the enemy of faith. Not in any way shape or form.  But don’t trust my word, let me walk you through a Presbyterian understanding of faith and science.

Let’s start in the beginning, literally in the beginning with Genesis 1:1.

1In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

Our understanding of faith and science is rooted in Genesis. In the belief that it is God who created the universes, it is God who is the power behind all of creation. Now in the Presbyterian church, we don’t necessarily mean that God created the universe in six 24 hour days, or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. We understand that in Genesis, what we are reading is a poetic origin story, not meant to teach us scientific cosmology or scientific truth, but a different kind of truth. Truth about God.

And we believe that these truths are complementary not oppositional. We see science as running parallel, alongside theology.  That is to say, that theology is a way of talking about God, a way of trying to learn more about God, about us, about God’s world and the relationships between God, us and the world.  What is God like, what are the characteristics of God, what kinds of things does God do.  Who are we? What did God make us for? How does God expect us to act in the world?

For centuries in the Christian church, science has been seen as answering a different set of questions, but still related to God. Randy read from Psalm 19 a moment ago:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.

A Christian understanding of science understands the knowledge and discoveries learned through science illuminates the universe created by God.  So the more we learn through science about the world, nature, the universe, ourselves, the more we learn about God.  Think of it like learning about an artist by viewing and studying their artwork. By examining their handiwork, the techniques they use, the subjects they paint or draw or sculpt, the materials they employ. All of those things give you clues to who the artist is.

From early on in Christian history, the Bible was not seen as the only source of truth given to us by God.  In the 5th century, there lived a man named Augustine. He was a theologian and writer from Northern Africa, and one of the most influential people in church history.  He cautioned Christians not to elevate claims about the natural world found in Scripture above human reason and experience. He was worried that doing so would make Christians appear ignorant, and cause people of faith to be scorned and laughed at.

John Calvin, one of the most influential theologians in our Presbyterian tradition, taught that reason, mathematics, and science were gifts from God bestowed on us, and to not use them would be a slap in the face of God.

More recently, in 1947 the Presbyterian Church put out a paper on science and faith in which they said:

There is no conflict between religion and science.  Each new discovery demonstrates the infinite wisdom, logic and consistency of the omnipotent Creator. 

A Presbyterian paper from 2016 says:

Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time.

We have a long Christian tradition of valuing science as a God-given source of truth to which we are called to apply our God given minds, and powers of reason and observation.  But, it would be dishonest to say that the Christian church and even the Presbyterian church has always lived up to this.

You may remember that the findings ofGalileo and Copernicus were both denounced by many Christian authorities, including the Pope, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.  They all felt that the finding that the earth revolved around the Sun, that the earth was not the center of the universe, was heretical and must be wrong because parts of the Bible indicate that the sun and the heavens rotate around the Earth.  As Martin Luther said in reference to Joshua chapter 10, where God, working through Joshua, stopped the sun in the sky: “He ordered the sun to stand still and not the Earth.”

More recently in Presbyterian history we have William Jennings Bryan, most famous for arguing against the teaching of evolution in the Scopes “Monkey” trial.  Bryan was a Presbyterian elder, who almost became moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly. In his time as a Presbyterian, he tried to get the denomination to cut off funds to schools that taught evolution.

We’ve had a long history of respecting science as a partner to faith and theology, but we have not always lived up to that ideal.  As Presbyterians, we not only believe that science informs our faith, we believe the reverse is true, that Christian faith can inform science.  Not in the sense, that the Bible teaches scientific truth, but in the sense that science needs moral and ethical guidance and constraints, and that theology and faith can be a valuable conversation partner in this area.

Have you ever seen Jurassic Park? It’s the movie from several decades ago where someone thinks it’s a good idea to take DNA from fossils and use it to bring back dinosaurs.  What could go wrong?  There’s a famous line from the movie, spoken by Jeff Goldbloom’s character:

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It is common sense to most people that just because science has enabled us to do something, doesn’t mean we should do it.  Swedish Fish flavored Oreos, may just be evidence of that (confession: I think they are kind of tasty).  How to use what scientific discoveries make possible, is not a question that can be answered through science alone.  Science created the atomic bomb, but science couldn’t tell us when to or not to use it.  Science has enabled us to live longer, and prolong death in new and unheard of ways. But science cannot tell us whether life is worth preserving at any cost, or with extraordinary measures, or when quality of life should be weighed against length of life.

Surely Christian faith is not the only source of wisdom in these matters, but for the millions of Christians around the world, our faith must not remain silent in these matters.

A 1982, Presbyterian study paper state:

Theology and natural science though oriented to different “objects”—theology to God, science to nature—have common concerns. If they are to be effective and directed rightly, they ought not only recognize one another’s importance, they ought consciously to be in dialogue with one another and even depend upon one another.

Furthermore, as Christians we are obligated by God to use our minds, our intellects, scientific pursuits and discoveries, to serve God and the world as best we can.  In Genesis, God gives all of creation to the care of humanity, and to ignore what science tells us about caring for our environment, is to turn our back on how God created us and what God created us for. To deny the truths found in science, that help us to exercise care over creation, is like being given a shovel to dig a hole and deciding to use our hands instead.

To recap. Science is not the enemy of faith. Christians can and should embrace the knowledge and truths science bring us to help us serve God and others as best we can.  What we do with the capabilities that science provides is a question that science alone cannot answer, and should be determined by moral and ethical considerations, which Christian faith has a lot to day about.

I want to close this sermon with a short video from Mayim Bialik, who you may know as Amy on the Big Bang Theory, or Blossom from years ago. She is an actor, but she also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and a self-described “Modern Othodox Jew.”    In this video she talks briefly about her thoughts on faith and science.

I’m with her. Understanding that there is a force that underlies all of this “beautiful chaos” and understanding the proper relationship of faith and science makes me a better Christian and a more complete person.

Is sciene the enemy of faith? No.

Half Truths: Love the sinner. Hate the sin.

From August 13, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

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We’re on our final week of our Half-Truths series. This series is based on a book by Rev. Adam Hamilton called Half-Truths. In this series we are looking at common sayings that are often associated with Christianity and said by many Christians. And at first, they may sound OK, and we often mean well when we say them. But when we look a little closer we realize that these sayings aren’t as true or as Christian as we first might have thought.  The final saying we are looking at today is “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.”

This weekend, as I watched the news out of Charlottesville, I debated writing a completely different sermon for this morning. When neo-Nazis and KKK members are marching in broad daylight on the streets of America, their words and actions filled with hatred and racism, then there is the need for the word of God to be heard.  When people are killed and injured by an act of domestic terrorism for the world to see on TV. The church should not remain silent.

So yesterday, I wrestled with whether I should throw out what I had written and instead devote this sermon solely to what is taking place in Charlottesville, and what it says about what is taking place all over America. But in the end, I decided to mostly remain with my original sermon. I did this for two reasons.

First, I was unsure that I could come up with the words needed to theologically address the events taking place in Charlottesville. Like many of you, I am still trying to make sense of what has taken place, and how God is calling us to actively engage in opposition to hate, racism and white supremacy. The second reason that I stuck with this sermon is because I think it does speak, in several important ways, to the events of this weekend.  We need to be talking about love. We need to be talking about sin. We need to be talking about hate.  And it’s more important than ever, that we speak loudly of love and tread carefully when talking about hate, sin and sinners.

Love the sinner. Hate the sin.  It sounds Ok, on first read.  How can it be bad to love anybody?  And doesn’t it sound really Christ-like to love sinners? And shouldn’t we hate sin? Especially if we think of sin as things that we do that hurt ourselves, others, or hurt God.

The phrase is not in the Bible, though.  It is thought to have originated with St. Augustineseveral hundred years after Jesus.  In one of his letters he called for early Christians to have a “love for mankind and a hatred of sins.”  Over the ages, this saying has appeared in various forms, but they all mean basically the same thing.  If we know of someone who is sinning, we should continue to love them as a sinner, but hate and condemn the sinful actions they do.  And this does sound true, right?

Never stop loving someone no matter what horrible things they’ve done.  But here’s the catch. Rarely, are we ever able to contain our hatred only to the sin. Ghandi once spoke about this saying: “Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.”

Love the sinner. Hate the sin. If we practice this, we end up focusing much more on sin and the label of sinner, much more than we focus on love.  Jesus never said love the sinner. Jesus said love your neighbor.  Jesus knew that if he commanded people to love the sinner, they would begin looking people more as sinners than neighbor.

Think about it. If I said to you right now, I want you to love everyone sitting here in the congregation today, especially those who have been recently diagnosed with a highly contagious form of smallpox. Are you going to focus on loving your neighbor, or on who looks a little under the weather today.

Love the sinner. Hate the sin, doesn’t lead us to love, instead it leads us immediately to a place of judging who is a sinner and what sins are they guilty of.  Love the sinner. Hate the sin, is often used as code for saying “I judge you. You are a sinner, you should be ashamed that you do _____, but even though I am better than you, I will love you anyway.”

This is a good time to read our second scripture this morning. Because it addresses this very topic.

Luke 18: 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

In Jesus day, the Pharisees were Jewish authorities, who by all accounts, should be considered as righteous. They strictly lived their lives according to proper Jewish laws. And to many who first head Jesus tell this story, they would probably agree with the Pharisee’s self-assessment. He was a righteous man, especially when compared with the tax-collector.  The tax-collector would have even agreed that the Pharisee was more righteous than he was.

But in a twist at the end of the story it is the tax collector who is justified by God, and not the righteous Pharisee.  Seminary professor, David Lose says this about the story:

Here is the essential contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord's benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn't so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.”

What matters to God in this story, and in our own lives, is not who is righteous, but who is judgmental and who is not. Not who lives a so-called perfect life, but who realizes their dependence on God and that righteousness is a gift from God and not our own doing.

So coming back to Love the sinner. Hate the sin. The problem with this saying is that it focuses us on the sins of others, on judgment of others, rather than on our own sin and being honest about where we are with God.  Love the Sinner. Hate the sin, at its heart focuses on the sins of others and our judgment of them.

In the Half-Truths book, Adam Hamilton tells this story about Billy Graham:

Some time ago I read an interview with Billy Graham’s eldest daughter, Gigi. She was her father’s date to Time magazine’s seventy-fifth anniversary party, a banquet in Washington, DC. President Bill Clinton spoke at the event. He had just been impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice. The charge of perjury involved what President Clinton had said, under oath, about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. At the banquet, her father sat with President and Mrs. Clinton. He was warm and gracious to them. After the dinner ended and Graham and Gigi were riding back to their hotel, the two discussed difficulties the president and First Lady were going through with so many people gossiping and judging. Gigi said her father’s simple comment was, “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict; it’s God’s job to judge; and it’s our job to love.”

It is our job to love. Not to judge. It is our job to love.  When we label someone as sinner, we stop seeing the person and we start seeing the sin. Our job is not to convict but to love.

Should we keep silent about the problem of sin? Of course not. There are absolutely times when Christians must stand up and name sin and evil for what it is.  This moment in the life of our country is one of those times.  We must name hatred, racism, white supremacy, and the failure to condemn them as sin.  Any Christian who engages in actions or rhetoric motivated by hate or racism, has ceased to represent Christ. Any Christian who remains silent in the face of racism and hatred, will have to answer to God for their complicity.

But we must resist the urge to judge and label those protestors in Charlottesville simply as sinners or to think of them as lesser people, not as holy and righteous as we are.  Our job is not to convict but to love. In fact, Adam Hamilton says:

The truth in “Love the sinner, hate the sin” stops with the first word: Love.

Let me ask you this. Where have you most often heard the phrase Love the Sinner, hate the sin, used? I have most often heard it used in terms of homosexuality. For those Christians, who believe that Bible says that homosexuality is sinful, this verse has been used to explain how someone can condemn a large part of someone’s identity while still claiming to love that person. Ask someone who is gay, ask someone who is transgender, ask them if they feel loved by people who say love the sinner, hate the sin.

When we use this saying we are first and foremost defining that person as a sinner, rather than as someone we love. Furthermore, as you heard Kelsey read from Matthew, we should not be judging other people, we have enough sin in our own lives that makes us liable to judgement.  The only person we should label as sinner is ourselves. Love the sinner, hate the sin should be rewritten and we should instead be saying, I love you, even despite the fact that I am a sinner.

·         Everything happens for a reason.

·         God helps those who help themselves.

·         God wont’ give you more than you can handle.

·         God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

·         Love the sinner. Hate the sin.

Five half-truths. So if I have done my math correctly, that makes 2.5 whole truths. And isn’t that better than no truth?  If there is some truth to these why do we really need to be worried about saying these things? If we mean well, isn’t that enough. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. The reality is these half-truths can hurt people who need hope and healing. These half-truths can be destructive to someone in a time of need. These half-truths can discourage people and turn people away from God and Christianity.

And even more importantly, why would we give someone a half-truth when we could give them the whole truth of a God who loves them and is there to support and guide them every step of the way.

I am indebted to Rev. Adam Hamilton and his Church in Kansas that made the inspiration for this sermon series available to other churches and preachers, and so I’d like to close with his words today:

I’d like remind you of the “whole truths” we found behind the half truths we have rejected. We reject the idea that everything that happens is God’s will. Instead we say that whatever happens, God is able to able to work through it, to redeem it, and to bring good from it.

We reject the idea that God only helps those who help themselves. We recognize that God expects us to do what we can to help ourselves. We pray and we work. But ultimately the very definition of grace and mercy is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

We reject the idea that God won’t give us more than we can handle. This is partly because we reject the idea that whatever adversity we face is given to us by God. What we do believe is that God will help us handle all the adversity life will give us.

We reject the idea that every verse of Scripture should be read, out of context, as the literal words of God. Instead we recognize that the biblical authors were people, influenced by God but not merely stenographers. Like all of us they were shaped by, and responded to, the historical circumstances in which they lived. And thus we believe that, when they are rightly interpreted, God speaks through the words of Scripture in order to teach, guide, shape, and encourage us.

Finally, we reject the notion that God calls upon Christians to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” When we choose to focus on the sins of others and speak of hating their sin, we violate the words and spirit of Jesus. Paul calls us to hate our sins, and Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, all of whom are sinners. When we demonstrate love and not judgment, we draw people to Christ rather than repel them from him.

 

 

 

Half Truths: God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

From July 30, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons


We’re on the home stretch of our Half-Truths series, where we look at sayings that are commonly associated with Christianity, often said by Christians, but when we examine these sayings we find that they aren’t quite as true or as Christian as they appear.

This morning, we are looking at “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

And when we look at this saying at face value, I’m tempted to call it a whole truth. Taken simply, it’s hard to argue with. God said it. I believe it. That settles it.  In the Presbyterian tradition we place a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God.  God is the ultimate power in the universe, the ultimate authority. God is our creator and the power and force within and throughout creation.  So if God speaks, then who are we, who is anyone, to contradict God.

Furthermore, we believe that because of sin, because we are imperfect people, that are judgment is off. It’s not completely gone, or unreliable. But in our tradition we believe that we will make mistakes, we will choose the wrong course of action, believe things that are lies.

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So if God says something, if God who is supreme tells us something, then we have no standing to say that God is wrong and we are right. God said it. I believe it. That settles it.  It’s kind of like parenting.  I think there comes a time for every mother, for every father, when they tell their child to do something. The child responds with, “Why?” and we could go into the details about why that’s the best thing for them to do right now, and eventually they will see that even if they don’t know. But instead when they say, “Why do I have to do that?” we respond with, “Because I said so.”

Now, I will be the first to admit that there are times when I have said that and it is simply because I didn’t want to argue, I said it just to end the discussion. But often for parents, we say that because we have years of experience and knowledge and living and we can see that what we’ve asked them to do is the best thing for them, but there is no way we can convince our children of that.

So when a mother tells her son “Because I said so” what she means is you’ll have to trust me and my authority that this is for the best, and someday you will understand why getting a tattoo of Rihanna on your face isn’t a great long-term decision.

In that sense, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” expresses something we need to keep in mind. As Christians there should be time where our Christian faith corrects us.  There should be times where our natural instinct or decision is to do or say one thing, but when we think about how our faith guides us, we reconsider and change our course because of what God wants for us. 

I’ve always liked this Peanuts cartoon, because I think it expresses a fundamental posture that Christians should take.  “Has it ever occurred to you that you may be wrong?”  We should constantly be measuring and adjusting and correcting what we do, what we say, how we spend our time and money, based on what our faith teaches.

When God speaks, we listen, and we obey.  So God said it. That settles it. I believe it.  How can that be a half-truth?  I want to suggest to you that while the plain statement may be more true than not, how we use it often renders it half true (or less).  So how does this get used?

If you are visiting today. If you don’t know much about Christianity and Christians, I want to let you in on a little secret. Sometimes Christians disagree with one another about matters of faith.  There are times when we don’t see eye to eye on something, when well-meaning, faithful and intelligent questions disagree on matter of Christian practice or doctrine.

It can be about how we worship, God and politics, family life, marriage, abortion, capital punishment, or a whole host of other things. Many times, Christians discuss these differences well. We listen, we try to understand where the other person is coming from, we listen to how their experience and understanding of God and the Bible led them to believe what they believe. Other times, we trade talking points, sound bites, and Bible verses back and forth without really listening. And at some point, someone gets frustrated and says something like, “Well, that’s what the Bible says, and so I guess you don’t believe in the Bible.” Or “I’m sorry if you don’t like what Scripture says, but it’s right there on the page.”  Or “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

And that’s meant to be the end of the conversation. We’ve gone to the Bible and so there is no more room for discussion. But what if that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  Watch this video from Rachel Held Evans:

The Bible doesn’t always speak with one clear voice. How many thousands of Christian denominations do we have, that read various parts of the Bible differently? Now we are at the heart of the matter, how do we read the Bible?  How can Christians disagree on what the Bible says? Isn’t God’s word written clearly and simply in the pages of scripture? Don’t we just have to read it, believe it, and that settles it?

Well, let’s get to our second lesson for today.  This is from Mark chapter 2, and we join Jesus and his followers on the Sabbath.  The Jewish Sabbath was a day of rest, instituted by God at creation in Genesis chapter 1, further rules for the Sabbath were written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  And one of the biggest prohibitions for the Sabbath was work.  It was well understood that God had said that no work whatsoever was to be done on the Sabbath.  Food would be prepared ahead of time, just to avoid the need to get a meal ready this breaking the commandment not to work on the Sabbath.

Mark 2:23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

Jesus is walking through the fields on the Sabbath, and he and his followers travel they pick grain to be used in their meal later.  Tending to crops, picking food, that was work. That was a clear violation of what was laid out in Scripture.  Or so it was thought. But Jesus offers a different interpretation of scripture, or possibly even a contradiction of scripture. He goes back to the creation story and says that God made humankind first and the sabbath second.  He even references yet another part of Scripture were King David also went against “What God had said.”

Jesus does this in Matthew. He expands on scripture, reinterprets it when says a series of statements, “You have heard it said,” and then he quotes Jewish scripture. But then he says, “But I tell you,” and he offers a new interpretation of Scripture.

A simple fact of the Christian faith is that every Christian interprets scripture.  No one reads the Bible literally.  Jesus said things like “If your right eye causes you to sin then pluck it out.” “If you want to inherit eternal life you must sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” Paul said that women should remain silent in church, not braid there hair or wear gold jewelry. How many Christians do you know that take all those literally?  I don’t know of any.

We all interpret scripture. So the problem with God said it. I believe it. That settles it. Is that the “God said it” part just isn’t that straightforward. 

Some Christians have the idea that the Bible is God’s words dictated exactly to the authors.  But in our tradition we believe that the Bible is inspired by God and God’s interactions with God’s people, but not God’s exact words.  In our tradition we take the Bible seriously, but not literally.  We don’t ask people to believe in the Bible, we ask people to believe in the God that the Bible points to. 

So “God says it. I believe it. That settles it,” is only a half-truth, because first we have to spend time, and study, and prayer figuring out what God says, what the Bible says.  And there are a number of ways of doing this, but in our Presbyterian tradition we do have some guidelines that we follow.

When determining what God is saying through scripture we always approach the Bible seeking to be guided by God’s Holy Spirit.  Before every scripture reading in worship we offer a prayer for illumination. We understand that God did not stop speaking when these words were written 2000 years ago. God is still speaking and can speak to us and through us.

We also believe that scripture is best understood within a community. As we study scripture together and seek to hear from the Holy Spirit, we understand more clearly if we can bring multiple voices and perspectives to the Bible.

When looking at a particular Bible passage we also following the guideline that scripture interprets scripture. We don’t isolate a verse of the Bible and hold it up as true if the rest of Scripture says otherwise. Paul says women should be silent in church, but throughout the Bible women are raised up as teachers and leaders of faith. Jesus does this. He did it in our passage from today, he referenced the creation story, and the story of King David.

We study scripture in its historical context.  We understand that the Bible was written thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away.  It was set in a different culture and context. When Paul writes that slaves must obey their masters, we don’t take that literally, we realize that Paul was speaking in and to a different society.

There’s at least one more very important guideline for understanding scripture, and I want to go back to Rachel Held Evans to hear more about it.

When we study scripture to determine what it says for us today, how it should guide us and correct us, we interpret everything through the lens of Jesus and the rule of love. We always ask how does this particular interpretation of Scripture align with Jesus’ teaching and ministry?  And will this interpretation bring about actions of love?  If a particular interpretation of scripture brings harm or hatred, can it really be from God?

God said it. I believe it. That settles it.  True at first reading, not so true as most often used. What if we reword it just a bit?

God speaks in many ways.  Through love and prayer we do our best to listen and believe.  We settle on our best understanding of God but remain open to God expanding or even correcting our understanding.

Not as catchy is it? Hard to fit on a bumper sticker. But as we heard earlier, the Bible shouldn’t be used to end conversations, but to begin them. God’s word to us is not an end to an argument, but an invitation to deeper understanding and knowledge of God and of one another.

Half Truths: God Won't Give You More Than You Can Handle

From July 23, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

This is week 3 of our series on Half Truths, where we are looking at sayings that Christians often say, and that many think are found in the Bible, but when we look a little closer we learn they may not be as true or even as Christian as we first thought. This series is based on Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book Half-Truths.  We’ve talked about “everything happens for a reason,” and “God helps those who help themselves,” and this week we are tackling “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

With each of these sayings, I’ve begun by acknowledging that many of us may have said this before, and when we have we mean well.  Often we might say, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” to someone who is dealing with a lot of adversity. Maybe one hardship piled on top of another. And what we mean when we say it, is something like, “You’re strong. You’re touch. You can do this. You are up to the challenge. You will get through this.”

And there is nothing wrong with want to be encouraging, wanting to give someone hope in tough times.  Isn’t it natural to want to tell someone that “this won’t defeat you, this won’t overwhelm you. God is in control still and he loves you and wouldn’t allow you to be defeated by this.”

There is even some scriptural support for this.  1 Corinthians 10:13

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

“God is faithful and will not let you be tested beyond your strength.” That sounds similar to “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  So let’s explore this verse a little bit more. It was written by the Apostle Paul to the Christian church in Corinth a couple decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Corinth was a crossroads, Corinth was a very cosmopolitan town, with lots of activity and lots of people from different places and backgrounds.  The people there would have been labeled pagans in New Testament times, meaning they weren’t Jews of Christians.

The Corinthians would have worshipped a host of various gods and goddesses, and in a host of various ways. Idolatry, drunkenness, temple prostitutes.  It is these “pagans” that make up the first Christian church in Corinth, and in following Jesus they were called to give up their former religious practices.  The problem was, that they were tempted just by being in Corinth, where all these practices were still happening. So these early Christians struggled with sexual immorality, gluttony, drunkenness.

It is this situation that Paul is addressing.  In the Half-Truths book, Rev. Hamilton writes:


The context for this verse in 1 Corinthians is self-discipline in the face of temptation with the hope of avoiding sin, particularly the sins of sexual immorality and idolatry.

 Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that their experience is not unique. Just as the Israelites were tempted, so too the Corinthians will be (and were being) tempted. In fact, we’ll all be tempted. Jesus himself experienced temptation. This passage is not about God declining to give you more burdens in life than you can handle. It is about God helping you when you are tempted…Temptation is indeed a test of your resolve, your character, and your faith. And that is what Paul is talking about here—not about adversity and the difficult circumstances that come into every life at some point.

There is something Paul is saying in this passage, but there are at least two things Paul is not saying. 1) Paul is not addressing tragic circumstance, hardship we may face, loss, pain, suffering. Paul is addressing temptation to former practices that are sinful or otherwise destructive. 2) Paul is not saying that God is authoring all sorts of hardship in your life. That God is making bad things happen to you. Paul is not saying “everything happens for a reason.”

When I was in middle school and high school, I was very involved in my youth group, it formed me in some very important and positive ways. But I also received some messages about Christian faith that weren’t so helpful. One of those messages is that God uses trials and tribulations to strengthen and refine us. Like a blacksmith who purifies a metal by heating it in the forge and then hammers out a strong tool through brute force. I was told that the hardships we may face could be God refining us and strengthening us.  There are several problems with that that we could go into, but let’s just say for now that metal doesn’t suffer or feel pain, and God doesn’t treat us like objects.

That’s not what Paul is saying in this verse. Paul is saying temptation is real. That we are tempted to do things that are not good for us, or others, or often both.  But those aren’t tests from God. There aren’t from God, usually they are from ourselves, right?

This past week we were having waffles for dinner, and we realized we were missing a key ingredient.  Chili.  Ok, when we have waffles we have several different kinds. Just plain waffles, sometimes with chocolate or butterscotch chips, topped with bananas, but we also have chili waffles.  Trust me, it’s good. But anyway, we didn’t have any chili so I ran to the store to get some.  Like many of you, I’m on a constant quest to improve how I eat. And I knew going to the grocery store at supper time, when I was hungry, was not a good time to avoid temptation. So I resolved going in that I was just coming out with a can of chili, and nothing else. And so I came out with a can of chili, and this box of Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tarts.

God didn’t put this box of Pop Tarts into my life to test me. God wasn’t sitting around saying, “War, poverty, racism, greed, what should I be doing now. Oh! Shawn’s going shopping, quick get the Pop Tarts!”  I was the author of my temptation. And God had already given me what I needed to avoid it.  Now that was a small temptation, right?  And unfortunately, we are all at one time or another, prone to giving into bigger temptations, with more drastic consequences than a few calories.

We may be tempted to drug or alcohol abuse, cheating at school infidelity, self-harm, dishonesty at work, silence or apathy in the face of injustice. But when we are tempted to these destructive choices, God has provided us with a way out.  Paul is saying that we are not on our own in the face of temptation, even if it doesn’t feel like it we have a choice of what to do next.

Let’s face it. There will be times where it feels like we have no choice, like we are powerless to choose what’s healthy for us and that the destructive choice is just too strong. But even in those moments God gives us an alternative. Sometimes that only choice we have is to ask for help. To admit that we cannot help ourselves and that we need God, we need someone else to help us in this moment.

Unfortunately, asking for help is often portrayed as a weakness, isn’t it? We want to be self-sufficient, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  But there are times in our lives where asking for help is the bravest thing we can do.  Go to any Alcolohics Anonymous meeting, or Narcotics Anonymous, or Gamblers Anonymous. Every person there began their road to recovery by admitting they needed help, and coming to that group asking for help.

In our scripture lesson from Luke, Jesus says, ask and it will be given to you, everyone who asks shall receive!  This passage is preceded by a story about a man who needs something late at night and he goes to his neighbor’s house and bangs on the door. The neighbor doesn’t want to help him at this late hour, but ultimately can’t refuse such a need.  Jesus says that if even that neighbor can grudgingly help, imagine how ready God is to help you, God who loves you.

We all need help at various times in our lives, and God wants us to ask for help. God wants us to cry out in prayer for help, but God also wants us to turn towards each other. We are here as God’s answers to prayer. We are here to help on another. I received a phone call last month from a woman who wasn’t a Fairview member, but she wanted to talk to a pastor because of the hardship she was facing in her life.  I listened as she described the challenges she was facing, and at a later point I suggested that she may want to talk to a trained counselor or a therapist. She replied that she didn’t need that, because she had God.  So I asked her, if God’s help was all she needed then why did she call me?

God has put us here for one another, from the very beginning. Remember the second creation story. God forms Adam out of the dust, breathes life into him, and then says “it is not good for him to be alone.”  We were created to help each other.

Adam Hamilton writes:

I remember a conversation on this subject with a woman who told me, “For years this statement helped me when I was facing difficult things. I kept telling myself that God wouldn’t give me more than I could handle. It reassured me that somehow I was going to make it through. Then one day I was at my therapist’s office and mentioned it to him. He laughed and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Surely you don’t really believe that. I can tell you plenty of stories about people who had more than they could handle. In fact, my profession consists of helping just such people.’ ” The counselor reminded the woman that in her own case, she had come to him because the emotional pain and difficulty she was facing had been more than she could handle. In addition, the woman’s mother had committed suicide because life had become more difficult than she could handle. At first, the woman was angry that her therapist had called her belief into question. But the more she reflected on their conversation, the more she concluded that he was right.

We will face adversity in our lives. We will experience hardships. We, or someone we love, may face terminal illness. We may struggle with debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts or grief so heavy that we feel we’ll suffocate. We may walk through financial circumstances where it seems there is no way out. If we are like most human beings, at some point we absolutely will face things that are more than we can handle. The promise of Scripture is not that we won’t go through hard times. . . . What Scripture does promise is that at all times, good or bad, God wants to be our help and our strength.

It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.  That’s an important message. I think it’s so important that I want you to take it home with you. As you leave today you will find a card that you can take, and put it somewhere that you will see regularly. In your car, by your toothbrush, in your purse or wallet, on the back of your phone.

And one last word I’d like to give. It’s possible someone is sitting here today, and feeling like they absolutely have more than they can handle. If that’s you, if you are facing a challenge that has overwhelmed you. Addiction, financial difficulties, relationship challenges, depression or other mental health issues, grief, pain, whatever it is. Please, ask for help. You can start this moment by asking God for help, but don’t stop there. Talk to someone, talk to a friend here this morning, talk to me, a teach, a family member, a therapist. God has put people in your life already that can help you.

It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Preached on July 16, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

We are on our second week of the “Half-Truths” series where we are looking at sayings that are commonly associated with Christianity and said by well-meaning Christians. But when we look closer at these sayings we find that they may not be as true or as Christian as represented.  Last week was “Everything Happens for a Reason” and this morning we are moving on to “God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves.”

In a survey done by the Barna Group, eight in ten Americans responded that they were pretty sure that “God helps those who help themselves” could be found in the Bible, and more than half of the people responding were strongly convinced that this was a major message found in Scripture.  In fact, the saying pre-dates much of scripture and can be traced back to Greek mythology five centuries before Jesus.  It’s been used by a number of people throughout the ages but possibly made most famous by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac.

It’s probably a saying that a number of us have said at one point or another, and often what we mean by it is that you can’t sit back, be lazy and expect God will take care of everything for you.  If you want a job, then put together a resume, get out there and start applying for jobs, don’t just hang out at home, pray for a job, and then hope the phone will ring with a job offer. God helps those who help themselves.

When we say this, we sometimes mean don’t offer prayers to God for something unless you are also willing to work for it to.  Sometimes God answers prayer by saying, I’ve given you the brains, the strength, the resources to attain what you are asking my for, so get to it.  I came across this story on Facebook one day:

I dreamed I was face to face with God, and so I asked God, “There’s so much suffering in the world, so much poverty, so much violence, racism and sexism. People are treating each other so horribly. God, why don’t you do something about it?” Then God looked at me and said, “That’s interesting. I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

Adam Hamilton, in his book “Half-Truths” which this series is based on writes:

We don’t sit around waiting for God to miraculously right the wrongs in society. As Scripture reveals over and over again, God works through people. We are the instruments God uses to change the world. Our times of prayer are meant to empower us for and guide us into action. Those who fought for civil rights did not simply show up at church and pray; they prayed and then marched, knowing they were likely to be beaten and arrested but that God would somehow see them through.

But then what about people who seem incapable of helping themselves. Who seem, for any number of reasons, helpless to get out of a situation? What about someone trapped in circumstances that have gotten out of control?  Will God help them?  Just a moment ago, Steve read from Psalm 18.

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help…He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me.

That sounds to me like someone who is unable to help themselves. So what does God do? Say to them, well you got yourself there and you’ll have to figure how to get yourself out?  No, God reached down from on high. It says “God delivered me from my strong enemy.”  Think about that wording. God delivered me. Delivered. I have an image of a UPS driver delivering a package.  Does the driver get help from the package?  Does the driver only deliver those packages that help deliver themselves?  No. If God delivered you then you were passive in that rescue. God delivered you because you couldn’t.

Let’s turn now to the Gospels and see if Jesus only helps those who help themselves.  We’ll be reading from Mark 5:1-13.

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.* 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus* asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits* begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

We have a man here in the grip of demonic forces. Trapped by forces beyond his control. These forces are making him do strange and destructive things. Things that no person in their right mind would do by choice.  Here is a man in need of help when he cannot help himself.  Today we have people in the grip of forces beyond their control. People in need of help who cannot help themselves. People trapped by poverty, war, violence, racism, sexism.

And while we may admit that people are mired in circumstances too deep to get out of on their own, sometimes we want to nuance a little bit and so we may say a version of “God helps those who help themselves.”  “God helps those who don’t get in that kind of trouble in the first place.”  We go beyond saying use what God has given you to help yourself, and we move on to labeling people, judging people, to implying that they have made choices that have led them to a place where they may not deserve God’s help.

We say “God helps those who help themselves” but what we mean is that you made your bed, now lie in it!  You made some bad decisions and now you deserve what’s coming to you, you don’t deserve God’s help.  So we see someone homeless on the street asking for money, and we question whether they truly deserve our help or God’s help because surely they must have done something to get there. They didn’t work hard enough, they did drugs, they spent excessively.

I think at the heart of this is hopefully a simple desire for God to be fair.  We want God to be fair, at least what we see as fair. We want people who do good things to get good things, and people who do bad things to get bad things.  To borrow from another faith, we want karma.  Is it do bad to want God to be fair?  Maybe not, but be careful.  This idea that God is fair (by our definition) can expose a deeper unhealthy belief. George Barna writes that the “God helps those who help themselves” belief “exposes our theological cornerstone - that we are the center of all things, that it is up to us to determine our destiny, and that God is merely our assistant, not our foundation.”

This belief can allow us to labor under the illusion that you and I have earned every blessing God has given us, while others are not as hard-working as you and I, and they are probably on divine welfare.  Surely, we deserve every last blessing and help God has given us, we have done no wrong, but others… But if God is truly fair, the real possibility is we might get what we deserve and not what God has blessed us with.

I don’t think we can impose our idea of fairness on God.  God is not fair, at least not if being fair means being unmerciful, or even being without grace.  Jesus didn’t ask the man possessed by demons how they got there. What did you do to deserve this? You know, if you somehow invited them in then you don’t deserve my help.  No, Jesus helped him.  I don’t remember a single story in scripture where Jesus pre-screened somebody to see if they deserved help. What did you do to become sick? What bad choices did you make to become hungry?

Jesus didn’t ask those kinds of questions.  He did just the opposite, in John 8 Jesus comes to a woman accused of adultery, the Pharisees, stones in hand, are ready to convict her and punish her according to the law.  Did she deserve help?  Fair is fair, right?  She sinned so she must pay the price. She was helpless, defenseless before the law, but Jesus helped her even when, especially when, she couldn’t help herself.

This concern for those in need defined Jesus’ ministry. It defined Jesus. Really, this is a fundamental characteristic of God, this is what defines God isn’t it?  God helps those who are in a hole so deep they can’t get out. That hole can be poverty, racism, war, violence, but like the woman sometimes we dig ourselves into a hole, and even still God comes to us.  Adam Hamilton again. He writes:

Thankfully, the idea that God helps those who help themselves does not capture the truth of the Bible. Sometimes we can’t help ourselves, not because we are poor or destitute or without resources but because we have descended too deeply into sin or despair. God is the God of the hopeless cause, the God who loves sinners, the God who walks with us through the darkest valleys. He is the God who brings light into our darkness and helps us find peace amid our times of anxiety and despair. God rescues, redeems, and forgives. We receive blessings from God even though we cannot earn them and don’t deserve them. Even when we have made a mess of things and can’t fix them, God extends mercy to us. There’s a word for God’s mercy toward those who cannot help themselves. We call it grace.

This concept of grace is central to the Christian gospel. It is the undeserved work of God in our lives, the unmerited favor of God. Grace is not something we earn, buy, or work for. We cannot help ourselves into grace. We can only ask for and accept it. The essence of grace is that God helps those who cannot help themselves!

The core message of our faith is that God helps those who cannot help themselves! Paul writes in Romans that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  Not when we had gotten our act together, or when we had taken the first step and God was sure we were really trying.  God looks on those who are most helpless and has mercy on them.  God is judge, but God is a merciful judge.  Much like Judge Frank Caprio of Providence in dealing with a woman and a number of overdue parking tickets. Let's take a moment to watch Judge Caprio (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqK80Neavq8)

Rev. Adam Hamilton again:

There are times when we can help ourselves, and we should. God is counting on us to do the best we can—to pray and to work. There are times when people cannot make it on their own, and God prompts us to help. We become the hands of God. We become God’s answer to someone else’s prayer, God’s instruments of grace.

But you will find, if you haven’t already, that a time will come when you cannot help yourself. There are things from which you simply cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try. You will not have the strength or the resources or the knowledge. And there may be times when you don’t believe you deserve help because you know you are responsible for the difficult situation in which you find yourself.

In those moments, we cry out to God, the only one who can help us. And despite the fact that we are poor and pitiable, weak and afraid, and that we have made a mess of things, God reaches out and picks us up and makes us clean. God says, “I love you and will not abandon you. Put your trust in me. Together we can make this right.” This is the message from God that we find over and over again in Scripture.

“I am here,” says God. “You matter to me. Your life has meaning. Nothing, no matter what you may have done or been unable to do, can separate you from my love.”

Half Truths: Everything Happens for a Reason

Rev. Shawn Coons
Preached on July 7, 2017

All through the month of July and into August we are going to be looking at a series of “half-truths” that are often said by Christians.  These particular half-truths are coming from a book by Adam Hamilton, called Half-Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say.  And each week we will explore one of these half-truths and we will try to find the truth in it, as well as explore what may not be so true about it.

Before we go further though, I want to say that the goal of this series is not to offend anyone.  Chances are many of us, myself included, have said one or more of these half-truths at some point.  And I know that when we’ve said these things we have meant well.  So I’m not saying that if you’ve said one of these you are a bad person. Not by any means.

But it’s important to talk about these half-truths, even if it makes us a little defensive or uncomfortable.  If you do feel a little unsettled, that’s OK, I promise that we will all get through this together.  So why is it important to talk about these?  Why is it important to label as half-truths things like:

  • Everything happens for a reason
  • God helps those who help themselves
  • Love the sinner, hate the sin

It’s important because even with our best intentions, saying these things can potentially be hurtful.  It can be harmful. It can wound people in their hour of need, and can turn people away from God and Jesus.  So we’ll be looking at these half-truths, for the truth that is there and the truth that isn’t. And we will ask questions as to how true they are and indeed how Christian they are.

We are beginning with “Everything happens for a reason.”

I’m guessing we’ve all heard this said at some point, or even said it yourself.  We usually say it at the point when something bad has happened, when someone is suffering, and we are trying to help them through a difficult time. We might say, it was meant to be, it must have been there time, it was God’s will, it was all a part of God’s plan.

And we say these kind of things at moments of loss, because we want to affirm that even in tragic circumstances God is in control, that if this awful thing happened then God must have a greater purpose in mind. When tragedy strikes we want to know that even when we are riding through the storm and the waves are threatening to overturn the ship, we want to know that indeed the captain is at the helm and the captain is keeping the ship on course.

It is perfectly natural and understandable to look for God’s strong and loving hand guiding things in our darkest hour. But let’s look a little bit closer at “Everything happens for a reason.”

Let’s ask this question: Does everything happen as part of God’s plan, and is that plan immutable, set in stone?  This is the fundamental question, if the answer to this question is “no,” we can’t trace everything that happens back to God’s immutable place, then everything does not happen for a reason, at least not a reason according to God’s will.

Try this exercise to answer this question.  Watch the evening news one night, and after every story, shootings, war, famine, terrorism, say out loud “Everything happens for a reason, that was part of God’s plan.”

How does that feel to you?

When Carrie and I were serving our church in Florida, there was a 4 year old boy named Mitchell who lived a couple blocks from the church. His family weren’t members, they didn’t come to worship, but Mitchell often came to our Wednesday afternoon children’s program.  One Halloween, Mitchell and his mother were crossing a busy street to get to the Methodist’ church Trunk or Treat event, and a car hit them and killed Mitchell.

Mitchell’s funeral was at our church, and I spent a lot of time with his family during this awful time.  I heard things like, “I guess God needed another angel.” “It must have been Mitchell’s time.” And other versions of “Everything happens for a reason.” I have a hard time believing any of those.  I don’t believe God causes four year old children to get killed. I don’t believe God causes anyone to be killed.

If “everything happens for a reason” as part of God’s plan than God is responsible for tragic death’s like Mitchell’s, for war, for famine, for the holocaust, for terrorism. And I don’t think that sits well with any of us. And I don’t think it lines up with our experience. Nor does it line up with the whole witness of Scripture.  Let’s read a passage from Genesis 2, from Adam and Eve, and see how this helps us this morning.

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

This is from the second version of the Creation story that we find in Genesis. And here we see one of the very first things that God does with Adam. God creates Adam, creates the Garden of Eden, puts the forbidden “tree of knowledge” there and tells Adam not to eat from it.  And then God gives Adam one more thing. God gives Adam a choice.  To obey or to disobey. To choose life or choose death.

If everything happened for a reason. If everything was part of God’s unchangeable plan, then there is no choice in this story is there?  God would have had to have made Adam eat the forbidden fruit as part of God’s plan. If everything is a part of God’s plan, than we have no free will, we make no true choices. Everything we do, everything we say, every action we take, every choice we make, has been pre-determined by God and we are just going through the motions. “Everything happens for a reason” not only means that God is the author of all evil acts, but it also means that we have no free will.  It takes away personal responsibility from you and me.

So we said this is a half-truth, so you may be wondering where is the truth in “everything happens for a reason?”  Let’s talk for a moment about the concept of God’s sovereignty.  What does sovereignty mean in this case?  YOU are probably familiar with the word sovereign.  It simply means the boss, if someone is sovereign it means there is no higher authority.  In our Christian tradition, the sovereignty of God is important. We don’t believe that anyone has power over God, or that anyone can control God or have more control than God. 

And so when we say “everything happens for a reason” it is a way of affirming God’s sovereignty.  God is still the ultimate authority. Not the powers of hate or violence or death. God is supreme.

So if God is supreme, is sovereign, and bad things happen, but God doesn’t cause them to happen, then who does?

There are a couple ways Christians answer this questions. One way is to say, yes, everything happens for a reason and often times that reason is that we are stupid people who make bad choices.  Much of the suffering and pain in this world we inflict on one another.  That’s not a part of God’s plan, it’s part of ours.

We read the beginning of one of the Creation stories in Genesis, later on in that same story God speaks to Adam and Eve and tells them that they are the caretakers of the Garden, of Creation. They have dominion (authority) over it.  God remains in charge, sovereign, but delegates responsibility for taking care of things to humanity. And further more, God gives us all sorts of instructions and guidance for how to choose the right thing to do.  But time and time again, just like Adam and Eve, we choose the wrong and someone gets hurt.

Well, does that mean that God handed the keys to the shop over to Adam and Eve and then checked out? Are we on our own, God created everything but then like an absentee landlord left us to our own devices?  There’s a fancy name for this way of thinking about God, it’s called Deism. It was pretty popular with a number of America’s founding fathers. In Deism, we sometimes call God the “Watchmaker God.” God creates the world like a watchmaker would create a watch. He gets it running, winds it up and then leaves to let the watch run on its own.

In our tradition, we reject this idea that God is no longer here. We believe God does not abandon us. So now we’ve said that God doesn’t control and script every last thing as part of an eternal, unchangeable plan. And we’ve rejected the idea that God got creation started and then went on vacation.  So if God doesn’t control us and God isn’t hands off, how do we understand how God works in the world in our lives.

Ray Firestone lost his wife in a car accident, and he often shared this quote that guided him:

Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.”

God is present at all times, and through all circumstances, and even when tragedy strikes, maybe especially when tragedy strikes, God is with us and can bring healing and comfort, and in time perspective and maybe new insight.

My mother died three months ago.  I don’t believe God gave her cancer as part of God’s plan. I don’t believe God took her because it was her time.  But I do believe God was part of the closeness and love I shared with my mother and the rest of my family in her last days.

Think back to the most painful times of your life.  With time can you now see God working through the tragedy? Not causing it, but coming to you when you are vulnerable and in need. Lifting you up, teaching you compassion, showing you love.

One final story, and I apologize that I’m hitting you with tragic ones this morning, but this is another story of a lost child.  Todd and Kathy were parents to three year old Austin, when he died. It was a horrible time for them, but through it all their faith in God emerged stronger.  This is Kathy’s thoughts on how their faith was strengthened:

At the time I had had people tell me that it was Austin’s “time,” and I was having a hard time believing in a God who would plan to take my child at age three. I learned that tragedies weren’t necessarily part of God’s plan, but that God gave us free will, and that bad things sometimes happen. Understanding this helped me to turn to God instead of away from Him. . . . Since Austin’s death, I believe that my faith has grown and continues to grow. His death changed the way I view God and my faith. I no longer have a naive, childlike faith where God protects you from all harm and makes everything OK. It’s a deeper faith that has been tested through tragedy. I know that God doesn’t promise me a pain-free life, but He does promise to always be there to love me, comfort me, and guide me.

Does everything happen for a reason?  That’s not what our faith teaches us. Does God have an immutable plan that scripts everything, good and evil, that will ever befall us?  No.  But I do believe that God has a plan, and that plan is to love us and be with us, no matter what.  And that plan is a promise, now and forever just as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church of Rome:

5Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Room at the Table

the-feeding-of-the-5000-daniel-bonnell.jpg

Sermon preach on July 2, 2017 by Rev. Shawn Coons

On June 26, 1997, the book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published, and for millions of readers around the globe found a collection of books and characters to enjoy and grow up with.  Our family enjoys Harry Potter.  Even before we had kids, Carrie and I were Harry Potter fans.  I remember when the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out. I went to Barnes and Nobles at midnight to pick up two copies, so that Carrie and I could both read it at the same time, and I stayed off the internet for the whole weekend while I finished the book so that I could avoid any spoilers.

If you are unfamiliar with the books or movies, the story follows a group of young students as they attend a Hogwarts, a boarding school for young wizards.  One of the things I like about the books is how each year at school begins.  The very first night that the students arrive they meet in the Great Hall of the school.  This is a huge and impressive room with stone columns and an expansive ceiling enchanted to look like the night sky.

In the Great Hall are several long rows of tables at which the hundreds of students sit at while the headmaster of the school gives some opening remarks about the upcoming year.  Usually his words are brief and then he invites the students to “dig in” and enjoy their dinner.  At that moment the tables, which have formerly been barren, magically become loaded with steaming plates of turkey, ham, potatoes, vegetables, breads, desserts, and a variety of other wonderful delicacies.  It is a feast that could probably feed thousands, which appears out of thin air

It begins with a crowd of hungry people, and no food to be seen. It ends with everyone getting more than enough with food left over.  Very magical if we are still talking about Harry Potter, or very miraculous if we are now talking about Jesus feeding the 5000.  In our passage from Matthew this morning, there is no mention of magic (or house elves for that matter), but the events of this story are astounding and certainly out of the ordinary.  As the story begins Jesus has just heard the news that John the Baptist, his cousin, has been killed by Herod.

Matthew 14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 

The story begins with Jesus hearing the news of John the Baptist’s execution. When Jesus hears this he gets in a boat alone and tries to go somewhere where he can be alone.  But people in the area find out where Jesus is heading and a great crowd goes ahead of Jesus to meet him at his destination.  At a time like this we could certainly understand if Jesus wanted to get back in his boat and try to get away from them, but he doesn’t.

The Bible says he has compassion on them, even during his own grief, and he goes among them and heals those who are sick.  He apparently spends almost all day doing this, because eventually evening rolls around and people are starting to get hungry.  The disciples get a little worried because there is no way they can feed this crowd of thousands, so they ask Jesus to send the crowd away.  But Jesus basically says to them, “No, you feed them.”  I’m sure at this point the disciples are a little bit perplexed.  They ask around and come up with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Not a lot of food.  If you want to get exact, according to one minister this would be about five servings of about 650 calories per serving, including 55 grams of fat, 130 grams of carbs and 35 grams of protein.  Not quite enough for a crowd of 5000 men, plus several thousand women and children.

But this doesn’t stop Jesus.  He takes the food, blesses the fish and bread, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples who in turn give it to the crowd and everyone eats until full.  Does this sound familiar to you?  Specifically does this language sound familiar to you?  Does it remind you of anything else Jesus did?  Jesus took the bread and fish, gave thanks for it, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples.  In just a few moments I’ll be standing at the communion table saying “On the night that Jesus was arrested, he took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples…”

What Jesus does in our passage from Matthew this morning is very similar to what he does during the Last Supper.  In fact, the author of Matthew uses the exact same verbs to describe each event.  Take.  Bless.  Break.  Give.  It’s almost as if this story is supposed to make us think of communion.  Well, I think that’s what the author of Matthew intended.  As we read this story, it is supposed to bring our hearts and minds to the communion table.  Let’s look at some ways that this story helps us understand communion.

On the day that Jesus and the disciples fed that crowd of thousands the Bible tells us that Jesus walked among the people.  Jesus was there, present with them, not just standing in front of them speaking to them as a crowd, but he was in the midst of them.  Talking with this woman over here, healing a man over there, greeting a young girl, meeting a small boy.  Jesus was really present to the people on that day.

As Presbyterians, when we celebrate communion, we believe Jesus is really present, and not in a sentimental “Jesus is always in my heart” kind of way.  As we share the bread and the cup during communion, Jesus is here with us.  Really here!  We don’t believe that communion is just a symbol.  We don’t believe it is just a fancy way to remember Jesus.  We believe something happens as we come to the Lord ’s Table.

Now unlike certain traditions, we don’t believe that the bread and the wine (or in our case juice) becomes the physical body and blood of Christ, but we do believe that the real spiritual presence of Christ comes to us in the mystery of communion.  When I first heard that phrase “the real spiritual presence of Christ” I wanted to know exactly what that meant.  Precisely how is Jesus here with us?  What takes place in the blessing of the bread and wine?

Unfortunately, it isn’t something that we can really understand or articulate fully.  It’s not like we can say Jesus is here in spirit, standing right over there, or that Jesus manifests himself in this specific way.  But what we can say is that Jesus is present to us in communion, here in a way that is real and that is unique to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  As sure as Jesus walked among a crowd of hungry people 2000 years ago, Jesus is present in the breaking of the bread.

To understand something else about communion, I want us to try to imagine the mood and atmosphere on the day that those thousands of people were fed.  At first there was probably some tension in the air.  This crowd of thousands probably came looking for Jesus for a number reasons.  Some of them wanted to be healed, others may have wanted to hear him teach, and some may have just wanted to see the man so many people were talking about.

I would imagine, by the end of the day, the mood there was pretty joyful.  Jesus has spent a good part of the day meeting people, talking to them, and healing them.  Then just when they think the day is over, Jesus and the disciples give them a huge meal to eat!  This is cool!  I’m imagining a huge outdoor picnic with people talking, children playing, and lots of laughter and smiles all around.  I am sure if first century Israel had Frisbees™, there would be several of them flying around.  It’s a big party!

This is one image of what communion is supposed to be like.   It may be hard to tell from taking communion at many churches, but communion is referred to as the Joyful Feast of the Lord.  There is a reason that we usually say that this morning we will be celebrating communion.  But, somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten this.  Communion today in most churches is solemn, quiet, and serious.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for joy or laughter or a smile.

But that isn’t how communion is always supposed to be.  Communion doesn’t just look back to Jesus time on earth 2000 years ago, it also looks forward. When we take communion, we are not only remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection we are celebrating the day when we will all sit down at the heavenly table in the Kingdom of God.  And you better believe that that’s going to be one rockin’ party!  Communion is a celebration of the children of God coming from all different places to be united in Christ and be in fellowship with one another.

Let me tell you about one of the most meaningful communion experiences I was ever a part of.  It was at an event called the Massanetta Middle School Conference.  It was at the end of a four-day camp and I was in an outdoor auditorium with a couple dozen adults and several hundred 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  We were having our closing worship service and the minister went forward and presided over communion in a manner you and I are familiar with.

He prayed, he said the words, “On the night Jesus was arrested…”, the whole liturgy you have probably heard before.

And then he looked at us and said, “the gifts of God, for the people of God.”  At that moment, the first notes of an upbeat rock song by the group U2 started playing loudly from the sound system. A cover of Woodie Guthrie’s, “They Laid Jesus Christ in the Grave.”  And then we all got up from our seats and literally danced down the aisle to take communion.  It was great!  It took a while for everyone to be served so while we were waiting we continued to dance and clap and celebrate the joyful feast of the Lord.  It was truly amazing.     

Now when we celebrate communion here in a little bit, I’m not going to ask anyone to dance down the aisle, but I will ask you to reflect on the joy that Christian fellowship brings and if I see one or two of you smiling a little bit, it’s OK!  Jesus commands us to “Do this in remembrance of me,” but what we need to keep in mind is that we aren’t remembering a loved one who has died and is no longer with us.  We are remembering the risen Lord Jesus Christ who is alive and among us today!  Communion isn’t a wake, it’s a celebration dinner where Jesus is the guest of honor.

The final thing that we learn about communion from this story is that everyone is invited and everyone is involved.  I would imagine that the crowd gathered on that day was a motley crew.  There were probably all sorts of people there.  Men, women, young, old, Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor, Israelites, foreigners and all manner of folk.  So when dinner time rolls around, the disciples look out on this mass of people and decided that they needed to go somewhere else.

In 1995 a small piece of satire in Sojourners magazine described the scene this way.  "Apparently, biblical scholars funded exclusively by the Christian Coalition now feel that, for their own good, the 5,000 should have worked for that food instead of depending on an overly generous Messiah. Scholars are convinced that the disciples--the first shareholders in the kingdom of God, if you will--probably tried to stop Jesus from creating a culture of welfare among his followers. 'Oh sure, Master. Today you feed 5,000, then what? Feed 10,000 tomorrow? Look, just give back [the fishes and loaves], make your speech, and let's get out of here.”

But Jesus has a different plan.  Jesus looks at the crowd and sees God’s children, every last one of them.  Jesus knows that God doesn’t turn anyone away.  And so, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “No.  You give them something to eat.”  Jesus doesn’t agree with the disciples wishes to send the crowd away, and he doesn’t just disagree with the disciples and then miraculously feed the crowd by himself.  He makes the disciples get involved.  He makes them a part of the celebration.

I don’t have much more to say in this sermon because this final point really gets at the heart of what communion is.  Everyone is invited and everyone is involved.  There isn’t anyone who isn’t welcome at God’s table and everyone invited is also called to be involved in helping to serve the meal to others.  When we sit at the table with each other and with God we are fed, and in being fed we are nourished, and in being nourished we are strengthened to go out and bring others back to the table for the next joyful feast.  This morning let us all come to the Lord’s table with hearts of joy and lives ready to be strengthened for God’s service.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One God, Mother of us all.  Amen.

"Yes, And..."

Sunday, June 25th, 2017
Psalm 100, Genesis 18:1-15
Rev. Carrie Smith-Coons

yes and

Today is my last Sunday with you all as one of your pastors.  I’m sad about that.  I will miss being in ministry alongside you, and I’ve felt very honored to be part of your lives for the last five years.  It’s been a pleasure to get to know many of you more, and to discover Fairview’s many unique gifts.

I have appreciated this call as a co-pastor, and I’m grateful you all took a chance on Shawn and me together.  I will miss working alongside Shawn. That has been a joy and a gift – he has many skills and gifts I don’t, and I’ve always loved that we complement each other that way.  However, I’m very glad he will continue with you all, and I feel confident that as you move into this new visioning phase, he brings many skills that are important for that task.  And I trust that you’ll support him as he makes a difficult transition into being a solo pastor.

This is not the last Sunday I’ll ever see you, and I’m glad for that.  As I’ve said before, usually when we’ve ended a pastorate, we’ve moved out of state, and so I’m grateful to stay here in Indy, with folks I’ve grown to love, and I’m glad I’ll continue to see what Fairview’s future holds.

So, let’s move from me, to what we pray will be God’s message to all of us this morning.

I’ve been thinking about some things these past few weeks that I’d like to share with you, and I’d like to set the stage a little before we read our next scripture lesson - and I really do mean “set the stage.” I’ve been reading a series of articles about improv, and about how improv has some things to teach us about our faith.

How many of you know what improv is?  Have any of you actually done improv? 

Improv is short for “improvisation,” or improvisational theater, and it’s entirely  unscripted.  So everything is off-the-cuff, spur of the moment.  There’s no planning ahead, no cheat sheet, no one whispering your lines from the wings.  If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, then you’ve seen improv.

So, one person will start a scene, and the other people in the skit just have to go with it.  They have to take whatever they’re given and improvise.  No one ever knows quite what will happen; sometimes things go well, and sometimes NOT so well.

However, even though it’s unscripted, there are actually several very clear rules for how you should go about doing improv. 

Tina Fey is a comedian you may recognize from Saturday Night Live, or multiple movies and TV shows.  She explains the rules of improv in her book Bossypants.  She writes,

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas!” . . . then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

 . . . The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah...” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

Don’t say “No.”  Say “Yes, and . . .”  Build on what you’re given.  Trust that something good will come out of it.

Improv is supposed to be funny, but the rules of improv can challenge us in good ways with our life, and, I think, also with our faith.  What do we do – and what do we believe - when our life challenges us to improvise?

How good are you and I at responding – when something comes along that we don’t expect?  Do we protest, and stop in our tracks?  Or do we trust that we and God together can bring something good out of what happens next?

Hang on to these ideas a moment, and let’s think about them in the context of our scripture reading.

This morning we have part of the story of Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham and Sarah are two of the matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith.  They will become the ancestors of the Jews and eventually the Christians. 

But at the point where we find them today, Abraham and Sarah are pretty ordinary people, who’ve been doing an extraordinary thing.  They’ve left their home without really knowing what’s next.  Back in Genesis chapter 12, God simply told them “Go.”

 “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

Abraham and Sarah are really living out their faith in an improvisational sort of way, because they’re figuring it out as they go along.  All they have is their trust in God’s promise of land and children – and so far, neither have happened.

This story happens about midway through their lives and their journey, and it’s been many years since those first promises. 

Genesis 18:1-15

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Sometimes God shows up in almost playful ways.  Here we have three strangers who turn out to be God’s angels in disguise.  The book of Hebrews in the New Testament talks of this moment, and says that we should never neglect our own duty to welcome the stranger, because you never know when it might really be God. 

But what has always stood out for me in this story, and what stands out for many people, is Sarah’s laughter. 

She hears she will have a baby, and she can’t keep the emotion in:  she laughs out loud.  There’s no clear sense here whether or not she and Abraham knew these were divine visitors, although by the end, her fear indicates that maybe she’s caught on.  At first, we just hear her pure reaction to their conversation.

So her laughter might have been cynical at first, or it might have been a laugh of wonder . . . or laughter mixed with tears.  But what we definitely hear is her protest.  “You say I’ll have a child, BUT I’m too old, and my husband is old.  It’s impossible.”

Sarah is living a certain narrative.  She has a certain view of her life and her husband Abraham’s life, and that view does not include children.  That possibility is no longer on her radar.  Her reaction is understandable, and maybe we GET it – because that kind of reaction is something we’ve had ourselves at some point in our lives. 

We start out thinking we’re going one direction, and then something happens to change it.

And it could be a good thing – like, “Honey, we’re pregnant!”

Or it could be a bad thing.

·         “Your furnace is completely dead.”

·         “You have cancer.”

·         “I’m sorry, but we have to let you go.”

·         Or here at church, “Our membership is still shrinking.”

It’s not what we planned.  And often, it’s not at all what we wanted.  And our instinct is to answer with a “no.”  We know we’re supposed to trust God in all things.  We know we’re called to be patient, and see how God is at work.  But we’re not always ready to accept things as they are.  So, we hit a full STOP.  We protest.  

But let’s go back to our improv challenge.  Sarah has broken the first rule of improv, right?  Instead of accepting what’s being said, and agreeing with it, in order to build on it, she stops the conversation it its tracks.

God has started a conversation, but Sarah isn’t ready to continue it.

God . . . ends up being much better at improv than Sarah is.  God says, “Yes, you’re older now . . . AND watch what happens next!”  God refuses to stop the conversation going forward.  God’s grace and love are too big for that. 

And not long after - 9 months or so, if we want to get technical – Sarah does give birth to a baby – a son, and his name is Isaac, which means “laughter.”  There’s that wonderful rhetorical question the three angels ask, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

God keeps the conversation going.  God keeps moving, and working, in Sarah and Abraham’s lives.

 . . . How often do you and I respond as Sarah did, at least at first?  How often do we put a period where God puts a comma?  How often do we refuse to build on what we’re given, because it’s not what we expected?  And we dig in our heels, and refuse to see possibilities - and we say “no”?

We can take a hint from improv.  We can choose to live with an attitude of “yes . . . AND” – with an attitude of openness . . . and hope . . . and a belief in God’s grace and ability to work with us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

You could argue that improv actually isn’t going into a situation totally unprepared. It’s actually going in ready for the unexpected.  We can choose to go through life realizing that things will happen that we didn’t prepare for, but trusting that we’ll find your way through, with God’s help.

·         Build on what you’re given.
·         And trust that God is with you in whatever unfolds next.

I will be improvising and trusting God in this coming year, as I leave my position here with you all and take a chaplaincy residency at St. Vincent’s Hospital. 

It’s not necessarily what I planned, five years ago.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not good.  That decision required me to acknowledge that things had to change.  It required me to accept that one thing was ending and say “yes” to the possibility of a new thing beginning . . . and to trust that God can work through both.

So, YES -  I’ve had a wonderful five years with you all, AND – God’s not done with me yet.

And what about you?

Where are you being invited to faithfully improvise in your life? 

Is it possible for you to say YES, to acknowledge the reality of whatever situation you find yourself in . . . AND to trust God is working with you as you move forward?

Is it possible for you to say:

YES, God didn’t show up quite the way I wanted AND YET– I see God at work even in this difficult time I’m going through . . . or in the friendship that’s sustaining me now . . . or in the job that came along instead of the one I expected. . . or in the love of my family.

What about our church?

Between staff changes, and the New Beginnings process we just went through . . . and the dialogue and learning we still need to have, things are in the process of changing and shifting.  And each of you is invited to be part of it. 

And you can say “no” – you can STOP the dialogue. 

·         Or you can say, “I’ve already done my part.”  Because you’re tired.
·         You can say, “yes, those are nice ideas, but they just won’t work . . . and here’s why.” 
·         Or you can say, “YES, these things are important to talk about, but I just don’t have time to help.”

All of those are ways of saying NO, right? 

And you can do that.  But then the collaboration stops.  The movement forward stops.  And when our own dialogue stops, it also becomes harder and harder to dialogue with God.  We can shut the movement forward down.

Or you can choose an attitude of openness.  Trust that God is still speaking – that God has ideas for you, and for Fairview – that God is at work here.  You can expect laughter, and grace, and possibility.

Don’t be too quick to end the story, to make conclusions, or cut off conversation.  Be aware of ways in which you stop possibilities from emerging – with others in the church, with God, within your heart.  How can you say, and practice, “Yes, and . . .”

So, YES . . . our staff and budget have shrunk over the years – AND – we still have a lot of assets, in money, location, and especially our people. 

YES, we are a small church, AND God can do amazing stuff with small things. 

YES, we are in a time when fewer and fewer people are coming to church, AND that’s just more people to tell about Jesus.

YES, we don’t know our next step yet . . .  AND God’s not done with us yet.

YES, there are and still will be times of discouragement, AND we are people of resurrection HOPE.

God is not done speaking yet, in your life, in our lives, in the life of Fairview.  WE must not be done with responding yet.

And so I charge you to be a resurrection people, a people who continue, over and over, to live with faith, and joy, and excitement . . .  to see what comes along in your lives and in the lives of the community around us . . . and say, “YES, here we are . . . AND let’s see now what God can do through us!”

And I give you these words, from St. Francis, and may they be both a charge – a call to action – and our prayer together:

May God bless you with discomfort
with easy answers and half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you will live deeply
and from the heart.

And may God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people,
so that you will work
for justice, freedom and peace.

And may God bless you with tears to shed
for those that mourn,
so you will reach out your hand to them
and turn mourning into joy.

And may God bless you with just enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you will do those things that others say
cannot be done.

Amen.

 

Hearing from our neighbors

At our annual Fairview Fish Fry we invited people to write a brief prayer on a ribbon and connect it to the prayers of others.  Lots of prayers for peace, the neighborhood, our nation's leaders, and for loved ones.

We also asked people what Fairview could offer that they might be interested in.  75% of people responding chose "Meet your neighbors of different race, ethnicity, and gender identities" followed closely by "Meet your neighbors of different faith backgrounds."

"Faith topics: life after death, prayer, caring for God’s creation, etc." were chosen by about 25% of people responding.

Story Time - Sermon - May 14

 

There’s something compelling about a good story, isn’t there? Who’d have thought that a good story could come out of a 50 second video about a goldfish? I’ve been thinking about story this week, and spent some time looking at short stories, and I mean really short stories.  There are a number of 1 minute stories on Youtube like the goldfish one. But there are even shorter stories. Carrie clued me in to two sentence horror stories. Like this one:

 I begin tucking Johnny into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.” I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another Johnny, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”

That’s pretty good for two sentences.  But when I think of compelling and engaging short stories, one that I think of is from the Pixar movie Up. In the first ten minutes of the film the story is told of Carl and Ellie, who meet as kids and grow old together as husband and wife.  The power of their story brings you from laughter to tears in mere breaths.

There are things that get communicated through story that can only be communicated through story. I think this is why the central book of our faith is primarily a book of stories. The Bible begins with a story of how God created the world, in Christianity our two holiest days are Christmas and Easter, the story of Jesus coming into the world and of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Stories abound in scripture.

Today for our NT passage, we are reading another story, and this is a story about a man who tells a story.  We’re going to read from Acts 6:8-7:1 and it picks up with a dispute among Jews, between Jesus’ followers and mainstream Jewish authorities.
 

6:8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit* with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ 

12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth* will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 

7:1 Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these things so?’ 

I ended the passage here because what happens next is Stephen begins to tell a long story of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham, the Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his journey to Egypt, the Hebrew people’s slavery in Egypt, Moses, the Exodus, through Joshua and through David. It’s a long story, an entire chapter of the Bible, a long chapter, 60 verses. 

And what happens when Stephen gets to the end of his story?  The Jewish authorities are outraged with what Stephen has said, and they kill him.  What’s going on here?  Let me suggest that if Stephen wasn’t such a good storyteller, they may not have killed him.  There was a power in Stephen’s story that moved the people who was telling it to to violence.

Stories are powerful. Story can communicate in ways that explaining cannot.  I can tell you to give to help people in need, but if I tell you the story of someone who is struggling it’s going to register with you more.  We’ve all experienced this, but it’s been studied as well. Let’s just say your listening to a me explain scientific facts about storytelling, or to a PowerPoint presentation about it, bullet points and all.  There are parts of the brain that get activated at moments like that – parts that process language, where we decode words, but there’s not a lot else going on in the brain when someone is simply explaining facts to us.

But if we are listening to someone tell a story…the language processing part of our brain is active, and so are other areas depending on what’s happening in the story. If someone is describing a wonderful meal that they ate, then our sensory cortex is active. This is the part of the brain that is active when we eat. It activates when we eat or when we hear someone sharing a story about eating.

Similar things happen if someone tells us about a dog’s soft fur, or the warmth of the summer sun.  Or if someone is telling the story about skydiving, the feeling of jumping out of the moving plane, suddenly falling at great speed towards the earth, then in our brain our motor cortex lights up. Story engages more of our brain than simply explaining or lecturing.

This is why story can be so powerful – when you tell a story to a group of people, you are syncing their brains in a real way.  You mention the smell of fresh baked chocolate cookies, and you are engaging the sensory cortex of every person listening.  Often when people are engaged in listening to the same story they will even begin syncing their breathing with the story teller and consequently with other listeners.

And when we hear a story, we instinctively want to make connections, when we hear someone tell us about a time they were really scared, we being scanning our mental files for stories about when we were scared, when we hear a story about a great trip someone took, it’s likely that we will share a story about one of our trips.  We want to connect with one another, and we get that stories of our experiences do that on multiple levels.

Story reaches us in a way that connects on multiple levels.  I can tell you that forgiveness is powerful. I can tell you that forgiveness can provide a release, it can lift a burden. But you aren’t going to hear that the same way you would hear it from Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel as they tell the story of how Mary forgave Oshea for the murder of her only son.

Story is powerful.  As I said before, this engagement with the story may have been what gotten Stephen killed, because he wanted to connect his listeners to the story he was telling, and he did so, but the connection he wanted was powerful but angering.  Stephen was brought before the Jewish authorities because the Jewish followers of Jesus were being accused of departing from traditional ways of JudaismSo what Stephen does is tell stories from Jewish tradition, he begins a grand overarching story that shows God at work through Abraham, Moses, David, and others, but he also talks about the people that opposed God’s work, kings, pharaohs, at times even the Israelites

He tells a story of good guys and bad guys, he gets these fellow Jews connected to the story he is telling, a story they are familiar with and then he ends his story this way:

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

He ends his story of good guys and bad guys, by saying, “We, the followers of Jesus, we are the good guys, we are the ones who have stayed true just like Abraham, just like Joseph. You are the bad guys, like the Pharaoh, like the kings who opposed the prophets, like our ancestors in the desert who rebelled against God.”

He makes a powerful connection. They get what he is trying to say, they get preceisely the connection he is making. And they react to it. Violently.

There is power in story, and there are things that can be best communicated through story.  I think this is especially true for faith. Just think about God, or try to, that’s kind of the problem isn’t it? We believe God is real, but we also believe that God can’t be contained by our thoughts. God is so much bigger than our words.  God is so much bigger than any description we can come up with.  And so we tell stories about God and how God has acted and continues to act in the world.

Have you ever had to explain a joke?  If you have then you know that you’ve lost all chance of it being funny, because the humor isn’t in the explanation.  It’s in the telling. That’s what God is like.  God and God’s plan isn’t reducible to three clear and concise bulleted statements.  God can’t be summed up with one creed or confession.  One of the many things I love about the Presbyterian Church is that we use a variety of creeds and confessions and Affirmations of Faith.  And look at the richness of the Biblical witness.  The Bible is a library of stories.  History, romance, intrigue, war, visions, parables, poetry.

We need stories.  Not only because stories are the best way for us to learn about God and God’s will for us, but because stories help us to experience God.  I love reading a book that immerses me in its plot and characters, because there comes a point where I know the people in the book pretty well.  I can imagine what it might be like to hang out with them for an evening.  There comes a point where I have been a part of their story and so I know more about them than just what the story says.

Every time I read or watch a production of Romeo and Juliet a get a little weepy.  I cry for them because by through their story, I know them and I can feel the despair and sadness they are feeling.  That’s how it is with God.  If we hear enough of God’s story, then we can know and experience God in a way that goes beyond a simple description. Through story we can connect and know God on an intimate level.

And when we tell God’s story, when we tell stories of love, of compassion, of justice then we can share God in a way that is powerful. 

My hope for us this day is that we can become master storytellers. And hopefully, our audience will be a little more receptive than Stephen’s audience. But I hope that we can tell God’s story with the same kind of power, because there are some things that can only be communicated through story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith Communities Lead City in Sheltering Homeless

Wheeler Mission

Wheeler Mission

The Indy Star had an article recently about the resources to shelter those who are homeless in Indianapolis.  Compared to cities our size around the country, Indianapolis ranks second highest in depending on faith communities to provide emergency shelter for those in need.  77% of beds for Indianapolis' homeless population are provided by faith-based organizations.  The largest provider of shelter is Wheeler Mission, supported by many churches (including Fairview).

New Beginnings

Imagine that a family is remodeling their kitchen, and they all have different ideas of what it should look like.  Dad wants a modern kitchen for cooking extravagant meals. Mom wants a simple space designed for entertaining a few close friends, or quiet mornings enjoying coffee with a view of the backyard. 

The youngest child wants to turn the kitchen into a dessert buffet complete with a donut machine, the middle child likes it just the way it is, and the oldest child wants to get rid of the kitchen and eat out all the time.  If they start making plans for the new kitchen right away, it will end up being a disaster that no one is happy with.

This family is kind of like our Fairview family.  Except instead of a kitchen, we have different ideas about what our church should be like.

This is why we are engaging in the New Beginnings process at Fairview. This 4-5 month process invites everyone at Fairview to be part of deciding our future.

New Beginnings started in January with a congregational gathering. That evening was led by Michael Whitman from The Hope Partnership. Michael invited us to reflect on our past and present as we identified important values, strengths, and assets of our church.

The difference between the New Beginnings program and past plans, reports, and consultants is the final result.  The final product of New Beginnings is not a plan or a series of recommendations, but a commitment to a specific direction based on the discernment of the congregation and Session.

Like the family above, we can’t make specific plans for our future before we commit to a direction. New Beginnings will help us do that.  At the end of New Beginnings, the Session will act on a recommendation to make what the program calls “a bold decision” about our future.  Here are some examples of decisions other New Beginnings congregations have made:

Getting Back to Basics: A congregation with capable people and sufficient resources was able to reconsider what God was calling them to do.  After intentional reflection, and the development of a strong vision for the future, they moved from a church that focused primarily on themselves to one focused on serving their community. 

Finding a New Home: A small congregation with a large building sold their facility and relocated. New Beginnings helped them see how their savings on monthly building expenses would allow them to call a full-time pastor. The right-sized congregation is growing now, with a passion for ministry in the community.

Starting Over: A congregation averaged 30 in worship every other Sunday. After New Beginnings helped them develop a new vision for ministry, they decided to “restart” the church. Officers agreed to resign, and the church was closed. It reopened a month later with a new name. Today, more than 200 worship there each Sunday.

Embracing New Neighbors: A congregation was located in a community whose racial/ethnic demographics had changed radically. With the help of New Beginnings, the congregation decided to launch a new ministry that was appropriate for the culture of those living in the neighborhood. In an act of faithfulness, they shared both their facility and their endowed funds. As a result of their gifts, average worship attendance went from 50 to more than 300 each weekend.

It is also an option for a congregation going through this process to admit that they do not want to change enough to expect new growth or new life.  In that case, the church chooses to remain largely the same.  They seek out how to use their remaining resources to remain faithful as long as possible, and begin to talk about the legacy they wish to leave behind.

All of these options, and many more, are open to Fairview.  Whatever we decide, we will then commit to fully evaluating all areas of the church (ministries, worship, staff, building) to support our new direction.

Continue to pray and participate in New Beginnings!  Your presence, faith, and openness to God’s Spirit at work among us in this time are all important.