Text: Luke 5:1-11
Andy Warhol’s films rarely if ever made their way to Raleigh, so I attended a matinee in New York years ago of Warhol’s new film entitled: “Trash.” There were five people in the theater — including two winos who had wandered in out of the cold, one snoring loudly nearby. The next day I read a one-sentence movie review in the New York Times: “The Title Says It All.”
Today’s sermon is a serious examination of belief. The title is not a personal confession of unfaith, but an indication that many people believe weird things — and, yes, some things that are self-contradictory.
In the novel, Catch 2, there is a classic encounter between Yossarian and Lt. Scheisskopf’s wife. Yossarian is furious that people believe in a God who is nothing more than a bumbling, clueless, incompetent blunderer who decided to give us toothache, phlegm, pain in general, and, yes, even death for our own good.
“You’d better not talk about him that way,” she says, “he might punish you.” “He already has,” and on Judgment Day I plan to strangle “the little yokel,” he continues. “Stop it! Stop it,” she cries, beating him about the head. “Why are you so upset? I thought you didn’t believe in God?” “I don’t,” she sobs, “but the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.” Yossarian suggests a solution: “You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?” It appears that some things people don’t believe in are weird.
Religious liberty in America allows one to believe all sorts of nonsense, and many Americans exercise this First Amendment privilege regularly. A large percentage of people who reject the truth of evolutionary biology accept the “truth” of UFO’s, alien abductions, guardian angels, communication with the dead — the list is a long one. Like the Red Queen in “Alice,” some can believe “six impossible things before breakfast.” A news article in my possession reports that 20,000 people in New Mexico have visited a tortilla chip that appears to have the face of Jesus burned into it. The Virgin Mary has the grilled cheese sandwich franchise to herself, as you know.
The official Catholic belief is that the use of condoms to prevent AIDS is impermissible — even if the mother and fetus are infected terminally — a belief happily rejected by a growing number of discerning lay Catholics.
My research has recently uncovered a sort of hybrid denominational belief — Frisbie-terianism. Frisbie-terianism is the belief that when you die, your soul flies through the air but lands up on the roof and remains there throughout all eternity. My computer kicked out the term — so it must be false.
More seriously, Edgar Whisenant, a former NASA scientist turned Biblical “scholar,” wrote a book entitled: 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Occur In 1988. It only sold two million copies, a mere handful compared to Hal Lindsey’s, The Late Great Planet Earth ( 28 million ) or the Left Behind series ( what — 100 million and counting?). But doesn’t the Bible plainly state that we do not know the day or the hour? In all fairness, the author, in good literalist fashion, refused to name the day or the hour — he named the week, in 1988. The publisher balked at a sequel — 89 Reasons.
In 2012 the hills will be alive with the sound of people running for the hills to escape the certain doom of the end of the world. Right behind 2012 is the certainty that Jesus is coming soon — certainty trumpeted for 2000 years. Right behind, you see, is the other half of Left Behind — which doesn’t merit further theological analysis.
Some of you may remember that, during an infant dedication service, Jack stumbled slightly and the child instinctively threw its arms into the air. Jack’s immediate response to the child: “We’re really not that kind of church.
Well, what kind of church are we? Does it seem that I’ve been suggesting that we take pride in what we don’t believe? Are we intellectually, theologically, and ethically superior to all those sincere but misguided Christians who conclude that blind belief is superior to intelligent faith? If we are sinners — and that depends on your definition of “are” — we are surely more sophisticated sinners.
Doesn’t the passage in Luke that Elmer read warn of the danger of arrogant, snobbish, superior religious gamesmanship? The Pharisee — a proud keeper of the law in every detail — refused to be in contact with common sinners like tax collectors and treated them with contempt: “I thank thee that I am not like other people.” The tax collector, by contrast, humbly confessed his shortcomings, not living up to the best that he knew.
At Pullen, we allow freedom of conscience rather than doctrinal uniformity. Our battles are not over theology but, among other things, architecture, aesthetics — the “shiny diner” (I love it), this picture, that stained glass window, banners, candlesticks, furnishings. I confess to having been a guilty participant myself. Some time ago, Mary and I were seated in the balcony and I declared:
“I hear there’s a move afoot to replace the carpet. That really upsets me. “Just look at that carpet…there’s nothing wrong with that carpet. Somebody really ought to do something.” “They have,” Mary informed me. “That is the new carpet, dummy.” I’m not too observant but I do have good taste in carpet.
We are agreed that it’s not enough to be clear about what we don’t believe. What about authentic belief at Pullen? We have recited the Confession of Faith of the United Church of Canada as expressing the commonality, not finality, of what we freely affirm.
I want to endorse a prominent theologian, John Cobb’s, conclusion that the irreducible essence of religion is thinking truth and living love. Thinking truth involves the assertion that if it’s true, it can’t be the enemy of the Bible, the Church, or of faith — it is only the enemy of untruth. And so it is appropriate to reject false beliefs, not attack the believer.
We believe the Bible is an amazing book about justice, love, truth, kindness, peace, mercy, forgiveness — among other things. It is not a book with which to beat people over the head, nor a book about science. It is not about first century attitudes toward women or same-sex activities — to be followed forever, simply because found there.
Commitment to thinking truth is, unfortunately, not a majority practice — which means that the individual or congregation who does so will be in the minority. If you have problems with the historicity of Jesus walking on the water or raising the dead, it means you’re starting with honesty — a very good place to start. It’s a book that requires serious interpretation and reflection, not picking and choosing what to follow.
In terms of theology, thinking truth involves the courage to re-think positions long held and the willingness to explore new ideas. It’s possible — but not required — to agree with Marcus Borg that there were no Wise Men and that we probably should revise the Christmas carol to: “O Little Town of Nazareth.” That’s my application of his conclusion that it won’t Bethlehem. The question to be explored — why was the story written then and what is its meaning for today?
Thinking truth involves the commitment to re-examine any and all theological conclusions, even the untouchable — going to heaven. Borg’s conclusion that the Church may be selling snake oil at least merits honest thought, however unsettling. But people need comfort in times of grief. Why take that away? None of us is a stranger to grieving, but comfort if — notice the IF — bought at the expense of truth is ultimately too expensive. Tooth Fairy theology is comforting but is it true?
But where does justice, peace, forgiveness, etc., fit in? Think about love. Living love knows no limits — of race, nationality, religion, gender, social class, or sexual orientation. The consistent biblical word is that God is on the side of the poor, the marginalized, the powerless, the despised. This means that love extends to justice issues for the poor, Iraqis, blacks, Muslims, women, gays — all persons. After a recent sermon by Dr. Barber, I thanked him and assured him that Pullen would continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the black church on racial justice. I then asked whether Pullen could count on the black church to stand shoulder to shoulder with Pullen on justice issues for gays. Time at the door was limited and his answer was more ambiguous than I had hoped, but we have to remember — penitently — that it took Pullen and the white church far too long to be converted to racial justice. Rather than exercising leadership on a number of justice fronts, the Church has regrettably waited for the courts, the military, Title IX, and state legislatures to change societal attitudes and practices.
Living love leads to lives being changed and working to change society. Improvements to the building have made Pullen more handicapped accessible. When Pullen finally determined to accept black members, it was not content to be black accessible only, but to become a welcoming and crusading congregation, using whatever weapons available to stand up for justice for blacks.
Gay accessibility is also a limiting concept — gay-affirming, gay-respecting, gay-inviting. If gay equality is at the center of many issues confronting the Church, it is because it is the equivalent of :
- the slavery issue, which divided the Church and the nation,
- the civil rights issue, which divided both,
- – the “What do women want?” issue, which still divides us, though, happily, less so — he stated, from a typically male perspective.
One of the gifts of Pullen is the possibility of gay/straight friendships — shared goals, shared responsibilities, the shared pride; yes, pride, of being on the right side of a moral issue that will ultimately be resolved in the name of justice.
A wrong-headed belief exists that God will only love gays if they are celibate — and, of course, deny their true humanity. That there are not enough monasteries to house 20 million or so celibate, gay Americans is not the main issue. This is the official position of the United Methodist Church and countless other denominations. Pullen cannot undo every condemning word that has ever been uttered from the pulpit but, in contrast, hear these words again for the first time from theologian, John Cobb:
We have to “select a center within the Bible in the light of which other Biblical ideas and teachings would be viewed. For me, that center is Jesus Christ. The question whether Christians should condemn homosexuals for any overt expression of their feelings. . . is settled. That would include sexual relations in the context of mutual faithfulness and mutual love. In the name of Jesus Christ, I cannot condemn that. . . . Denying fellow human beings the joys of intimacy and physical love that I claim for myself would be cruel. I cannot connect that cruelty with Jesus Christ.”
Notice that he didn’t affirm manipulative, domineering, abusive, unhealthy relationships. The same ideals obviously exist for gays and straights.
If you would have preferred a slightly more orthodox sermon title, try this more traditional alternative: “Thinking Truth and Living Love.” That’s a religious agenda you can believe in.