I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY. this Sunday. Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (it appears that I used the lectionary readings for the week of May 29th to June 4th for this message instead of the readings for June 5th to June 11th).
There is a scene in the movie “A Few Good Men” that has become almost ingrained in our minds. A Navy lawyer, played by Tom Cruise, is questioning a Marine Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson.
Jessep (Jack Nicholson): You want answers?
Kaffee (Tom Cruise): I think I’m entitled to them.
Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can’t handle the truth! (1)
We are a nation that embodies this scene in our search for the truth and our response to the truth. We are a nation that seeks the truth, yet while we desperately seek the truth, we are equally afraid of its consequences. While we may know the truth, we do not seem capable of handling it.
But what is the truth? Jesus said, “seek the truth and the truth will set you free.” (2) But how do we find the truth?
Our desire to seek the truth and inability to find it has left many people questioning what the truth is. They have become known as “seekers” and many churches have responded by creating “seeker-sensitive” services. The only problem with such services is that they are often devoid of any sign of the presence of the Cross. The cross and other religious trappings are often removed from the view of the congregation in these services because such signs are very disturbing to seekers and will often scare them away.
Even the message of the church has changed. Instead of challenging people to fulfill the mission of Christ, it has been softened and modified into what is derisively called “gospel-light.” It is a message that sounds great but demands little and, in the end, carries little meaning.
It is a message that allows people to justify what they are doing in their search for riches, glory, and self-gratification. The bearers of this message proclaim that the riches of God’s Kingdom belong to the listener if they only ask God for them. It is theirs for the asking because they are righteous and God-fearing. It is a message that allows one to blame others for the ills of society while claiming to be true disciples of Christ.
To readily accept this message, however, requires that we abandon any pretense of reason or logic. This message tells us that the truth that we seek in our attempts to make sense of the world in which we live can only be found if we accept the Bible as absolutely correct. The solution to our search is uncritical obedience and mindless acceptance of the authority of those who claim to speak for God. It is an approach that requires that we abandon critical thinking skills.
But our human needs for absolute certainty cannot be satisfied with this approach nor should they. It would be sinful for us not to want to think, to reason, and to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. But many people do just that because they do not have the faith to trust in the Lord.
And in doing so, the message first proclaimed by Jesus, a message of love for each other, has transformed into a message of fear, hatred, exclusion, greed, and self-interest. We have transformed a God that loved us so much that He willingly sent His Son to die on the Cross for our sins so that we could live in freedom from sin and death into a god who destroys and kills those who displease him. Like the people of Israel in the Old Testament, we have abandoned the God who brought us out of slavery for the god of Baal and its message of self-interest and materialism.
Those who preach this message seek to create a society much like that of Israel of the Old Testament, a society of religious laws. But that society and its laws was a society without hope and one based on fear. The fear came because you didn’t know if you were properly obeying the law and fear of the punishment that you would incur from the authorities.
We may not be a religious and theocratic society but we are clearly a society that lives in fear. We have clearly forgotten that Franklin Roosevelt once calmed this nation by proclaiming that the greatest enemy of mankind was fear. We believe that the answer to fear is power and the more power that we have, the easier it will be to counter and conquer fear.
Yet, Jesus conquered our greatest fear, the fear of death, with a single quiet word. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus touches the young man and commands him to rise.(3) Luke writes that the people who saw this were amazed by the power that Jesus had over death and proclaimed Him the next great prophet. They did so because they did not yet understand the differences between prophets such as Elijah and Jesus. This misunderstanding would last through the Gospel, confusing not only the disciples but the people who followed Him.
And one can only imagine what the authorities, both political and religious, were thinking following this demonstration of God’s power. After all, in touching the dead young man, Jesus violated one of the basic religious laws and should have been considered “unclean.” In the eyes of authorities, Jesus’ failure to remedy this violation of religious law was more important than the result of the violation. Time and time again, Jesus would follow the spirit of the law and encounter resistance from the authorities who proclaimed that the law was more important. Time and time again, Jesus’ actions in following the spirit of the law to take care of people first would illustrate the truth and expose the hypocrisy of the leaders.
The Old Testament reading for today was written some 3000 years ago but it could have been written as if it were today. The worshippers of Baal then would have felt right at home with the materialism of today’s society. And the widows of that time would have understood the despair felt by many of today’s society who do not have enough to eat or a place to stay each day.
Richard J. Foster wrote that
People need the truth. It does them no good to remain ignorant. They need the freedom that comes through the grace of simplicity. And if we are to bring the whole counsel of God, we must give attention to these issues that enslave people so savagely. Martin Luther is reported to have said “If you preach the Gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time you are not preaching the Gospel at all.” Given the contemporary milieu, several dimensions of simplicity seem to me to need careful attention in the teaching ministry of the church.
We must boldly teach the essential connection between the inner and outer aspects of simplicity. We can no longer allow people to engage in pious exercises that are divorced from the hard social realities of life. Nor can we tolerate a radical social witness that is devoid of inward spiritual vitality. Our preaching and teaching needs to mold these elements in unity. If our teaching is centered in the biblical text, we will find literally hundreds of examples — from Abraham to St. John, from the wisdom literature to the apocalyptic writings. (4)
The focus of the Bible has always been on the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. It has been pointed out on a number of occasions that if you removed every reference to the poor in the Bible, it would fall apart. Yet we somehow think that the Bible justifies a case for privilege, hierarchy and divine wrath.
We have forgotten that the people of Israel were commanded to leave portions of the fields untouched so that those without would be able to have food to eat. The essence of the Book of Ruth focuses on that premise and the meeting of Ruth and Boaz and the beginning of the family tree that would lead to David and ultimately to Jesus. Yet, in the time of our Old Testament reading, widows had become the outcast of society. Israel had forgotten its own laws for the care of the unfortunate.
The story of the widow and Elijah is a reminder of what the true message of the Gospel is. It is a reminder of what it means to have accepted Christ in our hearts. It is a reminder of what we are to do if we say that we are Christian.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians (5), begins by pointing out how he once strictly adhered to the law. But he also showed how he was called to be God’s apostle and how it was through God’s grace that he was allowed to continue.
It was by God’s grace that the widow’s jars of oil and flour were kept constantly full. It is also interesting to note that the widow was not an Israelite and yet was a recipient of God’s grace.
Paul also tells us that the word he preaches came from God, not from men. If the message were to have come from men, then he would have had to go to Jerusalem so that others could teach him what God’s message really meant.
But Paul indicated that he didn’t have to do that because God had given him the ability to understand the message. How different it is today when there are those who proclaim that only they can understand the message of God and we are to accept their understanding without question. We are able to understand God’s message, Paul notes, if we have accepted the Holy Spirit. It was the same Holy Spirit that imparted knowledge to those who gathered that Sunday at Pentecost and proclaimed the message of the Gospel.
We are a nation that seeks the truth. While there are those who proclaim that they are the sole bearers of the truth we, like the widow in the Old Testament reading today, find that the truth of God’s message comes from our faith in God and our trust in God. With our faith in God, we know that fear need not and cannot control our lives. All we need to do is look at the Cross to know the truth in that.
Through God’s grace and love, we have been saved. Through the Holy Spirit, we have found the truth. And now we are able to go out into the world proclaiming God’s message through Christ so that others may find the truth.
(1) “A Few Good Men”, written by Aaron Sorkin – dialogue from http://www.whysanity.net/monos/fewgood.html
(2) John 8: 32
(3) Luke 7: 11 – 17
(4) From Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J. Foster
(5) Galatians 1: 11 – 24