I am preaching at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (map) this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (21 June 2009). The Scriptures for this Sunday are
1 Samuel 17: (1, 4 – 11, 19 – 23) 32 – 49; 2 Corinthians 6: 1 – 13 and Mark 4: 35 – 41. Services are 10 am and you are welcome to attend.
As I was reading the Gospel passage for this morning, I recalled reading something about the weather on the Sea of Galilee and how it was marked by rapid and severe changes, the type of changes that occurred in the passage. And, if you were in one of the boats typical of that era, you were likely to be like the disciples, very scared.
Now, as you may or may not know I grew up in the Midwest and the South and while I have never spent much time on the water I am used to rapid changes in the weather, especially in the spring and summer. A good portion of my life has been spent in what is called “tornado alley”, a portion of the country spanning Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. On spring and summer days, when hot, humid air moves up from the Gulf Coast and meets dry, cool area coming down from Canada, tornadoes are likely to occur and you spend your time watching the sky and paying attention to what is happening.
I would also add that growing up in Texas and the South made me also aware of hurricanes. Even though I have never experienced first-hand the consequences of a hurricane, I have lived through the aftermath and rain that accompanies a hurricane after it has made landfall and downgrades to ultimately a very large thunderstorm. Even in that state, it is important to watch the weather and see what is going on.
The one advantage that we have today that our counterparts some two thousand years ago did not have is that we can “see” the weather developing hours and days away. We see hurricanes developing off the coast of Africa and can track them day-by-day in order to determine where and when they may land. We know enough about the conditions under which tornadoes develop and our technology has and continues to develop so that we can issue watches and warnings.
Even so, there are times when the watches and the warnings are issued too late and towns and other locations are hard hit by tornadoes late in the evening. Still, if people heed the watches and the warnings, we can reduce the damage and the number of fatalities that accompany Mother Nature’s fury, be it tornadoes in the Midwest and South or hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. But if the watches and the warnings are not heeded or if they are ignored entirely, then disaster truly strikes.
There are signs that storm clouds are threatening the church of today, both in denominational terms and for individual churches. The problem is that while many churches today do see the warning signs, their responses are inappropriate, ineffectual, or ineffective. It is somewhat comparable to Saul outfitting David in a suit of armor that was too large for him. David was both uncomfortable in the armor and unable to move. And while it may have protected him from the Philistine, it did little to help him fight him. David took off the armor and went into battle prepared in the way that he knew best.
The greatest threat to the church today, both at the denominational level and at the local level, is the loss of membership. It is finally hitting home for many people that the church in which they grew up in is a dying church and they are beginning to wonder what can be done to revive it. Some churches think that they can save their church by putting armor around the church and call for a return to traditional values. They feel that if they do so, the people will respond and every thing will be alright.
But too many people outside the church do not know what those “traditional” values are. They are either unchurched (that is to say, they have no idea of the language or history of the church) or de-churched (they used to come but something happened and they have left the church). Those who do understand the history and language of the church see a church which says one thing but does another.
Some churches respond with modern-day marketing techniques. They surveyed the market and decide to give the people what they want. This has led, in some cases, to modern worship services, services with guitars and drums and songs of praise, all designed to show the modern day churchgoer how “hip” the church is. But these packaged services, in my mind, have no feeling; there is no spirit in the worship. And if there is no feeling, if there is no spirit, and especially if the message doesn’t change, then the people will still not come; for they have seen and heard it before and they aren’t buying it.
Now, some ministers and some churches have changed the message. They have made the service “seeker-friendly”. They have taken away the trappings of the church (look at many of today’s television ministries and see if you can find a cross or an altar; they aren’t there) because it might frighten the people away.
Services were made shorter, fewer hymns were sung and the music sung was simplified, preaching time was cut down and the message made easier to grasp. The idea was to get nonbelievers interested in going to church because it would not take up too much of their time and wouldn’t challenge them too much. But what happened is that a lot of people who had been believers for some time suddenly found that the sermons were like milk instead of meat. They were so simplistic. Many were finding that what they were getting was pabulum.
The message in such churches is no longer the message of Christ who called for people to leave behind everything and follow him in service. It is no longer a message of hope for the downtrodden, healing for the sick, relief for the downtrodden and freedom for the oppressed.
It is now a message that Christ will give you everything you ask for. And the problems of this world are somebody else’s problems or the result of a sinful life on the part of the poor, the sick, the destitute, and the oppressed. The message of hope and promise has become a message of greed and self-interest. And while there may be many people who are a part of such churches, there are even more who are quickly finding out that such a message is a hollow message and that it will not quiet or calm the storms that rage in their lives.
The young who grew up in the church (and on whom the elders of the church counted on to keep the church going) are either leaving for another church or just plain leaving. And there are also quite a few individuals who have been in the church for most of their lives but they are also leaving. They are leaving because the message of the church no longer has any meaning for them (see http://www.rutherford.org/oldspeak/Articles/Interviews/Duin.html).
If anything is going to change this decline, it will be when the people look at what the church is and what it isn’t, what it can be and what it should not be. The people who are leaving or not coming at all are looking for something that no longer seems prevalent in the church today, decent preaching, a feel of community, and a feeding of the soul. They are seeking content to the message and a spirituality that is missing in their life; they want to find the truth to the life they live and answers to the questions that cause storms in their lives.
There is one constant in our life and it is the search for truth. The problem is that we often times do not know what the truth is and the messages that we get confuse us. So how do we find the truth and how do we know that it is the truth?
As I have read and re-read the passage from Corinthians for today, I went to a number of translations. Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch Gospel translation, wrote “to keep people from making accusations against our cause, we are mighty careful to give them no openings. Under all circumstances, we conduct ourselves as God’s helpers.” In the New International Version, those verses are “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.” In other words, if what we say and do is reflective of the way God is in our lives, our message will be true. It allows people to make up their own minds about what is the truth and what isn’t the truth.
If we speak of God, God’s message, or the truth in an absolutely finality; if we impose our version of the truth on others without exception, then they will not listen. I have come across two examples of how people have come to understand the presence of God in their lives. The first is from Cardinal Avery Dulles. Now, that name should sound familiar to many who grew up in the 50’s for Cardinal Dulles was the son of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Cardinal Dulles converted to Catholicism after being raised in the Episcopal Church; it was a move that was not made without some controversy in his own family. But it was a move that was made by an examination of the information available. As Cardinal Avery put it,
The move toward philosophy was for me the presupposition of religious faith. I don’t know that it always has to go that way, but that is the way it went with me.
The first stage was Aristotle convincing me that the mind was a faculty that penetrated reality, so that when one was thinking correctly one was entering more deeply into reality itself. He helped me see that our ideas are not merely subjective but that they reflect the structure of the world and the universe. The so-called metaphysical realism of Aristotle was a first stage for me, and it gave me a confidence in human reason.
The second stage was Plato, who basically said that there was a transcendent order of what is morally right and wrong and that one has an unconditional obligation to do that which is right, even when it seems to be against one’s self-interest. That set me thinking about where that obligation comes from. It seemed to come from something higher than humanity. We don’t impose it on ourselves. And no other human being can impose it on us or exempt us from it. So there is an absolute order to which we are subject. This seemed to imply an absolute Being—and a personal being to whom we are accountable. And this set me thinking that there is a God who is a law-giver and a judge, who knows everything that we do and who will punish or reward us duly. In this way I found a basis in natural theology.
Then after that I read the Gospels, and it seemed to me that they taught all of this, and more. The revelation given in Jesus Christ was a reaffirmation of all these principles I had learned in Greek philosophy—but the Gospels added the idea that God was loving and merciful and had redeemed us in Christ, offering us an opportunity to get back on board when we had slipped and fallen overboard. That’s a very brief sketch of what I tried to lay out in greater detail in my Testimonial to Grace. (From http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=1851)
And a second such testimony is offered by Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project. Dr. Collins grew up agnostic but became a committed atheist while getting his Ph. D. in Chemistry. While in medical school he witnessed the true power of religious faith among his patients and his worldview began to change. In a recent interview, he noted that
As I sat at the bedside of individuals who were facing death and saw in many instances how their faith was such a strong rock in the storm for them, I couldn’t help but wonder about that. I couldn’t help but wonder how I would handle that situation if it were me lying in that bed, and I was pretty sure I would not be at peace the way these folks were.
And he continued
So it seemed like a time to perhaps look at the question a little more deeply because I realized my atheism had been arrived at as the convenient answer, the answer I wanted, not on the basis of considering the evidence. I assumed there probably wasn’t any evidence for the idea that God exists, but I figured it was probably time to look.
Later in the same interview Dr. Collins noted
So all of that information, I guess, really began to sink in as arguments that made the plausibility of God actually pretty compelling. Then I had to figure out, what is God like? That meant going and looking at the world’s religions and trying to understand what they stood for, and finding that they’re actually a lot alike in many ways as far as their principles, but they’re also quite different in terms of their specifics.
Never having really known much about Jesus and discovering that he was not a myth because the historical evidence for Jesus was actually much better than I had realized – some would say better than the evidence for Julius Caesar – I began to realize he was a person to take seriously. I encountered this particular verse, which I thought was interesting. Jesus is asked, What is the greatest commandment in the law? He replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” With all your mind! Boy, that doesn’t sound like faith and reason are disconnected. If you go back to Deuteronomy, which is where this verse is coming from, the quote is, “With all your heart and all your strength and all your soul.” But Jesus adds the word “mind,” which I think we were supposed to notice.
So I became a Christian on that basis. That was at the age of 27. Now, 32 years later, I find this to be an enormously satisfying way to be able to answer questions that science can’t answer – things like, is there a God, and what happens after we die, and why am I here anyway, which are questions that science basically says, not on the table for us. But they’re on the table, I think, for most of us as human beings. (Francis Collins in “Religion and Science: Conflict or Harmony?” – http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=217)
The storms that rage in many of us are like the storm that raged within Dr. Collins. And, for many people, the answer that they seek, the calming presence that they desire is nowhere to be found because they do not know where to look. For Dr. Collins, his search began with a reading of C. S. Lewis’ works. But, for many, that is not a logical answer if for no other reason than C. S. Lewis can be very difficult to read. But more important to Dr. Collins’ search was that there was someone there to help him as he sought the truth.
And that is where each one of us comes in. We do not need to know the truth that others seek; we only need to know how to help them. And we begin to help them by offering them a place where they might find Christ.
When Wesley began the Methodist movement, he emphasized four things:
- A faith that was both informed and warmly experienced;
- A religion that was intensely personal but also shared with others;
- A concern for the spiritual, physical, and social condition of all persons;
- An affirmation of belief in one God as revealed through Jesus Christ, but with an appreciation for a variety of ways in which that affirmation can be expressed.
The Methodist revival was one of the first movements to bring education to all people. This was because Wesley and the early founders of the church felt and understood that one could not understand the Bible unless one was able to read it.
One of the things that I heard at Annual Conference last week was a redefinition of evangelism. To many people today, evangelism is literally forcing people to become disciples of Jesus. I have had a hard time with that approach. I cannot make you follow Jesus; you must want to follow Jesus and you will not want to do so unless you understand who Jesus was and is and will be and what Christianity is all about.
One of the early doctrinal battles of the church dealt with free will and the implications that it had for belief. If there is such a thing as free will, then it is our responsibility for understanding the message of the Bible and ours alone. If we allow others to tell us what the Bible means and we accept their interpretation without question, then we cannot find the truth that we seek and the storms that torment our soul will continue.
Methodism is historically an evangelical religion and it is time that we get back to that approach. It is about telling people about Christ and it is about teaching them about Christ and it is about letting them make their own decisions about Christ, without fear of condemnation or ridicule.
For each church today and for countless individuals, there are storms raging about them. The church today can do a lot to calm those storms. But they must ask themselves the following questions:
- Regarding the people you are trying to reach, what do we want to see happen as a result of their coming within the sphere of influence of our ministry?
- What are we offering, from their point of view that would make it worth their while to get involved with us?
- (And what I think is the most challenging question of all) What price are we willing to pay in order to be able to reach others?
There are storms in our lives; there are storms in the lives of our friends, our neighbors and the people that we come into contact each day. These storms come about because there are questions in our lives and the answers that we are given by society aren’t satisfactory. But we know that there are answers, we know that there are solutions. How shall we find them? How shall we help others find them? Who shall calm the storms in our lives?