Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 23 September 2007.
I have edited this since it was first posted.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he proclaims “I am telling the truth, I am not lying.” (1 Timothy 2: 7 ) He says this because he needed to say it; there were many times when opponents to Paul’s ministry would accuse him of saying something else or they would say that their words were the truth. One has to almost wonder what has changed in the two thousand or so years since Paul wrote those words. It seems to me that each day someone says something and proclaims it to be truth. It also seems to me that every time someone says that they are telling the truth they should add “as I know it.”
Now, I know that I spend a lot of time in my writings and in my sermons arguing against those ministers and churches who are proponents of the prosperity and the “word-faith” gospels. I also spend a lot of time pointing out, or trying to point out, the fallacies of fundamental Christians. And I have lately spent a lot of time pointing out that those who argue for a scientific-based approach to belief are also wrong. Or at least I think they are wrong.
Now the truth is that most churches, congregations, and ministers support the Gospel message as Christ first gave it to us some two thousand years ago. And most churches, congregations, and ministers are neither on the left or right side of the theological spectrum. And most scientists, no matter what field they are in, do believe in God. It is just that when you look at the world around us, all you see are ministers promising wealth beyond your wildest dreams or proclaiming the pending destruction of the world because of the sins of the world. And the only scientists that you hear offer faulty reasons for turning against religion.
If I may be so bold and quote Shakespeare, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.” (“Julius Caesar”) The reason that so many people can get away with faulty reasoning in today’s society is that we, the people, allow it to occur. We allow people to speak falsehoods, misunderstandings, or outright lies because we either agree with their thinking or we are not willing to take the time to determine the validity of their arguments.
We think that “God helps those who help themselves” is somewhere in the Bible so we allow ministers to preach the false gospel of prosperity. We can’t find it in the Bible because it isn’t in the Bible; it was first phrased by Benjamin Franklin. We don’t argue with those who say it is Biblical because their thoughts often match our own.
And though we might be amazed by the growth of these ministries and the amount of wealth they bring to the practitioners, we should not be surprised. People will buy the trinkets these charlatans offer because they are the only ones offering hope. Yes, it is a false hope but it is the only hope that many people see today.
We live in a culture that emphasizes personal wealth and material prosperity. We seek to put our luxuries before other people’s necessities. Remember that Job has endured almost every possible calamity that we could imagine. He lost his property, he lost his children, he lost his wife and he lost his health. All of his friends proclaimed with the certainty of true believers that these calamities were the cause of Job’s sin; their responses were the responses of the present world.
We have accepted the notion that equates poverty with sinfulness because we agree with that idea. And when ministers offer words of hatred and exclusion or proclaim that the ills of society are either indicative of society’s faults or caused by others, we willingly accept this judgment. We are neither Bible scholars nor noted theologians, so we accept the words of so-called experts. These modern day Biblical experts are also rewriting history so as to justify their view of the world. Why are more people not crying out and questioning this blatant manipulation of our country’s history?
Is it because these “experts” say we are not to question them. When we are told not to question the words of the Bible, we agree. In the minds of these “experts”, to question the Bible is to question God. But to be told that we cannot question takes away our capability to think. Consider the words in Matthew 18: 15 – 17.
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
In all of Jesus’ parables, he challenged the listeners to hear the Gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, and with different languages. This passage goes beyond anything we might comprehend; it goes beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take others seriously, listen to each other and dare trust that he or she belongs in God’s love as much as we do. (Adapted from “A Careful Read” by Deanna Langle, The Christian Century, August 23, 2005)
If you stop and think about it, these cannot be the words of Christ. As you read this passage, you have to be struck with the paradox posed. If you have a problem with a member of the church, meet with them in private. If there are still problems, then bring along some witnesses and try to work out the problem. If that fails, then they were to be expelled from the church.
Did Christ not seek all those who had been excluded from church? Did not Christ seek those who were expelled from society? So how could He say throw out those with whom you disagree? There are those who feel that this passage from Matthew comes from the later church and not from Christ. How could Jesus have been speaking for the church when there was, at that time, no church? Would He really have said treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector when His own actions ran counter to those words? Remember that on a number of occasions He healed Gentiles and even had dinner with Zaccaheus, a tax collector. Even Matthew (or Levi in some translations), one of the twelve was a tax collector. So there are problems with this passage. It is possible that these verses are the reflection and thoughts of the early church.
What it means is that we have to be able to critically think and analyze what we have read, not simply blindly accept what is before us. To accept something without considering it is simply blind faith and you cannot see where you are going if you are blind.
Each day that I hear the hateful and exclusive words of the fundamentalists or the words of the “get rich quick through Jesus” ministers, I become more and more convinced that I am hearing the words of Satan. Their words are not the words of the Bible nor are they anywhere close to the ideas that Jesus preached throughout Galilee. And when you challenge these charlatans and false prophets, you are rebuked and told that you are a fool or do not know what you speak. Yes, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and the political leaders, for their words were the false words. Would not Satan cloak his words in words that we think are Biblical so as to hide his true intentions?
And this notion goes beyond the words offered on countless cable channels at all times of the day and in many pulpits on Sunday. It is a notion that transcends each day in our news and our politics. Our politics have become the politics of fear rather than the politics of hope. Our news is tempered by the notion that the truth is only told by a select few who have complete understanding of the world while we, the people, do not. We have willingly sent young men and women to fight in a war that was based on a series of lies. And every time a lie about this war has been exposed, our patriotism and our devotion to this country are questioned.
When I was a college student, the most frequent cry of support for the Viet Nam war was “my country, right or wrong.” But like so many statements uttered by both sides in the civil conflict that accompanied the real war, this was an incomplete statement.
The phrase itself is attributed to Stephen Decatur who actually said, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” He gave it as a toast during a dinner in 1816. ( ) This quotation was later modified by Carl Schurz, a senator from Missouri, in remarks he made on the Senate floor on February 29, 1872. His actually words were “The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Senator Schurz would later say, ““I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’” (http://www.bartleby.com/73/1641.html ) For Senator Schurz and many others, patriotism requires vigilance and an understanding of what this country is doing. To blindly accept the directions the leaders of this country wish to take us is neither patriotic nor wise.
Somewhere along the line, we stopped emphasizing critical thinking and the ability to decide for one’s self. It wasn’t done deliberately but is simply a reflection of our society. From generation to generation, the previous generation worked hard to insure the next generation would have a better life. But each generation is often faced with problems the previous generation never had to face and the work, instead of getting easier, gets harder. We have unconsciously lessened the intensity of our efforts. And the results can be seen in the quality of the country’s leadership and in the quality of the media we use to transmit information.
And it is not just the news media. When you compare the quality of production for television over the past forty years or so, it appears to me that it is declining. Yes, there was some pretty silly stuff produced when television first came out and there is quality material produced today. But it seems to me that the quality of entertainment on television today lessens with each passing day.
If we would only stop for a few moments and think about what some of the so-called experts are saying, then we would be crying “the emperor has no clothes!!” We seek the simplest possible answers and when faced with challenges, our reactions are made out fear. We do not critically question the information that is given to us because we do not know or we do not want to know what the truth is. And many are too lazy to question or too willing to let others tell them what to believe and do.
It used to be that people would send me e-mails about a new virus or some instance that requires my attention. Now, viruses are the bane of computers. They are nasty pieces of programming that take advantage of some obscure weakness in a computer system and are designed, intentionally or otherwise, to wreak havoc on the recipient’s computer. I have often said, with my tongue firmly planted in my check, that if I wanted to wreck a network, I would send a warning about a virus. Because recipients of this warning would quickly send out messages to their friends, who would send out messages to their friends, and they would do likewise, until the message networks were filled with messages about a hoax.
Any time you receive such a warning, you should be skeptical and verify them before you forward them. There are a number of places on the Web where you can find out what is happening. And, when I get such a warning from someone, I mail the address of one of those sites to the people who have forwarded the e-mail to me; it tends to cure the “virus” spreading.
Now, this is not to say that you cannot get a virus through the e-mail but generally speaking, the virus will be an attachment to the message, not the message itself as many warnings imply. When in doubt, never open an e-mail with an attachment from an address you do not know and be wary of attachments whose file name ends in ".vbs" or ".exe". And always make sure that your anti-virus software is current.
I mention this because it fits within our need to have a convenient conspiracy theory. For some reason that no one has been able to explain, the world loves a good conspiracy and the Internet has given rise to various conspiracy theories. Every incident that gathers worldwide attention today will quickly be followed by rumors on the Internet as to its real cause or how it really is something else.
It is our responsibility to determine when something we are told is true or when it is a hoax. The rules that apply to determine the validity of an e-mail warning about a virus apply just as well to determining the validity of a conspiracy theory. The same can be said about religion and Christianity today.
Gordon Atkinson, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio and host of the website RealLivePreacher.com writes:
I keep getting e-mails from people who say, "Your church sounds nice. I wish I could find one like that." So Atkinson responds: "Let me guess. You’re looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren’t judgmental but also have convictions, and are hip and classic in just the right mixture. A church where people forgive each other, love children, and worship in meaningful ways. A church with a swinging’ preacher who makes the Bible come alive, tells great stories, is a wonderful inspiration — plays, too. A church that isn’t liberal or conservative but seems to transcend weak-ass categories like those. A church where the hunger for truth is honored and people can disagree but still love each other and share a plate of tacos.
That’s what you’re looking for? I got ya. I understand. Here are some tips to help you in your search:
- You won’t find that church.
- Surely, I don’t need to say anything about churches that have billboards and commercials featuring preachers with $200 haircuts.
- Let’s talk about my first point again. As I said, you won’t find the church you’re looking for. Go ahead and grieve. You’ll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children prone to mistakes, blunders, and misjudgments. (Printed in the February issue of Context (originally from Christian Century, 11/16/2004 – see http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=752)
The people looking for a church must change their way of thinking. Somewhere along the line, we must accept that the present state of our society is our fault and that we are the ones who must fix the problem.
It was very difficult to read today’s Gospel reading (Luke 16: 1 – 13 ) because of its apparent support for dishonesty. The owner of the property tells the property manager that his job is in danger. The manager then settles outstanding accounts for less than the total amount in order to be in good standing with the account holders. This will allow the manager to get good references in case he is actually fired by his current boss. Yet, the owner/boss commends the manager for actions which worked against the best interest of the owner.
But this commendation is conditional. It only works with those for whom such actions are normal. In other words, if your business practices are unethical then the only ones who will appreciate you are those whose business practices are also unethical. Those whose practices are ethical will have nothing to do with you. As Jesus points out, if you have not been faithful with what belonged to someone else, who will give you what is your own? (Luke 16: 12 )
And if anything, we have not been faithful to God. We were created in His image yet we have wasted our talents, our time, our thoughts, and our service. We willingly destroy this world through environmental neglect and war. We turn people against people in God’s name; we use fear, hatred, and ignorance as words of the church. We deny others the right to believe in God in their own way because it is not the way we believe in God. We have driven how many people away because they are not the right race, the right economic state, or lifestyle. It is no wonder that, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, God weeps for His people. (Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1) Look at what we have done with God’s creation and wonder why we are not crying.
The truth is that we have been a great opportunity and we have thrown it away. We have transposed words of hope and joy into hatred and greed. We have left a path that moves us forward for one that leads us backwards. We have closed our eyes and let others lead us to destruction.
God’s Son was given to us and we wasted the gift. And, what is worse is that we did not understand the value and the timelessness of this gift. We do not understand that God’s grace is there if we would simply repent and change our ways. Jesus told us to seek the truth and the truth will set us free. (John 8: 32) The truth is found in Christ and we must be the ones who seek it. We are given a great opportunity this day. Let us not give it away again in our ignorance.