I was at Hankins UMC this morning and will be there again next week. (Location of Hankins – the church is just after the intersection of NY 94 and NY 97) The service starts at 10:15 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 January 2010 were Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31; and Luke 4: 14 – 21.
The title for today’s sermon actually started out as something else but as sometimes happens, it changed in the process of the writing. Still, it is a highly appropriate title when you stop and consider what the Israelites did as described in the Old Testament reading for today.
The Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon to their home in Israel. This exile took them away, not only from their ancestral home, but from an understanding of who they were as a people. That is why the book was read to them; so that they would understand who they were and what they were to do. This reading wasn’t just the traditional stories; it was also the minutiae of life, the rules and regulations that were part and parcel of their identity.
And it wasn’t read to a select group but to the whole population. It refers to the women, something rarely done in the Bible. It speaks of those who have understanding and I have taken that to mean the youth of the population, those who were in and had attended school being in attendance. To include the women and the youth in the story tells you something of the importance of this moment in time.
In hearing the words and reading the words, the people got a better understanding of who they were and what they were to do. The rebuilding of the Temple could only be accomplished if the Israelites understood who they truly were.
And this is the key for us today. In a country that loudly proclaims at every opportunity that it is a Christian nation, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, it is quite surprising how many people have not read the Bible or, if they have read it, know what is in it.
We are a remarkably literate nation, but only in the sense that the majority of people can read. There is nothing wrong with that but true literacy is more than reading; it is also comprehending what has been read and then doing something with that newfound knowledge.
A couple of years ago I got a book about the speeches President John Kennedy made (Let Every Nation Know, Robert Dallek and Terry Golway). In it, the authors made a very telling statement. They pointed out that President Kennedy did not speak in the sound bites of today’s politicians but rather in literate paragraphs and with references to history that the listener was expected to know and understand. This is a sobering thought, especially when it is viewed in the context of today’s political discourse with sound bites filled with questionable and negative statements. But politicians can make such statements and their supporters quickly repeat them because we are willing to accept lies and misstatements as truth and are equally not willing to push the speakers to tell the truth.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that a nation could never expect to be free and ignorant at the same time; yet, we seem to revel in our ignorance and cannot see our freedom slipping away.
Time and time again, the people of this nation show their inability to remember what we learned in school. This inability to remember basic information and utilize what we know threatens the security of this nation and the continuation of civilization. And whether we wish to accept the idea or not, our lack of knowledge about the Bible and our inability to use that knowledge is part and parcel of this national threat.
This is not limited to one sector of our population. It is spread equally among the people, whether they do not attend church or disdain modern religion as a myth or an opiate of the mind or are among those who regularly attend church every Sunday.
Being a Christian today is hard enough; it is even harder because people do not know the basic tenets and history of their faith or what it is that they are supposed to do.
Consider the following little tidbits of information:
- Most people can not name all Ten Commandments; according to one Gallup poll, less than ½ of the born-again community can name five)
- Most people can name the four Beatles but cannot name one of the twelve apostles.
- Don’t ask too many Americans to identify the four Gospels because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only three out of five Christians can recall the names of the first four books of the New Testament.
- Only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2007-04-29-oplede_N.htm?csp=34); only ½ of the Christians polled could identify the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
- 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married.
- Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book definitely not one of the four Gospels and one that actually conflicts with the basic message of Scripture.
A 2004 Gallup survey (http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=7927) indicated that
- Nearly one in ten teens think that Moses was one of the 12 apostles.
- 12 percent of adults think Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark.
- And ½ of those surveyed don’t know that the Book of Isaiah is in the Old Testament
Another survey (http://www.theologicalstudies.citymax.com/page/page/1573625.htm) showed
- That less than one out of every ten believers possess a biblical worldview as the basis for his or her decision-making or behavior.
- When given thirteen basic teachings from the Bible, only 1% of adult believers firmly embraced all thirteen as being biblical perspectives.
(There is a quiz at http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bl-quiz.html if you are interested.)
In the June 17, 2008, issue of Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the “Introduction to World Religions” course that she taught at Piedmont College (“Faith Matters”). The course spends five weeks studying each of the world’s major religions. At best, only the basic information can be covered but it is enough to often change the thinking of many of the students. Students who completed the course indicate that they feel more at home in the world, they are less frightened by religious differences, and they are more informed and perhaps better equipped to wage peace instead of war.
But, when it came to the section covering Christianity, there were some disturbing results. Until they took the course, students said that they had never noticed that the nativity story in Matthew was different from the nativity story in Luke and that Mark and John have no such stories. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with a copy of the New Testament in their pockets. In fact, they have no concept of how the books of the Bible were assembled. Most of the students assumed that Paul was one of the disciples and that was how he gathered the information that he used to write his letters. And no one told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They have no idea that there are branches to the tree of Christianity. For most students, nothing happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own profession of faith. – “Just What Is The Right Thing To Do?” – 29 June 2008
This lack of understanding of the Bible and its history impacts on our lives in so many ways. It is very difficult to explain Christ and the meaning He has for each one of us when what is said and done in the name of Christ is so contradictory. People may say that Christ is a myth because they hear about this man who walked the paths of the Galilee some two thousand years ago and preached about healing people and freeing the oppressed but they see those who proclaim to be His followers exclude people and work for oppression and exclusion. Why should they not believe?
They hear preachers with syrupy-sweet Southern accents tell them God wants them to be wealthy and have the good life and all you have to do is give their ministry a few dollars because God will return you ten-fold or thousand-fold what you have given to Him. Not only is this not what is in the Bible; it is complete reversal of what is in the Bible.
The Bible tells us that we are to be the servant, to do for others what has been done for us. It is hard to see how, in a world that begs for bread, that someone would assume that God exists solely to meet our desires. But that is exactly what has happened because we don’t know the Bible, we don’t know how we got to this point in time, and we have let too many others tell us what it is we are to know and to believe.
It would have been very easy for Nehemiah and Ezra to tell the people of Israel to simply rebuild the Temple when they returned to Jerusalem. But they wouldn’t have had a clue as to why they were doing it or what to do when it was finished.
That is where we are today as a society and as a people of faith. We have gotten away from the basic knowledge and history of our faith and our denomination. We are like the people of Israel, coming back from exile, coming back from the near destruction of their identity. And like the people of Israel some three thousand years ago, we are faced with two tasks:
1. We must make sure that everyone understands what is in the Bible, what is not in the Bible, and what it all means.
2. We must also make sure that what is truly in the Bible is what we say and do.
When we read Paul’s letters, we must understand that he is not writing to some church on a street in Corinth, Ephesus, Colossi, or Galatia; he is writing to a group of believers who have gathered in someone’s home.
This is a part of our history as a church that most people don’t know. The early church was not some building on a street in Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, or Corinth; it was a community of believers. As a community, the people were interested in telling others the Good News about Jesus Christ but they were also interested in the welfare and well-being of the community and the people around the community. And it was these communities, banding together to insure all were fed and clothed and housed that were seen as a threat to the political and social establishment of the time. The threat these communities brought came not just from the message of equality, hope, and promise; it came from the actions of the early church to bring equality, hope, and promise.
When Paul writes to the Corinthians and speaks of the parts of the body, he is speaking to the community of believers as a whole. He wants them to understand that it is together that they are able to do the work that they have been called to do. It is not about everyone doing exactly the same thing but doing what it is that they do best so that the goals of the community are met.
We are faced with many great challenges in today’s society. We may want to close our doors and say to the world outside to leave us alone. But we run the risk of not seeing the world change.
But the actions and thoughts of too many are locked in a world two thousand years ago; this had lead to the creation of a church that excludes and denies, this has lead to many people turning away from the church. The message of the Bible has not changed in over two thousand years; the message of the Bible transcends time.
The key message of the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments is that we are to be concerned with the poor, the oppressed, the needy and the sick. The key message of the Bible is that we are to be more than concerned; we are to be the vehicle by which the message is put into practice.
In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,
We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (“Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37)
It is not a message about going to war and saying that war is just because God is our side and not our enemies; it should be about loving our enemy and taking away the reasons for war. If we seek peace in this world, it cannot be a peace enforced by military might or political superiority.
As President Kennedy said in the commencement address at American University (a Methodist supported university) on June 10, 1963, we should seek
“a genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.” (http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkamericanuniversityaddress.html)
It is not about taking away the fundamental rights of humans and calling slavery freedom. It is not about saying that someone is not welcome in a church because of their race, their creed, or their lifestyle. It is about insuring that all people on this planet have the same rights and that, as Martin Luther King put it, insuring that people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
It is not a message that says healthcare is only for those who aren’t sick and can afford healthcare or dropping someone from the roles because they get sick. It is the message that the sick shall be healed, the hungry fed, shelters built for the homeless, and the oppressed set free.
The message found in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, is a message that brings hope to all, not just a select few. It is a message that opens doors, not shuts them. And like the people of Israel, when this message is heard and when the people today see the message in action, they will cry.
They will cry because, like the people of Israel did that day some two thousand and five hundred years ago, they understood that God had not forgotten them and that their lives, lost for so long in exile, were found.
The message for us today is a very simple one. Having read the manual, what are we going to do?
That is the opportunity that we have today. We have come today; we have heard the message. We can now begin the task of rebuilding our community and taking the true Gospel message out into the world.