Faith Questions (2015)

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
February 1, 2015—Faith Questions Sunday
Job 3:20-26; Mark 7:1-8

Job 3:20–26 • “Why is light given to the hard worker, life to those bitter of soul, those waiting in vain for death, who search for it more than for treasure, who rejoice excitedly, who are thrilled when they find a grave? Why is light given to the person whose way is hidden, whom God has fenced in? My groans become my bread; my roars pour out like water. Because I was afraid of something awful, and it arrived; what I dreaded came to me. I had no ease, quiet, or rest, and trembling came.

Mark 7:1–8 • The Pharisees and some legal experts from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands. (They were eating without first ritually purifying their hands through washing. The Pharisees and all the Jews don’t eat without first washing their hands carefully. This is a way of observing the rules handed down by the elders. Upon returning from the marketplace, they don’t eat without first immersing themselves. They observe many other rules that have been handed down, such as the washing of cups, jugs, pans, and sleeping mats.) So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, “Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?” He replied, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote, This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words. You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”

[Please note: This is a transcription from the spoken version as yet unedited to make it more readable.  The text may sound more run-on than usual.]

5:00 PM Service

If Jesus never asked anyone to worship him, then why do we do it? Similar: Why does God want us to worship him? It seems kind of self-centered to create people just so they can tell you that you’re great.

In the Presbyterian tradition, the Westminster Catechism it states that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Many understand this to refer to worship, as if we were created in order to worship God. But I don’t think we’re created to worship. Worship, I think, is our response to having been created. Worship—just even the English word—means “worthiship”—it’s that which you declare worthy is what you worship. So it’s our response to the encounter of the mystery that is at the root of all of our being. So I don’t believe that God created us in order to worship, but that God created us in order to be in relationship with us and that our response to that awesome event is to respond in worship of God. The same thing can be said of Jesus: Jesus didn’t go around saying “worship me” but the people’s experience of Jesus was such that the early church felt that they had truly encountered God in him and thus declared him worthy of worship in the same way. So I think it’s important for us to understand that so much of what we do is the response to God’s grace, not the thing that earns us God’s grace. We often, I think, flip it and sayGod wants us to do this in order so that we will be loved; God loved us first, and the way that we respond to that is through acts of worship, acts of everything else.

If one believes that the Bible is mostly metaphorical and there probably isn’t an afterlife, then what is the point of identifying as a Christian (especially if mainstream Christianity often seems to hold values that oppose yours)?

I’m one of those who does not think that the whole point of this is to get our ticket punched for the afterlife. There were faithful Jews for hundreds of years before anyone even came up with the idea that there might be an afterlife and they seemed to be perfectly capable of leading faithful lives long before ideas of resurrection from the dead and all of those things came along. I don’t think the purpose of Christian faith is simply to figure out how to pass this test to get onto the next thing. This is the next thing. This is the thing. That we were created to be fully committed and engaged and involved, and this life—if all we had was this life, that would be enough—I didn’t deserve it, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t do anything as a non-existent entity to merit existence. How would you even go about doing that? I didn’t deserve the wonder that is life. That’s enough, and if that’s all there were, that would be enough.

Now in our Christian faith we believe that Christ’s death and resurrection signify to us that there is more than this—but that my friends is the bonus, it’s not the point. The point is to live right here and now, to be in relationship with one another here and now, to live our lives of love here and now, to witness to that kingdom of God here and now, to help live into the reality of a world redeemed here and now. If all our faith is simply a mechanism to get us to the next thing, then I don’t think it’s really all that meaningful then. Then what you ought to do then is to find the right things to believe and the right things to do and don’t do anything else and just lock yourselves away in your room so you don’t inadvertently sin and blow it. But that’s not what our faith is asking us to do. That’s not what Jesus did. He went out and got his hands dirty and went in met with people and he worked and he engaged the world and that’s what we’re supposed to do. If you don’t view the afterlife as your primary motivation, if you’ve come to view that as metaphorical, I still think there’s an awful lot in Christianity for you. Because Christianity is a way of reflection.

I say this in my class and I mean it, that Christianity is the community’s reflection on who Jesus was and what he accomplished, and that reflection requires us to figure out what that means for us. How do we live? How do we structure our lives? How do we interact with one another? That’s what Christianity is—it’s an ever-changing, flowing, developing process of reflection on that awesome event in our history of Jesus. And however we figure that out—and we’ve been working on it for going on 2000 years—that’s what Christian faith is. So, to the questioner: I wouldn’t worry about it. If you’re not that hung up on the afterlife, it’s okay, there’s a lot of work to be done that doesn’t involve the afterlife and there’s a lot of ways to be engaged in Christian life that don’t require harp lessons.

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit” (found in Matthew 5:3)?

That’s an interesting question: what does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? I’ll give you first the scientific—well not the scientific but the Bibilical, critical, nerdy answer—and then I’ll actually answer the question. In that there are two versions of the Beatitudes. In Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and then there are Luke’s version, which just says “blessed are the poor, blessed are those who hunger and thirst.” A lot of Biblican scholars think that Luke’s version is probably the thing that Jesus said, and that Mathew, because maybe there weren’t as many poor people in his community, changes it to be “poor in spirit” to be “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Now, either way, both versions ended up in the Bible and we have to deal with both of them. What I think “poor in spirit” means, and of course this is open widely to interpretation, but think of it in those metaphors. What does it mean to be poor? What does it mean to hunger and thirst? It means to lack the resources, to lack the provisions, for living. And now you translate that into the spiritual realm, and what I think that means is those who are feeling completely spiritually bereved, the ones who are just worn down by life, and the ones who just don’t seem to have the resources to muster that energy to live into a life of faith, that this is poverty of the spirit.

There are many interpretations, obviously, and there have been many, but I think that’s the one that speaks to me the most. Because I think that there are a lot of people in the pews who are like that, there are a lot of people in the pews who are thinking “God, I wish my faith were half as strong as my pastor’s.” And I’m thinking “I wish my faith were half as strong as my congregation’s.” And that kind of poverty in spirit, Jesus is saying “You too, will be satisfied.” You don’t have to have this all worked out, you don’t have to be the one who just feels like they’re full of the Spirit all the time, you can feel that poverty in your spiritual resources and still know that you’re not apart from God’s purposes. And the hunger and thirst for righteousness is the same way, those who just long for right living, for justice, for peace, for all those types of things, they too shall be filled. So I think that’s how I understand that passage.

If you were given the power to amend an existing book in our scriptural canon or take out a book from our canon, would you do it? Why or why not? If yes, what would you change/take out?

If I could amend the canon? Wow, that’s a power you should never offer. I wouldn’t do it, but I might add a footnote into First Thessalonians that would say “please note this verse about meeting Jesus in the air has nothing to do with your so called ‘rapture.’” That would be it, because I actually believe that it’s important that there be difficult passages in the Bible. I actually believe it’s important that there be things we wrestle with because when we don’t, we quickly have a sense of mastery, that I’ve mastered this text. And then the text no longer challenges us. The text no longer does anything to us, it’s simply a tool that we use for our own ends. So I don’t want there to be a Bible that’s free of things that I find problematic. As convenient as that would be, it’s not something that I really want because I want there to be that tension, I want there to be something in It that challenges me so that I don’t ever feel that this text is mine to control. That I am critiqued by the text as I would critique it. In the same way, I also want it because I think it’s important that people understand that the Bible is not one book; it’s many. “Biblia” is plural: it means “the books”. It’s an anthology, it’s a library, in which there are multiple voices. And I think that’s an important thing to understand, that the text speaks with multiple voices, it was written over a thousand years of history. It can’t help but have those voices. So I think the challenging texts also remind us of the conversation that is taking place in the scriptures, a conversation that we are invited to be a part of and that continues with us even today.

Why do we follow the Bible when it teaches so many bad things along with the good (e.g., inhumane punishments, sexism, gender roles)?

Okay, why do we follow the Bible when it has so many flaws in it? We don’t follow the Bible. We follow Christ. The Bible tells us how to follow Christ. This is something I think a lot of us—especially Protestants—get wrong. The Catholics get this better than us. You see, we Protestants lifted up the scripture as the sole source of theological truth, but then we forgot what kind of text this actually was. Suddenly, it became almost a platonic ideal that was sort of answered all things and all matters when that had never before been the case. We’re Christians and as we gather we celebrate through hymns and songs and prayers, and all of that we call the liturgical word. It’s the word of the liturgy, it’s the word of prayer and song, but those liturgical words point us up to the scripture, to the written word. But the written word itself points upward to the incarnate word of God that is Jesus Christ in the flesh for us.

But even Jesus points upward to the eternal word of God, the second person of the Trinity, present at creation through whom all things came into being and through whose creative power of God birthed everything that exists. So on some level we’ve forgotten, we’ve got stuck on that second rung of the ladder, that the word that we are meant to follow is the Word made flesh, the eternal Word that has come and dwelled with us. The Bible is the Church’s (and before it, the temple and synagogue’s) effort to try to write down the experience of what it’s like to encounter that word. That Word that happens to the prophets all the time, that word that comes to Abraham, that word that comes to Moses, that word of God that encounter is written down in the scripture, and written down not always perfectly, written down through our experience, through the lens of our language.

It had to be written in a human language—a human language that didn’t have vowels in its alphabet, to be precise—and so it represents the human experience in that text, and somehow we keep forgetting that that’s what it is. That in it, we are supposed to look through the text to see the word of God made flesh for us because that’s the one who we follow. And as United Methodists, by the way, when we engage in a quest for theological truth, we don’t simply open up the Bible and say “that’s what it says, that’s the end of it.” That’s never been our practice. We follow something called the “quadrilateral” which is, in addition to a geometry term, it’s meant to signify that we look to four sources for understanding.

We start with the scripture, absolutely, but we also look to the tradition of the church. And by tradition, that means “everything the church has ever said on this topic since that upper room in Jerusalem in 30 AD.” So what did the church father say about this, what did St. Augustine write about it, what did Thomas Aquinas say about it? What did Sojourner truth’s faith say about this? What did all of these people have to say—how did they reflect on this topic? Then we look to reason, that’s our third leg. Reason—what does our reason tell us? What does the application of philosophical understanding, scientific understanding, tell us about something? And then finally, is all of this confirmed by our experience?

So let me give you a quick example that will probably show up later. That there’s a text in the Bible that says a man should not lie with a man as he does with a women. Technically speaking it’s impossible for a man to lie with a man as he lies with a woman, but that’s neither here nor there. Traditionally this has been understood as prohibiting same sex relationships. Certainly, throughout the tradition the bulk of Christian witness has affirmed that, but our reason challenges that. Our growing understanding of biology, of the innate structures of the brain, of the awesome mystery that is human sexuality challenge that understanding, and then our experience all the more so. Because those of us in reconciling communities like this know that LGBT people are Godly people. We’ve experienced the God in our LGBT brothers and sisters, so that our theological reflection about what we do as a community is not bound solely by the text. It’s still a part of that process, but our process is so much greater. So I think that’s a really long answer to that question, but in short let me say it’s because we seek to follow Christ and that we use a much broader lens than the scripture alone to do so, that that’s how I would address that point.

I don’t believe in God. Do I still belong in this community?

Yes. There are no requirements to be in a community that has professed unconditional love to you. That would be a condition. There’s no entry into being a part of a community that has said that we “welcome all.” There’s no footnote, there’s no asterisk on that “all.” Miriam Wood used to wear this pin around that said “all means all.” If we don’t actually mean that then we need to change our mission statement. I’ve never been one that has felt that Christianity is defined by what we believe, anyway. I guarantee you that there are some people who believe God who are probably worse Christians than this non-believing person is. Jesus himself even said “there are plenty who will say to me “Lord, Lord” but don’t do the will of my father in heaven. It’s not about the confession of faith—I really believe that—and I also believe that God is really known in community, so of course a person who doesn’t believe in God is welcome in this community. That’s just an old tradition of ours. When I came here, I think a good pew was full of atheists and agnostics and people who didn’t otherwise know. And I think that’s alright, and I’m glad that they’re here. The community’s better for it.

Why does Charles Wesley fail at rhyming so often?

Charles Wesley does not fail at rhyming so often, we fail at having preserved the original pronunciation of Charles Wesley’s hymns, so prove and love used to rhyme. There’s one hymn—I don’t remember which it is—there’s hardly a verse in it that rhymes, because since the end of the 18th century to the present the pronunciation of a lot of our words and the vowels has changed dramatically, so that’s why. Charles was quite a skilled poet.

7:00 PM Service

Why wasn’t Jesus a woman? People love to talk about how Jesus came from surprising and unexpected backgrounds (he was from Nazereth, vulnerable God, sat with outcasts etc.) yet it’s still a man. For real patriarchy, get over yourself.

Here’s the thing about Jesus that you have to understand: Jesus is the incarnation of the word of God. What that means is literally that it puts flesh on the Word of God. Now when we talk about our faith being incarnational, we talk about doing precisely that, and what that means is going to the people where they are and entering into their lives fully. If God is going to come and fully enter into the lives of the people of ancient Israel, God needs to pick a vessel that will be listened to. And it’s a sad fact of the matter that a woman wouldn’t have commanded any type of respect in that way, as a teacher, such that anyone could have followed her. Today, I have no doubt that were Christ to reincarnate in some way it could be as a woman, but I think part of the incarnation was going to the people in their experience, meeting them where they were rather than standing outside and saying “come over here.” But going to where they were, and where they were was in the middle of a highly patriarchal society that still saw power both in the gentile world and in the Jewish world in terms of these male/female hierarchies. So I think it’s a reflection of the time and place into which the Word came, but it is not necessary for the Word to have been incarnate as a male. In fact—as sort of a little aside and some of the fun things that Biblical scholars like to play around with—the word “Word” itself in Aramaic is feminine in its gender. In the book of Proverbs it speaks of divine wisdom as ordering the world, language that is very much like John’s language of the word ordering the world at creation and in that book of proverbs, wisdom is personified as a female. So there is nothing wrong with perceiving the divine element in either male or female terms, but the incarnational element is a function of how God is going to meet the people where they are and I think that’s what you’re seeing there.

In a world where we are increasingly aware of people of different religious beliefs or no religious belief at all, why would we choose to be Christian? If we don’t believe non-Christians go to hell, what’s the motivation for a Christian life?

So this is a version of a question we had earlier which seems to assume that Christian faith is all about getting your ticket punched for the afterlife. This is a remarkably common assumption, because this is the way that it’s been marketed for a while by certain quarters of our religion—profitable quarters of our religion—but I don’t think that’s what Christianity is. Christianity to me, as I said earlier, is the community’s response to and reflection on who Jesus was and what he did. As a way of responding to that moment, that Theologians calls the “Christ moment” in history, responding to what that was and trying to figure out what does that mean for our lives, how are we to live, how are we to behave with one another? I also think that Christianity—it’s interesting that the questioner says “why should I choose it if it’s not the way to keep me out of hell”—I do think that on some level faith is very much a choice, because I do think that our faith is a particular kind of lens, and when we claim a faith for our own, we’re putting on those lenses and seeing the world though those lenses. So when I put on my Christian lenses, I don’t see a world of just random interactions and cold, brutish livings, I see a world that is formed by a loving and gracious God who has formed us out of the dust of the earth and breathed life into us, who gave us to each other to be in relationship and community, who has made us in God’s own image so that there’s a spark of the divine in us meaning that we are capable of doing great and wonderful things, that we are called to do those things to claim that image, to reclaim that image. So I choose to see the world that way, and that’s something my faith gives me. Different religions give me different lenses, so I think personally even if you were to take the divine and the afterlife and all of that out of the equation, Christianity provides a way of seeing life that helps to vest it with meaning, and if that’s meaningful to you, that’s a reason to choose it. It’s not simply because this way you’ll avoid hellfire. And honestly any religion that has to sell itself by scaring you into it I don’t think is really the heart of what we’re called to do. I think what people saw in Jesus was something that transcended their experience that showed them meaning and purpose and love and grace and dignity behind it all, and that’s what the Christian faith seeks to capture is seeing the world that way, living into that reality. But you need not, you could look at the world as a cold, brutish place and see it merely as a place where you’re out to get your own advantage, and there’s nothing to prevent you from seeing it that way, and that’s why I see faith as something we choose, that we claim for ourselves and through doing so it transforms not only the way we see the world but our interaction with it, which then transforms the world.

Is monogamy a Christian value or mandate? What about not having sex before marriage?

Monogamy is certainly a Christian value as Christianity has come to be understood. There’s some argument as to whether the Bible actually requires it or not. The bible seems to tolerate some notable exceptions to that, notably Jacob and certainly Solomon, who had three hundred wives and six hundred concubines or something. And actually I don’t think there’s anything in the law that prohibits polygamy, but certainly as Christianity has evolved it’s hard to find any quarter that says “yes, we’re polygamists” where Mormons are a notable exception to that.

As far as the sex before marriage thing, again there’s nothing specifically in the scripture that forbids it. And it’s interesting to me to look at what’s actually being forbidden is the taking of a woman’s virginity without having appropriate right to do so, and it’s largely viewed as a property crime in the Old Testament. Now, there certainly are admissions against fornication and loose sexuality but I think there are a lot of things going on here in that pre-marital sex as an absolute is not anywhere condemned in the scripture. However, sexuality that is meant to create strong and enduring relationships is commended in the scriptures and in fact the whole notion of sexuality that we find is one that is meant to create a bond. So that with fear and trembling I stand at a pulpit and say I’m not going to condemn all instances of premarital sex and I’m not going to give you license for them either, but what I am going to say is that our sexuality is far more powerful and far more significant than simply being the reward for being married and simply being a terrible thing that you shouldn’t do until you get married. So it’s not something that we have entirely within our possession, it’s not something we have entirely without. What I think is that sexuality needs to be viewed through a lens that is affirming in all things. The way I’ve come to think of it is that sex is like a sacrament. A sacrament is a physical means through which we experience the grace of God. Now, I can have bread and grape juice on my own, or I can take the bread and throw it on the ground or I can pick up moldy bread off the ground and say “here’s our sacrament”—that’s not really what we’re looking for in a sacrament. I wouldn’t baptize someone with muddy water, and I wouldn’t give someone moldy bread for communion. So that means that the very thing in which we can encounter love and grace has to be cared for and it has to be treated with dignity and respect. For some people that may abstinence until marriage, I can’t say that for everybody, but what it means is that the sexual relationship has to be one in which love and grace are affirmed. If it’s just done simply to use someone else for your own pleasure or to manipulate someone or whatever myriad ways a sexual life can be abused then it can’t be affirmed. But all of those things can happen within marriage too. That’s the thing, it’s not a clear line that on this side of the line all sex is bad and on that side of the line all sex is good, that’s just not true, but I think there’s a higher thing, that if we thought of sex as a kind of sacrament, as a kind of way we could truly experience God, then we could treat it with the love and dignity that it deserves, and a lot of these things could probably sort themselves out.

Who do you think Jesus would sit and eat with today?

Muslims. He would sit with those children at the border. He would sit with political dissidents. He would sit with—a decade ago I would have said AIDS patients but that’s becoming less and less stigmatized—Ebola patients, he would go and visit Ebola patients. He would go anywhere that we don’t want to and he would eat with anyone who we would find inappropriate or politically incorrect or risky or just not “done” and he would do that. That seems to be the thread that connects his ministry. When he eats with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, what we hear in our 21st century mind is “I’ve reasonably disliked government officials, ordinary folks who can’t get it together, and folks who are pressured into the sex trade” but what those categories really mean—especially the tax collectors and the sinners—tax collectors were instruments of the occupations. They were people who were collecting money on behalf of the Roman Empire, they were seen as traitors to their own people and thieves on top of it because they skimmed off the top before they passed it along to the Romans. So right away they are despised people. Sinners in the Biblical context do not mean people who commit sin. That’s everybody, but that’s not what that term means. When the Bible talks about those people, it calls them “the crowds.” “Sinners” means the wicked, the people who have rejected the covenant, the people who have said that they don’t want anything to do with that and who are flagrantly breaking the law. Those are the people that Jesus ate with. Not the pious, not the righteous, definitely not the self-righteous, and definitely not the ones that anyone considered to be respectable. And he went there and offered them the invitation of God’s grace, and said it was available already. There are some scholars who say that he didn’t even ask them to repent before he gave it to them. So I think it’s pretty much with anyone who we see as marginalized in our society that you would be reluctant to be seen in public with or tell your relatives you had dinner with or whatever, those are exactly the places that Jesus would go. And by the way, those are the places that we’re supposed to go too.

What does it mean to “love thy neighbor?” Do you have to like your neighbor? What if you actively dislike your neighbor?

No, you do not have to like your neighbor. Love is not a feeling. Love is not an emotion. Love is a way of living in right relationship, and you can do that with people you dislike. Oftentimes that person is yourself. You still have to love yourself even when you don’t really much like yourself. Loving is doing the right thing for a person and it really has nothing to do with how you feel about them. And in fact Jesus sort of says as much. When he says if you’re loving to only those who are loving to you what have you actually done? If you’re loving to only the people who it’s easy for you to love, then what claim is there in that? So what that means is that even when you dislike someone immensely, there’s a way of treating that person with dignity and basic human respect and kindness that you can do regardless of how you feel, that’s what loving is. So Jesus is not asking you to have a warm fuzzy about the person who irritates the hell out of you. Jesus is telling you to live rightly with one another. So your roommate can drive you crazy, but if your roommate gets blackout drunk, you damn well better call someone for help, that’s how you love them. You don’t just say “well, that’s person’s a jerk so if they OD that’s their problem,” that’s not being loving. You don’t have to like them, that’s a really tall order, and I thnk also confuses what love means. Love is a powerful thing because it’s a commitment to a kind of relationship that transcends our petty human emotions, which by the way we can’t change even if we wanted to. If I commanded to love someone right now you couldn’t do it for the life of you. If I commanded you to stop loving someone that you did love you couldn’t do that either. So if it’s up to having all our emotions in a row, that’s never going to happen but we can control how we behave. We do have control over that and that’s what Jesus is calling us to do.

Is it ethical to proselytize to people?

It depends on what you mean by proselytize. If you mean badger someone mercilessly until they accept your point of view under threat of hellfire and damnation, then I would say no. But if it means sharing your witness, than absolutely. In fact, that’s what we’re called to do. But I think where it’s become uncomfortable for us is what that looks like, because it looks stereotypically like handing someone a tract or a Bible and read this and come to know Jesus and be saved. What I think when you look at the scripture that’s not at all how it happens. People come up and they tell their stories and they say “this is what God did for me”. When Peter stands in Jerusalem and preaches to the crowds he tells them all the things that God did in Jesus for them that they witnessed, and this moves them to want to respond, to want to know that, to experience that. It’s St. Francis who said, and people have probably seen this quote, that you should preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary you should use words. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use our words ever, but what it means is that our whole lives ought to be lives that convey something of the faith that we know, that we’re not embarrassed by it, that we’re not reluctant to let people know that it’s something that’s meaningful to us, but it doesn’t mean that we have to beat someone over the head. We can say that when we are engaged in justice work I think it’s important for this community to say “the reason we’re engaged in this is because we’re Christian and we care about this issue because this is how we see the world.” That’s a kind of proselytizing but it’s not the kind that people expect and it’s not the type that causes trouble. So the answer is yes, it’s ethical, but the manner in which you do it is important.

Is there a place for humor and irreverence in religion?

God, I hope so. Because or else I’m in huge trouble. Yeah, absolutely I think there is. Especially in religion, because here’s what religion is: religion is our human attempt to frame an experience of the divine. In as much as it is a human attempt it is flawed and it should be subject to the same scrutiny, the same close inspection and the same satirical bent that anything else should be, another human endeavor should be. If you’re talking about God, I still think there’s room for humor. Humor can be very effective, and here’s the thing: Jesus was funny. We don’t know that because we read the scripture wrong, we read it in this ponderous tone. Jesus was funny: he used irony, he used wit, he used clever analogy, so I think that there absolutely is a place for humor. And irreverence, especially when it comes to keeping ourselves in check, making sure that we’re not getting too full of ourselves, and we’re not convincing ourselves that this whole grand enterprise that we have constructed is the end game and the sacred thing. That certainly can be pilloried if we remember that this is what is supposed to help us encounter the divine, so absolutely I think so.

What do you think of the term to be “spiritual” but not “religious”?

Spiritual but not religious is one of those things that sets pastors off all the time. Let me give two answers to that. The first is how we hear it, and then how it might be meant. How we hear it is “I have some vague religious ideas but I don’t feel like committing to any kind of community so I’m just going to go off and do it on my own.” IF that’s what it means—and that’s how a lot of us hear it—it’s problematic for us because especially for me, God is known in community. Christianity is not a solidary enterprise, so what that means is that “I want to have some kind of spiritual identity but not actually ask anything of myself to commit to a community, to a pattern of living.” So if it means that it’s problematic. But if it means, however, “I really do have a yearning for the divine but every time I go to a church the people there just drive me batty with their incessant infighting and their stupid petty squabbles,” then what that means is “I really want to be part of something but everything yet that I have encountered has let me down and if that’s what religion is I don’t want any part of it. So I think there’s sort of a task. When I hear it, it raises a red flag at one point but also on the other. Has the church been a place where this person could feel that their spiritual inclination could connect or have we really failed by creating an environment in which this person feels that the only chance they have for spirituality is to do it on their own because every time they try to connect with a community that community disappoints them. So it’s problematic. Sometimes it’s problematic because of the speaker and sometimes because what the speaker is talking about.

Can you sum up the Gospel in a limerick?

No, only because a limerick is hard to come up with on the spot. The Gospel in a sentence: God has not abandoned us, God is with us, God wins. That’s kind of a haiku but I’m not quite sure….

God is always here
God has not abandoned us.
[And] God always wins.

I’ll figure it out later.

 

A Caveat:

Don’t just take everything I just said for some other certainty. Continue asking these questions, continue wrestling with these things, continue looking things up and exploring. When I was in high school I remember learning I think it was Pericles who said something like “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I feel that way about faith. The unexamined faith is not worth believing, because if honestly it can’t stand up to asking questions, it really wasn’t much of a faith to begin with. It was a construct. So I thank you for those of you who wrote questions, and I hope that the answers were on some level satisfactory to you, and I hope that you will continue to ask questions not just in this service but throughout your whole lives as Christians.