Something New

This is the most recent sermon I have preached, and it was preached on July 5th of this year. Now, let me just say at the beginning, that I don’t believe a sermon is a sermon unless it is somewhat controversial. After all, Jesus didn’t come just to reaffirm everything people already thought about the world. Jesus challenged people – still challenges people – and oftentimes that makes us uncomfortable. I’m not sure you can have a comfortable sermon – certainly, there may be something comforting about it, but if we ever allow ourselves to get complacent with the Gospel, then I think that’s a surefire sign that we may be heading for trouble.

That said, this sermon may be a bit more controversial than others I’ve preached. It turned at least one visitor away from the church and caused another member to effectively denounce my call into the ministry. The trouble is, while certain views of mine may become apparent in the reading of this sermon, the sermon itself is not explicitly advocating on behalf of those views. Instead, it is a challenge to carefully weigh new teachings against the old, rather than simply scoff at them for the sake of tradition. After all, Christianity would never have gained any traction if those who heard Paul and others preach were unwilling to embrace something new. The text for this sermon, quite appropriately, comes from the Book of Acts, chapter 17, verses 16-34: Paul’s famous Mars Hill speech to the Athenians. The text and sermon follows.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

 

I’d like for us all to imagine, if you will, going to the supermarket. Imagine that you’re going down the aisles, checking things off your list, and all of the sudden someone comes up to you and asks you point blank what your opinion is of the Confederate Flag. Yeah, we’re going there. And then suppose they proceed to tell you that they have noticed far too many Confederate Flags in the area – on bumper stickers, t-shirts, in front houses and flying outside public buildings, even – and it greatly disturbs them. After all, don’t you know that it is the flag of a nation whose sole purpose for existence, according to their own documents and speeches, was to preserve the institution of slavery? Don’t you know that that nation was defeated, and the flag has since been used by white supremacist groups and segregationists to advocate for the continued oppression of black Americans? Don’t you agree that it ought to be taken down? And at the same time, someone else comes up and starts to debate with them, refuting the claim that the flag stands for slavery and racism; that instead it stands for liberty against a tyrannical government, that even though the Confederates lost the flag still represents those ideals for which they fought so passionately – individual liberty and the rights of individual states. The flag is flown as a tribute to Americans who fought and died, as a recognition of our heritage. It is not a symbol of hate. And then the first person says that while they understand that many people feel that way and can appreciate the value of honoring one’s ancestors and heritage, the flag is still used to support racism, and the mere fact that it is given a place of honor in polite society gives tacit acceptance to those who still harbor racist attitudes and opinions. The flag itself is both a symptom and an underlying contributor to systemic racism in the United States – systemic racism, they explain, is not an individual character flaw, but rather a series of policies and attitudes throughout the country that negatively impact people of color. In other words, you can “not be racist” and still contribute to systemic racism. Then, all of the sudden, a group of people who have been listening in on the conversation from the next aisle come over and ask the person who started it all to come with them to the high school auditorium down the road and explain these new ideas, for they have never heard of systemic racism, and they are curious to learn more about it. Meanwhile, you have stood there next to the peanut butter and jelly with your mouth hanging open, flabbergasted, unable to utter a word throughout the entire thing. Because, let’s face it – this would never happen!

 

I am given to understand that there are three basic rules for polite conversation in American society. The first is that you never discuss politics. The second that you never discuss religion. And the third is that if you do discuss either of those things, you never give even one inch on your position. In our text today, Paul violates all of those rules. He goes around arguing in the marketplace with anyone who will take him up, claiming that God is not found in idols, but is instead a transcendent, personal God – the God of the Universe. In Ancient Greco-Roman culture, this was both a religious and a political claim. There was no such thing as the separation of church and state; religion and politics were the same thing – there was no conception of a difference between the two. And as if it weren’t enough for Paul to discuss these things in public – in broad daylight! – when he does give his speech we see that, rather than call the Athenians horrible idolaters who need to repent and accept Jesus into their hearts, Paul compliments them. He finds a point of connection. He says, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Unlike many of our politicians and, unfortunately, many of us, Paul chooses to start his argument by finding the good in the other side’s point of view. Rather than condemn their idolatrous practices, he realizes that all of the idols throughout the city that were causing him such great distress had at least one very good and very important significance – the Athenians were pious.

 

Now, of course, that does not make idolatry right. It is still deeply distressing for Paul. But Paul realizes he isn’t going to change any hearts or minds by calling the Athenians filthy sinners and demanding they come over to his side immediately, or else. Perhaps we could all take a page out of Paul’s book. Perhaps, rather than condemning others’ views outright we should seek to find the good in those views, and try to understand why others may hold them. But in order to do this, in order to find the good in someone else’s opinion, we must first do something else; and that is why Paul isn’t the only one we should pay attention to in this story. Paul’s speech is great, for sure, but did we notice what prompted it? “[The Athenians] took him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’”

 

Isn’t that incredible? I mean, I think it is. How many times do we actually say to somebody else who has a new or different opinion from ours “I’d like to hear what you have to say”? How many times are we open and receptive to that newness? The people of Athens, it seems, were “always telling or hearing something new”, according to the text. Now, I think we often read that as a derogatory remark by Luke; it isn’t always the best thing to be jumping from one new thing to another. But the point also stands that if the Athenians hadn’t been open to hearing something new that day, they never would have listened to Paul in the first place. Paul’s religion is new. Christianity, at the time that Paul is speaking to the Athenians, is brand new. Sure, it has old roots – but even Jesus is often accused of bringing a strange new teaching. Jesus gives new commandments. And let’s not forget that our entire section of the Bible that is just ours, as Christians, is called the “New” Testament. New isn’t always bad. But I will grant that it is often scary.

 

That’s why we tend to want to preserve things the way they are, isn’t it? We’re afraid. We’re afraid of the new on the one hand because, what if we fail? What if it doesn’t work? What if it isn’t, in fact, better than the old? But we are also afraid of the new because change inevitably involves loss. Even if what is new is also exciting and good for us, there is still the dread that things won’t be the same, and, let’s be honest, we’ll miss things the way they were. You’ve probably experienced this at weddings, graduations, births, moves, new jobs, maybe even conversion. On the larger, macro-scale you’ve probably experienced this through technology advances, changing economic landscapes, new laws and new social values. All of the sudden something you were quite familiar with becomes outdated; your favorite restaurant goes out of business; the Confederate Flag no longer flies outside the state house; LGBTQ persons are now legally allowed to marry. There is the tendency to want to not move forward. There is the tendency to hold on to the old, especially those parts we deem exceptionally good. Of course, new is not always better. That’s not what I’m saying. But it does seem we have lost that Athenian curiosity, that openness to hearing, doing, practicing, believing something new.

 

What is needed, then, is to ask ourselves why we resist change. Is it really because the new thing is worse than the old, or is it our preservationist tendencies getting in the way? This is especially important with new ideas and beliefs, because to a large extent our ideas and beliefs make up who we see ourselves to be. If we were to change our world view, it would feel like a betrayal of who we really are. But if everyone in the world decided not to change for that reason, then you and I wouldn’t be here. Christianity would’ve died before it could even get off the ground. The Disciples weren’t blank slates waiting to be given a set of beliefs. Neither were the Athenians. Those who converted – supposedly they found something better, something more holy. They discovered that the new Christian understanding of God made a lot more sense than idolatry. Were they afraid to move on from their former beliefs? You bet! There are a number of Athenians who remain not fully convinced yet say, “We will hear you again about this,” and, unfortunately, Paul decides to leave them, which I believe was a mistake – some of those Athenians might have become converts. Change is a process. It takes time. Any newlywed couple will tell you this – it’s not as if they suddenly adapted to being married and living together with a couple “I do’s” and the exchanging of rings. The marriage is not going to work if they are unable to let go of their old family’s rituals, traditions, way of organizing the dishes in the kitchen, bathroom policies, thermostat setting, etc., and embrace new ways of doing all of those things. But, of course, that doesn’t happen overnight. There is a grieving process. There is loss. There is coping with the fact that things just aren’t going to be the same anymore. But that is no reason not to get married. It’s no reason not to allow LGBTQ persons to get married. It’s no reason not to take down that flag. No; if there is any reason not to do these things, that is not it. And I think that many of us may find, more often than not, that upon deep self-reflection, all those little reasons we come up with not to embrace something new are really just there to hide the real reason – that we’re scared. We want things to stay the same. We don’t want to lose anything.

 

Yesterday we once again celebrated our country’s independence, and aside from the fireworks and the burgers and the beer and the celebration of freedom and all, I think it’s worth also remembering that the United States was a new nation once. Our forefathers once decided to throw off not just the old government, but the old form of government, and embark upon the journey of becoming a new country with an entirely new form of government. Is it not something we celebrate this weekend – that they were granted the courage and the discernment to sluff off the old and embrace the new? That, though this was not necessarily something that was easy to do – indeed, an entire war had to be fought and won – nevertheless they committed themselves to newness, to uncertainty, based upon the conviction that the old way of doing things was no longer right, and that they had a moral imperative to fight for a more just and free society? And yet, even after it was all over, Thomas Jefferson himself recognized that the new thing they had established was not – could not – be perfect. That hindsight is 20/20, and that in the future a more mature and more experienced humanity might recognize the necessity to move on still to newer and better things: in a letter to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816 he wrote, “I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

 

Many of us may not realize it, but I think it’s safe to say that Jefferson has now joined the ranks of our “barbarous” ancestors, to use his words. That doesn’t mean he was a bad man, necessarily – perhaps a bit less enlightened (he did own slaves). Indeed there are still plenty of good things about the man, about the founding fathers and mothers, our founding documents and our system of government, that should be recognized as such and kept. There are plenty of good things about Christianity, things that have remained in the faith for thousands of years because people recognized their importance and significance. No, progress should never be pursued simply for the sake of progress. But, as I hope I (and Jefferson, and Paul, for that matter) have made clear, neither should progress be resisted for the sake of tradition. We must carefully judge whether or not the new thing that confronts us or the new thing for which we seek is truly worthy of replacing the old, and whether our resistance to it is really because it is unworthy, or because deep down we don’t want things to change.

 

Thus saith the Lord: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Even here, in the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, we see that God is also a God of newness. God is a God of change and justice and righteousness, a God who interrupts the status quo and gives freedom to the oppressed and release to the captive, a God who in fact embraces something new by becoming a living, breathing human being and walking amongst us on this earth. God is not content with things remaining the same because, guess what? The Kindom of God is not yet fully present here on Earth. To be honest, it’s not even fully present right here in this church – now, that’s not supposed to be a judgmental statement, just a recognition of the fact that we’re not perfect. And yes, it’s okay, as human beings, to be imperfect, but not if we remain content with all our imperfections. Not if we stop striving to embody the Kindom of God, to be the true, wildly diverse Body of Christ. Not as long as we take a look around and say, “eh, this is good enough.” Because if we do that, then we will probably miss the new thing that God is doing.

 

Instead of holding onto the past, instead of relishing the “good old days” and hoping against hope that if we just keep going the way we are people will come to their senses and come back to the church, come back to traditional marriage, come back to the institution of slavery, come back to monarchy, come back to Stoicism and Epicureanism – perhaps, instead of dwelling on the former things, it might be better for us to be like the Athenians, and to inquire of our more developed, more enlightened society, “May we know what this new teaching is?” and then to hear – not just listen, but really hear – something new. Amen.

Going it Alone

I think too often in our society – especially in the United States – we place an inordinate amount of emphasis on individual achievement. It is by our own merit that we succeed or fail, so the story goes, and if someone has succeeded or failed, it must be due to something they did. We praise those who work hard and somehow manage to overcome hardship, and then hold them up as examples for others who also start out on the bottom rung of the ladder. “If they can succeed, why can’t you?” we ask of them. But, as the following Scripture shows, behind everyone’s success story is another person, another group of people, even. And just because someone has failed where someone else has succeeded does not mean they are a worse human being. Perhaps it simply means they didn’t have as much support. This is my sermon, in a nutshell, and it is based on the following Scripture: Luke 17:11-19.

 

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

I think we all know the basic tenets of the American Dream. Anyone can succeed (and let me just clarify here at the start, that when I say “succeed” in this sermon, I primarily mean financially, even though I by no means believe that success is defined by how deep your pockets are) – anyone can succeed, as long as you follow your dreams and work hard enough. That’s one of the things they say makes our country so great. It enshrines the individual freedoms we all know we as human beings deserve, and it creates the opportunity for anyone to climb the rungs of the social ladder. You can go from being dirt poor to being a billionaire over the course of a lifetime, or, of course, vice versa; it is entirely possible to change your class, and there are no established social rules that say you can’t do so. Of course, moving up takes individual initiative and hard work; you don’t just get things handed to you. That is the way our society is supposed to work, from a theoretical standpoint. If you do the work, you get the reward. If not, not so much. That’s how things should be, because it’s only fair. At least, that’s what they tell me.

 

So, what about these ten leprous men? According to biblical law, anyone with a skin disease such as leprosy was required to stay outside of the village, away from those who were considered “healthy”. Leprosy was an incredibly debilitating disease, causing not only painful, disfiguring skin sores but also nerve damage to the arms and legs. Understandably, the disease was greatly feared in the ancient world by those who had no understanding of microbiology. Now, as it turns out, the Greek word for leprosy, “lepros”, actually covers a wide range of skin diseases, but all we need to know is that these men – it actually does say “ten leprous men” – were outcasts in their community. This is clear from biblical law, 1st century Palestinian historical practices, and the fact that the text says they “stood at a distance”. They were required to do so, and to warn others of their condition.

 

How did these men get to be where they were? We know that in an ideal society, based on what they tell me, good, honest work is rewarded, and laziness and criminal activity is punished. If everyone is treated fairly, then the good, hardworking people get to be on top, and the bad, lazy leeches get to be on bottom. So, clearly, these ten men must have done something wrong to end up as diseased outcasts, right? I mean, if we believe that hard work is always rewarded, they must not have worked a day in their life!

 

Obviously, this is a ridiculous notion. I’m making a bit of a straw man argument, I know, but I promise I do have a valid point, and I’ll get there eventually. There are circumstances in our lives beyond our control. Clearly, it is not the fault of the ten leprous men that they have leprosy or something like it. Job in particular is pretty clear on that for us, debunking the old Deuteronomic thinking that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, always. Sometimes, Job observes, there are just some really evil people that get away with it. They have all the worldly riches one could ask for, they trample on the weak and they oppress many, and they don’t get their come-uppance. They die a fairly comfortable death. There are also just some really stand up people, the kind that you look at and say – “that is the peak of human existence; we should all strive to be so outstanding!” – who, inexplicably, have awful things happen to them, suffer in extreme poverty, and generally lead miserable lives and die just as miserable deaths. For whatever reason, it seems, God does not always reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Or, according to one popular idiom, “life’s not fair.” Maybe that’s why we like the concept of heaven and hell so much. But that is a completely different sermon for another time and place.

 

No, the leprous men were just ordinary people who happened to catch an unfortunate disease. Who knows where they were in life before this occurred? One could have been a poor sharecropper, barely scraping by even before the disease overtook him. One could have been a wealthy landowner, long ago, before the ravages and stigma of the disease devoured his riches. Perhaps one used to work in the royal court. Whatever their prior circumstances, they all ended up in the same boat. They all now live in a community together, because they weren’t allowed to mingle with other people. Perhaps they had been living together for quite some time, and had become close friends, albeit friends of necessity. I mean, we are told that at least one is a Samaritan, and left to infer that the others are probably Jews, and given what we know about Jewish-Samaritan relations in the 1st century – well, let’s just say that it seems the disease was quite capable of erasing all other social boundaries between those who had it. These ten men; they must have been pretty desperate. I mean, imagine if you were all of the sudden ripped from your life, stripped of your identity, and forced into exile with a bunch of random people you didn’t know, people you would probably otherwise hate, who happened to share your condition. Would you ever be content with your new life? Wouldn’t you do anything you could to get your old life back?

 

Well, the men finally get their chance. I’m not sure how they know who he is – his reputation obviously precedes him – but somehow or another they recognize Jesus coming into their village – the village from which they have been ostracized – and they seize upon the opportunity. They ask for help. The Greek literally says they “lifted voice”, saying “Master Jesus, have mercy on us!” Notice what they do not say. They do not say, “Jesus, restore us to our rightful place in the world! Jesus, give me what I deserve! If you are really who you say you are, make this life fair, tie my success into my personal achievements! If you are God, you can make it so!” No, they simply ask for mercy. They require grace. They aren’t even specifically asking to be healed. Just, “show us mercy.”

 

And then it just says this: “and seeing, he said to them:” Now, this is an important detail. Luke could have just written, “and he said to them”, but he had to add in that little word. Jesus saw them. That doesn’t mean physically – we don’t need to be told that he saw them if he’s speaking to them. What it means is that Jesus is not blind to their predicament. He does not avert his gaze from their need, even though his own personal goal, explicitly stated in the opening words of this passage, is to get to Jerusalem. Jesus is not so blindly focused on promoting his own individual well-being, on achieving his own personal goals, that he has no time at all to help others. He sees them. And then he helps them.

 

How does he help them? He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. Now, if you had a skin condition like leprosy, and you somehow miraculously found yourself one day cured of said skin condition, then, according to biblical law, you had to go and show yourself to the priests, and they had to verify that you no longer had the condition before you were allowed back into the community. So when Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests, he is already setting up the process by which they will be welcomed back into their old lives. But a funny thing happens. The Greek literally says, “and it came to be in the going they were made clean.” Not, “as they went”. “It came to be.” Now, for those of you who don’t know Greek, you’re lucky, because you can still use the phrase “it’s all Greek to me!” Yea, “it’s all Latgalian to me”; just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Seriously, though, there are two words for the verb “to be” in Greek. One, einai, actually means “to be,” “to exist.” It is the language used of the Creator – “I am.” The other, ginomai, means something more like “to become,” “to happen,” or “to come to be.” It is the language used of Creation, that which was caused to come into existence. This is the word used here – “it came to be” – when? “in the going” – what came to be? “they were made clean”. These men are no longer the men they once were; they have been created anew, and only one of them truly recognizes it! But we’ll get to that later.

 

Right now, this is the question of the hour – how did the ten men find themselves to be clean? Upon whose merit were their lives suddenly improved? Who helped them? Themselves, or Jesus? Now, I apologize, this seems like such a simplistic question. But it is a question worth asking, because nine out of the ten seem to answer incorrectly. And if you go out today and ask most successful people how they got to where they are, I’m willing to bet most of them will give some version of the answer “hard work and determination”. Sure, maybe some will acknowledge “You know, I could have never gotten to be where I am without the help of my parents, or an influential professor, or an unexpected mentor, or my loving spouse, or my best friend…” and so on and so forth. Some will even acknowledge God, sometimes (although, there is a difference between saying God has helped me in spite of my brokenness and God has given me what I deserve). But even so, how often do those people look at others who are not successful and say “if they would just work harder, they could be like me”? How often do we do that ourselves?

 

Of course, there is a lot of nuance to this. There was, undoubtedly, a lot of hard work and determination that went into our success as individuals. Having recently graduated from Divinity School, I can assure you of that. I worked hard. However, I can also assure you, having recently been a graduate student at the Divinity School, that it took a lot of help, and a lot of mercy, and a lot of grace – from my parents, from my wife, from you all, from God, and most certainly from my professors. And, finally, my wife and I having recently had a child, I can assure you, with 100% confidence, that it is absolutely impossible to make it on your own. At some point in your life, somebody did something for you that you could not do yourself, and it helped you to grow. That is true of all human beings, in all times, and in all places. Recently, Owen decided to try feeding himself. Some of you may have seen this on Facebook. For those who did – did it work out? Did he get the food in his mouth? No! Of course not! It ended up all over the floor, all over me, on his forehead, behind his ears, and only God Almighty knows where else. Quite frankly, if we were not there to help him, he would not survive. Like it or not, that seems to be a fundamental truth of human life. We need help, or we will surely perish.

 

So, looking at the news and the internet comments and statuses and conversations between public officials about poverty and the economy and wealth inequality – why do so many of us not get this? Why do we continue to insist that other people are not our responsibility? Why do we continue to talk about bootstraps, when nobody wears boots anymore? Except in adverse weather and to go hiking? Here is a fundamental, biblical truth: We were not created to be individuals who do things on their own with no help. Genesis 2, Ecclesiastes 4, the entire New Testament, for crying out loud! We were created to take care of each other in community. Now that doesn’t negate all those important individual freedoms we hold so dear. It only recognizes the truth that as a human being in God’s creation you can’t go it alone. And if you think you’re going it alone, you are, like the nine leprous men, spiritually blind. Someone – in fact, a lot of someones – have helped you get to where you are. I guarantee it. And the flip side to this is that if you see someone who is not where you are, who is, in fact, a lot worse off than you, it probably means they didn’t get the same help you did.

 

Now, there is nuance in this too, of course. Some people truly do need to help themselves. Some people have received plenty of help over the years, and it is their refusal to do anything for themselves that keeps them down. Some people are just lazy; or they are sick, addicted, and they are ultimately the ones who need to make a decision about their own lives. Some people. But here is the crazy thing – unless we personally know and care about these people, we do not know their nuances. Unless we are the ones already helping them, we do not get to comment on their circumstances. And while it is completely logical and fair to suggest that the successful person must have had some help at some point in his or her life, it is neither logical nor fair to conclude that the unsuccessful person could be successful if he or she “just worked harder”.

 

I read a fantastic comic strip the other day that perfectly illustrates all of this. It was called “On a Plate” by Toby Morris, and you can find it with a quick Google search. I also shared this on my Facebook after reading it. The comic follows two people throughout their lives, from babies to adulthood. One is a white male, Richard, and he receives loving support at home from his parents, encouragement to succeed in school, money from his parents to pay for college, the benefit of connections his father has at important companies, and so on. The other is an Hispanic female, Paula. Her parents each work long hours to provide for her, so they are not at home a lot. The apartment she lives in is dirty and damp. She does not receive the adequate care she needs; the expectations for her success in school are lower; she must attend a cheap, low-quality school because it is the only one she can afford, and she has to work long hours even to afford that. She drops out of school to take care of her father who is dying, and as a result of all of this is unable to get a loan or a decent job. The strip ends with Richard at a party in his honor responding to the question, “What is the secret to your success?” saying, “less whining, more hard work I say. I’m sick of people asking for handouts. No one ever handed me anything on a plate,” while Paula (a server) offers up to him a plate of hors d’oeuvres.

 

As they were going, they were made clean. One of them, seeing he had been made clean, turned back and glorified God with a great voice. He fell on his face at the feet of Jesus, thanking him. And he is the Samaritan – in order to understand the impact of this detail better, Christians today might think of him instead as a Muslim extremist. Out of the ten, only he is able to see, truly see, the help he has received in his life, and because of this he does two things – two very important things: he glorifies God. And he thanks the one who helped him.

Now, most of us get that we are supposed to be like the Samaritan leper in this story. The Samaritan leper recognizes the help he has received. He ceases to be Richard, because he realizes that he has not created himself anew, but rather is deeply indebted to the helping hand that Jesus has provided him. We, too, are meant to return thanks to God for all that God has done for us. We are also meant to thank those through whom God’s help has come. However, I think we often fail to pick up on the other character in this story we are supposed to emulate – Jesus. When Jesus sees the need of the ten lepers in the first place, he chooses to respond with mercy and grace, not judgment and condemnation. Are we not also called as Christians to be like Jesus? Are we not meant to recognize need in the world and respond with a helping hand? Even though, nine times out of ten, no one will bother to thank us?

 

There’s one final piece to this story before I close, an important one. Jesus tells the Samaritan leper that his faith has saved him – not “made him well” as it says in the translation; in the Greek, it is “saved.” What faith did this man display that the other nine did not? Could it be that, in this passage, Jesus is affirming gratitude as an essential part of faith – indeed, even equating it to faith itself? It would seem so. The man’s faith is found in both his recognition of God’s work in his life and his response to that recognition – overwhelming gratitude. His faith is knowing that he does not have to go it alone, because there is always One who walks beside him.

 

I simply cannot stress this enough. It is not by our own merit that we succeed – not entirely. Hard work, determination, ingenuity – these are all only a small piece of the puzzle that makes up our lives; for some people – those unfortunate enough to be afflicted with the rare disease, affluenza, for instance – they may not even be necessary. The vast majority of the puzzle pieces are actually people – individuals who have shown us grace, who have loved us, who have helped us come to be who we are today. Let us not be like the nine and forget to turn back and thank them. Let us not forget that we, too, belong in somebody else’s puzzle. And let us never cease to always and forever give praise to the One who puts each piece into place. For in this way, we shall all be saved. Amen.

You Can’t Be a Christian If…

Many apologies for my absence over the past month. There was much traveling and ministry work to be done, and I simply dropped the ball on posting here. Here is a sermon I preached the Sunday after Easter this year, about what exactly makes someone a Christian. Of course, I don’t have the answer to that question, but I do question the notion that a Christian must believe blindly without asking any questions. To that end, I have chosen the story traditionally labeled the “Doubting Thomas” story as my text for this sermon – John 20:19-31. However, as you will see in the words ahead, I wish to challenge that traditional label. Is Thomas really portrayed all that negatively in this story? Let’s find out…

 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

 

I wonder how many times you’ve heard the phrase: “You can’t be a Christian if…” How many times have you read it in the news? How many times have you heard it in idle conversation? How many times have you heard it coming from the pulpit? “Once; you just said it” How many times have you said it to someone else; or at least thought it really hard? Me, personally, I can’t even count how many. Sometimes it even turns from an “if” statement to a direct accusation – “You’re not a Christian! You might call yourself one, but you’re not!” And what’s really funny is that those of us who say this – and, hands up, I’m just going to admit right from the start that I’m totally guilty of doing this as well, so this is just as much a message for me as it might be for anyone else – but those of us who say this more often than not find that the things we put on the end of that “if” statement are usually in direct contradiction of each other. “You can’t be a Christian if you own a gun.” “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t own a gun.” “You can’t be a Christian if you support and encourage LGBTQ folks.” “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t support and encourage LGBTQ folks.” “You can’t be a Christian if you believe everything in the Bible literally happened.” “You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe everything in the Bible literally happened.” And so on and so forth, until we find that, if all of these statements are to be believed, no one, in fact, is a Christian at all! So, who do we listen to? What makes a Christian a Christian?

Well, it may not surprise you to learn that we “Christians” have been having this same fight for, oh, around about two thousand years. It’s a “who’s in and who’s out” fight, and it’s been going on pretty much since Jesus left the scene. All it takes is a cursory look at the rest of the New Testament – particularly Acts – to see that even the earliest Christian communities couldn’t decide what you had to do or believe in order to be a part of “the Way”, as it was known back then. It wasn’t called Christianity – it wasn’t even considered a new religion, but rather a small group of folks within Judaism who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Then they started adding a whole bunch of Gentiles – non-Jewish folk – and all of the sudden the question comes up – do you have to be a Jew to be a Christian? Do you have to be circumcised, do you have to follow the dietary laws, do you have to observe the traditional festivals, etc.? Is being Jewish a prerequisite for being Christian?

Well, these kinds of fights kept happening on through the ages, and the answers that came out of them eventually became a part of what was called Orthodox Christianity. The church would call a council, a meeting of the bishops, and they would argue back and forth, and they would vote, and the losing side would be labeled a “heresy”, and the winning side would be codified as church dogma and that was that. But the thing is, the “heretics”, who, prior to the council, were perfectly good Christians, didn’t all of the sudden start believing or doing the opposite thing just because the council said so. No, they broke off and formed their own Christian communities, and considered themselves more “Christian” than the Orthodox Christians. I mean, why do you think we have three major strains of Christianity today – Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox? Why do you think we have all of these denominations? Do we consider all of these to be Christian, or are there some who are not “truly” Christian? What about the Mormon Church? What is the acceptable level of disagreement that keeps someone from being labeled a heretic?

Well, of course, that question depends entirely on who is doing the labeling. So even if I were to answer it here today, it wouldn’t be definitive. Because I don’t have the authority to answer that question. I don’t think anybody does, really. Still, the question is important, because not everybody is a Christian, and it can’t really be that everyone who says they are a Christian is a Christian, can it? I think that most people would say that, at the very least, being a Christian comes down to what you believe about Jesus. Actually, I think most people would say that you are a Christian if you believe in Jesus, but what they mean is you have to believe certain things about Jesus. It’s less about right action and more about right belief. It’s all faith, no works. Sure, it’s nice to do good things, but what really matters is what you believe, because that’s what separates the wheat from the chaff. And that sounds great, because it means that it doesn’t matter what you do, you just have to say the words, and you’re in. This is the great Protestant-Catholic debate, right? Faith versus works. But even still, as we saw before, it’s always been about what you believe. What do you believe about the Trinity? What do you believe about Jesus? What do you believe about the Bible? What do you believe? What do you believe? What do you believe?!

And meanwhile, we’ve all completely missed the point. Being a Christian may be about believing, sure – I’d be willing to claim that. But it’s not really about what you believe, but rather whether you believe. We can see that in our text today, the infamous “Doubting Thomas” text. In John’s Gospel, belief is never a noun – it’s always a verb – and it’s always about Jesus. The litmus test in John for whether you are in or out, so to speak, is whether you believe in Jesus. That’s it. No Nicene Creed, no Trinity, no heaven or hell or sacrificial atonement or any of that stuff. Now, that’s not to say that that stuff’s not important, or that John doesn’t have his own theology that he wants to push on us. But the reality is that, in John’s Gospel at least, all you really need to do is believe in Jesus. And, though again, I am not the be-all end-all authority on this, I would tend to agree with his assessment. That’s why I like the creed of the Disciples of Christ so much – “No creed but Christ”. “But Chris,” you say, “How is believing in Jesus different than saying what you believe? Isn’t saying what you believe and whether or not you believe it the same thing?” Well, not exactly. There’s a difference between believing in Jesus and believing that Jesus… is the Son of God; is fully God and fully human; is of the same essence as God; died on a cross; was raised from the dead; and so on and so on. Because one of those is an act of agreeing with a statement, while the other actually involves doing something. Again, in John, belief is a verb. One does not believe things about Jesus; one believes in Jesus. Jesus is not the object of belief, but the vehicle.

What that means is that faith is not something you just say “yes” to. Faith is something you do. So there is in fact no either/or when it comes to faith and works. As my Gospel of John professor Dean O’Day is fond of saying in class, it’s a both/and! Faith works. So when I say, “You can’t be a Christian if… you don’t believe in Jesus,” what I really mean is that a Christian is someone who, in and through the power, grace, teachings, what-have-you of Christ, faiths. It is someone who does the work of faith as understood through the lens of Jesus. Now, we are free to debate back and forth about what that means, but the point is that Christianity is not about right belief, it’s about believing right.

And that’s where Thomas comes in. Now, all too often Thomas gets a bad rap because of this text. He will forever be known as Doubting Thomas, and of course that word gets thrown around negatively so often in Christian circles that, if you’ve hung around churches long enough, you might start to think that doubt is in fact one of the seven deadly sins – it’s not, by the way. In fact, you might even say that that word – doubt – more often than not ends up at the end of our “if” statement from before – You can’t be a Christian if… you doubt. Well, I – and, incidentally, John – respectfully disagree. Because I see nowhere in this text where Jesus condemns Thomas for his doubt. So often we read Thomas’s character in a bad light because Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” But we never stop to realize that Jesus doesn’t actually say anything bad about Thomas. Jesus doesn’t say, “Have you believed because you have seen? How dare you?!” No. Jesus merely asks him a question, and then says something about future believers. If anything, Jesus is saying something good about the future believers, but that doesn’t imply that Thomas is a bad person for doubting. If we think it does, then we’ve completely missed what was going on in the earlier interaction between Thomas and Jesus. What does Jesus do when Thomas sees him for the first time after the resurrection? “Here are my hands, Thomas, put your finger in them. Here is my side, stick your hand in! Believe!” Jesus doesn’t tell Thomas to bury his doubts, to cling to his beliefs without question, and that if he is unable to do so then he simply cannot be a Jesus-follower anymore. Jesus has Thomas confront his doubt, test it, chew it over, weigh it against the evidence. Now, it doesn’t say in the text exactly what Thomas does in response to Jesus’ invitation, but sometimes you just have to have a little imagination. See Thomas poking the holes in Jesus’ hands. See him inspecting the side to make absolute sure. And this – this – prompts Thomas’ statement of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

If you were looking for a picture of what it means to believe, this is it. Thomas didn’t start believing after touching Jesus’ hands and side. Thomas’ doubt is a part of his belief. He believes all throughout the story – though he may claim he doesn’t. When he tests his doubt by inspecting Jesus’ hands and side, he is doing the work of faith. And when he comes out on the other side, his faith is stronger. The other disciples, when they first see the risen Jesus? They rejoice. They’re happy. They believe, sure, but Thomas? He makes the strongest confession in the entire Gospel – he calls Jesus his God. Thomas, as a result of his doubt and confronting that doubt, now has a testimony that no one else has. Thomas has put his fingers in the nail holes. Thomas has put his hand in his side. Can you imagine the kind of witness Thomas was after that experience? How many people he brought in to the church? In light of this, I move for a reclamation of the name of Thomas. Let him no longer be known as Doubting Thomas. From this day forward, let’s call him Believing Thomas, shall we?

After all, you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe. And, among other things, believing involves doubt. It involves acknowledging that doubt, bringing it before God, confronting it, wrestling with it. Sometimes what we believed before we doubted is confirmed. Sometimes, though, believing involves changing what we believe. Either way, we will have a new testimony, our own, one that no one else has. I think, perhaps, that those who push their doubts deep down and attempt to bury them are for the most part afraid – afraid of losing the object of their belief. But if we truly trust the One in Whom we believe, what then is there to be afraid of? Amen.