Faith Questions. You asked, United Methodist Chaplain Joey answered.
Sermon – Faith Questions 2-5-17
Tonight, is a little bit of a different sermon than we usually do. It’s not a really a sermon in the way of having a text and myself working through it throughout the week and giving you some take on that particular scripture, telling some stories and offering life applications. Tonight, is something we call “Faith Questions” and I am tweeking it from the tradition we have had in the past. you know different pastors have their strength questions just aren’t one of mine, but asking questions is an important part of our faith. John Wesley believe believed very strongly that part of the way we grew in faith was to ask questions of our faith and to not be afraid of questions because in asking we see places where there are things we don’t know and where we clarify some of the things we do.
Rob Bell, if you have not heard of him, was a mega church pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He wrote a book called, Velvet Elvis, in which he says “Questions, no matter how shocking or blasphemous or arrogant or ignorant or raw, are rooted in humility. A humility that understands that I am not God. And there is more to know. Questions bring freedom. Freedom that I don’t have to be God and I don’t have to pretend that I have it all figured out. I can let God be God.”
I don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t have to all the answers and so we ask questions. And that is what we are here to do tonight. To ask questions and to hear some of my thoughts on the answers. now I want to be clear on that last little bit because these are my thoughts and questions one of the things going to Seminary and becoming a pastor taught me is that my role in this community is to be the resident theologian which means I give my best take on scripture at any given moment but I’m still very much learning and growing I’ve only been a pastor now for or five and a half years. my theological education is one of those things that continues to evolve the big studying happened in the Seminary but there’s always so much more to learn. what I may say today is not to say that it does infallible or perfect. it’s not to say it represents anything other than my best understanding and my best attempt to understand these questions and I a pastoral way.
Also, understand something about the United Methodist Church. we are not creedal church in the sense that you might know of the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed depending on what tradition you come from well we can the Methodist Church Embrace those and embrace the values of those in the teachings of those we the formation of our denomination around those. we rather have a pretty big tent if you will and we allow room for questions and descent and disagreements. We fall back on some of the basics, we have something called the Articles of religion that if you’re ever really interested in some bedtime reading we have our book of discipline that contains the articles of religion that lays out what are basic beliefs are and I think you would find they match up with most of Christianity. for the most part will line up on those basics Jesus resurrection Trinity those type things. and that means that would I say tonight may not be one hundred percent position of the United Methodist Church and maybe more my particular understanding. all of us to say I hope you hear something tonight that speaks to you and I hope you here more than anything that questions are ok and if you don’t hear an answer I wish you to think of this is a dialogue that doesn’t have to end tonight. if I answer a question and a certain way and you disagree I want you to know it’s perfectly okay to come and talk to me or Rick or Kayla about that. and that’s not to say that we will have all of the same answers. I’m not speaking for Rick or Kayla, I’m speaking just for me. So come engage in this as a dialogue.
One final thought before I get to questions one of the things that ran through a number of the questions was asking the question of what is sin. and so I want to start off with my definition of sin. this isn’t necessarily the most academic answer but it’s the one that I use in my own life to evaluate what is sin. I learned this back when I was in college, when I was in campus ministry. Sin is those things that cause harm, harm either to ourselves, harm to others, or harm to our relationship with God. and that is based on the principle of love the Lord your God with all of your heart with all of your soul with all your mind and with all of your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. that’s kind of the basic definition of sin and we step outside of those things is when we step into the mess ground of what sin is.
So are y’all ready to get started? There are some doozies of questions I’m going to start with one with a little easier.
1) Why do people fast?
Matthew 6:16-18 says “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
I share this because Jesus says when you fast. part of the reason we continue the practice of fasting in the Christian church is because Jesus believed practice of fasting was part of a faithful life. not so much because fasting has something magical to it. There’s nothing magical or super holy about fasting however fasting can be a Holy Experience, a holy time. I’ll use myself as an example in college I was part of the leadership to my campus ministry and so once a year we would spend a few days fasting together and what we do than having meals we would gather together in our Wesley house and have prayer together three times a day. the idea behind this was we were replacing our time with food, with time with God. and we’re spending this time and we’re making this sacrifice. it didn’t make us more holy, but it was a reminder to focus on God.
I would also add that fasting food is not the only thing that is. We can fast all kinds of things. when it comes up the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter you will hear lots of people talking about giving something up for Lent. no talk more about that when we get lent. different Traditions have different ways of giving things up some traditions it’s meet some TV, what I encourage folks to do is to take time and sacrifice something not easy to do. maybe for you giving up vegetables would be easy and see you can say I’m not going to eat vegetables because I hate vegetables. instead you’re invited to sacrifice something that’s going to be a challenge. the practices that every time you think about that so say for example I gave up coffee which would be really hard for me every time I want a cup of coffee I would take that moment and spend a moment in prayer. So fasting is a practice to get us closer to God.
2) Is God too big for any one religion?
This may sound a little controversial, but hear me out, the short answer is yes. While I very firmly believe in the Christian faith and in the trinity and in Jesus who came and died. Believe that Jesus is real and he died on a cross and that he was resurrected and that in Christ we are redeemed and we are forgiven and we are set free. you believe all of that 100% but I say God is too big for any one religion because I believe it be the height of arrogance to claim I have the soul understanding because obviously, I’m so smart I’ve entirely encapsulated in this one religion we call Christianity. or even if I want to be a little broader and say 2000 years of church history has fully encapsulated God in this one religion. I don’t think that we can say that and I don’t feel comfortable saying that God doesn’t move in ways that we don’t even understand that God, thank God doesn’t move in places where the gospel is never been preached in a formal way. fewer and fewer those places exist on Earth but I believe God can move anywhere and everywhere anytime. So to say that God is limited to one religion, I don’t know if maybe this is asking a different question, but God is bigger than any one religion because God Is bigger than anyone and concept that we can have.
3) Why do we talk about God with masculine pronoun and do we have to?
the short answer is that it’s mostly tradition. most of scripture is written with masculine language for God some translations have gone through and try to weed out some of the unnecessary masculine language, but most was written in this masculine language. And so if you’re being true to the original text more complicated and there’s other questions that we have to ask about changing the task. not to say that is right or wrong, but asking questions of this text. Why we still do it today, why in many traditions people still use masculine language, is that it’s comfortable. here’s what I believe about gender and God. like I was just saying God Is bigger than gender. God is outside of gender. Gender is a human trait. In a way, it’s a personifying of God, but God is so much bigger than that. Yes we are created in the image of God, but I don’t think gender is particularly what the image of God is because if we are all created in the image of God, male and female and those you fall somewhere on a spectrum are all encapsulated. And God is both and all and none and again that is because God is so much bigger than we can encapsulate. and a lot of times it’s because we all been taught about the old man with the white beard up in heaven and so we use masculine. language. and sometimes if you hear me use masculine language I really try as hard as possible to use neutral language unless I’m reading scripture and which I normally just read it straight from the text. But other than that, is in there somewhere it’s more because it’s what I grew up with and it slips out sometime. But for me it’s not about saying that God is masculine, or denigrate the feminine aspects of God because you can read through scripture and find those as well. So do we have to? Not at all. You can refer to God in whatever way you most closely identify and understand God because I guarantee when you pray and I’m talking about in private prayer, however you pray, however you call on God, whatever name you use, God is going to hear that. God knows our hearts and that is what is most important.
4) Is God perfect and what does that mean?
I think of all the questions I got to ask, I think this is the one I struggled the most with just because I want to ask the same question back to the person who asked it, asking what is perfection and what does that mean to you? one thing to think about when you think about Perfection and our understanding a lot of it goes back to Plato. and so when you talk about the age of the universe, the age of God, the age of the world, our concept of perfection is not actually that old. and if we go back to scripture there doesn’t seem to be a real clear indication that the Jewish believers or the early Christians had a concept of God as perfect. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a question that and so I don’t necessarily find anything in Scripture that says that God is perfect. and that’s mostly because Perfection is defined around ethics of doing right and wrong, and doing the right things. I don’t know we can put God in that bubble this is what perfect is. and this goes back to saying that we can’t fully understand God all the time. there are just some things that are Beyond us. think about when you were a kid and your parents told you not to do something and you couldn’t understand why. It didn’t make any sense, but now that you’re an adult it makes more sense. when they told me not to touch the hot stove it wasn’t because they didn’t want me to have what was in the pot, it’s because they didn’t want me to get burned. We in humanity sometimes, in our limited experience of the world, and in our limited ability to see and understand, there are things we might not understand it all. To say that God is perfect or not perfect, that’s a difficult question to ask because we can’t figure out enough to understand if God is perfect. But I will leave you with this thought on God’s perfection. I believe 100% always that God is perfectly loving and in that God, never fails to love us in anything no matter what.
5) If God is so loving, why is there a hell?
I want to start off with something that Mark Schaefer our University chaplain said that he stole from a Catholic who said “we know that there is a hell, but we’re not sure that anyone is in there”. anything that we know God is merciful especially among Catholics praying for those who have passed already, for those who have died. Praying God’s mercy on that person. I’m not sure but I know there was when Catholic Doctrine taught of purgatory. it was this waiting place from which you could go either way, you could go up to heaven or down to Hell. That’s kind of where that thought comes from and so that’s not a bad place to start for us. you know, a lot of our modern understanding of hell does not come from the Bible which is kind of shocking we start to think about that. most of our modern understanding comes from Dante’s Inferno which is a fictional story about Dante who goes from the depths of Hell to the height of Paradise and this Visionary Journey that he has. a lot of the imagery that we have of hell, not that he didn’t pull from scripture, or there’s not things that are scriptural in there I just would not say that Dante’s work was more than a work of fiction. Al so interestingly enough, according to many biblical Scholars, it not until apocalyptic literature which is the end times, what happens next, and I don’t mean like what happens after worship, I mean like what happens next. this came about around the time the people called The Maccabees which if you pull out a Bible with apocrypha you can read all about The Maccabees story. it was in that time that’s all of this understanding of the afterlife started to bubble up. That was all about two hundred years before Christ. Prior to this they didn’t really have a concept of Hell or afterlife. Early she was thinking was more was that it is from the dust that we have come and to the dust we shall return. Something we echo in our own tradition as well. life was life and at the end of life what’s death.
Now that’s a little different than how we think about it. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in an afterlife, but what I’m trying to do is put some context around where some of these theological concepts come from. One other historical fact, is to notice how much of our heaven/hell languages comes from Hades, the Greek concept of the underworld that was also big around the time of the Maccabees. and it started permeating in a number of different religions. this is not to say that there was no afterlife thought in religion but all of this swirls around together at this point in history of the Greeks and the Romans and the Jewish civilizations. all this is happening in swirling around as our own faith is being formed as a formal tradition.
So, we are brought back to this question of death and hell and if God is good, does Hell exist? I don’t know that I can say for certain what exactly hell is. I can tell you I don’t believe it is a place of eternal torment, and a fire and brimstone and burning torture. I don’t believe that a good and loving God would torture people for all eternity. My general understanding is that God gives us free will and God gives his choice. and I believe after this life we have the opportunity to live with God or without. to borrow the definition that a pastor friend of mind uses, hell is the total absence of God. I don’t know if you can call that a place, but I know that God is not going to force God self on all of us, even an eternity. We have the opportunity to choose God all along the way, and into the hereafter. I believe that God gives us the opportunity if we would rather spend eternity with God, God would allow us to be in the complete absence. Which to me means nothingness. That is probably not the most satisfying answer, and that’s because I think our Concepts of Heaven and Hell and the afterlife and what all this means have been questions that we have been asking for centuries and generations. and not just our religion but every religion. What does life mean? where does this go? What happens next? because we know what happens now, we know what life is what is after life? None of us really know. there’s not really good accounts or persuasive accounts of what happens next. there are those that claim they have visited heaven, they’ve gone and come back. I will let you decide whether you believe those are not for yourself. I can’t really say they are true, but I also can’t say that they’re not. I just don’t know.
I do believe Heaven is beyond our understanding, and that our concept of Heaven is probably much, much different than it actually is because I believe Heaven Is So Glorious and Grand and extravagant and God all encompassing. I imagine heaven to be total and complete existence with God. And I am pretty sure that is way beyond anything I can begin to imagine or conceive of.
6) Repentance means no longer committing sin (at least trying to) How do you explain gay pastors.
I really appreciate the question and whoever asked this question. I turn back to the beginning when I said there were lots of hard and honest questions that come from honest, seeking places and so I want to honor that question in maybe not the most satisfying way. partly because to talk about my entire theology of sexuality and what I understand about homosexuality and bisexuality would take several sermons, several weeks to preach about and teach about. I would want to go through each one of these, typically there are six passages of scripture that we use to condemn homosexuality in the Bible. And I say we, meaning in the general history of the Christian church. I’ve studied them, I’ve learned them, I’ve spent a lot of time with them, I’ve spent a lot of time praying about them. What I came to is that, the conclusions of the church for the last two thousand years, I don’t agree with. I might be wrong. I’m fully open to being wrong. I try my best to be open to God’s movement and the spirits movement in my life especially when I’m reading scripture and theologizing.
So when I read in the Bible about homosexuality, for me it’s not sin and so there is nothing to be repented for. And a big part of that goes back to the definition that I gave in the beginning of what is sin. what is harming us, what does harming our relationship with God, what is harming our relationship with others. I know lgbtqia Christians who you look at them, you look at us I should say sometimes I tend to deflect up myself. I have trouble seeing couples when they get married, look into one another’s eyes and they and they offer vows to one another, they open themselves up to share their lives with one another, to be united not just in a legal way, but before God. I just have trouble calling that love sin. I’m trouble seeing two people committing their lives to one another and calling that’s sin.
There are so many things that I could talk about here, but I want to leave with this thought. turning it back to scripture because I think it’s important that we read all of scripture. Yes, they are those six passages, but then there are other parts that say things like in Matthew 7. And this is about the question about how there can be gay pastors. “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.”
we start talking about lgbtqi people being clergy and being Christian and being called by God. I say let’s examine them by their fruit. what is the fruit of their lives, the evidence of God in their lives, to put a clear definition of that word fruit, the active presence of God in their lives? What are the things you see in their lives? And if you can look at someone and honestly say I don’t see anything about God in you. The first question you should ask yourself about anybody is why am I not seeing God and this person? And the second question is how can I be God for this person, because we are all called to be the hands and feet of Christ and that means we are called to love everyone and care for everyone.
I want to close it on this thought. The church is very divided on this; the United Methodist Church is incredibly divided on this. this is actually one of the areas that I was specifically talking about in the beginning where the United Methodist Church’s teachings and I are not compatible, if I can use that incompatible language. The church teaches something different than I teach. I believe there are good people on both sides of this. What I hope in everything you learned from me is that we don’t have to divide ourselves by our difference issues, our different interpretations of scripture, our different understandings of God, our different ways of seeing God in the world. I will tell you, Blane and I actually have a good collegial relationship we get coffee regularly and we sit down and talk about our communities. One of the things we came to me quickly was that our communities are very different. We have some very different theology and different ways of living our Christian faith and what we believe is right and wrong. But at the end of the day, he believes we reach people for Christ in the way his community can’t, because we reach people who might not ever walk through the door of Chi Alpha. And vice versa. We are reaching our campus community in different ways, but ultimately with the goal of sharing Christ and the love of God. I hope in the midst of anything you’ve heard today that might be controversial you’ll hear that.
We are really out of time now and I still have more questions to get to. I want to get to three questions first thought because the answers to all of them is yes. Is dating allowed in the UMSA community? Yes, absolutely! Is interracial dating okay? absolutely. the only condition around dating in this community is what is building one another up. So there is no concerned as long as you are supporting each other and it is a mutually affirming relationship that you are both committed to equally. as long as you’re being healthy and that relationship, that is the basis of relationship. So yes, dating is absolutely allowed in this community.
(All below this were not included in the original because of time, but wanted to provide the answers anyway)
How do we reconcile the creation story told in Gen with the other scientific evidence that points to evolution?
- First, I want to invite you to notice that we actually have two side by side creation stories in Gen. 1 & 2 which tell the creation story in different ways. Secondly, reading Genesis, as with much of the Bible, but especially these oldest of parts we are reading texts that were first part of an oral traditions, passed down from generation to generation in times when very few could read or write. And so we really can’t read these as historic documents. Yes, there are historical facts in parts of Genesis, places that really exist, but much is also allegorical. It is asking answering some of the most fundamental questions, where did we come from? How did it begin? Why are we here? And I believe it is God inspired, meaning that it is also helping us to understand God, who God is, how God relates to us, how we relate to God? So I reconcile those two things by saying that they are asking different questions. How was the world created and how did humanity become what it is today? That is historic and scientific question. Why did God create the world and us? That is a theological question. I have no doubt that God created the universe and us, and it is science that helps us to understand how it happened, historically. I believe God formed the earth by setting forward the natural processes that led to creation. I would add too, that these questions are great ones to ask but shouldn’t be the ones that bog us down because there is so much more to our faith than just dogmatic beliefs on certain subjects.
Another controversial question that I may not satisfy you with my answer. As a Christian, should I be for or against abortions?
- This is a complicated one. For me personally, as my own choice, I would probably never have an abortion, but then that isn’t really something that is a real possibility anyway. I believe all life is precious and God breathed, but I also can’t say that I know exactly at what point the move from clump of cells to a person occurs. And so I leave this up to the individual and their doctor, trusting that they can make the best possible decision. My concern around abortions really lies in asking the questions, how can I support the person who is making this very difficult decision and how can I support them, regardless of what they decide after the decision is made. My job is to love others ask Christ first loved me, and this is no exception.
In the Methodist faith, are polyamorous relationships sin? Why?
- To start with the Bible and the United Methodist Church are less than clear in that neither address what an appropriate relationship is exactly. The UMC does not have any specific guidelines regarding polyamory, either for or against. The Bible is similar. The closest we get to something like this is in 1 Timothy 3, when the author writes that bishops should only marry once, or have one wife. Not clear however, is whether this has to do with a spouse having died and not marrying again or having more than one spouse. Adding to the confusion is that multiple relationships in the ancient world were not uncommon. Large families were important to stability and high profile examples like David and Solomon had many wives and concubines as well. Marriage itself was not about love but was transactional. So, it is complicated. I don’t know that I can say with certainty that it is or is not sin. I would go back to look in your heart, ask if this is something that feels like it glorifies God. Ask if this is something that draws you closer to God. Ask if it is something that is doing harm to yourself, to relationship with others, or your relationship with God. That is where I think you will find your own answer.
Is celibacy a gift?
- I am not sure I would call it a gift as much as a calling. We have this narrative in the broader world that says it is abnormal to be single past a certain age. The truth is that some may never marry or engage in significant relationships that reach a sexual level and for some that is absolutely a choice. Making that choice is complicated, but often is made because there are more pressing matters on the choosers heart. I think of folks like the nuns in the catholic church, who in being married to God, have chosen to fully focus their lives on serving God and serving others. Having a family or relationship pulls at you and demands a certain amount of time and attention. Choosing celibacy frees you from some of that.
Is asexuality talked about in the Bible? Is it sin?
- Absolutely not. Paul writing in 1 Corinthians invited the people to consider not marrying unless they burned with passion. He goes on to remind the people of Corinth that marriage is actually a burden because a relationship becomes an added responsibility in one’s life. In this way, I believe Paul would say, asexuality is a gift that allows one to focus more fully on God and the work, and seeking God’s transformation of the world.