A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sermon (May 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Language of Faith"

     When you live with an educator, you tend to start picking up on education lingo. Phrases like, “fixed schemata,” “grade level indicators,” “differentiated instruction,” “data-driven decision-making” are household terms to me.
     Christians use religious jargon all the time, even without thinking about it.  For example, I remember explaining to a church member that they were to share their announcement from the “lectern.” “What’s a ‘lectern,’ they asked?”
     “It’s the churchy word that means, ‘the podium on the opposite side of the pulpit.’”
     Here’s another example. “Well, just make sure you put those trays back in the... sacristy.  You do know where the sacristy is, don’t you?”  You nod your head pretending that you know where the sacristy is even though the word “sacristy,” sounds more like an artificial sweetener than the name for a specific room in the church. 
     You’re talking to someone who’s a member of another church in town and in comparing churches, you assume this person will know what you mean when you say, “I’m curious.  How many people can fit inside your nave?  The person looks at you with a shocked expression wondering why you think he has a large belly button.
     “No, no.  You must have misunderstood me.  How many people fit inside your nave, the place where you worship on Sunday morning?  We call that the nave.”
     We throw around so much religious language without even thinking about it.  Words like, “chancel,”  “stoles,” “cherubs,” “altar,” “acolytes,” “liturgist,” “hymnal,” “font,” and the list goes on and on.  We have a religious word for everything.
      Some would say that since we are living in an increasingly unchurched culture, that we should refrain or at least minimize our use of religious words and make things simpler and more understandable.  We often hear this same request when it comes to doctors talking with their patients or attorneys speaking with their clients. 
     So we say, “Would you please say that again, and this time, pretend that I’m a 2nd grader so that I can understand what you’re saying to me?”
     There is a lot of truth when we say that the church should find ways of speaking our faith language in a way that can be understood.  There is no doubt in my mind that we in the church often take for granted that people will understand our faith language or pick it up easily without too much help.
     I guess it was sometime around the early 90s when I read about a high school that was in the midst of a debate on whether or not the students would be permitted to say an opening prayer at the graduation ceremony.  The school board had recently voted to not allow a prayer to be said at the graduation ceremony for fear of violating the separation of church and state.
     But some of the graduating seniors put pressure on the school board to change their decision and to allow them to say a prayer at their graduation ceremony.  And because of their persistence on the matter, the school board backed down and said, “OK.  We’ve decided that you can say a prayer at your graduation ceremony.”
     The national news media got wind of this controversy and on the day of the graduation ceremony, some reporters showed up to do a story on how the senior class was able to convince the school board to change their minds. 
     But to the surprise of the parents, the school board, those in attendance at the graduation, and members of the news media, when it was time for one of the seniors to offer a prayer during the ceremony, nobody stepped forward to the podium to pray at the designated time.  After about a minute of awkward silence, the ceremony continued on without a spoken prayer.
     When the graduation ceremony was over, one of the reporters asked a graduating senior, “Why didn’t one of your classmates stand up to give the opening prayer during the ceremony?  The school board gave you permission to say a prayer and it was listed in the program.  What happened?”
     This graduating senior said, “Well, that was our plan.  Someone was going to stand and give the prayer.  The problem was, none of us knew that the word ‘incoyvation’ was another word for ‘prayer.’”  The reporter said, “I believe you mean,’ invocation.’  Not’ incoyvation.’  ‘Invocation, is a religious word that refers to a prayer that is given in a public ceremony.’”
     After hearing a story like that, there might be some of us who would say that we should do away with religious jargon all together.  And there are people who don’t see any value in understanding theological doctrines and religious words.  “What’s the point,” they may ask.  “Why make something that should be easy to understand, like the Christian faith, so complicated?”
     George Buttrick was a well known Presbyterian preacher.  Several years ago, Buttrick was on a plane and writing intently on a legal pad.
     His seat mate interrupted him, saying, “I hate to disturb you, but you certainly seem to be working awfully hard on something.”  Buttrick replied, “Yes, I’m a preacher and I’m working on this Sunday’s sermon.”
     “Oh, religion,” the man said.  “Well I don’t really like to have everything so complex and theoretical.  ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – the Golden Rule, that’s my religion,” this man said.
     “Oh, I see,” said Buttrick.  “And what is it that you do?”
     “Well, I’m a professor at a university.  I teach astronomy.”
     “Oh, astronomy,” Buttrick said.  “Well, I don’t like to have it all so complex and theoretical.  ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ that’s my astronomy.”
     Sometimes, we have a “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” approach in our attempts to describe God.   Let’s dummy things down, we reason.   Who is God?  No big deal, right?  Webster’s dictionary gives us the answer.
     Who is God?  Definition #1 – the supreme reality.  Definition #2 – The Creator and Ruler of the Universe. 
     That’s a good start.  But it doesn’t get us to a more complete picture of the God of the Christian faith.  If we would stop short on that answer alone, we would be settling for a “twinkle, twinkle, little star” language of faith.
     Today is Trinity Sunday which the church celebrates around this time each year.  It’s a Sunday for the church to reflect on who God is.  It’s a Sunday to do exactly what the Psalmist does when he says in Psalm 8,
 “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
     When I was between 13 and 18 years old, a buddy of mine and I would often lie on our backs on the hood of his car and on a clear summer night, look up at the sky and just think about God.  Sometimes we would ask each other questions like, “How did God create all of this?”  But mostly we would just be still, and not say a word.
     Have you ever noticed how easy it can be to think you know someone when you really don’t?  This happens a lot whenever I meet with the family and have them tell me about their loved one in planning for the funeral service.  Even if I knew that person really well through the church, I still often discover that there was so much more about that person that I never even knew.  By hearing the family share, I get a more complete picture of this person’s life. 
         If that’s true among people, that there is so much more that we can know about each other, just imagine how much more we can know about the creator of the universe.
     In our scripture reading from Romans, the Apostle Paul really wants us to know more about who God is.  Yes, God is the creator and ruler of the universe, but believe it or not, God is so much more.  Paul says that through Jesus Christ, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
      When the early church began to use the term, “Trinity,” they were referring to the good news which the Apostle Paul is expressing in this scripture and which is described in many other passages of scripture as well.
     And here’s the best news of all:  Because God sent his only Son Jesus to overcome sin and death through his suffering, death, and resurrection, and has also given us the Holy Spirit, we can have peace with God.
     But that’s not all.  Paul also says that God will take the sufferings we face in life, and turn those sufferings into endurance, and from endurance, God will produce character, and from character God will produce hope, and this hope will never disappoint us.
     Here, in just this one passage of scripture, we can see why the early church came up with the word, “Trinity” to describe the heart and the essence of who the one true God is.  In addition to the dictionary’s definition of God as the supreme reality and the creator of the universe, the early Christians saw a unifying interworking of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One God, yet known as three persons.
     And so when we use the word, “Trinity,” today as part of our language of faith, we do so, not for the purpose of sounding churchy or religious, but so that we can be reminded of what God has done for us and continues to do in us.
     So if someone should ask you what you mean when you use the word, “Trinity,” you can tell them about the Father who created the world, who sent his son, Jesus, to redeem the world, and who has sent us the Holy Spirit so that we can transform the world. 
     That’s so much more exciting than simply saying that God is the supreme reality.  Tell them about the Trinity and the good news of what God has done for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
     As we become more and more familiar with the language of faith, we discover the good news of who God is.
     Just imagine - the God who made the moon and the stars, the Father; is the one who became flesh and died on the cross for our sins, the Son; and is also the one who continues to pour out his love upon us and warm our hearts; the Spirit. 
     John Wesley was an 18th century Priest in the Church of England. This Tuesday is the anniversary of when he felt his heart strangely warmed while at a prayer meeting.
     Here was a man who knew the language of faith better than anyone. We might find it interesting that even though Wesley was a proponent of education and had himself received a classical education, that he was also quick to recognize that regardless of our educational backgrounds, God uses each of us, to share the good news of our faith with those around us.
     In fact, many of Wesley’s lay preachers had very limited education.  On one occasion, one of these lay preachers preached from Luke 19:21 which says, “Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man.”  “An austere man.” The word, “austere” in the context of this scripture reading refers to someone who is severe, strict, and very stern.
     This lay preacher, who had never heard of the word “austere,” before, mistakenly thought that this Bible verse was referring to “an oyster man.”
     And so, he proceeded to preach a sermon about the work of people who retrieve oysters from the sea bed even though it had absolutely nothing to do with what that scripture reading was trying to convey.
     And so he began his oyster sermon this way,
    “The diver plunges down from the surface, cut off from his natural environment, into bone-chilling water.  He gropes in the dark, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the shells.  Now he has the oyster, and kicks back up to the surface, up to the warmth and light and air, clutching in his torn and bleeding hands the object of his search.  So Christ descended from the glory of heaven into the squalor of earth, into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven, his torn and bleeding hands a sign of the value he has placed on the object of his quest.”
     Because of his passionate preaching on Jesus as our “oyster man,” twelve people ended up giving their lives to Jesus Christ that evening.  Afterwards, someone complained to Wesley about the inappropriateness of this lay preacher who didn’t know the difference between the word “austere” and the word “oyster.”
     Wesley replied, “It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight.”
     Trinity Sunday is a day on the church calendar that reminds us that we have been given this wonderful vocabulary of faith. We get to use fancy words like “trinity,” and “gospel,” and “invocation,” and “sacristy,” and “nave,” not just so that we can sound “churchy,” but to be able to help us have a better understanding of the good news of our faith.
      Trinity. What a wonderful churchy word!
      It’s a shorthand way of helping us to remember that God, the heavenly father who created the world, and who sent his son, Jesus, to redeem the world, has also sent us the Holy Spirit so that we can transform the world.
     I can only think of one churchy phrase for us to say in response to that really, really good news. And that churchy phrase is,
     Thanks be to God! 

The Language of Faith
Small Group Questions
Psalm 8 & Romans 5:1-5
May 22, 2016

Christianity has a lot of “church” sounding words. We have words like, vestibule, sacristy, invocation, lectern, etc. The word, “trinity” is another churchy word that simply refers to the Christian understanding that God is known in three persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Rather than try to dissect and analyze the doctrine of the trinity, share when you have experienced God as a loving parent (Father) or as a rescuing/redeeming presence (Son), or as a present help offering guidance and strength (Holy Spirit.)

Psalm 8 invites us to slow down and join him in reflecting on who God is. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

Share a time when you felt God’s presence through nature and how that experienced gave you a deeper appreciation for who God is.

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