Sunday, July 22, 2012

Got the Itch?

1 Timothy 4:1-10
2 Timothy 3:1-5
July 23, 2012

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.


Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron... Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness,  for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

             This summer, we survey how things have changed for our church over the past hundred years. This congregation is a hundred years ago. The world has changed and keeps changing.

            Here is one way that things have changed: one hundred years ago, people chose churches because of the things that the churches believed. Doctrine was public currency. A lot of people knew that churches differed from one another. Their parents that them that. Roman Catholics went only to Roman Catholic churches; they would never go into a Baptist church, and the Baptist wouldn’t want them. In my own family, just sixty years ago, there was a small crisis when my Presbyterian mother started dating a country boy who was a Methodist.

            As people moved into Clarks Summit a hundred years ago, they selected churches based on what the churches believed. They began with what they knew, what they had been taught by their parents. Does this church believe that we are saved by grace, or does it expect me to work out my salvation in good deeds? Is heaven a free gift, or do I earn it by rehearsing for it? Does this church believe in Mary, the saints, and the Pope? Has God already selected those who are saved and damned, or is the burden on us to believe the right beliefs? A hundred years ago, this is how people talked.

            The grandmothers who started this church started a Presbyterian church. They believed there was a need for that kind of brand, and they knew that a lot of the city Presbyterians were actually living up here in this little railroad town. So they rounded up as many as they could. Everybody was welcome, of course, as long as they were already Presbyterians, or willing to become one.

            And a hundred years ago, Presbyterians built their churches in the centers of towns. They intended to be permanent structures, long-lasting institutions. They had nothing to do with flimsy, fly-by-night flocks on the edge of town. They built a church to last, on an approach and perspective to Christian faith that was, at that point, four hundred years old. The church was built on firm stones, because the cornerstone himself was Jesus Christ. The Presbyterians believed that. Their faith was unshakeable more than it was enthusiastic. So here we are, on the corner of Stone Avenue and School Street, perpetually looking down on the Catholics. A hundred years ago, that was the posture of this church.

            That was a long time ago. Time moves on. And if people used to join up with churches because of what they believe, now they join churches because of what they do. Does the place have programs? Is there something to do? Is there a good children’s program? Are the teenagers kept busy? Is there good music, however understood? Pick the activity, choose the church. Shop around for the right church – not so much on what it says, but what it does. We have been going through a long season where doing seems to be more important than believing.

            So I wonder about this. There used to be a day when you could sort out the Presbyterians who believed in predestination from the Methodists who got all rowdy about prevenient grace. The distinctions mattered, once upon a time. They were hammered out carefully, sometimes forcefully, often literally.

            It’s always been that way. Christians were the people who paid attention to the words. They labored to speak the correct words in the best possible order. For about seven hundred years, Rome was at odds with Constantinople. Each glistening city was a center for the Christian church, just as each was the center of its own expansive empire. Rome was to the west, Constantinople was to the east. Each was a Christian city, and they lived in tension with the other.

The tension went back as far as the Nicene Council, convened in 325 AD. The council sought to bring unity to all Christians. One of the central unifying concerns could be stated this way: how much do God and Jesus overlap? Is God divine and Jesus human? Is Jesus half-divine and half-human? And the Nicene answer is that Jesus is completely human and completely divine. That’s what the church believes; issue settled.

But it was never settled. Not in church. You see, in church, all the votes may be a hundred percent, but it’s never unanimous. That’s why the church has parking lots, to continue discussions on matters already settled. The tension of the Nicene Council continued almost seven hundred years after the theology was decided. And then the Pope of Rome added a phrase that the Patriarch of Constantinople never wanted.

The issue was where does the Holy Spirit come from? The Pope’s people declared, “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Patriarch’s people said, “The Holy Spirit comes from the Father, only from the Father, not the Son. That’s what we decided in 325 AD.” And in 1014 AD, East and West split because of three words that the Western church added to the Nicene Creed. That was the proverbial straw that broke the single Christian church into Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic church. A three word phrase! You can say, “What are three words?” The Pope and the Patriarch would say they make all the difference in the world.

People don’t pay attention to the words. Not like they once did. There is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – now they tell us that they are Christian. They call themselves a church. They mention Jesus Christ in their name. The Mormon marketing people say they are Christian – even though the historical Christian churches have never declared them close to our circles of faith.

That’s because the Mormon beliefs are profoundly different from anything that the Catholics, the Orthodox, or the Presbyterians would agree on. To a lot of us, the Mormon church is an American re-invention, based on the visions of a man who left the Christian church in 1830 and claimed to receive golden messages that nobody else has ever actually proved. Now it’s true that Mormon people lead exemplary lives, lives that could be great models for the Christians, but it’s also true that nobody pays much attention to how Mormon words differ profoundly from truly Christian words.

Does it make a difference? In the early church it made a difference. Not that the first, second, and third generations of Christ followers had every theological tidbit nailed down. But they could sniff out a few of the smelly beliefs that filled the air. And they discerned the truth that was grounded in Christ, and the nonsense that was merely a distraction.

            In the second of today’s scripture texts, a mature Christian leader advises a young Christian follower on what not to believe. He says, “The Spirit of God is teaching us. The days will come when people will leave behind our faith about Jesus and chase after liars and hypocrites.” Some of these people say the strangest things, like “don’t get married,” or “a spiritual person goes on spiritual diets.” Some of them even chase after demons. Stay away from these people. Keep your distance. As much as possible, train yourself to be like God while keeping your feet firmly on the ground.

It’s good advice. We worship a God who speaks, but who speaks quietly. And in that stillness, we have to be aware of the other voices that clamor for our attention.

We hear the voices all the time. They linger. When I arrived here so many years ago, somebody in town quizzed me - “What do you think of the ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ philosophy?” You may remember that self-help book from 1967. It’s a book for adults on how to grow up, and explores how the messages of childhood keep us from growing up.

That was 1992, and this guy was still working through that book 25 years after it was published. He said it was the greatest book ever written, that “it was more important than the Bible.” Really? “Oh, yes,” he said, “that book helps me understand why I am the way I am.” He didn’t look very happy when he said it.

I hated to tell him that I had just read a critique of the entire self-help movement called “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional.” And the author pointed out that the biggest problem with self-help books, or motivational speakers, or the “just think positively” crowd, is that nobody in that bunch ever seems to find any practical help – they might feel a little better for the time being, but it rarely lasts - and the guru behind the whole movement is laughing all the way to the bank.

            It’s always been that way. It was that way in the beginning. As we heard from today’s first scripture text, “The time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires. They will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” And sooner or later, the Itch is exposed for what it is.

            There was a night in January 1998 when I took a water taxi in Fort Lauderdale. It was a strange night. Some friends took us to a steakhouse owned by Burt Reynolds, and they were picking up the tab. The water taxi made its way through the yachts on the Fort Lauderdale waterway, and they were some of the largest boats I have ever seen.

As we putted along, we passed by an enormous mansion. I’m going to guess it was twenty thousand square feet. There was a party going on by one of the three outdoor pools – disco lights, thumping music. We could hardly hear ourselves talk. My host said, “You know who lives there? It’s the guy who runs the Psychic Friends Network.”

            Remember the Psychic Friends Network? Dionne Warwick was the hostess. She introduced you to a psychic. And for $3.99 a minute, you could call your own personal psychic who would tell you how you were going to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. A lot of people were doing this. Nancy Reagan was doing this. All those minutes were paying for a 20,000 square foot mansion with three swimming pools.

About three weeks after we floated by, the place went up for sale. The Psychic Friends Network declared bankruptcy. I guess they weren’t getting good messages from headquarters.

Do the distinctions matter anymore between Presbyterian and Methodist, Catholic and Orthodox? I don’t know. Sometimes I would settle for a community full of Christians, without needing to sort them out by their brand names. You know what I mean? I realize I speak as a Christian who believes the Presbyterian government has the greatest potential for showing respect to every person, as a Christian who believes that our Reformed tradition of theology is the most grounded and inclusive approach to authentic faith, and most of all, as a Christian who believes that God is greater than the words we use to reach toward God. That’s why I think we need to keep working and working to find the best words we can, to get them right.

And there’s something more: faith needs something more than words. True Christian faith inhabits its own vocabulary. We cannot separate the best of what we say from the best we aspire to do. If we declare that God is forgiving, then we ourselves practice forgiveness. If we believe God is generous, then we respect the gifts we have received and share them generously with those around us. If we believe that God is love, we work for the benefit of every other person. This, too, is the practice of Godliness – speaking the truth about what is Holy and then putting our own skin in the game to embody what we profess.

            A mother in New Jersey watched her thirteen year old daughter go through confirmation class this year. Mom was critical of the teacher, sensing the class was disorganized, and noting the official class workbook rolled around in the back of her car and never being taken to weekly classes. She wasn’t sure if anything was getting through to Anna.

            But then the day came when Anna stood to say what she believed:

I believe in God, but that doesn’t mean that I still don’t have a few doubts. God is something more in this world that makes everything come together. God sets the guidelines for our lives, but then also gives us certain paths we are able to take. God does make some decisions for us, but we have a lot of freedom in what we do. I also believe that God is the creator, but somehow works into science somehow. God is everywhere. He is there when we need him and wants us to do well in our life and for us to succeed. 

For me, Jesus is the hardest thing for me to believe in. It’s hard for me to believe in all of the things he did, all of his miracles. I do believe Jesus made a huge difference in this world. He changed the way people think. Jesus taught all of us his teachings and now many people follow in his footsteps.

Church is a community coming together. It’s a group of people that all love you and accept you whoever you are, no matter what your faith is. God the creator brings us all together into this wonderful community. This is what I believe, and I want to be part of it. (Thanks to Anna's mom for sharing this note and story!)

            When all is said and done, let’s define the church: church is the community of Christians who are still becoming Christians. It is this circle of people who labor to get the words right about God, to tell the truth about God, and then we work even harder so that others will see the truth about God in the ways we live and the ways we love.

We reach for the truth, it’s true, but only so we can embody it. . 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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