Monday, November 10, 2014

November 9, 2014 - The Power of Prayer

Matthew 6:5-13

Before I begin the message this morning I would like to take a few moments and talk to you about a holiday season emphasis – it’s called A Season of Giving, and it will take us through the holiday season.  Each week we’ll spotlight one of the ministries in which our church is involved – all of which are ecumenical ministries – and offer you ways to get involved.  You will probably be familiar with these ministries, but as we have now reached the point of retiring the debt on our facility it is time we focus our energies in a greater way on the mission and ministry of our church.

  We are blessed to have such a beautiful facility and grounds, and this is the base from which we operate, but our mission and ministry extends beyond this location.  We are called to a ministry that transcends a building and takes us into our community.  The ministries we will spotlight are a combination of our local, ecumenical ministry partners, such as Arriba Ninos, the Open Door of Hope Men’s Shelter, God’s Kitchen, Operation Care, the Serenity Center, and the Backpack Project; our Region of the Christian Church in Kentucky, with the New Life in Christ Christian Church and the Christian Care Community; and nationally and internationally with other Disciples churches, through Week of Compassion.  These are really important ministries, they are doing great work, and many of you have already been involved to one extent or another. 

As great as it is to have such a wonderful facility, the true legacy and impact of this church will be found in its ministry to the community.  Last week I said that there are a lot of needs in our community, and these ministries are wonderful ways in which we can be involved in meeting those needs in very tangible ways.  Always remember this – we are called to be a part of the church not just for what we can receive, but for what we can give to others, as God has given so much to us.  Don’t ask what you can receive from the church, but what you can offer through the church.

This morning, I am returning this week to the series of messages based on your responses to the questions I asked you throughout the summer.  You had so many questions, and so much to say in response to those questions that I could go on a long time in giving answers.  Obviously, some of you have some very deep questions and are thinking very hard about some subjects, and again, I appreciate that you shared those responses with me.

A number of you asked about prayer; how it works, why we should pray, prayer in school, prayer at public events, and other questions, so this morning our topic is The Power of Prayer.  There are entire libraries written about prayer, so obviously there is only a small portion of the topic of prayer that we can address today.  What I will do today is address a couple of your specific questions and then add one important aspect of prayer. 

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus talks a good deal about prayer.  Our Scripture reading for the week is one of the most important passages in which Jesus speaks of prayer, and it contains what is arguably the most well known prayer in history – the Lord’s Prayer.

Matthew 6:5-13
“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.
So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
“Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 ‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread.
12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]

Among the questions you asked about prayer were those related to the public role of prayer, such as prayer in public schools and at civic events.  I am often asked about the question of school prayer and prayers at governmental and public events, which tend to make their way into the headlines on a fairly regular basis and can lead to very contentious discussions.

I should say, first of all, that I find it rather amazing how often prayer becomes a controversial issue.   Many communities often find themselves enmeshed in very contentious discussions over prayers at graduations, sporting events, and other school functions.  Our community of Shelbyville found itself in the midst of such a conflict not too many years ago when there was a very public debate about whether or not there would be a prayer at graduation. 

I often see bumper stickers with slogans such as If Congress Can Open Its Day With Prayer, Why Can’t Our Schools?  The problem with those kinds of slogans is this – they’re not true.  I’m always somewhat perplexed when I hear people talk about students being forbidden from prayer in schools.  Personally, I find it to be quite absurd that anyone would believe kids can’t pray in schools.  Of course they can!  I am old enough to remember when the school day began with prayer, and I also remember when that practice came to an end.  Did that mean that students could no longer pray in schools?  Absolutely not!  In fact, I would say that prayer is very much alive and well in most schools.  It may be that prayer is more alive in schools these days than when I was young and we began the day with a formal, school-sponsored prayer, because prayer thrives when it becomes the freewill action of those who do so because of their love and devotion for God, and not because it is scheduled as a regular activity of the school day.  Don’t believe the claims that prayer has been removed from school.  Prayer has not been removed from school.  The only prayers removed from school are those that are propped up by government authority, and those are not the kinds of prayers we should want anywhere, I believe.  Students are allowed to pray in schools, on school grounds, and there is no one in authority with either the power or legal authority to stop them.  The only prayers prohibited in public schools are those that are sponsored, organized, and led by those in school administration.  It has been my experience in recent years that there is more student religious activity in schools than ever, and I believe that is because it comes from the students themselves rather than the administration.

When it comes to civic events – especially governmental meetings – our community has, like many others, had a good deal of discussion about the offering of prayers, most notably at city council meetings.  The Supreme Court finally weighed in on prayers before city council meetings earlier this year, affirming the legality of such prayers.

I am often asked to pray at civic events.  Since moving to Shelbyville I’ve been asked each summer to offer an invocation before the horse show.  I’ve never declined the invitation, although I have to say I don’t think anyone listens.  One of these years I’m going to say add this to my prayer at the horse show, just to see if anyone is listening – thank you Lord for the offering we are about to receive for the operating budget of First Christian Church.  You never know; we might get some money, although I would probably never get another invitation to offer an invocation! 

Last year I was invited to offer an invocation before the Shelbyville City Council, which I accepted.  Since offering that prayer I have decided I will decline if invited to do so again.  The reason for my decision to decline is that it felt to me that I was invited there perhaps more for a political reason than a spiritual one, and I really have no desire that my prayers be used for political purposes.  My purpose is not to criticize those who offer prayer before a city council meeting, and I certainly am not questioning the motives of our elected official, nor do I intend to criticize them in a public manner.  The Supreme Court has affirmed the legality of such prayers and that settles the question from a legal point of view, and I may have misinterpreted the intent, but it certainly seemed to me there were very strong political overtones behind the establishment of prayer at those meetings.  I offered to pray with anyone who would like to have a prayer before the meeting starts, because I think that way of offering prayer is more in keeping with what Jesus says in verse 5 and 6 of today’s Scripture reading, but I have yet to be taken up on that offer.

When Jesus spoke the words in this morning’s Scripture reading, they were, like so many of the words of Jesus, words of revolutionary content that stunned the people who heard them.  They were revolutionary because they cut against the grain of what most people thought about prayer at the time.
I believe they are still revolutionary.  I believe they still cut against the grain of what many people believe about prayer because they reveal how we ask the wrong questions when it comes to matters of the Spirit, and in this case how we ask the wrong questions when it comes to prayer.  Do you remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about suffering and the question why?  Three week ago I preached on Revisiting the Question of Suffering, and in that message I said that the question why was the wrong question.

Some of the most common questions about prayer are variations of the same question of why – Why doesn’t God seem to answer my prayer?  Why hasn’t anything happened, even though I have prayed over and over and over and I have even enlisted many other people to join me in my prayer request?

Just as with suffering, why is the wrong question when it comes to prayer.  The question we should be asking about prayer, just as in suffering, is the question of what?  What is motivating me to pray, and what is it that I am I seeking in my prayer?

Jesus is very clear about the importance of motivation.  In the passage I read a few minutes ago, and in the two passages I included in this week’s study guide – if you had the opportunity to read it – Jesus is very clear that in his day some people had the wrong motivation related to prayer.  The most common mistake people were making in the stories from the Gospels, when it came to prayer, was their desire to make themselves look good.  They were standing on street corners and in other public places in hopes that people would admire their righteousness.  But Jesus pointed out that it wasn’t righteousness, but merely self-righteousness.

The motivation of prayer, Jesus says, ought to be to discern the will of God, as he says in verse 10 – Your kingdom come.
 Your will be done.  On earth as it is in heaven.  That is the what question of prayer – God, what do you want me to do?

I would hasten to point out that when we ask God what we want to do, we often ask it in relation to very specific questions, such as those related to vocation.  We often ask questions such as what vocation does God want me to pursue?  Does he want me to be a teacher?  An accountant?  A musician?  An athlete?  In my experience, when people ask me to help them discern the will of God for their life, it overwhelmingly means they are asking about a vocational question such as what they should do for a living or whether or not they should either pursue or accept another job.  And I don’t know how to answer that question, and I don’t think it’s the most important question related to our prayers.  I think you should pray about your job and your vocation, but what Jesus is telling us we should focus upon in our prayers is the will of God, that we might do the will of God, and that is a far broader and deeper question than just one of vocation.  Vocation is important, but what really matters is whether or not we are pursuing the will of God in the manner in which we live our life, and that doesn’t depend at all upon your vocation in life.

What Jesus seeks to get into our hearts and minds about pray is this – it’s not that God needs us to be pray as much as it is that we need to pray, because prayer is a transformative act that changes us and can then change the world.

In his book Prayer:  Does It Make Any Difference, Philip Yancey tells this story about prayer –
In the 1980s, a pastor named Laszlo Tokes took over a small Reformed church to minister to his fellow Hungarians, an oppressed minority living inside the borders of Romania.  His predecessor had openly supported the communist Romanian government, even to the extent of wearing a red star on his clerical robes.  In contrast, Tokes spoke out against injustice and protested government actions.  Soon the sanctuary began filling each Sunday, bringing together worshippers and dissidents of both Romanian and Hungarian descent.  Membership grew from forty person to five thousand.

The courageous new pastor attracted the attention of special agents as well.  They threatened Tokes many times with violence, and one evening the police were dispatched to evict him.  Word spread quickly and hundreds of Christians – Baptist, Orthodox, Reformed, and Catholic alike – poured out of their homes to surround Toke’s house as a wall of protection.  They stood through day and night, singing hymns and holding candles.

A few days later, police broke through the protestors to seize Tokes.  Rather than dispersing and filing home, the protestors decided to march downtown to the police station.  As the procession moved noisily through the streets, more and more people joined in.  Eventually the crowd in the town square swelled to 200,000, nearly the entire population of that area.  The Romanian army sent in troops, who in one bloody incident opened fire on the crowd, killing a hundred and wounding many more.  Still the people held their ground, refusing to disperse.

A local pastor stood to address the protestors in an attempt to calm the rising anger and prevent a full-scale riot.  He began with three words, “Let us pray.”  In one spontaneous motion that giant mass of farmers, teachers, students, doctors, and ordinary working people fell to their knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer – a corporate act of civil disobedience.  Within days the protest spread to the capital city of Bucharest, and a short time later the government that had ruled Romania with an iron fist toppled to the ground.
(Prayer:  What Difference Does It Make?  Philip Yancey, pp. 119-120).

Prayer doesn’t make a difference when it doesn’t make a difference to us.  If prayer cannot change my heart, it is unlikely to change my circumstances.  Always remember that we do not pray because we need to convince God to work on our behalf.  Jesus affirms that God is already at work on our behalf, and he does not need our many words, prayers, or the prayers of others to convince him to do so.

There is indeed great power in mind, especially as God uses it to transform our hearts, minds, and lives.

Monday, November 03, 2014

November 2, 2014 The Stewardship of Our Church

November 2, 2014
Acts 5:33-42

33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.
34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.
35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men.
36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.
37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.
38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.
39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.
42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

For some weeks I’ve been offering messages based upon your responses to the three questions I asked you over the course of the summer.

This morning’s message is a diversion from that series, as I want to combine two ideas together.  Today we begin the first week of our stewardship campaign for the 2015 church budget, so I want us to follow the theme of stewardship.

But I would like us to think about stewardship in a way that moves beyond just dollars and cents.  I would like us to think about the gift that the church is to each of us – this church, but also the church at large and what a gift it has been, and remains, to the world. 

In this week’s Scripture passage we read of a critical moment in the life of the early church.  The apostles were persecuted for their faith.  They were taken before the Sanhedrin – the same Sanhedrin that had condemned Jesus to death – and they were flogged and warned that they were not to speak or preach any longer about Jesus.  What did they do? The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.  Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah (verses 41 and 42).

Imagine if they had done what they were told.  Imagine if they stopped doing the work to which they had been called.  Imagine if they suddenly became silent about their message.  If they had, the church would have come to an end.  And where would history be without the church?

In 1946 the movie It’s A Wonderful Life was released.  The movie, which stars Jimmy Stewart, has become an undeniable holiday classic.  You know the storyline, I’m sure.  Jimmy Stewart plays the character George Bailey, a banker whose life has not fulfilled many of his dreams, and on Christmas Eve, because of a lost deposit, he is facing arrest and prison time.  George drives to the edge of town, intending to jump from a bridge.  His guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes, and in answer a comment George makes that he wished he had never been born, Clarence shows him how differently the town of Bedford Falls would have been without George.

Think for a moment about what life would be like if our church did not exist.  Think for a moment about how our community would be different if our church did not exist.  Think for a moment how history and the world would be different if the church at large had never existed.  It’s an unfathomable thought to imagine.  The world, and history, I believe, would be unrecognizable.

Consider these portions of our church’s history – the Restoration Movement on the western frontier was planted in Shelbyville in 1830 when, according to the minutes of the Long Run Association, 20 members of the Shelbyville Baptist Church left by consent.  That same year that exact number of persons became charter members of a new reform church in Shelbyville called “The Church of Disciples of Jesus Christ.”  The congregation later took the name “First Christian Church.”  The congregation became a part of the denomination known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Although they first met in homes, the congregation began to grow rapidly.
The first church building constructed by the congregation in 1832 faced Fourth Street.
In 1864 the church had outgrown its building space.  The dedicatory sermon for the new church building was preached on April 25, 1865.
With the coming of the Great Depression in 1929, First Christian Church came upon some difficult times.  The building fell into some disrepair.  The rook leaked, the furnace needed repair, the walls cracked, the bell tower began to lean dangerously.  The church, like the rest of the nation, was in debt.  Yet the congregation continued to grow in the face of hard times.
On August 7, 1969 First Christian Church caught fire and burned to the ground.  The sanctuary was rebuilt and dedicated in 1971.
The congregation moved into its new facilities on July 15, 2001.

Obviously, our church has a long history in the Shelbyville community.  As we draw close to our 200th anniversary, it is worth taking a few moments of time to consider the impact our congregation has made upon our community and upon our own lives, and certainly in other congregations as well.

When we think about church, our thoughts most likely turn first to the impact a congregation it has had upon our own lives.  Think of the friends you have.  Some of my closest friends are those I have made in church.  You wouldn’t know the names of Steve Dalton and Kurt Lohr, but they were two of my closest friends growing up, friends I made at church.  Other congregations to which I’ve been privileged to belong have provided friends for a lifetime.

Think about all the other significant events that take place in church?  How many of you have made close friends in this congregation? In another congregation?  How many of you were married in this church?  In another church?  How many of you have had a family funeral in this church?  In another church?  How many of you have had church friends in this congregation or another congregation praying for you when you really needed prayer?  How many of you had someone from church come to see you in the hospital or visit with you in a funeral home (not for you own funeral, of course, but for a loved one’s or a friends)?  How many of you were baptized in this church?  In another church?  How many of you had a child dedicated in this church or another church?  How many of you had a Sunday School teacher, a deacon, an elder, a minister, or someone from this or another congregation who made a difference in your life? 

I can think of so many friends, so many weddings, so many baptisms, so many baby dedications, so many funerals I’ve seen or in which I’ve been a participant.  I can think of so many times of comfort – and times of challenge as well.

But the reality is that we don’t always know the impact our church has, just as we don’t always know the impact our lives have had.  And we probably won’t ever know the fullest extent, at least not in this life.  But one day we will know.  One day we’ll know of all the ways in which our lives mattered and made a difference and all the ways in which our church mattered and made a difference.  Do you believe that?  I do.  To know of the difference our church and our lives make is one of the gifts of eternity.

Skeptics often attempt to rewrite history when it comes to the impact of the church.  Amazingly, some skeptics of faith will attempt to convince us that the church really has not been influential throughout history and that it has not really accomplished much.  Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

How many people would have been left destitute if not for the immense resources of churches offered to feed the hungry, to clothe people, to bring shelter; how many people left sick if not for the hospitals founded by churches, how many patients left untreated if not for the countless volunteers who traveled to all corners of the globe to care for others, and who continue travel to so many countries, even when they are threatened by war or illnesses such as ebola? How many orphans would be left unloved if not for the countless families who embraced those precious children in the name of Christ?  Think of how many people have been educated because of the church.  Most universities were founded by churches, church groups, or denominations.  Sunday Schools were established by the church to provide education before there was much of a public education system in our country.

In our own community, we partner with other churches and other ministries to make a difference.  There is Operation Care, Arriba Ninos, the Serenity Center, the Open Door of Hope Men’s Shelter, Habitat for Humanity, and others.  Shelbyville is a great place to live and a great community but below the surface of what we see as we live and work and move around town there are so many needs and so many challenges facing us and without the presence of the church entering into those needs and challenges Shelbyville would be a very different place.

I believe we sometimes take for granted that the ministry of a church is very tenuous.  I have no doubt that the church as a whole will continue until the end of time.  But we’ve all seen the churches that have closed their doors.  Sometimes it’s the small country churches that close as people migrate into larger town and larger churches.  But it’s also the larger churches as well.  Drive through Louisville or other cities and you will find many large church buildings that sit almost empty because the community changed around them and they did not adapt.  They did not reach out to their new neighbors and before they realized it, and after it was too late, those churches reached a point of decline that was irreversible.

The first church, besides my home church, where I preached was West Middletown Christian Church in West Middletown, Pennsylvania.  The name of the town is a bit deceiving because it’s not large enough to have an East, let alone a West.  In fact, it’s not even a town, but more of a village stretched out along the highway that runs through the middle of the community.  For two summers – 1976 and 1977 – I served as a substitute minister for that congregation.  I think a really good crowd in that church was 20 or so people.  Sometimes, when I’m home visiting my mom, I drive by that church and it’s still there, though I don’t know how many people attend.  By the looks of it, it’s probably not prospering.  But it’s still going, and I’m grateful it is, and I hope it does continue, but it’s not a guarantee.

We can easily take for granted what we have as a church.  Jesus said that the gates of hell will not overcome the church (Matthew 16:18), and I certainly believe that affirmation.  But Jesus was talking of the church universal, not individual churches.  It is only a guarantee that the church at large will continue, not that individual congregations will always survive. 

Our church has served the Shelbyville community for almost 200 years, and it has been a gift to each of us in the years we have been privileged to be a part of the congregation.  May we thank God for the great gift of his church!

FCC Shelbyville | October 26, 2014 Sermon

Monday, October 27, 2014

October 26, 2014 Reading, Understanding, and Appreciating the Bible

II Timothy 3:14-17
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it,
15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,
17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Some years ago a friend of mine handed me a King James copy of the Bible and asked me to read Luke 2:7.  I read it and shrugged.  I have read that verse countless times and didn’t know what he wanted me to notice.  I handed it back to him and he asked me to read it again.  I read it again and handed it back to him.  He handed it back to me and asked me to read it again.  I knew he wanted me to notice something but I didn’t know what it was and he told me I wasn’t reading it closely enough.  Finally, he pointed out to me what it was that he wanted me to notice.  I don’t have his Bible or a copy of that particular page, but I have reproduced it on the screen.  Take a close look and see if you can find what I missed on the first few readings.

Did you find it?  There’s a typo.

It says manager instead of manger.  It’s the only time I have ever seen a typo in a Bible.  I mentioned that typo in a meeting once, saying it was odd to find one in the Bible.  Someone else said they didn’t believe there was a typo.  No matter what I said, I couldn’t convince the person that verse had a typo in it.

That encounter helped me to understand that some people are threatened by some conversations, interpretations, or realities of the Bible.  They are threatened because they have constructed a view of the Bible that is like a house of cards – take away one small element of their view and everything collapses.  I think the way that some people teach children about the Bible contributes to this misfortune.  When I was young, some people told me there was a very strict way to interpret the Bible, beginning with the early chapters of the book of Genesis and on through to other passages.  Change just one small element of that interpretation and everything falls apart and you do away with the truth of all of it.  In that view of the Bible, everything is so intricately connected that one small change in a person’s interpretation means their entire view of the Bible collapses.  That’s what I was told by some people when I was younger.  The people who taught me this were very well meaning, but they were wrong.

I think this is what causes some young people to lose their faith.  They’ve been instructed in that view of the Bible and they go off to school and they hear something that conflicts with the interpretation they’ve been taught, so they do exactly what they were told – if just one small part of that interpretation doesn’t hold up, none of it does.  So they set aside their belief in the Bible and then soon after they let go of their faith.

I was told all manner of things about the Bible, some correct and helpful, and some erroneous and unhelpful.  Years ago I was told the Bible condemned my long hair and musical tastes.  My hair is much shorter now but I still listen to a lot of the same music.  Today, I’m told it condemns some of my spiritual and political views.  Sometimes I receive criticism for what I write in my column in the Sentinel-News, and that criticism comes with Scripture references telling me why I am wrong.  Despite some people telling me I’m wrong and that some of my views could be damaging to faith, my faith not only survived, but it has thrived over the years.

I love the Bible.  I love reading it and I love studying it.  I have spent most of my life reading it and studying it and trying to live its message.  I find it to be extremely relevant to my life and to today’s world.

There’s a lot at stake in how we read the Bible and how we interpret it. 

In response to the questions you asked about how we read and interpret the Bible, this morning we are talking about Reading, Understanding, and Appreciating the Bible.   

The questions we ask about the Bible have to do with how we interpret passages such as the command of God to put to death innocent men, women, children, and even animals.  How do we make sense of the different portraits of God found in the Old Testament and New Testament? 

What parts of the Bible are to be taken literally and what parts are to be taken as symbolic?  What commands were for a specific time period only and what parts are applicable for all time?

Lurking behind many of our questions about the Bible are other questions – what do we make of the charges of today’s skeptics, who claim the Bible to be full of contradictions, fables, and lacking in any element of the divine?  There is a good deal of skepticism directed at the Bible in our day and age. 

This morning, I would like to speak to a few of those questions.

1.  Do we recognize that there are different types of language used in the Bible?
Language is difficult.  I imagine that when the Founders of our nation realized they needed to clarify our Constitution with a few amendments they worked out the language and believed it to be obvious what they meant.  Here’s the First Amendment; this ought to clear things up.  Here’s the Second Amendment; this ought to clear things up.  And miraculously, it did, didn’t it?  (There’s an example of the problem of language.  Someone reading this may not catch the sarcasm in that sentence).

Skeptics, it seems to me, approach the Bible in a very erroneous manner.  While many of them claim not to believe the Bible, they are very literalistic in the manner in which they approach the Bible.  They are so literalistic they have little or no appreciation for the various types of language employed by the Bible, which leads them to make many unfortunate conclusions.  A skeptic once challenged me about the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus says to a Canaanite woman it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.  Thinking that Jesus was being incredibly rude, the person asked me how I could justify such an attitude.  My response was that their interpretation was incredibly mistaken, as Jesus could be using sarcasm or one of several other ways of speaking that is difficult to ascertain from the printed page.

It is on this point that I would offer my first suggestion as to how to approach the Bible – do not read it as a “flat” document.  It can be difficult to ascertain the difference in language when we are reading the printed page.  We can recognize it very easily when it is the spoken word.  Tanya, for instance, often calls me a genius, but I can assure you she doesn’t use that word according to the usual definition of genius.  It’s usually used in connection with something dumb that I’ve done, a roll of the eyes, and the comment you are a genius.  I get the point, believe me.  But if it were written down that Tanya called me a genius, someone might read that at some point and so I like to think that one day our grandchildren and great-grandchildren would read such a statement and think wow, granddad was a genius, because it says said so right here! 

Because the Bible uses many different types of language we must be diligent to try and understand what type of language is used in a particular passage.  How do we, for instance, interpret what Jesus says in Matthew 5:29 – 30: If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.  I don’t know anyone who has followed that verse literally.  Did Jesus mean that we should?  I don’t think so.  I believe Jesus is using hyperbole in order to get our attention about the serious nature of temptation and the havoc and heartbreak it can bring to our lives. 

Don’t read the Bible as being “flat,” that is, as using only one type of language that must be taken always in a literal sense. 

2.  How do we know the difference between a command for a particular place and time and a command that is applicable to all places and all times?
Beyond the question of language, there are other important matters to consider as well, one of which is the very difficult question of what Scriptural commands are meant for a particular time and place and which ones applicable to all time times and places?  Leviticus, for example, is often quoted in reference to some of today’s debates over sexuality but there are other commands in Leviticus that are never considered.  In Leviticus 19:19 we find the command that we are not to plant your field with two kinds of seed.  Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.  Or how about 19:28, a verse that seems rather timely to me – do not…put tattoo marks on your selves.  Does any one here have a tattoo?  There seems to be quite a few people violating that command these days.  How about this one – do not cut the hair at the edges of your head or clip off the edges of your beard (Leviticus 19:27).  Most of us would probably say that because those are Old Testament commands they don’t apply.  But here’s one from the New Testament – every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.  And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…if a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off (I Corinthians 11:4-6).

Some people read those verses and claim that is why the Bible is out of date but they don’t understand there were very good reasons at the time for the commands that seem very strange to us.  We would agree that those verses were for a particular time and place, but what about this one – You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43-44).  I don’t know about you, but I find the commands about not having a tattoo or covering my head to be a lot more appealing than the one to love my enemy.  I think we would all agree that one applies to all time.  And I Corinthians 13; has there ever been a more powerful statement about love? 

There is a difference between time-bound commands and commands for all time, and we must be very careful to distinguish between the two.

3.  Is the Bible still relevant in the modern world?
One of the charges of skeptics against the Bible is that it is out of date and irrelevant to today’s world.  The mistake they make is they equate old with irrelevant, and those two things are not one and the same.  Sam Harris, in his book The End of Faith, says that to the ancients, a wheelbarrow would be a breathtaking piece of technology.  That’s is an incredibly ignorant statement.  The ancient Greeks were incredibly advanced in math and were ever performing some forms of surgery.  The ancient Egyptians accomplished amazing feats of engineering when it came not only to the pyramids but also to other of their building projects.  For millennia, astronomers have possessed the ability to predict eclipses with incredible accuracy.  Think of the great philosophical achievements of Aristotle and Plato, who possessed intellects beyond most modern minds.  Think of the immortal writing of William Shakespeare.  Old does not equal irrelevant.

The Bible continues to be relevant for many reasons, and is because it is like a mirror that allows us to see all the truth about humanity, from the tragedy to the beauty.  It shows us not only what we are, but what we can be, and were created to be.

I will close with a story that I believe I shared early in my ministry, so some of you have heard it but many of you have not.  When I was attending seminary, I had a theology class that was very difficult.  It was difficult not only because of the material, but also because the professor could be quite provocative in some of his statements.  Some of his statements regularly upset members of the class, and one day he said something especially provocative, causing one of the students to jump up from his seat and exclaim Dr. Tupper, why are you trying to destroy my faith!  It was a large class, probably about 100 – 125 students.  I was sitting in the back row, where I had a good view of this very emotional moment.  The lecture hall became very quiet, punctuated only by the breathing and sobs of the student, who was so emotional that tears were running down his face.  We were all very curious about how Dr. Tupper would handle such a situation.  Remembering it as though it happened yesterday, I can still see Dr. Tupper walking to the student, whose desk was at the end of the front row, and putting his hand on the student’s shoulder and having him sit back down in his desk.  Dr. Tupper then sat on the edge of the desk, and with his hand still on the shoulder of the student said, son, I’m not trying to destroy your faith; I’m trying to make sure it can survive outside of this classroom.  If it can’t survive this classroom, it will never survive outside of this room.  What a powerful moment, and powerful lesson, that was.

Dr. Tupper was correct.  If a student’s faith could not survive that classroom, it would not survive outside of the classroom.  I struggled a great deal in that class as Dr. Tupper challenged us, challenged our faith, and made us think.  I lost some sleep because of that class, as I sometimes would think in the middle of the night about some of the things Dr. Tupper said to us.  But my faith was strengthened, and my understanding of the Bible was certainly strengthened as well.

The Scriptures are a gift to us, a gift that is designed to strengthen our faith.  You have probably noticed that I haven’t answered your specific questions this morning.  That is intentional.  I want you to think and struggle – and certainly turn to the Bible and study and read – about those questions.  The Bible is not always an easy book.  It is not always easy to understand, and when it is understandable it is very difficult to put into practice in our lives.  But the process of reading, studying, and struggling is all part of what plants the Bible firmly into our hearts and minds.