Sunday, March 7, 2010

Repent or perish? March 7, 2010

Texts: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 (God's judgement); Luke 13:1-9 (Repent or perish)

Repent or perish says the Lord our God! Repent or perish says Jesus our Saviour! Repent or perish thunders the preacher! [ . . . pause ]

Really? Is that what we believe? Is that what the Bible, Jesus and our tradition teaches?

Hmmm. I thought that the Bible assures us that we are forgiven; that God is Love and that our sins are washed away by Grace. Don't Christians teach that Jesus died for our sins and that we are all saved?

Or perhaps only some of us are saved -- perhaps just those who repent or those who achieve faith? And if some are not saved, do they endure an eternity of torment in hell? And if it the latter is true, how can we understand such suffering?

Further, what does Jesus mean by the words "repent" and "perish?" Does "repent" mean changing behaviour; just saying you are sorry; or perhaps just feeling bad? Does Jesus command repentance for humanity as a whole, for particular nations, or for individuals? And just what is it that we supposed to repent from? As for "perish" does it simply mean to die? But what, then, would be the point in warning about that? All individuals die, whether through evil acts of rulers like Pontius Pilate, natural acts like earthquakes that topple a tower, or by disease and old age.

Whew! Those are lot of questions to come from a few short Bible readings. But those are the questions I had after hearing the readings from Luke and Paul this morning. And so in this sermon I talk about the sometimes confusing range of messages found in the Bible and within our churches.

The United Church is quite diverse. We are, after all, the largest Protestant church in Canada. About one in 10 Canadians have at least a glancing connection to the United Church, though probably less than one in 100 are at a United Church service this morning.

The diversity of the United Church is reflected here in Knox: we have people who come to every Sunday service and who volunteer for many church activities; and we have some people who only come at Christmas and Easter. We have people who are liberal or skeptical in their thinking and others who have a conservative or evangelical faith. And I really love and appreciate this diversity.

But beyond the United Church of Canada, there is even more diversity across the various Christian denominations; and I am getting to know more about that during my internship this year. One of the many things I am enjoying in Didsbury are the meetings of the Didsbury and Carstairs Ministerial Association. This group brings together all the pastors from the various Christian churches in and around our two towns. We meet once a month over lunch to share experiences, coordinate worship at the lodges and nursing homes, and plan a few joint activities.

I like the pastors -- from Anglican, Evangelical, Lutheran, Mennonite, Roman Catholic and United churches -- who gather each month. And I am confident that God's work is done in all of our churches.

But in some ways, I feel distant from the other pastors. John Reimer from Zion Church, who is this year's chair of the Ministerial, suggested that the host pastor open each meeting with a testimony of his journey to ministry. And I really love hearing those stories, though they often seem foreign to me. Perhaps I wrote this sermon because next month it is my turn to host the group here at Knox, and I am feeling a little nervous about how my story might be received!

Even the other United Church minister, Rev. Bryan Derksen from Carstairs, has a different background than me. It is true that like me, Bryan is a preacher's kid. But as he told us in his story this week -- he was the host of our March meeting -- Bryan's father was a minister in the Church of the Nazarene; and I am told that this is a very conservative and evangelical denomination. Bryan told us how he found his way to the United Church while studying at the Vancouver School of Theology. And despite his father's misgivings, he has been a minister in our church since his 20s.

At the meeting this past week, Bryan talked about how his own faith journey paralleled that of the United Church of Canada. In the 1970s, a big issue was feminism and the drive for equality for men and women and inclusive language in worship. In the 1980s, the big issue was sexuality and the place of gays and lesbians in the church. And since the 1990, there have been dialogues with other faith traditions, including Judaism, Islam, and First Nations. Bryan talked about how his image of God has changed over the decades; and how grateful he is for the Christian tradition, the struggles of the United Church of Canada, and his congregation in Carstairs.

I am glad that Bryan blazed this trail for me at Ministerial. In questions raised after he spoke, I could sense the distance some others felt from Bryan's journey, especially those who belong to churches that don't treat men and women equally; where homosexuality is still condemned as an abomination; and where inter-faith dialogue takes second place to the goal that Christianity become not just the largest religion in the world, with 30% of people today calling themselves Christians, but the only religion in the world.

Still, I worry that my story will seem even more foreign to some of the pastors than Bryan's did. My father was on the liberal and skeptical side of the United Church. But even that wasn't enough for me. As a teenager, I decided that Christian beliefs, as well as those of all other religions, were either silly or harmful; and I wandered away from the church for more than 20 years. In place of church, I poured my spiritual enthusiasm into left-wing politics: the student movement, the peace movement, solidarity with Nicaragua, and union activism when I worked as a librarian.

10 years ago when I returned to the church, I was very glad that the United Church was still alive and kicking. I needed the embrace of a loving community. I needed to sing in the choir and let worship wash over me and transform me. And I love the journey towards service and a renewed faith in God that I have found in the church.

But the faith I am groping towards seems different from that of many evangelical Christians. A key difference is our attitude toward the Bible.

The Bible is a collection of 60+ books written in ancient Hebrew and Greek over a span of 1,000 years by about 80 or so mostly anonymous Jewish teachers. Translating these ancient books into a modern language like English is a difficult and error-prone project. So what the books of the Bible might mean for us is a difficult question.

I was flipping around the TV dial this week, and I stopped when I came to the weekly program of televangelist Jack Van Impe. Amongst his usual criticisms of President Barack Obama, he talked about the authority of the Bible. When he was a Candidate for President in 2008, Obama said that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was more important as a guide for him on equality than negative comments about homosexuality in Paul's Letter to the Romans. Van Impe objected to this. Paul did not write Romans, he said: God wrote Romans; and so every word in it is true and above criticism. And how does Van Impe know that God wrote Paul's letter to the Romans? Because the Bible says so, that's why. In particular, 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "all Scripture is God-breathed."

I have several problems with this. 2nd Timothy was included in the Christian Bible because it also says that it was written by Paul. But every single serious Bible scholar in the world for the last 100 years -- in which company I do not include Van Impe -- agree that 2nd Timothy falsely claims to be written by Paul. It was written by followers of Paul long after Paul had died. This means that 2nd Timothy is in our Bible by mistake.

But even if Paul had written 2nd Timothy, do we simply accept that it and Romans and the rest of the books of the Bible are infallible and true in every respect because 2nd Timothy claims that they are true? This would be like accepting that Van Impe is telling God's truth simply because Van Impe himself says so!

The books of the Bible have a central and irreplaceable role in our church. But to deny that they are written by humans and contain mistakes is, I believe, to worship the Bible as an idol. The various books of the Bible contain some stories that are contradictory, confusing, nonsensical, or that go against our best values. These are all good reasons to not treat the Bible as an idol. Further, our tradition directs us to put our trust in God and not in the Bible. We trust in God who is Love, God who is Spirit, and God who is Grace, all as revealed by the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ.

Some argue that the simplest thing to do is believe the Bible completely and literally. But given that the Bible is filled with passages that contradict each other, along with many puzzling parables, accepting the Bible in this way does not seem easy to me. To be sure, the other approaches aren't easy either. The approach I subscribe to involves reading and interpreting the various books of the Bible through the lenses of love, the stories of Jesus, and our own discernment of our journey as individuals and faith communities towards the cross. It can be a challenge -- like looking through a glass darkly as Paul once wrote -- but I don't see any other way.

To illustrate, let us briefly look at our readings from the Bible this morning. Paul uses the harsh judgements of God against the former Hebrew slaves from Egypt as a warning to the church in Corinth. According to the book of Exodus, God was often angry with his freed Hebrew subjects. So God made them wander in the Sinai desert for 40 years. And during these years in Sinai, God regularly killed thousands of the freed slaves when they worshiped the wrong gods or engaged in behaviour that God considered to be immoral.

Now if I believed that Exodus gave factually true information about God's judgments, I would never darken a church door again. But unlike Paul, and despite what it says in Exodus, I have no doubt that the Hebrew God Yahweh did not regular kill freed slaves whenever he was angry with them. Reading Exodus and meditating on it can yield great spiritual treasures. But while St. Paul and the writers of Exodus might believe that God regularly kills people when he gets angry, many of us no longer do. Now, this position means that we cannot be counted in the ranks of "Bible-believing Christians" along with my evangelical colleagues and friends. But I hope and pray that rejecting a blind faith in every single word in the Bible does not close us off to a trusting faith in the God who is Love and in the Grace revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The latter is a faith that starts with the Bible, but one that goes well beyond it.

As for the story of Jesus from Luke that we read this morning, it remains a puzzle for me. Jesus warns us to repent or perish. He then illustrates his warning with the parable of the fig tree. But what on earth does the parable mean? Is the gardener supposed to represent God? Or is that the owner of the garden? Or does the parable contain no character that represents God? . . . Does the parable mean that God graciously gives sinful communities a second chance to produce fruit? If so, what happens when a second chance yields no more fruit than the first? Will God then kills us just as he is said to have killed so many Hebrew slaves in the desert?

Jesus uttered this warning and told this parable in the year 30. He was speaking to a group of illiterate disciples in the obscure language Aramaic. 60 years later, Luke wrote down the warning and the parable in a different obscure language, ancient Greek. Today in English translation, the warning and the parable both intrigue and puzzle me. But I don't worship this passage or think that it must have infallible instructions from God. It is just one piece of the enormous puzzle of religion and life in which the overall biblical message is that God accepts and heals us all.

If you want to know more of my thinking on these matters, please return next week where our text is perhaps the most famous parable of all: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Like the parable of the fig tree, it is also about sin, death, repentance, and new life; and like the fig tree parable, it is only found in Luke. And it is also my favourite passage from the entire Gospel according to Luke . . .

In a few moments we will celebrate the sacrament of holy communion. It is a ritual in which we remember the ministry, death, and resurrection of the Christ. It is a ritual that makes plain that God lives in us and that we live in God. And it is a ritual that assures us that we are enfolded in God's mercy and saved by God's love.

All are welcome at the Lord's table; sinners and saints alike. To partake of the bread of life and the cup of blessing, we don't have to believe anything; do anything; or achieve anything. We just have to be ourselves -- beloved children of God created in the image of God. And even if we haven't yet properly repented, God will not strike us down. God will not turn us away.

The message of God's Grace as enacted at the Lord's Table is the one we receive from the Bible as a whole, from the stories of Jesus as a whole, and from the best of our troubled, diverse and wonderful Christian tradition.

Repent or perish? God's love shines so brightly and with such beauty that, despite the violence of this world and the difficulties we have in it, we are assured that all will turn towards His love.

All will turn. None will perish.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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