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“Giving up” that old time religion

Date: 20/03/2016/Speaker: Susan Tang

Some of you very kind people ask me why I don’t preach more often. I am always hesitant to preach and I tell you why. Preaching has a bad rap. How many of you enjoy being preached at? You often hear people say, – “Don’t preach to me!” There is a reason for this bad rap. Because preachers tend to tell us what we don’t do, what we do wrong, where we fall short, what we ought to do, should do, must do. I can confidently say that as a relatively educated adult, I do not need to be told what to do or not to do. I’m sure the same goes for many of you. I know I have to be good, kind, generous, caring, forgiving, loving, etc – I don’t need to be told this. Besides, you can never make a person good by telling him he ought to be good. Mothers can confirm this. My problem really is not that I lack the knowledge but I more often lack the motivation, the second nature, the will. How often instead am I like Paul who admits, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing”.

Another reason for the bad rap is that many preachers are known to love to talk. We go on and on and on and on. We share more illustrations than we really need to, we meander and go off topic, and we don’t always end our sermons when we should. We preach to a different congregation today – our brains have evolved, we all have ADHD and if this were a webpage, you’d have swiped me away already!

Jesus, storyteller extraordinaire that he was, is my role model for preaching. His messages were counter-cultural, radical and often had an upside-down twist to them. Jesus who comes and rearranges my life with his upside down kindom, where the first is last, the last is first, where the weak are strong … you know how it goes. Preach to me something that turns my world upside down! Also, Jesus preaches by asking us to question, and to think for ourselves. He asks, “What do you think?” “Who do you say I am?” In this respect he was quite frustrating – often answering a question with another question.

Thirdly, it’s the content of most sermons – unfortunately for me and many others we struggle with the mainstream religious message, or at least the way it is proclaimed. If it works for you, fine, there are thousands of churches that preach this still – you have many options out there. In fact, for most this is “normal” religion – one shouldn’t have to work so hard to figure it out. For those like me, and some others of you, as Ollie pointed out at the recent FCC Connect, there is no other church for people like us, who are weary of the “normal”, the same old. Thankfully FCC accepts and accommodates people like us!
Anyway, it is hard work for any preacher to fight 2000 years of Christian teachings or to speak of God in a modern, scientifically advanced, tech-savvy, enlightened world – where most of the time we are not sure what to make of God, may not even believe in God, and think that that might even be ok! It is hard to find preachers willing to take on this challenge. Much easier to sing the same tune Sunday in and Sunday out, year in and year out. But to be fair, perhaps this old time religion (as I call it) works just fine for the majority, and there is no need to fix what is not broke. Just because it doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for you – I acknowledge that. As I stand here I readily admit that when I preach I am often just talking to myself. I’m not really talking to you. I’m talking to me. I have this stuff running around in my head and as I write them out to share with you, I’m really writing them out for me.

But one thing I am convinced of is, if our knowledge continues to get updated in the fields of science, technology, anthropology, history as we make new discoveries, why does this not also occur in religious studies? I don’t know about you but I am living in the 21st century – I now know that the world is not flat, that people possessed by demons or evil spirits in fact suffer from neurological or mental disorders, that homosexuality is understood today as it never was in biblical times.
We all know that scriptures were written in a different time and context. So is it not reasonable that I keep some traditions and religious ideas that are good for all ages, while I give up others that don’t make much sense to my 21st century mind? Daryl said he doesn’t like the title given to this sermon series too much, Giving Up, as it smacks of abandonment out of exasperation. But I love it because that is exactly the way I feel. I am often exasperated and I am happy to abandon that that exasperates me!
Enough ranting about preachers – I think I have very successfully just set myself up! But I needed to get it out of my system – especially because I believe this is a very special, one-of-its-kind church, and we have a very special calling at this very special pulpit. I would love that our preaching differentiates us from other churches. OK so let’s get to my Giving Up message this morning. If you like country music like I do let me now take you to Nashville, home of country music and the Grand Ole Opry. To listen to one of my mother’s favourite crooners, the late Jim Reeves. I want you to listen to this old gospel hymn sung by him at the Ryman Theatre, the original Grand Ole Opry House – called “Gimme that old time religion”:
That “old time religion” that was good for the Hebrew children, that was good for my mother and father, and that is good for when I am dying. That old time religion that Jim Reeves sings – was good enough for him … (pause) but it is not good enough for me, any longer. In fact the song I much prefer would go … “give up that old time religion, give up that old time religion… it ain’t good enough for me!”
And I believe it is not good enough for many who have left the church, and left religion – the ‘Nones’ and the ‘Dones’. Many studies and surveys reveal the reasons why Christians leave the faith. From those who see faith and reason, science and religion as contradictory – and where reason and science win. To those who cannot reconcile an all-powerful and loving God with the human suffering on earth. From those put off by Christians who don’t act like Christians, the self-righteous, the hypocrites, the know-it-alls with their pat Christian answers to everything. To those who feel God failed them, whose prayers continually go unanswered. To those who question the reliability of the Bible. If it is not accurate and full of contradictions, how can I believe it to be true? We live in a highly-educated, sophisticated and rational society; people link their leaving the faith to intellectual and theological concerns, so these issues are very critical. And rightly so.

By the way, these very questions provide much fodder for sermons. Perhaps preachers should address precisely these issues more often – The relationship between faith and science; Why does God allow human suffering? Why does God not answer prayer? Where is God when we need God most? Is the Bible reliable?
I believe if I give up that old time religion, I’d be better off. That in fact, the good news can become better news if I rescue my understanding of God, and Jesus, from limited and outdated religious views. Views that we were thrown into when first introduced to the faith because that’s the way Christianity has been interpreted over the past 2016 years (bias and prejudices, sexism and patriarchy, all intact) without mind you, any possibility of extricating ourselves – unless we leave the church or the religion.

So how do I describe that old time religion? Well, I am not going to bore you with religious and theological concepts which are beyond my limited brain power anyway – I have no formal training in theology, only my own patchy views from what I read and observe and experience. I talked at length about the ideas of Peter Rollins the last time I preached because his ideas resonated so deeply for me. And Jorg commented that he was unsure if it was mine or Rollins’ thoughts. It was NOT my theology it was entirely Rollins’ as I stressed many times in my message. However, Rollins gave words to what nagged at me but what I could not find the words to articulate – so thank God for gifted people like him, and many others.
So this morning, to describe that old time religion, I take into account our attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, and am going to pull a David Letterman. Here’s a top ten list of familiar Christian clichés that describe for me that old time religion. Daryl said last Sunday, we tend to cling on to our beliefs and it is not easy to let go. So let’s start with the ones that are easy for us to let go off, to give up – and move on to those that may be difficult if not downright impossible for many of us to give up:
10. Love the sinner, hate the sin I hope for us this is a no-brainer. If you’re new to our church, you’ll get to this part sooner rather than later. Suffice to say, who do we think we are? God? This phrase should be reduced to just one word. Love. Period.
9. It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve You probably can give this one up faster than I can say Go! As if you can dismiss all gay lives with a stupid bumper sticker like this! If you study the Bible seriously, you will know that “adama” means earth in Hebrew, and Eve is from the Hebrew word “chava” whose root is in “chaya” which means “living”. “Chava” or Eve is its causative form – that is, to cause all people to live.

8. For the Bible (clearly)tells me so The Bible indeed tells me many many things – but is not clear about a lot. The Bible, as history has proven, can be used to justify almost any opinion one may have. Unless you are a biblical scholar who studies the historical and cultural contexts of the scripture AND can read them in their original languages, the Bible is indeed not clear in many instances. Let’s not be so arrogant and presumptuous to declare this is what the Bible says and that seals it. It is the easy, lazy and if I can say, ignorant way to settle important faith issues. Today we have easy access to commentaries, scholarly articles, sermons, ideas, and books of all shapes and sizes, and it is obvious many differ and clash in their interpretation of scriptures in spite of the fact that we have only ONE bible. So go figure.

7. Christianity/Jesus is the only way (to God) Although you may believe this with your whole heart, consider those who believe differently. They could believe as whole heartedly as you, otherwise. And have scriptures to support them to boot. More so in today’s world of religious strife and wars, what real difference does it make whether you are Christian or Muslim or an atheist? I recently watched a powerful film, Tangerines, a 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. It is about a Muslim Chechen mercenary and a Christian Georgian soldier both gravely injured in a crossfire but nursed back to health in the home of an elderly Georgian carpenter who makes wooden crates for harvesting tangerines. The young men both vow to kill each other when they regain their strength. But as the days pass we see them slowly start to recognize the humanity and honor in each other. A very moving and powerful story about the senselessness of war, and a story that really brings home the fact that we all just one – the one human race. Stop trying to make everyone like us. The Greatest Commandment was not to convert people to Christianity. It was to love others as yourself. Part of loving others is actually understanding others in their unique situations, what they want or need, not just giving them what I think they want or need. Also, being open to the possibility that the person you’re with could actually teach you something honors their wisdom and experience, wherever they are coming from. Christian or not, every person has a unique story. And God works in all of creation not just the Christian world. Unfortunately our God has always been a Christian God, and we as a result we miss so much of God’s revelation.

6. God has a plan for you (I did warn you that as we move along my shortlist, you’ll find things get harder and harder to give up – and we’re only at number 6!)
Chances are we believe (or like to believe) this is true. Pastors say this a lot. This promise comes famously from Jeremiah 29:11 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. We seldom note that the writer of Jeremiah begins by stating the subject of the passage: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” in verse 4 referring to, not just individuals, but a whole group of people—an entire nation. And the writer has God specifically state that God’s plan or promise will only take place “after seventy years are completed for Babylon.” In other words, God says, yes I will redeem you—after 70 years in exile. Is this your idea of God’s plan to prosper? Context matters — God speaks at a particular moment in time, to a particular people group, and for a particular reason. Do I want to burst your bubble? No. I want – we ALL want, our lives to follow a plan for good, we all want to prosper, we all live in that hope. The overarching message I think is pretty clear – God does indeed want to redeem people and nations, and that continues to apply today. And this verse can indeed be used to comfort those who are sad or oppressed. But I think it best we acknowledge the original context the scriptures were written in. In today’s individualistic culture we too often tend to individualise our faith instead of seeing God’s larger mission to heal and redeem not only you or me, but the whole world. I pick this up again when I get to the top of my list. Indeed, the original Hebrew word for salvation “yeshuah” (which is related to Jesus’ own name “Yeshua”) which means deliverance, rescue and is generally understood in a collective or national sense. The saving, healing and restoration of the whole entire world. Closely related to God has a plan, is 5. Everything happens for a reason; and God never gives us more than we can handle The truth is sometimes life DOES bring us more than we can handle. War, torture, mental illness, innocent suffering, the Holocaust, horrible, horrible things can happen to us. And indeed more than we can possibly handle.

But these horrible things happen for a reason? Apparently God has a reason? God has a reason for all senseless acts of violence, and innocent suffering? To me, crudely speaking, shit happens. Yes there is a reason for things to happen – some random some not, actions/reactions in the universe, the chain of causality, but is God directing everything that happens? How do you say this to someone who has just been raped, for example? Are we going to be like Job’s friends and say, you must have sinned and it is payback time? Innocent suffering always defies human logic so we come up with all kinds of ways to explain it. I love the lesson of Job. Just look at him – he sits on the dung heap and yells at God with fists in the air. “I have done everything you have ever asked me to! Why is this happening to me? Answer Me!”

The key is in God’s answer. What does God finally answer, out of the whirlwind? I paraphrase (from The Message version) “Who is this ignoramus? Stand up now like a man! Let me ask you, where were you when I planned the earth? Tell me, if you are so wise. Do you know who took its dimensions, measured it? What were its pillars built on? Who laid down its cornerstone? With the morning stars bursting out in song? And the angels shouting for joy? God goes on like this for 4 whole chapters 38 to 41!! – But never answers Job’s “Why is this happening to me?” question. No reason is given. But Job is not crushed. He says, “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite. I have heard you with my ears, and my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”

What Job wants us to know is the worst thing that can happen to us is not suffering without a reason, but suffering without God. And that when there is nothing left, nothing left but a potsherd with which to scratch our sores, what is still left is the God of all creation, who laid the foundation of the earth, who made the Behemoth and the Leviathan and everything that breathes.

Closely related to this, 4. If you pray hard enough, and have enough faith, (fill in the blank with something good that will happen) Again, talk about setting God up! Who are we to speak on God’s behalf again? Fulfilling promises like this is way above our right or ability. As with number 5. horrible things happen no matter how much prayer is invoked. Let us not add to the pain by giving what could be false promises to those suffering. Even Jesus cried out and ask why God abandoned him on the cross. Did Jesus not pray hard enough? Did he not have enough faith?
And if we promise to pray for others, our prayers alone will not save him/her. I know this is usually said out of genuine care but let’s please acknowledge that when we say this, it is also about praying for ourselves – to find a way to practically help someone, to take action. Will my prayer change things (move God)? I don’t know – but I do know real prayer requires I attend to the issue, not just pray about it. It has been said that, “the hands that help are holier than the lips that pray”. My prayer is to make my whole life a prayer. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. I could certainly use more of that.

I’ll pause here to say that the above 3 points really arise from an image of a personal God, someone (typically a male Father figure) who has created me, has a plan for my life, listens to my problems and helps me solve them if I ask him earnestly. And this idea of a personal God is what I believe I am better off without.
3. A personal God We profess that God is way beyond our imagining yet we so easily make God in our image, as small as us. We are lucky that God is gracious enough to allow us to make God into whatever shape and size we wish. Also, language limits us. I have just given God a human characteristic of graciousness. It makes it almost impossible to speak of God. Yet, as Peter Rollins has said, it is also impossible NOT to speak of God – for God is the one thing we cannot stop talking about!

So I think for now, I just have to appreciate this conundrum and be aware and careful of how I speak of God. I have moved away from this image of a person dwelling somewhere above looking down on me. This notion comes from a pre-scientific age. But as long as in church we continue to speak of God in this language, we perpetuate it. People don’t easily differentiate between the idea of a personal God in devotion, and a universal God in action in creation. One helpful way for me is really to imagine God as spirit, as cosmic energy that exists everywhere and within me and you and in every living being. Remember the Sufi poem I read you last time I preached? The poet likened God as ‘in the lining of your pocket’, ‘in the curved pink wall in my belly’.

But even if we see God as way beyond anything we can possibly know, we can still rely on God as a sort compass as we go on with our lives. We each make an image of God that we can commit ourselves to but always remember we do it in faith. We don’t know for sure, we have to be honest. I have faith that God is love and I see God in Jesus Christ. But that’s my faith. I commit to it so as to live out my life. At the same time I am aware of the dark side and the terrible things that happen in my religion in the name of God, and I have to hold this in tension. This is hard.

The top of my list is a “biggie” so I have made it 2 points: 2. and 1. The Salvation Story – God’s plan for salvation Do we know God’s plan for salvation? Of course we do – the Bible tells us so, it is declared in church doctrine and teachings, no less in the documents of the Vatican, we sing the salvation story over and over again, boy do we sing it over and over again! Never underestimate the power of song – it is a most effective way to teach. Yes, in this story God saves us through Jesus. Particularly Jesus’ death as the innocent sinless perfect man who becomes the redeeming sacrifice God needed to pay for our sinful ways that would have led us to eternal death in hell, but because Jesus took our place on that cross, paid our debt, we have eternal life. And that’s not the only piece of good news. The other piece of good news is that Jesus didn’t really die. Well, in a way he did die (a horrible and painful physical death) but after 3 days his dead body came back to life (for some this was a physical resurrection, for others a metaphorical one) but nevertheless he rose and ascended up towards heaven to live with God forever. And God’s house has many rooms and one is saved for each of us who believe this salvation story. This story is all about you! It’s all about me and you, and rarely about the saving, healing and restoration of the whole entire world that I spoke of earlier. I am giving up this story – or at least parking it for a while. You don’t know how much sleep I have lost over whether I should have this one on my list. But I received 2 “signs” that encouraged me to do so. (My daughter remarked, but you don’t believe in signs, mom – no I don’t but anyway, let’s just say 2 funny things happened). As I awoke from a sleepless Thursday, and as one of the first things one would do, I checked my emails. I do not usually open the mail I get from my subscription to Verse&Voice. But I did. And the verse was “… do not worry about how you are to speak, or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at the time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of the Lord speaking through you.” Hmmm. The 2nd funny thing happened just last evening in bed when I suddenly remembered I had not yet listened to Graham Ward’s lecture on how he does theology, so I did. When I got to the point where he asked “is salvation just for human beings, or is salvation for the whole of creation?” (28 min in), my ears pricked up. He continued … “Christ’s death on the cross is not just about our sins but about the redemption, the health, the restoration of the whole Creation.” At that point I yelled “hallelujah” and my husband goes, “what?” I said, “Regis Prof Dr Graham Ward said it, so I can say it too!” My husband, much out of character said, “Praise the Lord!”

As of 2012, 31.5% of world’s human population is Christian, so that means 68.5% of the population is destined for hell when they die unless we Christians can reach these “unreached” in time to bring them into the fold. How? By getting them to believe in our salvation story. However, Pew Research forecasts reveal that this is not going to be an easy task. In fact they already predict that by 2050, the Muslim population will reach that of the Christians, and by 2100 will surpass it to reach over 50% to become the largest religion in the world. They factor in their younger adherents, lower mortality rates, and higher fertility rates. I know many Christians are worried about this. I wonder what God thinks about all of this? Is God worried? (see how hard it is to give up an image of God as a person – who thinks and worries) Anyway, I can see why we cannot help our conventional way of interpreting Christian faith.

From the beginning of our Christian journeys, this story was firmly in place and we faced the world trying to fit everything we know about life into clearly established religious ideas and convictions. No doubt this has sustained many Christians over many lifetimes, but convention, dogma and rigidity have also turned many away from it. I am not fearful to give this story up, because as I explore, I discover there are in fact alternative stories that sit so much better with my mind and soul. Stories that inspire greater awe and gratitude for me. Consider just 2 alternative stories: My favourite preacher Barbara Brown Taylor: “Salvation is so much more than many of its proponents would have us believe. In the Bible, human beings experience God’s salvation when peace ends war, when food follows famine, when health supplants sickness and freedom trumps oppression. Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.

Although we might use different words to describe it, most of us know what is killing us (or what we need to be save from). For some it is the deadly rush of our lives; for others it is the inability to move. For some it is the prison of our possessions; for others the crushing poverty that dooms our children to more of the same. Few of us can choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we respond to them. To be saved is not only to recognize an alternative to the deadliness pressing down upon us but also to be able to act upon it. Even those who have no choice but to be carried toward safety on stretchers will eventually be given the chance to take up their mats and walk, and even those whose legs still will not work can discover how agile a healed spirit can be.” Beautifully put. And from Michael Morwood (former priest with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart). He does not start with us living in exile separated from God, but with the understanding that God’s Spirit has always been and is still active in all of creation. And the whole universe is the source of God’s revelation. While we, on planet earth see God revealing Godself in nature and in human interactions – and not confined to any place, or culture or religious group. God’s energy is universal, expressed anywhere anytime, without boundaries. So for him salvation begins with, “God’s Spirit, always present in the slow development of life on this planet. Moving within human cultures to deepen awareness of the connectedness with the Transcendent, to move men and women to greater depths of co-operation and care and generosity, to assure men and women of hope and healing in the face of inevitable pain and tragedy in this fragile world, and to move all of us to live human life as best we can, in ways that enable and dignify ourselves and our neighbours.”

“This process of salvation began long, long before Jesus, and its fruits are to be seen in any person who at any time and in any place lived what we would call, “a thoroughly good and decent human life”. And are to be seen in any culture or religious movement that works for the betterment of humankind.” Wondrously put. You may ask, Where does this leave Jesus? I for one will continue to make Jesus central to my life, because all the stories I have about him enlighten me, move me and above all, set me free. His teachings are counter-cultural, often aimed against the religious authorities of his day, against the religious dependence on them to bring the sacred to us. He is always challenging me to live with greater generosity, greater care and compassion as the way to bring God’s kindom to earth. So Jesus to us who are Christian will always be the one who reveals what God is like. So Jesus can and still saves me every day – from my bad self, to hopefully my good self. You may ask, Where does this leave the Bible? I will keep reading scripture but with the understanding that they reflect, and are inspired by, the Spirit of God working in and through the culture of biblical times. I will read them more attuned to God’s Spirit manifesting itself everywhere in creation and beyond race, beyond language or religions. I do not think this diminishes my Christian life at all. And, Where does this leave us on this Palm Sunday? This Holy Week then is not been a story of a god-figure dying and being raised as a victim for our deliverance. It is a story of a man, human like us, who gave everything for the sake of God’s reign on earth, and who died in failure. It is a story of a man who understood human existence, and who felt the power of the Spirit of God working in and through him. But in his last days, he sees his faith being severely tested by abandonment, rejection, cruelty and a shameful death. He asks the same questions we ask, “How can I believe God is good and loving when this is happening to me?” “Why my God have you forsaken me?” I’ll end where I started – the task of preachers, at this special pulpit, in this special community of queer people, who gather here every Sunday morning. I task our preachers to preach to our people of things, often scandalous, things that the mainstream churches want to avoid. Bring us the good news like we’ve never heard it before. Move us away from that old time religion, from “former things” and “things of old”, from waving the same old palm leaves year in and year out. I task our preachers to “Do a new thing”, take those palm leaves and sweep away the old, and move us into a bewildering but brave new world, the upside-down world where Kings ride on donkeys, where the poor are rich, where leaders are servants, where the outcasts take the seats of honour at the banquet table. Rearrange our old ways of thinking and believing so that when these dark curtains are drawn and we as people of God walk out, our eyes will be blinking as we emerge not simply because of the midday sun, but because we are catching a glimpse of a world where Hosanna! Jesus is Lord! (yes, where Jesus is Lord in all of its meanings) and where the upside down kindom of God is beginning to take form, and where our lives are significant and meaningful because WE are God’s only hope and salvation for God’s promised kindom on earth for all. HOSANNA!