Ask the Pastor

June 12, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

As promised, today is “Ask the Pastor Sunday” and one question that people have asked me many times over the years is, “How do you choose your sermon topics?”  The answer is that sometimes I follow the lectionary, a three year cycle of scripture readings that is used by many Catholic and Protestant churches around the world.  Sometimes, I choose a book of the Bible and preach a series on the stories and verses of that Bible.  Occasionally I preach thematically doing a series for example on Advent themes or Lenten themes.  Whatever I choose to do, however, I am always the one choosing which for the congregation is rather like going to a restaurant and having to eat whatever the chef felt like cooking that day.

Today then I have invited you all to write the menu.  Today’s sermon will be short snippets of reflection on a few biblical and theological questions that people have emailed to me over the past couple of weeks.  I have to admit upfront that I didn’t really think this through because given my inability to give short answers to any question, there’s no way I can answer all of the questions that people had in one sermon.  Your questions were all interesting and some were quite challenging, and so I’ve just chosen a few and will try to answer the rest of your questions in newsletter articles over the next couple of months.

Let’s begin with some of your biblical questions and I’m going to start with a question about the Bible itself.

1. Someone asked, “When was the bible actually put together and who put it together? How did they decide what went in?”

I’m tempted to call on a member of my 2014 Adult Study class to see if they can remember the answer to this but I won’t embarrass them, especially because it’s not a simple answer.  First of all, the answer differs depending on your Christian affiliation because different Christians recognize different canons.  For example, you will find the book of Tobit in a Roman Catholic Bible but not in a Protestant Bible, and while the last Psalms in our pew Bibles is Psalm 150, the Syrian Orthodox Bible continues for five more Psalms, ending at Psalm 155.  The Eastern Orthodox Bible has a book called I Baruch, the Syrian Orthodox Bible has I and II Baruch; but the Protestant Bible doesn’t have any Baruchs.  We are Baruch-less.  In fact, of all of the Bibles out there, the Protestant Bible is the shortest because when Martin Luther was putting together a German Bible for his new Protestant congregations, he removed any Old Testament books written in Greek and left only the ones originally written in Hebrew.

Most of the differences between groups concern the Old Testament; the 27 books of the New Testament that are in our pew Bibles are pretty uniformly agreed upon by all Christian groups but they were chosen in the centuries following Christ by church leaders who believed that these 27 books were helpful to their congregations and had apostolic authority.  It took a long time for the church to reach agreement on that and there were a number of books that went in and out of favor over the centuries.  The Roman Catholic church officially “closed the canon” at the Council of Trent in the 1500s about the same time Martin Luther was tossing some of the Old Testament out, but Protestants never had an official vote on whether these are the best or only books that we want in our Bible.  As time went on, it just became the accepted way of things.  Which means that if you want to publish a Bible and add a 67th book called, “The Sermons of Laurie DeMott”, you could go ahead and do it. No one would buy it and you’d probably be eviscerated on the Internet for your brazen disregard of tradition, but theoretically, you could do it.

2.  Someone asked, “Why is there no information in the bible about Jesus after birth until near his death. Was he married? Where was he during this time?”

This question is one that even early Christians asked and we know they wondered about his childhood because we have copies of a book written in the second century that was very popular among congregations called “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.”  This book purported to tell a number of stories about Jesus as a child.  The stories assume that Jesus had miraculous powers from the moment of his birth and freely used them in a way that any five year old would use superpowers if he had them — Jesus strikes neighborhood children dead when they annoy him, he blinds adults who criticize him, and when a boy is found dead and people blame Jesus, Jesus resurrects him just so that the boy can clear Jesus’ name.  He really comes off as a monstrous brat in the book.

On the other hand, in our Bible there is only one story of Jesus as a child and that is the story of his demonstrating spiritual insight as a 12 year old visiting the Temple.  There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that Jesus was able to perform miracles before he began his ministry so we have to assume that he lived a pretty ordinary childhood growing up in Nazareth.  I think that the gospels imply that Jesus performed miracles in order to show people his authority as the Son of God and Savior of the people, but his ministry of salvation didn’t begin until his baptism which means, in spite of the imaginative “Infancy Gospel of Thomas”, Jesus probably performed no feats of power as a child.  Moreover, Jesus’ childhood wasn’t important to the writers of the gospels because they believed that the salvation we find in him centers on his teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection, things he did as an adult.  The gospel of Mark, in fact, is so intent on driving home that point that it skips even the stories of his birth and begins with his baptism.

Was Jesus married?  Some scholars say that he might have been because it was unusual for 30 year old Jewish men not to be married.  Other scholars, however say that those with a vocation to be itinerant preachers often did not marry and while the Bible says that Peter was married and implies that Paul might have been married, there is no indication that Jesus was married.  Later generations also speculated about his marital status and stories arose that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife or lover, but historians believe that those stories were started by church leaders who couldn’t fathom that Mary Magdalene may have been a legitimate follower and disciple.  The church began as a very egalitarian community but in later centuries, it reverted to a strict patriarchy and assumed that the women who appeared in the gospel stories were likely prostitutes or wives, the only roles women were allowed to have.  In spite of a very strong tradition in the history of the church, the Bible does not say that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and in spite of the DaVinci Code, there is nothing in the Bible that indicates she was Jesus’ wife.   I think it is most likely Jesus wasn’t married but had women followers who became full and equal leaders in the early church.

3.  Several people sent me questions about prayer.   One asked, “Why do we pray for people who have died if we believe they are now at peace with God?”; another said, “Is it appropriate to pray for those caught in a disaster when we know the outcome will be tragic?”; a third asked, “If God is listening to our prayers, why does God not always answer our prayers with peace, love, and happiness?”

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that prayer is one of the most thorny issues for Christians because prayer is so central to our communal life in the church and to our own personal faith lives and yet we are not always sure what we should say when we pray, what are appropriate matters for prayer, or what prayer is supposed to do.  We certainly hope that prayer has some sort of effect but at the same time we know that often the people for whom we are praying still die, and our prayers for peace are too often met with more war and violence.  We don’t like the picture of a God who only heals those with a lot of friends to pray on their behalf while leaving the friendless unhealed, and yet at the same time we want to believe that our prayers for others are not pointless.  Every time I have led a discussion on prayer in an adult study, people have more questions than they know what to do with.  Prayer is at the heart of our faith but the whole issue of prayer confuses us and eludes easy answers.

I will admit right out that I have many of the same questions you have, and I have come to believe that the answers to our questions about prayer are found only by continuing to pray in spite of our questions.  Accept the questions but continue to pray.  Accept your doubts but continue to act in faith.  This is not disingenuous but an admission that what we do is more important than what we understand.  We today think that “faith” means “belief” but in the Bible faith was not about what you believed but it was about who you chose to follow.  The disciples trusted Jesus even though most of the time they couldn’t understand what he was saying, and their faith was manifest in their hearts, not their brains.  Likewise, I think that the purpose of prayer is to bring our hearts into connection with God and others.  Prayer breaks us out of our isolation of self concern and self-reliance into awareness of the needs of others and the possibility of strength and help greater than our own.  You know, all of the questions we have about prayer could also be applied to our conversations with people — why should you bother talking to your spouse about your problems when you know he or she can’t fix them?  What good does it do to talk to your children about their behavior when ultimately you can’t control what they do?  Why sit at the bedside of a person who is dying and engage in any kind of conversation when whatever you say to them isn’t going to change the fact that they are dying?  But of course, we don’t talk to people because we believe that our conversations will fix them or because we think our mere words can change the course of their circumstances; we talk so that we can forge a connection between us.  We want to be moved out of our absorption with ourself and show them through our words that they are not alone, and we trust that that in itself will strengthen us both.

Minimally then, prayer is the means by which a person becomes greater than this singularity that is “me” by forging connections in prayer with other people and with God in order to move from “me” to “we.”   This is why we pray for those who have died because though they are with God, the bond that we shared with them in life is not broken by death, and they have carried a part of our hearts with them, so to pray for their peace is really to pray for our own peace at the separation we are experiencing because we are joined with them spiritually still.   To pray, “May this person rest in peace,” is in effect to pray, “I know this person is with you God, but I also know that the love they shared with us remains and there is sadness in separation, so I pray that all of those connections will be healed and they and all of those they love will know peace.” Likewise, to pray for someone who is sick is to say to God, “I recognize the suffering of this person and I am aware of their need.  I will hold them in my heart that the love I give them through these words of prayer may decrease their loneliness and increase their strength both spiritually and physically.  And with you God as the mediator between that person and I, I trust that my love will be known to them.”

Of course, that’s a lot of words so we just shorten it up and say, “God, be with so and so who is sick that they may know healing.”  I think that all of the words we say in prayer are really just shorthand ways of saying to others, “I love you, I am with you, I know that you are suffering, you are not alone,” and likewise our prayers are shorthand ways of crying out to God, “I am confused, I am scared, I am in pain, don’t leave me alone, I need your help to manage this.”  I don’t think that the exact words we choose to use in our prayers really matter because words are just inexact symbols of inexpressible heartache and hope.  God accepts all of our words, pretty or ugly, well spoken or a jumbled up mess, and uses them to build a bridge to our hearts.

I know, however, that what most of us really want to know is, “Does prayer work?  Can our prayers fix things, change things, heal people, bring peace instead of war?”  And my answer to that is that I don’t know for sure.  What I do know is that love is a powerful thing and when we really give ourselves to God and to others in prayer, the connection we make through our loving prayers must give birth to something more effective in the world than we alone can give.  I have to trust that somehow when I pray earnestly on behalf of others in the world, my love is strengthened, bonds are forged, peace reaches a little further, and God uses my loving prayers to make the world a better place.

4.  Which brings me to the last question I am going to look at today, which is this one:  Someone said, “I am so concerned with the presidential campaign and afraid of the future.  Can you help me with this?”

I’ve left out the political persuasion of the person who asked this question because from what I’ve read, fear is the predominant emotion motivating all segments of the electorate.  Some people are most afraid of losing a familiar way of life, others fear for their economic security, others are afraid of change or people of other religions, others of terrorism, others of increasing racism or sexism, others of nuclear war and global conflict.  I can guarantee you that right now the one thing our terribly fragmented citizenry all has in common is that we are all afraid of the future, and our politicians are capitalizing on our fears to drive our votes.  But, of course, the problem with that is that each of us has only one vote and so we have all this fear but at the same time feel powerless as individuals to effect real change and so our fears spill out into anger, division, depression, and anxiety.

How does faith help us with this?  Faith gives us a productive way of responding to our anxiety — whether it is anxiety caused by the current political situation or anxiety caused by life challenges.  Faith reminds us that at the center of our belief is a man who died the most gruesome of deaths and yet was raised by God to new life and salvation for us all, and in very practical terms, what that means is that no matter how horrible things get, God’s love will prevail.  We can trust that God will bring us as a people through the current pain and suffering and confusion to new life, and moreover that the way to that new life is always and only by living in constant self-giving love for others.  I know that it feels like you have so little power as an individual to change the course of the world, but remember that you are here in this church today because a handful of disciples 2000 years ago insisted on embodying Christ’s self-giving love in their lives.  The candidate of your choice might not get elected this November and your worst fears might come to fruition — that person might do things as President that damage the nation and make the world a worse place — but one of that changes the fact that God expects each one of us each and every single day to get up and give ourselves to others in compassionate love, to speak out for the oppressed, to care for the broken and the broken-hearted, to suffer if need be, to rejoice in beauty and goodness where we find it, and to live as Christ taught us to live.  We are not powerless but have been given the greatest power in the world to shape the world, even if we never see the results of what we do.  Courage is the ability to keep living out your calling even in the face of your greatest fears.  The disciples lived in a time when Roman emperors burned cities, nailed people to crosses, and fed Christians to the lions for entertainment — it was a God-awful brutal time — but the disciples just kept following Christ to the best of their ability and left the future to God.  Faith is not the absence of fear; faith is knowing who you are and who you are called to be, and then being that person in the face of your fears, trusting that God will see us through the darkness to bring us to light once again.

The great theologian Reinhold Neibuhr said,

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

Again, I invite you to watch your newsletter in the next few months as I look at some of the other questions people asked, questions like:

  1. What is the biblical basis for the Christian process of discernment?
  2. What does the gospel of Matthew mean by the Abomination of Desolation, and how would it apply to the Christian Community Today?
  3. How do we interpret passages in John that indicate only Christians will enter heaven?
  4. If God is so powerful, why is there so much violence, dictatorship, hatred, and war in the world?
  5. How can we love our enemies when they have causes do much suffering?
  6. Why does God appear so violent in the Old Testament?
  7. How do we read the Bible in light of current scientific thinking?
  8. What is the proper relationship between the church and state?  Should the church promote American nationalism?
  9. Could you talk a little bit more about grace and what it means?
  10. How do you come up with your Children’s Times?

You can see why I couldn’t cover them all in one sermon but I thank you for the thoughtful response to my invitation and for the fodder you have given me for many more newsletters and sermons!