Sermon: Swaggering Truth

1.31.2016     Preaching Text: “…you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them…” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the way we instinctively put distance between the biblical passages we hear on Sunday morning and any direct application of their meaning to today.

This is much like what Jesus encountered as Isaiah was read from a scroll in his home synagogue. Offering commentary on a passage everybody had heard countless times, Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He then proceeds to challenge his hearers.

Suddenly an oft-heard, largely innocuous passage is brought to life in the here and now. For Jesus’ efforts, his friends and neighbors decide to run him out of town and throw him off a cliff!

In our reading this morning from Jeremiah, we heard: “…you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them…”

It’s all well and good that 2½ millennia ago God called Jeremiah to speak divine truth, no matter how uncomfortable, how dangerous. It’s quite another when applied to our lives today.

Which begs a larger question: how much stock do we really hold in scripture? I mean…really?

My brother-in-law, Bill, tells the story of a Methodist pastor back in the 50’s who stood before the congregation with a Bible in hand.

He proceeded to read a passage from it. And then another. After each reading he did something a bit unusual. He announced: “But we don’t really believe that, do we?” And then he’d rip the page right out of the book!

This struck me as but a vivid demonstration of a far less dramatic, everyday fact – that we don’t tend to put much stock put in scripture.

As a case in point, a newly proposed ad campaign by the U.C.C. consists of a number of cartoons accompanied by captions. One, for example, says, “The Bible is like GPS: A brilliant guide. All-knowing. Occasionally wrong.”

“If we were wedded to the Bible,” another says, “we’d have multiple wives.”

A third has the word “god” (with a small “g”) written upside down. The caption beneath explains, “The U.C.C. looks at religion a little differently. We spin it around and turn it upside down. Are you ready to look at faith with a fresh perspective?”

A few weeks back, at my mother’s 95th birthday party, I showed these cartoons to the chaplain at the nursing home where she lives.

“So,” he said, somewhat bemused, “I guess we’re supposed to distrust both church authority and biblical authority. Which leaves us with the New York Times!

Now before you decide to run me out of town and throw me off a cliff for saying this, I want to be clear: I do not deny that the Church has erred or that the Bible is not without its interpretive challenges, just as the ads suggest.

What bothers me is that these cartoons seem to play right into our culture’s offhanded rejection of both the Church and its book. Each is considered unreliable, backward, even despotic. The ads only seem to confirm and reinforce these cultural stereotypes, rather than countering them.

It’s as if we’re saying, “Yea, we don’t think much of these things either. In fact, we’re just as hip as you are! Please like us.”

Frankly, I don’t think the culture cares one whit whether we agree with it or not. In fact I think that’s last thing it wants from us.

What we ought to be doing is making a compelling argument for Christianity’s merits, which, I might add, doesn’t mean ignoring its failings or assuming a fundamentalist stance.

What we should be doing is helping a skeptical culture, turned off to organized religion, to reconsider and rethink what the Church and the Bible actually say in ways that offer mercy and hope, which is what people actually want, whether they know it or not.

The church today seems to be in a decades’ long defensive crouch, consumed by guilt and shame. Since our past is imperfect (and why wouldn’t it be?), we must bend over backwards, conceding every hostile point. As a result, our institutional confidence is at an all-time low.

Ironically, though the Bible is perceived as a compendium of mischief and malpractice, few today ever actually bother to read it, and thus very little is known about it.

If you’ve ever watched Jeopardy on television, you’ve undoubtedly seen various contestants, knowledgeable all, avoid the religion categories like the plague. The reason? Even the “best and brightest” know virtually nothing about the subject.

So, again, my advice, rarely taken, is to defend and promote the Church and the Bible, not along the lines of misinformed stereotypes, but by breathing new life into the truths it offers regarding human nature, the struggles we face, and how to best navigate the perils and challenges of everyday existence.

Getting back to Jeremiah’s call, what if we were to speak God’s truth honestly, intelligently, and forthrightly to a contemporary world filled with skepticism and mistrust?

We hesitate, as I say, because we side with our cultural critics and falsely assume biblical truth to be injurious to our human best. We’ve bought into the secular notion that biblical faith is oppressive, judgmental, self-righteous, and, at the very least, in need of a wholesale rewrite. The last thing we would want to do is put people off with such offensive, life-denying tripe.

But what if we understood Jeremiah’s call to be generous and life-affirming? What if we believed that the biblical witness actually seeks to restore humanity to its rightful place within creation, that we might know an ever-elusive peace, and joy, and happiness? What if we were to realize that the Judeo-Christian message is about becoming generous, loving human beings, and not self-righteous, judgmental prigs?

On another level, it’s remarkable how little we moderns appreciate the immense benefits of the historic Judeo-Christian witness, one which has bequeathed to us the “humanistic” values we so deeply cherish. For Christianity is, as I’m always saying, a victim of its own success.

As one writer recently put it, “Nothing is easier than to take for granted what we are used to, and to imagine that it is more or less natural, so that it requires no explanation.” Thus because, by definition, we are used to the things we are used to, “it is their absence which has to be explained.”

As such, the Christian life must continually be defended, reinforced, and set forth, though not as the caricature our modern culture paints it to be. For Christianity is not a hostile, swaggering life-stance seeking to oppress or denigrate.

It is instead what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians. There Paul portrays Christian love this way: patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude, insisting not on its own way. It is neither irritable nor resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. And it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

Rather than apologizing for this, it is this we must cherish, defend, and set forth. Amen.