Monday, April 29, 2013

April 28, 2013 - Faith in the Modern Age: The Church in the Modern Age

Matthew 9:14-17

Spoiler Alert!  If you attend my church you may not have heard all of this message.  The early worship service heard most of it, but the 11:00 service only heard the first portion.  I'll finish it on Sunday, but if you want to read what is coming, please feel free.  Then you can sleep through church.

I brought a chalkboard with me this morning.  You’ll notice I don’t have any chalk with me.  I brought the chalkboard to do this (scrape fingernails across the chalkboard).  That’s really irritating, isn’t it?  Shall I do it again?

This is what the church sounds like to many people today.  The message of the church is, to some people, about as pleasant and welcome as the dragging of my fingernails across this chalkboard.

How is it that a message based upon love, grace, forgiveness, and welcoming of all people can be turned into a message that is as unpleasant as the scraping of fingernails on a chalkboard?  That really takes some doing, in my opinion.

How does it happen?  It happens for several reasons.  It happens because almost every time there is a disaster some preacher steps in front of a TV camera and blames some group for causing God to bring that disaster upon us.

9/11?  Must have been the fault of this group or that group.  Hurricane Katrina?  Must have been the fault of this group or that group.  Hurricane Sandy?  Must have been the fault of this group or that group.  When one of those preachers gets on TV and starts blaming certain groups of people I just want to call out will you please stop talking and just go away?  Don’t you feel that way?  It doesn’t do anyone any good, does it?  And I can’t imagine God wants to be represented in such a way.

But the message is also turned negative when church people lob grenades of judgment over their walls at the people outside of the church.  Standing in judgment of others some want to tell others what they are doing wrong, how they are living wrong, how they are thinking wrong, and criticize, criticize, criticize.  It turns negative when churches fail to own up to the scandals in their midst, turning a blind eye to the way people have been used and abused.

But my point this morning is not to list the negatives of churches.  We are continuing are series of messages Life in the Modern Age, and today we come to The Church in the Modern Age.  We’ve all heard the statistics about declining church attendance, the rise in the group of people called the nones (n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s) – those with no religious affiliation, and the increasing challenge of unbelief to belief. 

The church in the modern age certainly faces a lot of challenges, and, unfortunately, some of them are self-inflicted.

I certainly do not have the ability to peer into a crystal ball and make confident predictions about the future of the church, but I won’t let that stop me from trying.  We don’t know what the future will be, but we can hinder or help that future.  I’m going to quickly go through what I believe are important considerations for the church (and when I say church I mean the church universal).

1.  The church is not going anywhere.
Out of curiosity I googled big companies that no longer exist.  Do you remember any of these companies – E.F. Hutton?  General Foods?  TWA?  Compaq?  PaineWebber?  MCI?  Eastern Airlines?  Enron?  Pan Am?  Woolworth’s?  Standard Oil?  Arthur Andersen?  DeLorean?  Bear Stearns?  Borders?  Circuit City?  Montgomery Ward?  Hostess? 

Seen any evidence of these great empires lately –  Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire?  The Egyptian Empire?  The Roman Empire?  The British Empire?  The Ottoman Empire?  The Persian Empire?  The Byzantine Empire?  The Soviet Union?  The Assyrian Empire?  The Babylonian Empire?  Everyone of those empires are gone.
But the church is still here.

The demise of the church has been greatly, greatly exaggerated.  That doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t face challenges.  In fact, I believe that churches the size of ours will face some of the greatest challenges.  I believe there will always be a place for the small, family-oriented church and the megachurch.  But for churches in that midlevel, such as ours, we will either be too large for some people, where they cannot get to know everyone, or too small to offer the variety of programs and ministries people can find in a megachurch.

The church is entering a time unprecedented in our lifetimes, but it is not going anywhere.

2.  As the world changes, so must the church.
Anybody been to Detroit lately?  I’ve never been to Detroit.  Not very interested in going there, actually.  There was a time in our history when it was absolutely inconceivable that Detroit and its auto industry would enter a period of such great decline.  But things were changing, and very few people paid attention to the changes, until it was almost too late.

Jesus gave a very stark warning, I believe, when he spoke the words in this morning’s Scripture reading.  Jesus was saying change is coming.  Now, there are two things churches dislike.  You know one of them – change.  The other thing churches dislike is when things stay the same.  I know that sounds contradictory, but we have an instinctual grasp on the fact that church has to change and transform as it moves through history, but we don’t like to face the change.

There are some churches that will be happy to sink to the bottom rather than change.  Some churches will happily sing along with the instrumentalists on the deck of the Titanic as it slowly sinks all the way to the bottom.  But the world is changing, and we must come to grips with those changes if we are to survive and thrive.

3.  What are the changes?
We need to listen to the critics the church. 
Some critics of the church do have some legitimate points to make.  Sometimes, as churches, we can become too insular.  We can become too self-absorbed.  We can become too cold and callous.  We can be too exclusive.  We can be too judgmental.  We can be unfriendly.  We can be too removed from our communities.  We can be irrelevant.  We can be hypocritical.  We can be too concerned with money and power.  We can be too quick to tell people what to do.  We can be too political.  We can fail to be political enough. 

There are many criticisms we receive, and I don’t like when people criticize churches, but the reality is, sometimes they are right, and we need to take those criticisms to heart.

We have to learn to separate the important and the inconsequential matters.
When I was an associate in Anderson County back in the 80s a group of us were playing Rook in the Fellowship Hall.  We were having a grand old time, and I thought they would be interested to know that about fifty years earlier that same church kicked people out of the church for playing cards in their homes.  Isn’t that unbelievable?  Totally silly.  I remember the day in my home church when about half the congregation walked out because of the presence of an acoustic guitar in the sanctuary.  Now they have country line dancing classes in the Fellowship Hall (that really may be going too far!)  If you think I need to loosen up when I play during Singspiration now you know why I look uptight.  The  memory of all those people stomping out of the sanctuary is still fresh in my mind, even all these years later.  Again, totally silly.

Churches can get sidetracked on some of the silliest, most inconsequential matters.

We have to practice what we preach.
If we say we love all people, we’ve got to love all people.  No conditions, no ifs, ands, or buts.  People can sniff out insincerity pretty quickly.  That whole love the sinner, hate the sin routine – people aren’t buying it, because they don’t believe the sinner is really loved.

I was told there were certain people I should avoid.  I was told certain types of people weren’t “good” people.  We live in a world that loves to draw its lines and create divisions.  We have the good and bad and saints and sinners.  I can’t even watch the news without being placed in a particular category.  Do you watch Fox or MSNBC?  Can’t I just watch the news?

Imagine no lines of division, no us versus them – that’s God’s kingdom.  But churches haven’t always been good at building God’s kingdom, because in too many instances churches have contributed to the lines of division.

We have to be more ecumenical.
This is central to who we are as Disciples, but we have to push this more and more.  I have to admit that I haven’t been very successful in something I mentioned last year.  I’m the head of the Ministerial Alliance, and my goal was to increase participation in that group.  Wow, has that been a flop.  I don’t know how many churches there are in Shelby County but it’s a pretty good meeting when we have nine or ten churches represented.  Nine or ten!  That’s terrible!  We have to work with one another, because we need to pool our resources and work together to meet the physical and spiritual needs of our community.  No single church among us is equipped to do that on our own.

We have to develop more resources for the physical and spiritual needs in our communities.
I’ve been in ministry a long time now, and I’ve never seen anything like what people are experiencing in recent years.  The stresses facing people are enormous, and those stresses are really taking a toll.  People are stretched to the limits and beyond financially, spiritually, relationally – in every possible way, and the stresses and strain that accompany those stresses are wearing people out.

We must become less institutional in our ministries.
Simply put, we have to get out of our buildings more.  The days of people coming to us are, for the most part, over.  And that’s okay, because from the beginning our calling has been to go to the people.

I believe we are in the midst not of a religious decline, but a significant religious awakening.  The question is whether or not the church will be a part of that awakening.  I know that sounds very strange to say, but the church is no longer seen as the dispenser of faith, and that’s a good thing.  In the time of Jesus, the religious leaders believed they were the ones controlling access to God.  They believed they were the ones who dispensed God’s grace.  But they were wrong, and that is why people flocked to Jesus.  He freed God from the constrictiveness of dying institutional religion.

When my mother-in-law lived on Tybee Island we would often do what people always do at the beach – we would build sand castles with our kids.  You know what always happens.  You get a nice sand castle constructed and then the tide starts coming in, and your kids want to try and save the sand castle.  You dig a trench, hoping that will stem the tide for a bit, but eventually the tide overtakes the sand castle and washes it away.

Maybe some washing away is exactly what we need.  Maybe we are fighting to save some things that don’t need saving.  Maybe some of the things we continue to try and prop up just need to die.  Maybe God is instituting much of the change that we so fear, and try to keep at bay, when we should embrace what is coming and thank God for the change he is brining.

Christianity is in the midst of a great revolution.  It is becoming something different from what it has been in recent generations, and because I believe there are many things that need to change, I say thank God.  It’s about time.

Monday, April 22, 2013

April 21, 2013 Faith In the Modern Age: Living On the Earth

Psalm 24:1-6

If you have traveled along Route 2 in the northern panhandle of West Virginia you traveled through my home territory.  Traveling on I-70 you can exit at Wheeling and travel north along the Ohio River for about 15 miles and you will come to my hometown. 

If you have traveled that route you probably haven’t forgotten the scenery, which is not at all attractive.
Steel mills, almost all of which are now closed, line both sides of the river.  Most of the area has been in great decline for years, but oddly, one thing has improved – the air quality.  It is no exaggeration to say that as I was growing up we seldom saw a really blue sky.  Most days it was a dirty grey color because of the tremendous amount of pollutants added to the air by the steel mills.  In the mornings it would be hard to see across the river because the smog from the mills would settle in the valley.

Driving along the river through the northern portion of our county took you directly past a coke plant.  Not the soft drink, but an element that is important in making steel.  Coke is carbonized coal, and it burns at an extremely high temperature, which is ideal for making steel.  Driving by that plant in the summers we would roll up the windows in the car, close the vents (we didn’t have air conditioning), and hold our breath.  Oddly enough, right across the road was an ice cream stand – the Dairy Owl – where we would often stop for ice cream.  You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten ice cream while holding your breath and trying to keep coke ash from landing on your cone.  To be honest, I didn’t like living in that geographic area.

It’s uncomfortable for me to say that, because that is my home, and because steel is a part of my family heritage.  My dad was a steelworker, my older brother was for a while, and my younger brother is still. The steel mills educated me, fed me, clothed me, put a roof over my head, and paid my medical bills.  But the pollution became oppressive to me.  From the time I was young I knew I wanted to move away from there and to a place that was more pleasant to live.  One of the reasons why I so enjoy living in this area is because of the lack of heavy industry of the type that surrounded me when I was younger.
As we continue our series Faith in the Modern Age we come to the topic of Living On the Earth.

I am often puzzled at the contentiousness that erupts when the environment becomes a topic of discussion.  Mention ecology or environmentalism and you will find that an argument can begin rather quickly.

As we talk about the beautiful world created by God, a world we have been charged to care for as stewards, I want to look at the question from some basic spiritual truths.  My first instinct was to load this message with a lot of facts and figures and statistics, but I changed my mind.  I think we get lost in them, even though there are many to share, and many of them are quite disturbing.  But suffice it to say that with more than seven billion people now living upon this earth we have arrived at a tipping point about the future health and welfare of this world that is our home.

1.  Scripture affirms the goodness and beauty of God’s creation.
Some of the most profound words of Scripture are found in the first chapter of Genesis – And God saw that it was good.  Those words are the great affirmation of the writer of Genesis, given at multiple points as God continues his creative work.  As God moved through the process of creation he continued to proclaim that it was good.  As he formed the land and the seas, God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:10).  After creating the plants and vegetation, God saw that it was good (1:12).  Considering his handiwork in creating the stars and planets, God saw that it was good (1:18).  At his creation of the sea life and the birds, God saw that it was good (1:21).  Watching the tremendous variety of animals God again proclaims that it was good (1:25).  After the creation of humanity and considering all of his work, God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (1:31).

And God saw that it was good.  It was good.  It was good.  I’m afraid that was is more and more becoming the operative word – was.  Past tense.  I wonder what proclamation God would make today about his creation.  I am certain he still affirms its goodness, but might he say, it’s still good, but it’s not in great shape.

2.  God calls humanity to stewardship of his creation, not ownership. 
Imagine owning a beautiful home, a home that is your dream home.  Imagine you get a new job requiring you to move to another location, but you don’t want to sell your house so you lease your home to another family.  You implore them to take good care of your home and you trust they will do so.  Imagine returning to your home months later, only to find holes in the wall, broken windows, a yard that is overrun with weeds and neglected flower beds, and evidence of neglect and abuse are everywhere.  How would you respond? 

This is analogous to how we have treated God’s creation, I’m afraid.  Given the blessing of living on this good, beautiful earth, humanity was charged with the care for God’s creation.  We have confused caring, I fear, for owning and abusing.  Nowhere in Scripture are we told that we own creation.  The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it proclaims the psalmist.  That’s a pretty clear statement of ownership.  Scripture makes very clear that God is the creator and owner of the world; we are his stewards, charged with caring for this world in which we live. 

Considering the precarious situation of our environment, we have been rather poor stewards of the earth, and are much like the poor tenant who does not care for the home of a landowner.

3.  Simpler lifestyles will help to heal God’s earth.
I find that more often than not, I am thinking about how to get something else I want rather than thinking about what I can give away or what I can do for someone else.  This is part of the difficulty in talking about caring for creation, because we are all intertwined with an economy of consumption that pushes us to use up rather than to conserve.

Living in a consumer-driven economy is tough, because it becomes almost a question of patriotism to go out and spend money and consume.  If we stop consuming, the economy tanks.

But I fear that if we do not increase our move toward simplicity the choices we face will be imposed upon us by necessity.  If everyone on earth could consume at the rate at which we do, the earth would be in truly great difficulty, as we would move beyond sustainability.

In Luke 12:13-21 we read the parable Jesus tells of the rich fool –
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’  18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’  20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’  21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

This parable is representative of the attitude of humanity for too much of history, especially recent history.  In an attempt to gain more and more, little consideration is given to the consequences of accumulating as much as possible.  The rich man of whom Jesus speaks exhibits an attitude that has little concern for anyone but himself.

In keeping with its emphasis on stewardship, the Scriptures remind us that accumulation is not to be the goal of life.  In fact, it is the drive to accumulate and build a larger and larger abundance that has led to so much of the environmental degradation that we now face.

4.  Stewardship is ultimately a spiritual issue.
I think stewardship certainly has political and economic implications, but it is really, I believe, at the heart, a spiritual issue.  Looking through the lens of faith we are reminded the goal of life is not to accumulate, but to use wisely and to live lives of giving and generosity.  Faith reminds us that we are not given the earth as a possession to use as we see fit but as God’s creation for which we are given the responsibility to tend and for which we are to care.

One of the troubling matters about today’s environmentalism is the absence of the faith community.  Many churches are simply not involved in the work of caring for our world.  More than anyone, it should be those of us in faith who are moved to care for God’s earth, because we recognize our call to be stewards.

As Disciples we are a little ahead of some other groups, but we still have some way to go.  We do, thankfully, have the Green Chalice ministry that encourages us as individuals and congregations to take seriously the call to care for God’s creation.

I will close this morning with words from the great writer Wendell Berry –
Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.

...the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.
― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays.
It is also, I would add, our calling as followers of Jesus.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April 14, 2013 - Faith in the Modern Age: The Spirit in the Modern Age

John 3:1-8

A couple of weeks ago I parked beside a truck, and as I walked behind the truck I noticed a sticker on the back that read Custom Creations by… sticker.  I’m not sure what constitutes a Custom Creation, as this truck was banged up, dented, scratched, and was basically a disaster in appearance.  If I were the Custom Creation guy would want my name removed from it.

It may be a poor analogy, but I can’t help but wonder if God sometimes feels that way about churches – don’t put my name on something that seems beat up, broken down worn out, and out of touch.  And that is how some people see the church:  broken down, out of date, irrelevant and something they are not interested in stepping into.

We are continuing our series of messages Faith in the Modern Age, and as we do we are considering The Spirit in the Modern Age. We live in an age of science, technology, and materialism – not the kind of materialism that is based on finances, but the kind that only sees the physical universe and cannot recognize the spiritual component of life.  The Spirit doesn’t fit very easily into our modern world, but we so need it.  We’ll read of an encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, and in the conversation Jesus says something interesting about the Spirit.  Listen to what he says in John 3:1-8 –

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.
He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
What does the Spirit mean in the modern age?

1.  The Spirit opens our eyes.
By my first semester in high school had decided I wanted to be an engineer, so I took Algebra.  I failed the class.  By the middle of the semester I was totally lost, and it didn’t help that I asked my teacher why 2 + 2 had to equal 4.  I wanted to know why 2 + 2 can’t equal 5.  I still don’t understand why 2 + 2 can’t equal whatever we decide we want it to equal.  I just don’t get it.

Poor Nicodemus.  He didn’t get it either.  He could not wrap his head around what Jesus said to him – Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. 

It wasn’t that seeing the kingdom was forbidden or disallowed for Nicodemus; he simply couldn’t see it though it was right in front of him.  His eyes were closed to the kingdom.  But the Spirit opens our eyes, the Spirit reorients our thinking, and the Spirit gives us a new perspective on life.  The Spirit opens our eyes to see life, the world, and people in a new light.

2.  The Spirit brings life. 
I imagine the group in New York is having a great time in church this morning.  Not that we don’t have a great time here, but we probably aren’t quite as energetic as the Brooklyn Tabernacle.  I am not Pentecostal, but I understand part of the appeal of that style of worship.  It is so energetic because it is so focused on the joy of life, even in the midst of great struggle. 

The Spirit brings life, because everywhere God moves, there is life.  The Spirit is like a river of cook, fresh water running into a dry, barren desert.  The Spirit helps us to understand the life that God brings and the reality that life itself is God’s great gift.

3.  The Spirit allows us to be more flexible and adaptable, qualities that are necessary in the modern age. 
There is an element of unpredictability about the Spirit.  We don’t know where it is going, and we must not be so structured that we miss the moving of the Spirit.  This is what Jesus meant when he compared the Spirit to a wind the blows.  The Spirit seems to appear out of nowhere and without warning.  Just as quickly as it comes, it can seem to disappear.  Sometimes, we can be so structured that we squeeze out the Spirit.  Individuals, and churches, need to be prepared to adapt and change, and to do so quickly as our world changes around us.

4.  The Spirit makes us more compassionate. 
Our modern age is very complicated, and it seems to grow increasingly complex with the passing of each day.  One of the dangers of this complexity, I fear, is a diminishing expression of compassion.  As we struggle to survive our complex lives we are often, without realizing it, pulled into ourselves, which can lead to a great deal of preoccupation with self.  This is not fertile ground for compassion.  The role of the Spirit is to prompt us to look beyond our own lives and to realize there are people within our sphere of influence who need our compassion and our care.

5.  The Spirit is experiential. 
Sometimes we hear people say been there, done that, got the T-shirt to go with it.  We live in an age where people have become more experiential, that is, they long for and expect to experience something.  People don’t want to simply hear about mission work, they want to go and do mission work; they don’t want to hear about other cultures, they want to go and experience those cultures for themselves; and they don’t want to just hear about God, they want to experience God.  This desire for an experience is the driving force behind the changing of worship style in recent years.  Worship is becoming more experiential because people want to experience something. 

People are often desperate to have an experience that confirms God has touched them.  That is the Spirit moving in them. 

When my mother-in-law lived on Tybee Island one of my favorite activities was body surfing.  I had a body board and when the tide was coming in I would grab the board, run down to the beach, and get in the water and to ride those waves.  Body boarding is a bit tricky, for two reasons.  First, it’s hard to catch the wave just right.  You can’t get too far out in front of the wave or it will crash on top of you.  And second, if the wave gets too far ahead of you it rolls past you and you miss it.  The key is trying to catch the front of the wave just as it begins to break.  If you catch it just right you hold on tight and enjoy the ride.  But once you catch the wave you have to stay with it, or the wave will pummel you into the sand, and you know what?  Sand really hurts, especially when the tremendous weight of all that water is driving you into the sand.

When it comes to the Spirit, the key is being able to catch the Spirit, much like we would catch a wave.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

April 7, 2013 - Faith in the Modern Age: Reading the Scriptures in the Modern Age

II Timothy 3:14-17

This morning we begin a new series of messages titled Faith in the Modern Age.  The impetus for this series comes from living in this era of sweeping and breathtaking change.  We are truly in the midst of an historical moment, greater perhaps, than any moment in centuries.  It feels as though we are on the cusp of something very new – but is it new in a good way or new in a bad way? 

Do you ever wonder where are we headed?  The question for us, as people of faith, is what do all these changes mean for the future of faith?  Some people believe that faith is an outmoded, outdated belief system that should not and will not survive in the modern age.  Pointing to a decline in church attendance and belief, some believe that faith is on a downward trend toward irrelevance and perhaps extinction.

I don’t agree with that view, of course, but I do believe there are some significant questions to consider as we navigate this time of upheaval and change.

We begin with Reading the Bible in the Modern Age.

One of my first college classes was Introduction to Old Testament.  My older brother was a student at the same school, and one afternoon I went to him to discuss something that was said in class.  We were discussing the crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrew people, after Moses led them out of Egypt, and I was troubled to hear some things that were in conflict with my understanding of that story.  In the course of the conversation my brother told me I was absolutely wrong.  He has always been kind enough to tell me when I am wrong.  He told me, among a few other things, that Moses didn’t part the Red Sea instantaneously.  I disagreed.  I knew exactly how it happened because I’d seen the movie, and when Charlton Heston raised his staff in very dramatic fashion the sea instantly parted.  My brother gave me some helpful advice, saying why don’t you pick up your Bible and read it for yourself once in a while.  I did.  Turns out he was right and I was wrong.  Exodus 14:21 says the wind blew all night, not that the waters parted instantaneously.

That moment helped me to understand how much I took for granted about Scripture, and how little I understood what the Bible actually says.  I had accepted some things that simply weren’t true.  I didn’t question the interpretation of others.  I didn’t form my own view of what the Scriptures tell us about God and faith.  In the years since that time, I have spent a lot of time studying the Scriptures, and the more I study, the more convinced I have become about the critical need of approaching the Bible in the proper manner.

And here’s why – over the centuries the Bible has been used to support all manner of things that it does not support.  The Bible has been used to subjugate women, it has been used to support slavery, it has been used to support prejudice and discrimination, and it has been used to justify violence.  In too many instances the Bible has been used more as a weapon of condemnation rather than a source of grace.  The Bible has been used to condemn everything from hairstyles to clothing styles to musical styles.  Some people see it as little more than a political manual or economic manual.

 I want to offer several suggestions about the Bible this morning, and how we ought to read it in this modern age –

1.  Never doubt its relevance. 
It grieves me that so many people simply write the Bible off as being irrelevant.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people offer a variation of what does such an ancient book have to do with life today?  It has everything to do with life today, because the Bible grapples with all of the big questions in life – why are we here?  What is our purpose?  How should we live?  Is there any point to life?  What happens when this life ends?

But even among those who are people of faith the Bible is partially written off as irrelevant.  I hear people say we are people of the New Testament; the Old Testament doesn’t have any relevance to us.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The Old Testament is full of such amazing stories, and they are absolutely relevant and so amazingly compelling.  Have you struggled with family difficulties?  The story of Joseph and his brothers will certainly resonate with you.  Have you ever struggled with doubt or wondered why we face hardship?  Who hasn’t struggled with those issues?  The book of Job, while not giving a definitive answer, will certainly remind us that suffering is an intrinsic part of the human condition.  Have you ever struggled to follow God in daily living when you can’t get a clear picture of where he is leading?  Read the story of Abraham.  Are you heartbroken about the injustice in the world?  Read the prophets, whose message continues to resonate so powerfully.

The Bible is amazingly relevant because the human condition and the human heart does not change.

2.  Keep the Bible in context.
There are a lot of churches that will not allow women to serve in leadership roles. In parts of the New Testament there are verses that speak against women having leadership in worship.  Is this a universal command?  No, I do not believe it is.  During the New Testament era there were a number of mystery religions and women often led their worship services.  Part of their worship involved the practice of ritual prostitution.  When Paul wrote in I Corinthians 14:34-35 that 34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church he is not applying a principle that applies to all churches in all time periods.  He is being careful to make a distinction between Christian and pagan worship services.  As many people were leaving the mystery religions for the Christian churches, Paul undoubtedly wanted to avoid any confusion related to the role of women in worship.  Paul often depended upon women leaders in many of the cities where he worked, so he did not forbid female leadership in all instances.  When churches take his words literally, forbidding women from sharing positions of leadership, they are twisting and distorting the words of Paul and making him out to be an extreme male chauvinist, which he undoubtedly was not.
3.  Realize there is a distinction between literal and symbolic.
I think we do people a disservice when we say every verse has to be taken literally.  Nobody does that anyway.  Does anyone take the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:29-30 literally?  29 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. 30 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.  Obviously, those words would be quite problematic if taken literally, and I don’t know anyone who has ever taken them in a literal manner.  On the printed page, we cannot hear the way Jesus said those words, but had we been present when they were spoken it would be much easier to realize they were most likely delivered with a great deal of hyperbole.  Jesus used exaggerated language, in this instance, to help him make his point.

In I Corinthians 11:4-6 Paul writes every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.  For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.  I have a pair of scissors for anyone who wants to take up his suggestion.

Several months ago I mentioned an interview I had when I was in seminary.  A church searching for a student minister interviewed me, but the interview only lasted for a couple of questions.  I never told you the question, and surprisingly, I don’t remember anyone asking me about the question.  The question was, do you take the Bible literally?  I don't take every word literally, and as I tried to make my point as to why - and to make the point that no one takes every word literally - I was quickly cut off.

The point I have always tried to make in speaking about the Bible is not to reduce anyone’s faith in Scripture, though some would say that is the result, but to increase their faith and confidence in Scripture.  The Scriptures contain the story of God and humanity reaching toward one another, and may we always love and appreciate that beautiful and wondrous story.