August 20, 2014 by Pastor Ben McIntire
We have just finished a three-week sermon series called “Questions of Faith” at St. Mark Lutheran Church. Each week I introduced the topic, read a selection from one of Barbara Brown Taylor’s books, and showed a video clip from the amazing website, The Work of the People where Taylor was interviewed. After the video, each sermon was opened up to be interactive and participatory, much like a small group Bible study would be. I prepared a series of questions for the congregation and passed a microphone around for people to discuss their thoughts. Imagine! A congregation of Lutherans being asked to speak about matters of faith in front of one another! And you know the real miracle? They were graciously willing to speak, to share their experiences and stories, to put themselves out there and talk about their interpretations and questions. What I share below is a brief synopsis of our discussion questions, the responses from the congregation, and a few quotes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s work.
SERMON 1: Speaking to the Body
What do you think? Does your flesh matter to God? Yes, Jesus healed the sick and fed hungry people. Jesus became a human being and walked a mile in our shoes.
“The body makes theologians of us all.” What physical experiences have you had that speak about God’s love and care for you? Battling cancer, pain, suffering and illness, the care of the church community during a crisis
When have you experienced God at work and in control in your life? Was it because of a time of pain or a time of joy and pleasure? Stories of amazing or miraculous healing, childbirth, the beauty of nature, the love of family
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14) Why is the Incarnation of Jesus so important? It shows God’s deep care for our physical life and creation, lends dignity to all human life
How do you imagine the resurrection of the body? Not a far away heaven, but a renewal of a perfect creation.
How do you imagine your soul? The soul is not separate from the body according to Hebrew understanding, therefore as Taylor says, “our souls have fingerprints all over them.”
What are you wondering about? What questions come up for you when we discuss the Incarnation, the resurrection of the body, and the soul? Someone asked, “What about cremation? Is it okay?” Yes, God created our bodies in the first place and it’s no problem for God to create new and incorruptible bodies for us in the resurrection.
In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to look in the mirror and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.’ After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for.”
SERMON 2: What’s Saving Your Life Today?
What’s saving your life today? Faith that sustains through good/bad times, community of faith in the church family
What makes your soul sing? What elevates your perspective at any moment? Beauty of Nature, Music, Children, sharing faith and seeing it take root and grow in someone
What would break you? Bad diagnosis, illness, death of a loved one, separation from God
What demands do you have on God? That God be faithful to God’s promises (baptism: belonging, grace, forgiven, eternal life). On behalf of others, healing of mind/body/spirit, issues of peace and justice in the world.
What is your current spiritual work about? Teaching, farming, caregiving; all vocations can be done in a way that builds up the Kingdom of God by serving neighbors, brings joy
What’s different about success in the eyes of God vs. the eyes of the world? WORLD=numbers game, dollars & cents, power, more stuff. GOD=love, joy, care for the powerless, changed lives, forgiveness
What do you consider your spiritual successes? Business owner who hires people with histories and backgrounds of baggage, gives them a second chance, shares faith and witnesses changed lives. Gratitude. Finding joy in small blessings daily. Worrying less. Finding meaning and value in daily work.
In An Altar in the World, Taylor writes,
“Pain makes theologians of us all. If you have spent even one night in real physical pain, then you know what that can do to your faith in God, not to mention your faith in your own ability to manage your life.”
SERMON 3: Defeating Dualism with Imagination
If the GOOD sometimes kicks off the BAD, and the BAD sometimes brings about the GOOD, does GOOD=BAD? No, good does not equal bad. We can clearly see that from our life experiences… but what we can learn to see is that some events, while good for some are terrible for others. Also, that there are silver linings to clouds, and good intentions with bad consequences
In what ways do we take sides, and how do we act toward those on the opposite side? Politics, hot-button issues: homosexuality, abortion, immigration, gun control; even sports–how do we act? refuse dialogue or to listen, condemn, demonize, dehumanize the other
How have we learned to answer the question: “Who is going to hell?” Important to learn some language to address this question, because people will ask this of Christians. Some have been taught to say that people who don’t believe like me are condemned. Yet, Bible says “precious little about heaven and hell.” A helpful way to reframe the question is, “Who is not going to hell? We know that faith in Christ saves us, we receive that promise in baptism and cling to it. We have that certainty, not about what we do or if we are good enough. What can we say about those outside the faith? Not much, we don’t know the mind of God or God’s final judgment on others–so we must not be so eager to pronounce hell on others. It is a great mystery, we are called to share the faith and proclaim the love and grace of God, but we need to learn to let God be God when it comes to the final outcome.
If God desires the salvation of all people, are all people going to be saved? Does God get what God wants? Difference between desires/wants and demand. God has given us free wills to choose/reject, accept/refuse. So as much as we’d think God would get what God wants, it seems that God has chosen to self-limit, to allow humans the space to have a real relationship with God, even at the cost of some choosing to turn away. Perhaps there are ways God will reach those who seem lost to us, from our perspective, but we just don’t know. Again, its a great mystery and we must let God be God and not stand in judgment over others.
How can we work toward “defeating dualism” and break down the barriers that separate the “insiders” from the “outsiders” of the church? Be willing to listen and engage those whose ideas and beliefs differ from ours, perhaps we will learn to look at things differently, or maybe they will be persuaded by us. We must always act with love and grace, so that God’s love and forgiveness is shown to those on the outside. We must remember that all people are created in God’s image and so have an inherent dignity and deserve to be treated with respect, never dehumanized or demonized. And remember that God can use all kinds of circumstances good or evil, and all kinds of people, inside/outsiders to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.
In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“Christian teaching thrives on dividing reality into opposed pairs: good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, light/dark…In every case, the language of opposition works by placing half of reality closer to God and the other half farther away… They divide people in two, teaching us that we have two minds, two natures, two sets of loyalties, two homes—and that only one was close to God. Too much of this can make a person crazy… If there is any truth to the teaching that spiritual reality is divided into halves, it is the truth that those pairs exist in balance, not opposition.”
I have to say “Thank You!” to the members of St. Mark Lutheran Church for trying out this three-week experiment in participatory and interactive sermons. It was probably uncomfortable for some, but for those who shared and all who listened to the reflections of their fellow members in the priesthood-of-all-believers, it was a blessing. I hope you, Readers, will take the time to consider these questions for yourself as well. If you’d like, you can even post your responses in the comments below!