Thursday, May 15, 2008

On vacation

Hi all--just a note that I'll be heading on vacation this week, so won't be preaching or posting a sermon here. I look forward to preaching again on May 25!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Audio from Sunday, May 11

Based on 1 Cor 7:8-24.

Sermon from Sunday, May 11

Some of you might be surprised to hear this passage of the Bible read. Part of this passage is one of the more difficult biblical passages on divorce, which as you know is a subject which has vexed Christians, particularly in the twentieth century. You may have noticed on the front of the bulletin that this Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, the day we Christians celebrate the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples and establishing a church. It also is Mother’s Day which is not historically a very important church holiday, but is a very important holiday in the American culture in which we live. So this passage may seem a little strange—it’s not about the Holy Spirit or about mothers, but on the face of it is about divorce. Rest assured, before the end of this sermon, I will talk about the Holy Spirit and I will talk about my mother.
You will be either relieved or disappointed to find out that I am not focusing on that divorce part of the passage, at least not directly. That is not to say that divorce is unimportant in the Bible. The Bible does have a lot to say about divorce, and could certainly shed some light on our modern understanding of marriage. And maybe there will come a time to talk about that—I’d certainly be glad to talk to you about it whenever you’d like.
But in this passage, Paul is not talking about divorce by itself, divorce in a vacuum, divorce for divorce’s sake. He is talking about divorce that bubbles up from a deeper root cause, and it is that root cause that I want to focus on today.
Let me start by saying I’m a Disneyworld person. Anybody else here a Disneyworld person? I know not everybody is, I know some people don’t really like it, find it a bit cheesy, but I just love the place. My family is talking about taking a trip down there after the new year, and I’m already juiced up about it; I’ve got like seven and a half months to wait, but already, I just can’t wait for Disneyworld. Love the place.
However, I’m not in general an amusement park person. I don’t really like scary rides. Not a big roller coaster guy, not a big fan of those “free-fall” rides where the whole point seems to be that they put you up in the air and then drop you. I don’t really like them, and I never really have. Now, I can handle the roller coasters at Disneyworld which are not usually quite as intense as some place; Disneyworld does not seem as intent on terrifying you in order for you to have a good time. So I’ll ride anything there. But I haven’t always been that way—I haven’t always wanted to do all the things at Disneyworld. In fact, when I was a kid, my younger siblings were way more thrill-seekers than me. And they loved to go on Space Mountain. Space Mountain is an indoor roller coaster, all in the dark, some of it with black lights and little glowing stars, etc., not very scary by today’s standards but back then I was terrified of it.
And so I remember that Dan and Beth would go on Space Mountain with my dad, and I would go on another ride, the Carousel of Progress, with my mom. And the lines were really long at Space Mountain, so since we had to wait for my dad and siblings, we would ride the Carousel of Progress three or four times! I can still sing the son g they used to sing on the Carousel of Progress: “Now is the time/Now is the best time/ Now is the best time of your life/Life is a prize, live every minute/open your eyes and watch how you win it/now is the time/now is the best time/Be it a time of joy or strife/there’s so much to cheer for/be glad you’re here for it’s the best time of your life!”
The Carousel of Progress, as its name implies, is all about progress. It is about how human ingenuity can make the world a better place. You see a typical American family at different points in American history; the first picture is in the early 1900s, where the house has all of the latest gadgets: a telephone, gas lamps, kitchen water pump, etc. Then the next is in the 1920s, when you see the family with ancient coffeemakers and an electric fan set on a big cake of ice to cool them. The next is in the 1940s and you see the family with a television, the tiny little screen in the big cabinet. The final scene is from more or less today, (or it least it was today in the 1980s), when the family is all sitting together around a Christmas tree and the kitchen pretty much runs itself. The idea is pretty consistent though: we are making progress, and by our progress we are making the world a better place in which to live.
The Carousel of Progress is optimistic about human ingenuity; in fact, you could say the same about Disneyworld in general. A theme you hear on many rides throughout Disneyworld is, “If we can dream it, then we can do it.” With people working hard enough, committing to a common goal, we can do anything.
When you come right down to it, it’s a religious message, isn’t it? “We can do it if we put our minds to it” is true sometimes, but not always. It’s a double-sided message, a message with pros and cons if we believe it. Our belief in this message has done some amazing things, things we take for granted. And not only the gadgets in the Carousel of Progress, but other things too—things like cures for diseases, things like cars and planes and rocketships, even things like the Internet. When I was preparing this sermon, I knew I wanted to talk about the Carousel of Progress, and I had a vague idea of it, but it was so easy to do research on it; I have wireless internet access, made a few clicks, and boom! All the information I needed was right there at my fingertips. Just amazing, and due to that same sort of human ingenuity.
Yet all of this progress is not without its costs. Christians should never forget about the price that must be paid for progress. It is entertaining to hear the characters in the Carousel of Progress look forward to how much easier all this technology will make their lives. The idea circulated that people would have to work so much less, that they’d be able to enjoy their lives more, have more time for friendship, for family, for enjoying “the good things in life.” You and I both know that’s not entirely how it turned out. Instead, part of the consequences of progress—along with all the good things—have been some bad side effects. People do not work less, but work more. People do not perceive themselves to have more time for their families and communities—if anything, they feel they have less time for their families and communities. Technology has proved to be a double-edged sword, providing great benefits but demanding great costs in return. Perhaps Martin Luther King said it best: “We have allowed our technology to outrun our theology.” By this he meant that as a species we humans are incredibly capable of inventing new tools but we often do not have the spiritual depth or wisdom to use those resources properly.
This passage from Paul, the passage that is in part about divorce, is about something else at its root level. It is about a certain restlessness in the human spirit, about a certain inability to be content with things the way they are. So Paul says, “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you.” To illustrate his point, Paul talks about three main areas of human life where this restlessness can rear its ugly head. One of these is in marriage, which is the context for Paul’s comments on divorce. A common concern in the church in those days, as the church was just beginning to grow, was when one partner in the marriage became a Christian, they were not sure if they should leave their unbelieving spouse. To some extent this is a problem in the modern church, but less so than in those early days, because more often today Christians marry Christians because Christianity is a more established religion. But when those early Christians wondered what they should do, Paul said they should be content with their lot, and stay with the unbelieving spouse, because it could be that in staying with that spouse, that spouse may come to believe. Again, I don’t intend this to be a referendum on modern marriage and divorce; there is much to be said on that, as it is very complex. But Paul is encouraging his congregants not to overturn their lives, but to be content.
Then Paul gives the example of circumcision. New Gentile converts to the Christian faith would often wonder if they should be circumcised, to show solidarity with the faith’s Jewish roots. New Jewish converts to the Christian faith wondered if they should undergo a procedure to undo their circumcision, in order to distance themselves from the Jewish faith. Just as he did with marriage, Paul says the same thing about circumcision: be content. Your life is not about changing your marital status and it is not about changing your physical status. The Christian life, Paul argues, does not consist of an outward change in societal status, but an inward change of heart that manifests itself in the way you live, not in the way society classifies you.
So far, we are right on board with Paul, on marriage and circumcision. But then he says something difficult. He says, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” As difficult as this is to modern ears, Paul is counseling slaves to not seek their freedom, but to remain slaves.
Before I go on, I just want to talk a little bit about slavery in the ancient world because I don’t want you to hear me wrong about this. When we 21st century people hear about slavery, we wince because we think of American slavery in the 1800s. American slavery was uniquely brutal in many ways, three ways in particular. First, it was racially based. It looked at a group of people, namely Africans and said, “Your group particularly is subhuman, unable to manage the complexities of free life, suitable only to be labor.” Second, American slavery in the 1800s was lifelong. A slave was property of their owners totally and forever. They had no rights of their own and were assumed to be merely property forever. To keep this system alive, slaveowners had to dehumanize slaves, had to convince them and the rest of society that these people were less than human. And so a brutal system of repression and dehumanization evolved that was uniquely evil. Finally, American slavery in the 1800s was always involuntary. People never wanted to become slaves.
The slavery that Paul is talking about at that time had none of these things. It was not racially based, but a person of any race could be a slave. One became a slave as a prisoner of war, or because they were abandoned as children, or as a sentence for a crime. It was not lifelong, at least usually. Most slaves were freed by the time they were in their 30s. And as opposed to modern times, selling yourself into slavery was an option to pay off debts, or if you could become a slave in an elite household, you could enjoy a higher standard of living—even as a slave—than you could enjoy on your own.
Now I don’t want to romanticize this—slaves were still slaves. They could still be abused, they could still be harmed. It was still an evil institution. But it was not the uniquely evil institution of American slavery in the 1800s. For this reason, Paul can say that being a slave is not the worst thing in the world, and getting out of slavery should not be the first concern of a Christian. Nor should a Christian facing hard times sell themselves into slavery. Instead, Christians should use whatever social status they had—whether slave or free—and use the advantages of that situation to remain close to God.
The fact that Paul is talking about slavery is difficult for us, but it means he is especially passionate about his point—Christians need to be content in their situation. Paul is so concerned that Christians learn contentment that he says even the worst of situations should not be able t o interrupt your contentment. Whether it is your social status, your political status, your marital status, or your physical status, Paul says we must learn contentment where we are.
This seems to me to be a particularly important point for the church at the crossroads. It seems to me our location is somewhat revealing of the kind of people to whom we have been called to minister. So much of Exton is rootless. Living surrounded by retail, you are reminded constantly of what you do not have, what the marketers tell you will make you happy. Living surrounded by affluence, you are reminded that you do not have riches. Living disconnected from your ancestral home, and your extended family, sometimes people here long for their home and they are painfully aware that this isn’t it. The scars people bear around here are the side effects of the Disney gospel, of the pursuit of progress. The rootlessness, the discontent, these are things that come when a culture puts a high value on success no matter the personal cost.
And yet things can be different. Things should be different. And the church is where things must be different. The church must be the place that proclaims, loud and clear, that contentment is possible even in a discontented, disconnected, rootless world. The church must be the place that knows the secret to contentment: that it is to be found not in changing our lives, not in overhauling everything in the pursuit of progress, but that it is to be found in clinging to a simple faith: Christ crucified, risen and coming again. And it is to be found in living out that faith in the world everyday, bringing our lives into increasing conformity to the one who died that we might live. And more than simply knowing the secret to contentment, we must live that secret; we must live contented lives, so that a rootless and restless world finds in us a compelling vision for life that could change the way they live and think.
I’ll just close with this. Today is Pentecost Sunday. On this day almost 2000 years ago the church was in essence born. It was born in people like us, disciples who gathered and waited for God to touch them so they could speak to the world and share his love and his power. On that day, once they were touched with God’s Spirit, they were able to speak in different tongues. People looked at them like they were crazy, but then many of them realized that what had happened to them was something only God can do. They stopped mocking and believed.
We live in a world that does not believe contentment is possible. It is an unspoken language enjoyed in our world, pursued by many, enjoyed by few. If we wish to see many come to Christ today, perhaps it will not be with amazing signs like speaking in tongues. Maybe it will come when people realize that God’s Spirit is the only thing that can bring contentment; maybe it will come when we, his church, demonstrate the power of his Spirit to bring contentment. May God’s Spirit breathe that contentment in you and help you shine it to others always.