There is a story I have told in a sermon before, but I believe it bears repeating in light of our lessons this morning:
A retired preacher went back to visit a town in which he once served. Sitting down in the local café, he recognized on of his former parishioners. The preacher called out, “Hi, Bob, how are things at the church?”
Bob recognizing the preacher from years ago replied, “Hello Reverend. Actually, I don’t know how things are at the church anymore. I don’t go there.”
This surprised the pastor. Bob had been a pillar of the congregation when he left. Bob had served as congregation president; he taught Bible study; he was a mentor to several youth; he attended almost every single Sunday; and he was a steady and generous contributor. The fact that Bob no longer went to church there rocked the pastor to the core. “May I ask what happened?” the pastor said.
Bob didn’t hesitate, “Well, Reverend, I hate to say it, but Satan raised dissension in our midst. Some folks just stopped believing the appropriate things, so half of us got up and started our own church.”
The pastor replied, “I am truly sorry to hear that. How are things going at that church?”
Bob replied, “I don’t know. You would think that we would be able to agree on everything, but it didn’t happen. Satan’s reach is long, and before you know it, a group of us had to leave again. About six couples started gathering in our homes to listen to God’s Word.”
The pastor then said, “And did you find peace in that small group?”
“No,” Bob said. “Before long my wife and I had to leave that group as they were not true to the Word or to doctrine. We began worshiping together on Sunday’s alone.”
The pastor replied, “I take it then, that this has brought you spiritual peace?”
And Bob said, “Nope, before long, things went south again. I worship on the east side of the house, and my wife worships on the west side.”
Yes, it is funny, and it probably is funny because it has a bit of truth within it. For in many ways, this story illustrates the religious backdrop that is the United States of America–particularly the church. We literally have thousands of denominations in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands of churches, and many of them have come about in exactly the fashion this story presents to us. They have split over disagreements and doctrines, and more often than not, our second lesson which we heard this morning is used as justification for those splits.
In case you missed it, I’d like to refresh it in our minds. Please take a listen to what St. Paul tells Timothy: 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 2proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
Usually, folks use this text as a weapon to basically say, “All scripture is inspired by God, and you are not taking scripture seriously. You have itchy ears and are leaving sound doctrine. We have no choice but to break away and hold onto the right, pure doctrine.” It’s always the other person who has the problem. It’s always those people out there who are wrong. It’s always the other guy who has itchy years, and it’s definitely not me.
Of course, that’s the attitude; however I think it’s mistaken. In fact, I’d submit to you this morning, my brothers and sisters, that each and every one of us have itchy ears. I’d submit that each and every one of us have our own particular understandings and core convictions, and we like those things affirmed and stroked. I’d submit that each and every one of us do not like having those convictions challenged, and we are often content to surround ourselves with people who believe exactly as we believe and do the things we like to do.
That’s an extremely easy thing to do in our technological age. I mean, how many of you have ever deleted someone off your Facebook list because they embrace a particular ideology and keep harping on it? Guilty as charged here. In this day folks are more than happy to announce their particular philosophy and theology, and many of them put this stuff on Youtube. It’s easy to search around on there until you find folks who agree with your point of view and keep listening to them and have them reinforce your beliefs instead of being challenged by others. It’s easy to frequent certain websites who give a particular slant to the news and avoid others which give you a different perspective on an event.
Before you know it, you can end up completely isolated–never challenged. And if you are challenged, say for instance, you don’t like what I say in the sermon this morning, you can head out of here turn on the television or get on the internet. In a matter of moments you can find another preacher like Joel Osteen who will tell you the things you want to hear. It’s that simple.
And of course, such isolation leads to division. We have only to look at what happened the past few weeks in Washington D.C. to see evidence of this. Two sides which are completely entrenched decide to play games with the American people. They are completely isolated and refuse to consider a different point of view. Not only does it divide the capital-it divides the nation; and, instead of a place that seeks to be different from society, the Church oftentimes reflects society. We become embroiled in division as well.
And what do we fight about? Interestingly enough, when you sit down and think about it, we don’t often fight about sound doctrine. Instead, we fight about what we are supposed to DO; how we are supposed to live out the Christian faith. How does this look? Well, it can be a battle over what color to paint the building. Some churches fight over whether or not it is okay to put artificial flowers on the altar or if real ones need to be used. Churches fight about who can serve as a pastor–if a certain gender is allowed or not or if a person of a particular sexual orientation can serve. Some fight about how a church cares for the poor–should they help without question or should someone work before they eat. Others fight about how the church engages politics–should they lobby government and force government to promote Christian values, should the church remain separate and apart from government completely, or somewhere in between.
All of these battles are focused on the law. They are not focused on doctrine. Now, the law is very important. There is no doubt about that. It helps us tremendously in teaching us how we ought to live. It serves as a guide as to what is right and what is wrong. It also teaches us and confronts us with our sinfulness. Most of you know the Big Ten, and I’m not talking about the football conference. You know the 10 Commandments: I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me; you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, honor your father and mother, remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s property or his wife and so on. You know Jesus’ commands, “If you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery. If you have anger toward your brother, you are committing murder. When you fed the least of these my brothers, you fed me.” We need the law, but we cannot follow it completely.
And that is important. Very important. None of us can completely measure up to what the law demands. None of us can follow every detail. It’s an impossibility. If we were able to follow it, we wouldn’t need a Savior. Jesus would not have had to die. As that most famous quote from the Gospel of John says, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”
We call this grace. And in my estimation, this is the sound doctrine from which we turn away from. When we focus on the law, we divide ourselves to exclusion; however, if we focus on grace, a very different dynamic occurs. When I realize that I am totally dependent upon God for my salvation, I am humbled. I no longer see myself as the be all and end all when it comes to knowing and practicing the faith of Jesus. And when I look at another person, I come to understand that other person needs Jesus just as much as I do. Therefore, I cannot see that other person as an enemy, as an opponent, or someone doomed to hell because he or she does not believe as I believe. Instead, I see that person as a brother, a sister, a member of my family–whether I like that person or not.
And when a group of people gather together inspired by grace, they can come together regardless of differences and work and worship together. In this manner, they change society instead of mirror it. And that, my brothers and sisters, is Living God’s Word Daily. Amen.