Monday, July 18, 2016

Change Your Assumptions

 In a very real way, our society today has a truth problem.  I’ve said that before in a sermon or two, but it isn’t because people don’t believe that truth exists.  There are very, very few people who actually believe that what is true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me.  If people actually believed that, no one would ever get upset about anything–and I mean anything.

 For instance, a person who saw a child being abused could not call such a thing wrong.  By the logic of their own reasoning, they would have to admit, “If someone abuses a child, then that person believes it is okay to do that.  That’s what they believe.  It’s not true for me, but it’s true for them.  There’s nothing I should do about it.”  Perhaps such a person exists in the world today, but I haven’t met them.

 No, this is not the truth problem we have today.  We have another type of truth problem–a problem of proclaiming truth before all the evidence is in.  Let me state that again: we have a problem of proclaiming the truth before all the evidence is in.  Why do I say this? 

 I don’t think you can't argue that the news media has been flush with stories of the deterioration of race relations in our nation.  Because of the police shootings of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling and then the subsequent retaliation killings of five officers in Dallas, the cries of “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” have gotten stronger and stronger.  The rhetoric has ratcheted up and emotions have gotten higher and higher–despite the fact that the evidence is not all in.

 Some might say at this point, “What do you mean the evidence is not all in.  We have seen the videos.”

 Yes.  The videos.  What do you see in the videos?

 I’ll tell you what you see in the videos, and I’m not trying to do this in any sort of know-it-all pompous way.  I’ll tell you what you see in the videos given your assumptions about the way things are going in this country right now.

 If you assume that African Americans are disproportionally targeted by police and are victims of police abuse, then you see police brutality and murder.

 If you assume that the majority of police officers are good people who are doing a tough job, you will see people failing to obey police orders, resisting arrest, and tragically getting shot.

 You are both looking at the same video, and you are both coming to different conclusions even before all the facts are known about those situations.  Your governing assumptions are leading you to a conclusion without all the evidence.  And if you become absolutely certain in your conclusion, you will take action and argue either for “Black Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.”  At the worst, you will begin caricaturing the other side and calling them ignorant, stupid, and the like.  And when all the evidence indeed comes in, no matter where that evidence leads, you will not believe it unless it confirms your already pre-conceived notions.

 Our assumptions; our pre-conceived notions are extremely powerful.  They are very, very hard to overcome.  They color the way we look at the world; they color the way we view evidence; they color the way we hear other people.  These assumptions are often so powerful that we will dismiss someone’s testimony without giving them a proper hearing.  Think about that for just a moment as I turn the tables a bit.  How does it feel to know that someone will dismiss your point of view simply because your perspective clashes with their assumptions?  How does it feel to know someone will simply not believe you because of their pre-conceived notions of reality?  How does it feel to be dismissed out of hand and have your experience dismissed no matter what kind of evidence you produce?

 I think most of us would be outraged with this.  Most of us would be extremely upset because we want our perspective to be granted a proper hearing.  We want our evidence to be heard.  We want to be valued and honored and heard.  And yet, oftentimes we do not afford this basic consideration to others.  Oftentimes our minds are made up because of the deep power of our basic assumptions.  There is a word for this: hypocrisy.

 I don’t know about you, but I do not like being confronted with my hypocrisy.  I don’t like being shown that I say one thing but do quite the opposite.  I like to think of myself as consistent, so is there a way that my deepest assumptions can allow for me to refrain from jumping to conclusions?  Is there a set of assumptions that I can have that will permit me to listen to both sides of a given argument; affirm the feelings and emotions of each side; and yet wait until the evidence is in and even change my mind?

 The Christian worldview, at its heart says that every person is a sinner–deeply flawed, broken and self-interested and yet because of Christ’s action on the cross, that person is also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  As Martin Luther wrote, we are both completely sinner and saint.  This means you and I are flawed, broken, and self-interested people, but we are also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  That also means that the people we disagree with are flawed, broken, and self-interested and also created in the image of God, deeply loved, and forgiven.  What does this mean as we seek to practically apply it?

 First off, I think it means we can and should be skeptical of what we are told.  Does that mean I am telling you to be skeptical of what I am saying right now?  Yes.  I am.  Why?  Why should you be skeptical of me preaching what I am preaching to you right now?  Because I am sinful.  I am not up here with pure motivations.  If I were up here with completely pure motivations, there would be no desire in my heart for you to believe what I am saying.  There would be no desire in my heart for you to arrive at the same conclusions that I have.  There would be no thought about whether or not my job might be in jeopardy or whether I have worded things just carefully enough for me to have an out.  I would have no agenda or thought for my self preservation.  But, alas, that is not so.  I want you to like me.  I want you to respect me. I want to present a sermon which is equally appealing to those on the left and right.  I want to keep my job.  These things affect what I say and how I say them.  Sinfulness does that–to EVERYONE!!  Healthy skepticism is important.

 But so is compassion.  This is the second thing that I think being both sinner and saint means leads us to.   We can be skeptical of claims and know that sin informs other people–like it informs us, but we can also hear the concerns, cries, and testimony of others with an open mind.  Other people have points of view.  They have evidence in their own right.  They have felt things and seen things that we have not.  They are children of God, and God has extended the same compassion and forgiveness to them that He has extended to me.  I simply cannot dismiss their points of view out of hand.  Compassion demands I give a proper hearing without having my mind closed.

 So, how do I render a proper judgement?  How do I come to any sort of conclusion given that people have sinful motivations and deserve compassion and an open ear?

 Let me now turn to our biblical text from the book of Mark. We wrap up chapter 15 today with Jesus’ burial.  This is a straight forward story about what happens after Jesus dies on the cross.  There is no heavy theology.  There are no miracles or God sightings.  There is simply an account of Joseph of Arimethia of procuring Jesus’ body; burying it; and then two women seeing where the body is laid.

 Most of us accept the validity of this story almost without question, but let me ask you this question: how would you explain to a skeptic why you believe this story to be true?  How would you defend this story to someone who might say that Mark made this up?  Hang in there, this is pertinent to the original question.

 First off, we need to ask how Mark knew about these events.  How did this story of Joseph of Arimethia find its way into the Bible?  The simplest explanation is that Joseph himself told this story to the early disciples and that it was passed to Mark.  And why should we believe Joseph’s rendition? 

 Scholar N.T. Wright helps us here:

 It was a moment of great potential risk.  To show any sympathy with someone who had just been crucified on a charge of sedition was bound to raise suspicions.  Peter had been scared out of his wits by the mere suggestion that he was associated with Jesus.  Joseph, Mark explains, had been eagerly longing for the kingdom; we must assume that this means he had been a keen, though secret, supporter of Jesus.  He must have decided that if Jesus had died he had nothing more to lose by doing what he knew to be right. It also meant, of course, that he would make himself ritually unclean, and unable to engage in some of the normal Sabbath practices that evening and the next day.  Joseph was treating Jesus as if he was a close member of the family, for whom it was his duty to see to burial before nightfall–as well as to fulfil the old biblical law not to let hanged corpses remain in place overnight.  For this he was prepared to face uncleanliness, suspicion, and possible charges as an associate of Jesus.

 You see, Joseph had everything to lose and nothing to gain.  The act of going to Pilate, procuring the body, and burying it could cost him all kinds of status within the community and could end up costing him his life if he is seen as seditious.  Most folks will not risk as much as Joseph did; therefore, it is highly probable that this story is true.

 The second thing that points to the truth of this story of Jesus’ burial is the witness of the women.  As I said in my sermon last week, in Jewish culture, women were not afforded the right to be witnesses in a trial.  They were seen as too emotional; too unobjective.  If Mark were to make up a story about Jesus’ burial, he would not have chosen women to be the witnesses.  He would have chosen men. Because this would actually damage Christianity rather than help its cause, it is highly probable this actually happened.

 In both of these cases, the cost of the actions and the reports are actually higher than the benefit.  Usually, we do not do things that do not offer us some sort of reward and satisfaction.  Usually, we do not do things that do not offer us some sort of benefit.  Usually, we do not do things that have a very high cost with little or no benefit to ourselves. 

 And this brings us to the central belief of Christianity that Jesus became the God incarnate who took on flesh and lived among us to live the life we should live and die the death we deserved.  He became sin who knew no sin and faced the fires of hell on our behalf so that we may experience the joys of heaven.  The forgiveness of our sins; eternal life; and reconciliation with God cost us nothing, and it cost Jesus everything.  Jesus paid the price and received nothing in return.  His motives were pure.  He had no self-interest.  He only had love.

 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe 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 might be saved through Him. 

 As you look at what is going on in our society today; as you contemplate the media reporting of Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, it would be helpful to keep the Christian worldview at the front.  Be skeptical–wait for all the evidence.  Be compassionate–listen and engage others without being completely dismissive.  Look for motivations of love and self-giving without thought of reward or benefit.  Seek to offer love and self-giving without benefit.  For this is what Jesus did as He gave Himself to you, to me, and to the world.  And He promised us this, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.  You will know the truth.  And the truth will make you free.”  Hang onto Jesus.  Know the Gospel, and you will indeed come to know the truth.  Amen.

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