Thursday, March 3, 2011

The New and Improved Sermon

One pastor commented that he does theology with the New York Times in one hand and the Bible in the other. He was merely commenting on the need to be relevant. Since I don’t get the Times, I sometimes listen to liberal, postmodern preachers. One was fulminating on the essence of faith:

“Faith is usually used to exclude others. We don’t need more exclusion. Faith is not best served by a narrow definition of who’s in and who’s out! It’s not about a rigid, mind-numbing set of doctrines.”

I knew he was talking about me and my type – Bible-believing Christians – and so I braced myself. Not that we want to exclude anybody – we want to include them into our faith – but we serve a God whose way is narrow. Nevertheless, it was hard not to feel a twinge of shame, whether it was deserved or not. I assured myself that it wasn’t. I wondered whether the preacher realized that he was excluding me with his sermon? That thought restored my courage enough to examine myself. Was I being unnecessarily exclusionary? Was I turning spiritual seekers into outcasts?

I found it strange that he was preaching against doctrine. Wasn’t that what preachers do – preach about truth? Didn’t his sermon contain doctrine, even if it’s not the kind I found in Sunday School class? Is it even possible to open my mouth without something that resembles doctrine coming out? I tried it to myself and found that I couldn’t.

His pounding became more insistent, and he waxed eloquent against a pastor who threatened one doubter in this manner: “Who are you to doubt the sacred Scriptures.” The post-modern preacher then contrasted this condemnable behavior with his ideal – giving others the freedom and encouragement to cobble together their own faith. However, he didn’t seem very encouraging about the pastor he had just condemned.

Are there pastors who react antagonistically when confronted with difficult questions? Most pastors I know welcome questions as opportunities to minister more intimately to those struggling for answers. However, this preacher didn’t talk as if he knew any of them, at least none of the conservative bent. Perhaps he didn’t want to know them? Accounts of bad pastors make for more interesting sermons.

Well, if faith doesn’t involve a divine revelation, what does it involve? What is the ideal? Fortunately, the preacher didn’t keep me in suspense for long:

“Living at ease in mystery of the vast universe…Living comfortably and confidently in the cloud of the unknown without the need to set everything down in the form of a doctrine.”

I had little problem with this. After all, it’s certainly better to feel comfortable with the mysteries than uncomfortable. Besides, there are many things that we can’t even begin to understand. But isn’t faith something you believe in? We may be awed by what we don’t understand, but it hardly seems like a basis for faith. He cleared up my confusion a minute later:

“Faith is trusting in ourselves to find the answers. Life unfolds as we learn to trust our deepest experiences and to count our lives as something to be appreciated.”

At least he admitted that there were answers. I was being to think that it was just about searching without any possibility of finding. But what if we can’t trust in ourselves? And what if we’ve tried to trust in ourselves but found that this placed an additional impossible burden on our already hobbled shoulders? Or perhaps we’ve learned that our experiences haven’t been trustworthy?

Rather, shouldn’t we place our faith in the person who has more experience, wisdom and intelligence – in someone who has been leading a successful life? Also, isn’t it foolish to tell an impulsive teenager or a sex-crazed maniac to trust in his experiences? It seems that we would need a standard to measure whether our experiences are really trustworthy. When I studied math, I would look in the back of the book for the right answers. Was there any way of measuring whether my self-trust was leading me in the right direction? The preacher ignored this concern.

However, I noticed that everyone was affirmatively nodding their heads. But I was having difficulty in understanding why this wasn’t a divisive doctrine while believing in God was. If I found that I could live a fruitful life by trusting in myself, wouldn’t I be justified in looking down on those who weren’t living as well? It might become very tempting to exclude the “losers” from my company in favor of the “winners?”

I might not be able to answer all of these questions, but evidently the preacher could. He had several degrees, and everyone else seemed aware of this fact and were riveted to his sermon. However, even though he was preaching self-trust, it seemed that they were oddly “hearing” preacher-trust.

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