Sermon: Do We Really Believe What We Say We Believe?
Scripture: 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 1:15; 3:16.
Date: June 10, 2018
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth
When I was about 12 years old, I got my first phonograph. And soon after that I went out and I bought my first record. Now this was in the 1960’s when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were in their heyday. But my first record was not any of theirs. No my first big record purchase was a 45 RPM recording of The Rain, The Park and The Other Things by the Cowsills. (show picture) Now I know that all of you want to spontaneously burst into singing (play a few seconds of the song) but we don’t have time. It cost me $.69 at the W.T. Grant Store where my Father was the manager. It was such a big day for me. I couldn’t wait to get it home and put it on the record player, grab a pencil and pretend it was a microphone and play it about 50 times in a row until I knew every word. So I got home, took it out of the record sleeve, and my heart sank. The hole in the middle of the record was too big. Now as a kid I had had some favorite albums that I could play on the family record player. The soundtrack from Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, a couple of Christmas sing along albums, and even the soundtrack from the movie version of Old Yeller, which was mostly dialogue. And I had learned at a pretty early age how to slide those on the spindle of the record player and put the needle arm on them and get the sound to come out. But they had had small holes that fit tightly on the spindle, but my new prized possession had a sink hole in the middle. And I didn’t know what to do with that. I didn’t know that there was a piece that slipped over the spindle (show picture) to adapt the player for 45 and it didn’t come with any instructions. So because even then I was a technological whiz, I decided that all I had to do was center the record on the turntable as best I could, press it down to the rubber surface as hard as I could, and then start playing it. Well it worked for a few seconds, but it didn’t take long for the record to lose it’s center, and soon the sound of rain that is at the beginning of that classic recording began to sound more like a toilet running in the boys bathroom, and my beloved Cowsills began to sound as though instead of singing in a rainstorm, they were singing underwater. It was such a soul shattering experience. I couldn’t believe that I had blown my whole .69 on a defective record. And no matter how many times I started it up, the same thing kept happening. Finally my older brother had enough of the garbled Cowsills and came into my room with a .45 adaptor and made some remark about my lack of intelligence and showed me how to play 45’s on my new record player.
And I still recall it, in those times that my life seems determined to play a 45 rpm record and there doesn’t seem to be an adaptor so the center will not hold and my life begins to come out in garbled tones. It wasn’t until a literature class I took in college in which we studied some of the writings of William Butler Yeats, that I was able to put words to the lessons the Cowsills and I learned that day, however. In 1921, Yeats wrote a poem that was a reaction to the dark times the world was experiencing. Just emerging from the devastation of the first World War, the first War to end all wars. And then came the Communist Revolution in Russia. It was a very dark time in history. And Yeats wrote:
“The Blood dimmed tide is loosed everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
Things fall apart: the center cannot hold.”
What a metaphor for life. “When things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Or perhaps it’s the other way around, when the center does not hold, things fall apart.
Do you ever feel that way?
Like a 45 record without an adaptor, trying hard to grip the turntable, but knowing inevitably the center will not hold. And things will start coming out garbled and confused. Just like the beautiful harmonies of my beloved Cowsills turned into something grotesque and unrecognizable without an adaptor.
And you know as I look at the state of our world today, the increasing hostilities among nations, the dysfunctional partisanship of our political structures, the hatred that we speak with the tips of our fingers, the lack of civility and morality among people, the violence, the complete disregard for human life, I can’t help but think that we are spinning around without an adaptor, and the center is not holding. And everything is coming out garbled, and confused and grotesque and unrecognizable. I recently came across an article, on where else the Internet, that talked about the declining sense of morality and civility in our world. And the writer said that he viewed shifts in the moral standards as like a pendulum, moving back and forth from one side to the next as we tilt one way or the other. The Bible calls it a plum line. Eventually it will move back to the center. But what this writer had observed was not the back and forth of the plum line but rather that the center point keeps shifting. The center does not hold. And I thought, that writer has really captured what I have been feeling about our world every time I watch the news and learn of all of the terrible things happening every day. “Things fall apart; the center will not hold.”
For most of my life, my center has been God, and the adaptors that have held me in place relatively without wobbling has been scripture and prayer. But more and more, as I have watched and read about and experienced the divisiveness in the United Methodist Church (and many other denominations), it has become clearer and clearer that the church has lost its adaptors and we are beginning to wobble. More and more voices in the church are saying that the church needs to reflect secular culture, that our scriptural adaptors were meant for another time. And that we must place scripture in the context of our time. That what was clearly considered sins when the Bible was put together thousands of years ago, are no longer sins today according to our societal standards. The pendulum is swinging, but we are struggling to find our center. And so the question is that when we stand in church and speak the words of the Apostles’ Creed and say this is what I believe – is it really? Do we really believe that God is almighty, the maker of Heaven and earth? Do we really believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son and the Lord of our life? Conceived miraculously, crucified, died and rose again? Do we believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit? The universal Church of Jesus Christ as the communion of all the saints? Do we believe in grace? That our sins can be forgiven and that we too can have new life and live forever with God? Because that’s what we say. But do we really believe what we say we believe? Because as I look at all of the controversies and studies and reports from those who think they know the way forward, that it seems to me is the centering question. Because quite frankly, if what we believe is not central to the church and our faith, the center will not hold, and things will fall apart.
Around the year 66 A.D., the Apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, awaiting execution. All of his appeals to his Roman citizenship were exhausted and he had been sentenced to death by the Emperor Nero, who delighted in killing Christians. Paul must have known that Peter was also being held in a Roman prison awaiting execution, or perhaps he had already been executed. Scholars don’t agree on the exact year of Peter’s death. At any rate, Paul must have been wondering what the Way forward for the church would be once both he and Peter were no longer leading it. And so Paul did what he often did, he wrote a letter. Actually more than one, to his young protégé Timothy. They are the most personal letters of Paul that we have. He wrote to Timothy: “My life is being poured out on the altar as a drink offering, and the hour of my departure is upon me. And I have no one with me. So go and get John Mark and hurry to me.” Now could we blame Paul if the letter he wrote was full of despair. Reflecting a growing awareness that everything that he had worked so hard to build was falling apart. But instead he writes a joyous affirmation of faith. The scripture that we read earlier has been turned into one of the Affirmation of Faiths in our Methodist Hymnal, made all the more striking knowing that when Paul wrote those words the executioner was already sharpening his axe. Things were falling apart, but yet Paul testifies that he has found a center that would hold throughout eternity. Later he writes: I know the God in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that He will guard me until that day that I have entrusted to Him.” Paul is saying this is what I have believed and still believe and will believe for all eternity. I believe in God. He is the center which holds no matter where the pendulum swings.
I began my ministry in 1980 and it was about that same time that the church and the world was discovering the systematic oppression of Black South Africans that was known as Apartheid, mostly because of the actions of one man, an Anglican Bishop by the name of Desmond Tutu. He had the courage to stand up, when everything around him was falling apart, because he had found a center that would hold. And in 1981, when the whole world was beginning to take notice of the atrocities that were taking place in South Africa, the white government formed a commission to investigate the activities of Bishop Tutu and they called Bishop Tutu to testify. And in his testimony Bishop Tutu said this:
You whites brought us the Bible: now we blacks are taking it seriously. We believe in God to set us free from all that enslaves us and makes us less than He intended us to be. The Bible is the most revolutionary, the most radical book there is. If any book should be banned by those who rule unjustly and as tyrants, then it is the Bible. The Bible had been the adaptor that had caused the center, his belief in a God of liberation and freedom, to hold while all around them society was falling apart. Tutu was standing before the tribunal and the world and saying: I do what I do because I believe in Almighty God. He is the center that holds me. And the truth is that every time God’s people have let go of God as the center, every time we have tried to place ourselves at the center, we have become confused, and our faith has become garbled, and the church and our lives have begun to fall apart. The way forward in faith must always begin with God at the center, or it is no way at all. The only center that will hold is “I believe in God Almighty.” Think about it. Adam and Eve fell because they tried to substitute themselves for God at the Center of the Garden. Their humanity was the center that would not hold. And as the story of God’s people has unfolded through all time, we have tried to hold on to many centers. Pride, arrogance, power, sin – at one time or another these become the music of our lives which we try to place on the turn table without any adaptors and when the center will not hold, we fall apart. Sometimes we even try to place the church at the center and when it does not hold, when it begins to wobble and drift in confusion, we start to study and pray and plan and sketch ways that we can make the center hold. But the truth is that the church will fall apart if God is not the center that holds. Paul did not spend his time in prison trying to plan how the church could move forward without him because he knew that he was not the center. He was merely an adaptor that ultimately led people to the true center, which was almighty God in Jesus Christ. And so He writes to Timothy, “If you want to know the source of my strength. If you want to know what keeps me centered, remember the sound teachings that you have been exposed to from your childhood through your grandmother and mother and now me. We are the adaptors that God has placed in your life so that your life may be centered in Him.” “Remember and believe” He tells Timothy. Because you see, what Paul had discovered in his own journey is that even God at the center will not hold, if it is just us trying to hold him there because no matter how hard we try to hold on, the center will not hold and the beautiful harmony that God created us to be – will become confused and garbled and eventually fall apart completely. And so God has provided us with adaptors to use so that the center will hold and in the words of the Psalmist all of our life, our being, will sing in praise to God. The writers of the Creed knew the importance of the adaptors in holding God Almighty at the center. And so they included some of those in the Creed. In essence they were saying that because we believe that Almighty God is the center of all things, we also believe in what holds Him there for us, the adaptors that He has placed in our life. And so they affirm our belief in Jesus as the Son of God. (Say together: I believe in Jesus Christ His Son, who was conceived by the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified dead and buried, and on the third day He rose from the dead.) Paul puts it this way: “Hold to the sound teaching which you heard from me, living by the Faith and Love which are ours in Christ Jesus.” Sometimes the center does not hold because we follow after other teachings, and confuse faith in God with faith in the things of the world, and confuse Godly love with human counterfeits. If the center is to hold then we must let Jesus adapt us to His image, instead of trying to adapt Jesus to our image or the image of the church or even world. And then the creed says that we believe in the Holy Spirit. Say together: (I believe in the Holy Spirit.) Now through the centuries the Spirit has been perceived in miraculous ways. Tongues of flame, speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, but that’s not all the Spirit is. I believe that The Holy Spirit is that presence within us that provides the adaptive power to keep true to the center that holds. The Spirit informs, empowers, encourages us even when all is falling around us, to hold on to the Center. In a very real sense God reaches to us from the center through the Spirit and embraces us, holds on to us, no matter what may be happening around us, even when it seems that all is falling down. The Spirit is God’s assurance that the Center will hold. The Spirit is the affirmation for Paul that even in that Roman prison, awaiting execution, God is always present, adapting us so that the center will hold in our current circumstances, no matter how dark they seem. I believe in the Holy Spirit.
And then the creed affirms the church as an adaptive presence that draws us to the center that will hold. (Say together: I believe in the holy catholic church). Sometimes I fear that we have substituted the church for God in our desire for a center that will hold. And so we will do whatever it takes to preserve the church, even if that means tolerating sin in our midst and false teaching. And I think that’s true in our individual faith experience too. I don’t always know what the way forward is for me or the church, but I do know that the way forward is not away from the center, but rather our way must always lead us back to the center. You see, there is always the temptation to embrace false centers. In Paul’s day there was the constant struggle to not perceive Judaism as represented by the Temple Priests as the center of faith. Every way of faith started with the priest. You couldn’t even approach God without going through the Priest. And then Jesus came and said the true center is not the priests or the Temple, but it is God. I am the Way forward, he said, and his followers became known as the people of the way.
When the creed was written it was in the aftermath of Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and there arose a great controversy about separating the church from the state. Sound familiar? Many wanted to make the emperor the center of our faith. And so the writers of the creed said that isn’t what Jesus intended. And they affirmed the universal church of Jesus Christ as that which adapted us to the true center of our faith. Almighty God. The church adapts us so that our lives testify to God as our center. And so the creed includes some tangible expressions of our lives. (Say together: I believe in the forgiveness of sins which leads to life everlasting.) I think that there are some who would have us believe that grace and love and forgiveness are the center of our faith, and that the way forward is towards those things rather than propelled by them towards the center that always holds. Almighty God. So Grace does not mean that anything we do and say and feel as children of God is okay because God loves us. I believe in grace that says that anything that we do, no matter what, no matter how repugnant it is in the eyes of God, can be forgiven. If the center is to hold, you cannot separate grace from forgiveness. And forgiveness from repentance. They all go hand in hand. God’s love does not condone our sin, but rather redeems us, forgives us, when we do sin. Love is not the center that holds, nor is grace and forgiveness. They are what lead us to God and adapt us to be held forever by Him. And enable our lives to be beautiful music in this world. Unless we use the adaptors of Christ, and the Holy Spirit and the church and grace and love and forgiveness our center will not hold. So in the final analysis whether the church moves forward along the so called progressive way or the traditional way is not the question we should be asking. The only true way forward for us and the church and our nation and our world is into the very heart of God. God’s way. And we won’t get there through studies and conferences and votes. The only way we get there is on our knees journeying towards the very heart of God. And the creed invites us to make that journey. I believe in God almighty.