Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon: "What's Real, What's Not" (Ephesians 4:11-15, 25)

In my family, we love the Harry Potter books. When my boys were young, we went to midnight book release parties, joining hundreds of others for an evening of fun activities, then being the first to purchase the next Harry Potter book when it went on sale at midnight.
When my boys were older, and Universal Studios Hollywood opened up the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we were there. The signature attraction is a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The line winds its way through the classrooms and offices of Hogwarts castle, past walls on which hang moving portraits that talk to you, and eventually you arrive at the Great Hall where you take a seat on a bench that, magically, begins flying.
The amazing thing is: it feels real. The first time I rode it, I could not figure out how it was that we were actually flying, rising above the floor, soaring into the air. Fantasy had become reality.
But of course, there is a secret to the magic. There always is. Just because I couldn’t see the engineering behind the ride, the apparatus hidden in the darkness that makes it seem as though we were flying, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. As much as it pains me to say this, being such a Harry Potter fan: magic spells that make you able to fly don’t really exist.
As long as we know we’re pretending… As long as we know that the magic we see is only an illusion… it can be a lot of fun. Imagination is good. But it would be dangerous and irresponsible for me to take some children up to the roof, give them each a broom, and instruct them to fly off. Right? No matter how much I may want the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to be real, it’s still important for me to keep at least part of my mind grounded in reality.
Unfortunately, staying grounded in reality is becoming harder and harder for a lot of people.
I recently read a book by Kurt Anderson titled Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. The book’s premise is that we now have a president who makes up his own truth, and Americans accept his version of the truth even though it is made-up, in part because we have a 500-year history in this country of believing that what is fantasy, is actually real.
In his book, Anderson points out:
We are the country of people who came here believing what they were told, that the New World across the ocean was an uninhabited paradise, an Eden-like land just waiting to be settled.
We are the country of Buffalo Bill Cody, who presented his own fictionalized version of history, which many people believed was actual history.
We are the country of PT Barnum, who didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was regularly pulling the wool over people’s eyes. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” he said, and millions of people were willing to be those suckers.
We’re the country of the gold rush, in which millions of people came to California believing all the good, wonderful, fantastic things they heard about the Golden State, dismissing the more reality-based descriptions of life in the west.
We’re the country of Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, treating as real evil forces that were imaginary or harmless.
We’re the country of Karl Rove, who, in 2004, said: “Discernible reality” no longer matters, that “We create our own reality.”
We are the country of professional wrestling, which for many years tried to convince people that it was an actual sport. When the courts finally forced professional wrestling to admit that it wasn’t a real sport, that it was fake, people didn’t even care. Everyone knows now that it’s not real, that it’s a show, but they still pack in the crowds.
By the way, Donald Trump has sponsored World Wrestling Entertainment events at his casinos, and has been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Our president has a lot of experience at passing off fiction as reality.
Here are some more ways people today make up their own truth:
Statistics show that a gun in the home is more likely to be used against a member of the family than it is to be used to protect the family, yet many believe that having a gun will keep them safer. Statistically that’s not true, but they want it to be true, so they believe it.
Science has shown that vaccines do not cause autism and other conditions, but many people refuse to vaccinate their children because they choose to believe the opposite.
Overwhelming scientific consensus is that the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, but many choose not to believe this.
Many believe that you help the poor by cutting taxes for the rich, even though there have been communities, states and nations that have done this, expecting wealth to then trickle down to the poor. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
It turns out that the best way to help the poor is to help the poor. But many still believe the opposite.
We in the church need to recognize that Truth is important to God.
In religion, in Christianity, we talk a lot about Truth. “What is truth...The Truth will set you free.” But unfortunately, even in religion, even in Christianity, there is a lot of made-up truth.
The Bible talks about wars and rumors of wars, and how we shouldn’t believe those false rumors. The Bible talks about false prophets, those who call evil good and good evil. The Bible warns us against those who make up their own truth.
In the Bible, in Genesis, we have not one but two creation stories. Chapter one is one creation story; a few verses into chapter two, a whole separate creation story begins. And the two stories are different. They don’t match.
You can’t insist that this is history. You can’t, with integrity, read these stories literally. Each creation story is told to make a theological point, not to provide a historical textbook. These two creation stories come from different sources which have been placed in Genesis, one after another. It’s almost as if these two stories were placed, one right after another, on purpose, to make that very point, that you can’t read them literally, that you need to look for the deeper meaning that they contain… I mean, if the author of scripture wanted us to read these stories literally, he should have at least put them further apart, so that by the time we get to the second one, we might have forgotten everything in the first creation story that contradicts what appears in the second story. But no: They come one right after the other.
The same thing happens with the gospels. We have four different accounts of Jesus’s life. Four! Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. And they cannot be reconciled into one story. People have tried. They have all failed.
Mark was the first gospel written, and it was written at least a generation after the time of Jesus. Then, Matthew and Luke used some of what Mark wrote, combined it with another source that scholars call “Q,” and added in their own unique takes on the story of Jesus, adapting and changing and even inventing things to make the theological points that they wanted to make.
And then there’s the gospel of John, so very different…
It can’t all be historically true. How could anyone believe such a thing? There is truth there - deep, powerful truth - but sometimes, it’s like the truth found in a parable. Scripture writers didn’t believe that a story had to be literally true to contain deep truth. It’s theology. Not history.
Also: you will hear people say all kinds of things about religion, about Christianity…
For example, you’ll hear that God uses hurricanes and earthquakes to punish people for sin. But, the strange thing is, the “sin” they mention is always whatever particular “lifestyle” they themselves don’t like. A rich person who is anti-gay will always believe that the hurricane is a punishment against homosexuals, but will never believe that it is a punishment against those who hoard riches and refuse to help the poor.
You’ll hear people say that they’ve consulted the Bible, they’ve crunched the numbers, and the world is going to end next Tuesday. And many thousands of people believe them. And next Tuesday comes and goes, and they say, “Oh, wait, I meant the following Tuesday.”
And people believe them!
Come on, Christians! Let’s use our heads! Let’s stop perpetuating the lies and fantasies that make Christianity unbelievable to so many.
Which brings me to our role in all this. We at Bixby Knolls Christian Church are part of a movement called the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). One of the early events that helped form our movement was a revival that took place in 1801 at a place called Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Some 20,000 people attended, which is a remarkable number of people, equal to about ten percent of the population of Kentucky at the time.
There was a lot of heavy emotion. People wept, groaned, and fainted. Because of this, Kurt Anderson even mentions Cane Ridge, briefly, in Fantasyland, the book I mentioned earlier.
But the movement that sprang forth from there became a movement that values thought and truth. We are a movement in which it is often said, “You don’t need to check your brain at the door when you come in to worship.” We believe that scientific truth does not need to give way to religious truth.
As a Disciples pastor who values truth, I like what the Dalai Lama once said, that if science conclusively demonstrates that certain claims in Buddhism are false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon [or re-interpret] those claims of Buddhism.
The Christian faith tradition has always accepted the claims of science... eventually. Yeah, sometimes it took a century or two of convincing, but we no longer believe in a flat earth, or that the sun revolves around the earth. The Bible says that the sun rises and the sun sets, and we still use that language today, even though we know - and we believe - that, technically, it is the earth rotating and revolving that gives the appearance of a rising and setting sun.
It would be foolish to insist that the sun revolves around the earth, because science proves otherwise. In the same way, it is foolish to believe that the creation stories are meant to be taken literally, that the earth was created in seven 24-hour periods that took place just a few thousand years ago, because science proves otherwise.
We don’t need to be afraid of truth. Religious truth and scientific truth are very different, but they are both true. I can read the story of creation in Genesis and find meaning in it, even if I don’t believe that the earth was actually created in seven days, but over billions of years. In fact, not reading it literally sets me free to find the deeper truth and deeper meaning in the biblical story of creation.
In the same way, whenever I hear some statement from the White House or from Fox News or from the Huffington Post or from some guy on facebook, I should know to be skeptical of what is being said. Where is the evidence? What are the sources?
These are even good questions to ask when it comes to the Bible. The Bible says what? Is that just your belief, or is it backed up by the scholarship of serious Bible scholars and theologians?
As we grow spiritually and learn more about both faith and the world around us, it’s OK to change our minds on things we once believed. In the face of evidence and new knowledge, it would be irresponsible to NOT change our beliefs. Thomas Merton - the well-known, widely respected Catholic theologian, once said that “If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”
This is how we become spiritually mature. The spiritually immature accept whatever is told to them without testing it. The spiritually immature allow made-up truths to toss and blow them about.
But the spiritually mature seek out what is true, test what is true, and allow what is true to shape and guide them.

Let us, then, be spiritually mature. Let us have discerning minds, and not believe every little thing that we hear or read. Let us study scripture, let us acknowledge the truth of science, let us ask questions, and let us not try to create our own reality. Let us come to faith with our head as well as our heart. Let us grow in knowledge and wisdom and faith.

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