Presented by Pastor Cherie Johnson. Adapted from Rev Martin Thielen.
This week we are beginning our sermon series, “What Is the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” It is based on Martin Thielen’s book by that name. He is a United Methodist pastor in central Tennessee. In today’s service, I’ll be introducing the series and the first part of the book with a sermon titled, “(Don’t) Give Me That Old Time Religion.” Over the next six weeks, I’ll be focusing on the second part of the book. There’s a schedule of the sermon topics printed in your bulletin, so you’ll know what to expect. This is a great time to invite guests to church, anyone who might be seeking or wondering. I’m so excited about this seven week adventure that we are going on together.
Matthew 23:1-4; 13-15, 23-28
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.
Moses’ seat is a position of authority. The Pharisees considered themselves to be the authorized successors of Moses as teachers of the Law. As Jesus’ brother, James said in his letter 1:22, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” They made rules for others, beyond God’s Law, maybe too difficult to do at all, or perhaps things they weren’t willing to do it themselves. So, later in the passage, Jesus will be using the “h” word, “hypocrites.”
3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.
“Shutting the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.” By misguiding them in what to do. Focusing on the wrong things. Worrying more about the extra rules. Jesus talks about this in Mt 15:1-6.
1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father ‘ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
We’ll have another example in the next section. Worrying more about the details of the rules they made than the themes of loving God and neighbor, of justice, mercy, and love that are at the heart of the Law and the prophets.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“Strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” There was a practice of straining water before drinking it to ensure that one would not accidently swallow and “unclean” gnat. I wouldn’t want to drink a gnat either, but again Jesus is talking about focusing so much on the details that they are missing the bigger picture and are doing far worse things.
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs,
“White washed tombs.” A person who stepped on a grave became ceremonially unclean, so graves were white washed to make them easy to see, especially at night. This process make them look fresh and clean, but they still had all the decay inside.
which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Many of you may be familiar with the old gospel song “Gimme Me That Old-Time Religion.” The chorus goes like this, “Gimme me that old-time religion, gimme me that old-time religion, gimme me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.”
Much of old-time religion is good and noble. But some old-time religion is neither good nor noble. Old-time religion gave us the Crusades, the Inquisition, and religious wars. Old-time religion oppressed woman, defended slavery, and stifled scientific inquiry. The fact is, some old-time religion is unhealthy. Even Jesus didn’t like some of that old-time religion. We see examples in today’s Scripture readings. Jesus calls out the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. In Matthew 9, he talks about divorce. In Jesus’ day old-time religion allowed a man to divorce his wife for any reason. If she burned his dinner, if he found someone he liked better—the reason didn’t matter—he could dump her on the street in a heartbeat. Jesus advocated a higher standard where women were not considered disposable. And in a day without alimony, child support, or public assistance of any kind, the custom usually left her with two options: begging or prostitution. That was old time religion, and Jesus completely rejected it.
Old-time religion, at least some of it, is greatly overrated. Jesus talks about concerning ourselves more with following rules made up by people than about loving God and others, which is the basis of the Law. Rules that might have helpful under certain circumstances may be unnecessary or even hurtful in others, but justice, mercy, compassion, and love remain, regardless. In the book this series is based on, the author mentions ten points of old-time religion that can be discarded. Let me quickly review four of them.
First, we can discard old-time religion that claims God causes cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes. It’s not God’s will that a nine-year-old child die of leukemia, that a teenager become paralyzed in a car wreck, or that two hundred thousand Haitians die in an earthquake. Just because something bad happens does not mean that God caused it to happen. Jesus understood that. We see an example in Luke 13:4-5. Although we don’t know the details, eighteen laborers were killed in Jerusalem in an apparent construction accident. The people presumed it was to punish the workers for their sin. Jesus rejected this idea, and so must we. In response to this tragedy, Jesus says, “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.” God didn’t cause that tragedy back then, and God doesn’t cause tragedies today. Religion that blames God for everything that happens is old-time religion that we can and should discard.
Second, we can discard old-time religion that claims good Christians don’t doubt. Faith is not about having absolute certainty, having all the answers, or seeing everything in black-and white. Real faith, as the apostle Paul tells us in Corinthians, “sees through the glass dimly.” Glass was not as perfect and pristine as now. It may have had color or be wavy. Sometimes it was difficult to figure out what was on the other side. Real faith asks hard questions. Real faith struggles. Real faith doubts. In Genesis, Jacob spends the night wrestling with God. And real faith accepts ambiguity, mystery, and unanswered questions. Job in the Old Testament questioned God continually while remaining faithful. In the end, he doesn’t get the answers he is looking for, but he continues his relationship with God. Even Jesus experienced struggles and questions and doubts. When he was dying on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Doubt is not the enemy of faith; doubt is a part of faith. It’s how we figure things out and learn more. So the idea that good Christians don’t doubt is old-time religion that we can and should discard.
Third, we can discard old-time religion that claims that true Christians can’t believe in evolution. This was a major problem for me personally as I was seeking and deciding whether to become a Christian. While many sincere, well meaning, God-fearing people accept a more literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, I had problems with accepting that God made the earth and everything in it in six, 24 hour, days. It was helpful to learn a couple of things. One is that this account is a poem. Do you know any poems that are meant to be taken literally? Two, in 2 Peter 3:8, he says, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day,” referencing Psalm 90. From that, we can get that time for God is not like time is for us.
We don’t have to reject God creating the universe by accepting evolution. This is something called “theistic evolution.” This proposition claims that God created the universe but did so through the process of evolution. It is the overwhelming position of scientists who are Christians. It is the position of most mainline Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Methodist Church. Bottom Line: Science and faith are fully compatible, and theistic evolution is a perfectly acceptable Christian belief.
Finally, we can discard old-time religion that says it’s okay for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious. I’m sure you’ve met Christians who are arrogant, self-righteous, and judgmental. It’s not a new trend. There was a group of people like that in Jesus’ time. They were holier than thou. They were judgmental. They believed they had all the right answers, and they condemned everyone who didn’t agree with them, including Jesus. They were also the only people whom Jesus didn’t like and couldn’t get along with. Arrogant, judgmental, obnoxious religion is the exact opposite of the grace-filled spirit of Jesus Christ. It’s old-time religion that we can, and should, discard.
Other examples of unhealthy old-time religion could be mentioned today, but we don’t have time for that. So let me get to the bottom line. Many people in our world today, and in our own community, have problems with religion. However, most of them don’t really reject God or Christianity or church. Instead, they reject the way that God and Christianity and church have been packaged. In the theme of today’s text, they are rejecting inconsistencies of words and actions. These people desperately need to know there are people who are trying to follow the law of love and justice. They need to know there are alternative expressions of the Christian faith, different from the negative caricatures they see on religious television and in the news. They need to know that not all Christians reject science and reason. They need to know that not all Christians are judgmental and arrogant. They need to know that it’s okay to have questions and doubts. They need to know that you can love God with your heart but also with your head. In short, these people need to know that there are alternatives to unhealthy expressions of old-time religion. And we, as a Methodist church, offer such an alternative. We in the mainline and moderate tradition have a great message of open-minded, grace-filled, gender-equal, “head, heart, and hands,” orthodox Christian faith; and we need to proclaim it boldly!
Today we’ve said that some old-time religion can and should be discarded. But that raises an important question. What old-time religion cannot be discarded? That question brings us back to primary question for this series. In the preface of the book, the author tells an interesting story about a young man named Danny. At first Danny claimed to be an atheist. Later he decided to “upgrade” to an agnostic. Not long after that, Danny was seriously considering becoming a Christian. One day he said, “OK, you’ve just about convinced me on this religion stuff. So I want to know, what’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?”
“What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?” What a great question! The answer to that question, of course, is Jesus. We can discard many religious beliefs and still be Christians. However, we cannot discard Jesus. In order to be Christian believers, we must believe in Jesus’ life, teaching, example, death, and resurrection. A great benefit of these beliefs is that they provide promising answers to life’s most profound questions, including, What matters most? Am I accepted? Where is God? What brings fulfillment? What about suffering? And is there hope? Over the next six weeks we’ll explore those questions together. I look forward to the journey!
Jan 3 Jesus’ Priority: What Matters Most
Jan 10 Jesus’ Grace: Am I Accepted?
Jan 17 Jesus’ Work: Where Is God?
Jan 24 Jesus’ Example: What Brings Fulfillment?
Jan 31 Jesus’ Death: What about Suffering?
Feb 7 Jesus’ Resurrection: Is There Hope?