What Does This Mean?
Text: Acts 2:1-6
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
May 24, 2015
Today, on Facebook, author Rachel Held Evans observed that she often wrestles with a lingering sense that God punishes us if we are wrong about our theological beliefs. It is a fear and a reflection of what she learned at church growing up. Thankfully, her parents did not advocate this viewpoint at home. Her post was thoughtful and deliberative. As someone who has read a good bit of what she has written, this is not a surprise. Rachel Held Evans is one of the finest commentators on religious life we have and she is a treasure to modern day Christianity.
Years ago, when I was still Roman Catholic I began to contemplate ministry within the United Church of Christ. The idea was great and the pastor of the church we were attending, a really wonderful person, said that the first step was joining the church. In doing this I was going to be officially leaving being Roman Catholic and becoming Protestant. I was filled with dread and guilt. I remember joining the church on that one Sunday that I was going to go to hell. In fairness, by this point, the Roman Catholic Church was beyond teaching this, but still I was gripped with fear and guilt. Years later, a leader in the United Church of Christ expressed the exact same sensation I had so I knew I was not alone.
For a number of people there is the belief that our theological world view is going to determine if we are going to Heaven or to Hell. It may be what denomination or tradition we are in or boil down to our specific beliefs on specific topics. God not only judges us on whether we are sinful or not; whether we have faith or not; but salvation is based on a theological litmus test.
Years ago I had a colleague. He was a fellow United Church of Christ minister who disliked the United Church of Christ. I struggled with this person because he was pretty much anti-everything. He disliked our denomination and was very happy to share his dislike with other people. He retired from his church several years ago and encouraged them to leave the denomination-----they most recently did just that.
Over lunch one day, in a group, he talked openly about his belief that if we were wrong about things theologically we were going to Hell. Over the years I’ve come to realize this was a terrible burden for him to carry. He lived in fear that he was going to Hell unless he believed in a correct manner. Additionally, he had to face God for all the mistakes he made in his preaching and teaching. No wonder he was so anti-everything. Wow.
How cruel are we that we put this kind of pressure on people?
How arrogant are we that we think our viewpoint is so right that only the people who agree with us are going to Heaven?
How can be so certain that our God, a God who transcends all human understanding is so totally knowable that we can capture everything there is to know about God and that God is going to use this as a yardstick for our salvation or condemnation?
I like to think I have a reasonable understanding of Theology. I have advanced degrees in it and have read a good bit of Theology over the years. I can take part in a Theological conversation and can contribute to it and understand what is being talked about. I can discuss Theology with colleagues in ministry and they do not shake their heads in laughter as to how clueless I am. I can stand before people Sunday after Sunday and share my perspectives and they do not shake their heads in bewilderment at my total confusion.
In saying all of this, I cannot fathom to say that I have a clue. The mysteries of God still elude me on a regular basis.
I was often troubled with that and then I had an experience with an elderly Trappist monk several years ago. His name was Fr. Matthew Kelty and he had been at the Abbey of Gethsemani from 1960 until he died in 2011. I had a conversation with him about 2 years before he died. He was a very friendly and very humble man and had been the main preacher at the monastery for a long time. He had known Thomas Merton, who had been a monk at that monastery, quite well.
I asked Fr. Matthew after being a monk for so many years and praying in their Abbey Church close to 4 hours a day for 50 years, what he could say he knew about God. He looked at me, gently smiled and said, "After all these years I can only say that I don't know a damned thing."
One of the greatest piece of wisdom I have ever heard.
The greatest of all wisdom is knowing we do not know.
The greatest step of faith is recognizing we cannot ever fully understand God. In many ways the greatest spiritual gift is the gift of humility.
So I choose not to be cruel and tell others they are going to hell because they are wrong. To me, they are fellow sojourners and we are all on the journey together.
I find myself increasingly thankful for DVR. I hate watching live television. When I watch live television I’m bombarded with incredibly dumb commercials selling medications I really want because they will make me feel sooooo good. Other than the side effects of partial paralysis, death, and/or projectile vomiting, these all sound very hopeful.
There are ED commercials that end up with a couple with his and her bathtubs that have no plumbing attached in their backyards. There are commercials for really bad pizza. You know the ones, “Better ingredients, better pizza, Papa”……hey, have you ever tasted that stuff?
In the Louisville Metro Area we are bombarded with 1001 commercials from a young woman named Lindsay Schultz who has become a local celebrity. Don’t know who I’m talking about? She’s famous for the words, “The Kia Store. The best value in the new economy.” Yes, that’s her, the Kia woman.
Far, far worse, however, are the political ads. Over and over and over and over. Cliché after cliché after cliché.
I am against (insert what I am against here.) and I will oppose any effort that (insert effort of opponent) brings to you.
Ever notice that most of the politicians now are against things? They are pro-growth, pro-America, pro-God, country, American flag, and apple pie, but pretty much nothing of note. They will reduce spending----which they never do. They may or may not cut taxes whether this needs to happen or not. We will benefit by paying their salaries. That pretty much covers the benefit we are going to receive.
They profess faith in Christianity, but their reflection of Christianity sounds more like a party platform than it does a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s as if their faith in Christ is subjected to the political whims of the time.
Not to distract anyone from a really big news story like Tom Brady and deflated footballs, but has anyone realized how huge the derailment in Philadelphia is? It reflects a massive underlying issue our nation has right now and one that no one who is running for President, thinking of running for President, or is even pondering a run, is talking about. It’s the least sexy topic on the table and it’s infrastructure.
The United States’ infrastructure is rotting away. Bridges are rotting. Roads are rotting. Old trains are running over old tracks over old beds. People are driving over old highways. Water is coming to us through old pipes. Natural gas, oil, etc, are being pumped through old, and obsolete piping systems. We want to build a new pipeline but we are not even remotely interested in maintaining what we already have. What we already have is rotting away.
A train derailed in Philadelphia. It was going over 100 mph and it was supposed to be going half that speed. The train, the tracks, the undergirding of all of this, and an automated system designed to stop or slow down the train was never installed. The rest, however, is rotting away. Additionally, the discussion will be distracted into something else.
All the Presidential candidates will line up and guess what topic none of them will address? Infrastructure. It’s not sexy.
I’ve read a lot of books about World War II and I read a couple of books by Omar Bradley and he wrote about one of the most critical elements of winning the war in Europe.
It was not that. No that either. Nope, you missed it.
It was transporting stuff from the United States, to England, to mainland Europe, and to the front line. No matter how great the Army was (and they were pretty great), the Army could do nothing without ammunition, fuel, and food. There are all sorts of exciting movies made on World War II that show all sorts of heroism and greatness----lots of history books as well. None of it would have happened without the ability to schlep stuff.
What I worry about the United States is that we have a lot of wealth and a lot of foolishness at the same time. We worry about a lot of amazingly grand things and overlook something important and unsexy.
A train derailed in Philadelphia. The American infrastructure is rotting away. And no one is talking about it.
Like so many people I’ve watched the events in Baltimore unfold with horror. It appears there was police brutality and/or gross incompetence. Baltimore has long been known as a rough city and this is a part of it. While there are racial elements to this I suspect, down deep, there are also socio-economic factors that have loomed large. The city has a very racially mixed leadership and they have taken racism seriously. While I understand people having a right, perhaps even a need to protest, the rioting and the violence is repulsive to me.
I do not know the answers in the Middle East. Last Sunday the show “Madame Secretary” was about signing a nuclear arms deal with Iran against the backdrop of people in Iran stoning a young gay man to death. The arms deal was signed and the young man was stoned to death. The question loomed big-----did we make a deal with the devil or not? If we don’t make a deal will this leave them the ability to run amuck and do whatever they so desire? If we do make the deal will this allow them to do research leading down a path that we will no longer have control of? These are large, difficult questions.
President George W. Bush made the decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. I thought it was a bad idea and many other people did. Many still do. The fear I had was that the region would become destabilized. But having said that, we did the invasion and a lot of young Americans died for their country. The region is now destabilized and instead of lamenting what we did or shouldn’t have done or done, we need to find answers that are applicable right here and right now.
If you’re looking for a spiffy answer or observation, I don’t have one. I find so many of these questions difficult to ponder. I do not know the answer.
I guess that’s why I pray.