A Higher Standard

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
February 16, 2020
Deuteronomy 30:15–20; Matthew 5:21–37

I. BEGINNING

In one well-known sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a man walks into an office to schedule an argument. After deciding to purchase just the one five-minute argument rather than the package deal of ten, and after mistakenly walking into the room for verbal abuse, he walks into a room where a man is seated behind a desk:

Man (Michael Palin): Is this the right room for an argument?
Other Man:(John Cleese) I’ve told you once.
Man: No you haven’t!
Other Man: Yes I have.
M: When?
O: Just now.
M: No you didn’t!
O: Yes I did!
M: You didn’t!
O: I did!
M: You didn’t!

Once the man behind the desk asks him if he’s here for the five-minute argument or the full half-hour, he realizes he’s in the right place and they continue:

O: Anyway, I did.
M: You most certainly did not!
O: Now let’s get one thing quite clear: I most definitely told you!
M: Oh no you didn’t!
O: Oh yes I did!
M: Oh no you didn’t!
O: Oh yes I did!

This continues on for a while before the man finally says,

M: Oh look, this isn’t an argument!
O: Yes it is!
M: No it isn’t. It’s just contradiction!
O: No it isn’t!
M: It IS!
O: It is NOT!
M: You just contradicted me!
O: No I didn’t!

And on it goes. They “argue” in this way over whether an argument is about more than contradicting one another, whether the five minutes are up, whether the man has paid for an additional five minutes, and so on.

And as bizarre as the sketch is, there is a kernel of truth to it: people often imagine an argument is taking place when it is not.


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Salt and Light

Rev. Mark Schaefer
February 9, 2020
Isaiah 58:1–12; Matthew 5:13–20

I. BEGINNING

I’m fascinated by Palestinian Christians. I’m fascinated because some of the Palestinian Christian communities in Palestine and Israel can trace their heritage all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity. Some even use liturgies in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

word cloud of sermon text
Image courtesy Wordle

I’m fascinated by the examples of these communities that are found in the places of origin of their tradition, even as the center of gravity of that tradition has shifted elsewhere: to Antioch, to Rome, to Constantinople, to Moscow, to Wittenberg, London, and so on.

I’m similarly fascinated by British Methodists. Methodism exploded along the American frontier and grew to enormous proportions along with the country. It was far more successful in the United States than it had ever been in the United Kingdom. And yet, it was there that Methodism got its start. And so I’m a little fascinated by British Methodists.

I had occasion to sit down and talk with a British Methodist colleague some years ago. He was the head of Methodist campus ministry in the UK and was attending a UM campus ministry conference here in the US. He was a lot of fun to talk to and at one point I asked him a question I’d been wondering: what is the reputation of Methodists in the UK? That is, what do they think of us in the country where it all got started?

“Oh,” he replied. “Mostly we’re seen as being against things.”

I knew what that meant.

It’s not a new complaint. The Roman historian Tacitus describes the Christians as having a “hatred of humankind”—because of their reluctance to get involved with anything that they thought of as idolatrous. And in ancient Rome, all the fun stuff was idolatrous in one way or another. And so, to Tacitus’ mind, the Christians had a “hatred of humankind.” They were “against things.”


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Keeping It Simple

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
February 2, 2020
Micah 6:1–8; Matthew 5:1–12

I. BEGINNING

People often look to religion for answers. And so, it should come as no surprise that if you’re one of those people looking for answers, the free market dictates that someone out there will attempt to provide them for you.

Indeed, if you type the words “Bible answers” into Google, the first result that comes up is a website called Bible Questions Answered. The site boasts that it has answered 446,916 questions at the time of this writing. The top 20 most frequently asked questions on the site are:

  1. Women pastors/preachers? What does the Bible say about women in ministry?
  2. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Is it a sin?
  3. What does the Bible say about tattoos/body piercings?
  4. Once saved always saved? / Is eternal security biblical? / Can a Christian lose salvation?
  5. Masturbation—is it a sin according to the Bible?
  1. What does the Bible say about interracial marriage?
  2. Who was Cain’s wife?
  3. What is the Christian view of suicide? What does the Bible say about suicide? What about a believer who commits suicide?
  4. Do pets/animals go to Heaven? Do pets/animals have souls?
  5. What happens after death?
  6. What does the Bible say about Christian tithing? Should a Christian tithe?
  7. What is the gift of speaking in tongues? Is it for today? What about praying in tongues?
  8. What does the Bible say about dinosaurs? Are there dinosaurs in the Bible?
  9. What is the importance of Christian baptism?
  10. What does the Bible say about drinking alcohol? Is it a sin for a Christian to drink alcohol?
  11. What does the Bible say about gambling? Is gambling a sin?
  12. What does the Bible teach about the Trinity?
  13. What does the Bible say about sex before marriage?
  14. Where was Jesus for the three days between His death and resurrection?
  15. What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage?
world cloud of sermon text

Image courtesy Wordle

 

There are some interesting things to note about this list: 25 percent of the questions are about sexuality and marriage, three of the questions are about vices, and a fifth are about eternal life and life after death. And there are a handful of questions that reflect a clash with modernity.
 

What fascinates me is that not a single one of the 20 most frequently asked questions has anything to do with meaning. All of these questions have to do with doctrine—what does Christianity teach? What are the rules? What am I supposed to do? There is not one question that asks, “What is the meaning of life?” or even “How do we reconcile God’s omnipotence with the presence of evil in the world?”

Perhaps it was just a function of the ranking of the questions and the deeper, more existential questions would be revealed by looking further into the site. But not even that yielded any questions on meaning. Rather, the questions being asked were more of the same, and frequently about topics even more arcane and particular: What does the Bible say about voyeurism? What is Binitarianism? What does the Holy Spirit do? What does the Bible say about false accusations? How big is heaven? Who was Zacchaeus in the Bible? Why does it matter that Jesus rose from the dead? If God hates abortion, why does He allow miscarriages? Why do men have nipples? What is a levirate marriage? What is listening prayer? What is a cowboy church? Should a Christian pay into Social Security and/or accept Social Security payments? What is the Peshitta?

Again, the most striking thing about these questions is how few of these questions—if any—are related to meaning and purpose. The one that comes closest is “Why does it matter that Jesus rose from the dead?,” which is at least a question of eschatology, that part of theology concerned with the end times and the ultimate purposes of God. But that question is outnumbered by questions like “Why do men have nipples?” and “What is a séance?” So many of these questions seek to have answers to so many particulars, to make sure to get all the details right. And the website is certainly prepared to give the right answer to answer your question definitively.


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Straightaway to Work

Rev. Mark Schaefer
January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9:1–4; Matthew 4:12–23

I. BEGINNING

There is a scene in the movie The Princess Bride where sword master Inigo Montoya at last confronts the evil Count Rugen, who had murdered Inigo’s father. He says, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” In response, Rugen raises his sword … and then after a beat suddenly turns and runs away. It’s a hilarious moment because it all happens so quickly. After all the dramatic buildup the whole movie, with Inigo constantly describing how he will take vengeance on his father’s killer, after the dramatic confrontation—“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”—Rugen just runs away. And fast! It makes for an excellent comic moment.

Indeed, sudden things are a staple of comedy, with immediacy and surprise an element of much physical comedy and, indeed, timing is an element of all good comedy. Comedy is not the only genre that benefits from suddenness and surprise, of course. Thrillers and horror movies make a lot of use of the “jump scare”—the sudden fright that comes out of nowhere.


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Light to the Nations

Rev. Mark Schaefer
January 19, 2020
Isaiah 49:1–7; John 1:29–42

I. BEGINNING

I used to have an apartment with a walk-in closet. Well, it was more of a walk-through closet on the way to the bathroom, but it was reasonably spacious and a convenient place to get dressed in the morning.

One such morning, I noticed that the light bulb was out in the closet. No matter—there was enough light coming in from the adjacent rooms to be able to dress myself appropriately. Or so I thought until I got halfway down my block toward work and realized that I was wearing a green suit jacket with blue suit pants. They had appeared identical in the low light of the walk-in but starkly different in the bright light of day. It’s amazing how different the world can look when you don’t have enough light to see.

word cloud of sermon text

Image courtesy Wordle

That’s one reason why driving at dusk is so dangerous, without sufficient light from the sun and with not enough contrast generated by your headlights, the landscape fades into a kind of sameness that makes it difficult to discern hazards.

Some religious traditions even make use of this phenomenon to demarcate when a day has truly ended. In some versions of Islam, the daily fast during Ramadan happens when you can no longer tell the difference between the leaves and the trees—a sign that the light of day is truly gone and night has set in.


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Fulfilling All Righteousness

Rev. Mark Schaefer
January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1–9; Matthew 3:13–17

I. BEGINNING

One of my college roommates, and best friends to this day, is an Iranian Jew, who emigrated with his family sometime in the mid-late 70’s at the age of ten.

One year, he had some business in town and he came down to visit the night before. It was Easter Sunday and there wasn’t much open. As we drove home from my Easter services that night, I tried to think of a good place for us to get some food. “Ah!” I remembered, “Moby Dick! They’re open. At least the one in Georgetown.” “What is it?” he asked. “It’s Persian; you’ll like it.”

So he looked up the number and called them to make sure they were still open. They answered and he began to greet them in Persian. They responded. He said something again. And on this went for a minute. I was perplexed. We weren’t ordering anything, we just wanted to find out when they closed. Finally, he hung up, turned to me and said, “In Persian you can never just say, ‘What time are you open till?’ You always have to go through all this nonsense—‘I apologize for disturbing you…’ even when it’s a business.”

So, he’d spent the better part of a minute just getting to the point where he could ask them how late they were open. Anthropologists call that a “high context culture.”

But it also strikes me of the kind of ritual formality that you encounter in religion all the time. Things that matter often involve some measure of ritual and rite. I mean, you would all think it odd if for communion I just stood at the front of the sanctuary and said, “So, anyway, here’s some bread and grape juice; help yourselves.”

A similar thing happens in military contexts. A couple of years ago a friend of mine retired from the navy and asked me to give the benediction at has change of command ceremony. I was impressed at the lengths that the navy went to to effect all the requirements of protocol, even going so far as to build a plank for the admiral to “come aboard” on, even though the entire ceremony was below decks. Indeed, having seen all the protocol and ceremony, it would’ve been strange if the admiral had just said, “Thanks for everything, Doug; we’ve got it from here.”

Often, there are formalities we go through before we get to the substance of the matter.


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Who Are These People?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
January 5, 2020—Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1–6; Matthew 2:1–12

I. BEGINNING

Every comedian has a particular style, a particular way of speaking, and often a set of catch phrases that define their comedy.

From Jack Benny’s “Now, cut that out!” to George Burns’ “Say goodnight, Gracie” to Steve Martin’s “Excuuuuuse me!” to Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect” to Larry the Cable Guy’s “Git ’er done!” to Bill Engvald’s “Here’s your sign” to George Carlin’s, well, George Carlin doesn’t really have a catch phrase and even if he did, I don’t think I could say it in church.

But then there is Jerry Seinfeld’s “Who are these people?” It’s a phrase so associated with Jerry Seinfeld that it’s kind of come to define his comedy, even if it’s hard to find a clip of him actually saying it.

But the line is used something like this: “Have you ever seen these people who put on the Star Wars costumes and wait in line all night for a movie ticket? Who are these people?” Whether or not Jerry used this as much as we remember him doing so, the phrase has come to represent the kind of sarcastic observational humor that he is known for.

“Have you ever seen people who drink grape juice instead of wine for communion? Who are these people?”

But there is a reason that that particular line has been in my head this week; and it’s because of the Gospel text we heard earlier.


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