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Believing outside the lines

Exodus 13:17-22

Numbers 9:15-23

John 14:1-7


What comes to your mind when you hear the word “heretic”? Somebody twisted, intentionally subverting the faith, leading other people astray? Or just some poor soul who gets on the wrong side of the faith police?

It’s not a word we use very often in our progressive church. We are open-minded here, overall. With the range of understandings we hold about God and Jesus and the Bible, we shy away from saying who’s right and who’s wrong. Some of us here are survivors of theological abuse in other places, where it was clearly laid out what you were supposed to believe. We got in trouble for believing outside the lines. Some of us are just on a journey from old beliefs we’ve outgrown into a new maturity that isn’t quite there yet. And others wonder what all the fuss is about – that old time religion was good enough for our parents and it’s good enough for us.

We talked about it in the new members’ group last month. It’s a familiar question by now, what sort of declaration of faith a new member should make in joining this church. We found ourselves pulling in two directions. Some expected that there was a statement of faith rooted in our church’s DNA that they would be expected to make, and they were up for it. That’s where their spiritual journey had led them, to a place where a solid declaration of Christian faith was possible and appropriate. I totally get where they’re coming from. But others needed their options open. They have more questions than answers. If our church has a theological DNA, it’s that we love people who have questions. We love the questions. You just won’t find us drawing lines, because then some people’s believing would fall outside, and the reality is an openness that can include us all, with all the twists and turns our journeys take. Actually, if our church has a theological DNA, I would express it like this: this exploration into God, this spiritual path that beckons us, really, really matters. Nothing is more important. We follow what we know of truth with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We don’t just put those questions on the back burner: we honor them. And when we come here together, it is as a group of passionate and deeply committed seekers, even if we don’t all agree on the answers we discover for ourselves.

“But surely there are limits,” the first group said. Yes, I’m sure there are. We wouldn’t be very happy with a devil worshipper who wanted to join, or somebody who wanted to sacrifice little animals in the outdoor chapel. But our instinct is to let the limits look after themselves, if that isn’t too lazy a way of talking about it. If somebody is really over the line, we’ll recognize that. My sense is that we’d prefer to wait and cross that bridge until we come to it.

Over these next few Sundays I want to explore some of the classic heresies of Christian history. There are several reasons. The first is that they’re fascinating. We practically never delve into church history, but there are some really good stories there. The second is that some of the beliefs that mainstream Christianity has rejected as outside the lines are alive and well in our 21st century Pacific Northwest world. I had a lovely encounter yesterday morning with a wedding couple who made a robust case for Gnosticism. There’s somebody in the Thursday night Bible study who does that too. As we name some of the heresies, I’m positive that you’ll start recognizing people you know, maybe even yourselves. There are one or two that attract me. The final reason is that taking a mental journey into these other places will give us a better appreciation for being home. We’ll see home with new eyes, as we do after we’ve gone traveling. The new members’ group is meeting again next Sunday, and we have unfinished business around what it means to align ourselves with CCMI.

When you plan a trip to some exotic place, there are preparations to make. If I’m spending the night at my mom’s, it’s enough to pack a toothbrush and some clean underwear. But we had houseguests from Australia last weekend who were on their way to a cruise to Alaska then a long bus tour across Canada. They had two of the biggest, heaviest suitcases I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t even pretend to help lift them in and out of the car. They had one of those folders: passports in a special pocket, tickets, itinerary, excursion coupons, hotel addresses and phone numbers, insurance documents, and a big label about who to contact in case of an emergency. Then they’d go into their luggage and pull out treasures. Hats and sun screen. A teeny camera on a stick – Go Pro – that was new to me. A very nice bottle of Australian wine which they gave to us. You get the idea.

So think of today’s sermon as packing the travel bag. There are some essentials to consider before we can head off into unknown territory. Before we come face to face with any heretics, I’d like for us to be clear what we bring to the encounter.

The first thing is the Bible. “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea…The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.” The Bible wants us to know that God stands ready to lead us. We have to be willing to follow, but if we are, God will be there with signs that we can see and understand.

The road may be twisty and convoluted. You might well ask, “Why did it take those Israelites forty years to get from Egypt to Canaan? Draw a line and they could have done it in a few days.” The Bible says that God had reasons for leading them here, there, and everywhere before showing them the Promised Land. There’s even a special passage for us who live in Seattle. When the cloud is sitting on top of you, don’t move. Whether it’s two days, or a month, or longer, if you’re under that cloud, wait. If you’ve ever tried to follow God’s leading, that’s exactly what it’s like. Everything can be foggy, until you think God isn’t there at all and you were just imagining the whole thing, and then one day, a door opens, a possibility beckons, and it’s time to move again. God does lead. The one who made us is deeply and passionately committed to what happens to us and what we make of these lives of ours, and we are never alone. Remember that when the heretics start talking about two different gods or God far away. The Bible is explicit on the subject. God is near. God cares. God is involved, hands-on. The Bible says many other things, of course, but on the matter of God’s concern for us, it never wavers.

The second thing is Jesus. The cloud and the fire are terrific. What a great picture of God leading the people to their new destiny. But clearly mythological, the stuff of legend, metaphor. How does God lead? The witness of the church is that it isn’t through miracles. It isn’t through a book of instructions. It isn’t through a philosophy. It is through a human being. God’s clearest self-expression was through this man Jesus, with his earthly ministry, his death, and his risen life. Thomas says to him, “What do you mean we know the way? We don’t know the way. Show us the way.” He’s looking for answers. He wants it explained, where Jesus is going, what they’re supposed to do. “I am the way,” Jesus answers. Simple. Breathtaking. Look no further.

And sure, people have written thousands of books since then. We are drowning in philosophies. But at the risk of a cliché, if you’re ever stuck, try asking, “What would Jesus do?” It is startling how often a clear answer comes ringing through. He is clarity when we don’t know the way. He is the touchstone when we’re looking for truth. He is life when we’re barren, a whole new kind of life that bubbles up, full of energy, enabling us to do things we never thought we could do. When in doubt, look to him. We need to remember that as we set out into places where there aren’t any maps. There is always this landmark. As one bishop put it when challenged to sum up the faith, “God is; God is as he is in Jesus; therefore there is hope.” [David Jenkins, bishop of Durham]

“No one comes to the Father except through me”? Uncomfortable, worrying words in our diverse world. But as we venture into other thought worlds, I would be so bold as to ask you to agree that anyone who professes a god who is not Christ-like is wrong. That definitely includes the some of the heretics we’ll be visiting over these next few weeks. Others of them were more Christ-like than the church. You judge. In the end, that’s how it works.

Next week we’ll start with the New Testament and a fault line that runs right down the middle, winners and losers, an epic struggle in which we too are called to take sides. Then time is going to feel short. Arian, Donatus, Pelagius, the Gnostics and the Da Vinci Code – we will only scratch the surface. Whistle-stop tour, as the Brits say. But when we’re done, I hope you find it worthwhile to have all the stamps in your passport. I hope that you will see home with new eyes.

To be continued. Amen.

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