Text: John 4:39-42
Theme Verse: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42)
“Because I said so!” We’ve all heard that phrase (and may have used it ourselves). Typically, it comes as a worn-out answer to the repeated question, “Why?” A hand-me-down authority or belief has its place, but at some point, a person must own the belief themselves. It must become their own – growing and deepening as the journey continues. At Harvard Avenue, creating space for the discovery of belief in Jesus and his ways is of the utmost importance. We strive to be a church with an environment that values self-discovery and ownership of faith.
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opening : 'We Believe' (Newsboys) -- The Rising Band
reading : Todd Maxwell
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
special music : 'Where There Is Faith' (4Him) -- Kelly Ford, Susie Monger-Daugherty
anthem : 'Sing Me To Heaven' (D.Gawthrop) -- Avenue; Barry Epperly, director
I love this church so much. Did you know that? I do. I was reflecting on the journey we’ve been on together recently, almost eight years now, and I just couldn’t quit smiling. We’ve been through some extraordinary things together – literally life and death matters – and it has been a tremendous privilege. I’ve been here long enough that people tell me what they actually think about my hair or my jokes or about my theology – and who’s kidding who – some of you were comfortable telling me those things Day 1. This last week, however, I enjoyed a few emails from you about my recent references to pop music. I know I’m angling too far in one direction with my sermon references when I start getting requests for song considerations to drop in sermons. One friend even shares with me his entire scoring system of my sermons and how to score high and what to avoid. Song references limited to Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, or Eric Clapton all score high. So here we are not even out of the intro and I’ve mentioned all three – surely on my way to a high score today. Another friend says, “It’s only a matter of time before we get a Rolling Stones sermon – ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need.’” That would be a good one. It does have me thinking we may be due for a “Gospel According to…” series based on some of your favorite music through the years. So much depth and connection of faith to be found in the creative magic of our favorite song writers. Stay tuned for that.
With this week’s focus on our core value of “Believe” the references were just too numerous to count. There’s The Monkees 1967 hit, “I’m a Believer.” Who hasn’t heard a poor karaoke version of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”? If you’re not in tears by the bridge of that song, you don’t have feelings. The rockers in the house may favor “Something to Believe In” by Poison or hearing Steve Perry bring us the hit “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey. If you’re feeling light and springy, maybe your flavor is more in line with The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” Modern alternative rock folk fans may connect more with Mumford & Sons as Marcus Mumford sings “I don’t even know what I believe.” Or – you may sing along with Bono and U2: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Now this is all a bit lighthearted but I’m guessing it’s starting to hit a little closer to home (which is a deduction by my friend who’s scoring my sermon today – no meddling). Belief is no simple thing. We want it to be. We may act like it is. But I’m guessing there is a swirling inside us that could sing with Mumford or U2 – “I don’t even know if I want to believe.” “I’m not sure that I have found what I’m looking for.”
Believe. It is the second of the three core values identified by our church exactly seven years ago that would guide our future together as we pursue the ways of Jesus. Bonus points if you can say them aloud with me now. Our three core values are: “Be loved. Believe. Become.” We’re highlighting them during this series as a way to remind us of their importance and perhaps introduce some of you new in our midst to why we hold these dear. Our series is called A Just Be Conspiracy. Just Be is the tagline we’ve held onto as a way to encapsulate the three B’s. Conspiracy, as I shared last week, has sort of a bad wrap as far as the word is concerned. It seems suspicious or secretive or derogatory. But – when you get to the root of the word – to conspire – in Latin means “to breathe together.” It can be used for ill, sure. But what a beautiful thing it can be. What are we doing as a church family if we’re not breathing together the Spirit of God. And just what are we breathing together? These three core values. Be loved. Believe. Become.
Now – last week on “A Just Be Conspiracy” we spoke of the foundational role of love in our community. People must be loved before they tend to be comfortable or confident exploring the depths of who they are and why they are. We read Paul’s beautiful prayer to the church at Ephesus that included this desire of love to be the very foundation of their movement. “I pray,” writes Paul, “that you may have both feet firmly planted and grounded in love.” Both feet. Firmly. Grounded. That is the prayer of our church as well. No matter who you are, where you’re from, what’s happening in your life, you’ll discover that kind of love in this place. Both feet! And that kind of love can be hard to give and can be hard to receive. We may go for one foot firmly grounded in love but we’re often dangling the other foot in guilt of our past or judgment of another or something else that isn’t the full welcome and acceptance of God’s love. That love is where we long to start. If we can ground ourselves in that love and extend that opportunity to any and everyone, then we’re building on the same foundation – then we can consider what and how we believe and how we build our lives from there.
So what do you believe? It seems sort of flippant when put that way. Like do you prefer chocolate or vanilla? Like somehow what we believe about God is not to be cradled like a precious child we hold in our arms. And I get that our approach to belief is going to differ. Your upbringing, your experience, even your personality builds your approach to belief in a way that may be entirely different from my own. Acknowledging that is a struggle for many of us. We get caught up in our own little bubble and assume that everyone else has the same process of coming to belief. Everyone grew up in a Sunday School class with felt boards just like you. Everyone had parents who parented just like yours did. They had a coach who used God’s name in vain just before making you drop and do twenty push-ups just like you experienced, forever associating God’s name with punishment. We have all formed a slightly different belief in God – or not at all. I don’t presume everyone here is in a place of belief at all. And I want you to know you’re welcome here. So many-a church has run people away from God because they don’t believe right enough or fast enough or fully enough. And I apologize on behalf of others in positions like mine that have burned you in this way or in some other way – I shudder at the thought that I might hinder someone from finding their way into relationship with Christ because I tried to make them do it my way. And, statistically speaking, there are more “nones” (n.o.n.e.s.) in America than ever before. Some 25% of people in our country check that box when it comes to religious affiliation. None. Many of the Nones grew up in church but experienced irreconcilable differences with the church and subsequently their faith because we shut down their exploration in Sunday School. No questions please. This is how it’s always been. Just get on board.
Andy Stanley called these versions of God the ‘Gods of the No Testament’: sort of the unhealthy versions of God that someone may have crammed into our souls somewhere along the way – a “somebody-told-me-so” god. He named the ‘Bodyguard God’: a sense that God protects at all costs. I can walk into the street without looking both ways because I believe in God. We can see why this is not a healthy understanding of God but many, many people grew up on that sort of theology. You get hit by a car, you didn’t believe enough. Stanley names the ‘On-Demand God’ who makes good parking spots appear at the mall. There’s ‘Guilt God’ who may love you… maybe… but sure doesn’t like you very much and your mess of a life so you live in the shadows of shame your entire life. There’s the ‘Anti-Science God’ who discredits all the advancements of science as if they might disprove the existence or need of a God. You know, if your kid is sick, you take him or her to a specialist; tests are run and then you wait. You pray, yes, but you also wait by that phone for the doctor to call. And if the doc calls and says, “The results suggest to me that God is trying to teach you something,” you flip out. You want to know the scientific cause of the issue and the scientific resolve to the matter. God moves through all of this stuff – God is not separate of science. You get the idea – there are so many views of God that don’t come close to the God Jesus claimed as Abba – “Daddy” – a personal God who never promised the absence of suffering or an easy life.
So what do you believe? Theologian Karl Barth said, “Every Sunday, people come to church with the same question: ‘Is it true?’” Is what true? God’s love? The resurrection? The judgment and argument of who some say are eternally in or eternally out? Churches have fought over beliefs since the very beginning of the church. The instruction manual can be rather complicated after all. And it’s why we have a church and QuikTrip on every corner of this city. Beliefs strain relationships and factions say, “You’re wrong. We’re right. Boom. New steeple. Church on every corner.” QuikTrip’s are just on every corner because they’re awesome. What do you believe? We’re all coming with our own internal Google searches of the whole thing. Some need proof like Doubting Thomas – we may as well call him Practical Thomas. He’s the disciple who missed the first party where the risen Christ showed up. When the others told him they’d seen Jesus alive he said, “Uh uh. No you didn’t.” Don’t you hate it when you miss out on stuff like that. Thomas probably had a huge case of FoMo – fear of missing out. He missed it. So he says, “I won’t take your word for it. I have to see him myself.” I understand. We process things differently and some need this sort of proof. Doubt is not a bad thing. It propels us to explore and uncover. Frederick Buechner said, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” It keeps you searching. Believe, as a core value, is wrapped up in the ongoing search.
“Belief” is a deep trust, a giving of your heart in pursuit of, a deepening faith which is a critical component of who we are and what it means to pursue the way of Jesus. In fact, from a standpoint of verbal assent, we only ask one question of people when they join this church: “Do you believe Jesus is the Christ, and in honor of that profession, will you commit yourself to ministry here, in Tulsa, and to the ends of the earth.” Believe. It is a way to say, “I trust this.” “I give my heart to this.” “I will pursue my understanding of this life alongside of these people.” We don’t have another hidden list waiting for you to sign off on with your blood. We don’t list the top twenty doctrines that ask you blindly to affirm. We often talk about believing in the dialogue. Faith is a growing experience, not an intellectual exercise alone. People will often ask me “What do you believe about this or that or whatever?” and I tend to jump to my head and try to find some intellectual response but really, what I think Jesus desires of us, is to believe in the fierce love of God. What do I believe? I believe in the fierce love of God. I believe love conquers evil. I believe Jesus embodied this as the son of God. And in loving fiercely, we tackle all other matters together in the dialogue: What does the Christian tradition say? What does reason suggest? How have my experiences shaped my understanding? What does Scripture say about the matter?
So much of what we fight about as churches, or across denominational lines, or with the secular world that is driven away by our judgment or hypocrisy, is based on interpretation of a few scripture verses. Andy Stanley, who I named before, also says, “Christianity made its greatest strides during the 282 years before the Bible even existed.” He notes, “Before the Old Testament and New Testament were combined and titled the Bible, Christianity had already replaced the pantheon of Roman, Barbarian, and most Egyptian gods and was the state religion of the Roman Empire.” Why? Because they were flying on the fierce love of God as revealed to them in Jesus. The writers who ended up in the biblical canon didn’t sit down at a Starbucks to blog about their experience in hopes of gaining some extra cash. No – they experienced the most amazing thing in their lives and said, “This is true. This is a must. We have to preserve this for the generations to come.” They argued some doctrine – we see that in the Book of Acts and elsewhere — but doctrine seems to be the only thing many in today’s churches are concerned with and people by the droves, especially people 35 and younger, are fleeing a childhood faith that contradicts itself and is mostly full of answers that sound like, “Because I said so.” Fighting over a few words in these few scriptures are going to keep many out of God’s presence, separated from the love of Christ, and without a spot in the church, why? Why would we approach our life together like that? Why wouldn’t we fiercely love and welcome one another and say, “Let’s believe our way through this together.” Let’s dialogue and hold the love of Christ as our ultimate measure of faith. You may win some doctrinal debate but if you can’t extend a loving welcome as Christ did to any and everyone, your belief serves you alone and not the kingdom of God. It’s like an advertisement I heard on the radio the other day. You know how every state has an ad about why you should vacation in their state: “Explore Arkansas!” “Discover Missouri!” “Potato with us in Idaho”. This ad was for Wyoming and it simply said, “Wyoming – come and find your why!” Maybe that’s the line you need to hear about this church today. “Come and find your why!” Believe as a core value of this church holds that very sentiment. Let us learn together. Let us find our way into belief. Come find your why…
Belief is something you ultimately have to claim for yourself. Our brief passage this morning from John’s gospel is the aftermath of Jesus’ famous encounter with the woman at the well. If you’re familiar with the story, she’s a woman whose been through some things in her life. Her background is completely different from that of Jesus and the culture at large says they shouldn’t make eye contact or talk to each other and it would be best if they didn’t even pass each other on the same side of the street. Think of who in the reserves of your mind might be included today in that kind of “keep your distance” relationship. Nope. Not Jesus. They engage. She’s moved. She returns to her village and can’t help but tell people what she’s experienced. John says, “Many of the Samaritans believed in Jesus because of her.” Can you imagine? Who can we say believes in Jesus because of us? Just a question. Some of the other villagers head outside of town to find Jesus and invite him to stick around for a while. And. He. Does! We don’t tend to live our time by such a clock. We’re so busy and over-scheduled. I feel like I’m drowning in calendar management this month. It’s insane. But not Jesus. He takes a couple of days and stays with them. Many more come to faith, claiming for themselves that Jesus is the Savior of the World. You believe in something. How did that belief come to pass? How did that belief move from an inherited faith, a passed-along-faith to something you’ve begun to claim for yourself? That’s the ongoing effort of this core value, Believe. It’s a faith you own; a faith that grows because you spend extra time with your Maker and others committed to grow in their own understanding. It’s a commitment to becoming part of the ongoing story of faith.
For a good decade or more, Rob Bell pastored Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The church grew like wildfire; thousands joining them for worship week after week. At the close of each service, Rob would sit on the front of the stage and anyone who wanted to visit with him or ask for prayer could do so. There was one woman, in particular, who came to him every week, waiting in line to speak with Rob. When she stood before him, she simply gave him a folded up piece of paper; something she repeated week after week after week. Rob would unfold the paper and in the upper right hand corner, every week, was a number. Sometimes it was a large number like 172. Sometimes it was much smaller, like 3 or 4. That number represented the number of days she had gone without making a self-inflicting wound on her body. She lives with great pain. The first time she came to Rob, she told him that every man that had ever spent much time in her life had hit her. She struggles with many things; her own self-worth a deep struggle. Yet, there she was, week after week after week… wrestling with belief. Longing for a healing hope.
As Rob tells this story, he shifts by asking the reader this: If you were sitting with me on the stage and that woman came up to you and she had that piece of paper and she handed it to you, what would you say? Before you can craft any sort of answer, Rob says, “I know what you’d do – you’d tell her a better story; of the love of God; of the love of God made real.” Of course you would. But here’s the thing – every one of us has a paper. Maybe your addiction or infliction isn’t like hers – maybe it’s more socially acceptable. Maybe it’s some resentment; some fear that just won’t go away. Maybe it’s your wrestling with a childhood belief that doesn’t fit your adult life. Every one of us has a paper that we hand to God. And God says, “Believe a better story. Resurrection is real. Love wins.” You can trust that. You can give your heart to that. You can believe in that. It doesn’t resolve all of the hurt in our lives. It won’t always be clear. It will certainly create space for doubt. You may sing, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” but I don’t imagine you’re looking for a simple answer. I’m sorry if that’s all the church has ever given you. You’re looking for meaning. You’re looking for hope. To believe in Jesus… who he said he is and what his love is about… is to find a freedom this world doesn’t offer. And it comes in humility. The moment belief becomes arrogant, Jesus says, “You’ve missed it.” No. We breathe together, we conspire together, to hold this space for one another, to spur one another on with love and grace, to believe… to believe.
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 This number varies a bit from study to study but most affirm this growing trend. Here is one such article. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/11/religious-nones-are-not-only-growing-theyre-becoming-more-secular/
 I’ve heard Rob Bell share this story via podcast and at least a couple of pastors share the story over time. I believe it is told in other places as well, perhaps his book Love Wins. You can learn more about Rob here: https://robbell.com/