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The Rev. Mark Sargent Mark Sargent

Mark Sargent is a retired United Methodist minister who works in the private sector and resides in Rome, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church


The Hospitality House

Baptism of the Lord

January 08, 2006

Imagine that you're living in a house. It's an old house. Very old. And through the years, through the inevitable seasons of wear and tear, a lot of the necessary maintenance on the house has been deferred. So, now, the roof leaks, the walls are crumbling, the paint's peeling. It's not been updated like other old houses have. In fact, the house is so old and so outdated that there's not even running water or electricity. But the house used to be beautiful. What's sad is that it still could be. What it needs is an extreme makeover. But when someone suggests that idea, you reject it.

"This house is fine. There's nothing wrong with it. I've been living here for all these years. I'm comfortable here. This house is fine." You've become so attached to your house that you can't see that it's not a house that is hospitable to any guest. If you want the house to stay exactly like it is, you're going to end up being pretty lonely. Guests require that we give at least a modicum of attention to the environment into which we would invite them.

In this age after the passing of the modern period, that's exactly the position in which the Church finds itself. The Bible is based upon a premodern view of the world. According to this worldview, God controls what happens. If bad things are going on in your life, you've obviously done something to upset God. Disease is a sign of sin. Wellness is a sign of blessing. If there's a drought that is threatening the crops, God must be mad. Make an offering, atone for your wrongdoing, get back on God's good side. Blessings will follow. According to this worldview, the earth is flat, heaven is just on the other side of the dome that covers the earth, Jesus is the only Way for everyone, gay people are bad, women are second rate, and children are third rate. This is the house the Church occupied for a long time.

It was easy to do, as long as no fact challenged that worldview. It was easy to do, as long as the Church ran the world, which it did for a long time. But to the shock and chagrin of some, that world has ended. It is no more. And with the end of that world comes the end of that worldview. It doesn't work anymore. The house that is that worldview must be made over.

But the response of some is to remain attached to the worldview. And when our view of the world becomes more important to us than truly viewing the world, we have lost the capacity to touch and to care for and to help change the world.

In the world as we now know it, the worldview of God as the guy up there who controls what happens down here on earth is no longer defensible. There are a host of reasons for that, not the least of which comes from the consummate theologian George Carlin, who suggests that if God is the big cosmic vending machine, where we put in our faith and get what we want, the machine is out of order. Given the terribly messy state of affairs on planet Earth today, it's safe to say that that cosmic vending machine has broken down. If God is the One who supernaturally intervenes to make things better, God is not doing a good job. In the world as we now know it, the worldview that sickness is a sign of God's displeasure is no longer defensible. We know better. In the world as we now know it, the worldview that there is something wrong with you if you are gay is no longer defensible. And we could go on. In the real world, there is no reason that women should subject themselves to male authority, no reason that we should think that people of other faiths are going to burn forever in a place where there is eternal crying and tooth gnashing. And attachment to an antiquated worldview only serves to blind one from actually viewing the world. Rather than trying to occupy a house that is no longer hospitable to most people, the Church best begin bringing its house into the 21st century. We need an extreme makeover. One Christian thinker has said-I'm quoting here- "There is no future for Christianity unless the essence of Christian truth can be extracted from the…framework of the ancient past." (John Shelby Spong, 1991, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, HarperSanFrancisco, p. 134). I believe that statement to be correct. But I believe the Church has a future. I believe the house that is Christianity is a beautiful house. It's time, then, for us to update it, to extract Christianity's healing truth from the prison of the ancient past. How do we do that?

I really believe that the answer to that is simple. We get over the notion that the Bible's stories and statements are to be literally interpreted. When we do that, we give the Bible back its soul. Now I can already hear the objections of the Biblical literalists, if any of them ever listen to DAY 1. I fully realize that I will not change their minds about this. That's not even what I'm trying to do. I am trying to get the word out to hungry spiritual seekers who are interested in authentic spirituality. And the word I'm trying to get out is that there are still churches in the world today where Christian faith is intellectually honest and spiritually and psychologically good for you. But a quick word, if not to the Biblical literalists, then about them. No one takes the Bible literally.

Oh, I know that there are people who think they do. But it's time for someone in the Church to tell the truth about all that. There are people who seem to take the Bible literally, especially when it comes to behaviors of which they disapprove or people whose experiences they refuse to understand. I hear people, for example, thumping the Bible about homosexuality and divorce. But the same Bible says that they should not eat pork (Leviticus 11:7). I haven't heard nearly as many sermons on that from those who preach a so-called Gospel of Biblical literalism. I suspect that there is bacon-eating going on in lots of Christian churches. I don't hear those preachers reminding their church members that the Bible forbids tattoos (Leviticus 19:28). I realize tattoos may not be prevalent in churches that purport to take the Bible literally, but I imagine if we looked long and hard enough, we'd be able to find a tattoo among us. The Bible says that children born out of wedlock are not to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:2). I don't hear lots of sermons on that one. And, of course, you know what the Bible says about a young bride who is discovered by her new husband not to be a virgin? You got it. She's to be killed at the entrance to her father's place (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). It says so in the Bible. The Bible assumes that if your brother dies and leaves a widow, you will take his widow and treat her as your wife, so that the child she bears can continue your brother's lineage in the world (Deuteronomy 25:5). The Bible says that women should be silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34). The Bible says that being single is better than being married, as long as you can control yourself (1Corinthians 7). The New Testament assumes that slavery is an accepted part of the order of things. We could go on. You get the point. There is a great deal of selective literalism in interpreting the Bible. Many people interpret the Bible literally when it reinforces their preconceived moralistic opinions about things. But no one interprets the Bible literally. Every day that the Church continues to operate with such moralistically-based selective literalism moves the Church one day closer to its demise, one day closer to a place of complete irrelevance in the world. Thinking people who are not interested in berating others will not cotton to that message. The rest of us Christians have to speak up. We have to let the world know that we are here. We have to let the world know that we really do have Good News to share.

And part of the Good News we have to share is that at the heart of our faith as Christian people is a remarkable and amazing Book. It is called the Bible, and it is a spacious Book of soul. It is a repository of stories that can take us by the hand and lead us into the heights and depths of human imagination. The Bible can lead you into a world of wonder and awe, where you can reflect upon what it means to be a human being, where you can reflect upon what it means to be you, where you can reflect upon what it means to live this life that you've been given. In the Bible, we can meet a man named Jesus, who took this world and turned it completely upside down. We can hear his fierce advocacy for those who are marginalized. We can experience his tender mercy for those who are hurting. We can celebrate the freedom and release he can bring to those who are in bondage.

Let me give you an example. I know it sounds strange, but I was talking the other day to a snake. I was in a garden, thinking about what I should do with my life, how I should live. I found myself at an important crossroads, at a fork in the road of my life. And as is often the case with us when we arrive at a fork in the road, I had to decide which path to take. Would I take the easy way or the hard way? You know that place, don't you? Jesus spoke of that place when he alluded to the narrow way. Robert Frost spoke of that place. Was I going to take the high-traffic path or the road less taken? I thought and I thought and I thought.

That's when the talking snake walked up to me. He invited me to follow the easy path. I have to confess to you there was an allure to what he suggested. The easy path always looks…easier. We are prone to leave our true selves behind, standing naked at the fork in the road, while we forge on down the wide path that leads nowhere.

"Forget about it," the snake said. "There's no harm down the path I'm suggesting. Go ahead. It's easy. Everybody's walking that one."

That story from the book of Genesis is not about two people who lived a long time ago and talked to a snake one day. To literalize that story is to lock it in the past. That story is about me. It's about you. It's about every human person. That's the power of the story. Truth be known, we've all talked to that snake. To treat that story as if it's factual is to leave your brain behind. To pretend that the story is meaningless because it's not factual is to leave your soul behind. Brain and soul belong together. To see the story as a space in which to reflect upon your life allows brain and soul to remain married.

Let me give you another example. One day, not too long ago at all, I was dead. I was living through one of the most waterless desert seasons in my life, and I was dead. I was dead and imprisoned. I was imprisoned in a dark and close place. I was bound and wrapped from head to toe. I was bound and wrapped in regret, in sadness, in despair, in loneliness, in a sense of having been abandoned by those who were supposed to be my friends. And those who loved me best mourned for me. Their hearts were broken for me. They wept for me. It's a painful thing to be wrapped in such a prison and to be sealed off in such a dark place.

But, one day, I began to hear a voice. At first, it was very still, very small. And then the voice grew into a whisper. And I realized that the Voice was addressing itself to me. The Voice grew louder still, until I could ignore it no more. It was the Voice of Life, calling to me. "Mark, come out of there. You've been in there long enough." And then I heard the Voice say to anyone who would listen, "Unbind him, and let him go." Those are some of the most amazing words any one can ever hear. To live again, to be free again after being buried in the dark earth is one of the most healing liberations anyone will ever know.

That story from John, chapter 11, is not about a man named Lazarus who lived a long time ago. To literalize that story is to lock it in the past. That story is about me. It's about you. It's about every person who has ever loved and lost, ever suffered and grieved. To treat that story as if it's factual is to leave your brain behind. To pretend that the story is meaningless because it's not factual is to leave your soul behind. Brain and soul belong together. To see the story as a space in which to reflect upon your life allows brain and soul to remain married.

And that's the Good News I want to boldly share today. The Church and the Bible represent hospitable spaces within which you can reflect upon your life. The Church and the Bible represent the guides that can lead you to looking more deeply, seeing more clearly, living more fully. At least, that's what the Church ought to be. And as you enter the hospitable space that is the Church, as you enter the powerful, imaginal world of the Bible, you can experience friendship with other people who inhabit that space and who are likewise reflecting upon their lives. And as we reflect together, we come to be joined in love. And not only that, we find ourselves linking our hearts and hands to touch others, to invite them into that reflective space where they, too, can ponder what it means to be alive. And in the Church and in the Bible, we meet a man named Jesus, whose love is without condition, without boundary. We meet Jesus, whose heart is without judgment and full of mercy. And he can help us deal with the talking snakes that tempt us. He can help us be free from the things that bind us. He can show us how to love and how to forgive and how to refrain from being judgmental and how to see and how to hear and how to serve. And he welcomes you. He welcomes you into the space where you can reflect upon your life. Whatever you've done, whoever you are, whatever you think, whatever you believe, whatever you don't believe, he welcomes you. If you're divorced, he welcomes you. If you're gay, he welcomes you. If you're an unwed parent, he welcomes you. If you're dealing with addiction, he welcomes you. If you're a liar or a cheater or a thief, he welcomes you. If you don't believe everything you were taught in childhood, he welcomes you. There is a place for you. It's a place of welcome and embrace, a place of hospitality and acceptance, of unconditional positive regard. It is the Church of Jesus.

Be careful how you choose your church. Not every church agrees with me on this. Many Christian churches today still sadly traffic in fear and guilt and judgmentalism. But not every Christian community has contaminated the Good News in that way. And it is high time that those churches stand up and be counted. There's a world of hungry spiritual seekers out there who will not feed at a table of fear and guilt and judgmentalism. They shouldn't, because they know that a diet of fear and guilt and judgmentalism leads to spiritual malnutrition. Besides, that was not the way of Jesus. That must not be the way of his Church. His way is the way of love and mercy and embrace, and that's the way that will lead his Church to life. His way of love and mercy and embrace is the graceful house into which we in the Church can hospitably invite the world.

Let us pray.
God, you are the master builder. Help us and guide us as we, your Church, construct the hospitality house into which we can invite all your children. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.


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