The Final Sermon I Should Have Preached

The Final Sermon I Should Have Preached November 1, 2018

Editor’s Note: If this former preacher had actually given this as his final sermon, I bet a lot of the congregation would have walked out with him.  Alas, logic is not what brings people to church, so it’s also likely that some in the congregation would have immediately joined another church, with clergy who stuck to the feel-good aspects of faith. / Linda LaScola, Editor

================================

By David Madison, PhD, Biblical Studies

The Vulnerabilities of Faith

In March 1996, a gunman killed 16 children and their teacher at a school in Scotland. Memorial flowers soon surrounded the building, and one bouquet was held by a Teddy Bear

to which a note had been attached:  “13 March 1996, the day God overslept”

It was widely reported in the media. This comment about God reflects a struggle to explain—and still accept—the Christian claim that God cares about what happens to us, each one of us.

This tragedy, of course, represents just a tiny sliver of the colossal suffering that the Christian faith cannot explain—not at all, really. In Matthew 10:29-30, we read these words of Jesus:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unnoticed by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Really? According to this theology, God is really paying attention, yet declines to prevent so much suffering. What good is it to us, after all, that he is all-powerful?

None of the traditional excuses—which we have all recited from time to time—works.

  • Free will.
  • God is testing us.
  • God is trying to strengthen us.
  • God moves in mysterious ways.
  • We don’t know God’s larger plan.

On careful examination, every one of these excuses collapses. Our faith in God is misplaced; it is vulnerable. It too collapses. No, God didn’t oversleep. He’s not there.

And, believe it or not, Jesus himself is one of the biggest problems for the faith. At the time of Jesus, the major business of the Jerusalem Temple was animal sacrifice. One way to atone for sin was to have an animal—a dove or a lamb—killed and cut up for the altar. When the Romans destroyed the Temple, Judaism moved on. It left bloody sacrifice behind.

But what, to our shame, do we find in the New Testament? Its authors celebrate a human sacrifice. They want us to believe that God required that own his son be brutally murdered—to be able to forgive us. That’s the atonement, echoed in famous verses that we’ve heard forever:

“Here is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world”

—A substitute for the sacrificial lambs in the Temple.

“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

“The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.”

With this ghoulish concept at its center, our faith is vulnerable. If God is all-powerful and overflowing with compassion, why can’t he just forgive us? Why is this horrible gimmick, a human sacrifice, needed at all? Many devout non-Christian believers have asked how this can possibly be true.

There’s another big problem with Jesus. For whatever reason, the gospel writers left major negatives about Jesus in full view—and these are never mentioned in church. In Luke 14 Jesus says bluntly that, in order to be one of his disciples, you have to hate your family. In Matthew 10 we find similar words:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.…”

This is the Jesus that preachers don’t usually mention.

There is too much severity in Jesus, despite the feel-good verses we’ve been taught since Sunday school. He said that when the Son of Man comes—that’s a code term for himself—there would be more suffering than there was at the time of Noah, when the whole human race was drowned (except for one family, of course). And he believed in eternal punishment—as in fire, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth—Yes, he says all this.

The Sermon on the Mount, despite its reputation, includes many substandard teachings. No, Jesus misses the mark as a great moral teacher. Our faith is vulnerable because Jesus doesn’t stand up well to close scrutiny.

Another problem with Jesus is that the real person behind the gospel accounts can’t be identified. Preachers never talk about this in church, although they may have learned about it in seminary—but choose to look the other way. Jesus Studies have been in turmoil for a long time because the gospel accounts were written much too long after the events. Scholars know that figuring out who Jesus really wasis impossible. They have come up with dozens of different “Jesus portraits.” We can see so clearly that the gospel authors wrote theology, not history. That’s why the Jesus of Mark’s gospel is so very different from Jesus of John’s gospel.

But every Christian alive has read enough of the New Testament (preferring the nicest verses), has seen enough religious art and listened to enough sermons under the glow of stained glass windows, to be able to come up the ideal “Jesus of the imagination.” But that doesn’t mean anything about who Jesus really was. Our faith is vulnerable because the real Jesus remains, in fact, a missing person.

The Christian faith is vulnerable when we ask hard questions, and refuse to accept shallow answers. Hence my decision to leave the Christian faith. But please be careful how you talk about this. No, I did not lose my faith. I analyzed it with great care and found that it doesn’t make sense, and so I shall walk away.

I’m not trying to talk you into walking away as well. I just wanted you to understand why I have made this decision. But I do urge you think more deeply about the specific issues I have raised. And honestly ask yourself,

“Have I really investigated what I believe? How do I deal with these vulnerabilities?”

=========================

Bio: David Madison,a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.

>>>Photo Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Teddy_bear.jpg,

By prawdapunk [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons

By Carl Heinrich Bloch – http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_Ycv0BE0wFr4/TU8WRXJmxYI/AAAAAAAAAgI/2QjVrd4bEHo/s1600/Sermon_on_the_Mount_Carl_Bloch.jpg and Carl Bloch, p. 313, ISBN 9788798746591, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=186837  ; David Madison, by Andrea Reese ; Artur Siebens as Secular Pastor, by Linda LaScola

 

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Blood sacrifice was the issue that put me over the top, finally exiting Christianity. We Christians were told that Christianity was different from all the religions that required blood sacrifice. Standing by Mayan ruins I. Chichen Itza and hearing of blood sacrifice, it dawned on me – no it isn’t. And that was the final straw.

    • I just wonder how/why it doesn’t dawn on Christians that this horror is right at the center of their faith. But it is so camouflaged by art, music, and Sunday school propaganda.

      • When indoctrinated as a child, it is easy to miss the fascination with crucifixion and being “washed in blood”. I don’t know how older converts miss those gory elements though. Maybe fear of eternity in hell blinds them.

        • mason

          desensitized & numb, like German citizens were

    • alwayspuzzled

      My wife and I were wandering around the jungle looking for Old Chichen Itza. She promised me that with her knowledge of Spanish, we would not have any problem. It turned out to be a case of over promise, under deliver. We were lost. As the sun started to go down, I was seriously thinking about turning my wife into a blood sacrifice. I think it would have worked. She, of course, had the exact same plan for me.

    • mason

      Me too … I realized I was following an ancient totalitarian fascist God who specialty was barbaric torture & blood sacrifice. Kids will believe anything, and I under mental pressure, abuse, and fear of fire did. I hate the Evangelical message.

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/65726d11c8cd3dd3be167e62649ba4f5476615bbfa5da6fb282b5a15d9803558.jpg

      • I agree – there is little about it that is “good news”

  • carolyntclark

    .” No, I did not lose my faith. I analyzed it with great care and found that it doesn’t make sense,” ….Agree. After discovering that “He” was never there, I went on a research expedition to find out where did the theology, dogmas, doctrines, “truths” that I had never questioned, just accepted and believed, come from ? A bunch of Sapiens with cerebral limitations sitting in Church Councils debating and defining the Divine. Inspiration, Revelation, Vatican-ese for “we made it up”. The greatest Story ever Told !

  • ctcss

    Alas, logic is not what brings people to church

    This is not necessarily true. Not every approach to religion works this way. The one I follow certainly doesn’t. Logic most certainly does bring me to church, as opposed to emotion drawing me there. Also, in general, emotion is what a person might feel about various ideas, events, or people in their lives, but not all human decisions are based on emotion. I fell in love with my wife, but I had to reason my way through to actually deciding to marry her. Simply feeling good about her wasn’t enough for me to go forward on because marriage is about having a well thought out bond of trust with someone else. I had to make sure I could rationally trust her with my life, as well as making sure I had solid reasons to trust myself as someone who would be there for her. Evaluations like this are not easy things to parse, and simply approaching it from a purely emotional way would not work, at least for me.

    Likewise, religion, at least of the sort I was brought up in, is not based on emotion.

    And honestly ask yourself,

    “Have I really investigated what I believe? How do I deal with these vulnerabilities?”

    Yes, I have investigated what I believe. My positive conclusions about it are why I still believe it. And the vulnerabilities brought up in this piece are not universally accepted. They are simply one take (very possibly the more commonly encountered take), but not universal. So the problematic issues raised here are not necessarily problematic issues for everyone, simply because a different theological approach may make those issues moot. For instance, it is very possible that if one could conclusively prove that Jesus never existed, such a proof might very well incline a person towards dropping Christianity. However, that proof would mean nothing to a religiously observant Jew whose practice does not rely on the existence of Jesus at all.

    As nearly as I can tell, the problematic issues cited here seem to be based on a religious approach centered around the belief in a personal God and a more literal reading of the Bible text. But if one’s religion does not depend on the concept of a personal God, and also does not utilize a literalistic reading of the Bible, these issues may not be problems at all. They certainly aren’t for me.

    Religious approaches most definitely vary from each other. People are free to evaluate and consider what makes the most sense to them, whether it is the approach of religion A, B, C, etc., or even no religion at all.

    To each their own rationally chosen path.

  • Markus R

    If you don’t understand the holiness of God and the sinfulness is man, you will not understand God, nor that this existence is not about doing right by man—it’s about the glory of God.

  • Scott Stahlecker

    “Why things happen to good people,” as you point out, is a fundamental question about life that Christianity utterly fails in addressing. I think there are many former believers who have endured some kind of personal or family tragedy who can trace their departure from Christianity due to this issue. I’m one of them.