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Questioning faith

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Theme: Questioning faith

Let us pray.

Most holy, Lord God, you sent John the Baptist as Jesus’ forerunner; may John be an example for us in how we question you – by asking questions and finding answers – strengthening our faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jim Taylor writes, “Church statistics look bleak. Mainline denominations have declined for 40 years. Now it seems that evangelical churches – even the megachurches – have also peaked and may have started down the same toboggan slide as their traditional counterparts went on four decades earlier.

“But there are a few exceptions. Apparently the fastest growing religious group among university students is something called Pastafarianism. That’s right, Pastafarianism – obviously a word play on Rastafarianism. Pastafarianism declares that the universe was designed by a giant blob of spaghetti and meatballs in the sky. This Flying Spaghetti Monster has made Himself – it must be male if it has meatballs (not mentioned in the oral presentation) – invisible and undetectable. Therefore no one can prove He doesn’t exist. You don’t believe me? Look it up on Google!

“I’m not making this up. Wikipedia states, ‘Created in 2005 by Oregon State physics graduate Bobby Henderson, it was originally intended as a satirical protest against the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to permit the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public schools.

“’In an open letter... Henderson parodied the concept of intelligent design by professing belief in a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs. Henderson further called for his ... theory of creation to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. He explained that since the intelligent design movement uses ambiguous references to an unspecified “Intelligent Designer,” any conceivable entity may fulfill that role, even a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

“’After Henderson published the letter on his website, it rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol for the case against teaching intelligent design in public schools as well as religion in general.’

“Okay, so Pastafarianism is a spoof, the kind of satirical irreverence that appeals to sophomoric minds, like mine. But it does raise the question of what qualifies as legitimate religion.

“Long ago, the religion reporter at the London Free Press, Jim Sheppard, now executive editor at, asked the same question. To test it, Jim organized his own church, the Universal Church of Arbor Vitae. He got it registered. He and colleagues at The Free Press met weekly for a sacrament based on beer and pizza. He wrote an article showing how easy it was (and is) for anyone or anything to register as a church and qualify for all the resulting tax privileges.

“After Jim got promoted out of the religion ghetto, the church registration eventually lapsed. Jim didn't really care – his concern was that definitions of “religion” were so vague almost anything could qualify. Even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

“With hundreds of thousands of followers, Pastafarianism is now considered a legitimate religion – except by its opponents, of course. Granted, numbers alone do not validate a religion. But even the prestigious American Academy of Religion has featured it in panel discussions. Learned papers, with titles like The Flying Spaghetti Monster's Messy Implications for Theorizing Religion, have examined the elements necessary to constitute a religion.

“If I recall my own discussions with Jim Sheppard, we concluded that most criteria end up being subjective: ‘My religion is legitimate; anything else is suspect.’”

John the Baptist questions Jesus’ legitimacy. After denouncing King Herod Antipas many times for marrying his brother’s wife, Herod had enough and ordered John the Baptist to prison. Of course, Herod’s wife was not to keen on John, either.

John’s disciples continued John’s ministry and preaching in his absence. Noticing Jesus and his followers, John’s followers challenged the religious authority and teachings of the Jesus group. So, we see these two competing Jewish offshoots lead by charismatic leaders, John the Baptist and Jesus. We have the impression that they did not get along very well.

While John was in prison, he heard things about this new rabbi named Jesus. So John sent some of his disciples to inquire of Jesus if he, Jesus, was the one to come just as John had told people earlier. John may be asking Jesus, “If you are the one to separate the wheat from the chaff and the one who will bring the powerful down and lift up the lowly, what am I doing still in prison?” John’s idea of a messiah doesn’t fit Jesus. John has doubts.

John’s question is often our question. Is Jesus the real deal? Am I in the right place when I am in church? We often ask these kinds of questions privately. We don’t want to be seen as faithless. But we can’t ignore the thing that prompts these questions. We need to answer these questions for ourselves. We need to wrestle with it. When we do, our faith is strengthened.

As is typical of Jesus, he didn’t answer John’s disciples directly. If Jesus were to be on a modern American witness stand the lawyers and the judge would have a really difficult time getting him to answer a yes or no question with a yes or a no. Jesus quotes Isaiah and tells John’s disciples to tell John what they heard with their own ears and saw with their own eyes: that the blind see, the deaf hear, the lepers are healed, the lame walk, the dead are raised to life, and the poor hear good news.

It is interesting that Jesus didn’t say that the sick are cured. The only sickness mentioned is leprosy. Leprosy was incurable in Jesus’ time. Because of this, lepers were banished from the rest of society. What Jesus is telling John, through John’s disciples, is that those who are shunned from society are restored. This is much more powerful than a mere healing.

Jesus slyly chides John’s disciples. “Tell John what you see and hear . . . the blind see . . . and the deaf hear.” In other words, if you weren’t blind and deaf, you wouldn’t need to ask me to answer John’s question. You could figure it out for yourself.

Also, the good news that the poor hear is that life will be better. God has not forgotten them. The Torah, the Law of Moses, in the first five books of the Bible, mentions many times that the outcasts and the poor are to receive special care by the wider community. When Israel failed to do this, many prophets, Isaiah included, chided God’s followers for not following God’s directives. Jesus is here to see to it that God’s directives are just not reminders for the people, but are actually done.

Jesus gives a qualified blessing. Blessed are those who take no offense to Jesus. In other words, you may be blessed even though you do not follow Jesus. But if you oppose Jesus, you will not be blessed. This seems to be directed toward John’s disciples and not to a wider audience. What Jesus’ intentions are in this are unknown, because we cannot read Jesus’ mind.

John’s disciples wander off, seemingly satisfied with Jesus’ answers or they left in frustration that they will never get a straight answer. Jesus next addresses the crowd.

Jesus challenges the crowd about their intentions of going out into the wilderness to hear John. Jesus gets a little nasty with them. He mocks them. “Did you go out to see someone who bends with whatever is popular at the time? Did you go out to see a businessman in a suit? It was a prophet you went to see. And not just a prophet, but a big prophet.

The signs of the coming kingdom of heaven are there for all to see and to hear. Pay attention and you will see the coming of the messiah. (Pay attention and nobody will need silly warning labels.) I heard that there is a group in Sacramento and the bay area saying that the end of the world is coming in May. (So if you want to be in the Holy Land for the second coming – well there is a pilgrimage I’m leading in May.)

If John can ask why he is still in prison, then we can also ask why friends die of cancer? Why do we need to go to war? Why are kids abused? Why are innocent people, like John, in prison? Jesus answers that people are getting healed and that liberation is coming. To our non-Christian friends we can say, “We are not claiming that everything is better, only that we have a clearer idea of how to spot the new creation of Christ and a concrete hope for its fulfillment.”

Jesus points us to a new way of living: in peace and harmony with others and with creation.

We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of discernment, as we discover your truths: what they mean for us and for the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Text: Matthew 11:2–11 (NRSV)

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiaha was doing, he sent word by hisb disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepersc are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someoned dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet?e Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

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