First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Rev. Toby Jones, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720

Sermon: “Questions Without Answers- Stage 3- Perplexity” 03/07/2021

                 “Questions Without Answers – Stage 3 – Perplexity”
        (Based on Job 21:1-34, Ecclesiastes 1:1-18, Matthew 23:23-36)

A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC on March 7, 2021

            Today we’re going to explore the 3rd stage in Brian McLaren’s 4-stages of faith. In Stage 1, we bow down to God, we accept everything we hear from authority figures and read in the bible, and just try to follow all the rules. In Stage 2, we begin to raise questions and acknowledge some doubts, we get involved in reading and study to equip us for a more complex faith and world. And in Stage 3, the wheels come off and it all falls apart. I know, I know…that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for wanting to grow beyond Stage 2, but as my girlfriend Kelley likes to say, sometimes things have to fall apart so we can put them back together in a better way. That is what Stage 3 is all about.
            McLaren puts it like this: “It often takes a faith crisis to force someone into a forward transfer out of Stage 2. Perhaps a trusted religious leader experiences a public failure or scandal.” You think, “If all those easy steps and keys to success didn’t work for the Stage 2 leader who taught them to me, why should I trust them?” Another way we get nudged or even shoved out of Stage 2 might be even more personal: “I followed the 3 easy steps to protect and save my marriage, but I still got divorced; I tried the 5 certain cures and still feel depressed.” (FAD, 61)
            So you’ll remember from last week that Stage 2 is the phase with all programs and retreats, right? All the religious equivalents of self-help books, tools, and packages. And the person at Stage 2 faith dives in, trying to equip herself through all of this spiritual activity. And while it seems to be working, Stage 2 is all good…until it’s not good anymore…until it stops working. Think of Job. In the first chapter of this super tragic, unbelievably painful story, we are introduced to a good man, a righteous man. The text tells us that Job was “blameless and upright; he feared God and he shunned evil.” He had a wonderful family, a super successful farm, and he was “the greatest man among all the people of the East.”
            Now remember, in the Old Testament, the covenant rules are super clear: if you follow God, if you keep the commandments, if you do what’s right, you WILL be blessed. Job did all of that and then some. And do you remember what happened to him? First his oxen and donkeys were wiped out. Then his sheep and servants are all obliterated. Next it was his camels. After that, all his children were killed in a storm. Finally, Job himself was crippled with disease and sickness. As the tragedy continues, three “Comforters” come to call on Job. Each of them tries to explain the suffering that has come Job’s way. Each uses traditional, typical religious explanations for what Job might have done to anger God or deviate from the righteous path, but Job knows that he hasn’t done anything wrong. He listens to over 20 chapters of this religious babble before he starts to stand up to these bogus comforters to give them a piece of his mind. In the chapter we read – 21 – he throws their traditional religious explanations right back at them, using a conundrum that has bothered me over the years. He says, ‘What about all these evil-doing, wicked people who just keep prospering? Until the day they die, nothing goes against them. They never taste defeat or face justice. They don’t get sick or see their children slaughtered. They die in peace, on top of the world, while right next door good, innocent people suffer for no good reason.’ And then Job ends with a great line, a line indicating that he has fully entered Stage 3. He says, “How dare you console me with your nonsense. Nothing is left of your answers but falsehood.” Translation: ‘Your Stage 1 and 2 answers just don’t cut it anymore.’
            I went through a similar moment in my life in January of 2001, when my mother was tragically killed in a car accident. My mom was one of the kindest, most committed Christian people I ever knew. But you don’t need to take my word for it; ask anyone who ever knew her. People are still telling me – 20 years later – what a huge difference my mother made in their lives and in their faith. So after the accident, I had several “comforters” come to visit me, much like Job did. One of them said, “I’m so sorry God took your mother, Toby. I guess He just needed her more than the world here did.” Another of them said, “Well, God works in mysterious ways. You may not understand God’s wonderful plan right now, but in time you’ll see that your mother dying was for the best.” I sometimes wish I’d punched both of them. How dare they give me such lame, vapid religious cliches in the face of an inexplicable tragedy that defied all explanation. Far from giving me any sort of peace or comfort, their Stage 1 and 2 explanations pushed me further and further away from organized Christianity.
            In Faith After Doubt, McLaren introduces us to a similarly disillusioned Christian named Walt, who “pulled the rip cord” and got off the Christian train. Walt now prefers to “mindfully walk the woods trails,” which he describes as “his church.” He says, “It’s a little lonely, but it’s better than singing songs and reciting creeds I don’t believe in anymore.” And then he concludes, “I guess out here on these trails, I walk out my unanswered questions.” (FAD, 60)
            Stage 3 is that period in our faith journey when the questions we have don’t have any good, satisfying answers. It’s a time when churches feel so uncomfortable, like an ill-fitting suit, that we simply have to get away and go it alone. It’s not that we want to be alone or isolated in Stage 3; we don’t. It’s just that we feel pretty certain that our church won’t like our doubts, our questions, and the disillusionment we’re feeling.
            Regardless of whether you see yourself in Stage 3 or not, it’s absolutely critical for all of us to acknowledge that millions of people around the world have reached this very breaking point. Talk to your kids or your grandkids. Listen to what they have to say about organized Christianity and why they don’t want to be a part of a church. You’ll hear all kinds of Stage 3 stuff come out of their mouths. “The church is full of hypocrites…Pastors are a bunch of corrupt, money-grabbing pedophiles and adulterers! How can you even trust them?…Don’t you realize that those whack-jobs that stormed the capital were waving Jesus flags and praying in Jesus’s name?…How can you possibly believe that 3/4ths of the world’s population is going to burn in hell just because they don’t accept Jesus?…” These are the exact kinds of questions that land us in what McLaren calls “perplexity,” Stage 3.  By the way, I’m not sure if you caught it earlier, but when I read Matthew 23, Jesus was saying this exact same stuff about the religious leaders of his day.
            The good news is that your kids and grandkids, along with the millions of “Walt’s” out there who are walking in the woods instead of joining us here today, are not bad people. They’re not even unchristian or anti-Jesus. They’re thoughtful; they’re smart; and they’re still on the journey. The trouble is not that they’ve failed somehow. The trouble is that the Church has failed them. We’ve failed to create room for Stage 3 people in here. We’ve failed to create an environment that accepts and engages their perplexity. We haven’t learned the immense value of words like “I don’t know…I’m not sure either…or “That’s a really good, really hard question.”
            You know what people in Stage 3 really want? They want honesty. They don’t need us to know everything or to have all the answers. They’re up for some mystery. McLaren calls these things the new gifts and treasures of Stage 3: honesty, humility, openness, curiosity, scholarship, and a commitment to understanding the truth, no matter the cost.” (FAD, 69) Are we up for that here? What if we put those words on a banner outside: “We’re a church seeking honesty, humility, openness, curiosity, scholarship, and commitment to understanding the truth no matter what the cost.” What do you think?
            Some of you have read my first book, The Gospel According to Rock. I write about hundreds of rock songs in it, putting their lyrics in conversation with the gospel. But of all those songs, the one that still means the most to me is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2. It was that song that made me realize I was in Stage 3 of my faith. The song has 3 verses, and it seems to move in traditional, predictable way at first. The first verse speaks of the physical realm, where the singer has climbed the highest mountain, run through the fields, scaled city walls, but still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. In the second verse, he turns to the sexual realm, kissing, being touched, experiencing burning desire… but still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. In the song’s final verse, Bono, the lead singer – and an unbelievably committed Christian – moves to the spiritual realm, speaking with eternal angels, holding hands with the devil. He then makes specific reference to Jesus, crying “You broke the bonds and loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame.” He then emphasizes his fervency of belief, saying, “You know I believe it!” Then you know what he finishes with…? The exact same refrain that the first two verses finished with… “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…No I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” (GATR, 70-71)
            When I heard this song for the first time, I was blown away, and I knew what they were singing was unprecedented. No other Christian artists I’d heard had ever had the guts to say this before, to be this honest, this open, this humble. Even with Jesus in our hearts, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for. This is the Stage 3 anthem, folks. The journey isn’t over; it’s just going deeper. As I say in my book, “Human fulfillment in this life, with or without a Christian faith, is a myth. A hungry heart, an insatiable appetite, an inability to achieve satisfaction is a part of what makes us human and not God.” (GATR, 71)
            In Stage 3 of our faith journey, we get to step into our humanity. We get to be fully human. We get to say things like “I don’t know…I’m not sure…I’m still searching too.” I hope and pray that we can make room for your kids and grandkids in this church. I hope that we can make space for the folks right here among us with doubts and with Job-like unanswerable questions. And I hope that you can live with a pastor who is willing to sing “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Amen.