(Don’t) Give Me That Old Time Religion

Matthew 19:3-9                                                                 NIV 1532

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:16-17                                                    NIV, 1532

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” 17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

Matthew 23:13-15                                                    NIV, 1540

13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. 15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

Matthew 23:25-28                                                    NIV, 1540

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.


  1. This week we are beginning our new series, “What Is the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?”
    1. It is based on Martin Thielen’s book by that name. He is a United Methodist pastor in central Tennessee.
  2. In today’s service, I’ll be introducing the series and the first part of the book with a message titled, “(Don’t) Give Me That Old Time Religion.”
    1. Over the next six weeks, I’ll be focusing on the second part of the book.
    1. There’s a schedule of the sermon topics inserted in your bulletin, so you’ll know what to expect.
    1. This is a great time to invite guests to church, anyone who might be seeking or wondering.
  3. Many of you may be familiar with the old gospel song “Gimme Me That Old-Time Religion.” The chorus goes like this, “Gimme me that old-time religion, gimme me that old-time religion, gimme me that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.”
  4.  Play video
  5. Old time religion—what does this mean?  Ask congregation
    1. Maybe it means that we go back to singing either old hymns or Southern Gospel style songs. 
    1. Or maybe the preacher will preach hell is hot, and sinners are going to burn if they don’t get saved. 
    1. Also, the message is usually about how bad the world is, how it’s going to hell in a handbasket and that Jesus is going to come any minute, plus they throw in someone in the current news as the possible Anti-Christ for good measure. 
    1. They usually get a lot of people that will shout out “Amen, preacher.”  I know because I’ve been to some of these type services growing up.
  6. My hope is that we never go back to this old-time religion because this is partly why most people don’t want to go to church anymore. 
    1. It creates an “us vs. them” mentality. 
    1. The people on the inside of the church are glad that they are saved and have their fire insurance paid up. 
    1. They can think of numerous people on the outside that should be there on the inside listening to this message.
  7. The problem that I have with this stream of Christianity is that it is always focused on the negative. 
    1. Most of them preach more about hell than the good news of salvation. 
    1. Most preach about how bad the world is without realizing that the world is actually getting better in so many ways. 
    1. They are waiting for Jesus to come snatch them away not caring about the fate of all those “heathen sinners” that didn’t make it.
  8. However – and this is a big however: The litmus test of our love for God is not our piety, nor our faithful church attendance.  It is in how we love others.  It is looking to see the best in others.  It is looking to see Jesus in the “least of these.”
  9. Unfortunately, most of the people who opt for “old time religion” are more into the message of their church rather than the good news of the Kingdom. 
  10. The good news of the Kingdom is that God is not mad at people, that God is not holding their sins against them and that God wants a love relationship with them. 
    1. How many sermons in the book of Acts do you read where the Apostles threatened people with hell if they didn’t receive Jesus into their hearts?  The answer is NONE!
  11. I know that it was good enough for grandma and grandpa so it must be good enough for me, but we don’t live in grandma and grandpa’s era.  The methods used to reach that generation will not reach this generation. 
    1. Grandma and Grandpa’s generation were familiar with the church and at that time ministers were respected. 
    1. Lives revolved around church. It’s not that way anymore!
  12. Do we realize that our “old time religion” that some hold so strictly to would be so foreign to the early church, or to the reformers, or even to Christians 200 years ago. 
    1. Times change and we must change with them.  The way we “do church” today is so different from the way they “did church.”
  13. The message of the Kingdom is always relevant but our methods of getting that message out have to change to meet the culture we live in.  Our American ways of “doing church” may not work in Africa or the Middle East.  Do they need our “old time religion”?  No, they need the Gospel of the Kingdom, not the message of our individual preferences and likes.
  14. Much of old-time religion is good and noble. But some old-time religion is neither good nor noble.
    1. Old-time religion gave us the Crusades, the Inquisition, and religious wars.
    1. Old-time religion oppressed woman, defended slavery, and stifled scientific inquiry.
  15. The fact is, some old-time religion is unhealthy. Even Jesus didn’t like some of that old-time religion.
  16. We see examples in today’s Scripture readings. Jesus calls out the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Jesus uses “woe” – wretchedness
  17. In Matthew 19, Jesus talks about divorce.
    1. In Jesus’ day old-time religion allowed a man to divorce his wife for any reason. If she burned his dinner, if he found someone he liked better—the reason didn’t matter—he could dump her on the street in a heartbeat.
    1. Jesus advocated a higher standard where women were not considered disposable. And in a day without alimony, child support, or public assistance of any kind, the custom usually left her with two options: begging or prostitution.
    1. That was old time religion, and Jesus completely rejected it.
  18. Jesus’ messages are about loving God and others, instead of rules that people have made up by religious leaders.
    1. Rules that might have helpful under certain circumstances may be unnecessary or even hurtful in others, but justice, mercy, compassion, and love remain, regardless.
  19. Let’s review several of the points that the author of the book addresses about old-time religion.
  20. First, we can discard old-time religion that claims God causes cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes.
    1. It’s not God’s will that Norah died of sepsis poisoning at age 10.
    1. It is not God’s will that a teenager became paralyzed in a car wreck, or that two hundred thousand Haitians die in an earthquake.
  21. Just because something bad happens does not mean that God caused it to happen.
    1. Jesus understood that. We see an example in Luke 13:4 where Jesus is being questioned about the nature of God: Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?
    1. Although we don’t know the details, eighteen laborers were killed in Jerusalem in an apparent construction accident. The people presumed it was to punish the workers for their sin.
    1. Jesus rejected this idea, and so must we.
    1. In response to this tragedy, Jesus says, “Those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
    1. Jesus answers: No, I tell you.” God didn’t cause that tragedy back then, and God doesn’t cause tragedies today.
  22. Religion that blames God for everything that happens is old-time religion that we can and should discard.
  23. Second, we can discard old-time religion that claims good Christians don’t doubt. I grew up with those words: “Doubt is the greatest sin.” What is fascinating is that many of the biblical reformers – Luther, Calvin—John Wesley and Mother Teresa had periods of doubt. I think we all do!
  24. Faith is not about having absolute certainty, having all the answers, or seeing everything in black-and white.
    1. Real faith, as the apostle Paul tells us in Corinthians, “sees through the glass dimly.” Glass was not as perfect and pristine as now. It may have had color or be wavy.
    1. Sometimes it was difficult to figure out what was on the other side.
    1. Real faith asks hard questions. Real faith struggles. Real faith doubts.
    1. In Genesis, Jacob spends the night wrestling with God.
    1. Real faith accepts ambiguity, mystery, and unanswered questions.
    1. Job in the Old Testament questioned God continually while remaining faithful. In the end, he doesn’t get the answers he is looking for, but he continues his relationship with God.
    1. Even Jesus experienced struggles and questions and doubts.
      1. When he was dying on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  25. Doubt is not the enemy of faith; doubt is a part of faith. It’s how we figure things out and learn more. So, the idea that good Christians don’t doubt is old-time religion that we can and should discard.
  26. Third, we can discard old-time religion that claims that true Christians can’t believe in evolution.
    1. This has never been a problem with me.
    1. I had problems with accepting that God made the earth and everything in it in six, 24 hour, days
    1. Psalm 90 refers to time: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day.” 
  27. I believe that Christians should study evolution because, like all the natural sciences, it is the study of God’s creation.
    1. Creation itself is a complementary revelation to what God has communicated through Scripture, and through the created order God shows how and when God brought about the life we see today—to God’s honor and glory.
    1. The regular patterns in nature that we call natural laws have their foundation in the regular, faithful governance of God.
    1. Thus, we can believe that God created every species and did it in such a way that we can describe the creation process scientifically.
  28. The scientific model of evolution does not replace God as creator any more than the law of gravity replaces God as ruler of the planets.
  29. Science is a way of loving God with our minds. When we seek to understand the created order through science, we bear witness to the Creator God and glorify God through our work.
  30. Finally, we can discard old-time religion that says it’s okay for Christians to be judgmental. I’m sure you’ve met Christians who are arrogant, self-righteous, and judgmental. It’s not a new trend.
    1. There was a group of people like that in Jesus’ time. They were holier than thou. They were judgmental. They believed they had all the right answers, and they condemned everyone who didn’t agree with them, including Jesus. They were also the only people whom Jesus didn’t like and couldn’t get along with. Arrogant, judgmental, obnoxious religion is the exact opposite of the grace-filled spirit of Jesus Christ. It’s old-time religion that we can, and should, discard.
  31. So, let me get to the bottom line. Many people in our world today, and in our own community, have problems with religion.
    1. However, most of them don’t really reject God or Christianity or church.
    1. Instead, they reject the way that God and Christianity and church have been packaged.
  32. In the theme of today’s Scripture, they are rejecting inconsistencies of words and actions.
    1. These people desperately need to know there are people who are trying to follow the law of love and justice.
    1. They need to know there are alternative expressions of the Christian faith, different from the negative caricatures they see on religious television and in the news.
    1. They need to know that not all Christians reject science and reason.
    1. They need to know that not all Christians are judgmental and arrogant.
    1. They need to know that it’s okay to have questions and doubts.
    1. They need to know that you can love God with your heart but also with your head.
  33. In short, these people need to know that there are alternatives to unhealthy expressions of old-time religion.
  34. And we, as a United Methodist church, offer such an alternative. We in the mainline and moderate tradition have a great message of open-minded, grace-filled, gender-equal, “head, heart, and hands,” orthodox Christian faith; and we need to proclaim it boldly!
  35. “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian?”
  36. What a great question! The answer to that question, of course, is Jesus.
    1. We can discard many religious beliefs and still be Christians.
    1. However, we cannot discard Jesus.
  37. In order to be Christian believers, we must believe in Jesus’ life, teaching, example, death, and resurrection.
    1. A great benefit of these beliefs is that they provide promising answers to life’s most profound questions, including,
      1. What matters most? Am I accepted? Where is God? What brings fulfillment? What about suffering? And is there hope?
  38. Over the next six weeks we’ll explore those questions together.
  39. I look forward to the journey!
  40. Thanks be to God!