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Pragmatism: It works, doesn't it
Scripture: Proverbs 20:14; 14:23
Track 12 of 13 in the American Idols series
Running time: 40 minutes, 50 seconds.

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Chuck Sackett Speaker: Chuck Sackett
Dr. G. Charles Sackett is minister of Madison Park Christian Church.

View all sermons by this speaker.


"It works, doesn't it?"

August 19, 2007

We have built in us by virtue of the very world that we live in the desire to see things work, and we are an inventive people. That's one of the wonderful side effects of this particular culture in which we live.

I ran into something I have never seen before. Maybe it's because I don't have small children at home, don't care about these things nearly as much, but there is a company out there now called Baby Einstein. It was developed back in 1997. This mother, who was a teacher, discovered that there was no product available in order to help her children really learn to appreciate art and music, the cultured things in their early, early childhood. So she began to develop her own line of videos and tapes that she could sit with her children when they were in their infant stages and they would watch the video, they could hear classical music, and as you would expect in a culture that likes things like that, like ours, it was a hit. In fact, so much so that in 2001 Disney bought the product and began to make this a worldwide corporation, and they began to sell Baby Einstein products.

Until just recently everything seemed to be going along just like the American dream, and then Washington State University did some tests, and they discovered that a child who sits in front of Baby Einstein videos actually develops their language skills more slowly than those who don't. Well, at least that's the claim. And, of course, Disney, who has billions of dollars tied up in marketing Baby Einstein is now trying to counter the claim.

Only in America would we create a video that you could take a six-week to six-month old child and stick in front of hoping that they would learn something about culture. But that's us. We are like that. That's who we are. We believe things ought to work and ought to work efficiently. It's not a bad thing, and it has very positive repercussions.

I had the privilege back when I first started preaching of working at a paint brush handle factory. I haven't given a lot of thought to that in my life, but somebody has to make those things, and I now know how they do it. Don Craig, who you will read about in the bulletin insert this week, was the inventive kind of head of that company, and whenever he saw this thing happening, he would realize we could do that better, and so he figured out a way.

He invented such things as the push/pull machine. Creative name. It pushes the block in, and something on the other side reaches through and pulls it out the other side. But in the process of pushing and pulling, there are a set of lathes that come through and shape the paint brush handle into the appropriate shape. Why not? It's the American way. It's how we do things. It has its down side, however. It's wrapped up in phrases like, well, you got to do what you got to do, you know.

You'll also read in the insert about a friend of mine whose name is Tom who ran a radiator shop in the St. Louis area back in the early '80's, late '70's when the steel industry went to pot, and the owners, or at least some of the managers of the steel company, came to him and said, if you will give us a bit of a kickback under the table, we'll make sure you have all the radiators to fix that you can possibly fix. And he was challenged with a very practical question of, can I keep my company running, can I keep my business open without succumbing to that pressure.

Now, he did, by the way, not succumb to the pressure. He kept his business open because he wanted to practice what he believed would be good strong biblical ethics. But there it is. It's that basic American value of you got to make this thing work. We call it pragmatism. It's the only philosophy that actually originated in the United States. If you're interested in pursuing it, that's sometimes called utilitarianism. It's the idea that something has to be useful. In fact, we measure something's value by its ability to produce something good. Well, you know, like eliminating your hangnails.

But what in the world does that have to do with us, and why in the world would a christian care about something as innocuous as an American cultural value about creating things that are useful or things that work? Well, probably because we care about important things. The values of people, the value about God is important.

There are two texts that just illustrate this opposite set of values in the book of Proverbs. I just want to read them to you and let you think about them. The first one is Proverbs Chapter 20, Verse number 14. It sits in this context in Proverbs Chapter 20, and it just waits for you to come and think, well, yeah, that makes sense. That's how proverbial literature works. It just seems to make sense. It appears to be logical. And this one is Proverbs Chapter 20, Verse 14. "It's no good. It's no good, says the buyer, and then off he goes and boasts about his purchase."

My guess is you've been tempted to be there as a buyer. They call that bargaining. You convince the seller that what he is selling isn't worth what it appears to be worth, and then you walk off knowing that you have walked away with something of great value. Down inside of us we understand the value of bargain hunting. There is nothing wrong with that. It's that just slight sense that this one seems to be a little unethical as if you knew that what you were doing was undercutting and undermining what that other person was trying to sell.

The other side of that is the more common sense approach that Proverbs often takes, Chapter 14. This one to an American culture makes perfect sense. Proverbs 14:23: "All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty." In our very utilitarian culture that's the way we were raised. If you work, you will make it; and if you sit around and chatter all day long, you'll probably end up poor.

So what's the real question here? How does this question come to church, because that really is where the issue is? Those of us who are christians wrestle with what it means to live in a culture that is so inundated with its values that we often can't even see them because they are so much a part of us. It's kind of like asking a fish if it likes water. He doesn't even know what it is.

I would suggest to you that we win this cultural war. We win against this kind of subtle philosophy of the pragmatic, the utilitarian, when we seek to be the people of God rather than merely drawing a crowd to gather in the building. And that is a challenge, because the church after all is made up of people, and if nobody is here, it's hard to call it church. And one of the questions that we're always asking is whether or not we can do this thing in such a way that it invites people to want to be a part of it. But the question that we face in our culture is whether or not we are actually just gathering folks in the same place so that we are all in the same place at the same time, or are we actually transforming people into something different than when they came? Do we become the church, or are we merely a crowd who happens to like the entertainment?

There is a book review that I ran across this last couple of weeks, and in it Mark Devers says, "Today many local churches are adrift in a shifting current of pragmatism. They assume that the immediate felt response of non-christians is the key indicator of success." What he is suggesting is the thing that has driven the church in recent years is if you can figure out what the non-christian is interested in experiencing and offer that, they'll come.

He goes on to say, "At the same time christianity is being rapidly disowned in the culture at large. Evangelism is characterized as intolerant. Portions of biblical doctrine are classified as hate speech. In such antagonistic times the felt needs of non-christians are hardly to be considered reliable gauges, and conforming to the culture will mean a loss of the gospel itself." And then he puts this in bold print. "As long as quick numerical growth remains the primary indicator of church health, the truth will be compromised. Instead, churches must once again begin measuring success not in terms of numbers but in terms of faithfulness to the scripture."

I don't know how much people think about their prayers before they pray them. I don't even know how much other people listen to public prayers. I listen to them because I assume they are praying my prayer for me, and I want the privilege of saying, God, that's not mine, or, yes, God, I agree. But I really appreciated Rex's prayer this morning. Something about the ongoing transformation, the ongoing growth that occurs in our lives from week to week that it seems to me is getting out what God is calling for the church to do to produce in us a change, a shaping that is more than just can we gather bunches of people together, but can we, in fact, shape people's lives to change them to live in the current of the culture but not to be sucked into it.

I don't ever want you to feel like you are not in on what goes on around here, but there has been an awful lot of discussion over the last three or four months among the staff and elders what we are going to be doing over the next several months, maybe the next couple of years, in trying to help move this body to the place that we are, in fact, more faithful to the scripture; that we are, in fact, more transformed into the likeness of Jesus; take seriously more than ever our place out there, not what happens so much in here, but what actually happens out there where you live. And so we have reshaped some things to try to encourage people to take their faith with them everyplace, to make every experience an opportunity to represent yourself as a part of the people of God, and so we are going to invite you to participate in some rather interesting things.

I want to just show you a slide, if that's all right, of what's coming. This is our new Wednesday poster. You will see this. We are transforming the gathering into Inside/Out. You've seen some people wearing Inside/Out shirts. That's not because their wives didn't get it clean and they didn't have anything else so we turned it over. It's actually printed that way. You'll be seeing a lot of those. You'll, in fact, be encouraged to get one of those, either order it this Sunday or next Sunday, because we want them in time for our first service project so that you can wear them and have people notice that you're Inside/Out.

What's going to happen is a real aim at changing who we are, transforming our minds, trying to help us connect our hearts, the inside and the outside, offering our hands in acts of service, and really investing our lives in each other, particularly at the family level. Now, if you got the letter this week, you already know most of what I'm saying to you right now, that we are really interested in working to see how the inside faith works to the outside and how the outside activities work their way into the inside.

This first go round it's going to be a rhythm of four weeks in which we will do the same basic thing, at least the same kind of thing. If you'll see the next slide, this is the back of your -- this is your insert, one of your inserts in your bulletin. So you can see it a little more clearly, the transforming of our minds is going to happen here just like it would on any other given Wednesday evening that we've had in the past bringing in an outside speaker. Dan Climer is coming from New Hampshire, Restoration House. He is going to teach us the life of Christ. We are going to be exposed to the Sermon on the Mount. We are going to have an opportunity to have our minds challenged because we understand that our mind is important.

That we hope will move you to the next Wednesday when you'll have an opportunity to pray. Often those prayer experiences will not be in our building, but they will be out there where the service is going to take place. The first one in September will be here, but it will just start in here, and then it will move to four or five different stations where you will be challenged to pray about specific issues concerning our families, our city, our community, our church, our schools.

And then that last -- that next week, that third Wednesday in the cycle, we will move to the community in an act of service. This first service we are going to repeat something of what we did awhile back. We are going to go do some street cleanup. We are just going to don these Inside/Out shirts, and we are just going to make our way around town. We are going to clean the place out a little bit as an act of saying we want the inside of our heart, this faith and trust we have in Christ, to be visible to people and to work its way out in action. You are going to be encouraged starting today to sign up for that cleanup so we know how many people we can count on on that Wednesday to spend and hour and a half or two hours going through the community helping us impact our world.

The last week is one of the most exciting weeks to me, and that is an opportunity to invest in your life. Several of you have said, we're busy. In fact, you are so busy that you hardly have time to tell us that you're busy. Here is a night for you to intentionally stay home. Now, intentional is the key word. Schedule some time with your children, turn the television off unless you are going to watch a good movie together or whatever, but do this intentionally. Invite a friend over to your house that you have been wanting to have over. Those non-christian people that you have been trying to connect with that you haven't had a night because you can't find anytime in your schedule to bring them to your home, bring them into your house and have a meal with them or go out with them someplace, but make that a night of intentional investing of your life in each other, in a spouse, in a friend, in another family, in your children.

And then we'll cycle that again. We'll come back and do it again and we'll do it again. By the time this season is over we will have done some street cleanup, we will have done some work in the school system, and we will have given some gifts away and we will have distributed some food again. And if we make it into the next season because Jesus doesn't come, then we will probably go door to door and do something to help people get ready. Well, maybe we'll distribute smoke alarms. But we are going to go out there, and there is a reason for that.

This came to me this week. It's a newsletter from an organization called The Orchard Group. They plant churches. This one just happens to have been planted in New York. "This bottle of water was not your ordinary bottle of water. It wasn't Dasani, Fiji, or Aquafina. Instead it was labeled Church of Park Slope, and it was handed out to me by a perfect stranger on a day of the 7th Avenue Street Fair in Brooklyn in the summer of 2006. I'm always a big fan of bottled water, especially on hot days like this one was, and so I took it with great appreciation, was on my way to traverse the rest of the fair."

"A couple minutes later I took a look at the bottle. Along with it came a short description of the church. It sounded intriguing. At that point in my life I was jobless, churchless, apartmentless, basically altogether clueless. I came out to New York city for an internship, and I needed a community, one that was warm and welcoming and always had cookies. We are utilitarian. I received all of the above from Church of Park Slope, and I can honestly say that the cookies only get better."

"I began attending the church service. At first I was completely apprehensive. I come from a fairly strict Irish catholic background. For example, my idea of the perfect mascot is the Pope dressed like a Leprechaun. But with Catholicism I felt like I was missing something. I really wanted more in my spirituality, was looking forwards to exploring new avenues. Since the time I began attending church, talking about the Church of Park Slope, I have come to truly know some of the best people I have ever met in my life. I participate in many of the church events, including the living room comedy hour which features some of the very best comedians in New York City and is held in the church ran Postmark Cafe. I've also participated in some of churches services by welcoming everybody as church begins. Bottom line, I'm finally starting to understand what it's like to be in a community. And did I mention that I've come to know Jesus better than I've ever known him before in my life?"

"I attended the 7th Avenue Street Fair this summer, 2007. This time I was a giver, not the receiver of water bottles. I spent a couple of hours at the church tent, at the fair, and passed out hundreds of bottles of water to members of our community. The most common response from passersby was, free water, really? And I would say, yeah, it's free. I guess in that way the free water is kind of like God's love. I would say that the day was a big success. We passed out water to thirsty friends, spread the message about our church, and had fun on a beautiful day. And so now I'm fully committed to the idea of our church, to the idea of community, and most of all to the idea of free water to everyone."

Do you hear it? That's why we are making this shift, because people are not coming to us looking for answers. They are waiting for us to go to them with a bottle of water. It intrigues them enough to ask a question.

And so we invite you to participate in that, to share in that life of the church that moves from the Inside/Out, because this isn't about drawing crowds. This is about being the people of God. I would say that not only do we challenge and finally win this culture war, that when we seek to be God's people we also defeat it when we seek God's pleasure instead of our own gratification.

The American culture has for about 200 years equated salvation with my own personal freedom and my own spiritual self-gratification. We are in it for what we can get out of it. Don't hear that as harsh. Hear that just as a simple description of where American christianity has gone.

We led the world in a thing called the revival, and we practiced revivalism from D.L. Moody and Finney and others forward, and it was a means of going out into the world and saying, hey, you are lost, you need Jesus, and we painted a picture of coming to faith because faith would do something to change who we were. It would give us meaning in our life. It would move us into a new realm. It would shape us and change us and make us better. And it does.

Not a thing wrong with that, except that what that became was church was for me, and it has led at this point in the 21st Century to questions like this. Did you enjoy church today? What did you get out of church today? Did you like the music? Did you enjoy the sermon? Do you hear it? And we even focus our personal testimonies on our own life chain, and there is not a thing wrong with that except this. We often forget this isn't about us. It's about God.

And so there is a drastic movement across the United States and around the world to turn church into something less horizontal and something far more vertical, and people are returning to forms of literature that call attention to God, that remind us that this isn't just about us. It's primarily, if not exclusively, about Him. And we are going to aim ourselves, if we are going to defeat this utilitarian culture, to remind ourselves that we are here to seek God's pleasure.

The question we have to ask is not did you like the music, but did God? Did He enjoy what we offered Him? Did He receive what we gave Him? Was He the object of our attention? Was He the focus of our heart? I say that at great risk, because you and me we're pretty conditioned. We know what we like. And so one of the ways that we address our own cultural biases that we learn to worship instead of being entertained.

I was really frustrated this last week, just dumb decisions on my part. You know how sometimes you think you are saving the best for last? Heisseleibe. By the way, the literal translation of that is not what I would want to you hear. The literal translation of Heisseleibe is hot love. That wasn't what I was relaying. It is hot raspberries over ice cream. It is enough to make your mouth water. It is so good. And when I was at a restaurant, and I didn't get to very many because we eat most of our meals at the house, I had an opportunity to have Heisseleibe. But I had instead chocolate cake with chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce with a big mound of whipped cream. Have I made you hungry yet? But I was going to have Heisseleibe later.

And then they did something they have never done before. They took us to the Panorama restaurant. It overlooks Vienna. It was -- I won't tell you what the weather was like, except, just trust me, this was a delightful evening where you almost needed a sweater. I know you haven't seen those days here for awhile. And I'm sitting here with this group of Americans, and we are on this outdoor patio, and over in front of us is the rolling wine vineyards and beyond that is the City of Vienna, and it's about 8:00 o'clock at night, and they have got Heisseleibe. But I know that there is still three or four more days left. So I have torte. I mean, you got to have torte.

So it's the last day. I've got a few minutes in the afternoon. It's the only day I have any afternoon time at all. Two other professors and I take a break from our grading, because we deserve it, and we walk down to the skift and we sit down and I order Heisseleibe. And the guy says, we don't have Heisseleibe. You what? I have waited all of this time for Heisseleibe. I had this other thing that I shared, cream sauce, pastry, whipped cream. I never got Heisseleibe.

I felt that way going to church a time or two in my life. I went in looking for Heisseleibe. I went in looking for something that would stir my soul. I went in looking for something that would make me feel better. I went in knowing what I wanted, and I came out disappointed. So what are we doing here? We're here to worship. Why do we do what we do on Sunday mornings? It isn't so you'll feel better. I'm sorry. I hope you do feel better. That's not a bad by-product. We come here because we want to honor God. We want to worship.

I asked Lacey just to put some thoughts down, and here is just a couple of things she said. "We gather together each Sunday morning first and foremost to give worship to God. We don't do what we do simply because we like them. When we sing together, it gives a unified voice to our praise. When we read and listen to scripture, it helps us proclaim truth about God. It helps us learn about God. It helps us get God's word in our hearts and in our head. When we participate in the Lord's supper, we are reminded tangibly of Christ's death and his victory over death. We give an offering because of what he has given to us. Things like the images and the songs and the readings aren't chosen at random or picked from a list. They are carefully planned to help us worship in a way that's understandable and meaningful."

And she quotes one of her teachers. "Since worship is primarily a response, we have to give God something to or give people something to respond to, and the gospel is the most powerful, most important, most appropriate reason to respond. In Revelation worship is going on around the throne in response to God and his son. The basic issue is that if we have put anything or anybody else at the center, we've missed the point."

I understand that it's utilitarian, this worship thing. We ought to understand, right? We ought to use words that we can understand, songs that we can sing? Not necessarily. I sat -- last Sunday about, well, two or three hours before you had church, I sat in the basement of the learning center with about a hundred people from eight or nine different countries in the world. The only thing about that service, the only words about that service that I understood were the ones I spoke because I had the privilege of speaking.

We sang, but the service was led by our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. So everything was in Russian. And the special music was done by a group from Estonia, and I don't know, I guess that's Estonian. And some of the conversation was from our Romanians, and they speak something that's a little closer to Spanish than any of the other languages, but I don't know that either, so it didn't make any difference. The special music was in English. That I understood. Half of the sermon I understood, my half. The Russian half I assumed he was saying what I was saying. But even when we prayed, the prayers were in Cosovo, Ukrainian, Czech, Romanian, Russian, and I didn't understand a word, but I worshipped. I worshipped at a level I sometimes never get to in my services here, and I love worshipping here, because it wasn't about me. I was just in the company of a bunch of saints who are so deeply in love with God that they risked their lives to be christian.

We overcome our culture when we seek to be the people of God instead of merely drawing a crowd, when we seek the pleasure of God instead of merely our own self-gratification, when we seek to honor God and worship Him instead of being entertained, we seek to obey and honor him rather than be safe and self-satisfying. You've been in those situations in your life when the air went out of a room. You know, when something was said, and all of a sudden everybody just took a collective gasp, and you wondered if there would be enough air to breathe, when everything went absolutely silent for a moment.

It was dinner time, a hundred of us in two or three different rooms chattering away in eight or nine different languages when the little dinner bell rang, which is the sign to stop talking and start listening, and Mike stepped to the mike and he held up a piece of paper and he said, I just received this e-mail. I want to read it to you. And he proceeded to read us an e-mail from Azerbaijan where one of our students was taken out of his Sunday morning church service and arrested, and after trumping up false charges they have placed him in jail for the next two years because he is leading a church that's making a difference in his city.

For the next several days in the midst of prayers I cannot understand, this I understood, Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan. It showed up in every prayer. But the prayer wasn't for freedom. Oh, that would be nice, and that certainly was a part of their concern, that he would be set free. The prayer was not merely for his family. He has small children. The prayer was primarily that God would be honored and that somehow the witness of the church would move forward. And we are so tempted in our utilitarian, pragmatic spirit to want God to always be plain and understandable and life to always be simple, and we don't want anything to go wrong because somehow that doesn't fit the American culture.

If you're a christian, for crying out loud, things ought to turn out right. I mean, why else would you give your life to Jesus if it wasn't so your life would get better? All I do as I look around the room I think of a child who struggles with health from birth. I think of so many of you who have been healthy all your lives and struggle with something that you can't understand, who goes through an unwanted accident, who struggle with life as life comes. And the temptation is to want to try to explain God in some way that makes sense out of that, and you can't. That's not your job. Your job is to honor him and to obey him and to trust him, because it's not about us. It's not about what works. It's not about what makes us feel better. It's about what God deserves.

So if you are interested in coming someplace where you go home feeling better, there may be better places for you than here. But if you want to come someplace where we hope that your life will be challenged to follow Jesus no matter what it costs you, we'll try to make this place that place and support you in every step of it. You want to talk about stuff that isn't utilitarian? Here it is. Coming to earth, coming because you love from the depths of your heart and hoping that everybody will receive it well. Didn't work. He came, not because it was utilitarian, not because it was useful. The language of scripture is so abundantly clear. It's one little three letter word. We translate it in English "must". He said it multiple times, "I must die".

You want to get yourself aligned correctly against the culture and effectively with God, then you've got to make him king of your life. You've got to let him be the center. You've got to get the focus off of yourself and on him. So let's sing together and see if we can't focus our attention first and foremost at the throne of God, and then let's come to the table after that and be reminded of why he died.

[Transcribed by GN12]