"Making Sense of the World"
Scripture - Exodus 3:1-14
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Recently, a friend's mother died and the funeral was to be on a Saturday when the meteorologists were repeating this winter's mantra: more snow. Her mother was to be buried in a large, open cemetery and the thought of her family gathering for a graveside committal in a snow storm understandably had my friend on edge. She emailed, "Please pray that it does not snow," thinking I might have an inside track.
I was sympathetic to her distress. Her mother was gone and she could not bring her back. The thought of having to fight frigid weather and snow felt like piling on. However, her request troubled me because I knew she was not simply asking me to sympathize with her, to think good thoughts for her and to be supportive. I'm afraid she truly believed that if I and enough other people told God to hold off on the snow that Saturday morning, her wish might be granted.
To be fair, even if it had been a blizzard that day, my friend would not have lost her faith. Although she might have been angry with God for not cutting her a break and it might have taken awhile to mend the relationship, I doubt she would have slammed the door and walk away. What troubled me about her email was that it points to something widespread - underdeveloped religious faith. Such faith worries me, not because I want everyone to believe exactly as I do, but because many people have walked away from the church when their simple notions about God did not pan out.
In the media, a great deal of religious talk is glib. Religious best-sellers hold simplistic notions about a father - like the father of our early childhood, all knowing and all powerful - sitting on a throne up in heaven, just waiting to respond to our command to tidy up the weather or provide a parking place or make us prosperous.
This God of childhood imaginings is also thought to be eager to toss anyone into eternal torment who does not believe the right ideas about him - and it is always HIM - no matter how irrational the thought may be in a postmodern world. Some quote a verse from the Bible to justify their prejudice, some cherry pick a passage to sanctify their complacency and terrorists claim divine sanction for their monstrous crimes. Scholar Karen Armstrong says, "Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably underdeveloped."1 We can do better. We can go deeper.
Since the rise of consciousness, human beings have pondered weighty questions. How did the world come to be? Is there anything beyond what we can see and hear and touch? Is life a colossal accident or is there a Creator? If there is a Creator, does life have a purpose? More to the point, does MY life have a purpose?
Cave drawings, blood and water rituals, music and dance have all testified to a deep longing in the human soul - an intuition - that there is something more. People in every generation have gazed at the stars in the nighttime sky and felt stirrings in their soul. People in every culture have believed that the visible, physical universe is not all there is. There is much more.
In the past few years, two authors wrote best-sellers on the premise that such thinking is tragically misguided. Religion, they say, is all just a giant hoax and silly superstition. Is there a God? Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens both announced that the answer is "No." Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist claims that God is a delusion and religion is dangerous. To prove his point, he holds up well-known examples of religion gone awry: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Taliban. Hitchens does the same thing. Set up a straw man; knock him down. Have some people used religion for heinous purposes? Of course. Human beings can take what is good and beautiful and life-giving, and use it for evil. It is the dark side of human freedom.
The current popular atheists overlook the fact that it was also people of faith who built hospitals and schools; who for centuries have fed and housed the poor; supported people when their lives were a wreck, took care of the dying and gave people hope when all seemed lost.
Some think if one is an atheist or agnostic, it will make her appear more intelligent; not some fool falling for God. Science relies on our senses, primarily vision, to prove what exists. Huston Smith points out that "the entire scientific world is an enlargement by microscopes and telescopes of what we can see. But for all its importance, vision can't take in everything. No one has ever seen a thought. No one has ever seen a feeling. Yet our thoughts and feelings are where we primarily live our lives."2
The writers who seek to stamp out religious thinking and the secular spirit of our age gain a toe hold, because we live in an era when traditional answers about God are proving inadequate for an increasing number of people. You probably know someone who was once active in the church, but drifted away because God did not live up to his/her childhood expectation of keeping life trouble free.
Many have experienced a crisis of faith because what the church taught them at an earlier age, eventually became impossible for them to believe. Some were told by the church that the theory of evolution was not true because it contradicted a simple and unimaginative reading of Genesis. They felt forced to choose between intellectual integrity and faith. Others became troubled by a teaching that is still widespread - yet, crumbling rapidly - that only Christians will be saved.
But the alternative to religious answers that no longer work is not to jettison faith and live out our days in a meaningless world. The alternative is to explore questions of faith, to go deeper, to seek better answers, to commit to following Jesus and see what difference it makes.
Today's Scripture from Exodus is an ancient passage that reminds us of a deep truth about God. Moses has escaped from Egypt where many Hebrews are being held as slaves. He tries to settle down in a quiet life far away from the troubles of Egypt. One day while he is tending the flock of his father-in-law, God speaks to him and gives him a mission: liberate the people from the Egyptians.
Moses does not exactly answer the call as we expect a hero of faith to respond. He actually sounds a bit whiny. He says, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" In other words, "Why me? Couldn't you find someone else?"
God tries to reassure Moses: "I will be with you."
Moses responds, "IF, I go; now, I'm not saying I will go, but IF I happen to go, who shall I say sent me?"
And God responds with words that cannot be translated precisely. The Hebrew can mean, "I am Who I am," or "I will be Who I will be" or "I create what I create."
The point is that we can never nail down precisely who God is. God is always more - more than we can name, more than we can describe, more than we can fathom. That is why the life of faith is described as a journey. Faith is not a list of doctrines to memorize. Faith is an adventure that takes us new places, reveals new meanings, discovers new friendships and finds a new purpose.
"In 1999, two mathematical physicists engaged in a high-profile public debate at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Both were highly respected scientists. The subject was science and religion. On one side was Steven Weinberg, an atheist who once famously said, €˜the more the world seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.'"3
On the other side was John Polkinghorne, who was our first Westminster Distinguished Speaker. Some of you may remember that Dr. Polkinghorne was involved in the discovery of the quark, the smallest particle in the universe, smaller even than the electrons, protons and neutrons inside atoms. After 25 years as a physicist at Cambridge working with Stephen Hawking, Dr. Polkinghorne went to seminary and became an Anglican priest. After serving five years in a church, he devoted his life to showing how science supports belief in a Creator and that the universe has a purpose.
"A famous intersection in their debate that night unfolded when Weinberg said: €˜We (scientists) don't believe in quarks because we can see them. We believe in quarks because all the theories that have quarks in them work.' Weinberg was acknowledging the fact that quarks, which most all scientists €˜believe in,' cannot actually be observed. You cannot see them, and strictly speaking, you cannot prove they exist. However, if you believe in these unseen quarks, all sorts of things make sense."
"This was exactly parallel to Polkinghorne's point about religious faith. People of faith believe in God not because they can see God for themselves or can definitively prove that God exists...rather we believe because, when you believe, all sorts of things begin to make sense."4
Albert Einstein once said that the probability of human life originating from accident is comparable to the probability of the unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a print shop.
In 2012 a passionate attorney named Bryan Stevenson gave a talk at a TED conference. "He spoke to a large audience about injustice and racism. He told them about his work within the prison and court systems and his desire to see all people treated fairly. He told moving stories about young men he is currently defending in court, arguing compellingly for a more just society. He closed by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. about how the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. The moment he concluded, the audience shot out of their chairs and gave him a standing ovation."
"It is helpful to know that two days earlier this audience had been asked how many of them were religious and less than five percent of them raised their hands. Yet, when a man spoke of the moral arc of the universe, they immediately and enthusiastically affirmed his claim."5
I suspect many of them did not realize they were giving a standing ovation to their intuitive belief that the world is not simply an accident. History has a direction. God has a plan for the world. God has a purpose for your life.
Prayers of the People ~ Rev. Dr. Randall T. Clayton
God of our Fathers and Mothers, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, you call us to turn around and see the wonders of your love, the works of your hands, and to behold your presence in this world. Sometimes, like Moses, we are timid when you call us to confront the powers of this world that hurt; sometimes we are frightened when you call us to stand for your love against all that is opposed to it. Sometimes it's as if our feet are stuck in mud when we begin to hear you call. O God, un-stick us. Give us the will to move our feet, to use our hands, to speak your words, to share your love wherever and however you desire. Increase our faith that we might follow you more faithfully even when the destination is not always clear.
We are moved to seek to solve the mysteries of life, to discover reasons why, and to explain that which may not always have explanations. Help us to trust you even when we can't define you, or see you, or prove you. Let us be comfortable and even find joy in holy mysteries.
Thankful for cures for all sorts of afflictions, we pray for those for whom there is no cure. We lift up to you those whose lives on earth are nearing an end and those for whom physical or emotional pain in unrelenting, Give them the assurance of your presence and love especially at this time in their lives. We pray for those who grieve loss - loss of a special person, loss of a job, loss of a house, loss of a dream. Give them hope, O God, and the comfort of your care. We pray, O God, for the people of the Ukraine, for the people of Syria, the people of Venezuela and Guatemala, the people of the Congo, Ethiopia, North Korea and the Philippines. We pray for peoples everywhere who live in fear, who live in hunger, who live in devastation. Let the fire of your love burn brightly.
As we journey into the future, guide this church and her leaders. You have given us a solid foundation, a noble heritage, and blessed us with resources. Help us to make wise choices with what you have provided, to envision the future you desire; and if you call us to go to places we have not dreamed, help us to say "yes" even though it may be frightening or uncomfortable.
As we lift up our prayers this day, we remember the prayer which Jesus taught saying:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
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