Sunday, September 15, 2013

17th Sunday after Pentecost: Funcational Atheism

          Psalm 14 (Coverdale)

“The fool has said in his heart: there is no God.” - Psalm 14.1

The Psalm that has been read this morning contains a devastating account of human nature. The Psalm relates what I would call a realistic anthropology, that is, it gives an honest and sober evaluation of our the human condition. The Psalm reads, “Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.” The traditional translation of this Psalm reads even more strongly, “But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable; there is none that doeth good, no not one.” The realistic anthropology of this Psalm contradicts the prevailing conception in our society which holds to an optimistic anthropology. Such a view says that everyone is basically good. As the church has become more worldly, it has espoused this high view of man, hence the increasing silence and embarrassment in the churches when it comes to the language of sin and redemption. But the Bible is unequivocal on this point: man apart from God inevitably sins and breaks God's righteous commandments.

I know that already there will be some, perhaps many, who will be objecting to this point. But I ask you to consider for a moment the record of human history. Is it a record of people being basically nice and good? Or is human history a record of power-grabbing, oppression, and the pursuit of solitary happiness? Solitary happiness says that my happiness can come at the expense of others' misery; that is the ethic of hell. Let me tell you, it never works to build your happiness on someone else's unhappiness. If you are doing something to make yourself happy that would hurt those closest to you, then it is probably sinful. Like it or not we live in the same world as the crusades, slavery and Communist Russia, and we possess the same human nature as Nero, Napoleon, and Stalin. Think for a moment of your own life as well. Is it free of moral complication? When was the last time you broke one of the Ten Commandments? Have you ever known something was wrong and yet still did it? This is one of the Bible's definitions for sin. In the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul quotes our Psalm to make the point that both Jews and Gentiles have sinned. Even though Jews have the Law, they are morally no superior to Gentiles. St. Paul concludes his argument with these famous words, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3.23).

I like to think of the Bible as one continuous narrative. The central problem in the plot of the Bible is sin and death, and so the Bible relates how God saves humanity from sin and death and evil. The darkness of human sin and brokenness is contrasted in the Bible with God's patience, mercy and love. God's existence is not hidden, but rather God reveals it in the world itself. Psalm 24 reads “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament his handiwork. There is neither speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” We live in a world which shows us that God exists. This is precisely why the Bible indicates that it is the fool who says there is no God. Look at the world around us, the order of this good creation. The axis of the earth is tilted just enough to give us four seasons. Plants and animals supply one another's needs in a delicate order and balance. Consider the ordinary beauty of a wildflower. In it is contained a hint of the good and kind and beautiful Creator himself. Man too has been given an eternal soul and has been made in the image of God. Think of the human capacity for love, joy and creativity. That such human beings as Plato, Mozart and Shakespeare could exist by a mere accident stretches the limit of credulity. I was told recently that even the great advocate of atheism Richard Dawkins conceded in a debate that his belief system could not account for beauty.

It would be easy at this moment to give ourselves a pat on the back and say, at least I'm not an atheist. I go to church and say the creed, I believe in one God. I think this lets us off the hook too easily. Notice the wording of the Psalm, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” It is not simply referring to those who in the outward profession are atheists. It also includes those who are functionally atheist, that is, those who might say they believe in God but do not live as if he existed. I think most of us including myself fall all too easily into this functional atheism. We come to church on Sunday, say our prayers, but the rest of the week we direct the show. Or perhaps we are given to think of God as the cosmic clockmaker who set this world in motion, but now is basically hand-offs. He doesn't intervene in human history and has no real interest in public or private life. Anytime we reject God's providence in this way, we slip into this type of atheism.

Despite the stark realism of this Psalm, it also gives us hope for God's redemption. Jesus Christ is at the center of the Bible's narrative. The Old Testament looks forward to this Christ; the New Testament proclaims him explicitly. In our Psalm today, there is a kind of foreshadowing of that grim Friday in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago. On that day, people acted as if there were no God. The Jews gave false witness against Jesus and sought the death penalty for a man who was innocent of any crime. The Romans acquiesced to mob rule and condemned this man to one of the most heinous methods of execution ever devised. Neither group had the fear of God before them. The commoners too derided our Lord Jesus not because of any wrongdoing but because of the lofty claims he had made for himself. Careless laughter then and now is destructive both to those to whom it is directed and even more so to those who laugh. Even the disciples capitulated to fear and abandoned the courage to stand in defense of truth and principle. On that day—in the words of the Psalm—the Lord looked down from heaven to see if there was any who sought after God, but everyone has proved faithless. Now if this were a comic book or a novel, such poetic injustice would have to righted: Jesus would have to reveal his divine glory, his superhuman powers and mete out quick justice. But, of course, this is just the opposite of what the Evangelists say unfolded that day. Our Lord gives himself over in sacrifice for the sins of those who are crucifying him. “Evildoers eat him as if he were bread,” but he prays, “Father, forgive them.” He dies for the broken. He dies for the sinful. He even dies for the atheistic, the fool who says in his heart there is no God. My brothers and sisters, “Deliverance has come out of Zion;” “The Lord has restored our fortunes” by drawing us to himself in our Lord Jesus through his sacrifice. Let us rejoice, let us be glad that we have such a Saviour and Deliverer

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

St. Luke 14.25-33

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

If I had to summarize Christianity in a few words, I think the words “new life” would suffice. What does the Christian Gospel promise to sinners? New life. What does it promise to the weak and elderly? New life. What does it promise to the young and perplexed as well as the full-grown and disillusioned? Again, new life. All the major feasts of the Church Year has this in common: they commend new life. Take, for example, Christmas. It is set to correspond to the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. Human society living in its own light rather than God's light inevitably turns to darkness. The eternal Word becomes flesh in the grim midst of human sin and brokenness. At the moment of greatest darkness, the Light appears. Something similar could be said about Easter. On Good Friday we show God the worst we can be. In the crucifixion there is a monumental subversion of justice; there is a rejection of love freely given. All the ugliness of human sin is on display, and on that day we fully what the evangelist John meant when he said that he, the Word, came unto his own and his own received him not. There is a sadness and melancholy in these words that have their heart at the cross. We show God our worst, but he shows us his greater love, grace and mercy. On Easter Day, God overcomes sin and death by raising our Lord Jesus from the dead, which becomes for us the promise of new, resurrected life.

In the Gospel today we have one of what is known as the difficult sayings of Jesus. Customarily preachers are expected to explain these sayings, but the usual result of such attempts is to accommodate Jesus to the comfortable image we have of him. But that is precisely what our Lord is not doing in the reading this morning. He doesn't wait until he is with a handful of his unwavering followers to say that they cannot be his disciples unless they hate father, mother, wife and children. On the contrary he makes this devastating statement when he sees that “great multitudes” are with him. This is just the opposite of the way a cult works. In a cult, the strangest doctrines are reserved for those who are so far in they cannot imagine life on the outside. To outsiders, a cult tries to appear as normal and pedestrian as possible. Our Lord's teaching is the farthest thing from being secret in this sense. But why be so abrasive and why say that a man must hate his family? To the first I would refer to the words of the great 20th century novelist Franz Kafka who wrote that a good book is to be like an ice ax to break up the sea frozen inside of us. The truth is that most of us are sleep-walkers or the walking dead. We go though life thoughtlessly, without attention to the things of eternity, not knowing what we are doing or why we are doing it. Something or someone has to awaken us out of this slumber. Our Lord addresses these words to those who would follow him merely out of a following of the popular religious sentiment or out of an unwholesome religious enthusiasm.

What our Lord is describing is new life and discipleship. This new life is so radically different that it must involve a death, the death namely of you and me. In fact, if the New Testament is correct, this new life means a total reordering and altering of our current lives. New life is a turning of our world and the world upside down.

There are two prevailing religious attitudes or rather two attitudes to religion that cannot receive this message of new life. The first says that religion and church is one part of a well-ordered life. A university student was once asked what goals he had for his life. He thought for a moment and then said, 'well, I'd like to get married and have children, and oh yeah, someday go to heaven.” This attitude says that faith is one piece of the pie that is life, with say career, family, hobbies being other pieces. The message of new life says that faith is not a piece of the pie, but rather that it transforms the entire pie. True faith, new life will touch and transform every aspect of life.

The second attitude toward religion comes closer to the spirit of true faith, but it too cannot hear or won't receive the message of new life. This attitude says that I need real help but that help is best administered by me. This attitude represents those who treat faith as a form of self-help. People with this attitude come to church in order to cope with the stresses of life. For a person with this attitude the best church is the one that is most therapeutic, the one that makes me feel good. What we actually need, of course, is the truth even when it will be unsettling and difficult. Further, any attitude that treats religion as self-help misses the point that a makeover of the old you will not suffice. What we need is total transformation and new life. Not a makeover.

Imagine for a moment if someone in recovery tried to adopt one of these attitudes on the road to sobriety. Think of one who said, AA is a part of my life along with work and family. But true recovery will involve the transformation of every part of life from work to family. Think of someone else who said I have this drinking problem and I want to stop drinking but I don't really want to change any other aspect of my life. I want help but not transformation. Anybody in recovery knows that neither road, neither attitude, leads to sobriety.

Our Lord Jesus called the multitude to new life, and he is calling us today to new life. He is not calling you to religion or self-help but to resurrection, to complete transformation by his grace. The gate to this new life is through surrender and death, the cross. Our Lord says, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has, he cannot be my disciple. When our Lord speaks of renouncing all that we have I do not think he is referring solely to material possessions. He is also, I believe, speaking to our relationships. In our fallen condition we view the world through the lens of our ego. My spouse exists to comfort me, my children exist to carry on my image, my parents are present to be my heritage. You are the protagonist in your own self-written and self-directed drama. To the world this attitude is normal, but in the new life the ego must die. New life means you love God more than even your family. It also means you love your children for who they are rather than for how much they resemble you. You love your spouse not for what comforts he or she can bring but because you have pledged your troth, your solemn vow to this person. You love your parents not for what they can give you but because you're finally able to see them as they truly are: broken and sinful people whom God loves just as much as you. The world and even our families may not know how to account for such transformation. Without the ego as the center of gravity such love appears foreign and strange. Part of what is difficult about this love is that it is a love first-most rooted and directed to God. I believe this is what our Lord means when he speaks of hating mother and father, spouse and children—and when he speaks of taking up our cross. It is to this death but also this new life that we are called this day and forevermore.