Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Challenge of Gratitude - November 28, 2010

November 28, 2010

Luke 17:11-19

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Gratitude

I’m glad we schedule a national holiday based around the idea of giving thanks, but it’s odd what we do the next day. On Thanksgiving Day we gather with family and friends and give thanks and the next day we go out and trample each other in the malls and stores and fight over bargains. I read of one person who was arrested on Friday because they threatened to shoot anyone who got ahead of them in line. Their only concern after being arrested was being too late to get to the stores to find the bargains!

This morning we complete our series Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, with the message The Challenge of Gratitude. It is a challenge, I think, to retain a spirit of gratitude.

Our Scripture text for this morning is the story of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus. Luke tells us this event takes place as Jesus was journeying to Jerusalem, where he would soon be crucified. As Jesus is traveling the ten lepers begin crying out to him, asking him to have pity on them.

The lepers are representative of the huge amount of need that is in our world. It’s not necessary to look very hard to find need. Really, all you have to do is walk out your front door. Much of the world’s need is like these ten lepers – it shouts at us as we go about our daily routine. But we must also remember there’s need that is very quiet. There are some people who have needs who never speak about it to anyone. There are some people who suffer in silence, perhaps because they believe there is nowhere to turn for help. We must develop a sensitivity to this kind of need, because it is all around us; perhaps it is right next to us this morning; perhaps it is in our own homes.

Luke says these ten men cry out to Jesus and ask him to have pity upon them. Jesus heals the lepers, and it’s interesting to note these men didn’t actually ask to be healed. That may be the implication by asking for pity, but perhaps they were only asking for a little bit of money or food. Jesus, though, goes beyond what is asked, and he heals them.

I think this is certainly emblematic of what God does for us; God gives us far more than what we ask. In an age where so many of the images presented of God are harsh and judgmental, this is a message people need to hear. Jonathan Edwards, in the 19th century, had a famous sermon entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which he described God as holding humanity by a thin thread over the fires of hell. In a Clint Eastwood way he was saying give me a reason to let go and make my day.

God is not anxiously waiting for an opportunity or reason to punish us; God is working always to bring blessing to our lives. I don’t mean that in the way that the prosperity preachers intend; but God is working to bring blessings to our lives. James reminds us of this when he writes every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17). And when we look at our lives we can certainly find great blessings.

As the story continues we find an element of sadness, because only one of the ten lepers comes back to thank Jesus. In verses 15 and 16 Luke says that One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.

Being blessed doesn’t automatically translate into gratitude. If we get a 10% return on an investment these days we would be ecstatic, but only a 10% return of gratitude from healing is an extremely poor return. Where were these other nine men? What were they thinking? Why didn’t they come to Jesus to express gratitude?

What makes their lack of gratitude especially shocking is these lepers knew what they had lost. Their lives were gone. They were outcasts from their own families. They couldn’t associate with anyone because of the fear of spreading the dreaded disease of leprosy. Imagine what it would be like to be so cut off from others. And then imagine your life literally being given back to you. What would you do in such a case? Wouldn’t you shout for joy, wouldn’t you hug and kiss the person who gave you your life back? Wouldn’t you say what can I do for you? Wouldn’t you be forever grateful? Wouldn’t you at least say thank you? Two little words is such a small matter for having your life given back to you.

At this point, the early readers of Luke’s gospel would no doubt be incensed by the ingratitude of these nine men. How dare they be so ungrateful? What is wrong with these guys?

And then Luke adds a very interesting comment. Not only was there just one leper who returned to thank Jesus, but the one who returned, Luke says, was a Samaritan. This parable shares a similarity with the parable of the Good Samaritan – the shining example in both stories is a Samaritan. The implication for those listening would be very obvious – the ones who should have been quickest to return thanks said nothing, while the one no one expected was the only one to express gratitude.

The Samaritans, remember, were a despised people. To have a Samaritan elevated to the level of being the proper example would really sting those who were listening to this story. It would sting because the point was this – are you, the listener, like these other nine? Has God blessed your life, has God given you your life back in some way, and have you gone on your way without a sense of gratitude?

When these men were lepers they were not Jews and Samaritans; they were ten men in need. Suffering and need makes us brothers and sisters in a way that prosperity does not. But when wholeness returned to their lives that sense of unity was broken. Maybe one of the lessons we will learn from the struggle of recent years is our connection to and dependency upon others.

Of all God’s creatures, humans are the most vulnerable for the longest period time. Many animals are born and are able to walk almost immediately; many are able to care for themselves after just a short period of time. Humans, though, remain vulnerable for a long time. Perhaps this is to remind us of our dependency upon one another. But we can easily forget that we are dependent on one another and we can easily forget that we are connected to one another. The breakdown of our society is truly tragic, and the lines and the boundaries that are drawn and set in such drastic ways must surely sadden the heart of God.

These ten lepers were separated from society because of their disease. There was a literal separation from family, friends, and society. Many people have separation, but it is not physical. It is the separation of a fractured relationship, it is a separation brought on by a prejudice toward or a judgment about other people; it is a spiritual separation from the connectiveness between people and with God.

In my years in ministry I have spent a lot of time in hospitals, nursing homes, and funeral homes. In those facilities I have witnessed a great deal of pain and sadness. Many, many times I have left those facilities and said a prayer of thanks for my health and the blessings of my life, and I also gave myself a mental reminder to never forget my good fortune in life. Invariably, I am not far down the road before I begin to think about problems or worries and it is amazing how that sense of gratitude quickly disappears. Gratitude can be a great challenge.

There is so much for which we can be thankful. Twenty years ago, on Thanksgiving day, my family and I were sitting in a hospital in Wheeling, West Virginia, where my father was dying. We went to our family home that evening, with gloomy thoughts of Thanksgiving. After arriving there a couple by the name of Bill and Essie Taylor, who were our next door neighbors when I was young and who are members of my home church came down the driveway and unloaded a complete Thanksgiving meal for us that they had prepared. It was a great gift to us, and I will never forget what they did for us that day.

Gratitude can be a challenge. It can be a challenge because we get so caught up in life that we can forget about what God has given to us. May we be ever grateful for what he has done for us.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Joseph - A Story of Redemption

November 21, 2010

Genesis 45:1-11a

Joseph: A Story of Redemption

I am the second of five children, and I have an older and younger brother. My older brother, Ed, and I always related very well. We went to the same college, where we both majored in religion, and for a semester attended the same seminary. My younger brother, Matt, and I had a different relationship. Matt and I probably spent more time together but we had a much more contentious relationship. For some reason, probably because he’s hardheaded and didn’t respect his older brother, we argued and fought quite often. These weren’t fights that were over major matters; these were fights over dumb stuff, the kind of matters that weren’t worthy of even a small argument. In one of my lowest moments, I actually broke his arm in a fight. But even in our most strained of moments I couldn’t have imagined what took place between the brothers in the text for today’s message, which is from the story of Joseph.

Everyone is familiar, I think, with the basics of the Joseph story. The story of Joseph has even made it to Broadway with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph is the fourth and final of the Old Testament patriarchs and his story fills fourteen chapters in Genesis – the longest story in the book of Genesis.

The story of Joseph is a fascinating story. It is also as tragic as it is fascinating, with the selling of Joseph into slavery; his brothers telling his father that he has been killed; the false accusation against Joseph by the wife of Potiphar that led to his imprisonment; the interpretation of dreams that led to his release and eventual elevation to Pharaoh’s second in command; the famine that led Joseph’s brothers to Egypt; Joseph’s toying with his brothers before finally revealing himself to them; the reuniting of Joseph and his father; and finally, his death, which closes the book of Genesis. With all the twists and turns, the intrigue, the adventure, the rise and fall and rise and a surprise twist at the end with another change in blessing by Jacob, it’s no wonder the story has long fascinated people.

Of the many qualities in the story, I want to focus on just one this morning – redemption. The story of Joseph is really a story of redemption; redemption between a family torn apart by conflict and hatred.

The Joseph story begins with him announcing to his brothers his dream in which they bow down to serve him. Genesis has already informed us of how the brothers hated Joseph because he was their father’s favorite (37:4) and the telling of this dream causes them to hate him even more (37:5). This is not the best way to endear yourself to your already estranged brothers. And even though Joseph is the favorite of his father, his father rebukes him for sharing this dream with the family (37:10).

The next stage of the story is Joseph coming to his brothers in the fields, where they were far away from their father and tending the flocks, and it is then that his brothers see their opportunity. Their first instinct is to kill him and tell their father he was attacked and killed by a wild beast. Reuben comes up with the idea not to kill him but to throw him into a pit – probably an old well.

Notice what the brothers do next. After casting him into the well they sit down to eat a meal (37:25). How cold-hearted is this? They throw their brother into a hole in the ground and then casually have a meal. I wonder if they were eating near the hole where Joseph had been cast. Could they hear his shouts and pleas for rescue while they casually ate their meal? Did they laugh at his predicament?

Abandoning him to this hole in the ground is bad enough, but his brother Judah has an idea that makes matters worse. A caravan was passing nearby and Judah decides they should at least profit from Joseph, so they sell him for twenty shekels of silver to this caravan making their way to Egypt. Twenty shekels of silver is equivalent in weight to about twenty 50 cent pieces; it wasn’t a lot of money.

Have you ever wondered what life was like for the brothers of Joseph after they sold him into slavery? Have you ever wondered how that money was spent? I wonder what went through the minds of those brothers when they spent the money. I wonder if they enjoyed the things purchased with the money. It was blood money, and every single day over the years they must have wondered what happened to their brother Joseph. Was he still alive?

Reuben, the oldest, was evidently gone when the others sold Joseph, and is beside himself upon his return to the pit and finding Joseph gone. He leads his brothers in crafting the lie that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. So they live for years with the knowledge they had sold their own flesh and blood into slavery and then lied to their father and allowed him to live with the belief that Joseph was dead. Reuben must live with the truth that if he had not been absent for a time perhaps he could have spared Joseph from being sold. And Judah; Judah must face the reality that it was his idea to sell Joseph. He was the one who would condemn Joseph to a life of slavery.

What kind of people would commit such an act? Not enemies – a family. Do you think your family has problems? This is a family that should make you feel better. Through a combination of adventures Joseph rises to the position of the second most powerful person in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself.

And then one day his brothers show up in Egypt looking to buy grain. The drought that Joseph had predicted when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream had devastated the food supply and so the brothers came to Egypt to buy food. When they arrive they are recognized by Joseph, but they do not recognize him. He accuses them of being spies and keeps Simeon and commands them to go home and to bring back their brother Benjamin. Right away the brothers recognize they are facing justice for what they did to Joseph (42:22). Reuben even turns on his brothers to say Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood. Obviously, what they had done to Joseph was still very much on their minds and consciences.

The brothers return home and tell their father what happened and there they also discover their money in the bags of grain, and they become greatly distressed. And then Reuben makes his father a promise that he will protect his now favorite and youngest son, Benjamin. Reuben tells his father that he can put to death his own two sons if he does not bring Benjamin safely home (42:37), but Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go. Some time passes, and all the while Simeon remains imprisoned in Egypt, and the food eventually runs out. The brothers recognize they must return to Egypt and must take Benjamin with them. This time, Judah, the one who had the idea to sell Joseph into slavery, offers himself as surety for Benjamin’s safe return.

This time, Joseph not only places his brothers’ money in their bags of grain but has his cup added to the bag of Benjamin. After the brothers leave Joseph sends his men after them and finds the cup in Benjamin’s bag and he is accused as a thief. Then Judah steps forward and offers to be kept as a slave in the place of Benjamin. Isn’t this an amazing piece of irony? Judah, the one who urged his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery now must offer himself as a slave to his brother Joseph. I tell you – don’t ever let anyone tell you the Bible is boring!

And then in chapter 45 the whole charade is over. Joseph can no longer hide his identity from his brothers and there is this tremendous reunion between the brothers. It’s really a beautiful scene, this reunion of estranged brothers being brought together. And Joseph does a beautiful thing. The pride and arrogance of his younger years, which so angered his brothers is now gone. In its place is a spirit of forgiveness and redemption that reunites this family that for years has been broken asunder.

Joseph not only forgives them, but finds God’s hand in all of these events. He tells his brothers not to be grieved or angry with themselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…Now therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt (45:5, 8).

Isn’t that an amazing spirit to have, after all that Joseph had experienced? And think about his brothers – all the years of guilt and wondering what had become of Joseph, and now they are reunited and he extends a hand of forgiveness. Amazing, isn’t it?

Families really are strange creatures, aren’t they? I have known families estranged from one another for years over the smallest of matters. What a tragedy. Life is too short, and families too precious, to live in estrangement and brokenness.

I sometimes joke with people that I have learned a twofold lesson by living away from my family for so many years. The disadvantage of being away from your family is, you are away from your family; the advantage of being away from your family is, you are away from your family. But I will also share with you a knowledge I have that not everyone here has, because most everyone hear has some family nearby, and my family does not. When your family is near, it is a great a precious gift, and don’t ever take that for granted. Grandparents, when your grandchildren are down the road or across the street don’t ever forget what a blessing to have them close. I know you don’t forget, but that’s just a reminder. And when your parents are close, your grandparents are close, your siblings are close – give thanks to God because it is a great gift. If you haven’t thanked God lately, do it right now.

Perhaps you have estrangement somewhere in your family. God healed the family of Joseph, and he can heal any brokenness in your family as well. If there is brokenness and estrangement in your family, don’t allow it to remain another day. Joseph had every right to be angry with his brothers and could have made their lives very difficult, but he didn’t. He laid down any anger and offered them the gift of forgiveness and redemption.

Perhaps the estrangement is in your spiritual family. Perhaps there is a relationship that needs to be healed. Don’t wait another day. Seek out healing and restoration and redemption today. Let go of your hurt, let go of division, and let God bring redemption today.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Challenge of Hope - November 14, 2010

November 14, 2010

Romans 8:18-25

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Hope

What are the essentials of life? What is absolutely necessary for people to live? Food, water, shelter, clothing – there are some very tangible items needed to sustain life, but there are some intangibles as well. One of those is hope.

This morning we come to the next to the last message in this series – The Challenge of Hope. Having hope is not easy these days. Political campaigns promise hope but fewer and fewer people seem to have hope. In 1999, 85% of Americans said they were hopeful about their own future and 68% said they were hopeful for the future of the world. A year ago only 69% were hopeful for their own future and only 51% were hopeful about the future of the world (from a CNN opinion poll). It’s probably dropped even more since then.

There is a trinity of values in the Christian faith – as Paul describes them in I Corinthians 13, they are faith, hope, and love, none of which we can live without.

Hope, we must note, is much more than wishful thinking. We might say I hope the Steelers win the Super Bowl this year. I hope UK wins the NCAA this year. I hope UofL doesn’t win anything this year.

Hope is an affirmation of belief in God’s promise of the future.

It is the belief in that promise that compels people to continue to move forward. The Hebrew people had the hope of the Promised Land. For centuries they endured slavery in Egypt, but they had hope in the promise of the future that one day they would not only have freedom but a home as well. That hope is what enabled them to endure through the many years of struggle and despair.

Job, a towering figure when it comes to hope, clung to the hope that God was with him and had not turned against him. I read several passages daily and one of them is Job 13:15, which says though he slay me, yet will I hope in him. Nothing could cause Job to lose hope, not even his friends who came to him and encouraged him to give up. They saw no reason for hope, but Job did.

The early church had hope for a future free of persecution. As the mighty Roman Empire put many to death in horrific ways – as fodder for the animals and the gladiators in the Coliseum, as human torches lighting Nero’s gardens at night, and in countless other types of persecution – instead of losing hope their hope grew and with it grew the church.

When Paul writes of hope he is writing from very deep experience. It’s not an academic treatise; it’s real life. Paul suffered in so many ways – he was arrested and beaten (II Corinthians 11:13-29), people sought to kill him, and he was eventually executed – this was a guy who really understood hope. In the midst of his greatest trial – awaiting execution – he writes the letter to the Philippians and they are beautiful words; they are words of hope.

Hope is what allows one to look at the terrible circumstances of the world and say things can be better.

Hope is what allows us to face our struggles, to look them straight in the eye, and say I can do this; this is possible; the Spirit of God will provide the strength to endure and His promise of a better future is true.

Victor Fankel learned that hope. He was a prisoner in a concentration camp, and at the entrance a sign bore the words abandon all hope ye who enter here, which is Dante’s inscription on the entrance of Hell. He lost everything. Every possession was taken from him, and he suffered from cold, hunger, brutality, and the constant fear of death. While in the camp he lost his father, mother, brother, and his wife.

He later wrote of one of his darkest moments. He was digging in a cold, icy trench, and at that moment felt the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.

At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, and upon seeing that light, hope was kindled in him, and his words at that moment were et lux in tenebris lucentand the light shineth in the darkness. John 1:5 says the light shines in the darkness. We read that verse last week in our Scripture reading.

Hope is the light that shines in the darkness of life. It is a light that illumines this life.

Christians have been accused over the years of concentrating so much on eternal life that the problems of this life are overlooked. But genuine hope never forgets this world. In fact, C. S. Lewis says that it is when Christians have most thought of the next world that they have worked to improve this world.

(Mere Christianity, p. 118)

Proper hope, then, becomes something that moves us to make a difference in this world and in this life.

Hope changes things in this life. Proper hope does not ask people to simply endure this life while they are awaiting the next. A hope that sees something beyond this life sees how things should be, and when we see how things should be we work to make them that way. That’s why most of the great social movements in history have come out of the church; because the church saw how things could be and should be, and they worked to make it so.

Hope, then, makes all the difference. One of my favorite stories of hope is the story behind the great hymn It Is Well With My Soul. The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford, who was a lawyer in Chicago in the mid 1860s. He had a very successful career, but in 1870 a series of tragedies befell the family, beginning with the death of their four-year-old son from Scarlet Fever. A year later almost all of the Spafford’s real estate holdings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, causing Spafford to lose his life savings.

In 1873 his family planned a trip to England, but at the last minute Spafford was called back to Chicago on business. He sent his wife and four daughters on to England, anxious to see them enjoy a trip to take their mind off their tragedies. But tragedy struck on the trip, as their ship collided with another, and sunk in only twelve minutes. Spafford’s wife survived but their four daughters perished.

Spafford took the first ship out of New York to meet his wife, and during the voyage the ship’s captain called Spafford to the bridge. The captain explained they were passing the spot where his daughters had perished. Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote the hymn, which included these words – when peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.

When hope exists, people can survive even the most desperate of circumstances. As Emily Dickinson writes in her poem Hope,

Hope is the thing with feathers,

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune – without the words,

And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

May hope live in us always.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Challenge of the Word - November 7, 2010

November 7, 2010

John 1:1-14

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of the Word

In case you have ever wondered, sometimes ministers do add specific points to their messages that are intended for specific people. I did that; once. A number of years ago, as I was writing a sermon, one person came to mind as I wrote part of the message. I added a point I believed that person really needed to hear. On Sunday that person was in worship, and at the conclusion of the service, as I was greeting people, they approached me and said, I’m glad you preached that sermon this morning, and I’m especially glad you made that one point (which was the point I had intended for them). But they went on to say, I’m glad you mentioned that point because so-and-so was here and they really needed to hear that.

That moment taught me we should never underestimate the difficulty of self-understanding and our capacity for self-delusion.

Because we don’t always have insight into ourselves and because we don’t always reflect deeply enough about ourselves, we need something that will challenge us, something that will reveal the truth of who we are as well as the truth of who we can be.

It is, I believe, the Word that accomplishes that for us.

We are nearing the end of our series Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, and this morning we are talking about The Challenge of the Word.

The Word – the Word from God – comes to us in several forms. One of those is The Spoken Word, which, in our case today, is a sermon, or message. You receive from me a word each Sunday. One of the challenges of the spoken word is that it is filtered through my perspective and my viewpoints. The spoken word is like water that seeps into the ground and eventually makes its way to a spring. As that water seeps through the soil and through the rock it picks up materials that become part of the water.

The word you receive from me arrives to you after running through the filters of my perspective and my experiences and then arrives in a form that is influenced by all those factors. The difficulty of the Spoken Word is differentiating between thus saith the Lord and thus saith Dave. Those are not one and the same.

This is why I hope you are not overly dependent upon me when it comes to the Scriptures. I hope you are studying on your own. If you depend on me you are getting it somewhat second-hand, and it comes to you with all the extras that are added by my perspective and my personality.

One of the most important parts of our heritage as Disciples is the emphasis on the freedom and responsibility of each person to study and interpret the Scriptures for themselves and to not be dependent on what someone else tells us it says. That heritage reminds us that each of us brings the Word to others. You bring the Word to others as they listen to and observe you each day.

The Word comes to us also as The Written Word, which is Scripture. What was the topic of my last sermon? If you don’t remember sermons very well, don’t worry about it; I don’t either. But there are a few that have really lodged in my mind over the years. One that I remember hearing dates all the way back to 1983, and it was a sermon about how we develop our own personal Bible, gravitating to the passages we like, and ignoring those we don’t like, until we create a much smaller Bible, one that suits our tastes and our perspective. And I think that is absolutely true. Some people gravitate to the book of Leviticus and raise every regulation they find there to an absolute necessity. I feel that way a little bit, because I don’t like casseroles, so I like those verses that prohibit the mixing together of different items. Some people would be happy to remove the book of Leviticus altogether.

During my seminary years, there was continual controversy about the interpretation of the Bible. The written Word came to be used as a weapon, attacking those whose interpretation was different. And when the Word is used as a weapon it devalues both the Word and its hearers.

One thing I learned during that time is that no matter how one identifies himself or herself, we all ignore – or water down – certain passages. I know people who are very, very strict literalists when it comes to the Bible, until they come to Matthew 5:39, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also, suddenly they forsake being a literalist. Or Matthew 19:19, love your neighbor as yourself. But Jesus doesn’t know how irritating my neighbor can be. Or Matthew 25:45, what you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

Lastly, the Word comes to us as The Living Word, which, as our Scripture passage for today tells us, is Jesus.

I have a friend who says that when he reads the Bible he pays special attention to the words printed in red. I think that’s a pretty good perspective. It is The Word, the person of Jesus who is our ultimate measurement. In the Sermon On the Mount it was Jesus as the living Word correcting misinterpretations and misapplications of the written Word.

Philosophers and theologians and people in the pews argue over interpretations and points of view sometimes, I believe, because it is easier to do that than to hear the Living Word. I would rather argue the finer points of Arminianism versus Calvinism than face the painful truth of not loving my enemies or being interested in praying for those who would persecute me. It’s easier to discuss some esoteric theological point than it is to confess why I don’t love my neighbor as I love myself.

The Word became flesh, John writes, and dwelt among us. He pitched his tent among us, as my Greek professor taught me many years ago.

Most of us have had a nickname at some point in life. The early Christians were called Christians as a derogatory term. It means little Christs. But what was meant as an insult became a description, as they were indeed like Christ. May we seek to be like Jesus, the Living Word.

The Challenge of Unbelief - October 24, 2010

October 24, 2010

John 20:24-29

Hebrews 11:1

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Unbelief

Several years ago I was selected to be a member of a panel. On the morning of our first gathering I arrived at our meeting place and sat down in the lobby to wait on the person who was escorting us to the meeting room. While waiting, another person on the panel came in and sat down next to me. We introduced ourselves, and as is usually the case when you have an introductory conversation, she asked me what kind of work do you do? I said I’m a minister, which seemed to cause her some distress. She immediately replied I’m not a religious person. She was, actually, an atheist, and it led us to some very interesting conversations in the course of our time together.

As we continue our series Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, this morning we come to The Challenge of Unbelief. Unbelief seems to be all around us these days. Several years ago a survey about the religious beliefs and practices of the American public generated quite a few headlines, mostly because of its finding that people unaffiliated with any religion or religious group had doubled in a relatively short period of time.

If you have been doing any reading or paying attention to current events in the past few years it would indeed seem that the tide of unbelief is turning into a tsunami. The bestseller lists contain books written by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Advertising campaigns by atheist groups are becoming more common, inviting people to leave faith and to embrace unbelief. People who have no religious belief are speaking more freely and openly about their lack of belief. All of this leads us to ask, what is the state of belief in today’s world? Is there a crisis of faith in our world? Is religious belief in decline and unbelief on the rise?

Those questions lead to other questions. Are any of the objections to religious belief valid? How do we answer the challenges of unbelief? Can we answer those questions?

This morning we will answer all those questions and solve the question of belief versus unbelief once and for all. If only it were that simple. What I want to do this morning, in a completely and totally inadequate amount of time, is to give some very general answers to some of the most common questions and issues related to belief and unbelief.

1. Unseen does not mean nonexistent.

Victor Stegner represents one of the favorite arguments of the unbeliever. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, he often uses a phrase that I’m sure he finds very convincing. He writes that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Of course to him, evidence is anything that can be measured in a laboratory, or seen, or touched, or studied, or examined in a material manner.

This is not a new argument. In fact, the disciple Thomas had his own struggle with a desire for evidence. Our Scripture reading for this morning tells his story and his struggle to believe that Jesus was resurrected. Jesus says to Thomas, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (verse 29). Some are like Thomas, desiring to see some absolute truth that will remove any amount of doubt.

What some consider a lack of empirical evidence is not a weakness to faith though, but actually is the very definition of faith. Hebrews 11:1, perhaps the most famous passage about belief, says that faith is being sure of what he hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Which is exactly where this intersection of belief and unbelief turns – can you really believe in something you do not see? Those on the side of unbelief tell us there is no scientific way to prove the existence of God, thus God cannot be real.

The question really is how do we see? How is it that one person can look at the world and say everything is here by chance while another person looks at it all and says it is here by the creation and intent of God? Why does it seem so clear to some while so unclear to others? Why do some find it so easy to believe while others find it so difficult to believe?

William James, in his classic book Varieties of Religious Experience, writes that nothing can be more stupid than to bar out phenomena from our notice, because we are incapable of taking part in anything like them ourselves. (Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, p. 24).

Absence of evidence is not really absence of evidence at all, but an evidence that cannot be measured or quantified in any kind of scientific or empirical manner.

2. Religion is not, as many unbelievers claim, the root of all the problems in the world.

Christopher Hitchens has written a book titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens is one in a long list of those who like to blame religion for all of the world’s ills and all the terrible things that have happened throughout history. The problem with that line of reasoning is, it’s simply not true, but it is stated so often that many people believe it to be true.

There is no doubt that people acting in the name of religion have committed some unconscionable acts. This is true of Christianity as well as other religions. The Crusades and the Inquisition are not positive marks on the history of faith.

But it is simply wrong to say that every problem in history is the fault of religion. One of the oft-repeated claims, for example, is that religion has killed more people in history because religion is at the root of most, if not all, wars. That is simply not the truth. It is, at best, only a partial truth. Some wars have certainly had religious overtones, but even those have other factors. Northern Ireland, for instance, has often been cited as an example of a religious war. That conflict was really more about whether or not one wanted to be a subject of the British crown than it wa about religion. Religion was simply a way to identify with one side or the other.

Atheism itself, in fact, has a very violent history. Joseph Stalin was directly responsible for the deaths of so many people that historians find it difficult to even make an estimate. His systematic executions of religious people as well as his opponents were ruthless and number in the hundreds of thousands. Pol Pot, leader of the ruthless atheist regime in Cambodia, was responsible for the deaths of as many as one-fourth of the population.

This does not excuse the way religion has been used by some to justify violence, oppression, or any other abuse. When religion is used to justify violence, oppression, or any abuse of humanity it is a distortion of religion, not a true expression of religion.

3. Religious faith is not diminishing.

The study I referenced at the beginning of this message has been used to prove that religious faith is diminishing in our society. The study did not actually indicate that at all. In fact, follow up studies have shown that of people who claim no religion or religious affiliation, a majority will affiliate with religious belief at a later point in their life. And further, those who claim no religious affiliation aren’t necessarily rejecting religion. Most of the people who fall into that category could best be described by the oft-used phrase spiritual but not religious. That is, they have religious beliefs but are not currently affiliated with any institutional expression of religion.

Alister McGrath, who is a professor at Oxford University and a colleague of Richard Dawkins, is himself a former atheist and has written a very interesting book titled The Twilight of Atheism. The thesis of his book is that rather than diminishing, religious faith is growing throughout the world and what we are experiencing is not a growing level of unbelief but the dying gasp of atheism as a mass movement. Time will tell if he is correct on the future of atheism, but he correctly points out how religious belief is growing so quickly in areas that have been under the thumb of atheism. China, for example, is seeing faith growing in incredible numbers and it is growing so fast that in some areas of the country the governmental authorities have stopped trying to discourage its growth. In recent weeks we have seen Cuba relax some of their restrictions against religion in recognition of its growth in that country as well.

Belief in God has not gone away, no matter how secular society has become or how much effort reductionist science has exerted to banish Him. God has not gone away because people keep encountering Him, in unexplainable, intensely spiritual moments (Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, p. 15).

4. Religious people are not automatically ignorant, anti-scientific, arrogant, or intolerant.

Some are, but many are not. Many in the unbelieving community make continual reference to their belief that religious belief equates attitudes such as ignorance, opposition to science, arrogance, and intolerance. No one can deny some of that exists, but there are far more believers who represent just the opposite of those qualities. There is, actually some of those same qualities on the side of unbelief.

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, wrote about Francis Collins in an OpEd in the New York Times last year. Francis Collins was the head of the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the human genome and he is also a very devout Christian, who was once an atheist. Harris wrote about his opposition to the appointment of Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health because of Collins’ religious faith and even implied that his outspoken faith could be a sign of dementia. Harris wrote, Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination. Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?

(Sam Harris, writing in an OpEd in The New York Times, July 26, 2009).

The bottom line to all of this is the affirmation of faith in Hebrew 11:1 – faith is being sure of what he hope for and certain of what we do not see.

There are many stories I could tell that express that in dramatic ways, but I’ll close with an experience I witnessed many years ago. I was at Suburban Hospital in Louisville, visiting with a terminal cancer patient. The family was in the room and as we were talking the patient suddenly began to say that they were waiting on her. Her mom asked who was waiting. She pointed to the corner of the room, where I was standing, and said they had come to take her home. I moved away from that corner – just in case of mistaken identity – and she asked her parents whether she should go or stay. She was not under the influence of any medications at that point, certainly not to cause that kind of experience. She was as lucid as you or I, but at that moment it was as if a doorway to eternity had opened in that room that she was capable of seeing and experiencing. The rest of us saw nothing, but it was as real to her as this moment is to you and I.

In that moment is the entire question of belief – is there something more that we cannot see with our eyes, but we can sense with our spirit? Is this all there is? Is life nothing more than what we can see and touch or measure in a laboratory? I cannot answer that question for you and you cannot answer it for me; each person must answer that question personally, but we come together this day, as the body of Christ, and affirm that faith is being sure of what he hope for and certain of what we do not see.