Sunday, January 30, 2011

Can I Believe in God and Science? (Genesis 1:1-8,31)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Two children grew up next to each other, a boy and a girl. They were the best of friends. They did everything together. They played games, they played pretend, they imagined a bright future full of hope and promise. Both were bright and intelligent, and curious as all get out. They asked a lot of questions, because they wanted to understand things better. They asked good questions, hard questions, sometimes, probing questions. But, there was so much to discover, so much wonder, so much mystery, and many times their questions didn’t produce answers, but only brought more questions. But that was okay.

Oh, I haven’t told you their names. His name was Faith, and her name was Science.

Faith and Science loved hanging out together, asking questions, trying to gain an understanding of how the world worked. One day, Faith looked at Science, and he said, “You know, I’ve been doing some thinking, and I’ve realized something. I want to know the truth!”

Science was listening intently, and she nodded in agreement. “I was thinking the same exact thing, and that’s precisely what I want to know!” That day, Faith and Science made a pact that they would seek out the truth, and they both did.

Some time later, Faith and Science were again chatting. Faith put down his cup of coffee, and said, “I have come to a very interesting conclusion, lately.” “Really,” said Science? “What is it?” “Well,” said Faith, “You may think I’m sorta weird for saying this, but I think there’s something out there.”

“What, like a pervert looking in the window?”

“No no, I think that out there, somewhere beyond all that we have ever known and can see, there’s something. It’s kinda hard to explain – but there’s a presence, a force, an energy, a personality – that moves in the background behind everything we do. Something that both stands outside our universe, our time, our understanding, but at the same is intimately connected with everything we do.

“This being is living and true, everlasting, of infinite power, wisdom, goodness, and love; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And, get this: the being wants to know us, and love us, and be in relationship with us, and desires our knowledge and love in return.”

Science was fascinated at what she had just heard from her good friend, Faith. What an interesting discovery to make! How exciting to realize that we are not alone, and that there is something greater and grander and infinitely different from ourselves. Science leaned in, and she asked a question. “What do you call it? Surely you have come up with a name for this being.”

“Well,” Faith said, “it’s funny you should ask, because I asked the same question, and I got a very funny response. It didn’t feel right for me to give it a name! After all, if it created everything and all, who am I to randomly assign a name to it? The being simply said, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ So, I don’t really know what to call it. And, I guess I should stop referring to it as “it.” I mean, we’re talking about some sort of supernatural yet personal being, so it feels like I should use language that recognizes that is has a personality.”

Science thought for a moment. “Well, is it male or female? That’s a good start.”

Faith said, “That’s part of the difficulty. It’s both, and at the same time, it’s neither. Not in any weird way; I just think our categories are too small to adequately name it. It’s more mystery than is revealed. It’s hard to use our finite language to describe an infinite being. We’re never going to do it justice.”

Science knodded knowingly and said, “I see, so it’s sort of like an iceberg.”

Faith looked confused. “What’s an iceberg?”

“Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you. It’s a piece of ice floating in water. You see only a very small part of it above the water, but there’s a whole lot more under the water that you can’t see. Sounds like this being you’re talking about is very similar – only some things about this being have been revealed, but there’s a great treasure trove of mystery that is just waiting to be discovered.”

“Yes, it’s sorta like that,” Faith agreed. “I know a little about this being, but I feel like there’s still a whole lot more to know. In fact, as long as I keep learning, I feel like there’s always going to be more that I don’t know.”

Science pressed on. “Still, you have to call it something if you’re going to have a relationship with it.” Science continued to think for a moment, and then said, “Why don’t you call it God?”

Faith said, “I like the sound of that. Does it stand for anything?”

“Sure does. It means ‘Generator of Divinity.’ You should probably get that trademarked and copyrighted before someone else uses it,” Science advised. “There’s a lot of nutjobs out there, and the last thing you need is people running around calling anything and everything God. How awful would it be to have a world full of false gods – imagine the confusion! People claiming that they are God, that things they’ve made themselves are God, maybe even making the claim that there is no God! No no, you certainly don’t want that!”

“So let me get this straight, just for the record. You don’t think I’m crazy or one of those nutjobs because I believe in this thing we’ll call God?”

Science replied, “Not at all. In fact, it really makes me feel much better about some crazy things I’ve recently come to discover. It seems pretty clear to me that the whole universe is old. Really old, in fact. A lot older than people realized, at first. I’ve come up with some theories about how the universe came into existence. I’ve done tests, I’ve run a lot of different models, and I’m not entirely sure how it all happened. Again, I have some theories, but we honestly don’t know the details of how it all came together. We can make some educated guesses about the order things happened in, about some changes that have taken place in the climate, how species have adapted to those changes. There are these wonderful natural laws about how the universe operates, and it’s like watching the inner mechanism of a very finely-built machine – I just can’t imagine the timing and the balance and the beautiful complex harmony of how the whole creation works together. I mean, it might just be random or an accident, but it’s too well-designed.”

Faith’s curiosity was definitely up at this point, and he said, “So tell me the conclusion you came to.”

“Well, there’s a few things. First, someone or something had to pull the whole thing together. That someone could easily be this one you’re calling God. One of the discoveries we’ve made is that the universe has what’s called a redshift. What that means is that the wavelength of light at the edge of the universe is continually lengthening, which means it is moving toward the red end of the spectrum. Since it’s shifting red, the edge of the universe is always getting further away from us. In other words, the universe is expanding.”

Faith said, “Tell me more.”

“So, if you take stock of where the so-called edges of the universe are today, you can run a model in the lab that reverses the expansion and has the universe collapse on itself, which would be helpful in figuring out how long the universe has been expanding, and therefore, how old it is. What we’ve discovered is that if you go back far enough, the entire universe started out as a single dot smaller than the tip of a pen. But, something had to happen to it to make it start expanding. And so far, we can’t find anything within the universe that began that process or had the ability to make that happen.

“That’s why I’m so excited to hear about this God-character. If there is a being that is both removed from the universe but also intimately connected to it, that might give us an explanation as to where the energy came from that started the whole thing. And here’s another related point. If the universe was as small as the tip of a pen once upon a time, it still contained the same amount of matter it contains now. It would have been a lot denser, of course, but new matter has never been created.”

Faith said, “I think I know where this is headed, but let’s see if you go where I think you are.”

“Well, all the matter in the universe – all the raw materials to create everything that has ever been and will ever be, was already in existence. But one thing I’ve never been able to figure out is who or what put it there in the first place, until you just told me about the discovery you’ve made about God. God is the unmoved mover behind all that has taken place!”

Faith and Science were very excited about the discoveries they had both made, but what made them even more excited was the fact that their discoveries were complementary rather than cancelling each other out. Faith and Science realized that what they each learned weren’t mutually exclusive claims, but helped them both look at the world in exciting new ways. Faith seemed to ask one set of questions that answered one side of things, and Science seemed to ask another set of questions that answered another side of things.

The kettle in the other room begin to whistle, indicating it was time to make their tea. As she went to get the kettle off the stove, Science said, “Take, for example, this kettle boiling on the stove for our tea. Faith, you and I could both look at this kettle and say, ‘I wonder what causes the kettle to boil? As Science, I know that heat has been introduced to this kettle from the stove, and the heat has caused the metal to rise in temperature, which has also caused the water molecules inside the kettle to rise in temperature. As they get hotter, they move faster and faster and crash into each other like rednecks at a demolition derby. They keep getting hotter and moving faster and crashing off each other until some of the water molecules crash so hard off each other that they go flying off altogether and escape as what we know as steam. And that, is why the kettle is boiling.”

Faith loved this discussion, and with a grin he said, “True enough, that is a good explanation as to why the kettle is boiling. But, couldn’t you also hold that the kettle is boiling because I would like a cup of tea? In fact, both of those statements are true. The truth of one statement does not cancel out the truth of the other.”

“Precisely my point,” Science said. “I look at something, and I tend to ask ‘How?’”

“Whereas I look at the same thing,” said Faith, “and I tend to ask ‘Why?’”

Faith and Science realized they sometimes came up with such different answers about the same thing because they were asking different questions in the first place. They both produced answers that were true, and the truth of Faith’s answer didn’t cancel out the truth of Science, and neither did the truth of Science cancel out the truth of Faith. They were simply asking different questions about the same sorts of things. Science always asked, “How?” Faith always asked, “Why?”

Faith got together with several of his friends and had great conversations, told great stories through the centuries, and eventually had many of his friends write down their findings. A few of those writings were compiled into one sort of master volume, called a “Bible,” and it looked like this (hold up a Bible).

The Bible turned out to be a great resource for people of faith. It told them about God and God’s continual efforts to have a relationship with people. It told about human nature and our inherent resistance to God, our rebellious selfishness that always insists on its own way instead of following God’s way, but the many ways that God continues to offer relationship to people in spite of that. The Bible told of the people’s struggle to stay in relationship with God and in good relationship with each other. It gave guidance in how we should treat each other, and how we should always orient our hearts toward God. But overall, it was the story of a love affair between God and people.

Science also got together with several of her friends and had great conversations, told great stories through the centuries, and eventually had many of her friends write down their findings. A few of those writings were compiled into great resources called “textbooks,” and they looked like this (hold up Organic Chemistry textbook).

The Bible is not the same thing as a textbook, and friends of Faith got themselves into trouble when they treated the Bible like it was a textbook. For instance, the first book in the Bible was the book called Genesis, and the very beginning of that book was a beautiful poem written about the creation of the world. Here is the very first part of that poem:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Unfortunately, some missed the point of the poem. They thought it was an account of how the world came into being, describing the exact process and timetable by which God created, but that wasn’t the point at all. The creation story is not there to tell the friends of Faith how God created the world, but simply that it was created by God. In the beginning, whenever that was, however that happened, God was there. It just says, “In the beginning, God . . .” It assumes the presence of God from the beginning, and whatever process was used to create it all, God was there all along and involved. That’s the point. The Bible starts with God, who is the answer to the greatest “Why?” question of them all.

The Bible is not a textbook, and a textbook is not the Bible, because the aims of purposes of both are so different. Friends of Faith and friends of Science get themselves in trouble when we cannot see the difference between these two, when we think that the only truth there is the world is that which is factual, and when we ask Faith and Science to answer questions they simply were never designed to answer.

Faith and Science are friends. They have been from the very beginning, they are now, and so they shall continue to be. They are friends because they realize that they ask different sorts of questions about the same things. Their answers are not mutually exclusive, but are actually complementary.

Friends, God is not threatened by any scientific idea or discovery, neither should our faith. If creation is the handiwork of God, then science helps us to see the exquisite and marvelous workings of our creation, which leads us to glorify the Creator. As people of faith, how can that do anything for us other than magnify God?

Jesus said that we are to worship God with all that we are, including our minds. Isn’t it exciting to realize that science can actually be a catalyst for worshiping God with all our minds by helping us to see how powerful and creative and awesome our Creator truly is?

The psalmist says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). When you consider the gifts of discovery science has given us, what choice do we have but to find ourselves truly lost in wonder, love, and praise?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Does God Get Angry? (Judges 2:11-12, Mark 3:1-6)

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger.

Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, & a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart & said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, & his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Today, we are continuing in our series of messages I have simply entitled, “Ask God.” We are wrestling with real questions that thinking people have either for God or about God.

Go ahead and take your sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or pencil as we wrestle with this week’s question: “Does God get angry?” The key to understanding these questions lies in understanding the character & nature of God; let’s open ourselves up to what God reveals to us about God’s self. May we pray.

When I was growing up, I had a little bit of a mischievous streak in me. Hard to believe, knowing me now, but it’s true. Sometimes, the line between mischief and misbehavior was hard to distinguish, and I found myself crossing that line more than I probably wanted to. My Grandma Thomas always had the worst punishment when I’d acted up. She never spanked, she never yelled, and she didn’t even give “time-out.” She would simply look down, and quietly say, “It makes Jesus sad when you’re naughty.” I’ve gotta tell you, as a five-year-old, that was like the worst punishment ever.

Through the years since, it has got me thinking a lot about whether or not God has “emotions.” The most straightforward, correct answer is “yes,” because we know that God became human in the person of Jesus. As Jesus walked on earth, fully human and fully divine, Emmanuel, God-with-us, we know that he experienced everything we as humans experience. He experienced joy and sadness, hunger and thirst, being tired, temptation, fear and rejection and peace and acceptance. Certainly, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions throughout his life.

We know that God is love; the Scriptures are clear about that and tell us over and over again that God’s primary attribute is love. We know that God hears our prayers and responds, the Scriptures tell us about God being moved with pity, suggesting that God must feel something like empathy or sympathy. We are told that the heart of God is moved to sorrow when there is suffering in the world. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that God has emotions, perhaps not quite the same way we understand and experience our human emotion, but God’s heart certainly does rise and fall with what happens in the world.

But, what about anger? Does God get angry? Whether we realize it or not, we have inherited a populist theology in this country that traces its roots back to the early Puritan settlers in New England and the period of history called “The Great Awakening.” The most famous Puritan preacher was Jonathan Edwards, and his most famous sermon – one that typified the theology of his day, was entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

For many people, religious and non-religious alike, this view of God is still buried down somewhere in our subconscious. In response, there have been attempts to distance ourselves from the theology of New England Puritans. After all, these were the same people who would burn you at the stake for being a witch for something as simple as forgetting the words to the Lord’s Prayer. According to that view, I could be put on trial and convicted for being a witch! And so, some have come to the conclusion that it is against God’s nature to get angry.

What should we believe? Are we merely sinners in the hands of an angry God? Or, is it against God’s nature to get angry? On which side of this debate should we come down? Who’s right and who’s wrong? This will not be a surprise to you, but as a good Methodist, I want us to live somewhere in the tension between these two positions. This is not an ‘either-or’ proposition, but a ‘both-and.’

God’s reigning attribute is love. We know that. And at the end of the day, love conquers all. Love always wins. But, just because God is love doesn’t mean that God can’t get angry.

Love and anger are not always mutually exclusive. Parents sometimes get angry with things their children do. Put your hand up if you’re a parent. Now, keep your hand up if you’ve ever gotten angry at your children. Or, to keep us all honest, put your hand up if you’re a parent and you’ve never gotten angry at your children! Now, answer this – just because you’ve gotten angry at your children, did you ever stop loving them?

A parent might get angry when a child does something that puts the child or someone else in danger. A parent might get angry when a child does something that hurts themselves or someone else. A parent might get angry with a child for doing something that damages relationships within the family. Precisely because the parent is concerned with the well-being of their child, the parent can get angry when the child does anything that threatens that well-being.

Likewise, God is so wrapped up in love for each of us, so concerned for our well-being, that God may become angry when we do things that threaten ourselves, others, and the sacred relationships that weave us all together. Precisely because God loves each of us and wants what is best for the entire creation, God may become angry when we are not as loving as God has called us to be. It comes back to Jesus’ core teaching, his summary statement that what we are supposed to do as his followers is love God and love our neighbor. That’s the litmus test for everything we do – just stop and ask if it is loving toward God and loving toward neighbor, and if it’s not, then we shouldn’t do it.

Let’s consider some specific examples. In Judges 2, which we looked at before the sermon, God is provoked to anger when the people worship other gods. We have a word for this – idolatry. Worship comes from an old English word that means “to give something worth,” so in a manner of speaking, whatever we think has the most value in our lives is what we worship. It’s really just a matter of getting our priorities mixed up and putting things in the wrong order.

Think of it this way. You are throwing a 100th surprise birthday party for your beloved Aunt Sophia. She finally gets there, and everyone jumps out and yells “Surprise!” She’s touched and moved that so many people have come together from so far away just to honor her. Then you move into the dining room for dinner, and you decide that you’ll sit at the head of the table, in the position of greatest honor and there are no seats left, but you reluctantly agree to set up a card table in the hallway for Aunt Sophia. Happy birthday, Aunt Sophia!

God is supposed to be in the seat of honor, but too often, we give the seat of greatest honor to someone else or even take it ourselves. God is supposed to be in first place in our lives – that’s the very first one of the Ten Commandments for a reason – but when we give God’s place away to something or someone else in our hearts, in our lives, in our church, or wherever – then we are practicing idolatry, and that’s something that makes God angry.

Or, in the passage we’ve already read from Mark, Jesus enters the synagogue and encounters a man with a disfigured and useless hand. In that day, it was against the law to do any work on the Sabbath, which was supposed to be a day of worship and rest. And so, if Jesus heals on the Sabbath, it would be considered work. And everyone wants to know, is Jesus going to break the law and heal the guy, or is Jesus going to follow the law and allow the guy to continue to suffer? The text says Jesus looked around at the self-righteous religious snobs with anger, because of their body language.

Yes, body language. Body language doesn’t lie – it’s impossible to mask, and it reveals how we really feel about something. We can say one thing with our lips, but our bodies can say something entirely different. You can do a cultural study in this sometime. Go to the mall, and watch a teenage girl who wants to buy a certain shirt and has just been told “no” by her mother. Even if the girl doesn’t say anything with her mouth, her body language will tell you everything.

Likewise, God reads body language. God is always looking past what we say to the depth of who we are to see what is really going on within us. But the part of the body God pays the most attention to is the heart. The heart is the center of our emotions and the very core of our being, and when God looked to the heart of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the sight wasn’t pretty.

What about this angered Jesus? The text says they were hard of heart. They were stubborn, they were arrogant, they were rigid, they were inflexible, they were so caught up in their own self-righteousness that they couldn’t see the righteousness of God right in front of their own noses. They were not open to God and had closed themselves off, so convinced of their own correctness that they couldn’t even open themselves up to the possibility that they didn’t have the corner on understanding who God is and what God is up to in the world. This made God angry, and anytime we act the same way, we can be assured that God will also be angry with us.

There is also a correlation between hard hearts and stiff necks. Many times in the Old Testament, the people are referred to as a “stiff-necked people.” This is an equestrian term – anyone here do much horseback riding? Some horses are just more stubborn than others, and a horse being stiff-necked is a sign that they are not going to go your way and are going to insist on going their own way and doing what they want to do. You pull on the reigns trying to direct the horse in the way you want to go, and the horse bows its neck and resists and wants to go the opposite direction; maybe the horse stops all together, maybe the horse tries to buck you off for trying to give it direction. That’s what we mean by “stiff-necked.”

In the same way, people can be “stiff-necked” when it comes to following what God wants us to. Our wills are strong, powerful things, and independent people like us resist being told what to do. We don’t like someone else telling us what do to, even if that someone is God. Who here has seen the movie Meet the Parents? One of my favorite scenes is right toward the end when Greg is boarding a plane to head back to Chicago after a distrastrous few days at his fiancĂ©’s family home in New York, and his bag won’t fit in the overhead bin. The stewardess tries to take the bag and check it with the other luggage, and it mounts into a rising escalation, and finally Greg says, “Hey, hey, If you would take a second, take the little sticks out of your head, clean out your ears, and maybe you would see that I'm a person who has feelings, and all I have to do is do what I wanna do and all I want to do is hold on to my bag and not listen to you! And the only way that I would ever let go of my bag would be if you came over here right now and tried to pry it from my dead, lifeless fingers, okay? If you can get it from my kung-fu grip then you can come and have it, okay?”

Precisely because we have to do what we wanna do, we can be stiff-necked. We can be inflexible, we are stubborn, we are insistent on following our own way and refuse to bend to God’s way.

How else did the Pharisees’ hardness of heart make God angry in this text? Because they were hard of heart, they placed religious rules ahead of people. Any time we are more concerned with enforcing rules, or insisting that people conform and do it our way to be accepted, we are in a losing situation. God cares more about people than rules.

I have a few very direct questions for each of us to consider this morning, because I want each of us to think about whether or not our actions and the condition of our hearts may be provoking God to anger. All of us, myself included, fail to get it right sometimes and need to examine our priorities and bring them back in line with what God wants. Jot these questions down in your notes, and do some honest soul-searching as you consider their answers.

First, does God have first place in your life? Or, is someone else or something else sitting in God’s seat?

Second, check your spiritual body language. Is your heart hard and your neck stiff? Where are you insistent on your own way? Where is your heart resistant to the movement of the Holy Spirit?

And third, how have you placed religious rules ahead of people?

All of these things make God angry, not because God is moody, but because God loves us better than a parent, and these things threaten our well-being. All of these represent sin in our lives, things that keep us from being in the loving relationship God that desires and designs for us. But friends, hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. We are not merely sinners in the hands of an angry God, because God so sincerely desires reconciliation with us, God desires restoration of our relationship with God, God loves us and wants us to be in love with God.

While God gets angry, God is, first and foremost, a loving God. Love is God’s reigning attribute, and love wins every time. Indeed, the Scriptures tell us, “The Lord God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).

And so, when we realize that God isn’t first in our lives, that our hearts have been hard, that our necks have been stiff, that we have placed religious rules ahead of people, God can be provoked to anger. Even so, God’s default mode is love and mercy and forgiveness, not anger and condemnation and judgment. And so, when we realize that we have done things in our actions and by the disposition of our hearts that anger God, the best thing we can do is repent. To swallow our pride, to say, “not my will but yours be done,” to really mean it when we say, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Yes, God gets angry, but we are all invited and given opportunity to repent and do something different with our lives. That is the best news any of us could hear. Today is a great day to turn another way and live as God calls us to live. God is knocking on the door of each of our hearts. For those who open the door and let God in, you’ll find the Holy Spirit at work within you to shape your attitudes and your desires and your actions and your entire disposition toward what God wants. But the question remains for each of us here: Will you open the door?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Does God Control Everything? (Genesis 45:3-8)

Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Any time I am on a plane, there are several things I never want to hear over the intercom. Here’s one: “Don’t worry, folks – everything is under control.” When an airline pilot comes on the intercom and announces that “everything is under control,” you can be assured that everything is not, in fact, under control. Don’t worry?? Yeah right! Worrying is exactly what I’m going to do because you just came on and told me not to worry! In fact, now I’m worried even more because you told us that everything is under control, and the only reason you would tell us that everything is under control is because things are not under control!

Today, we are continuing in our series of messages I have simply entitled, “Ask God.” We are wrestling with real questions that thinking people have either for God or about God, focusing on a different one each week. Many times, when thinking people have asked these questions, Christians have responded with canned answers that are so simplistic as to not take seriously the complexity and subtle nuance of the question being asked, and their answers have often been enough to turn people away from the Christian faith.

This series of messages is based on a simple premise: God is not threatened when we have a genuine question, curiosity, or doubt for or about God. The God who gave us gifts of intellect and reason is not threatened when we put those gifts to work.

Go ahead and take your sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or pencil as we wrestle with this week’s question: “Does God control everything?” The key to understanding these questions lies in understanding the character and nature of God, so let’s open ourselves up to what God reveals to us about God’s self. May we pray.

For many of us, our first understanding of God is a list of characteristics and attributes of God, the first vocabulary for understanding just who God is and what sort of things God is up to in the world.

It is commonly believed that God is several things: omni-present, meaning God is everywhere; omniscient, meaning God knows everything; omnipotent, meaning God is all-powerful. And so we wrap up these beliefs all together in one package – God is in control of everything. We also know that God is love (John 4:8); throughout the Scriptures that is precisely how God is named over and over, which means that God is graceful and merciful and always looking out for our best interests. And so, we end up with a theology that tells us two things: God is in control of everything, and God is loving. It’s a simple theology, but it has a lot of comfort in it.

It’s comforting, at least, until something unpleasant happens. We end up asking some version of the question, “Where is God when bad things happen to good people?” Friends, this is an old question – one that has been debated as long as God’s people have gotten together to wonder and speculate what the one we call “God” is like. Technically, we call this question “theodicy,” – a word that brings together the terms “God” and “justice,” always examining the intersection between the goodness of God and the evil present in the world.

When bad things happen, we find ourselves in a tension between two beliefs we hold to be true – that God is in control and that God is love. Something has to break down somewhere. However, what I’ve seen is that usually we believe one of those statements just a little bit more than the other. Usually, we seem more certain that God is in control than we are that God is love.

Why is that? I think a lot of it has to do with the prevailing images we use when talking about God. We talk about God as Creator, Master, Sovereign, King, Lord, Judge – all of these are accurate descriptors for God. They tell us that God is powerful and in control. On the other hand, we also have images that talk about God’s love – a mother hen who gathers chicks, a father who longingly waits for the return of a lost son, a man who invites us to a banquet, a woman who frantically looks for the precious thing that has been lost – these are also accurate descriptors for God. However, these images are a bit more poetic, a bit more nuanced, a bit harder to understand, and so when we come to a place where it appears that God’s love is in tension with God’s control, we jettison love from the equation so that it will balance on the control side.

Last week, we marked the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti. A year later, did you know that 95% of the rubble in the capital, Port-au-Prince, hasn’t even been cleaned up? This week, a cube was placed in uptown Charlotte with five tons of earthquake rubble taken from Haiti, to remind us of the devastation that continues to take place and the years of work that are still needed there. Those five tons of rubble represent 0.00015% of the rubble that is still there in Haiti. That means there are still nearly three and a half million TONS of rubble. Logan Smith and Michelle Chiu from our congregation have already been on mission trips to Haiti since the earthquake; Laine Levandowski is joining another trip taking place within the next few months. They can tell you what the devastation is like.

Now, you may remember that in the days following the earthquake, so-called Christian television personality Pat Robertson said the earthquake hit Haiti as a punishment from God, because hundreds of years ago, the people there made a pact with the devil. His comments perfectly illustrate this idea that God is in control of everything, and everything that happens is somehow orchestrated by God and part of some divine plan. Insurance companies don’t help by naming natural disasters as “acts of God.”

When love is taken out of the picture, the image of God that remains is one who inflicts illness, who kills people in accidents, who advocates war, who embraces genocide, who orchestrates violence and injustice and oppression and tragedy. When love is taken out of the picture, people make claims that since God controls everything, every bad thing is done for a reason as a display of God’s judgment.

That’s just not consistent with who God is, and I don’t know about you, but I am not interested in following a God like that. Is it any wonder, when God is presented as always being in control of everything – including suffering, tragedy, and evil – that so many people have said, “No thanks.”

So what should we do? Well, remember that we often find ourselves making a choice between God being in control of everything, and God being loving. Well, what if we believe what the Bible tells us, that the greatest is love (1 Corinthians 13:13)? What if love conquers all? What if John Wesley was right, and love really is God’s reigning attribute? What if love wins every time? What if the Beatles were right, and all you need is love? And if that’s true, then is it possible to even suggest that perhaps God is not in control of everything?

Let that sink in for a minute. That’s my proposal this morning: that God is not in control of everything. Remember, our understanding of God and God’s character comes down to a bit a boxing match between love and control. And here’s a hint: love wins every time. When it comes to God, the answer is always love. If you remember nothing else from today’s message, remember this: for something to be truly of God, it must be motivated primarily by love.

God wants to relate to all humanity through love, and for love to be genuine, it must be reciprocal. Love is freely-chosen, it is never forced, and so if God is going to relate to us through love, God takes the risk that we may not love God in return. You see, we can choose whether or not we will return the love that God has for us. God doesn’t compel us to love God or make us love God, God gives us the ability to freely choose whether we will love. And because there is the aspect of choice involved, we can safely say that God doesn’t control everything. Precisely because God is love, God has self-limited God’s own control in the world.

Friends, God isn’t a control freak. Despite what you may think, God doesn’t have some very detailed plan for everything that will ever happen. Everything that happens in the world is not, in fact, part of some divine plan working itself out and coming to fruition. God’s will is not this magic line that starts at the beginning and stretches off beyond the horizon of time to some point called “the end.” It’s much more open-ended than that. God is a gambler. God is a risk-taker. God takes the risk with each one of us, that every decision we make, every crossroad we come to, we will make the decision that reflects the right thing and the loving thing, but the result of those decisions is not pre-determined. God makes a gamble that we will do the right thing.

Has someone ever hurt you? Put your hand up if someone has ever hurt you. Have you ever hurt someone else? Clearly, we make mistakes. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we fall on our faces, sometimes we clearly don’t the right thing or the loving thing. And if we go back to our premise that all things from God are motivated by love, then it stands to good reason that God is not in control of every occurrence, because we all do things that are not motivated by love, and hurtful, painful things happen all the time. And because God is love, we know that God is not behind those things.

Sometimes what we people of faith do is sorta read God back into the story to explain hurtful and tragic things that have taken place in our lives and in the lives of others. The scripture reading we looked at right before the sermon illustrates this point. In Genesis 45, which we read, Joseph meets up with his brothers. Let me recap the highlights of this particular story. Growing up, Joseph had many brothers, but Joseph was their father’s favorite. To be perfectly honest, Joseph knew he was the favorite, and he was a little obnoxious about it, and his brothers resented him for it. So one day, they beat him up, took his coat of many colors, which was a favorite gift from their father, and left him in a pit to die. But then, along the road came some travelers from Egypt, and they realized they could make a few bucks by selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt.

We know that Joseph gained favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and despite some personal setbacks, was eventually put in a position of influence and power that was second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph interprets the king’s dreams about years of plentiful harvest and years of famine, and he devises a plan to lay aside some of the surplus grain through the good years that will sustain the people’s need for food during the famine, and as a result, people come to Egypt from surrounding countries to buy food, and we find Joseph’s brothers among those who are there for that purpose. Joseph himself says, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”

Joseph himself reads the story, and even the act of being sold into slavery he interprets as some sort of divine plan that worked itself out for a greater purpose, Joseph reads the story as the details of some divinely-orchestrated plan with nothing happening without a direct decree from God, but I want to invite us to re-read the story. And as we re-consider some of the key details, I want us to remember the central premise we’ve already agreed on – for something to be from God, it has to be loving.

Earlier in the story, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. So tell me, was selling him into slavery a loving thing to do or not? If it’s not loving, then God wasn’t involved in it. So, was selling Joseph into slavery something God could have been involved in?

God is love; the whole thing hinges on that very premise. And because love must be freely chosen and can’t be compelled or forced, God has freely given up some aspect of controlling the world. In so doing, God takes a risk, God takes a gamble, and God even chooses to be vulnerable to what creation might do.

But if God doesn’t control everything, then how does God work God’s purposes in the world? It’s simple: God works with what is available. It works sorta like this. Have you ever listened to The Splendid Table on NPR on Saturdays? Part of the program is their “Stump the Chef” feature, in which callers will name three ingredients in their kitchen, and it is up to the show’s host to come up with a recipe the caller could make with only those three ingredients. Likewise, God works with the ingredients we bring, God works behind the scenes, and God makes use of opportunities that arise through human agency and activity.

Rather than controlling everything, God works with the circumstances available. So when we make a wrong turn, when we mess up, when some tragedy occurs in our life, it’s not that we say God deliberately messed up our lives or it was part of some divine plan that tragedy struck or God must be trying to teach us something or show us something or direct us in some way. Rather, given the place where we find ourselves, God says, “All right, since you find yourself right here, right now – from this point forward, what would be the best thing for you?” We must understand that tragedy does not come from God. At the same time, we approach those difficult times with an outlook that says, “God, if you can do something good with this, please do.”

A mature faith recognizes that God is not the author of suffering and evil in the world, that God is not in control of everything, simply because there are so many things happen that do not happen out of love, and as such, they are not from God. Even so, God can still work in those situations. Good can come out of difficulty, and we must recognize that God did not send us a tragedy in order to bring a good out of it.

If God doesn’t control everything, how else does God work God’s purposes in the world? Friends, let’s not forget the role that we are called to play. It matters that we are part of the church, it matters that we are God’s hands and feet on earth, it matters that we called to be the body of Christ, it matters that we are instructed to clothe ourselves with love, and that everything we do should be motivated by our love for God and neighbor.

Friends, God is love, which means that God has freely given up some control, God has taken a risk, God has made a gamble, God has made God’s self vulnerable that what God most desires in the world – love – may not happen. Can I let you in on a secret? The degree to which God’s control and desire is exercised in the world rests not in some divine cosmic plan, but with each of us. You and I determine the extent to which God is in control, because when we don’t act out of love, we thwart God’s control. When we don’t act out of love, we are working against God.

Does God control everything? No, because God is love. God relates to the world not by exercising control, but by exercising love. The deeper our relationship with God develops, the better we experience God’s love, which enables us to better understand how we should live and better give ourselves in loving service to God.

In the end, it matters more, not that we have a God who controls everything, but that we have a God who faithfully responds to us out of love. May we be people who respond not out of our desire for control, but out of our desire to express love.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Does God Condemn Suicide? (Matthew 3:13-17, Baptism of the Lord Sunday)

This is the first of a five-part series of messages. We are wrestling each week with a different question for God or about God. These are real questions that have been asked by thinking persons who identify themselves as outside the Christian faith. Often, the answers they have gotten to these questions have confirmed their disinterest in God, the Church, and Christians in general.

My hope through this series is that we can honestly and openly engage these questions - not to provide definitive answers, but simply to have a way of discussing these issues with civility, engagement, and grace.

Today, we are beginning a five-week series of messages I have simply entitled "Ask God." Each week, we're going to look at a different question either about God or for God.

As most of you should know by now, one of the foundational, core passions of my ministry is helping to bridge the gap between God and people who have been cut off from God, those who have said, “I don't think the church, Christianity, or God have anything to offer someone like me."

Many of these people have, at some time or another, asked serious questions about the Christian faith. Unfortunately, many of answers they have gotten from Christians and from churches have proved unsatisfactory. For some, the simplistic, canned answers they have gotten just haven't done justice to the complex and highly-nuanced questions being asked. For others, even asking the questions has been viewed with suspicion, as if having questions, doubts, or curiosities about God was somehow a threat to the entire Christian faith.

Friends, God can take our questions, our doubts, our uncertainties, and our genuine curiosity. God isn't threatened when we have a question. God has given us the gifts of intellect and reason, and God certainly intends for us to use them! If the faith we profess can't stand up to a little cross-examination on the witness stand, what's the point in professing that faith in the first place? Feel free to take the sermon notes out your bulletin because we’ve got a lot to cover this morning, and I know you’ll want to write some things down as we wrestle with these tough questions.

This morning, we start out by asking this question: “Does God condemn suicide?” I realize that talking about suicide is difficult partly because it has touched so many of us. Most of us here are probably thinking of a friend or family member who has committed suicide. Many of us have probably thought about suicide, some of us have considered a plan for how we’d do it, and a few of us may have even attempted it.

I am well-aware that in a group of people this size, statistically, it is highly likely that one or more persons here today are seriously contemplating suicide. Listen, if that’s where you are, I want you to come talk to me this week. In fact, I expect you to come talk to me. I have wrestled with this question and this message all week. For the person here who might be considering suicide, and for those here who have been directly affected by suicide, I only hope that somehow God will shape and use what I have to say to bring guidance, grace, and healing – that’s my prayer today. May we pray.

Part of the difficulty for Christians in talking about suicide is that it’s never directly addressed in Scripture. There are examples of suicides and persons with suicidal thoughts in the Bible; Judas Iscariot is probably the most famous and cited most often. Judas, one of Jesus’ 12 closest followers, betrayed Jesus to the government authorities, but then was so wracked with guilt and tormented by his own thoughts that he hung himself in a field outside town. The Bible calls him cursed, but the primary judgment against him lies in his betrayal of Jesus, not in the act of suicide.

Or, back in the Old Testament, Samson commits suicide by using his super-human strength to collapse a building on top of himself and a whole bunch of the enemies of Israel. Or, think about Jonah, who according to the story, was swallowed by a great fish. Did you know he was suicidal? Jonah is literally running away from what God wants him to do, and is so tormented by his thoughts that he is living in a private hell in his mind. When the storm rages on the sea, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, because if he drowned in the storm, he knew the personal hell in his mind would come to an end.

But, the Bible never really offers any statement about what happens to someone who commits suicide or how God views it. So, any statement about suicide is interpretive in nature. And by the fourth century, that’s where the church started to get itself into a messy predicament when St. Augustine called suicide an unforgivable sin, because the person who does it has no opportunity to repent in this life, and because they die in a state of sin, they are sentenced to an eternity of suffering and torment in hell.

For centuries, this was the official position of the Church. Those who had died by their own hand were forbidden from being buried in church cemeteries, and family and loved ones often carried shame and stigma with them for decades. For a long time, the prevailing, unwavering opinion of the church was that suicide was an unforgivable sin, and those who chose that route were eternally lost.

My research this week took me to several websites with discussion threads about God and suicide. People were offering all sorts of opinions about how God views suicide. Throughout those threads, I found several posts like this one:

“I am thinking suicide. I never thought my life would turn out the way it has, never in my wildest dreams. I suffer from depression and have tried everything. I always seem to fall short in life no matter how hard I try. I am not happy. I do consider other’s feelings about me if I take my life. But I think they will get over it. I have told my own father and he does nothing. Plain and simple, I am just a failure in everything I do. I just can’t live like this no more. I have been thinking of suicide for 20 years.

“Because my life just plain sucks. I keep saying to myself, ‘Maybe not this time, maybe things will get better,’ I have been saying that for 20 years. Nothing’s changed. I prayed to God for things to change, but he has never answered me. I feel there is no other choice but to carry out ending my life.”

I don’t know about you, but my heart just breaks when I hear this. If you have a heart, you just have to feel the pain and anguish in his words. He has prayed for God to fix it and make things better, and that just hasn’t happened.

Now, as disturbing as this post was, even worse was some the “advice” that was given from Christians: one who said, “Listen, this is simple, just ask Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit to fix whatever mess you’re in.” Another said, “Let Jesus be your umbrella.” Another said, “Suicide is killing, and God says killing is a sin. If you kill yourself you’re committing a sin you can’t repent from, so God will have to send you to hell for your sin.”

Do you think any of those answers were helpful? I’ll be honest – when I read those kinds of responses, I am embarrassed to be a Christian because of the harm that is done in the name of Christ through statements like these. This comment was made over a year ago on December 12, 2009, and with answers like these, I can’t help but think what might have happened to him and where he is now.

I have a problem with so readily condemning the actions of others, and of condemning suicide in particular. First, Jesus told us that he holds the keys to hell and death, which means we don’t. It is not up to us to make pronouncements about who God does and does not let into heaven and on what terms. The Scriptures tell us over and over again that only God judges, and only God can know the spiritual condition of a person and know his or her final decisions (see Proverbs 29:26, Psalm 75:7).

Second, the darkness of mental illness is something over which persons have no control. Our understanding of human psychology and mental illness still has a long way to go, but it’s also come a long way. Even after people seek God, they may still be very much troubled by feelings of failure, hopelessness, or being unloved.

These feelings and thoughts are like a train. First comes the engine, then several cars, then the caboose. Suicide is the caboose of a train of thought. It comes after several others cars with messages like “I can never do anything right” or “Nobody likes me” or “I may as well just give up.”

God is well aware that people are subject to harmful and self-destructive thoughts. That doesn’t make them wicked people. It makes them ill. It means their thoughts and feelings are all jumbled up, they may not know how to overpower an evil thought and instead, evil thoughts overpower them.

In the second chapter of Romans, we are reminded that God judges each of us according to the knowledge we had to work with (Romans 2:2). So, if our thoughts are jumbled because of mental illness, God is not going to punish us for what we have no account over. If a person doesn’t have the tools or the mental where-with-all to overcome evil and self-destructive thoughts, God shows mercy. We are reminded in Scripture that God is more merciful toward our mistakes than we are toward the mistakes of another (Psalm 103:6-18).

Third, Jesus prayed on the cross, “My God, my God: why have you forsaken me?” Do you know the response that came from heaven when Jesus prayed those words? Nothing. Deafening silence.

I can’t overstate the significance of that. Jesus – the son of God, who was himself God – knew what it felt like to be alone and abandoned and forgotten. Jesus – who was sinless – knew what it felt like for his deepest and most earnest prayer to be met with silence. And so when someone feels alone in the world, when they feel friendless and hopeless, that is a very real feeling that even Jesus himself experienced. Those feelings don’t make someone a sinner or suggest that they have some defect or flaw of character, because even Jesus himself struggled with the very same feelings.

And so, if anyone wants to condemn another because they have been plagued by fears and feelings of hopelessness, because they have been tormented by personal demons, because they have lived in a private hell within their own mind, one should also realize that in the same statement of judgment, Jesus is also condemned. If we are willing to make statements of condemnation against another, we must also be ready to make those statements against Jesus.

I will not make a statement of condemnation against anyone who has committed suicide because of one simple word: grace. Because, I do not believe that eternal salvation hinges on a yes or no question administered at the moment of death. Salvation is a gift from God, and it is only by God’s grace that any of us are saved.

For all of us, grace is first tangibly given to us in our baptism, which is why we refer to baptism as the sacrament of salvation. In baptism, God’s grace is literally poured into our lives. As United Methodist Christians, we understand baptism being primarily God’s action – God is the primary actor in baptism, giving us grace before we have even asked for it. It’s not about us understanding what is happening to us, it’s not about us making a public profession of our faith, it’s about God’s grace being poured into our lives.

As Christians, we find our primary identity in baptism. These waters tell us who we are, and they tell us that we belong, first and foremost, to God. In baptism, God names us as members of God’s family and claims us as God’s own. And so, whatever other labels we find stuck on ourselves matter little. We are named and claimed as God’s – more important than our nationality, more important than our family of origin, more important than our education, more important than our mental state, more important than our sexual orientation, more important than our race or color or creed. We are claimed by God through our baptism, and God pours grace into our lives.

That is part of the reason we are talking about suicide today. You see, today is celebrated throughout the church as “Baptism of the Lord Sunday.” Our scripture reading reminds of Jesus’ own baptism in the wilderness, and Christians are called to renew our own baptisms and re-commit ourselves to the promises that were made then, and most importantly, to remember that we belong to God. Just as the Spirit hovered over Jesus at his own baptism and a voice called down from heaven, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” so too does the Spirit hover over each of us at our own baptism, and God says, “This is my beloved son” or “This is my beloved daughter.” Periodically, we Christians reaffirm our baptisms simply to remember that, first and foremost, we are children of God.

In a few moments, you’ll all have a chance to come and remember your baptism. When the message is over, we will have a time of prayer, and I encourage anyone who wants to pray at the altar rail to do so, not just this Sunday, but any Sunday. Then, we’ll all come to the font, to remember our baptisms. I will invite everyone who has been baptized to come forward to participate. If you’ve never been baptized but you can feel God drawing you, don’t come forward today, because I want to find a time to sit down and talk about how God is working in your life, so we can then schedule your baptism so you may participate in this grace-filled mystery of God.

I close with this story. Almost exactly two years ago, January 11, 2009, I was preaching at Blackburn’s Chapel in Todd, NC. Blackburn’s Chapel was a satellite location of Boone United Methodist Church; we were one church who met in many locations. It was also Baptism of the Lord Sunday. David Scott, one of our musicians from Boone, went with me to Blackburn’s Chapel to lead music on that day. He brought his two sons, Daniel (17) and Matt (15), with him. I should also let you know that I have permission to share this story from both David and Lana, the boys’ parents.

The service concluded that day as we will today, with me inviting everyone in the congregation who had been baptized to come down the center aisle to the font, where I touched the water, made the sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead, and said, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

Two days later, on Tuesday afternoon, the receptionist handled a phone call in the outer office. It was the Emergency Department at Watauga Medical Center calling on behalf of the Scott family who requested the immediate presence of a pastor. I was the only staff pastor in the office, so I dropped what I was working on and broke every traffic law flying across town to the hospital.

I was ushered into the back corner of the Emergency Department where paramedics and emergency staff were performing CPR on 17-year-old Daniel. His mother, Lana, had come home from work and hit the garage door opener as she pulled in the drive. The door opened, a fog of smoke rolled out, and Lana found Daniel, sitting in his truck in the closed garage with the engine running. She called 911 and began CPR. Paramedics continued CPR the whole way to the hospital and for some time after they arrived until they finally stopped shortly after I arrived. They never did receive a response.

For years, depression had been one the demons plaguing Daniel’s life. It had caused difficulty in his relationships, in his schoolwork, in his overall interest and engagement with people and activities. And like a train of cars each filled with a negative thought, those thoughts kept coming until finally he saw no way forward except to end the torment within his own mind.

Sometime after CPR was stopped and everyone spent some time with Daniel, we returned to the family conference room. David, Daniel’s father, looked at me and asked if Daniel had come forward on Sunday to remember his baptism. Daniel had been sitting on the back row, and I remember he allowed everyone else in the congregation to come forward before he jumped up from his seat and strode deliberately down the aisle. I remember his hair was hanging down in his eyes as it always was, and I had to push back his hair to get to his forehead, which I touched with the water and made the sign of the cross, and said, “Daniel, remember your baptism, and be thankful.”

We are told in the Scriptures that God’s will is ever-directed toward his children’s good. Clearly, Daniel committing suicide was not what God wanted for Daniel’s life. I think God would have said, “You are here way too soon. I had so much more I wanted you to see and experience and accomplish. Even so, in the waters of baptism, I named you as my own and claimed you as my beloved son. I know the demons that have plagued you, the mental illness that trapped and warped your thoughts, the feelings of hopelessness and despair that led you to think this was the best possible option for you to pursue. And, my grace is sufficient for you, for this and every time of need. I am sorry for the pain and torment you went through, and my love for you is greater than all those thoughts and feelings, and my grace is greater than even this destructive thing you have done.”

Friends, we come back today to the waters of baptism – the same waters that claimed Daniel, and you, and me – and named us as God’s own. Through these waters, God led his people out of captivity and we are led out of whatever holds us captive. Through these waters, our sin is washed away and we are clothed in righteousness. Through these waters, we are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation – all this is God’s free gift, offered to us without price. What shall separate us from the love of God? Nothing.