Transcribed from the sermon preached March 8, 2015
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Exodus 20: 1-20, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The cross is a symbol, which St. Paul confessed to the Corinthians, was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. For at least some of the Jews, if Jesus died on a cross, executed by the Roman authorities and rejected by the leadership of the temple, that was evidence that Jesus should remain in the dustbin of history, forgotten and rejected. After all, would you found a religion on the teachings of a convicted and exiled felon, they wondered? The Messiah was to be a triumphant King. Also the fact that he died in such a cruel and painful way was a sign, they argued, that God had forsaken him. After all, God takes care of the good and punishes the evil, right?
For the Gentiles, the idea that God would become human was nonsense. A divinity who would submit to humiliation, weakness, suffering and death at the hands of human beings, as Jesus did, was evidence that his claims were false. Paul went on in his defense of the cross to say that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. The cross was the place where God’s love for us was made manifest by Christ’s entering into the suffering of the world. That, Paul argued, was the power of God and the wisdom of God demonstrated in action.
Faith in God and Jesus remains foolishness and a stumbling block for many today. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have faith in God. Sometimes I think it would just be easier to consider the material world all that is real and important. Sometimes I wish I didn’t care as much about others. My faith in God is so weak that I do not see her; I cannot even imagine God. I have no image of God in my head. There is no theistic grand guy in my head. As a young person I was jealous of those people who just seemed sure of their faith. They spoke as if they had it all figured out. I prayed to have faith like that, faith without doubt. When that didn’t work, I also prayed, or tried to not have faith. I read Nietzsche, Sartre, Marx, Freud and biologists and physicists who insist there is no God. I found most of their arguments reasonable, or at least plausible. But their case was far from fully convincing. I learned the extreme of freedom is alienation and loneliness. John Ortberg talked about two kinds of freedom: freedom from others telling us what to do and the freedom to become the best we can be. Obedience to God gives us the second kind of freedom – the freedom to be who we were created to be.
Nietzsche was insane and depressed and along with Sartre, they almost made me go crazy so I had to stop reading them. What is the point of truth that makes us lonely, crazy and depressed? Certainly there has to be more truth and freedom than that? Freud was a brilliant genius shooting in the dark, just making stuff up along the way. Aside from the basic important truth that the conscious mind is just the tip of the ice berg, that we are driven by a deep and dark unconscious, with various parts with different motivations debating in our head, and that it can be helpful to confess of our sin to someone, now no longer called a priest but a therapist, much of his theorizing is simply complex hogwash. And for someone who helped the mentally ill, he was pretty loopy himself. In my graduate work I studied the great psychologists, and as a family systems guy I looked into their personal lives. Put it this way, if most of them were under the scrutiny of the average NFL player, they wouldn’t be the famous people they are today.
Marx didn’t think everything was about sex like Freud, but instead it was economics. His was a brilliant, illuminating and important analysis of history, but his imagined solution not so great in reality. He was right that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” but that is not all religion is, nor is religion the only thing that may serve as an opiate. Opium itself, and sex and nationalism are a couple of other things that come to mind. Religion was not an opiate for Moses or the Israelites, for Amos or Isaiah, for Jesus, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King Jr.
I really don’t have much disagreement with the biologists and physicists, at least about their claims on material reality. It is just that there has been so much evidence, which I have to admit is too complex, dynamic and deep to be empirically verifiable, that there is a spirit which is greater than our individual minds and not constrained by the material world. The sum is greater than its parts. And science talks about the how but not the why. And we know that science is not value neutral, but arises from within a cultural and economic context which influences what it looks for and the meaning it gives to what it finds. This does not mean science does not contribute greatly to our understanding of reality, just that it is always an approximate best guess in the current moment. The great thing about science is that accumulation of empirical evidence critiques and builds on itself. But that very idea gave us the arrogant idea that this building of knowledge would inevitably lead to an ongoing improvement of life. Yet while there have been amazing advances and improvements in technology for which we thank God, life is still plagued with deadly sin, sadness, loneliness, injustice and oppression, and indeed all life on the planet is threatened.
If psychology has made the claim that God is located in our mind, some see from cognitive science’s study of the brain that there could be a function in the brain, which makes us religious and believe in God. If there is a part of our brain that gives us the capacity to imagine God, some say, then that proves God doesn’t exist. But what is news about that? Of course there is a part of our brain that gives us the capacity to imagine God. There is a jump from the facts to what the facts mean. How else would God get our attention?
In the same way some have argued, depending on their field of study, that God and religion evolved in our mind or within community or culture to serve some psychological, economic or evolutionary benefit. And then some jump from that conclusion to say that if God and religion evolved to serve a mental, communal and economic purpose, then God doesn’t really exist. Again to that I say, of course our notions of God and religion have evolved in our mind and brain to serve some evolutionary function. But is that evidence against God or for God. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody has evolved ears to hear it, does it make a sound? If a child does not develop or has an accident, and loses capacity to be conscious of her mother’s love, does that mean she has no mother or that her mother does not love her? (Remember that question, I will come back to it.) If there is a Creative Spirit whose creatures have not yet evolved to perceive it, or evolve in a direction to no longer perceive it, does it exist? Or maybe as the psalmist says, the mere existence of life is testimony to God:
 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
It is simply a jump in logic to assume that if we evolved there is no God. I am fine to admit that I cannot prove that there is a Creator who evolved us. Logic cannot take us there.
Some more recently have gone so far as to claim belief in God and religion is an evolutionary mistake. Let us weigh it in the balance. I have no idea how long humans have been attempting to imagine or understand God. But let’s say a conservative guess is about 10,000 years, two to three thousand years for the major world religions. Now modern science and capitalism have been around a couple of hundred years, and in that short time we now have the very real capacity to destroy life on the planet as we know it through destruction of ecosystems, climate change, or if that isn’t fast enough, nuclear weapons. The verdict is still out on what is a mistake. While we are on the timeline, evolutionary, economic point of view, we know that the major world religions all arose within about a 500-year time span, in part as a response to the imbalance of power and injustice in the great civilizations which arose around agriculture along the great rivers valleys. In other words the God liberated the people from slavery along the Nile River Valley, and gave them the Ten Commandments to help set people on the right evolutionary path so society will not destroy itself.
Nietzsche and Ayn Rand and Machiavelli and Hitler, perhaps coming to this conclusion from slightly different directions, felt that religious faith was for the weak, and that superior men who were the warriors and great reasoning minds would build and dominate society. There are all sorts of evidence for this point of view. And it has been the point of view of the powerful. If I can take it or make it, why not? Why should I let the idea of an invisible God stop me? If I don’t take it, someone else will. If I don’t use my mind to make what I can, and use what I make to gain more power to control my destiny, then someone else will. We the great ones lift everyone else up in the wake of our greatness. Whoever doesn’t recognize our success and power as ours is our enemy. It is a dog eat dog world and we should strive to be the big dog. God is unnecessary for the smart and powerful. There is lots of evidence that this is the big truth of the world. Certainly it is part of the truth.
The problem is that while selfishness can be very productive, it can hurt too. For instance the woman who promoted selfishness as virtue, Ayn Rand, now popular with some Christians who say they are for family values, decided she liked another younger married man, so the two couples had a meeting where she convinced them a well ordered affair was appropriate. Her husband became an alcoholic. After a while, her lover had an affair with still another women, this one much younger than Ayn. Rand, now the one who was hurt by someone else’s selfishness, like an angry dictator, lost control and banished all related parties from their group of super men. Apparently they weren’t so super after all.
Back to kinds of freedom: there is freedom to do as we want, to have sex or pollute where we want. Then there is freedom from the harmful actions of others – from the pain of adultery or the poison of pollution or theft. Freedom to be violent and freedom from violence.
But over all those arguments against God and faith, it is suffering that poses the biggest problem for me. Where is God in a world of suffering? Why, if we have faith, can we not avoid it? In my mind, Jesus answers this question by a redefinition of God. Remember the question above: If a child does not develop or loses the capacity to conceive and feel a mother’s love, does the mother and the mother’s love exist? If the world deems someone of no value, does that person have value? If the world deems love powerless, does love have no power?
If we live in a world where we gain no knowledge or experience of God’s love, or through loss or selfishness we break from our experience of the presence of God and God’s love, does that presence and love continue to exist? If for whatever reason, our mind, our brain, our economics, our reason our suffering leads us to lose our faith and love in God and other life in our own life, does God lose faith and love for us? If it turns out we are not supermen, do we have value? The question is not finally what is the material composition of God. The question is, does our material life have value? The question is, does the essence of love and beauty and harmony have power independent of our transitory, finite, fallible and sinful existence?
God in Christ Jesus, in the flesh on the cross answers yes! Emphatically, eternally yes. Can we be free even if we are stuck to a cross? Yes! Can the power of love revive and transform your life and the world? Yes! Are you loved and of value whether you or others recognize it or not? Yes! Is this material life beautiful even though we suffer? Yes! Love through Christ, in Christ, with Christ. Yes I believe. Lord, help my unbelief.