Sunday, September 15, 2013

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 14
1 The fool[a] says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
3 All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
4 Do all these evildoers know nothing?
They devour my people as though eating bread;
they never call on the Lord.
5 But there they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is present in the company of the righteous.
6 You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.
7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!

Karl Barth once said that we should read with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

Or did he? Well, it turns out that the formulation that become a quote that became a touchstone that became a mantra that become the centrepiece of every United Church preaching course since the beginning is hard to pin down.

Even the good people at the Princeton Theological Seminary Library admit that the exact quote cannot be found. The closest thing they have been able to find is a reference in a later interview where Professor Barth said something like ‘of course you remember that time I said the thing about the Bible and the newspaper?’ Well, that’s good enough for me.

Preaching, you see, is really about a collision of weekly events that conspire to create sermon. They are, in no particular order: the readings for the day; events in the world; the latest theological ideas trapped in the preacher’s brain; the concerns of the congregation; the state of the church, both local and worldwide; whatever the preacher said the last time these readings came up; the season of the church year; and the temperature in the sanctuary. MIx, ruminate, bake at 350° and preach. It’s really as simple as that.

But if you took Barth at his word—and he was the greatest theologian of the last century—then you need to put current events near the top of the pile. And that becomes a problem. Long gone are the days when people would open the Globe or that other paper and read the most important stories of the day. We are confronted by the greatest variety of news sources in human history at the same time many argue that depth and accuracy is suffering as never before.

So there is too much news and the quality of dubious. And if that were not enough, there is a constant tension between news that is topical and the news better described as the ‘state of the world.’ Syria fits the first category, while trouble in the Middle East fits in the second. Or the latest jobless numbers might be in the first category, while poverty might properly be put in the second. And all fall under the banner of news.

And then there is the question of volume. Not the microphone kind, but the volume of any one area of discussion and what it can do to your preaching. There are current event preachers, latest movie preachers, famous poem preachers, ‘my foolish children’ preachers and the worst of the lot: hobby-horse preachers. You know them: doesn’t matter what reading or seasonal road they’re on, they always pull up in the same place.

And then a Sunday comes when the sermon basically writes itself. This is that Sunday. Irritated and grumpy from reading all that Premier Marois had to say about her so-called “Values Charter,” I turned to the readings for today and read:

The fool says in her heart, “There is no God.”

I think I made my point: I may as well sit down. But what would be the fun in that?

For those who spent the week on silent retreat or on a remote island somewhere, the Quebec Values Charter is proposed legislation that would disallow conspicuous religious symbols or clothing for public servants in Quebec, including teachers, day-care workers or anyone else employed through a provincially-funded agency. The release of this proposed charter included crudely drawn pictures of the subject of the legislation: a turban, a headscarf, even the back view of a Jewish man wearing a Kippa. Without exaggeration, I would suggest that the last time a government published cartoonish pictures of a Jewish man in a condemning manner would be in Germany in the 1930’s.

But the real story has been the fallout since mid-week. A giant fissure has emerged, not between religious and non-religious as you might have expected, but between separatists who favour freedom of expression and those who do not. All I can say is ‘stay tuned,’ because when began as a potential ‘black-eye’ for Canada and Quebec is quickly becoming a political farce.

Meanwhile, the fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’ The other news event that has captivated the attention of many in the last few years is the rise of what some are calling the “New Atheists.” The late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and two lesser known associates have been playfully called ‘the four housemen’ of this movement, a movement to defeat the influence of religion in contemporary life.

In many ways it is part of the response to the trauma of 9-11 and the general perception that militant Islam, and conservative Christianity on the other side, pose the greatest threat to peace in our day. At the same time, secularism (or atheism) seems to evolve and advance as science and commerce displace the liberal arts in education. It’s also a young persons viewpoint, more commonly held among those under 30.

Whatever the root, I can say with some certainty that God is worried, though not for the reasons we might think. The first hint of this is found back in Psalm 14, when the Psalmist continues to elaborate of the foolishness of those who claim there is no God:

They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.

Well, there’s your problem: God looked down on all of humanity to find a little understanding, to see if anyone truly sought after God, and was bitterly disappointed. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. In other words, God sees only atheists.

The word atheist, atheoi in the Greek (αθεοι) literally means ‘those who are without God.’ So for the Psalmist, those who are disobedient, those who reject God’s ways, are atheists, and are without God. Something to think about the next time you are planning to be bad.

The second thing that worries God in this era of the new atheists is best expressed, naturally, in the Book of Job. In this passage it is Zophar, one of Job’s so-called comforters that puts him (and the rest of us) on the spot:

Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—
what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—
what can you know?

In other words, it is foolishness to speak with any kind of certainty about the ways of God. Except that Zophar and the other two ‘comforters’ spend the rest of the Book of Job doing exactly that. And then God speaks, and it ain’t pretty:

2 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Gird yourself up like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

Appropriately, Job is speechless. And one is left to wonder, what if many of the world’s most prolific religious commentators were speechless in the face of God? What if they (and we) spent at least half our time confessing that God is a mystery, unknowable, and therefore will not speak.

In some ways, the new atheists are right: too many people spend too much time describing how their view of God is utterly correct and everyone else’s view is completely wrong. Of course, the new atheists have fallen into the very same trap, so certain of their view of the cosmos that they have become fundamentalists too.

We are not, however, condemned to silence for long. We can speak of our experience of God, we can speak of conclusions drawn from careful study of the Bible, and we can learn of God from the saints that have gone before and share their stories of conviction and faith.

There is another Karl Barth story, no better documented that the quote I began with, but passed down from the first people to heard the story. Dr. Barth was speaking with seminarians at Princeton, or maybe Union in Virginia, when one of them asked the great professor to sum up his theological legacy in a single sentence. He thought a moment, then said: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”



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