This is a sermon that I gave on October 26, 2003,for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church. The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; and Mark 10: 46 – 52.
If one thing has surprised me over the years that I have been a lay speaker, it is that more people have not asked about the possible conflict between being a chemist and being a preacher. I do know that at least one university search committee was not comfortable with my stated plans of pursuing a second career in the ministry while maintaining a career in chemical education. And at least one person openly rejoiced that I was in the pulpit. But he figured that I would somehow give scientific credence to the Biblical story of creation and help lead the fight to remove the teaching of evolution from the local schools.
In both cases, those involved on the other side failed to see that it was possible to have scientific beliefs while at the same time maintaining a strong faith in God. The two are not mutually inclusive; one does not determine the other. Science is based on what you see and the information developed from what you see; faith is about what is in your heart and what you believe. Granted, if you believe that God created the world in seven days, you will have a hard time with the physical evidence that suggests otherwise. But if you feel that the story of creation in the Bible was for the purpose of explaining why we are here in the first place, then there is no conflict. And if you put the story into the time frame and the fact that it was first told to people who knew little of the world beyond the horizon, then there is also no conflict between the Bible and science
The one thing that no cosmologist has ever determined is how the “Big Bang”, the basic notion about how the universe started, itself was started. In other words, we can determine how the universe was started but not who started it or why. And it will be a very long time before we can. But that is the point. We can determine what God did but never can we determine why He did it. God told Job as much last week and reaffirms it this week.
But, even today, with an open mind, we still find people who want to close their minds to other possibilities. We find people who twist and turn empirical data simply in a vain attempt to prove non-scientific theories about creation and the universe.
There is, in the scientific community, a group that awards prizes to people for their novel, if nothing else, ideas. In 2001 the IgNoble Prize in astrophysics was awarded to Dr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe of Jack Van Impe Ministries, Rochester Hills, Michigan, for their discovery that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell. (ASTROPHYSICS – Dr. Jack and Rexella Van Impe of Jack Van Impe Ministries, Rochester Hills, Michigan, for their discovery that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell. [REFERENCE: The March 31, 2001 television and Internet broadcast of the "Jack Van Impe Presents" program (at about the 12 minute mark).] It should be noted that the particular broadcast is no longer available.) I will leave it to you to determine if a Christian fundamentalist and evangelist has the technical qualification to identify and characterize a phenomena that has yet to be determined by even the most resolute of astrophysicists.
Now, before anyone should think that I will limit this discourse to a select few who use the Bible to justify or create scientific discoveries, I also have some disdain, if not disbelief, in those who would use science to justify the Bible.
There is a book entitled “The Passover Plot”. The synopsis of this book is that Jesus was a fact and that He faked His death on the cross. The author builds a case to suggest that Jesus manipulated everything to fool the people. Even the climatic scene on Calvary, when Jesus breathes His last, is faked.
In John 19:28 we read
After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said “I thirst!” Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit. (John 19: 28 – 30)
To the author of “The Passover Plot” this cry of thirst was a signal from Jesus to his disciples to give Him a drug that would make him pass out. I am not sure that were I seeking to create such a conspiracy that I would have let it go that far, especially knowing that crucifixion was the most hideous torture ever developed. But if you believe that the resurrection could not have happened, because rational science does allow for such things, then it is a perfectly reasonable explanation.
More recently, the whole concept of God and the existence of God has come into play. We heard the questions following September 11th; we have heard the questions every time a suicide bomber sets off a bomb in the Middle East. How can there be a God if there is such evil or injustice in the world today. If God is a loving God, how can He allow hatred and intolerance to exist in the world today?
These are questions that mankind has been asking ever since the book of Job was written. The author Lee Strobel has written a very interesting book, entitled “The Case for Faith” and he identifies eight questions that anyone seeking to define their faith must consider:
- If there’s a loving god, why does this pain-wracked world groan under so much suffering and evil?
- If the miracles of God contradict science, then how can any rational person believe that they are true?
- If God really created the universe, why does the persuasive evidence of science compel so many to conclude that the unguided process of evolution accounts for life?
- If God is morally pure, how can he sanction the slaughter of innocent children as the Old Testament says He did?
- If Jesus is the only way to heaven, then what about the millions of people who have never heard of Him?
- If God cares about the people He created, how could He consign so many of them to an eternity of torture in hell just because they didn’t believe the right things about Him?
- If God is the ultimate overseer of the church, why has it been rife with hypocrisy and brutality throughout the ages?
- If I’m still plagued by doubts, then is it still possible to be a Christian? (The Case of Faith – Lee Strobel)
These are objections well founded in our attempts to put the Bible in a rational world. And it would make a very interesting series to look at and work on; but time works against that thought at the moment. But as I read the book and looked at the questions, I had to ask myself, “where is mankind in the equation?” Why, if we believe that God gave us the ability to discern what is right and what is wrong, then why do we blame God for the troubles of the world? Where do we fit into the whole thing? If it is all God’s fault, then there is nothing we can do and nothing we do will change things. But if we are God’s representatives on earth, then we are at least partially responsible for whatever might take place on this earth.
Those who seek to blame God for everything, all the cruelty, intolerance, hatred, and evil forget that God gives us the opportunity to work against those forces. And God calls on us to find Him amidst all that is this world.
The ultimate questions are about God and who God is. Job understood that God was a loving God who would not tolerate injustice or evil and all he (Job) wanted was an opportunity to meet God. But there are those, especially in the fundamentalist branches of the major religions of the world today, who do not want us to find God. They do not want us to seek God. The 1999 IgNoble Prize in Science Education was given to the Kansas State Board of Education and the Colorado State Board of Education, for mandating that children should not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution any more than they should believe in Newton’s theory of gravitation, Faraday’s and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, or Pasteur’s theory that germs cause disease.
Those on the Kansas Board of Education were openly fundamentalist Christians. Their rationales for dropping Darwinian evolution from the high school science curriculum was that it was false teaching and thus, not appropriate for students to learn. Their thoughts were also that, since alternative theories of evolution could not be taught in science, no theories should be taught. Of course, what they considered an alternative theory of evolution is not an alternative theory, at least, from a scientific standpoint and that is what the courts have repeatedly ruled.
Though the ruling, at least in Kansas, was reversed it still bothers me. It bothers me because it says that Christians do not want free inquiry into the nature of the world. Instead of seeking the truth, we are to accept what a select few individuals feel is appropriate. We are seeing many more examples, even in the United Methodist Church, of individuals seeking to limit what is considered the truth.
But finding what the truth is should be our primary goal. In John 8: 32 Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It is the truth that will set us free, free from sin and death. It is the truth that sets us free to work against intolerance, war, poverty, and physical death.
This place, this sanctuary should be a place where the truth is manifested in the way we treat people, both those who are members of this community and those outside this community’s boundaries. We should be able to say to all who come to this place that they are welcome. Those who come into this sanctuary should know that their thoughts are welcome and that we want them to help as we seek to reach our common goals.
I have always thought that was the purpose of the Gospel. Jesus said to all that society was not to be controlled by a few or that the rules of society would be so restrictive that creativity and growth were impossible.
A church that seeks to limit the creativity of its members, a church that seeks to govern by a strict interpretation of the rules is one doomed to die. It will not be a quick death but rather a slow and painful one. It will be a death that comes because there is no growth.
While many churches would say that they are places of solace and hope, they are also places that are closed to society. They are churches that say, “We do not want society to disturb our quiet and solace; we do not want to be reminded of the problems of the world”. These churches say, “We do not want to share what we have with those who do not have”. This too is a church that will die; it will die because the Gospel cannot live in such an environment.
In Jeremiah 31: 8, Jeremiah described the community that God gathered to Israel, “among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together, a great company.” Only in God’s kingdom will we find that the most vulnerable are considered “great company.” In God’s community, all are welcomed and included, even and especially the powerless.
The Gospel reading for today also reflects God’s attention to the vulnerable. Bartimaeus calls upon Jesus to heal him, insisting even though “many sternly ordered him to be quiet. (Mark 10: 48) His persistence is rewarded: Jesus asks what he wants. “My teacher, let me see again” is his only request. This brief story is in the Gospels to remind us of what a disciple is like. He knows that he is blind and that he wants to see. Unlike the rich young ruler who had everything but was unwilling to give it all up, he is willing to follow Jesus. (From “Living the Word” by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners – September/October 2003)
We have marginalized the poor, the impoverished. We have said to those on the outside that they cannot come in. Those that Jesus healed were marginalized by society, cast aside and forgotten. It does not matter that we think of Jesus’ healing as miracles or by some unexplained medicine that He learned somewhere.
Whichever explanation we personally accept limits our vision. And if there is one thing that we must not do, it is limit our vision. For if we limit our vision then we are not able to bring the Gospel to anyone, including ourselves.
If we limit what it is we can do, we cannot do much. And that brings us to the most basic question of all. What type of church do we want Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church to be? It is a question that must be answered and it must be answered quickly.
Whether you believe that the Bible is the complete and only answer or that you believe that everything can be explained by a rationale and scientific process, it is important that you believe. And it is important that you believe that God loved you so much that He would send His only son so that whosoever believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.
The blind man had faith and he saw. John Newton was blind to the evils of the world until he met Jesus Christ in the middle of the Atlantic. But when he met Christ his life changed. John Wesley came to know that there was a Holy Spirit and that through the power of the Spirit was able to create a movement that changed the world.
The evidence before us tells us that faith will endure. Now we must ask ourselves if we have the faith of the blind man. Will we be able to see the future or will we remain blind?