Here are my thoughts for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, 16 September 2007. I am preaching at Dover UMC (Dover Plains, NY) this weekend. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 4: 11 – 12, 22 – 28; 1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17; and Luke 15: 1 – 10.
This has been edited since it was first published on 15 September 2007.
As most people know, I have a Ph. D. in Science Education with an emphasis in chemical education. But many people are surprised when they find out I am also a lay minister.
Somehow the training that you receive to be a chemist is not appropriate for the ministry. In one sense, that is correct. In an ideal world, one receives the call to follow Christ at a young age and goes to college to get degrees with a theological orientation. In our society today, those who choose to walk a path that wanders through scientific laboratories automatically eliminate religion from their lives.
We live in an interesting society. It is one that encourages individuality but only when everyone else is doing the same thing. When you choose to walk a different path and find a different solution to the questions in your life, you are often labeled a heretic, a rebel, or sometimes something worse.
To follow Christ is to walk a different path, to take a different journey than the one society thinks you should walk. Being a minister does not mean that you spend all your time in cloistered seminaries, pondering the imponderable and asking great questions of life that are only answerable in the ethereal wonder of life. I have had the pleasure of knowing several individuals whose call to follow Christ came during a first career. One pastor was a lawyer before he heard the call from the Supreme Judge of Life; another was a printer before he began preaching the words of the prophets instead of putting them on paper; and a third was a nurse before she began her work as an assistant to the Great Healer. A good friend of mine is both a Catholic priest and an organic chemist. You can believe in science and God at the same time and suffer no ill effects.
But, at a time when our world is becoming more and more complex, at a time when the direction the world is taking it becomes even more confusing, we are not sure where we can turn for direction and guidance. Do we turn to science and hope that science and technology can build us a better path? Or do we turn to religion and hope that there is substance to something we cannot see or define?
But what we see when we turn to either area makes it even more confusing. Too many people in the church today tells us that science is lying (See “Why the Creation-Evolution Controversy Is Important”) and too many people in science tell us that there is no God and all that churches do is offer some illusion to life.
We would like to find direction in the church today but we sense a dissonance there. We hear and see preachers whose message is one of prosperity through the Gospel. We think to ourselves that it must be working because these preachers command great fees for their appearances and lead lifestyles that reflect the wealth they say we all can gain. There seem to be great crowds wherever they go and we remember that Jesus Christ also had great crowds following Him. But we read in the Gospel that Jesus taught us to give up wealth, not seek it. And we remember that the crowds began to leave Jesus when He spoke of the commitments that one would have to make and the work that people would have to do in order for one soul to be saved.
We remember that Jesus welcomed all who sought Him, not just the rich and the powerful but the poor, the meek, the weak and the sick. We remember Jesus speaking of freeing the oppressed and then we see and hear preachers preach a litany of hatred, exclusion, and war.
We see and hear preachers give us sets of rules that will make our lives better but we see that they don’t follow the rules that they want to impose on us. We see and hear preachers who want to tell us what to believe and how to think. We see and hear preachers who want us to ignore the signs of the world around us because what we find in the real world conflicts with what the Bible tells us. Each day, as these contradictions become so much clearer, that feeling of dissonance comes over us.
Perhaps we can find a life through simple, rational thought. When mankind was just beginning to find its path in this world, it was easy to believe in gods. Gods provided the reason and the answer for why there was rain and wind, snow and cold, hot and dry. Gods provided the reason for why there was war and why we had to fight; gods provided the reason why people got sick and died or just suffered. As we grew in our ability to understand the world around us, these gods diminished in their importance in our lives.
Now we hear that there are no gods; that the God that we worship on Sunday is only a construct of our imagination and not the product of rationale thought. Everything that we seek or desire is found within us, not in a church on Sunday. Only in rational thought based on what we see and hear in the physical world will we find the path that we want to walk.
Proponents of rational thought cannot explain why every culture has some form of Supreme Being. They cannot explain why all cultures have stories that explain how mankind came into existence. The only way they can explain why there is evil in the world is to suggest that it is part of human nature. In a world based solely on empirical evidence, good and evil become part of us and determined by who we are and where we are. Our lives are then controlled by the real world and the concept of free will has no place in our lives. If we have no free will, we cannot choose; if we cannot choose, then there is no hope. And we find in the seemingly safe world of rational thought and empirical evidence the same dissonance that we find in the church.
The problem is that we are not going to find the answers we seek nor determine the direction that we are to go in a wholly scientific setting or in a wholly theological one. Science and religion speak two languages; science speaks the language of facts while religion speaks the language of values. Science attends to objective knowledge about objects in the present whereas religion attends to subjective knowledge about transcendent dimensions of ultimate concern. As Albert Einstein once noted, “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” Science works best when it explains what is happening and religion works best when it explains what it means to us (http://www.elca.org/faithandscience/covalence/story/content/06-06-15-peters-1.asp; I am not sure if this link still works).
If we try to live a life by rules imposed on us through science or religion, we will quickly find ourselves trapped in a prison of our making. Both scientific fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists want us to follow rules that have very little flexibility. They offer a philosophy but not a direction. They give answers but not to the questions that we face each day. Christianity is not a philosophy and Jesus Christ was not a philosopher.
Christianity is a pathway, a way of life. It is not a set of creeds and doctrines that require total obedience. Christianity was, in fact, a reaction to a religion narrowly defined by law and ritual. The people of “The Way” swept through the Mediterranean world like a “mighty wind” of radical freedom. (Adapted from “Why The Christian Right Is Wrong” by Robin Meyers, page 68)
Instead of a society where the rules focused on what you did within society, a society was created where everyone was free and your concern was for the others as much as it was for yourself. This was an idea first expressed in the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments do not begin with “Here are the Ten Commandments, learn them by rote,” or, “Here are the Ten Commandments, obey them.” Rather, they begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
The Ten Commandments are not rules that confine people but set them free. As Joe Roos noted, the Ten Commandments set you free from using the ways of society to get ahead. (Adapted from “The Foolishness of the Cross” by Joe Roos in Sojourners, August 2007) You need not covet what your neighbor has or steal their belongings to establish who you are. Yes, they are rules but they are rules to live by, not confine us. They offer direction, not imprisonment. It is a freedom that extends to all and it is a freedom that we must seek for all.
The words of Jeremiah this morning (Jeremiah 4: 11 – 22; 22 – 28) apply today as much as they did some three thousand years ago. Jeremiah speaks of the words of the Lord who warns the people about limiting their understanding to simply following a set of rules. From Jeremiah 4: 22 we read, “My people are foolish and do not know me. They are stupid children who have no understanding. They are clever enough at doing wrong, but they have no idea how to do right!” (Jeremiah 4: 22) The terms “foolish” and “silly” that are used in this passage from Jeremiah are contrary to the terms “knowledge” and “understanding”. Understanding means going beyond the basic information. The Lord, through Jeremiah, is warning the people that they are walking the wrong path; they are headed in the wrong direction. Instead of sustaining the world, they are destroying it; all because they have not taken the time to understand what the world is about and what it means.
Paul, in referring to his own career as a prosecutor of Christians (1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17), says the same thing. He recognizes that his life before his encounter with Christ was one fixed in the law, unchanging in its nature, and essentially doomed to failure and defeat.
The journey with Christ goes beyond the limits of society’s rules. The journey with Christ goes beyond how one thinks of themselves but rather how one thinks of others. If you accept Christ as your savior, you make a commitment to walk a new path and find a new way. If you accept Christ as your Savior, then you go beyond just posting the Ten Commandments on courtroom walls. You seek to put “blessed are the merciful” on the same walls; you seek to put “blessed are the peacemakers” on the walls of the Pentagon. As Jesus pointed out in the parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep (Luke 15: 1- 10), you are more concerned for the one who is lost more than the ones who are saved.
If you accept Christ as your savior, you have said that you will not be limited in your belief to just the things around you or things somewhat ethereal. Rather, your world becomes a world of great possibilities, of understanding the world in which we live and the one which was provided by our divine creator.
We are called today to begin this journey. It is a journey that began some two thousand years ago when a group of people gathered in a room to celebrate a journey from slavery and death to freedom. Those in that room that night did not understand that their journey was just beginning; they did not understand that the words of freedom and victory that their teacher and our Lord spoke were not just thoughts but steps. They did not understand then but would in a few days understand what the words of freedom truly meant. We know today what the words of freedom and victory over sin and death mean. Thus we are called to continue the journey that was begun so many years ago. Let us begin that journey.