Sermon By Rev Joel Crouse
This week, a Facebook friend posted something interesting about religion. So that we would know where they were coming from, they led off by saying that they don’t believe there is a God. The post quoted a Rabbi, and apparently it has made the rounds on social media. In the post, the Rabbi is asked why God created atheists. The rabbi answers, saying that atheists set an important example for people who believe in God: When they do something good, it is not because they believe they were commanded by God, or are afraid of God, but just because they saw a need and acted. So, the rabbi said, when someone is in need, we shouldn’t settle for things like “I will pray for you,” but we should act like an atheist, as if there is no God, and help. Now I always find posts like this interesting because they are often a backhanded way to take shots at organized religion. And let’s be clear: organized religion is an easy target. But those mistakes are human, not divine. Also, the rabbi’s joke is in the question, which assumes God created atheists. And let’s also remember that Paul made a similar observation in a recent gospel lesson when he posed the question, “What is faith without action?” This morning our second lesson includes the point that we are justified by faith – an idea captured in the Augsburg Confession, and highlighted last week by our four confirmands. This idea of acting in good ways because are told to do so, or because we are afraid of what God will do to us if we don’t, is not part of our Lutheran faith; and it is not part of the gospel. Jesus sets an example of a giving life so that we might follow. People who are afraid, or cowed, or trod upon, have trouble making choices and initiating action. This idea of a judging, commanding God is not just the opposite of what we hear in the gospel; it is counterproductive. To risk action when we are needed, we must be empowered. Our faith is that power. I guess I feel the need to push back because too often faith finds its way into the public square in ways that make me, as a pastor, as a progressive Christian, and as a Lutheran, uncomfortable. When a mass shooting happens, and instead of people’s finding earthly ways to fix the problem they talk again and again about saying prayers, I feel angry: that is not faith: it is a deflection of responsibility, an acceptance that evil happens to some people and we live with it. When a belief in God is used by one side to condescend to or condemn another side, that makes me cringe: faith is not a tool for human judgment. Indeed, when people find out I am a pastor, one of two things usually happens: The conversation ends, or the conversation takes off. Usually, it is the latter. People want to talk about meaning and purpose and the point of life - all subjects that are central to the gospel of Jesus. We don’t talk about those things enough in the world. It is not enough to expect us to know what to do when the moment of crisis arrives, when doubt hits, when uncertainty paralyzes us. How much better able we are to act in those moments if we have already considered them. That is a journey our faith takes us on all our lives: a consideration of purpose and meaning. Faith is complex: that is why we have a Triune God – a Creator, a redeemer, and a sanctifier. For God is complexity; God is many things to us at the same time. God is a guide, God is a teacher, God is inspiration. And at different times in our lives, those images of God serve different roles. We don’t need to put God anywhere – not in heaven, or on earth, or in the air – but if we need to in the moment, we can centre God in one place. In fact, what fascinates me about our idea of the Trinity is that it is a lesson in nuance, in an ability to see beyond ourselves, to not require certainty to believe: God is many things and one thing. That is why this passage from Proverbs deserves particular attention. What was placed at the side of God, at the very beginning when the world came to be? Is it judgement or shame? Is it fear? No, it is wisdom. And according to the writer’s description, what is wisdom? The lines that answer that question are missing from our reading, which is unfortunate, because they are profoundly important. They speak of a wisdom that came before everything else.