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Sermon for February 15, 2015: Blind Faith
Some of you may be acquainted with Stephen Fry, a British comedian, actor, and Cambridge-educated author. Personally, I had only a vague idea of who he was until a couple of weeks ago when he gave an interview to an Irish television reporter in which he aggressively argued against believing in God – sparking an enormous number of responses from all over the world. You may wonder why the beliefs of a British comedian matter, much less provoke serious theological debate, but what he said in the interview clearly pushed some serious buttons.
It’s not that he said he didn’t believe in God – after all, we know that lots of people don’t. It’s what he said when the reporter asked him to imagine that God did exist and tell him what he would do if he met God. “I’d say,” Fry asserted, “Bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right; it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”
Now, clearly there are many ways to respond to Fry’s statement. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, took a sympathetic and pastoral route, telling the BBC that “It would be a very, very stupid and insensitive person who never felt” the way Fry did. Ian McNie, the newly elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, wasn’t quite so diplomatic. McNie said, “The Bible says that the God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers that they cannot see the light of the Gospel.”
Personally, I found the whole debate interesting for several reasons. First of all, when I watched the interview I found it hard to believe that Frye doesn’t really believe in God – because for someone who doesn’t believe in God, he seems to feel awfully strongly about him. Which is, I think, the point Rowan Williams was making. Because if you want to find some powerful examples of people who are angry at God and say nasty things about him, the best place to go is – the Bible. The entire book of Job and many of the psalms are filled with incensed and indignant people who are enraged about the same things Stephen Fry is – hunger, fear, injustice, pain – and they want to know why they should believe in a God who allows so much evil in the world. He probably wouldn’t want to hear it, but Fry is an awful lot like some of God’s favorites – people like David and Peter and Paul who also wrestled with God – except that despite their struggles, they believed.
Maybe that’s because they had actual encounters with God. Someone recently said to me, “It’s a lot harder to believe in God nowadays. If I saw Jesus transfigured from a poor itinerant preacher into this shining figure robed in white floating in the air next to Moses and Elijah, I’d find it easy to believe too.” “Really,” I said. “Because I think you’d actually take yourself to the Emergency Room and ask for some medication to cure your hallucinations.” Let’s be realistic.
If we saw and heard the prophets we read about in the Bible on the streets of Berkeley, we’d assume they were mentally ill. I actually sometimes wonder if the reason we don’t think there are prophets these days is because we have we can’t differentiate between the painful and involuntary impairment of psychosis and genuine revelation. If there is such a thing.
The characters in today’s readings certainly believed there was – or at least they believed that the things they saw meant something. The writings of the patristic fathers suggest that the earliest Christians may not have believed their revelations were real any more than we would -but it didn’t matter, because they had a different definition of the word “witness” than we do. We think a witness is someone who saw or heard something that helps prove something. They believed that a witness was someone who knew something. It wouldn’t have mattered to them that Mark, Luke, and Matthew wrote different accounts of what happened when the disciples went up a mountain with Jesus and he was “transfigured” before them. What they cared about was that all three disciples had the same vision – and that it made them believe that Jesus was divine. Could they “prove” what they saw? Not in the way we think of “proof,” not in an empirically-validated, reproducible way. They just knew how they felt. They just knew that on that mountaintop they had literally seen the light – the light of Christ – and they believed.
Just as Elisha did when he saw Elijah ascend in a whirlwind, riding in a chariot of fire. Of course, Elisha had the advantage of being part of a society that believed in revelations from God. He was told twice by other prophets on his journey that Elijah would be taken from him that day. He saw Elijah part the Jordan River. And Elijah guaranteed him that whatever he asked would come true if he was able to see Elijah being taken from him. And he believed – and as a result he was granted a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Or maybe he already had it. Maybe the spirit of prophecy is simply the willingness to believe what you see, even when it doesn’t make sense.
Elijah, Elisha, Peter, John, and James all simply believed what they saw.
They didn’t stop to wonder if it made sense or if they could prove it. Which is what Paul tells the people in Corinth when they question the authority of his revelations. They want to know why they should believe that Jesus is the image of God and the Lord of creation. And how does Paul respond? Not by attempting to provide irrefutable evidence that Jesus was divine. He says, “You’re right – and you’re not alone. Many people don’t believe – but that’s because “the world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel.” In other words, the knowledge of the glory of God is not something that we can understand with our minds. It is something we have to believe in our souls.
Of course, that’s easier said than done – especially when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t believe in God. We can’t just say, “You simply have to have faith.” It’s not something we usually do in the Episcopal Church anyway. We take pride in being able to discuss our faith rationally. We engage in biblical scholarship and recognize context and understand the difference between what is historically likely and what is religious rhetoric. This particular faith tradition says is founded on a belief in scripture – interpreted through a lens of enlightened reason.
Except, perhaps, that reason can only take us so far. Because the truth is, we can’t prove to people like Stephen Fry that God exists by engaging in theological debate with them. We can’t convince him not to blame God for the sins of humanity. We don’t have the kind of evidence he thinks he needs. But we do have evidence. We have evidence that the God Fry calls “mean” and “stupid” is the same God who gave us the capacity to love and to learn. That the God who allows cancer to exist is the same God who gave us the ability to eradicate the bubonic plague. That the God who seems so far away from us when people are killed by their neighbors is the same God who allowed his own son to be killed for us after telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
There is no doubt that there is darkness in our world. And there is no doubt that we are sometimes blinded by it. But there is a light that shines in the darkness that cannot be overcome by it. It is light that strengthens us, that teaches us, that lives in us. The knowledge of the glory of God cannot be proved with reason. It can only be shown in actions. It is through the light that is in us that those who walk in darkness may see that light.
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, the season of light. This week we enter Lent, a period of long and deep darkness. But we need not be afraid to walk in that darkness because the light of Christ is not just with us; it is in us. This Lent, I invite you not to give something up but to take something on instead. I bid you to get to know God better by seeing the light inside yourself. Go out in the darkness and prove God’s love by showing your love to others. Let your light shine forth that the world may see the likeness of God’s glory – see and believe. Amen.
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