Sought by heaven- sermon for 15 September 2013 (Proper 19)

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 15 September 2013: Year C, Proper 19
SERMON
Texts: Psalm 14
Luke 15:1-10

Sought by heaven!

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Català: Gravat del primer terç del s. XVI amb Sant Anselm de Canterbury
Date circa 1520
Source www.npg.org.uk
Author anonymous (1420)
Wikipedia Commons

One of the brainiest Christians of all time was man called Anselm, a Norman who became Archbishop of Canterbury around 1,000 years ago. Anselm was one of the greatest thinkers of the mediaeval world, but most of what I learned about him was not in the theology class, but the philosophy class. Anselm wrote a treatise on the existence of God which began with the first words of our Old Testament reading: ‘Fools say in their heart, there is no God’. And he went on to try to prove, through a very subtle philosophical argument, that the were fools wrong.

With atheism being so fashionable among some people nowadays, it’s tempting for us to misunderstand the beginning of Psalm 14. We all know people who say, ‘There is no God’, and they are not all fools. Perhaps in Anselm’s day, when the existence of God was taken for granted by so many, it did seem you’d have to be a fool to deny the existence of God. Today we have no such consensus. Indeed, there are plenty of people claiming that the fools are the people like you and me who do believe in God!

In fact, back in Old Testament times, the Psalmist had no intention of proving that God exists. The Psalmist took it for granted that God existed. The people he was complaining about were those who denied, not that God existed, but that God is active in the world. These are the people who are ‘corrupt’ and ‘do not do what is right’. Not only do they not worship God; they oppress the poor. Another translation makes this clearer:

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?
There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge. (Psalm 14.3-6 NRSV)

It is not that they do not believe in God, these people who have gone astray. It is that they do not acknowledge this God who seeks justice for the poor, who is the refuge of the poor. Because they do not fear God, the exploit the poor, ‘eating up my people as they eat bread’. And so this Psalm is not an argument for the existence of God. It is about justice for the poor, and how failing to acknowledge God can lead to selfishness, greed and exploitation.

Indeed, there are no arguments for the existence of God anywhere in the Bible. God is just assumed to exists. I suspect that is how it is for many of us- we have never really stepped outside the zone, and wondered if God does exist. Increasingly, however, many people in our society are stepping outside that zone. For various reasons, they have abandoned believing in God. Indeed, many have been brought up completely devoid of any belief in God. But whether you don’t believe in God, or have simply never thought about it, or if you simply don’t know, the result is the same as far as living your life is concerned. It’s a life without God’s law. You need to find a way of living in which your morality, your sense of right and wrong, which is independent of knowing anything about God.

Some people may be able to do that. There are people who do not believe in God who are good, and kind, and generous. Indeed, there are nonbelievers who sometimes seem to put believers to shame. And there are some people who believers who give Christianity and other religions a bad name. We’re perhaps less confident that the Psalmist was that living without fear of God will lead to people being bad.

Credit: Dan Etherington Wikepedia Commons

A few years ago, indeed, an atheist society paid for an advert on London buses which read, ”There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ The English writer Francis Spufford, however, points out just how patronising that must seem to many people: ‘suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, that you are the fifty-something woman with the Tesco bags, trudging home to find out whether your dementing lover has smeared the walls of the flat with her own [excrement] again'(1); or, indeed, any other of the many, many people whose lives are miserable. Telling them to enjoy their life would seem like a kick in the teeth.

The Bible, as I said, does not attempt to prove God’s existence. It simply asserts that God exists. We cannot, in fact, prove that God is exists to someone who is determined to not believe in God. People believe in God, not because of philosophical arguments, but because of a deep inner feeling that it must be so. A favourite Psalm of mine, Psalm 8 includes words which speak to a deep place in my being:

When I look at the sky, which you have made,
at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places—
what are human beings, that you think of them;
mere mortals, that you care for them? (Psalm 8.3,4)

For I have always been fascinated by the night sky. And I remember the first time I looked through a telescope at the moon. Suddenly those craters and mountains seemed almost within touching distance, as if I was orbiting the moon like an Apollo astronaut. It was almost mystical moment. But I wasn’t in church, or saying my prayers. I was dabbling in the science of astronomy.

The Psalmist goes on to speak of his faith that the God who made the stars also made human beings:

Yet you made [us] inferior only to yourself;
you crowned [us] with glory and honour. (Psalm 8.5)

His awe at the wonder of the night sky turns to faith. It is not that the wonders of the universe necessarily makes people believe in God. But those of us who believe in God can’t seem to help seeing God in the wonders of nature. As Psalm 19 puts it, ‘How clearly the sky reveals God’s glory! How plainly it shows what he has done!’ (verse 1). This is how the night sky affects me. But I have faith already.

I think it took millions of years for our world to come to be the way it is. I think animals evolved over aeons of time, that our planet formed out of the dust of the sun, and that the universe is unimaginably enormous and may well have other planets which are a lot like planet earth, populated, perhaps, by intelligent beings not unlike us. I believe this because I understand that that is what the best science tells us. Someone like Richard Dawkins will say that the theory of evolution has been a great success at explaining the evidence we have for how plants and animals are how they are. And he’s right, as far as I can tell, for he’s an expert in biology. But then he, and many other voices in our culture today, come into my special territory, and claims that what we know about the world through science somehow make belief in God redundant. But having read and thought a lot about this, I can’t really see how that can be the case. No, I can’t prove there is a God. But I don’t see why I can’t believe in God, and believe the scientists. I believe there is a designer of the universe. That’s a matter of faith, not of science. But the science doesn’t rock my faith. On the contrary, I look at it all and, like the Psalmist, I’m dumbfounded.

Voyager 1 Entering Interstellar Space (Artist Concept)
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So I was fascinated to hear this week that the Voyager 1 space probe had left the solar system. How can we fail to be amazed that a man made object should have got so far. Along the way it has produced brilliant science, which changed the textbooks about the planets of our solar system.

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed ‘Pale Blue Dot’, is a part of the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. From Voyager’s great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters – violet, blue and green – and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.
Credit: NASA public domain (Wikipedia)

In 1990, having spent years taking spectacular pictures of Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager’s cameras were turned on earth, which was now 3.9 billion miles away. It produced a photograph in which our planet showed up as a tiny pale blue dot in what seemed like limitless space. The astronomer Carl Sagan said that it showed that ‘Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark’.

It is very humbling to think that we live on that tiny pale blue dot. It puts things into a new perspective. For some people, it means that we are really not that important, this race of people living on a tiny dot surrounded by all that immensity. But that pale blue dot is the only place we currently know which sustains any kind of life. The blue is because the planet is covered in great oceans teeming with life. There’s more fascinating, complex, and multitudinous life on the land. And one of those land animals managed to design, build and send on its way the Voyager 1 spacecraft which took the photo. As Carl Sagan said of the photograph,

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

In the vast immensity of space, there is truly no place like our home planet!

So maybe the tiny blue dot is important. When Jesus sought out tax collects and outcasts, the religious leaders grumbled. When, in faith, I say that I think human beings are loved by God, I might get grumbles from some scientifically knowledgeable people that since we live on this tiny dot in an immensity of space, we surely can’t be that important. But Jesus told stories to the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law: about a shepherd who searched for a lost sheep, and a woman who searched for a lost coin. Jesus was saying that God will go searching for those who are lost, whoever they are. These are wonderful tales to remind us that God really does care for the last and the least of his children. Tales of a God who, in Jesus, sought out our tiny blue dot of a planet, a God who seeks out the people of that planet, bringing them grace, hope and faith even although we seem so very small in the cosmic scale of things.

Whatever our place in the universe, Christian faith maintains that all that is was created and maintained by the power of God. And the most important thing we can say about God is, ‘God is love, and we are his children’. God does not think less of the inhabitants of this blue speck in space because we don’t take up a lot of room. Quite the contrary. God- the refuge of the poor- has come among us, in Jesus Christ, has come to seek us out. And when we respond to the call of God, and acknowledge who God is, and learn to live God’s way of justice and of peace, then the heavens rejoice.

Ascription of Praise

To the King of the ages

immortal, invisible,

the only God,
be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 1:17 (NRSV)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, except where otherwise noted
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo

NOTES

(1) Spufford, Francis, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Kindle Location 121). Faber and Faber. Kindle Edition.

Also recommended: Science, Religion, and the search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence David Wilkinson (Oxford University Press)