Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why You Should Be an Atheist

Sermon for Pentecost, proper 9A

Here are the readings, and here is an audio link

This is not an Independence Day sermon. Please don’t take that as some sort of political statement, it’s just that I took an ordination vow to preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and important national holidays don’t trump that. I love this country. And the fact that I can preach freely from this pulpit unhindered, and that all of you came here this morning of your own volition, is proof that the United States is a wonder to behold. May all her citizens live into the promises of both freedom and equality, and let us recapture a sense of brotherly love, upon which this country was founded, amen.
This is not an Independence Day sermon.

Our gospel reading today is strange. You’ll notice on the citation of the verses, in your bulletin, that it is from Matthew chapter 11. The verses start at 16 and then go to 19, then there is a break from 20-24, then our reading picks up again at 25 and ends with 30. You should always wonder why that break happens. The breaks in the scripture that our lectionary makes is usually for clarity, but also for politeness. The lectionary is very good about sanitizing the dirty scripture. And please don’t think that this is an innovation of the Episcopal Church, we are just one of the hundreds of millions of Christian communities that is reading this scripture this way this morning.
Let’s briefly walk through the scripture and I’ll fill you in on the missing, juicy bits.
First Jesus asks a crowd how he should describe those who are hearing him and seeing his deeds of power. He says that they are like children in the streets, on this side they play music and complain that he is not dancing, on that side they wail and complain that he has not joined in their mourning. Then he says that John came fasting and abstaining from drink and they said he had a demon. Jesus then says that he came drinking and eating and they called him a glutton and that he hung out with the wrong people.
Jesus is expressing what so many of us know: that the only way to be free of accusations of hypocrisy is to do nothing. John is too “spiritual” and Jesus is too “earthy.”
Which brings us to the missing bits in the lectionary today: your bulletin won’t have these parts. Jesus goes on to heap woes upon all the cities in which he did his deeds of power: his miracles. The problem that Jesus sees is that his deeds of power have not produced the expected repentance and amendment of life in those who have seen those deeds. Usually when we think of the miracles of Jesus we see them as proof of his divinity, but from Jesus’ perspective it seems that he wants them to be a catalyst of change, of repentance from sin, from the exploitation of others.
It’s after all these woes are delivered that the lectionary picks back up with the familiar and comforting words of Jesus: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Today’s gospel reading is fairly schizophrenic: we get the critique of the critics of too-spiritual and not-spiritual-enough living, then the woes for unrepentance, and then finally the soft comfort that Jesus offers. All of this seems disjointed. In fact, I’d wager that most preachers today will ignore the first two sections and focus solely on Jesus statements about rest and lightness. But I think that all this seeming disjointedness is actually held together, indeed that the key for understanding all this is in the seemingly light touch that Jesus offers us at the end of our reading.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Jesus is giving us insight into what life with him looks like. It’s called faith. We throw that word around all the time don’t we, as if we knew what it meant? It reminds me of how my two year old repeats words she doesn't understand. She goes around the house saying, “Actually,” or “Interrogate,” she doesn’t understand what she is saying; she just likes the sound of it. It’s the same way with us when we say, “Faith,” we just like the sound of it and give little thought to what it means.
Whenever Jesus talks about having faith in him, he talks about either taking up a cross or, like today, that faith in him is to have a light burden. Both of these descriptions have to do with the loss of the self, or maybe the loss of certain kinds of beliefs. Jesus is calling us to a different kind of faith, one in which we do not heap belief upon belief, burden upon burden. Instead, Jesus is offering us a light burden, perhaps even a freedom from belief.

Looking back over the Bible you will find that idolatry lays at the root all the problems of individuals, as well as the people of Israel, and of us, the Church. Idolatry: putting other gods before the one God, and, don’t you know, there are millions of gods. I’m not talking about the gods of old: Baal, Odin, Moloch, or Aphrodite, I’m talking about the real gods of our lives: validation, security, satisfaction, power, love. To engage in idolatry means that we have not trusted God to be God, that we have taken his job of giving us meaning and security and have assigned his role to his creations.
God has consistently called people away from these other so-called gods. We are called to worship the only god there is, but this God can only be accessed through faith, which is a kind of trust, a radical trust that resists definition. God, best described by Jesus, says, “Stop believing, stop adding burdens! Instead: trust, my burden is light.”
What this means then is pretty tough stuff, and here, I would appreciate it if you didn’t run me out on a rail for saying what I’m about to say: we have to stop believing in God.
Hear me out: I’m not calling for a blanket atheism of course. What I am asking you to do today is to become an atheist of the God of your thoughts. Stop believing in Your God, and start trusting in the one true God, the God of light burdens, the God of faith.
Hear this: the idolatry of God is the last and great idolatry that must be overcome. We in the church are the most egregious sinners when it comes to making an idol of God. We think we have God so figured out. That we can track his movements like we track a tropical storm. The God who created tigers and Boson particles, the wind and human feelings; it is almost comical that we would display so much hubris about God’s doings. Yet, of course, this same God has revealed himself which is what gives us the wherewithal to say that it is the words of Jesus are the words of God; and Jesus today is telling us, “Don’t make an idol of me. My burden is light, don’t heap burdens of belief on me, instead: have faith, which is the absolute opposite of idol worship.”

I’d be willing to wager that many of us here have experienced this kind of idol worship and subsequent private-atheism many times in our walks in faith. It usually starts with a set-back or crisis of some kind or other. Then we begin to pray that God will save us, or catch us in this crisis. Then something strange happens. We don’t get caught by God: the cancer proceeds, the rehab doesn’t take, they declare war, we fail. We aren't caught; God has not answered our prayer. God has failed us.
God, of course, has not failed us, but the god of our thoughts and expectations has failed us.
And many of us have the crisis of unbelief that God has not delivered and we are crippled into despair. I think that Jesus is asking us to disbelieve in the God of our thoughts and it is precisely in the falling-through of our expectations of that idol-God to enter into actual faith, actual trust of the only God. And it is in that trust that we encounter reality.
Where we find ourselves, no longer slave to the god of our thoughts but instead in dynamic, real relationship with the one true God.

Usually, I try to end my sermons with some sort of memorable turn of phrase that summarizes what I have been saying. I’m not going to do that this week. Because the truth is, what I am saying is pretty wild: destroy the idol of the God of your thoughts and seek a deepening faith in the real God. I am asking you to free yourself from the idol you have made of God. I will not end with some pithy saying because the truth is: the rest of Ordinary time, this season of the church between Pentecost and Advent, is a time to explore the implications of following Jesus on the road of faith.
Be freed from the idol of your expectations of what God can do, be free to fall into faith.
Be free.

Oh! Maybe it’s an Independence Day sermon after all.