University Congregational Church
Feb. 21, 2016
“Finding Faith After Certainty: Your Cheating Heart”
We said goodbye to Dr. Harvey Tretbar this week. Some of you knew him, but most of you probably did not. He was 90 years old, and had been in poor health for several years; not able to attend church on Sundays. One of the things his family told me struck a chord in me. As an endocrinologist for his entire career, Dr. Tretbar took time to know his patients. He understood that the physical body was part of a person, but not the entirety. He tried to know his patients and he understood that they lived complex lives, with families and jobs and stresses and heartache and love. In order to treat their maladies to the best of his ability, he wanted to consider the whole of the person.
In other words, he didn’t just read the numbers of their lab work, blood pressure, weight, and height. That data was clearly important… but it did not capture the whole individual seeking his care. He learned to take more information into consideration than just the facts.
The thing about us is we like information. We like it as much or more than any other culture that has existed on the face of the earth. Information can be a good thing, of course. But we have grown up in a modern age when a premium is put on knowing. If only we have the right information, the right inputs, we can fix things. We can trust our brains if nothing and no one else. And this know-ability and fix-ability and data have become … well, a fixation.
We have all probably had the experience of reading or meeting with someone who had statistic data and used it to prove something. Often, it seems, people with the same data can interpret it different ways and come up with conflicting conclusions. The human heart is actually prone to outsmarting our information in devious ways. If we don’t like what the data shows, we can make it prove the exact opposite. We cheat and manipulate information; we overemphasize those bits that set us in the direction we want it to go. That’s why the subtitle to this sermon is “Your Cheating Heart”. I’m talking for the next several weeks about finding our faith after certainty. We’re following a book by that title written by Mark Stenberg.
In our search for truth, we somehow decided that truth was dependant on information. This is a dangerous trap when we apply it to our faith. Certainly, information is good and useful – as an instrument. But information is not all there is to developing faith and spirit. That requires much, much more than information and doctrine.
Let me illustrate. Most of us, or someone we know, went through a time of disillusionment in our late teen or early adult years. It is true that most people drop out of church and “lose” faith during this formative time. It starts in sociology class when you study social forces that bind people together. Did people invent religion to fend off the chaos of our fleeting, fragile existence?
Then you take philosophy and psychology, and it confirms what you suspected: religion and faith in a divine being is a human construct. Heaven and hell, simply put, are at the reward and punishment stage of human development according to Kohlberg, and you’ve outgrown that nonsense. God looks more like Santa with a long list of wishes called prayers to grant or deny. Furthermore, you realize in your newly enlightened, more rational state, that religion is extremely dangerous.
Atrocities done in the name of God are a clear indication that religion is for fools.
That’s if you look to data, law, information, and certainty. But what if God’s work in our world doesn’t always show up in that way? What if we miss hope and inspiration while we are looking for information? What if we are looking for something that makes sense, and believing requires a whole other set of skills?
The Bible is not a collection of logical propositions about God. It is full of story, myth, poetry and song to try to capture the imagination so that we can imagine God. When writers try to capture the essence of what is right and good and even divine, they are writing living words that try to provoke us into new ways of thinking. We need information… and we need much more than information… to see things as they really are.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. In the Hebrew Bible, there is a story about King David. Some would say that he was the greatest king of Israel’s history. However, we read a specific story about him when he was not a great man. He was walking around the roof of the palace and saw a young woman, Bathsheba, who was bathing. She was stunningly beautiful. David was filled with desire. He thought he had to have her. So he justified it to himself. He dreamt up an elaborate plan to have her husband killed in battle.
His best friend, Nathan, who was also a prophet, told David a story. According to Nathan’s story, there were two men in a city. One man was rich and the other was poor. The poor man had nothing, except for one little lamb, which he adored. He and his family raised the lamb and played with it and even fed it from their own table. The poor man even used to cradle the lamb in his arms.
But the rich man of the city was about to do some entertaining. And wanting to impress his visitors, he decided to throw a feast. So he took the lamb that belonged to the poor man, and he slaughtered it and fed it to his guests at the party.
When King David heard the end of the story, he was outraged: “The man who has done this deserves to die!” And no sooner did he say this than he looked into Nathan’s eyes and realized his own mistake with Bathsheba.
When we hear this story, we can listen to it for data and information. We can list the facts…
David was King of Israel
Nathan was his best friend
David lusted after someone else’s wife and plotted to kill the husband
Nathan told a story to illustrate David’s sinful thinking
But if that is all we do, all we have is old information. It doesn’t help us or teach us anything about living a life of faith today. But, we can also understand this story for much more than the information in it. We can ask how it applies to our lives and our decisions and our faith and our friendships.
When all of our needs are met, are we still envious and want what others have?
When we see beauty, do we want to grasp it and claim it for ourselves?
Do we have friends who will tell us the hard truth when we make mistakes?
Are we abusing our power to get what we want at the cost of others?
This way of reading our holy book gets at why information is not all we need to live as people of faith. We need our intuitions, our imagination, and our spirits when we read the holy book! We’re not just looking for facts – we’re looking for inspiration. When we discuss faith, we don’t need all the catechism questions and answers and all the theological textbooks, we need our experience and our very lives.
Let’s apply this technique to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. (And let me warn you, this is where we have to dig deep). The story of Jesus and his cross tells us in graphic detail how a man died and that he stayed dead for 3 days and then came back to life. Too often, I think, we read this story for facts. What if we didn’t worry about the facts?
• What if we asked – not what the story tells us about Jesus – but what it tells us about humanity, you and me?
• What if we asked what his death tells us about angry mobs and corrupt political regimes?
• What if we asked – not whether people who die can resurrect – but what the story tells us about the life after death?
• What if we suspend our desire for facts and just listen for truth?
In the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we learn that humanity can enjoy violence. We learn the ugly truth of judgment, the harsh reality of political injustice, the horror of putting an innocent person to death. And then we discover something truly miraculous that cannot be explained by fact or even by reason. Love looks our violence and hatred in the eye. Love takes our ugliness, our pettiness, our fears and our doubts, and turns it on its head. And we are freed to live in a new and radically different way. We are invited to change the human condition one situation at a time, by recognizing the risen Christ in the eyes of a stranger.
This is why I chose the traditional word from Luke 24, also known as the story of the Road to Emmaus. The story takes place after Jesus died, was buried, and resurrected. He is walking on a road with some of those who followed him, but they don’t recognize him. But when he shares a meal with them, they recognize him and “he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread”.
Have you ever felt the hatred of another? Have you experienced the betrayal of friends or the judgment of a crowd? Have you ever felt the sting of being rejected by someone? Or even feeling like a relationship has died? Has anyone said the cruel words “You are dead to me” to you or treated you in that manner? Have you cried your last tear for the loss of someone?
And have you come away from that time in your life with something greater than pain? Have you experienced that incongruent truth that life comes from death? Have you experienced liberation and new life?
In order to have faith, you see, we need more than information. We sometimes have to drop our dignity, swallow our pride, and open our imaginations. We have to lay aside our need for information and proof and just learn to accept the spirit of truth into our lives. That’s why we gather with one another each week – even though church and people in the church can be ridiculous and very human.
Because together, we find forgiveness and grace. Together, we find hope and healing. Together, we ask questions and seek grace.