zthe Cross

Sermon: Searching for God in America 11September2016

We are a nation of seekers; looking fervently for the answers to life’s essential questions. Americans spend billions of dollars each year in the search for those answers; a deluge of self-improvement books and a host of writings that offers a veritable Wal-Mart for the soul: book stores overflowing with Transcendental meditation, biofeedback, Zen, astrology, scientology . . . You name it, we got it!

And what you can’t find in the bookstore, you can access on the Internet. To paraphrase an old sixties Timothy Leary quote (and at the risk of aging myself), “Turn on. Log in. And Scroll Down.” There’s enough flotsam and jetsam on the airways to, conceivably, keep one surfing the web forever.

Or, to quote my niece Emily’s husband, Paul (who’s an I.T. wizard with Microsoft), “There is no mystery in life anymore. Google is god.”

Although even Google seems to concede to some mysteries in life. When one Googles, “Does God exist?” about ten million results will come up. Suggesting that among all the questions in life, this one is among the most essential. It might also suggest, perhaps, that not all of life’s essential questions are so easily answered. Or are they?

When Billy Graham was once asked how he knew there was a God, he famously answered, “I know God exists because I talked to him this morning.”

On the other hand, although in his work, “A Brief History of Time,” the great physicist Stephen Hawking made the statement to the effect that discovering a unifying theory in science would be tantamount to `knowing the mind of God;’ but when later asked about that statement (in an interview with El Mundo) Hawking qualified his earlier assertion, “What I meant [by that statement] is that we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn’t.” And then to make it perfectly clear to the reporter, Hawking added, “I’m an atheist. Religion believes in miracles, but these aren’t compatible with science.”

But if you’ve ever read anything about quantum theory, it all seems pretty miraculous to me. In fact, the father of quantum mechanics, physicist Neils Bohr, bows to the mystery saying that his own expansive worldview began when, as a child, he was gazing into a fish pond on his family’s farm. He watched the fish swimming for hours on end and then, one day, realized with a start that the fish did not know they were being watched.

“The fish were unaware of any reality outside the pond. Bohr found himself wondering if humans were like the fish in this regard, living in an expansive universe, acted on by multiple dimensions of reality but aware only of their limited frame of reference.” (from Thomas Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, as cited by John Buchanan)

Personally, I believe Hawking would have done better to trust his first (higher?) instinct, and not limit the awesome mysteries of the universe to that of his own intellect or imagination.

Writes Michael Reagan, “The overwhelming impression I had after looking at the new images generated from the Hubble telescope was one of awe and wonder and the feeling that we are not alone . . . The more we look at this evidence of the basic structure of the universe, the more it appears to scientists and others that there is indeed some hand that guided us into existence . . . I am still awed by the images from deep space; there is a sense of majesty that is profound, almost beyond comprehension. I sense the presence of God, but it is in the details that I find more comprehensible information about the nature of God.” (Reflections on the Nature of God, Templeton Foundation Press)

Why is that that which seems so self-evident to some is such an inconceivable notion to others?

Why is it that what so many millions search incessantly for, so many millions of others seem to have found already?

Why is it that what seems to be such an elusive aspiration to some (to affirm the existence of God in their lives) is a constant and unfailing source of stability and comfort and strength to others?

Fifteen years ago today, our nation was stricken to the heart by devastating terrorist attacks. In the days and weeks that followed, our sanctuaries swelled as thousands of additional people flocked into our churches; some returning after years away, others who had never darkened its doors before. So many, in fact, that it led many of us in the pulpit to herald a new religious awakening in the United States.

And, indeed, initial findings seemed to justify that optimism. Gallup reported significant increases in church and synagogue attendance (up 25%) with similar jumps in those affirming that religion was very important in their lives.

However, surveys from the Barna Research Group (a marketing firm that follows religious trends) several months later indicated that the pews were once again emptying as people generally returned to their old ways.

“Attendance at worship services reverted to pre-attack levels; Sunday school attendance also leveled off. Those who said they believed in an all-powerful, all knowing God dropped from 72% pre-attack to 68% afterward. Confidence in absolute moral truths dropped from 38% to 22%.”

George Barna bemoaned this reverse in trends as a missed opportunity. “After the attack,” he said, “millions of nominally churched or generally irreligious Americans were desperately seeking something that would restore stability and a sense of meaning to life. Fortunately, many of them turned to the church.” Barna went on to critique, [Unfortunately] “churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate or intense manner.”

But Gerald Zelizer, who wrote the USA Today op-ed piece in reference, has a more mediating – and I believe more accurate – perspective: “Transformative religion is rarely born in spontaneous reactions to events such as September 11, because those kind of cataclysmic happenings are too infrequent and isolated to build permanent and long-lasting faith. The spiritual fires that they ignite are intense, but not durable, even among the already religious…

“Lives are only transformed spiritually and permanently when religious experiences accumulate in regular life passages, such as birth, adolescence, marriage and old age, and when religion is given the chance to repeat itself in fixed rituals and proscribed prayers . . . Religion that calms after national traumas like 9/11 is comparable to an aspirin, which eliminates immediate pain. But when religion matures in regular and fixed events over a lifetime, it is like a daily vitamin that strengthens over the long haul.” (Gerald L. Zelizer, USA Today: “Quick dose of 9-11 religion soothes, doesn’t change,” 1/7/02).

Does God exist? The Bible itself never really argues the point. The reality of God is pretty much assumed throughout the pages of Scripture. There is, however, a good deal said about the nature of God. The Bible focuses primarily on how we live our lives in relationship with God and the behavioral, relational, social and political implications of that relationship.

“Fools say in their hearts, `There is no God,’” the psalmist wrote, and the Old Testament scholars suggest that he wasn’t talking about philosophic atheism, but about practical atheism, living life as if there were no God who mattered much, living autonomously as if we were on our own, not responsible to anyone for anyone. That’s foolishness; that’s dangerous. As someone once said, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” (Reasons of the Heart, John Buchanan, September 12, 2004).

It occurs to me that one’s success in discovering God largely depends upon what God it is you seek; what you believe the nature of God to be.

The terrorists’ distorted view of God led them to commit terrible acts of violence and mass destruction. The fundamentalist view of Jerry Falwell and others declared those same events to be the result of God’s wrath toward America for (what they happened to identify as) our national sins.

Others have seen evidence of God’s presence in those first responders at ground zero who risked – and in many cases sacrificed – their own lives for the sake of others.

As a pastor, I saw the presence of God’s mercy and compassion through my church’s youth group who raised money to purchase booties for the feet of the rescue and recovery dogs who worked tirelessly beside their human counterparts.

And I’ve also seen the reality of God, over the years prior to and since 9/11, in parishioners who tirelessly work in compassion for those who suffer trauma and tragedy each and every day in this world.

When the Pharisees and scribes condemned Jesus for his gracious attitude toward those they called sinners, he instructed them concerning the nature of God with a parable about a shepherd leaving the flock to search for one lost sheep; and a woman scouring her house to find a lost coin.

I’d like to end our exploration today with a little parable about a young mother who had just relocated her family. “When my children and I had finished unpacking in our new home,” she recalled, “we noticed that our poodle was missing. Concerned that she couldn’t find her way back in unfamiliar surroundings, I loaded the kids into the car and went to look for her. We drove up and down the neighborhood, again and again, without any luck. As we went around the block yet once more, not far from our house, I noticed an elderly man who had been sitting on his front porch. I finally stopped and asked him if he’d seen our dog (a little black poodle).

“Yes, matter of fact I have,” he said. “She’s been chasing after your care for the last thirty minutes.”

The paradox is that, while we are so often frantically seeking God; we have a God who – as it turns out – has been doggedly pursuing us from the very beginning. And perhaps, at the end of the day, the only real way to truly know God is to stop all our frenetic searching and stay in one place long enough for this persistent God to actually catch up to us and reveal to us who he truly is. In Jesus Christ.