Who’s Confused?

Who’s Confused? 
A sermon preached at St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on October 27, 2013.

The trouble with being human is we’re so clueless about God. Hardly a clue. You may think that’s an overstatement, unduly pessimistic. But let me make my case.

Of course we do have the Bible. So does the Pope and the Southern Baptists and the Unitarians and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Congress and so many others, so many others.  We read the same book.  But you wouldn’t know it. We’re so clueless about God.  glory

I’m saying this to put Jeremiah’s words this morning in context. Were you listening?  Jeremiah is trying to figure God out and he really can’t. Now, Jeremiah is a certified prophet – he’s in the Bible – but he can’t figure out what God is up to.  Jeremiah lived through some tough times – war and siege, defeat and exile. I mean, I have no desire to live in Iraq or Afghanistan or a lot of other places but Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time was probably worse. And yet Israel was God’s chosen nation; so how could this happen?  What was God up to?

At one level, Jeremiah knew and he’d been telling people for years. You forsake God, God forsakes you.  Easy to figure out: one plus one.  But at a deeper level, Jeremiah was baffled: why couldn’t God be more help? Why couldn’t God give them some guidance?  Listen again:

14:8  O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night?  (Here tonight and gone tomorrow.) 14:9  Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?

I have to admire Jeremiah’s guts: He’s saying, “Now listen, God, why are you acting this way? You act like someone bewildered.”  He suggests that God is confused. I mean, its easy to understand Jeremiah being bewildered, but to accuse God of being confused!  You have to admire Jeremiah. But he wanted answers and he lets God know.

Who is there today to challenge God that way?  To make some demands, to ask God “What’s going on; what’s the program?  Listen, God; do you know what you’re doing?”  I think it might help to put it in words. Suppose we put in a prayer on Sunday that said, “Listen, God, we don’t get it!  Where are you?  What’s up?  Are you confused?”

I mean, we’re trying.  Doing our part. The best liturgy, great music, terrific sermons last week and the week before, and we raise money for all sorts of worthwhile projects – but, God, you’re not sending the people.  Where are they? We’ve got empty seats on Sunday and it’s not our fault. So, God, what are you thinking?  Are you thinking?  Here’s your place, your people, we’re doing all we can to build up your church;  Why aren’t you helping? What’s the plan?  Why won’t you let us in on it, O God? We could work with you better if we had some clue. If we could see whether you know what you’re doing.”

I used to live in the country and you could see the stars at night. Now, there are some clues before you even get to the Bible.  When God wanted to give Abraham a clue he asked him to look at the stars and see whether he could count them.  (Gen 15:5) One of the Psalms (147) says that God not only can count the stars, but  calls them each by name.  But do you know how many stars there are?  I’ll come back to that in a minute but first I have a second question: Do you know how many neurons there are in the human brain?

One estimate puts the number of neurons in the human brain at about 100 billion and 100 trillion synapses.  By contrast, the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans has just 302 neurons, making it an ideal experimental subject because scientists have been able to map all of the organism’s neurons. We can really get to know the nematode worm.  The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, a common subject in biological experiments, has around 100,000 neurons (remember we have a hundred billion – that’s six more zeroes). The fruit fly has a good many complex behaviors which it would be useful to understand, but it’s easier to deal with the nematode worm.  We human beings, trying to understand life, can understand the nematode worm better than the fruit fly, and the fruit fly a lot better than us and us a lot better than God. And, remember, we’re trying to figure out God, trying to help Jeremiah figure it out.

But my first question was about stars.  There are 400 billion stars in our galaxy – that’s four times the number of neurons in the brain. But then, that’s just our galaxy and there are said to be 170 milky waybillion galaxies in the observable universe; (I didn’t do the math to figure out 170 billion times 400 billion but it’s a lot. I remember reading about an Eskimo language whose counting system goes: “One, two, many.”) Anyway: 170 billion galaxies in the observable Universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars stretching out into space 13.8 billion light-years in all directions.  So if you travel at the speed of light for 13.8 billion years you might – might, but who knows because no one has been there – come to the edge of the universe and then what would you see beyond that?

I think we know too much; maybe more than our neurons can really handle. So how is it even possible for us to imagine a God who is creator of such unimaginable numbers? How can we imagine an unimaginable God of an unimaginable universe?  As the fruit fly is to us, so are we to the universe. No wonder it’s harder than ever to believe.  To believe, we have to have some way to imagine. No wonder belief comes so hard to a world that knows so much. We stretch our minds to the breaking point to deal with the knowable.  And then, after that, you still want me to think about the unknowable? I think that’s one reason churches and synagogues are in decline.  It’s too much for our neurons to cope with.

And besides that, at some level, I think belief seems less important these days to lots of people. We live so much longer and our lives are so much more pleasant than ever before. You know, if we were living in the 14th century and the Black Death was washing away up to half of the population — if you could be here today and gone tomorrow and if you could see a few thousand stars and had no reason to imagine more and God wasn’t that big or that far away maybe belief would be less of a challenge and seem more important. God and heaven, if I can put it that way, would seem to be more on a human scale, more comprehensible.

I think there are Christians who try to cope with our world by denial: deny evolution, deny climate change, deny science, and stick with the small-size, pre-modern God. But then, what do we do with all the unused neurons in our brains that challenge us to see the God science is showing us?

I saw something last week that suggested those who have faith in God make God in their own image, project human characteristics on God. Of course we do.  What else do we have to work with?  But anyone who thinks about it knows of course, that God is not as Michaelangelo painted him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with a well-muscled body and white beard resting on a cloud. But our neurons need help.  If not that picture, what do we have to hold on to? The knight in Ingmar Bergman’s great movie, The Seventh Seal,  cries out, “I want to be able to reach out my hand and touch God.  Is that so inconceivable?”

No, it’s not inconceivable at all.  I think it’s what we all want: something we can wrap our minds around and hold onto. It’s why the incarnation is so critical to Christian faith. God did send us something to picture and hold on to.  God came among us. As fully as God can be present in human life, God was present in Jesus. And we need that.  It’s critical.

I think it’s part of our problem also that the incarnation, the Jesus story, becomes harder to hold onto as our knowledge grows. How is it possible for the Creator of infinite space to be fully present in one human life? We can’t get our minds around a God that big who could become that small. I think I know why the pews aren’t full.  We’re just asking people to use their minds too much.  It’s asking a lot to believe in our day. But what are all those neurons for?  I know I’m not using all of mine; I wonder whether you are. Maybe we need to figure out how to fire up some more of them.

I saw a movie last Sunday evening I will never forget. It came out four or five years ago so you may have seen it.  It’s called “The Soloist.” It deals with an LA Times reporter who encounters a homeless man who’s a superb musician and schizophrenic, so he’s living on the street, sawing away at a violin with two broken strings. He hears voices.  His musical genius is wasting away because some of his synapses are mis-firing. Out of 100 trillion, its only surprising it doesn’t happen more often and with worse results. But bad enough: he’s out on the street with a broken violin when the reporter finds him and gets pulled into his story. And nothing really gets solved, but the fraught relationship between hard-boiled reporter and bewildered musician is such a marvelous look at human nature, at the ways we hurt each other and try to help each other — it’s a great movie. It looks at the wonder and mystery of human life.

As usual, Shakespeare said it best: “O What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! . . .  In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”  The Psalmist says: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”

Why is God mindful of “This quintessence of dust”? How can we ask someone to believe this story of ours, this Bible we read, this Creed we recite?  And if we have a physical world so far beyond our grasp, what chance do we have of comprehending heaven?  Eternity?  What would that be like?  A zillion years to play golf?  I’ve often said I want to learn to play the cello and hope to have time enough hereafter.  Yes, and then what?  Then what?

I can’t imagine – I doubt you can – infinite space, infinite time yet a personal God, a personal God – that’s another hard one to get around.  Think of all those galaxies and you can probably say, “The Force be with you.” That’s not hard; we know about forces. But a personal God who can know me and every single other human being?  Well, what’s three billion human beings to a God who deals in trillions for breakfast? How do we respond to a God who knows me and can be known by me in a very real way, only the fringe of God’s cloak perhaps but real, personal – one with whom I can inter-act. I’m saying I know why that’s hard; it is hard – but to turn away? To turn a deaf ear to the meaning and purpose of this unimaginable universe and it’s unimaginable God – can you really be satisfied to live a tone-deaf life, a color blind life, to think that there is something more, that there is a purpose and I don’t know it? Can we really be satisfied not to know, not at least to explore that possibility?

My wife and I have a cat and she lives in our small apartment and sometimes she sits on the window sill and gazes out at 19th avenue and tries to figure out what’s happening out there. But she has no real desire to go out there.  Leave the door open and she cringes back; I mean, who knows what’s out there?  And she doesn’t have nearly enough neurons to figure it out. My wife and I go out sometimes for hours on end and come back, and maybe we’ve been to a meal, maybe a movie, maybe lunch with our family, maybe we’ve been to church – she has no clue. And I have neighbors like that – so do you – and friends who are equally clueless. They see us go out to church and come back and apparently have no more curiosity about what they may be missing than our cat – and that’s a tragedy.

What the reporter from the LA Times had to learn was to accept what couldn’t be fixed. We just don’t know how to deal with schizophrenia.  There are pills to “help manage your symptoms”  but they aren’t a solution.  We don’t really know how to get the broken neurons and synapses lined back up.  Some things can’t be fixed, but they can be forgiven. Isn’t that Jesus’ message?  To accept the wonder and beauty and brokenness around us and embrace it and come here to praise its Creator and open ourselves to God’s purpose strange and unknowable as it may be and like the second man in today’s Gospel be satisfied to say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

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