Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday Sermon 2010

Pondering Unanswerable Questions
Did Jesus Have to Die?
Text: Mark 11:1-11
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
March 28, 2010
Palm Sunday

The word ‘if’ is a big word.

On December 7th, 1941 radar operators detected a large number of airplanes traveling east toward Pearly Harbor. They were expecting a small number of planes flying west from California and determined that this blob of planes to be nothing. What would have happened IF they had correctly read their radar and ordered the many fighter planes into the air to defend Pearl Harbor?

In 1939, England and France declared war in Germany after Germany had invaded Poland. The vast majority of the German Army’s resources were in the eastern part of Germany and stretched out into Poland. This left a large expanse of Germany very vulnerable to attack. Many military historians have speculated that had France and England invaded Germany from the west during this time period, the war could have been over very quickly. What would have happened IF this happened?

In the Book of Jonah, there is, of course, the story of Jonah being told to preaching in Nineveh. He doesn’t want to go because the people of Nineveh are pretty horrible people. He runs from God by taking a boat, but God causes a great storm. He is thrown overboard, swallowed by a large fish, and belched onto shore by this fish. Right near Nineveh. Jonah gives pretty much the world’s worse sermon and the people of Nineveh, including the king, repent from their sins and turn their lives over to God.

What would have happened IF Jesus’ preaching and teaching had changed so many hearts that people fell down and worshiped Jesus, much like the people of Nineveh, and never crucified Him?

It forces us to ask the question: Did Jesus have to die?

It is, of course, always a rhetorical question. Jesus did die. The early Christian Church had to deal with the reality of Jesus’ death and the theology of Christianity was written and embraced around the fact that Jesus did die on the cross. But there is always that question: did Jesus have to die?

In ancient Jewish tradition, it was taught that the only way to atone for sin was through a blood sacrifice. Lambs were slaughtered at the first Passover and throughout the history of Judaism, up to and just beyond the time of Jesus, if people wanted to repent of sin, they brought an animal to be sacrificed, in their behalf, unto God.

The early Christian Church adopted this as the reason Jesus died on the cross. Jesus’ death on the cross was a difficult thing to rationalize or explain. The early leaders of Christianity studied the Old Testament and Judaism intently to determine an answer.

The most compelling argument is made in Isaiah 53. It reads, in part:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

Isaiah, who wrote the Four Songs of the Suffering Servant, prophesies about one who will suffer and be crushed because of God’s will.

On the other hand, there is a compelling argument about God.

There is an old philosophical riddle: Can God create a rock that is so great that God cannot move the rock? You may be surprised to learn this, but this is actually an answerable question. And the answer is ‘no.’ The one thing God cannot do is create something greater than God Himself. God is perfection and cannot be improved. The only limitation to God’s power is that God cannot create something greater than Himself.

So, did God have to follow ancient Jewish traditions?

Did God have to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah?

People in Jesus’ day believed that the Messiah would be a new David who conquered the Romans or a new Moses would you lead them to a new Promised Land. They cited Scripture to validate their positions and God did not fulfill their expectations.

Frankly I think you can make an argument that Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross. Had people embraced him and crowned him King or whatever, then the story changes.


Maybe this is the wrong question to be asking and it always has been the wrong question to be asking. I say this for one simple reason. Jesus died on the cross.

Today is Palm Sunday and to be perfectly honest, I have always found Palm Sunday to be one of the most difficult Sundays in the church year. It is, on one hand, joyful and celebratory; Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph. A crowd is there to cheer him on. All is good in the world. Except, we know how the story continues. Jesus will be arrested and Jesus will be crucified. The celebration of Palm Sunday quickly turns to horror.

We can speculate all we want to about what had to happen or did not have to happen. The speculation does not matter one bit. Jesus died on the cross.

There's a marvelous story about Jesus' choice that has been around for a long time.
The legend goes that Jesus entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the crowds went wild and welcomed him with glee.

On Thursday morning, however, he was approached by many people who were the leadership in the Temple. They told him that he was causing a major disruption and that the Romans would not tolerate this for long. They suggested to him that he had to leave the city or face the consequence of the cross.

Jesus talked to the apostles, prayed, and decided to leave on Friday. On Friday afternoon, as they were leaving the city of Jerusalem, Jesus looked and saw Golgotha, and saw crosses up there and men hanging from them. And Jesus said, "Wow, that could have been me."

And Peter said, "It sure could have been, Mister."

Ever notice something about that story? We never call Jesus, Mister. We call Jesus, Lord, because he didn't leave the city, but accepted the cross.

All too often I hear people almost dismiss the cross because they simply chalk it up to God's will and that Jesus had no choice.

Pontius Pilate's executing Jesus is often perceived like he's an innocent pawn of God who had no choice in crucifying Jesus.

Even Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, is often ‘let off the hook' because he is so often portrayed as an innocent pawn of God who had no choice.

The reality is quite different.

What if Jesus had left Jerusalem. He could have let the cup pass from him and abandoned Jerusalem.

Pilate could have let Jesus go.

Judas could have remained faithful and loyal to Jesus.

They made choices that changed the world. Jesus accepted death on the cross; Pilate executed Jesus, and Judas betrayed Jesus.

Sometimes I think saying this was all predestined diminishes the impact of what took place; but speculating on it, ultimately gets us nowhere other than into a needless debate.

And the reason is simple. Jesus died on the cross.

The poet John Donne wrote a poem: Good Friday 1613: Riding Westward.

Donne, who was a priest in the Church of England wrote about riding his horse westward while the crucifixion was taking place in the east. He was writing about turning his back on the cross, turning his back on Christ. Turning his back on everything that was taking place.

The week we have before us gives us opportunities to turn eastward, to turn towards the cross and embrace what Jesus did for us. Easter is a day of joy to be celebrated next Sunday. Let us use these final days, before Easter, to walk the path of Christ, and to not debate the what if’s but allow the what happened to touch our hearts and souls.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Facing East

When I was a sophomore in college I took a class in 17th Century English Literature. It was one of my best college classes and it was taught by an English professor I knew and thought the world of.

My favorite poet was John Donne and my favorite Donne poem was this:

by John Donne

LET man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul's, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg'd and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom'd us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look'st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.

Donne was a priest in the Church of England. He grew up in a Roman Catholic family but this was also a tumultuous time in England (and in Europe) where there was great violence between Catholics and Protestants. King James I, whose mother had been the Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scotts, was Protestant and demonstrated his Protestantism by fierce persecution of Roman Catholic believers. It was, in many ways, a sad time.

In this midst of this, Donne writes a poem about riding westward in Good Friday. And he writes:

O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face

As Jesus was hanging from the tree/cross, Donne turned his back on Christ in the east, and was journeying west. He is begging for forgiveness as he flees so that he might turn his face back to Christ, and back to the crucifixion.

Lent is almost to an end. Palm Sunday is this coming Sunday and this will be followed by gathering around the Table of the Lord on Maundy Thursday night, and gathering to remember the Passion of Christ, on Good Friday----all leading to the celebration of Easter.

Don’t ride westward, but turn to God this Holy Season.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:8

God is love. Simple words that bring about a simple thought. God is love. It does make one wonder, however, if God is love, who is hate. Hate seems to have become an increasingly popular commodity these days.

We all remember during the Presidential Campaign of Barack Obama when his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, let lose. Sadly and tragically, he let lose with a barrage of hate statements. His statements, and the man himself, proved to be indefensible.

Every day Rush Limbaugh gets on the radio and lets loose a torrent of hatred toward those he disagrees with. Glenn Beck does likewise. Keith Olbermann, from the other perspective, does so as well. Hate.

Of late, in the health care debate, there was lots of hatred generated.

At a tea party rally in Columbus, Ohio several taunted and humiliated a man who was sitting on the ground with a sign that said he had Parkinson’s disease. One of the Tea Party protesters leaned over the man and sneered: “If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong end of town.” Another threw money at the man, first one bill and then another. Pure hate.

Rep. John Lewis, well noted person in the civil rights movement was called the “N-Word,” as he walked toward Congress. Usage of racial slurs is a sign and symbol of hatred.

Barney Frank was taunted because he was gay. Hate.

Another person was spit on. Hate.

John Boehner, it is stated over and over again, has fried brains from his tanning salon. Hate.

A blogger in my town referred to the President and Speaker of the House as Hussein Odumbo and Botox Pelosi. Hate.

We like to diminish things and say that these are all isolated incidents. They really aren’t. The hate-mongers show up every day and every night on radio and television. The demonstrations have incidents like the one recorded in Columbus, Ohio, that appear to be isolated until you read the signs. Lots of hate in those signs.

The recent Health Care legislation was an amazing display. In observing the House the other night, contempt and disdain were two auras in the air. There was lots of harsh language, a plethora of lies and half truths, and hate. Hate.

We want to blame hate on others. We like to blame hate on the talk show hosts, on the columnists, on the politicians, and on the sign holders. Yet, everyone is to blame. When we turn on the radio or television and listen to the hate talk, we have complicity in their words and actions. When we find ourselves using slurs or referring to others or the opinions of other people as ‘stupid,’ we are part of the problem. Many of the people outraged when President Obama is called a Socialist were very fast to call President Bush a Fascist. (Of course, there are the people who call President Obama both a Socialist and a Fascist; but that’s a bit like saying he’s a square and a circle at the same time.)

There is a solution to all of this hate that can be quickly summarized.

Hate: Don’t do it! I'm not sure who hate is, but God is love; and God does not call people to hate one another.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sermon---Sunday March 21, 2010

Pondering Unanswerable Questions
Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?
Text: Genesis 1:24-31
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
March 21, 2010

There is a philosophical concept of circular cause and consequence. It speaks of arguments that go around in circles making resolution difficult.

A graduate cannot find a job because every job requires experience; and if no one gives a person experience, how can they ever find a job?

An actor cannot join the actor's union unless he has played a role in a union film, but a non-union actor cannot get a role in a union film because he isn't in the union.

Remember when CD players first came out? People would not purchase them because they didn’t have CD’s to play on the players; and they wouldn’t purchase CD’s because they didn’t have a player.

Life moves around in circles. And then there is the most famous one of all. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

You may have looked at this sermon title this morning and decided that the title was a joke or I was being frivolous or trying to be humorous. The reality is that the subject of the chicken and the egg is a topic that has been discussed over and over again through many centuries. The philosopher Aristotle weighed in three centuries before Jesus was born and the scientist Stephen Hawking has weighed in during the modern era.
People have weighed in and it still remains an unanswerable question that is actually a small question in terms of the largest question it represents. How did the universe and each of us get here in the first place? Some will say that there is an easy and definitive answer to the question.

Some will say Genesis tells us everything we need to know.

Others will say Evolution tells us everything we need to know.

We’d all be delighted if the questions could be answered so simply; for many people they are-----but the reality is that the world we live in is still debating from whence we came and has been doing so for a very long time. While so many people like to try to make this unanswerable question have an easy answer, there really is no way to do so.

For one, while many people who call themselves creationists and evolutionists like to say that you must believe in one or the other, the reality is that there really is no way to not embrace both.

We believe that God is the Creator of the universe; science teaches us that the universe and everything in it has evolved and is evolving. These are not mutually exclusive things----in fact, they dance with each other.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher, theologian, and scientist, wrote in the early portion of the 20th century and concluded that believe both in God as a Creator and in evolution was the right answer. He did not see a conflict. He said that God created life and God’s creation was living and breathing, and never stagnant. It was always in the state of flux and change and constant movement. He wrote of people in relationship to each other:

We are one, after all, you and I. Together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other.

For Teilhard, to deny God as a Creator was to deny God’s greatest attribute; but to deny the evolutionary process of the universe and each of us was to deny God’s creative power and genius.

Much of the debate over creation and evolution is not a theological debate. A great deal of it is a political debate; but it is a political debate based on something holy and good. It is a debate based on the premise that someone is right and someone is wrong. The problem with the debate is that it is debated by people who are not so much interested in learning truth or embracing the truth as much as making political points.

Today, as a people we have celebrated the dedication of a beautiful little child unto God. Merideth’s favorite story in the Bible is the story of the walk to Emmaus. Her favorite part of that narrative is when Luke speaks to us about their hearts burning inside of them. Their hearts burned from their love of Jesus Christ and their encounter with the risen Christ. In Emma’s name that story will always be shared.

In this beautiful child we have a story of Jesus remembered and loved, as she is loved by her parents and family. If I would now say that we should have a debate about Emma being a beautiful baby, or debate about her parents’ love for her, or even Merideth’s favorite Bible text you’d look at me like I had two heads and say that this was NOT a subject of debate. Which, of course, would be true.

But we do this with God’s creation all the time. Creation is a gift of magnificent beauty and mystery and we ought not tarnish it by having debates on how the universe came to be.

My second point is that this also defeats the purpose of Genesis.

Many centuries ago the Jews were in captivity and listened to pagan creation narratives. What they heard over and over again was that the universe and the world around us was an accident without design, and the waste of something much larger. To the Jews of that era, this was not something they believed in.

Genesis was written, not as a scientific response to the world around them, but as a theological and faith based response. Genesis had two major points.

The first was that the universe and each of us did not come about by accident or by random chance, but came as the result of the design of a Creator.

The second was that the universe, and each of us, were good. The words are repeated over and over again. “God saw it; and it was good.”

Sometimes things don’t go as we expect and get turned around.

A man and a woman were riding along in a car and they were pulled over by a police officer who told the man, who was driving, “Sir, your brake light is out.”

“The man said, “I’m sorry officer but it must have just gone out. I’ll have it fixed right away.”

To which his wife said, “It’s been out a month. I told you to get it fixed!”

And the husband responded loudly, “Would you please be quiet, you foolish woman!”

The policeman said, “Sir, you were also going about 10 miles an hour over the speed limit.”

The man responded, “I’m sorry officer, I just have just gotten a heavy foot. I never speed.”

To which his wife responded, “You’re always speeding. I told you to slow down!”

And the husband responded loudly, “Would you please be quiet, you foolish woman!”

The police officer said, “And, sir, I noticed you are not wearing your seatbelt. I have to cite you on that as well.”

And the man responded, “Officer, please, I just took it off to get my wallet out of my back pocket.”

And his wife responded, “You never wear a seatbelt. I told you you’d get in trouble some day!”

And the husband responded loudly, “Would you please be quiet, you foolish woman!”

The police officer said, “Ma’am, is he always this nasty to you?”

She smiled and so, “No officer. He’s usually very, very nice. He only gets nasty when he’s had too much to drink.”

That story ends abruptly and most of us can figure out what happens next. But the story is not what we’re really expecting it to be.

Much the same can be said about Genesis. Genesis is often debated as a science book; in fact people often like to view it as a science book, overlooking one tiny detail. Genesis is in the Bible and should be treated as a document of faith. It is not a book written to tell us HOW creation came to be, but WHY creation came to be. Like so many of the unanswerable questions, HOW creation came to be is often the wrong question. Psalm 8, where our Call to Worship derives asks a much better question: “Why do you, O God, love us so much?”

The story of creation is not a story about politics of even science. It is ultimately a narrative of faith; a creator God who creates a universe in motion, and creates a universe that is good, and creates people in His own image and likeness.

The creation story is ultimately a story about love. Teilhard de Chardin said it well when he said:

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered fire.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Fine Article and Some Comments

The following article comes from Charles Currie, a United Church of Christ minister.

What About Jesus And Holy Scripture Scares Glenn Beck?
Posted by: Rev. Chuck Currie on March 8, 2010 at 2:01PM EST
Scripture tells us that God has a simple request of humanity:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 NRSV)

Radio personality Glenn Beck doesn't like that kind of talk:

On his daily radio and television shows last week, Fox News personality Glenn Beck set out to convince his audience that "social justice," the term many Christian churches use to describe their efforts to address poverty and human rights, is a "code word" for communism and Nazism. Beck urged Christians to discuss the term with their priests and to leave their churches if leaders would not reconsider their emphasis on social justice.

"I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"

Later, Beck held up cards, one with a hammer and sickle and other with a swastika. "Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That's what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: 'social justice.' They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy."

Beck's attempt to compare the modern Christian church to Russian Communists or German Nazis is nothing but a cheap ploy meant to divide Americans along religious lines.

What is Beck trying to do here? He continues to espouse a political philosophy that ignores the needs of those Jesus called "the least of these in society," argues that as stewards of creation humanity can do whatever it wants with the Earth, and justifies wars that most Christians across the globe condemn.

Clearly, he sees Christians as a threat to his political agenda.

Holy Scripture is filled with teachings from God about justice and God condemns those who create governments and socities that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the needs of the poor and homeless:

13The Lord rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples. 14The Lord enters into judgement with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. 15What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts. (Isaiah 3:13-15 NRSV)

The church universal - when we have been at our best - has always been about social justice, about uplifting the needs of those lost and left behind.

Roman Catholics in Poland fought off Communism. African-American churches in the United States led the Civil Rights Movement. Mainline Christian Churches, in partnership with many others, have fought to stop wars and to help people living in poverty lift themselves up. Evangelicals have joined together in common cause with other people of faith to fight global warming.

Jesus himself explains what is at stake:

35...I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-45 NRSV)

Glenn Beck might pay special attention to verse 41 of this passage the next time he condemns the justice work of Christian churches.

It is a critique on Glenn Beck telling people that they ought to leave churches which preach social justice. Rev. Currie's comments are outstanding on stand on their own merit. I just had a thought or two I want to add.

Many churches engage in social justice ministries. My own church, St. Marks United Church of Christ, does. Our church takes very literally Jesus' commands to feed the hungry; we have a weekly Soup Kitchen. No one is charged. We take literally the command to clothe the naked; we have a Community Clothes Closet where we give clothing and blankets away to people. No one is charged. We take, very literally, I might add, those many passages where Jesus welcomes those who are unwelcome. We welcome everyone. What is ironic is that we take these strongly stated and oft repeated ethical teachings of Jesus and live them by word and deed, pretty much literally; and we are called a liberal church because of it. Who'd have thunk it?

Glenn Beck is entitled to his political opinions. When he begins preaching what he's preaching with this, he is telling people to defy the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any person who tells people to defy the central core ethical teachings of Jesus, is not a person I would ever choose to listen to.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sunday's Sermon 3-7-10

Pondering Unanswerable Questions
Can We Really Prove God Exists?
Text: 1 Corinthians 2:9-16
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
March 7, 2010

This week is the third Sunday in Lent and I’ve already frustrated everyone by pondering two unanswerable question on God’s will and why bad things happen to us. Today I want to ponder that age old question on the existence of God.

There would be three major ways to attempt to prove that God exists.

The first attempt would be Biblical and theological. One can read quotes from the Bible about the existence of God and make the claim that because the Bible tells us that God exists, and the Bible is truthful, than God exists.

There is, of course, a slight problem with this. If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe the Bible is truthful because to make it truthful would require God. The Bible is a great book for a countless number of reasons, but one has to have faith already before one can totally believe it; or one has to be inclined towards that faith.

Chances are, if you’ve stayed overnight in a hotel or motel someplace, you have found a Bible in the room. Mostly likely it was placed there by an organization called The Gideons. The Gideons have a worldwide ministry of publishing the Bible and putting them in the hands of people. One of their most famous ministries has been putting the Bible in hotel rooms and many a person has come to faith reading a Bible printed by the Gideons. They credit the Gideons for helping them to discover God in the Bible. The stories are powerful and good; but people had to be fertile ground for that faith to grow for that faith to grow. We need to have faith, or be open to faith, to embrace God from the Bible.

The second way of attempting to prove the existence of God is through reason; most notable through philosophy.

In the early portion of the Middle Ages philosophers attempted to prove the existence of God by way of reason. People like St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas Aquinas all wrote proofs for the existence of God. Their proofs were well reasoned concepts that used logic to prove that God existed.

Aquinas, someone I have always admired, believed that faith and reason walk hand in hand and that both reason and faith exist in God. Faith he believed, has nothing to fear from science and reason as long as faith, science, and reason are consistent with their own principles.

The problem is, reason and logic can and do come up short.

The philosopher Aristotle who lived around 350 BC became popular in the early part of the 12th century in Europe. Aristotle was Greek, but his teachings had never circulated through Europe, but he was highly regarded in the Islamic world. He works were discovered during the Crusades and he became very popular in western Europe. He wrote extensively on natural science and ethics and his writings and teachings were embraced. No one had written on the subject of natural science like Aristotle had.

Aristotle, however, used strictly reason to determine his conclusions. No one had ever thought of doing an experiment. One logical conclusion Aristotle came to was that if you dropped two items, one heavy and one light, from the same height, the heavier object would hit the ground first. This teaching held true for almost 1900 years before Galileo dropped two balls from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and disproved Aristotle’s theory. Logic, it was realized, can be flawed.

Then, of course, there is science.

When electricity was harnessed, Thomas Edison believed that electricity best worked using a direct current. A man named George Westinghouse believed that you needed an alternating current. Both were scientists and both proved their were right. And they both were. While alternating current is used more often than direct current, both proved the other one right and wrong; something science usually doesn’t do.

For centuries people debated about light. Was it a particle. People proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt that light was a particle.

Conversely, others said it was a beam. People proved, beyond shadow of a doubt, light was a beam. They discovered, as time went on, that both were right. Light was both.

Science proves things beyond a shadow of a doubt except for when it can’t.

All have tried to prove God exists or God doesn’t exist. There are philosophers who are people of faith, agnostics, and atheists. Reason hasn’t given us a definitive answer. There are scientists who are people of faith, agnostics, and atheists. Science hasn’t given us a definitive answer. And theologians all have faith in something, but faith is all over the lot.

But, as often happens with pondering unanswerable questions, perhaps the issue isn’t proving that God exists, but having faith in God.

St. Paul wrote:
"What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him"--
10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God's except the Spirit of God.

Later, St. Paul reminds us that the three greatest spiritual gifts are faith, hope, and love.

Take note. Faith is a spiritual gift-----it is a higher gift than the gift of knowledge.

It is easier to know something than to believe in something. It is easier to have knowledge than it is to have faith.

What makes God beautiful and difficult is that God does not allow God’s existence to be proved definitively. Our acceptance of God must be an act of free will and must be an act of faith. Thomas Aquinas observed that people can reason themselves almost to God, but not all the way. To truly embrace God, people must take a leap of faith.

If you’ve ever watched trapeze artists they are, in so many ways, the greatest example of faith.

When they swing through the air they have to let go; and when they let go, they do not know if the other swing and the other person will be there. At the moment they let go, things are not lined up. Everything is in motion and everyone is in motion. When the person let’s go of his or her swing, they are doing so without knowledge. All they have is faith.

St. Paul tells us that faith in God is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Faith in God is not about proving God; it is about letting go and believing in God. It is that simple and that difficult.

Ultimately faith is much like hope and love. It is not a rational decision of the mind, but an opening of our hearts.

Belief in God is not, ultimately the ability to reason or prove that God exists. The greatest minds in history have not been able to prove what the open hearts of people can embrace. The Peter O’Toole character in the movie “Creator,” said it best. We move forward with well informed blind faith.

This Lent is a reminder to us that we can reason our way to God all we want; but the only way to really embrace God is to open our hearts in faith.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Sunday's Sermon 2-28-10

Pondering Unanswerable Questions
Why Do Bad Things Happen?
Text: Job 42:1-6
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
February 28, 2010

In late 1944 and early 1945 Allied Armies began to liberate Nazi Concentration Camps. The world began to witness the horror of these death camps. Around the world people began to ask the question the victims in the camps had been asking for years. Why did God allow this to happen?

In August of 1969 the police found a crime scene unlike any they had ever seen. Sharon Tate and a group of friends had been murdered in a rather barbaric fashion. Shortly afterwards, another couple was murdered in the same fashion before gang members, led by a man named Charles Manson were arrested. People asked: Why did God allow this to happen?

In March 2009, Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 felonies and admitted to turning his wealth management business into a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars. People asked: Why did God allow this to happen?

Every day wonderful, beloved people get sick and eventually die. People are killed in horrible accidents and children and babies lose their lives. People ask: Why does God allow this to happen?

There is an unanswerable question that we ponder. Why do bad things happen?

The definitive answer is this. I don't know. To be perfectly honest, as a minister, if there was any one question I wish I knew the answer to, it is this one. It is the question I am asked, in a wide variety of forms, mostly personal forms, why did this happen to me?

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People was a best selling book written by Rabbi Harold Kushner. The book was a well done Bible study on the Book of Job; Job is the definitive example of a good person to whom bad things happened. It is an excellent book, but many people find it lacking because he really doesn't give you an answer.

I did some searching on the subject and one person did come up with a definitive answer. His answer was this. There are no good people so bad things never happen to good people. But to say his answer is a bad answer is falling way short. It's a dreadful answer.

There is a dictum that needs to be lived by in attempting to answer this question of why bad things happen. The dictum is this. It has to be an answer given in the presence of the burning children at Nazi Concentration Camps. Cheap answers when young innocents are being gassed is blasphemous. It has to be an answer given in the presence of parents who have lost their young son or daughter. When innocent children die, an answer like, "They never were really good in the first place," is an obscene answer.

So how do we even venture answering the question? With care and without being definitive.

When I dare even approach this question, there are things that do come to mind that begin to give us some insights.

The first venture is this. God has blessed people with a free will. Or maybe God has cursed people with a free will. Or both.

In the history of the world some of the greatest acts in humanity came as the result of people exercising their free will and doing something great; conversely, some of the most heinous acts in human history occurred because people exercised their free will for something dreadful.

Most of us, if asked, would choose having a free will ten times out of ten times. We cherish the ability to act freely. We love freedom and we love free will.

But, like freedom, free will comes with a cost. It means that there will be people who choose evil over good. Our world will always be filled with evil people. It also means, at times, we will choose evil over good; we will choose to sin rather than to be righteous. Sometimes bad things happen because people have used their free will to make those bad things happen.

The second thing is this. Life happens and in life there is good and bad; there is evil and justice, there is joy and there is sorrow.

In John 10:10 it reads:
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Schlitz Beer company, for years, advertised their beer with the motto that people ought to ‘live life with all the gusto they could get.' I guess the point was, that the way people live life is filled with joy, enthusiasm, and Schlitz Beer.

Often, when people read the words of John 10:10, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full, they read the words as if they were listening to a beer commercial. Jesus was not a beer commercial, however. Far from it. His words are best interpreted in light of the words of Ecclesiastes 3:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under Heaven:
2a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
6a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

The author of Ecclesiastes, a man named Qoheleth, was not an optimist. His statement about time is not a statement about enthusiasm or joy, but a pretty blunt
statement about life. There will be good times and there will be bad times. There will be a time to be born and a time to die. For everything good, there will be something bad; and for everything bad, there will be something good and we have, in his thoughts, no control over either the good or the bad.

And then Jesus says the words, "I have come that you may have life and have it to the full." When we look at the words of Jesus in the context of Ecclesiastes, we have everything BUT a beer commercial. We have, at its core, very difficult words to digest. I have come that you may have life to the full; that you may have joy and grief----to the full. There you will laugh and weep, profoundly. There will be life, and there will be death and there will be no exceptions.

Life happens. And not everything in life that happens is good. Not everything in life is sweet and kind and nice. The reality is that much of what happens in life is painful and difficult. God is strongly telling us that we are not promised only good things; we are promised the good and the bad, the joyful and the sorrowful. Perhaps it's best seen that it isn't what happens that is of the most importance; it is what we do with what happens.

The last thing is this, and it relates directly to the Scripture reading this morning.

Listen again to some of Job’s words:
"I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?'
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

The Book of Job is an amazing book. It essentially begins with a bet between God and Satan. Is there one person so good that no matter what you do to him, he will not turn away from God. God bets on Job and Job does not turn away from God, so Satan loses the bet.

But Job does begin to question: Why did this happen to me?

Three of his friends listen to his questions and laments for quite a while and say nothing. Ultimately their answer is the same one I found on the Internet. The problem is that you, Job, are probably not really good and are being punished. The debate carries on with Job insisting that, no, he did nothing wrong.

A fourth friend enters the dialogue and even though you are sure this friend will be truly wise, his counsel is the same. Job must have done something to deserve God’s wrath. Job knows that he didn’t and insists on his innocence.

The, finally, in Chapter 38, God enters the conversation. And God REALLY enters the conversation with the words:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
[2] "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
[3] Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

And Chapters 38, 39, 40,and 41 are a relentlessly blistering series of questions that God gives to Job until we read Job’s response:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

God’s response to Job is simple and somewhat earth shaking. The answer is that the only way to know the answer to this question is to be God, and God reminds Job that he, Job, is not God. But, in reminding Job that Job was not God, God is also reminding Job that Job, like all of us needs God.

Often people find the Beatitudes, teachings of Jesus in the Gospel, to be mystifying. Why are we blessed when we are poor in spirit, or mourn, or suffer? The answer is that when we are poor in spirit, or in grief, or suffering in any way, we are reminded of our need for God. In 2nd Corinthians 13, St. Paul reminds us that God’s power is strongest in us when we are weak. The more we recognize our weakness, the more we can embrace God’s strength.

So, why do bad things happen? This is, in reality, not a question we can really answer. Ultimately, in the end, it may be actually the wrong question to ask ourselves. Perhaps instead of asking the question ‘why do bad things happen?’ we would be better served by asking the question “How do we deal with bad things happen to us?”

Helen Keller was deaf, mute, and blind and became one of the most accomplished and celebrated Americans of all time not because she lamented why these bad things happened to her, but she inspired people by how she dealt with those things.

Out of the horror of the Holocaust grew the nation of Israel and a greater understanding, worldwide, on the seriousness of deal with hate.

Ultimately, as Christians, the horror of the crucifixion turned into the glory of the resurrection and the spread of the Gospel.

Do bad things happen? They do and they can be and often are devastating to us on so many levels. But let us that while not knowing the why’s of things, we also can live with the confidence and faith that when we are at our most hurt and most vulnerable, God is there for us in rich and special ways.