Atheism and Purpose

Sermon for Aug. 25, 2013, Pentecost + 14, 21st Ordinary C

Luke 13:10-17

 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the

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synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Just recently I discovered what my purpose in life is.  Recently something happened that had never happened before, and it changed how I understood my purpose in life.  I will tell you about it in just a minute (and, spoiler alert: it was not a religious experience that revealed my purpose to me), but first I have a question:

Most Christians are Atheists

Are you an atheist?  I hope so.  I was listening to a lecture given recently by one of the outspoken atheists of our day, Sam Harris, who pointed out that most Christians are atheists with respect to the gods of other religions.  So in that sense, I could say that I’m an atheist with respect to lots of other gods, as I’m sure you could too.

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This kind of Christian atheism has a long and nobel history.  The early Christians were considered atheists by their friends and neighbors in the Roman Empire.  Most of those people believed in many gods – Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, and there was also, in the days of the New Testament, a growing Emperor cult that put Caesar on the god-list too.  Christians were atheists with respect to all of those gods; they believed there is only one God.

Christians inherited this atheism with respect to other gods from Judaism.  For Jews, Baal, the fertility storm god of the Canaanites was not a real god.  Neither was Shamash the sun god, nor the moon god, nor the gods of the hosts of stars.  Jews knew that only God is God.

Jesus was an Atheist

Jesus was no exception.  Jesus was an atheist with respect to all gods other than the one true God, the God of Abraham whose Hebrew name is “I AM” or Yahweh.

But that’s not all we can say about Jesus’ atheism.  Jesus was an atheist with respect to popular versions of God that people in his time and place believed in.

One of my favorite New Testament scholars, NT Wright, recounts a time when he was a chaplain at Oxford.  He said every year he interviewed each of the incoming freshmen.  Often, he said they would tell him something like “Don’t expect to see much of me, since I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.”

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Wright would then ask them to tell him what the god they didn’t believe in was like.  Often they would say the god they did not believe in was like an old angry man in the sky looking down on people, punishing them for being bad.”  Wright would then tell them that he didn’t believe in that god either.  He could have said that he too was an atheist with respect to that kind of God.

Jesus’ Purpose: teaching Torah

I believe that this is exactly what was going on in the story we read from Luke.  Jesus is in the Jewish synagogue, on the Sabbath, the Jewish holy day, teaching – which means undoubtably from the Jewish scriptures, or Torah, or what most of us grew up calling the Old Testament.

He knew the scriptures intimately, as we know from his frequent use and deep understanding of them.  He knew about the Sabbath laws forbidding work on God’s day of rest, and he knew all the places where Sabbath is mentioned in the Law and the Prophets.

So what is going on, when, in the middle of his teaching, this poor, bent over lady walks in?  Suddenly Jesus saw a teachable moment.  Luke tell us:

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“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

Did Jesus get a reaction?  Of course. I think he was actually provoking that reaction; after all, the woman didn’t ask to be healed, nor did anyone else ask him to heal her.  I fact, after 18 years, she was probably resigned to being in that condition for the rest of her life.

But Jesus went out of his way to notice her.  He stopped teaching in mid lesson, took the initiative, addressed her and proclaimed her “set free”.  Jesus had previously healed by spoken word alone, but this time, after his pronouncement, he laid his hands on her.  I think this was part of his lesson: he was reaching out doing something on the Sabbath that he knew would be controversial.

In fact because she had been ill for a long time made it was all the more clear that Jesus was intentionally provoking a controversy.  After 18 years, he could have said “come back tomorrow” and no one would have cried “foul.”  But instead, on that Sabbath day, he reached out and touched her in public.

Teaching about God

What was Jesus doing?  Teaching!  Teaching several things at once that we all need to learn.  He was teaching, first, that he was an atheist with respect to a version of God that was quite popular in his day.  Jesus was an atheist with respect to a the referee kind of God who wears a white and black stripped shirt and a whistle in his mouth, who is simply interested in the rules and who is breaking them.  Jesus did not believe in that god.  Neither should anybody.

Rather, Jesus believed in the God who created each human being, every man, woman, boy and girl, in his own image, in other words, who fathered each one, and  who cares deeply about all of his children.

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In fact, going further, God as heavenly Father cares, all the more, for those who are suffering or weak or vulnerable.  He cares about widows and orphans, lepers and hookers, hungry people and sick people; this is what the real God that Jesus believes in cares about.

Sabbath was God’s idea, in order to give these precious children rest from constant work, as if there were no other reason to live.  Sabbath was supposed to be a blessing for people.

How better to teach what the true God is like than by reaching out on this blessed  Sabbath day of rest, and set free this woman from her burdensome condition?  She was, after all, a daughter of Abraham – not just a thirsty donkey.

Teaching about purpose

Did Jesus know in advance that this woman would show up that day?  Or did he simply respond to the opportunity that presented itself to him?   This is something else we learn from this amazing story.   Jesus understood it was part of his purpose to reach out to the woman who showed up in need that day.  By doing that, Jesus was showing us what our purpose is too: to respond as the real God wants us to, to each situation as it happens, in real time.

The kind of God Jesus believed in has a purpose for each one of us which is to be his agents of love and care in real time, as we live, moment by moment.  What is your purpose in life?  If you came here with someone, today that person is part of your purpose in life.  Did you leave anyone at home?  They are part of your purpose.

My purpose in life

I told you that I had recently discovered God’s purpose for my life.  Well here it is; until recently, I did not know that God’s purpose for  my life would include being part of a team of people trying to help a person with a traumatic brain injury.  But Mary (not her real name) showed up, and she became part of God’s purpose for my life.  I had no previous idea that part of my life’s purpose would include phone calls and texts and personal conversations with a person with a traumatic brain injury.  But then she showed up needing help.  Just like that bent over woman showed up while Jesus was getting on with what he had thought was his purpose that day.

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Discovering purpose in real time

Sometimes you hear people wondering about their life’s purpose as if it must be grand or global or public to be counted as purposeful.  Where did that idea come from?  God has put all of us on earth for the express purpose of being his agents of love and care for each other.   The real God who is worth believing in is the God who has given us the purpose of extending his love and mercy to the people he brings into our lives, day by day, moment by moment.

God has given us this neighborhood; those fourth and fifth graders who are sent to us by the school for after school tutoring are part of God’s purpose for our life as a church.

God has given each of us this community with its fragile and crucial eco-system; is it not part of our purpose to protect this treasure from degradation?

God has given us this nation, which was, as Abraham Lincoln said,

conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all [people] are created equal.”

Is it not part of our purpose to ensure that equality is experienced by all of us?  Is it not part of our purpose to ensure that the gains made by the civil rights movement 50 years ago are not undermined, and to reverse the erosion of the very voting rights act that facilitated so many of those gains?

Is it not to try to protect our very system of equality that Lincoln spoke of  by an election process that is not entirely undermined by unlimited torrents of dollars?

Is it not our purpose to ask and ask and to keep asking what can be done about poverty in America?

And to keep asking why there are homeless people?

And to ask what the un-employed and under-employed people do when they get sick or injured and need heath care?

Is it to keep asking why disturbed people can still walk into elementary schools with AK47s and 500 rounds of ammunition?

We have many purposes!   Perhaps it starts with limiting the number of hours we spend listening to the people on TV and radio who get paid to keep us fearful, depressed, and defensive.

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Perhaps, instead, we need to set aside 20 or more minutes each day to be silently aware of the presence of God in contemplative prayer, restoring our sense of peacefulness and compassion.

Here is our invitation today: to believe in the God that Jesus believed in, and to be atheists, as he was, with respect to the gods of vengeance, score-keeping, judgmentalism and condemnation.  Jesus showed us the God who has a purpose for each one of us: the surprising opportunity to be his instruments of compassion and mercy, every day, moment by moment, in real time.

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