God for Grownups
Week of Sunday February 8 - Epiphany 5
Gospel: Mark 1:29-39
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Doing God for Grownups
I've brought along a bit of video from The Trews, which is a pod cast by the Comedian Russell Brand.
You can find it on YouTube and watch it all. It raises some interesting questions for us, like
- How can I believe in God?
- How can I talk about God when there are such articulate people like Russell Brand and Stephen Fry?
- What do I do if I think maybe Stephen Fry is right!?
- How can there be a God like that!?
We might also note that religion doesn't just happen in church. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of conversations in pubs and on the internet just about the two videos we will see.
And yes, Russell Brand is doing his podcast in bed! Just like some of us read the newspaper in bed!
Video (We are using a cut down version of this video in church)
Let's be blunt and honest: if we deny what Stephen Fry says about the horrors of life we are living a deluded life. We cannot justify the sort of God he imagines.
I find it impossible to imagine a God who sits in the sky and lets those things happen. As Giles Fraser says, I don't believe in the God that Stephen Fry does not believe in.
We need God for Grownups.
But doing God for Grownups is hard work.
How can we even talk about a God we cannot define? You see, if I tell you God is this− such and such a thing… I must be wrong, because if I can define it and understand it, that says I am greater than it is. Therefore it can't be God.
This is the basic problem with the argument of atheists who take the approach of Stephen Fry. He is describing a God which can't be God. He is right, by the way. The sort of God he describes is evil. I don't believe in it. And if such a God somehow turned out to exist, then I would need to do what Stephen Fry does. More from Giles Fraser, in The Guardian.
…what Fry was asked was what he would say to God if he met him face to face. And this presumes that God exists. So imagine: Fry is sitting opposite God and telling him that he is a b&%^$#* because he invented cancer and insects that burrow into children’s eyes. These things are pinned on God by Fry because God is literally the creator of everything and all-powerful. God could have done something to change the situation, but he chose not to. QED: he is a b&%^$#*.
What greater example of speaking truth to power could there be than this? And for absolutely no reward. For if Fry is right about God being an omnipotent a b&%^$#*, then he could hardly expect to be rewarded for his honest observations. He tells the truth then burns in eternity. In this scenario, Fry is entirely heroic in his truth telling.
… By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them).
It is easy not to believe in such a God.
And it is easy to say that there has to be "something else" that accounts for the good, the beauty, for the heroism, and for the wonder that is in the world we see.
Indeed, I cannot comprehend how the good of the world, or indeed, how the sheer physical majesty of the universe− all its complexity and fine balance which, if it was slightly different, would mean none of it would exist in the form we know− I cannot comprehend how there cannot be some ultimate behind all that; something that "causes" and "sustains" it.
But I think this is mostly "hardwired" into us. For some of us, despite all our reservations, "God" seems a necessary idea. For others of us, the idea of "God" seems ridiculous. There's not many people change sides. Arguing about it soon becomes an exercise in futility.
The more important question in this: whether we believe in God, or we don't, is how we will live today.
Deep down, do we think the world is here for us, and that we are Number One?
Or do we think that we find who we are and live the best life, by living for the world?
There are atheists and Christians who sit on both sides of that divide. And in this untidy world we have to trust our instinct on this. It's hard. There is no proving it.
It's a bit like the end of Mark when Jesus is dead. It's a gospel which nakedly confronts all our angst and uncertainty as Christians, and all our uncertainty as human beings.
In Mark doesn't even try to prove that Jesus is risen. He just states it. No one sees the resurrected Jesus. Instead there are just two men who tell the women to tell the disciples to go back to Galilee. "There you will see him, just as he told you."
What happens in Galilee? Well, all we have is the gospel before Jesus died.
Including today's reading… Jesus went to Peter's Mother in law "and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them."
This pattern is repeated in Mark 5:39ff
39When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age).
And it is repeated again in Mark 9:26-28
After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.
Now if we take Stephen Fry's very literal reading of these things then these are unbelievable stories. Life doesn’t happen like this. When you're dead, you're dead.
But as metaphor and poetry these stories tell us that in the act of compassion
- where we help people to stand
- when we bring them back into the community
then we will find Jesus. We will find the presence of God among us. We will find that sense of the Other, the Ultimate, "God" that we discern in the midst of us.
It's that simple.
And that compassion is to be shown in the synagogue and in the house; that is everywhere. Living Jesus life is not just for church, it is for everywhere.
This seems a very simple and quick quoting of the lectionary reading for today, but here is the point: this Sabbath day which is in the Gospel of Mark is the first act of Jesus' ministry. And the caring and lifting up continues on through the whole gospel of Mark. It is what Jesus is about.
Mark sees what Stephen Fry, and everyone else, sees: life is uncertain, savage, and without guarantee. Even Jesus cries out "Why hast thou abandoned me." God, that Ultimate which we experience as love, and which we cry out to for justice, often seems absent.
Mark is claiming there is only really one meeting with the God-presence we see in Jesus, and that is to trust him in the Galilee of our lives, in the day to day living where we love others. There we will meet him.
We can't argue God's existence. There will always be someone with a better argument.
We can't prove God's existence, for if we could, it would not be God.
We can only stand and walk and serve, three acts which are in fact metaphors for prayer, and which when we seek justice and do compassion, are prayer.
This doing and praying has changed my life. The angst about what atheists say, the fear that God might not be there, the painful, unanswerable question about how a world in which we find such joy and good can have such evil rampant within it− all this fades. It's there. But there is another reality. I don't feel like I'm whistling in the dark about the love of God. I feel it and see it.
Love your neighbour. Stretch out your and life them up.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!