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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon "Believing is Seeing" By Mike Powers - July 31, 2016

Jeremiah 9:23-24

23 Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 2: 1-16
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,[a] I did not come proclaiming the mystery[b] of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,[c] but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For 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.12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.[d]
14 Those who are unspiritual[e] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.

Believing is Seeing
By Mike Powers
Delivered at WDMUMC July 31. 2016

A wealthy farmer invited the newly appointed minister of his church to have dinner in his home.  After a bountiful meal, the farmer led the minister on a tour of his property and was quite proud to highlight all of the improvements that he had made over the years.  The farmer pointed to the orchard laden with fruit, the numerous livestock, the abundant crops in the fields, the extensive array of modern farm equipment and the ample stocks of grain in the barns.  The new minister was quite impressed and said to the farmer, “It is quite magnificent what you and the Lord have accomplished here!”  The farmer rubbed his chin and said, “Well thank you but I just wish you could have seen it when the Lord ran the place by Himself.”
I tell this story not to diminish the value of the planning and work that the farmer invested in the farm to make it successful.  Hard work on the part of many people is necessary just for ordinary life to happen.  Work is what makes it possible for us to have food, medical care, shelter, clothing, transportation, education, entertainment and numerous other products and services that we all depend upon. 
While it is good to show pride in one’s work, we all need to maintain some humility about it and keep in mind that nothing would happen without God providing us with the skill and resources to make it possible.  Yes, the farmer should be commended and in fact was rewarded with the opportunity to accumulate wealth because of his success, but that success occurred because of the gifts that God had provided.  Consequently, we hold science in high regard.
I believe that to some extent it is more challenging for people to keep God more top of mind today than in the past and I attribute that in some part to the tremendous advances that science has achieved.  Science can now explain many things that use to mystify us and that knowledge is extensively deployed making our lives easier.
Many people think of the roles of science and religion as a zero-sum game.  The more science can explain how the world works, the less we need to attribute to an invisible god.  In that way of thinking, God is there simply to fill in the gaps and the gaps are shrinking more and more every day.
We have a natural instinct to seek logic and rationality in all aspects of our lives. We can find it disturbing if we are unable to clearly connect the dots between cause and effect and accepting something purely on faith is not something that is easily embraced.  We want proof. 
One thing I find interesting is that the Apostle Paul was raised in a culture that also placed a high value on logic and reason.  Paul, or Saul as he was named at birth, did not grow up in Galilee or the area surrounding Jerusalem as did most of Jesus’ earliest followers.  He was raised in Tarsus which was located in what today would be the country of Turkey.   Tarsus was a wealthy city, strategically located near the crossroads of major trade routes. 
The city was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture which had given birth to innumerable contributions to the world’s knowledge of math, science, governmental principles, philosophy and the arts.  Tarsus itself was a considered an important intellectual center in the Roman Empire that rivaled Athens and Alexandria in terms of thought leadership, learning and culture.       
Although Tarsus was a predominantly Gentile city, Saul came from a Jewish family of tent makers which was apparently well-positioned as he was born a Roman citizen during a time when only 10% of the empire’s population had been granted citizenship.  Saul likely was instructed in the Greco-Roman schools of Tarsus where he would have learned the art of writing and the basics of Greek rhetoric and logic.  At the age of thirteen, he was sent to Jerusalem to study under a prestigious rabbi.
As a young man, Saul was quite ambitious and sought to make a name for himself by aggressively persecuting Christians, perhaps someday hoping to join the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  Saul supervised the execution by stoning of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr.  The Book of Acts, describes how Saul led a severe persecution against Christians dragging off men and women to prison.  All of this was achieved before he reached the age of 20.  He was a real up and comer in the world of inflicting terror and he was gaining quite a reputation.
Saul then sought to take his campaign to Damascus and while traveling there his life changed dramatically.  Saul was struck blind by a bolt of light from heaven and heard the voice of the Lord question him as to why he was perpetrating such evil.  Saul sheltered for three days blinded and unwilling to eat or drink.  His physical blindness perhaps providing a means for him to become aware of his spiritual blindness.
Then, a faithful Christian named Ananais was directed by God to seek out Saul, lay hands on him and proclaim “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Ananais being fully aware of Saul’s reputation for terrorizing Christians, showed extraordinary courage in approaching Saul as he did.  History would perhaps be much different if not for this act of bravery.
With his sight restored and invigorated by the Holy Spirit, Saul changed his name to Paul, which means small or humble.  Despite the name, Paul was not a meek and unassuming individual and soon became just as ambitious in seeking to spread the news of Jesus as he had previously been in persecuting Jesus’ followers.  In this new role, Paul became a tireless envoy spreading the message to the Gentile world far beyond the borders of Jerusalem and Israel.  It is no small measure due to Paul’s evangelism that one third of the world’s population today is Christian.
One city that Paul visited on his travels was Corinth and today’s epistle reading is the second chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Paul arrived in Corinth, which is located in what today is the country of Greece, on his second of four missionary trips.  Corinth was situated at a strategic shipping point between Rome and Asia and consequently had much wealth.  Paul attended the synagogue in Corinth every Sabbath and sought to persuade both Jews and Gentiles in the city to accept Jesus. 
In today’s reading, which was written a couple of years after Paul had left the city, he admits to the church members in Corinth that he had come to them in weakness and in fear.  He had been afraid because his approach in spreading the news of Jesus to the people of Corinth was not to use human logic and reason but rather rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit.
So let’s think about this.  Paul was a highly educated person trained in Greek rhetoric and logic seeking to minister to a wealthy, intellectual city immersed in Greco-Roman culture that highly prized the skills in which Paul had been trained.  And yet, Paul set these skills aside because he knew that trying to convince the Corinthians to adopt Jesus as their Savior by using human wisdom, while perhaps effective in attracting followers in the short-term, would not result in the people truly connecting with God.  If someone were to be persuaded to follow Jesus by the power of someone making a clever argument or a scientific proof, they could just as easily be persuaded by some other argument or discovery later.
There is a lesson to us here that our belief in God should not be dependent upon some scientific proof but rather it should grow from the power of the Holy Spirit.  We all have that that power within ourselves.  However, at times it may become hard to see because other stuff gets in the way.
God is not a filler to be used to patch up gaps in our understanding of how the world works.  God surpasses all human knowledge.  Science can explain a few things as to how the world works.  It provides a glimpse as to some of the things that God has created and God does want us to use the tool of science to alleviate suffering and make the world a better place.  Science is a wonderful thing in that regard and we need more scientists in the world.  But science is the wrong tool for gaining an understanding of God.  
How we come to that knowledge will be different for each of us.  For some, it can come as a lightning bolt such as the one the hit Paul.  For others, it may just seep into our lives through a hundred million hairline cracks.  If we don’t want to understand, if we don’t open ourselves to a spiritual connection to God, none of the things I just said will make sense.  But if you do open yourself to connecting with the Holy Spirit that resides within each of us, it can be transformative.  Perhaps as life-changing as Saul changing to Paul.
You have all heard the saying that “Seeing is Believing”. However, as the spiritual discern all things while the unspiritual are unable to fathom God’s gifts, it may be more accurate to say “Believing is Seeing”.
The short passage that we heard from the prophet Jeremiah in our first reading today talks about some of the things that can get in the way of our spirituality.  If we focus too much on attaining wealth or power or close our hearts and minds to knowing God, we will find ourselves in a situation where we are blinded to God’s grace.  Jeremiah tells us we should not brag about how much we know, how much money we have or how powerful we are.  None of these factors compare with the value of knowing God.
     So I have talked about Paul’s visit to the Corinthians, you may be wondering how did that all work out.  Was Paul right to be afraid as to how his message would be received?  Was he successful by elevating spirituality above earthly wisdom in his message to Corinth?
Luke tells us that a number of Jewish leaders in Corinth became followers under Paul’s ministry but others rejected Paul and the gospel he preached.  Paul was soon no longer welcome at the synagogue so he went to the house next door and started his own church.  That church was open to both Jews and Gentiles and many of the people who heard Paul became believers and were baptized. It appears from Paul’s own description elsewhere in this epistle to the Corinthians that most of the converts were poor and few of the wealthier people of that society chose to join Paul’s church.  Ultimately, the leaders of the synagogue brought Paul to trial for persuading others to worship God unlawfully but the provincial governor threw out the case.
  These mixed results show that for someone to connect with God they must have a willingness to drop the shields that are standing in the way of full discernment of God’s gifts.  Not everyone is willing to do that.  The fact that the wealthier elements of the city generally chose not to embrace Paul’s message of Jesus demonstrates that even back then earthly success can serve as an impediment to truly knowing God.
Most of us have probably had the experience of a non-believer telling us the reasons that they don’t believe.  For example, they may say that religion is superstition and that they only believe in things that can be proven.  How do we send the message to believers and non-believers alike that there is a God who cares about all of us?    How do we lead ourselves and others to connect with God in a spiritual way?
There is hope.  For those of us who participated in the church-wide study earlier this year, “Embracing Spiritual Awakening” by Diana Butler Bass, we learned that while participation in organized religion is in a period of decline, there is an increased level of spirituality among people today.  The so-called “spiritual but not religious”. 
What this says to me is that there is present an instinctual yearning to believe in some higher-power and to believe that there is a realm that lies beyond what we can see in the present world.  A realm where peace and justice prevail. 
Our faith tells us that such a realm does exist which is available to all by way of God’s grace.  We also believe that by practicing Jesus’ message of love for God and neighbor that the present world can also be a much better place.   
To send this message, we should show by our actions that it IS Christian
·         to treat every individual, no matter how different they may be, with tolerance and as a being of sacred worth,
·         to practice kindness to others,
·         to provide assistance to those in need and
·         to extend and accept forgiveness when mistakes are made.
We should simply be, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “a light of the world”.  (Matthew 5:14)   
And with that light, we enable ourselves and others to understand and appreciate all that God has provided us.  Amen.