Friday, June 18, 2010

Knowledge and Power

Knowledge and power:

2nd Samuel 11: 1-15
Psalm 14
Ephesians 3: 14-21
John 6: 1-21

This sermon was originally preached at First Presbyterian Church of Morganton in July of 2009. It's an older sermon, but I've gotten a lot of positive feedback about it.

We live a world of skepticism. We have movies like Miracle, which tells the story of a hockey victory. Miracle on 43th Street, a beloved Christmas story, portrays the miracle of someone believing in Santa Claus and proving that he is who he says he is. We use the word miracle in order to sell something, like a “Miracle Epoxy Putty” That will repair your broken coffee mug, end the leak under your sink, completely replace your broken shower rod, and do a virus scan on your computer. Brand Name miracles such as these make us very doubtful when we hear of someone miraculously getting better in a hospital. But who knows, maybe God does work through construction adhesives.

Way back before my father was born, when historical characters like Geoffrey Chaucer were wandering around, when people heard about miracles, they saw that as meaning something, they accepted it completely, and acted accordingly. They saw nothing illogical about God being directly active in their lives, Joan of Arc, for example, wasn’t burnt at the stake for hearing voices, she was burnt at the stake for wearing pants. The Roman Catholic Church maintained a huge amount of political power because, the belief was, the Pope had a direct line to God and spoke on God’s behalf. People just accepted these things because that’s the way they saw the world. God takes an integral and visible part in God’s creation. If they didn’t understand something, it’s very easy to fill in the gaps with God. They filled in their lack of knowledge with God’s power.

However, we understand now that the lightning that struck the weaponsmith’s house and burned it to the ground wasn’t God striking him down for some unknown sin, it’s just that the discharge of static electricity was attracted to the antenna-like metal weapons stacked against the wall, which then started the fire.

We know this because the modern world wants to have an answer for everything. Ever since the scientific revolution, our curiosity has led us less to God and more to logic. We want to know everything. Even the miracle of birth has become something observable and explainable each step of the way. I think, however, the deep-seated need to explain everything around us is something that is shifting along generational lines. My Grandfather, who is an elder at his church and knows the bible better than anyone I’ve ever met, is about the most perfect picture of a self made man you can get. He started from less than nothing and eventually founded the South Carolina Neurological Society and was listed in Time magazine as one of the best Doctors in the country. He naturally credits God with a lot of his success, but he will also tell you that while God provided the ability and the opportunity, he did the work to get where he is today. His quest to better himself is a manifestation of his thirst for knowledge, his desire to explain everything in his world.

It’s also an example of his generation’s desire to have control. They say that knowledge is power. Knowing how a disease functions gives one the power to cure it. Knowing how the economy works gives one the power to profit from it. Knowing how people work gives one the power to help them. The knowledge my grandparents an their peers sought gave them the power to build great things. My grandfather’s generation rebuilt Europe and Japan after World War II. They looked at the mystery of space and built what they needed to go there. They took a depression and built a nation. Their knowledge of how the world worked gave them the power they needed to build themselves up into what Tom Brokaw calls the greatest generation. They worked miracles in this world. However, they were miracles that they could understand. They were miracles that they controlled. God is active in the actions and people of this world, calling them to act. Granddaddy knows that.

They could explain those miracles though. Their knowledge gave them the power to do these things. That doesn’t make their achievements any less amazing, at least not to me. But the culture it created took the story of the feeding of the Five Thousand and explained it saying: the people responded to Jesus’s actions with the young boy’s gift and began to take out their own food and share it so that everyone had their fill. God is still active, it’s still a miracle, but it’s an explainable one. It wasn’t a magic basket that kept refilling itself; God’s spirit moved within the people and caused them all to share equally what they had to build a feast from what was initially a snack.

That explanation never really satisfied me. Of course, that could have been exactly the way it happened, the text doesn’t really tell us either way. It just says that from what once was not enough food there was then an abundance. I kind of like the magic basket interpretation, where no matter how much of the food people need or take, there is always food left over for the next person. Had I paid more attention in my Chemistry classes back at PC I could tell you which law of thermodynamics says that matter cannot be created from nothing, but I didn’t, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s one of them. However, in my experience, God doesn’t always follow the rules as we understand them.

I’m actually pretty comfortable with that idea. Part of the great thing about having a degree in English is that you’re allowed to break the rules when it helps you to get the point across better. Winston Churchill was practicing a speech when an aide famously corrected his grammar, telling him that it was improper to end a sentence with a preposition. Churchill then replied, “That is something up with which I will not put.” Now, I’m not saying that Churchill is to grammar as God is to creation, but it seems to me like God acts in ways that are beyond anything we could understand so that we will be still and know that God is.

In our passage this morning, John tells the story of two miracles: The feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on water. In the days in which people like Jesus and John were walking around, miracles were proof of something. The pre-modern word, which is what a historian will call anything before the enlightenment, saw power as a source of knowledge. Theirs was a God of the Gaps, where God took the place of what they didn’t already know. God existed at the fringes of their understanding and worked to the inside where they lived.

As the world came of age and began to learn and explore, it no longer needed a God of the gaps to fill in where they did not yet understand. It needed a Christ at the center, a figure calling the action and demanding a relationship and a response. For this modern world, knowledge is power. Christ gives the calling to act, but our knowledge gives the power to effect change in this world. That’s the world in which Grandaddy lives. God is not going to do it for us, God is present in our actions, but we have got to respond in faith in order to get anything done.

One of the legacies that the Protestant Reformation left us is the high regard we have for scripture. Go just a few miles up highway 70 and you’ll meet descendants of people who memorized entire books of the Bible because it was so important to them to know the Bible in their own language. In spite of the persecution they faced the Waldenses recognized the importance of being able to relate to scripture, rather than having it related to them. However, sometimes our tradition of elevating scripture causes us to lose sight of its role as a statement of faith. The miracle stories were a way to inspire people to do more, to be more, and to strengthen the faith of those who heard it. It was a way to share the knowledge of a powerful God who could create something out of nothing, and a loving God who cared enough to act and to feed the hungry with that creation.

My generation sees what those who came before have built and we see a statement of faith as clear as the stories in the scripture we read. We see it as a testament to the faith of our fathers and the faithfulness of our mothers. We see it and we know that there is something bigger than our experience in this world. We need these testaments to remind us what that something is, because everything around us is showing us the brokenness in the world. The facts that whirl around us are all too often grim reminders of the challenges our generation is already facing. We see a world that is desperate for something more than it has; as Christians, we have seen the Word active in the world and are driven to share those experiences.

About ten years ago when I was undergoing the confirmation class at this church, I submitted a statement of faith to the session. In that statement a point that was at that time very important to me about the Bible. I said that it was a book written by flawed human humans and therefore was not always accurate, but it was the best thing we had. I was on to something, but I didn’t quite have it right at that time. I was saying that the Bible does not contain all the answers, all the facts, and all the knowledge.

In my survey of the Old Testament course at PC, I got the other half of what I was approaching then. At the beginning of the first lecture, our professor brought in a Bible, threw in on the ground, and proceeded to jump up and down on it, proclaiming: “This is just a book.” The Bible is not a magical tome with all the answers to life’s persistent question. The Bible is not something to be worshipped. The Bible is a book. In that book, there is truth. He then drew a distinction between facts and truth, facts are scientific, measurable, and the Bible is not very good at them. We spent the rest of the class going through and finding places where the “facts” in the Bible break down, like the two creation stories, the two accounts of Noah gathering animals into the ark, and the description of rabbits as chewing their cud, which they don’t.

Truth, on the other hand, is something the Bible does very well. Truth is something larger than can be proven. Truth is something that comes from something bigger than our experience, and is much more important than just facts.

The debate I shared earlier about whether the miracle was that the people shared their own food or if there was a magic basket is completely irrelevant. Just so the debate over whether or not God created the world in seven 24 hour days or if the writers of genesis allegorized what happen because they couldn’t understand the way God showed it to them. Just as the debate that raged, literally, for centuries over whether or not Jesus owned his own robes is irrelevant. All of these debates are based on knowledge of facts. The great theologian G.I. Joe tells us that knowing is half the battle, but we’re not fighting a battle.

The battle is already won. God wins. So while prominent figures debate over facts and knowledge, the power to act comes from understanding the truth. The Truth is that God loves us enough to send Christ to this world in order to save it from itself. The Truth is that Jesus cared enough to act when he saw people who were sick, when he saw people who were hungry, when he saw people who were hurting. The facts of how the five thousand were fed pales in comparison with the truth of a God who cares enough to feed them. The facts of how Jesus walked on water are nothing compared to the truth of a God who wants to be with us when we are worried and afraid.

Knowledge of the facts may give one the ability to make a decision, but an understanding of the truth gives one the power to act out the gospel.

You have heard it said that Knowledge is Power. I think that Knowledge is about facts. Understanding is about truth. We are not called to have power. God has plenty of that. The truth has set us free. It is not a freedom from what held us back, it’s a freedom to act. God calls us to act. God wants those actions to be a testament to who we are as God’s children, and to who Christ is as the way, the truth, and the light.

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