April 30th 2017
Psalm 34: 3-6,17-18 Luke 24:13-25
Statistics intrigue me (if they bore you, I apologize). Here’s a bit of trivia I discovered through the wonders of Wikipedia, just last week … it is estimated there are over 4,200 various religions or faith belief systems practiced in the world today. The largest among them are the many, many forms of Christianity, which together has roughly 2.2 billion observers (or over 31% of all faith believers); the second major religion is Islam with 1.7 billion followers, followed by Hinduism with just over a billion and Buddhism with a bit under a half-billion. I had assumed that Judaism, partly because of its importance to our own Christianity, and because it receives such prominence in the world’s attention, would have been among those largest. But if you consider how small Israel was, and that a significant component of its beliefs, is that its people are “the chosen”, and that those people were dispersed, and vilified and demonized for 1,000 years or longer, it is easier to understand why there are only about 17 million Jewish believers in the world today. But using that same logic, it is not as easy to explain the meteoric growth, and consistent popularity of Christianity, which grew from that Judaism. But I digress.
If you were following and doing the math, all those numbers would suggest there are roughly 6 billion faith believers in the world. Now I could never prove it, nor cite a credible source (even Wikipedia), but using the most recent estimates of the world’s population (as of this past Monday) put at 7.5 billion, the very – very unscientific numbers reveal the vast majority of humanity believes in God or gods of some sort. Statistically whenever five people are gathered in one place, four would consider them self a religious believer, although you probably wouldn’t draw that conclusion when you look at the culture all around you. What we are more likely to experience is a population which, if not outright defiantly rejecting God, falls somewhere between living completely oblivious to God’s existence, to believing that God is a fairy-tale or myth, and scoffs at the notion. There are, no doubt, times when you feel like me, that you are the only believer.
When I look around at just how many people I rub shoulders with every day, whom I work with and even count among my own family, who out and out reject God, it’s difficult for me to come to any conclusion why. There are times when I think that laissez-faire attitude towards a divine creator can be attributed directly to one or two fundamental reasons, and then there are other times I think it is a composite of a great many things.
I do think that the advances humans have made in science and technology is a big contributor, I also believe that our affluence, our wealth and abundance has had a great impact on the decline in the belief in God. But in both cases, I think what is at the root of those factors is our human reliance in ourselves, our eagerness to take credit for what is unarguably a greatly improved condition in the world, especially over the past 100 or so years. From a theological perspective that takes us right back to the stories of the Garden, and man and woman choosing to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to ‘be like gods’.
But again, I’m straying from my point, the point that so many people seem to go from day to day without God in their lives… and don’t seem all that impacted by it, particularly negatively. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who, knowing that I am a clergy-person, feel obligated to explain their rejection with platitudes like, “I’m spiritual but not religious;” there are also many who don’t give a darn and think it’s all bunk, and that I’m the fool.
But as I look at them in the world we all live in, I cannot help but consider how precarious our lives are. We exist (metaphorically) like those jugglers who you would see on variety shows or in the circus who balance spinning plates on the top of sticks; the slightest inattention, the smallest ripple could send our lives, like those plates, crashing. I’m not a fatalist, but that “ripple” could come in any form; it could come from a natural disaster, as weather reports ea0ch spring predictably bring news that terrible storms in the mid-section of our country have spawned tornadoes taking dozens of lives – or each fall as catastrophic hurricanes threaten our coasts. It could come in the dead of night, in the form of a phone call saying someone close (catastrophically close) has been the innocent victim of a drunk driver on a darkened roadway – or… that drunken driver who bears the responsibility for innocent deaths is the your son – your daughter – or you. That ripple could be a financial disaster, the loss of your job, unmanageable debts mounting until the notice comes that your mortgage has gone into foreclosure. It could be that moment when you sit opposite a doctor and hear the words that you had been dreading and expecting all at the same time, that you, or a mother or brother, or your child has been diagnosed with a disease which, if not deadly will surely condemn them, and your entire family, to treatments which rival the disease in its destructive suffering. The “ripples” take so many different forms, and I wonder if all those people, those non-believers have ever truly contemplated just how fragile and precarious life is, and how they will ever handle it when they receive that phone call, or life altering news.
Maybe it is they who are the fatalists. Do they go obliviously, from day to day, as long as there is enough food on the table, enough money in their pocket (though maybe not the bank account)… life is good for now? What happens when that “ripple” upsets everything, where – if anywhere do they turn when they suddenly, unexpectedly feel they are in ‘free-fall,’ toppled from their pinnacle? What do they grasp for, what is there to cling to?
Let me give you an example; among that circle of acquaintances and casual friends I mentioned, was a couple who were a generation older than I. They were what we would refer to as being “well-off;” the frequently traveled internationally, owned and lived in a very lovely home in an upscale neighborhood. Both looked at least 10 years younger than their true age; he had been quite athletic, running marathons when he was younger, and even though he was just a few years shy of ninety was still in very good health. But like everyone else, they had their share of troubles. She had recently received test results indicating she had an aggressive cancer; and though her early treatment was looking positive, (as you would expect) it had generated the type of conversations about death and their final years that that sort of diagnosis normally leads to.
Yet even when facing the future her diagnosis suggested, they did not seem, at least they didn’t reveal, shaken. And then very recently, while coming down the steps from the upstairs bedroom, he slipped; as he fell he struck his head and his neck was fractured… at an extremely critical spot. He was totally paralyzed, including his breathing function, and apparently in the time it took the emergency services to rush him to the hospital, it was determined he was “brain dead.”
When I learned of this horrible tragedy I was told, “They’ve never been very religious, he didn’t believe in God” I could not help imagining the hopelessness this family, and so many others, was going through. Their rejection of God is tantamount to taking hold of a great weight, an anvil or millstone, and falling into a swift-flowing river; as the waters sweep them away they refuse to let go of the weight to free their hands to grab the life preserver being thrown to them. As the weight of their burden pulls them under, their refusal to believe makes them incapable of reaching up to accept the rescuing comfort of God’s grace.
It’s disheartening to witness; but when I read about the two disciples traveling along the road to Emmaus, I realized just how vulnerable, even we who believe are, to holding on to that weight when despair is dragging us under. Luke, I think, intentionally implies these two travelers had not been part of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples; perhaps he does this so we can more easily identify with them. If he had written that it was Peter and John who encountered Jesus, I don’t think we be as quick to recognize ourselves reflected in this scene. They weren’t part of the twelve but there’s little doubt they were faithful followers; they were close enough to be fully aware of all the events of the past three days, including – at a time when suggesting it could have cost you your life – that the women reported, only that morning, that the tomb was empty when they had visited it, and that He was alive. The encounter takes place as they walked the six or seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, just about 48 hours since Jesus’ body had been taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb. It is quite possible they had been among the crowd who witnessed everything, and because it was forbidden to make the journey on the Sabbath, were only now returning home to their village.
They were visibly distraught; rehashing the events over and over, in their mind and their conversation as they walked – trying to make some sense of it – trying to get a grip on it. Within a matter of a few short hours, their teacher and leader had been arrested and condemned to die, rushed to the place of death that overlooked the city, and executed. It wasn’t done in secret; nearly every Jew, a follower or not, was aware of the spectacle as he was marched through the streets. And now, compounding their horror and grief, somehow this stranger didn’t seem to know anything about it and they had to relate it all again. Notice how their conversation reveals their human weakness.
They had been sure of his ministry, of the miracles and signs he had done; they had believed when the people spoke of him as a prophet, of the Messiah; and now… now they weren’t sure of anything, except their pain, their disillusionment, their grief. What they had believed in had suddenly come crashing down around them – they were at a loss as what to believe. The loving God, that through Jesus had been made real to them, was once again the domain of the Temple, where the things he had taught them didn’t play a role. Their spirit was being dragged under, deeper and deeper into despair – even while they possessed all they needed to be rescued.
Luke’s text goes on to say how Jesus explained the scriptures to them, and it returned some of the hope, and how when he accepted their invitation to stay with them and broke the bread at their table, their eyes were once again open to the miracle, and they clung to it.
Our earthly lives are, and always will be fragile; we will face moments of “ripple” that could spin things out of control … if we are not prepared. How we live our lives prepared for the moments when the foundations shake and the world crashes down all around us, is with the assurance we take from the scriptures, through the constant reinforcement of prayer and from the support of living in a loving faith community. How we prepare to live this precarious life is by keeping God in it.
— Amen ―