Reputations are hard to build and with the advent of vicious social media, even harder to keep. Well, God has a bad reputation and it up to God’s people to restore God’s reputation. Let me explain this rather startling claim. Most gossip is whispered behind a person’s back, but the gossip about God thunders from pulpits and from the books and essays of atheists. The gossips swear that God causes every natural disaster either because God is powerless to stop them or because God wants to punish the wicked.
Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, says that belief in God is no longer the default setting. There’s a group called the “New Atheists” and they call themselves the “Brights” as in smarter than the rest of us. They are among the most prolific of God-bashers. The bad news about God is having a terrible impact on the churches. People are deserting God and the church as if it were the Titanic after striking the iceberg. God’s name is in trouble in America.
But I say unto you that this is gossip not gospel and this gossip is a pack of lies. Never before have there been so many books pouring forth from atheists eager to denounce the savagery of faith. To name just a few: Daniel Dennett wrote Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins has given us The God Delusion. Christopher Hitchens wrote God Is Not Great. And there’s Sam Harris with The End of Faith. Atheism turns out not to be very interesting and it is hard to grasp people who swear there is no God and as soon as there is a terrible hurricane, they rise like a demonic choir to wail that the awful God of Christians caused the storm. Go figure.
But for all the damage the atheists claim to do to the reputation of God, it is the preachers that bear the most responsibility for dismantling the Christian understanding that God is good. These evangelicals have given us a scary, angry God. They thunder that God is a callous Judge, offering the faithful a place in his heaven while casting the faithless into everlasting hell. God is said to send hurricanes to punish sinners, and death to punish the rebellious. God is said to hate gays. God is said to not want women to be priests or pastors. God is said to require women to be submissive to their husbands. It is past time to let this bucket of bad religion be thrown out as slop for the hogs. After all, Jesus sent the demons haunting “Legion” into a herd of hogs. Let’s imitate Jesus and feed all this bad religion to the pigs.
These preachers make the craziest statements, and most of you have the good sense to shake your head and know none of this is true, but I’m saying to you that plenty of people see these preachers on television and believe every word they utter. Pat Robertson, who has said so many ridiculous things, has Google search lines like “Stupid Pat Robertson Quotes.” Here’s one of the most outrageous ones: “(T)he feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
I know you think that we can dismiss all this as crazy talk, but the crazies are now in charge of what passes for Christianity in the media and on religious television. There is almost no progressive Christian witness in the media. The reason we should be concerned about all this crazy talk is that this is the only image millions of people have of what Christians believe. The media is a willing accomplice in this disaster. The journalists love to give an interview to any crazy preacher ready to spout off about any subject under the sun. These secularists want to make Christians look ignorant and there are plenty of preachers willing to take the bait. The media rarely interviews an intelligent, progressive theologian or pastor. They prefer to plaster stories about Fred Phelps and his hate group, mistakenly known as Westboro Baptist Church. They picketed the funerals of our soldiers and claimed the soldier was killed by God for punishment for America giving rights to gays. The banner headline on their web site: GOD HATES FAGS. Now, there’s no question that this group is obnoxious, unnerving, and hateful. Did you also know they are listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center? And do we realize that we have to know about them because this is all many people know about Baptists? Not only is God’s reputation being smeared but so is the reputation of Baptists. It has gotten so bad, that in the last ten years a number of Baptist churches have removed Baptist from their names and church signs.
Every year for ten years I went to Oakwood High School to do a presentation to 3 classes of students taking religions of the world. My job was to tell the students about Baptists. I loved this challenge. And every year, in every class, the first question was, “Are you a Baptist like Fred Phelps?” Sometimes I pray when the news teaser is that a preacher is about to make a crazy statement, “Dear Lord, just once, let this one be a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, an Assembly of God, an Episcopalian, anything, Lord, but a Baptist.”
I grew up with images of this awful God because he filled every moment of my childhood, while awake and often while asleep. I had nightmares of being chased by the devil and would awaken screaming at the top of my lungs. I imbibed the God of gloom and doom and yet at the same time I was told that this God loved me. The most telling visual I ever encountered of this strange theology was an evangelist with a booming voice who rolled his huge, calfskin leather Bible up like a club in this big hand, shook it at us as if he would beat us to death and screamed at us in a scary voice for forty five minutes that we were dirty, rotten sinners, that we deserve the fires of hell and that God was going to send us there, and then at the last moment, when our torture was nearly total, he would scream, still shaking his Bible like a club, “But God loves you.”
I can’t count the number of people who confide in me that they can no longer believe in a God who allows people to suffer and die. It makes no sense to them. They are morally outraged and they fail to realize that this is simply part of the natural human struggle. Moral outrage is evidence of the presence of God in your life. The Bible is filled with believers who have raging fits of moral outrage – Job, Habakkuk, Paul, Elijah.
There’s this odd thing that happens when I preach a funeral sermon. People show up for funerals and hear a sermon for the first time in years. I’m not sure what they expected to hear, but they didn’t expect me. They come because they are decent human beings and because they love people. And they are surprised and shocked when I offer them a different picture of God and faith than the one they rejected so long ago. We need to figure out how to get the message out to these good people that God is good; God is good all the time.
Our gospel reading tells us that when the good seed is planted, a good harvest will happen. The parable is about the goodness of God and how God makes sure there will be a harvest of abundance. Don’t you get it? Christianity proclaims a God of infinite goodness and infinite love. You should read A Gentler God, by historian Doug Frank. Here is an amazing defense of the honor and glory of God. I stand here and proudly declare the majesty, glory, grace, mercy, and love of God Almighty. Every time some over-confident atheist goes off on the absurdity of believing in God, I feel compelled to jump into the fray. “I’m sorry but you must not know God very well. God is not at all the mean and awful deity you are describing. You must have God confused with the petulant deities of the ancient Greek and Roman mythologies. God is not like that at all. God is good and kind and gracious. God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having previously raised Israel from Egypt. And besides, I am one of God’s children and I would appreciate you not talking bad about my Father/Mother.”
Look, you may never have the courage to ask someone if they will believe in Jesus as Savior. That kind of witness may be too far-fetched and hard for you, but everyone one of you can stand up and bear witness to the goodness of God when some strident materialist attacks God’s integrity. To defend the honor of God is to bear faithful witness. To defend the reputation of God is to plant good seed. So if some preacher says that God causes people to have heart attacks, tell the good reverend that God changes hearts and transforms hearts and warms hearts, but God does not cause heart attacks. And if someone who doesn’t have any better sense tells you a baby dying was the will of God, tell them that no matter who made this world a baby never deserves to suffer and God does not will the death of babies. Jesus says that anyone who harms a little one should have a millstone tied around the neck and be thrown into the deep end of the pool. God is not the architect of death or hell.
I simply cannot imagine that God needs a place as awful as hell to put those who have rebelled against God. I can’t and I won’t. It’s that simple. God will find a way to save everyone, either now or later. As by one man sin entered the world, so by this man Jesus all will be saved. I am content with that.
The parable of the sower reminds us that there are natural processes in this universe. If you plant seed, you will get a harvest. If you plant corn, you get corn. God, created the universe, and filled it with natural processes and free will for all entities. The chaos that God brought under control in creation retains the power to resist the will of God. The resistance of creation brings about catastrophes and awful suffering and death. God is not the originator or cause of evil and God does not will the death of any one. We have to learn how to do a better job of bearing witness to the goodness of God.
There I’ve said it and I feel better. God is good. God is good all the time.