September 7, 2014, Twelfth Sunday After Trinity
Deuteronomy 11:8-21, Psalm 139, 2 Corinthians 3:4-9, St. Mark 7:31-37
Back in my sports writing days I was always especially appreciative of certain incendiary personalities who provided fodder by the truckload for a columnist. A Major League Baseball owner who canned his general manager after the best season in franchise history and then effectively fired the legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan was one of my favorites.
Then there was the National Football League general manager who mooned a wedding party at a Buffalo hotel. He also put his illegitimate child by one of the stewardesses on the team’s charter flights on his shoulders and paraded around the field in a jam-packed Astrodome before a game. He was off the charts.
In my current line of work I’m assembling a new list and it’s plain to me that the evolutionary biologist and public atheist Richard Dawkins deserves a lofty place. If you can’t crank out a sermon pegged to one of this character’s toxic effusions you might want to consider selling shoes for a living.
Just the other day, a woman wrote on Twitter, “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.” To which Dawkins replied, “Abort it and try again.”
Note the pronoun, “it.” It will come up again.
Today we have heard the Psalmist sing to his Lord: ”For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.”
We could hardly discover more clashing viewpoints on the sanctity of life. Placing them side-by-side, it came to me to wonder what the Psalmist would say to the atheist. He might observe:
“Let us begin, Mr. Dawkins, by considering the woman’s ‘ethical dilemma.’ I cannot know whether she calls herself a Christian but I can say with certainty that for a Bible-believing Christian there can be no ethical dilemma because there is no ethical issue.
“I know some atheists of your time do study the Bible as a literary masterpiece without accepting its truth and certainly without applying that truth to themselves. Since I do not know your level of biblical literacy, I’ll refer to some relevant passages.
“In the first century of the Christian era, the apostle Paul refers to God as the One in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Absent God, there is no life. And the only One who can create life is the only One who may decide when to end it.
“Yes, yes, there are indeed exceptions involving self-defense and capital punishment, but what are known as sanctity-of-life issues in your day – abortion and euthanasia – are as far removed from those as is east from west.
“So here is point No. 1: God alone confers life. No. 2: He has created man in his image. Here’s the citation, from the first chapter of the first book of the Bible: ‘So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them’ (Genesis 1:27).
“To kill a human being is to destroy an image-bearer. No, no, no – it’s true that in our theology sin has defaced that image -- but it has not erased it. A man of your learning no doubt has heard of the Latin term associated with this concept for centuries – imago dei.
“Since the time of St. Augustine the church has understood the image of God as that quality the deity places inside man that allows him to know God. Your cocker spaniel may be terribly cute, but he cannot know God.
“Books have been written on the subject of knowing God. And it is something into which I have poured a great deal of thought. I implore you, Mr. Dawkins, to consider the matter.
“You’re hardly the first to recoil at the thought of knowing God. It’s a frightening thing. How old is the impulse to flee from Him? As old as the fall of man.
“Another who ran from Him, not so long before your own day, was Francis Thompson. Here are the opening lines of his “The Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
“But in the end Mr. Thompson found God’s love overwhelming. God said to him:
Ah, Fondest, Blindest, Weakest,
I am He whom thou seekest.
“So perhaps in your case an open mind is indicated. Think on this: In the first place, the image of God within us both exalts us and humbles us – the first because man is the only creature who possesses it and so the only one who can commune with the Creator; this majestic and wonderful figure wants to know the likes of us.
“And the second because while he has the stamp of God upon him he will never, not even in glory, be God; he will remain forever no more than an image-bearer.
“Each person has a part in God’s eternal plan. Each of us laughs and loves, cries and loses. In glory more so but even now, as male and female each person reigns over creation with God.
“How do we know Him? We know Him at a far remove for He is miles above us and, simultaneously, as the lover of our souls for He is ever present and ever trustworthy. His omnipotence and omniscience – such high-falutin’ words! – caress each one of us for He uses them in our service.
“He is more than with me. He is in me, and I in Him.
“How do we know Him? Not as He knows us. He is the watch-maker; I am the watch. He is the potter; I am the clay. His knowledge is absolute and, yes, it comprehends even the future. I sing to Him:
14 I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.
“He embroidered my very being with threads of different colors, down there in the ‘lowest parts of the earth’ – that dark and mysterious place that was my mother’s womb. And, oh, yes, He mapped out my days ‘when as yet there were none of them.’
“How do we know God? We know Him through death. Yes, oh yes, through death. I do not pretend I do not fear it . . . but I do not fear it as you do. For me, death is the portal into my Father’s eternal presence, my great reward.
“Death is coming for each of us. It will embrace us. But we do have a say: We can meet the Grim Reaper on our terms or on God’s terms. Death beckons me. Through that door is the throne room of the King of creation.
“No longer will the veil separate me from Him. I will see Him and know Him in all His glory.
“How do we know God? We know Him eternally.
“Well, that brings us round near to where we started. And good thing, too, for I see, Mr. Dawkins, that you grow impatient. Death is our topic of the day and you want us to get on with it, so let’s get down to cases.
“I note you said something else to that woman contemplating her ‘ethical dilemma.’ You also told her, ‘It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.’
“Now, as for your pronoun of choice . . . ‘it.’ The word is entirely appropriate in light of the Darwinian theory you embrace. The fetus is a lump of tissue without a soul. In this construct, personhood only attaches at birth.
“But what is the quality of this personhood? Survival belongs to the fittest. The strong consume the weak. Some races deserve to thrive while others must disappear to make room for their superiors.
“But then we must face more questions. Does any person have any purpose beyond trampling others to get what he wants? If doing good matters, what is ‘good’? And who sets the standard?
“Is morality possible? Is moral judgment merely what the majority decides at this moment or is it grounded in eternal truth? How do we explain conscience?
“Adolf Hitler seized upon Darwin’s scheme and determined, logically, to improve it. If the eradication of the weak is inevitable, why wait on nature? Hitler accelerated the process. And why not?
“Darwin made no secret of his conviction that the black race, demonstrated inferior by its lack of progress vis-à-vis whites, was doomed to extinction. So, have you thought through the consequences of this scheme? Would it be prudent to take a long, hard look at the possibility of the soul?
“In the case of the Down syndrome child, denying ‘it’ entry into the world is the moral thing, you say; death is preferable to life. I’m afraid I must take issue once more. For one thing, the child is already in the world. A fetus resides in a mother’s womb, which is most assuredly in the world.
“And – I must be altogether candid here – I find the abortion lobby’s arguments concerning viability of the fetus as tedious as they are disingenuous. Surely, Mr. Dawkins, they are beneath you. States that endorse abortion as a means of birth control at the same time make killing a pregnant woman a double homicide.
“For shame! This is a grotesque form of double-think, surely unworthy of any who claim a devotion to science. If you harbor any true doubts about the viability of a child at any stage of gestation, let a pregnant woman do nothing in favor of or to the detriment of her child in the womb and when she gives birth, then let me have your verdict on viability.
“Oh, yes, but this is a special case. We must have unfettered access to abortion in case of rape, incest or a ‘damaged’ child, as in this case. Your interest is in preventing suffering on the part of both child and parents.
“Having fled from God like Jonah you would now argue with Him like Job. Fascinating story, Job’s. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding’ (38:4).
“It didn’t go so well for Job . . . but give him this: In the end he came around. I pray you will as well, Mr. Dawkins.
“Will you judge God? For that is what you do when you raise your own discernment above his. Only a week ago, one church heard a story of its preacher’s father, who came to saving faith as he lay dying of leukemia.
“Did he suffer? We may be sure he did. But that suffering taught him his need for the Great Physician. And you dare to speak of morality and immorality as though you were the divine arbiter. You would decide who enjoys the privilege of birth and who does not.
“And, ere long, I suspect, of the term of life. Yes, I heard the pooh-poohing of that ‘rash’ talk of death panels in the last American election, but no more. Proponents of the health-care law are saying, with the law now in place, that the system cannot work without death panels – by whatever name.
“If those excessive medical expenses in the final year of life are not curtailed, your affordable care will be unaffordable. So, sure, it’s a pity, but someone’s going to have to . . . what shall we say? . . . play God?
“In closing, I must return to this matter of knowing God. There is afoot in your day the notion that if you choose not to know God, He cannot know you. This is a serious misapprehension.
“Jonah got it wrong. He could not escape from his Lord. I would put it this way:
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties;
24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
“We mortals, you see, cannot escape divine inspection. We are under God’s scrutiny – yes, from the moment of conception and throughout eternity. So will I flee from it? Indeed I will not; I invite it. God’s creative care for me compels me to surrender myself to the One in whom I live and move and have my being.
“Yes, Paul learned the same lesson I did: “’But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts’” (1 Thessalonians 2:4).
“Peter arrived at the same conclusion. He said to Jesus: "’Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You’ (John 21:17).
“God knows you, Mr. Dawkins. No volume of venom will shroud you from the One who made you – in His image. I pray you will join with us who invite His inspection . . . His inevitable inspection. Know God, the one and only giver of life. And choose life . . . life for those in the womb, life for the aged, life for all eternity. Amen.