Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Monday, December 5, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
About a week ago, I listened to someone tell the story of a church in Seattle called Northshore that was trying to help some of the homeless people in the area. A lot of these homeless people were living in a tent city, and the law required that this tent city be moved every 90 days. The place that the tent city was going to move to next backed out at the last minute, and so the people at Northshore decided that they needed to step in to help, and so they submitted paperwork to the city in order to get a permit. What they didn't know was that about a month prior to that, the city had put a moratorium on these permits and refused to even look at their application.
So the people at Northshore had to make a choice. They could follow the law, and not get into any trouble. Or they could follow their hearts, and offer the people living in the tent city a safe place to stay, so that they wouldn't have to go back out onto the streets. They decided that the only real choice they had was to help. And so, they welcomed the tent city onto their property, even though they didn’t have a permit for it. And, as they feared, the city filed a lawsuit against them. The superior court ruled in favor of the city, and the city was awarded damages which totaled more than the entire operating budget of the church. There is often a price to pay when you openly disregard those in authority.
We learn this at a very young age as we battle with our parents over our bedtimes and the foods they try to make us eat, our allowances and curfews. As children, we have to do as we're told, or else suffer the consequences: being sent to bed without supper, having our allowance taken away or not being allowed to hang out with our friends. As we go through our lives, we have to learn how to deal with teachers and principals, supervisors at our jobs and sometimes the cops. And of course, there is the ultimate authority figure of all.
Our gospel reading today describes one such encounter with that divine authority. A Canaanite woman is asking Jesus to help her because her daughter is being tormented by a demon. His disciples wanted her sent away, she was bothering them and she was after all, a Canaanite, a foreigner. And here is where the text gets tricky. A lot of people don't like this part, and I have to admit that I had and still have difficulty with this part of the text. Jesus says, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs. Can you believe that? What kind of answer is that? It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs. It's no wonder that many scholars question if this scene is historical at all, if Jesus ever said anything like this. Not only is he refusing to help this woman, he insults her! He calls her a dog!
After hearing Jesus say this shocking and insulting statement, she answers him. I mean, who wouldn't respond to something like that? But, she responds with humility. She says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." She is humble in her reply, and yet she is still pushing back. She doesn't just take what Jesus says sitting down. She's not going to just let him call her a dog! She knows who she is; she is a beloved child of God, just as worthy of God's saving grace as the other men in the room, the Israelites, the Isrealites that are asking Jesus to send her away.
This story reminds me of the story of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin, but for some reason, God decided to tell Abraham about it first. Abraham wonders if completely destroying two entire cities is such a good idea, after all there could be some innocent people living there. And so, he asks God, "Are you going to destroy the cities, even if there are 50 innocent people there?" God tells him that if there are 50 innocent people, the cities will not be destroyed.
Abraham thinks about this for a few seconds, then asks, "What if there are 45 innocent people?"
God says, "If there are 45 innocent people, I will not destroy the cities."
Abraham mulls it over, then asks, "If there are only 40 innocent people, will you destroy the cities?"
In this story, God has taken the form of a man and is actually standing there talking to Abraham, so you can picture God, however it is that you picture God, shaking his head and smiling at Abraham indulgently, like a parent would smile at a child. "No Abraham, if I find only 40 innocent people, the cities will not be destroyed."
"If I find but 10 innocent people, the cities will not be destroyed."
Apparently, this answer was good enough for Abraham, because he stops bargaining with God after 10. The point of this is that Abraham had a strong enough sense of who he was in relation to God that he could challenge God's decision, give his own opinion on the situation and expect that God would take his opinion into consideration.
I remember one of my professors saying that Abraham's act was the defining moment in Jewish history, when the Jewish people established themselves as Jews, when they established their relationship with God. Abraham had the gumption, the courage, enough sense of himself that he felt he could essentially talk back to God, to have a dialogue with God on a level that no one had ever had before. You could say that this was the moment that he became Jewish.
See, God wants to be in relationship with us. There's a lot going on in these two stories. We could talk about the nature of God or whether or not these events actually took place. We could argue about whether or not God might have known ahead of time how Abraham or the Canaanite woman were going to respond. We even might wonder if these stories are allegories for the way that God tests us. What I do know is that these stories are about relationship.
God does not expect or require blind servitude. God gave us free-will, so that we could make our own decisions, so that we could choose to love God and follow God's laws, or to choose a different path, even if that would mean breaking God's heart. God gives us that choice.
And, God gave us brains to reason with, so that we could think things through, to weigh the merits of one action over another, one choice over another. So that we could out figure what all the possible consequences of our actions might be. So that we can take a rule, or a law or a decree and figure out whether or not it's right or wrong, good or bad, or perhaps, somewhere in between. And, that is usually the case with things that are difficult. There are often no easy answers in the decisions that we make in our lives.
So, how do we choose when there is no clear-cut answer? We have to rely on our relationships, our relationships with God and with each other. We have to make the choices that will make our relationships stronger with each other. Not just with the people that we know, our friends and family, neighbors and colleagues, the people that we go to church with and the people of our race, nation or tongue. We have to make the choices that will strengthen our relationships with all of humanity; the choices that will ultimately strengthen our relationships with God.
See, when the Canaanite woman said that the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off the master's table, she was not trying to interfere with Jesus's relationship with the people of Israel. She just wanted to be a part of it. She was willing to take the smallest of crumbs, because she knew that it would be enough. Don't forget that these are God's crumbs. God's crumbs are more than we could ever need. They are more than enough. And, this woman understood that. She did not want Jesus to spend less time with "the lost sheep of Israel," to do anything that might hinder his relationship with them.
But, she knew that in Jesus, there is more than enough to go around. And, above all, she knew that she was just as worthy as they to receive it. So, she said that she would take the crumbs. And, Jesus immediately answers her with joy! He says, "Woman, great is your faith! Your daughter is healed! By your faith, your daughter is healed."
The people of Northshore made a choice that showed their faith in God. They chose to honor their relationships with God and humanity by helping the homeless people of Seattle. They allowed the tent city to move onto their property, even though they knew that they were going to get into trouble. And, they received a judgment against them that they could never hope to pay. And, for the next three years, as they fought against this judgment, they didn't know whether or not the church was going to survive. They had to come to terms with the fact that Northshore might not be around anymore. But, they went through with it, because they had to do what they felt was right, what God was calling them to do. They had to be good neighbors to their fellow human beings. They had to honor, and foster, and strengthen those relationships. And, they had to create new relationships where there were previously none.
The state supreme court eventually ruled in favor of Northshore, saying that the church had the right to exercise their religious freedom on their own property. And in 2010, new legislation went into effect in an effort to prevent something like this from ever happening again. Local government could no longer prevent a religious organization from getting a permit in this way. The hope was that these new laws would help local governments and religious organizations resolve their conflicts over services provided to the homeless without resorting to litigation. The relationship is changing, and it's changing for the better. And, it can all be traced back to that single act of compassion by the Northshore congregation.
As human beings, we have to question things that we think are wrong. We cannot blindly follow laws because "that's the way that it's always been" or because "whoever's in charge told me so." God gave us reason and free will, and wants to live in relationship with us. God wants to know how we feel about things. I'm not telling you to openly defy God whenever the mood strikes, but if there is something going on that you don't agree with, approach God in prayer, humbly and with the faith and understanding that God loves you. Question God the way that Abraham and the Canaanite woman questioned God, with humility and love in your heart, and listen to what God has to say. God wants to live in relationship with us, because that is the nature of God. God exists as three persons, all living in harmony. God's existence is based in relationship, and God wants to share the wonder and the love and the beauty of that with us. So, love God. Question God. And, live in relationship with God and with each other. Amen.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Thursday, July 7, 2011
For pretty much my entire childhood, I hated school. Part of it was just that I thought it was boring; I hated being trapped in a classroom all day. And, knowing that I had absolutely no control over how I got to spend my days was annoying. And then there was the homework; I hated homework, even though I never actually did it. And, this caused a lot of problems for me as a kid: this not doing my homework thing. I couldn’t answer the teacher’s questions about it and then I would get all embarrassed. A lot of times, I couldn’t go to recess because the teacher would have me sit at the lunch tables doing my homework from the night before, while all the other kids got to run around and play.
I would get in some serious trouble for it, too. My dad was old school, so when the teachers sent home notes about me not doing my work, or my report card came, which would always be C’s and D’s, out came the belt. Now, I do not in any way approve of disciplining children this way, but I have to admit that I probably deserved to get some kind of punishment for my behavior back then.
But, it never worked as motivation for me to actually do my homework. I was more interested in playing outside with my brothers or reading or drawing or any of the thousands of things that kids can do when they just don’t want to do their homework. I remember one time when the report cards came, in order to avoid the punishment that I knew was coming, I convinced my brother and sister that we should burn the report cards in the fireplace, because I had gotten C’s again. My sister, who always got straight A’s and never got into any kind of trouble at all, was not happy about this, but she agreed to go along with it, because she didn’t want me to get into trouble either. To this day, my parents have no idea that we used the living room fireplace to destroy evidence of my academic failure.
About the time I got to junior high, something changed and I actually started to care about the grades that I got. I started getting A’s and B’s, but I still didn’t really like school. It was also about this time that I started getting the feeling that God maybe wanted me to go into ministry. Now, this is kind of a problem for someone who doesn’t like school. In order to become a minister in most of the Reformed traditions, you need to get a bachelors degree and then you have to get a Masters of Divinity. That’s eight years of school! Eight years of school, on top of the already thirteen years of school that are required by law. That’s twenty-one years of school! For someone who doesn’t want to go to school in the first place, that’s asking a lot.
So I had a very frank discussion with God about this, and I said, “No way! No way are you making me go to school for eight more years!” I didn’t want to do it! I did what any self-respecting person in denial would do. I decided to interpret God’s call in a way that would better fit into how I wanted to live my life. God didn’t really want me to become a minister. God just wanted me to be in ministry. I can be involved in ministry in so many different ways! What God really wanted was for me to be active in the church, to spread the message of God’s love, to reach out to people in need. I decided that’s what God was asking me to do. I didn’t need to go to seminary for that!
Because, that’s what we do when we come up against the wisdom of God. It’s so different from what we understand; it’s so alien to us! We negotiate, even though we know, deep down inside, that we are absolutely wrong. We somehow manage to convince ourselves that we know better than God. Because God’s way is not our way.
When Isaac’s wife Rebekah became pregnant with twins, the babies where wrestling around inside of her, rolling around this way and that way, using her insides as a boxing ring. She prayed to God, “Why? Why is this happening to me?” And God said to her, “There are two nations in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
The older will serve the younger? That’s not right. We all know that it’s the firstborn that has the special status. It’s the firstborn that inherits the largest portion of the estate when the parents are gone. All throughout the world, throughout the history of the human race, with only a few exceptions, it has always been the firstborn son that basically got everything. No matter what a person’s culture, religion or ethnicity was, this was just the way things worked. The oldest would get most of the sheep from the flock or cows from the herd. The oldest would get most, if not all of the land. The family trade would get passed down from firstborn son to firstborn son, generation after generation of bakers, carpenters and tailors. Even kingdoms and empires would get passed down this way.
So, imagine Rebekah’s surprise when God tells her that the older will serve the younger. That just wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. You see, it kind of makes sense that we’ve adopted these traditions of the oldest inheriting everything. The firstborn would start learning the family trade as soon as they were old enough and would help to teach any younger children that came along after. Even while the parents were still alive, the oldest child would have a lot of responsibility.
As an oldest child myself, I happen to know some of things that oldest children have to put up with. A lot of times, I felt like my parents didn’t really know what they were doing when they were trying to raise me, like I was some kind of experiment. They were really strict with me and I had to practically beg to do anything fun. But, by the time my youngest brother came around, they had pretty much figured everything out. By then, they had seen it all, and the crazy things that kids do just didn’t faze them anymore. My youngest brother also had two older brothers and an older sister to look after him. He pretty much got away with whatever he wanted to. He wasn’t taught responsibility!
For three separate individuals, I had some kind of responsibility for them. None of my siblings can say that. In a lot of ways, it’s as true today as it was in the past that the oldest is responsible for taking care of the family. It’s part of our tradition; it’s part of what is expected. And even if we don’t agree with it, we still need to understand it and know that it’s part of our cultural make-up, and that it influences the decisions that we make and the things that we do.
Of course, times are different now, and we don’t always follow the traditions of the oldest getting everything. But, back in the days of Isaac and Rebekah, that was the rule. And when Rebekah’s twin sons were born, it was a very close race. When the older son, Esau, was born, his younger brother, Jacob, was holding onto his foot. They were literally seconds apart. But still, one was the oldest, and the other was not. As they grew, each boy developed different skills. Esau became a great hunter, and Isaac was so proud of him because he would bring home wild game. Jacob, on the other hand, tended to stay at home with his mother and help with the household chores.
One day, Esau came back from hunting, hungry and Jacob was cooking some stew. Esau was so hungry that he sold away his birthright for a single bowl of the stew that Jacob was cooking. All of the rights and privileges that he enjoyed as the firstborn son, gone with the dip of a spoon and a swipe of crusty bread. And here’s the thing that Isaac and Rebekah could never have foreseen when the two boys were born. That Esau could be so reckless with his future.
Of course it’s possible that he was just so hungry that he couldn’t think straight. Or, maybe he thought that his brother was just kidding around, or wouldn’t hold him to his word later, because it was after all, it was just a bowl of soup. Or maybe Esau just wasn’t very bright and he actually thought that it was a fair trade. He does say at one point that his inheritance will do him no good if he starves to death. Either way, what God had told Rebekah when the two boys were still wrestling around inside of her, came to pass. “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” According to biblical tradition, Esau eventually went on to become the ancestor of the Edomites. And, the Edomites were eventually defeated by King David, who was one of Jacob’s descendents, and the Edomites had to live under King David’s rule, and the rule of his son Solomon, after him. The older will serve the younger.
So here we are today, and I think it is quite obvious what happened to me. I spent a lot of time running away from seminary, trying to find other ways to serve God. I did youth group for seven years, thinking that it was a perfectly acceptable ministry. And it is, youth ministry is as much a ministry as any other. But, that’s not what I was destined for. I had a bakery for a while, thinking that if I was successful at that, I would be able to give lots of money to the church. That didn’t pan out. Then, one day, my pastor asked me to go through a lay leader-training program. It was a one-year intensive program, one eight-hour Saturday a month. They were basically trying to condense seminary down into twelve days, with a month’s worth of independent study in between. I jumped at this, because I knew it was my last chance to avoid going to seminary.
By that point, I had been out of school for seven years. And in that time, God had changed me. God had instilled in me a love of learning that was impossible to ignore. I didn’t hate it anymore. And so, as much as I had fought it, I went back to school. I first had to finish two years of undergrad, but I finally made it here, and I just finished my second year of seminary. It’s hard. I have to sit in classrooms all the time, and I have way more homework than is even possible for me to do. But, I’m happy, because God knows me better than I know myself, and God knew that seminary is where I was supposed to be, even if I thought that couldn’t possibly be right. God’s way is not our way. God’s way is the best way. And, learning to trust that can be hard. But, somehow, some way, God will get us there. God will always get us there. Amen.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
The Mainline Protestant denominations are in decline. If you were to look at membership numbers for the last few decades, you would see that there have been significant drops in the size of the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, the Methodists, the Lutherans, and yes even the Baptists. Our world is changing, and this has many church leaders worried. They’ve begun asking questions like, What is happening to us? Is there anything we can do about it? Will there be a future for the church?
It used to be that the church was the center of the community. Every neighborhood would have its own little neighborhood church, and this was the place where everyone would gather every Sunday. People would have picnics there, bake sales, cub scout and brownie meetings. Maybe you would go there Wednesday nights for Bible study. More and more, we see churches standing empty during the week. And on Sunday mornings, we sometimes struggle to fill the pews.
There has been a shift in the way people see the church. It used to be expected that people would go to church every Sunday. Nowadays, instead of going to church, men and women will put in extra hours at the office. Parents take their children to soccer games that have been thoughtlessly scheduled during that time when most people used to be in worship, and chores that have been accumulating throughout the week are being taken care of on what was once considered a holy day. For many people in today’s society, this is a completely normal thing to do.
We like to talk about the good old days, and how many people used to take part in church life. I remember one time when I was in youth group, some friends and I were looking through the books in the church library and we came across some photo albums. So, of course, we opened them and started looking at the pictures. We passed them around, and made fun of the clothes that people used to wear. We tried to find people that we might know. There was a funny tension in the church library that day, a kind of heaviness almost. It was hard to look at those pictures, those little windows to the past and see how vibrant and full of life the church used to be.
The pictures were from different events that the church had had over the years, going back to the 70s, maybe even before that. In one of the pictures, the church courtyard was filled with tables and every chair was full. There were streamers and balloons and lots and lots of food. There were young families, and elderly couples. There were even a few babies. There were probably over 400 people at that potluck or barbeque or whatever it was. Everyone looked so happy. They were part of something. They were part of something big.
This problem that we face, of a church in decline, is not new. I can’t even tell you how many meetings that I’ve been in where the discussion eventually came around to this idea that church is dying. But, nobody knows what to do. We talk about it and talk about it, but we don’t know what to do about it. There aren’t any answers out there. You can read studies and reports, and examine the issue until you’re blue in the face, but these studies just don’t show us how to fix it.
It’s hard, this feeling of helplessness. This isn’t what we expect the church to be like. We come to church to worship God, and if church is really what God wants us to do, if that is really where we’re all supposed to be on Sunday mornings, why is church membership declining? Why isn’t God doing something about it?
It’s kind of like the question that Jesus’ followers ask him right before he ascends to heaven. “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They didn’t get it. They still didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. See, when they thought of a Messiah, they imagined a warrior king that was gonna take back the kingdom of Israel for the Israelites. They wanted their independence. They were tired of living under somebody else’s laws. They wanted a Messiah that was gonna lead their armies and rain destruction down upon their enemies. They couldn’t imagine the radically different idea of Jesus saving us from our sin through love.
It wasn’t only that the idea was too foreign or too different for them to understand. It was the fact that this idea was something radically new, something that they had never heard of before, something they’d never thought of or imagined. Jesus had to explain it to them over and over again throughout his life, and still, even at the end, right when he is about to leave, they ask him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
So Jesus answers them, saying, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God was going to restore the kingdom. But, God was not going to restore the kingdom by the sword, the way that the disciples expected. God was going to restore the kingdom, the world, in the way that God intended. God was going to restore the world with love, and God was going to use them to spread that message of love to the ends of the earth.
That message has been going around for a few thousand years now, and that message has already changed the world. It’s still out there, going from person, to person, to person. God is still doing the good work, and God is still using faithful people to bear witness to the message.
So, how do we at Christ Lutheran witness to the people of the world? I am new here, but already I have heard so many beautiful stories about the work that you have done here. I have heard about the money that you collected to help provide disaster relief. I have heard about the food distribution that you did to help feed the less fortunate people in the neighborhood. I have heard about the warming shelter program that you participated in to provide food and shelter for homeless women. I have heard the message of love that is being broadcast from this church. These are mighty works and I know that God is here and that God is using this congregation to restore the kingdom.
This group may be small, but it is mighty. Don’t forget that the Israelites were a small tribe. Just look at what God did through them. They interacted with God in way that God had never interacted with a group of people before, and as time went by, those stories of how God worked through that tiny desert tribe were passed down from generation to generation, as they tried to figure out who God was and what God meant to them. Eventually, those stories were written down, and today, thousands of years later, we have books of the Old Testament.
And then, when it came time for the big reveal of God’s plan, once again, God went to the Israelites, who were still a small desert tribe, and through them, came into the world as flesh and bone. Jesus was born as a human being, whose life, and death and resurrection led to even more stories, and more writings that irreversibly changed the hearts and minds of a few Jewish people giving rise to the faith tradition that we call Christianity today. The Jewish people have always been a small tribe, but it didn’t matter, because they were a people of faith, and God decided to work through them.
People are always longing to be part of something. We get all wrapped up in the excitement of participating in something we know that a lot of people are gonna be part of. We want to be part of something that people are going to remember, we want to be part of something that people are gonna talk about at the water cooler, we want to be part of something that could change the world. Well, I have news for you. We are part of something. We are part of something big. We are part of something huge! It’s the biggest thing that has ever happened in the history of the planet.
So, while the talk continues over how the Mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking, I want you to take a look at what you’ve done. God is active in this church. God is living in this community and radiating outwards into the streets of Fairfax. God’s love is pouring out from these pews and meeting those people in the streets that need God’s love the most. You are all the messengers of God’s love. You are small, and you are mighty, and you belong to God.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
We, as a nation, set our sights on killing a man. On Sunday night, we accomplished that goal. Osama bin Laden is dead, and with his death comes a sense of relief, a sense of peace, a sense that justice has been done. For some, there is a sense of joy, a sense of celebration, a sense of accomplishment. We killed a man. This is the week that we killed Osama bin Laden, let us rejoice, and be glad in it.
I don’t want you to misunderstand my words or my tone; I understand the deep need that we felt as a nation to dispose of this human being. Yes, Osama bin Laden was a human being, but he was a human being that had gone so far off the rails of what it meant to be a human being that he just wasn’t safe to keep around anymore.
And so, with the hard work of countless individuals, years of planning, gathering intelligence, risking lives upon lives upon lives, we finally found out where he was, and we killed him. Let us rejoice.
There are people rejoicing. All around the world, people are raising their hands to the sky, screaming Halleluiah! Praise God because we finally did it! We finally got the man responsible for all of the deaths of September 11th. One woman who was the mother of one of the firefighters that died at the World Trade Center said that she knew that her son was cheering in heaven when Osama bin Laden was killed. Cheering in heaven over a person’s death. That’s what she believes. Now, I’m not claiming to have all of the answers, but I have a hard time believing that anyone in heaven would be cheering anytime another person dies. Death is a tragedy; death is always a tragedy.
But, even though I might not agree with rejoicing over another person’s death, I am forced to acknowledge the horror that was September 11th. The thousands of people that died at the World Trade Center. Those people that died at the Pentagon. The brave souls of United Flight 93, who crashed their plane into a field in Pennsylvania before the men who hijacked it could crash it into our nation’s capital. I was just so senseless! The complete disregard for human life. The utterly warped beliefs of the men who hijacked the planes. I will never understand it. I just can’t get over the level of hatred these men must have felt to do these horrific deeds. What could drive them to hate us so much that they would willingly, joyfully, enthusiastically sacrifice their own lives to rob us of ours?
It’s one of the oldest sins in the world. It’s a sin that blinds us. It blinds us to the truth. That blinds us to common sense. It blinds us to our conscience, to compassion, to the whisperings of our soul that keep us close to God. That keep us human. It’s the worship of the tribe, the belief that only those who look like you and talk like you, and perhaps most importantly believe what you believe, are the only people that you can trust. The only people that you can be around. The only people that you can allow to live. Worship of the tribe. What it boils down to is worship of the self. It’s pride; it’s the deadliest sin in disguise.
Osama bin Laden and the men that hijacked those planes were worshipping their tribe instead of God. They held God’s love at a distance, and in doing so warped their view of the world. They could no longer see us as people, as brothers and sisters, as parents and children and friends.
We became demons to them. They couldn’t accept us and how different we were, and so they took it upon themselves to destroy us. And so, we set out to destroy them. An eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth, just like the Bible says. Or does it?
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3, verses 9-13, he writes, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator, where there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as Christ has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.”
Paul is urging the Colossians to put the old ways behind them, the old legalistic ways of keeping the tribe separate from everybody else. Paul explains that there is a new way. He tells them that Christ is all and in all. He tells them that all people are God’s people.
It’s a message that’s told over and over again in the Bible. But, it’s a message that needs to be told over and over again, because our natural tendency as human beings is to separate ourselves into tribes, into groups of us and groups of them. We have no problem pitting tribe against tribe, Protestant against Catholic, North against South, Christian against Muslim.
This conflict isn’t about Christians and Muslims. It’s about a nation defending itself against an extremist terrorist group. This extremist group has killed Muslims as well, but people keep forgetting that. Because it’s so much easier to blame this huge group of people for the actions of a few. It’s not because we’re lazy. It’s because we will latch onto any reason that will give us an excuse to hurt another tribe. It’s in our nature; it’s written on our sinful DNA. Protect the tribe! The tribe must survive! Kill all outsiders!
And so, we set out to kill Osama bin Laden. To protect the tribe. A lot of people say that we should have brought bin Laden in alive so that we could try him in court, make him face his crimes.
I think agree with that, only I don’t know how realistic that is. I have to believe that Osama wasn’t a person that was going to just come along quietly. I wouldn’t be surprised if the only outcome of any attempt to bring him to justice would end up with him being dead. I just wish that wasn’t the way it had to be. Because I really do understand, that’s just the way that it is.
Only it’s not supposed to be this way. The world isn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t supposed to be an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth world. Paul tried to give us a hint of what the world is supposed to be. What the world could be, if only we could trust God and let the world be the way it’s supposed to be.
The world the way it’s supposed to be is a world were we can talk about our problems. There are no terrorists in this world. There is no need to protect the tribe, because we can all trust that God will protect us and provide for us, not to mention that there is only going to be one tribe, which will be comprised of everyone.
But, I want to let you in on a little secret. We already are all one family under God now. These labels that we use to divide ourselves, these boxes that we put ourselves in, they are not real. Anything that keeps us separated from each other, keeps us separated from God and is not of God. We need to let God tear down these walls so that we can see each other for who we really are. So that we don’t go flying planes into buildings. So that we don’t rejoice when another human being dies.
Death is a tragedy. Death, even when it seems like it might be necessary, is always a tragedy. It’s lost possibility, the removal of any chance for that person to ever do good, and the removal of any chance that someone might do good to that person and perhaps change the world. And so, I do not rejoice over the death of Osama bin Laden. He was a terrible man. He did terrible things. And now that he is dead, I know there are millions of people who will sleep better at night, knowing that he is not around anymore to plot some crazy scheme that ends up with thousands of people dead. As for me, I too have to admit that the world does feel a little bit safer without him in it. And so I am relieved to not have to worry about him anymore. But I will grieve for the world that made him into the man that he was, and I will grieve for the world that had to kill him. This isn’t the way the world is supposed to be.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
Friday, March 25, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
May the Earth Tremble
It’s hard sometimes to listen to the idea that God’s hand is in the trembling of the earth and the smoking of mountains. When natural disaster strikes, some people will say it’s the hand of God, rendering quick judgment against our sins. But for most of us, I would guess that our thinking wouldn’t really go down that path, but if we’re going to be honest, we might have to admit that sometimes, even if we don’t mean to, we wonder.
Japan was just hit by the fifth largest earthquake to ever be recorded in human history. It was soon followed by devastating tsunamis. Thousands of people are dead. To drive home the point of just how devastating this earthquake was, I need to remind you that this is not a third world country with few resources. Japan has one of the largest economies in the world and they know earthquakes. Just like children in California, Japanese children practice earthquake drills on a regular basis and have earthquake emergency kits always close at hand. Japanese buildings are designed to withstand all but the strongest of quakes and they have enough experience to know that earthquakes can trigger tsunamis. Between their coastal cities and the ocean are high walls designed to keep tsunamis at bay. Walls to hold back the ocean. From what I understand, most of the time, these walls work. But, this was a magnitude 8.9 earthquake, and the tsunamis it triggered flew over those walls, like an ocean wave crashing over the moat of a child’s sandcastle at the beach. These tsunamis carried with them the full force of earth and water, Mother Nature’s fury unleashed on our tiny human attempts to contain her.
In our reading today of Psalm 104:24-34, there is only one tiny mention of humanity. Not only is there but a single mention, but the mention itself is indirect. In between the great and wide sea, and the Leviathan, there are ships. That’s all. That’s all we get. Ships.
The thing that you really have to remember here is that the Psalms are poetry, and in poetry, the choice and placement of each word is extremely important. Words in poetry are always in relation to each other. So when the text says, “living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan,” you know that Leviathan is great, and that the ships are small.
There was this amazing image of the aftermath of the earthquake. It was a ship caught in a gigantic whirlpool that the earthquake or tsunami had somehow triggered. I’m not sure exactly how big this whirlpool was, but it looked like it might have been the size of a city block. And there was this ship, this tiny white speck, about to be sucked into a funnel that was pulling everything towards the ocean floor. The news reporter didn’t know if anyone was onboard.
This is what we’re up against. The Japanese were not unprepared. There was no preparing for this.
It’s no wonder that ancient peoples equated these natural forces with acts of God, for who else but God could command such power. Psalm 104:31-32 says, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works – who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.” The hand of God, in the trembling of the earth and the smoking of the mountain.
As the death toll from the earthquake rises, we have to ask ourselves, “Was this really the hand of God? Did God do this?” See, times are different now. Unlike the antique writer of the psalm, we know the scientific explanations for why these things happen. We know about tectonic plates, and friction, and the convection currents of magma under the Earth’s crust. And, since we have all of this knowledge, it’s not just the non-believers that have stopped pointing their fingers at God every time there’s a lightning storm, a volcanic eruption, or an earthquake. But, if we’re going to believe in an all-powerful Creator, even if we’re not going to blame God directly for doing it, we have to ask ourselves, “Didn’t God have the power to stop it?” If we aren’t going to blame God for causing this disaster, do we also let God off the hook for letting it happen?
This psalm talks about the many ways in which God is a wonderful creator. God made all the creatures, the raging sea, everything. God set everything into motion at the beginning of time, and as the psalm says, did so in wisdom. So, what does that mean anyway, did so in wisdom?
I like to think of God as an artist, and creation is God’s continuing masterpiece. Now, you can take this metaphor in two different ways. One way to think of artistic expression is to think of fine porcelain or hyper-realistic painting, you know, those paintings that look like photographs. When creating art in one of these forms, the artist has to exert almost absolute control over the medium in order to create the desired effect. The amount of talent and skill that’s required to produce one of these works of art is incredible, not to mention the patience and the time involved. These are perfect works, flawless, unchanging. Like marble sculptures. Perfect, flawless, frozen. Can you imagine a perfect world? A world were everything is perfect and beautiful? A world where nothing ever changes. A world that is stark and hard. Frozen. Some people would say a world like this would be the opposite of good. I might venture to say that a being who created such a thing might actually be evil. The God that we know and love could never create a world like this.
But, there are different kinds of art. If porcelain is at one end of the ceramics spectrum, raku is way over on the opposite side. Porcelain requires the finest clay, and sometimes even powdered bone, the highest quality glazes, extremely hot, non-fluctuating firing temperatures, and a slow, controlled cooling process.
With raku, the type of clay that you use isn’t as important, and the glazes are sometimes thick and clumpy on purpose to provide texture. So you take what might start out looking like a lumpy mess and throw it onto what basically amounts to a campfire, and you toss some random things on there, whatever you happen to have on hand, pine cones, seaweed, whatever, and you cover it with a garbage can. The firing temperature is low and uneven. There is no cooling process. You cannot plan with any kind of precision what the end result will be, because the materials you use have almost as much say in how the piece will turn out as the artist does. But, the results can be amazing! I once created a bowl, and I have no idea how it happened, that had an almost glowing metallic fuchsia circle on the inside wall, surrounded by metallic blues and golds and greens. It was stunning! You really just never know what you’re going to get.
That’s the kind of artist that I imagine God to be; an artist that works in cooperation with us, instead of simply bending us to some cosmic purpose. We talk a lot about our free will and how we exercise it. Free will is a gift from God. But, we are the component parts that God works with in the formation of this world. And make no mistake, God is in control, and knows what the world is supposed to look like. But, God will never override our freedom. God doesn’t force us to do anything. Only with the utmost love, encouragement and desire for what is best for us does God graciously appeal to our better selves that we might participate in this grand symphony of life.
But, the gift of God’s freedom does not stop there. What good would our freedom be, if our world was not free? There would be nothing for us to do, nothing for us to participate in or interact with. Nothing for us to help create. God grants freedom to all of creation. Dogs are free to be dogs, cats can be cats. A car is free to be a car, a city is free to be a city, and a mountain or forest or island is free to be that thing that God created it to be. A tectonic plate is free to be a tectonic plate. A large body of water is free to be a large body of water.
See, I believe that God was there in the earthquake. And, I believe that God was there in that wave. Does that mean that God wanted these things to happen? I don’t think so. I think God anguished over it. I think God suffered with all of the people that were caught up in the crush of the rushing waters. And so I wonder, maybe if God wasn’t in the earthquake, if God wasn’t in the tsunami, maybe the human tragedy would have been that much worse. How much more devastating might they have been, if God wasn’t there?
See, God doesn’t act in singular moments, isolated from other moments. Think about how God was working through history, moving the Japanese people to build those sea walls. How much more devastating might the damage have been if those walls were not in place? And, think about God working through people to make buildings capable of withstanding the force of an earthquake this large. Think about how much higher the death toll would have been if all of those buildings had collapsed. And then, God was in the making of earthquake emergency kits. Victims of the earthquake and tsunamis are suffering right now from the lack of food and water and other resources. How much greater would their suffering be if not for the supplies in those kits.
The psalm tells us that God gives all living things food in due season. God made sure that those emergency kits were ready for when this would happen and is acting even now, moving in the hearts of people around the world who are donating food, money, their skills and labor, to help the victims of this disaster. And, God is right now with all of those people who are suffering, all of those people who have lost their loved ones, all of those people who may not know where their loved ones are, or whether they’re living or dead. God is there, suffering with them, loving them, being present for them, offering them hope and the truth that death does not have the final word.
As much as I love the art metaphor, it’s an imperfect metaphor because no matter how free you allow the materials to be, there always tends to be a final frozen form. There comes a point at which the freedom of the materials comes to an end, and no matter how beautiful it is, in some ways the materials have died, to remain forever frozen as a vase, or an abstract painting, or a candid photograph. The world’s not like that. As human beings, as tiny, tiny human beings, we are working with God and with the rest of creation to bring the realm of God into fruition, where everything that has died will live again. How this happens is a mystery. We are human and we have free will, but God is always with us. God is always with us. And like the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our actions will always be both fully human, and fully divine. We are the medium. God is the artist. But, we are also the artists. And creation never stops. Amen.