Category: Sermon

Peace Be With You

John 20:19-31
Acts 4:32-35

Koinonia-Farm

Sister Sandra Schneiders tackles our first reading today and points out a different possibility in our translation of “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you retain the sins, they are retained.” You see, in the second half of the sentence, there is no mention of sin in the original Greek. Additionally, what is possessive and what is objective changes. Therefore, we can also read this as “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, and if you hold close anyone, they are held.”

This fits with John’s theme. This is the Christ who came not to condemn the world, but to save it. The Christ who came to forgive sins and embrace the outcast sends us out to forgive sins and embrace the outcasts.

The Christ who came to call us out of closed doors into communities that are not safe but in need of forgiveness, and being lovingly embraced.

A young couple named Florence and Clarence Jordan read these words of scripture, and those of Acts we heard today, and they believed. They were Georgian farmers, and they looked around and said – we should be one heart and one soul. We should distribute our wealth so no one is needy. When our Lord was resurrected, he came back with his wounds, but the wounds didn’t stop him. No one is so hurt, so poor, so sinful they cannot help another. Indeed, Christ came back with a mission – to go out from the locked doors and embrace the world.

So Clarence and Florence unlocked their doors. They teamed up with Rev. Martin and his wife Mabel English and started Koinonia (coy-a-nee-ah) Farm.

The name Koinonia is an ancient Greek word, used often in the New Testament, meaning deep fellowship. The community was built around four core beliefs:

-treat all human beings with dignity and justice,
-choose love over violence,
-share all possessions and live simply,
-and be stewards of the land.

Koinonia farm was a commune, where the produce and work was held in common. If that was not radical enough, Koinonia farm was integrated with black and white families living side by side, working side by side, eating side by side and being paid the same for their labor. This was 1942; in deep south Georgia; when Jim Crow ruled.

But the Jordan and England families knew the same issues that plagued sharecropping white farmers plagued sharecropping black farmers. They knew raising a farming family is hard with white kids and hard with black kids. They knew – poverty doesn’t care what color your skin is. And far more importantly – God loves the color God made your skin — from bluish ebony to snowy white and every hue on the face of the earth.

Together, the families were able to support one another’s crops so that if one failed, another succeeded, and no one went hungry. Together, they learned about what is was to be white in Georgia in the 1940s. What is was to be black in Georgia in the 1940s.

They did this in the name of Christ.

But also in the name of Christ, the Ku Klux Klan began to attack Koinonia. The placed bombs in their farmer’s stands. They drove by shooting at workers in the fields. They rallied 70 cars to drive through the farms terrifying the families. In the name of Christ, the KKK demanded the farm shut down.

The Koinonia farmers refused to take up firearms and fight back. They believed in their values: treat all humans with dignity and justice. This includes your enemies and those that hate you. Choose love over violence. This includes carrying your cross and not taking up a sword. Share all possessions and live simply. This means also sharing the hate, sharing the danger, sharing the wrath of the KKK. And be stewards of the land. Good farmers. Good caretakers.

So, when they couldn’t sell at their stands without being shot at, or bombed, they began to sell their nuts by mail. Their marketing was “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia!” And they did. Lots and lots of pecans. You can still order their nuts to this day.

As the farm learned more about poverty, they realized even housing is outside the ability of many families to own. And so they began to invite families to build houses, and then live in them. The no interest loans the farm gave out allowed the families to have a house when no bank would support them because they were poor, or black, or known to be against the KKK. Out of this grew the program we know as Habitat for Humanity.

Four years into the program, the Fuller family of Koiniona moved to Zaire, which is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, to begin the same program there. With them went Rev. Roger Miller, my belated mentor, of the newly created United Church of Christ. And this program was successful, and moved on – and now a half million houses around the world have been built by volunteers and homeowners for families to own with no-interest loans.

You have roots in all of this.

Koinonia. Habitat for Humanity. That Holy Spirit that stood up against accusations and triumphed over violence, over evil, with love, and humor, is still alive. It triumphed in Jerusalem. It triumphed in Georgia and Zaire. It triumphs here.

We live in a community that has rumbles of racism still deep in its core. We live in an America that is hell-bent on forgetting we are a nation of immigrants, a tossed salad of cultures and races mixed together, and we are better for it. We live in a time when Jim Crow laws are coming back and establishing white, male, heterosexual American men as the ideal and all other “deviants” from this are lesser people. Women. Homosexuals. Non-Americans. Anyone with any sort of skin color OR suspected non-White-American ancestors. The KKK and the Alt-Right violent movement groups are growing.

We could be like those early disciples. We could close our doors. Lock them. Gather together and not go out.

But that won’t protect us.

Walls are not security.

Ignorance is not security.

Active here is the Ku Klux Klan. But also the Creativity Movement. The Women of Aryan Unity and Vanguard America. All are Neo-Nazi groups. Add too the Aryan Nations’ Sadistic Sons and the Traditionalists Worker Party. The Daily Stormer, a world-wide known website for Neo-Nazi news, is published out of Worthington. Anti-Muslim groups ACT for America and Soldier of Odin operate here. Mission: America, the Bible Believers Fellowship, and Pass the Salt Ministries work to promote hate crimes against gays and lesbians. In the name of Christ – doing violence!

But we are doing good work. Through education, through refusing these ideologies that take our sacred scripture and turn it into a weapon of harm, of hate, we ARE reducing the number of hate groups.

We’re loving the hate away.

When I first started here at Saint Michael’s, Lancaster had 3 nationally known home-grown hate groups. Now, we do not.

Because we, here in Fairfield, here in Licking, here in Ohio, here in this very room – we will not tolerate abusing the neighbor, the stranger, the foreigner and the alien among us.

To be Christian, to be like Christ, is to go out proclaiming: Peace be with you.

I bring you peace.

The angels told the women to tell the disciples to go on to Galilee to see Jesus. Go on. Keep working. Keep spreading the message of peace.

But here they are, huddled and scared. So Jesus comes to them. And again – tells them – go and spread the word. Forgive sins. Embrace people. Spread the Good News of love, peace, acceptance, forgiveness, and the unity of all kindred. All peoples. All nations.

And Jesus comes again the following week to tell them the same, again, and to gather up now Thomas to send him out, too. Spread the peace.

And Jesus comes again and again – here this very day – telling us the same – gathering us up and sending us out – go out to all peoples, all nations, and all kindred LIVING the Gospel. LIVING peace.

Jesus could have been furious with his disciples. They abandoned him. But instead, he gifts peace.

We could be furious with those who are different, physically or socially or culturally. But we are called to live in peace.

Go. Be the peace of Christ.

Go. Speak to relatives and friends. Don’t be quiet when someone tells a racist joke, or complains about “the blacks,” “the Muslims,” “the migrants,” “the immigrants,” or “the Mexicans.” Speak peace for and all people.

Be the peace of Christ.

Amen.

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Are You Here?

Our scripture reading is long today. And this is the shortened version.

Some churches let this stand as it is – and we hear it.

Some churches break it into dialogue. Or have performances.

I want to introduce you to an old way of telling the story.

This is an Arma Christi, Christ’s arms, like chivalry arms – not human arms. The symbols armachristiall around this statue tell the story of our scripture with little memory nudges. I know it is quite hard to see in the far pews, so please come up and look at this as you feel moved to do so now – or after the service. I’ll also tell you the part of the statue I am speaking about as I read today’s chapter of our holy gospel.

We in the Protestant tradition don’t use lots of symbols and gold, don’t use statues and icons. We aim for simplicity and humbleness.

But things like the Arms of Christ originally came from humbleness. In the middle ages, the poor were not educated. They could not read. They were not taught Latin and so could not understand the words read to them from the Bible. They were raised in working families and living hand to mouth often.

Priests and theologians and nuns and monks realized it was easier to show people the stories of the Bible than to teach each of them to read. Learning to read took time away from feeding your family. So they came up with symbols for people to remember the stories themselves, and put these symbols on the churches, so the humble could tell the stories again and again whether or not the priest was there.

It is the invention of the printing press, and public schools, and machines that let us each be able to read, and each have a Bible, and each be able to call forth its stories year after year without visual reminders. (Although the printed word is visual!)

Now although this is a Medieval tradition, this statue here is not that old. This is about 100 years old.

So now, let us turn to the story and listen to its images.

We welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with palms and shouts of Hosanna.

Some begin to say – this is surely the promised King! The King who will throw out the Roman rulers and return Israel to its King David glory.

And some worry… Rome has a habit of murdering those who challenge them and scattering the people, or selling them as slaves…

Some begin to say — Surely this is the Messiah – who will bring God’s full reign here and make Jerusalem the crowning jewel of the world and all people to live in perfect harmony.

And some worry… if he’s the Messiah, then why does he challenge the religious authorities? Why does he let his disciples eat without washing their hands and follow other cleanliness codes? He may just be a charismatic sham.

In Mark, Jesus enters Jerusalem to the cheers, and he goes to the temple – where he cleanses it with a whip. And that scene is when some people decide Jesus has gone too far, and they begin planning to get him away from the crowds to kill him.

Here hangs a whip on the Arma Christi.

Thursday evening, Jesus takes the cup and bread around dinner, instituting communion, and asking us to remember him. And he foretells his death, and that Judas has betrayed him to these killers. Here is the chalice.

Jesus then retires to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. And there, asks the chalice, the cup, to pass him… if God wills it.

While he is praying, a mob and soldiers arrive with Judas. They carry torches and lanterns into the garden. Here hangs a lantern. They go to arrest the Light of the World.

But Peter pulls out a sword – here is a sword – to defend Jesus. And Jesus tells him no. From the very beginning, Jesus has been preaching not to give in to sin, not to payback evil with evil.

Peter – who later that evening will then deny knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows. Here stands a rooster. He would defend him with a sword and violence, but not with his life and peace

Or perhaps Peter was telling the truth. He didn’t know who Jesus is. Messiah? King? Something else entirely?

And here is where our Scripture reading for today begins.

Mark 15:1-47


As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.

Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered him, “You say so.”

Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.”

But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival Pilate used to release a prisoner for the people, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?”

But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”

So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, (FLOG, PILLAR) he handed him over to be crucified.


Let me pause. Here is the flog, and the pillar Jesus was tied to. And you should note the irony here… Barabbas’ name means “Son of God.”

And, Barabbas is in jail for leading a rebellion against Rome. Jesus is in jail for potentially leading a rebellion again Rome, but definitely challenging the religious authorities.

Perhaps the people thought if Jesus wasn’t going to be their messiah, and just let the priests accuse him of whatever… they might as well stake their hopes on Barabbas. He, at least, has a history of fighting back.

So the “Son of God” Barabbas is released, and this Jesus guy is given over to the soldiers for torture, humiliation, and capital punishment – aka, death.

Mark writes,


Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. (CROWN OF THORNS) And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. (PITCHER) And they crucified him, (HAMMER) and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. (DICE, CLOTHES)
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”


“Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdæorvm. INRI. That very abbreviation is here, on our cross before us. The Latin charge of why Jesus was killed: for being the ‘Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews)

During Lent, we show the crown of thorns on our cross. And the purple cloak. Here on the statue are dice on a set of clothing. To cast lots is to gamble for something. Here is a pitcher to hold the wine and myrrh. This would have been to help with the pain of being crucified a bit. And here is the hammer to drive in the nails.

Mark’s writing continues…


And with Jesus they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”

In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

At three o”clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, (GRAPES ON STICK) put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”


Let me pause again to explain… So in the middle of this solar eclipse, Jesus begins to cry out, “Eloi, Eloi!” Someone thinks he is crying for Elijah, rather than speaking in his native tongue. The story goes Elijah never died, but was taken up to heaven in a firey chariot. Remember? So if Jesus really is God’s messiah, then he won’t die. God will reach down and take him up into heaven.

So they try to revive Jesus, and keep him alive long enough to see if God sends angels down. They give him vinegar, or sour wine, in a sponge to sip. Here are grapes on a stick. I think the artist must have used grapes to help symbolize the last supper – which was with good wine versus sour wine. And, to remind us Jesus said he is the grape vine and we are the grape branches.

Does the reviving with sour wine work? No…


Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.


The curtain, which separates the presence of God from people, splits not bottom to top – but top to bottom. Nothing separates us from God now. God is out – lose upon the world – and God chose to do it. God acted – coming from heaven to earth.

At this point in the story, not a single human has realized who Jesus is. Not a one. Mark has told us, we, the listeners. But in the story? They call Jesus the King of Jews and the Messiah. But now, listen to the man holding this spear…


Now when the centurion, (SPEAR) who stood facing Jesus, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”


The first in the Book of Mark to know Jesus is God’s Son is a non-Jewish outsider, a Roman soldier, a foreigner. The ironies abound.

God is lose. Working in the world. Bringing all people to understand just who Jesus is, regardless of who they are and what their job is and where they are in life.

Our reading concludes,


There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These women used to follow Jesus and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether Jesus had been dead for some time. When Pilate learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, (LADDER, PINCERS) wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.


Here is a ladder for climbing up and removing Jesus’ body. And pinchers to remove the nails.

This Joseph did it, with the women who stayed faithful to the very end, and they laid Jesus in likely Joseph’s or his family’s own tomb.

No prayers for Jesus have been said. His body isn’t prepped and cleaned for burial. No one has laid any flowers or eulogized. He is simply wrapped in cloth, and stored away safely until the weekend has passed. Then the first day of the week the women will be back to continue to provide for Jesus, just as they have since the days of his mission in Galilee.

Our reading ends here today. With Jesus dead, in a tomb, and all hope lost.

Our reading ends with everyone going home.

Ends with death.

I ask, where are you today?

Are you here? Here at the cross? We all walked this wilderness of lent with Jesus. We came in with our palms, singing hosanna. We welcomed our king.

But who has stayed?

Who is here?

Who could bear to be with him, to carry the cross, and to stick to their faith?

Two Marys, who have known Jesus since he was in Galilee. Back in the very beginning. Some other women, who have been faithful. A few roman soldiers required by their jobs. Joseph.

Are you here, too?

Or have you ran in fear like Peter. Or realized along the way you don’t actually know who Jesus is?

Have you found the road too rough, and sought respite?

Have you wandered away when the miracles faded with the cries of hosanna?

I think we all have moments, seconds or minutes or months or years, that we question our faith. We question why stick around.

And sometimes we wander away. Or lose hope. Or mock what we once loved.

In the Gospel of Mark, no one “gets” who Jesus is until it is seemingly too late. They’re physically there – but not there in their heads.

We, today, cannot be at Golgotha 2000 years ago physically.

Can we be there in our heads? Our minds?

Our hearts?

Whether with candles or prayers; hymns or quiet time in a garden, I hope you find time this week to reflect on the cross. And reflect on the miracle yet to come.

Think of those men and women who leave the tomb with all hope gone…

… and the pure wonder when they return.

This is a story to be continued.

Amen.

Wounded Healers

Theodicy2
Full graphic here –> https://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2292 Does contain cusswords.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

Surely the day is coming when no one will ask “Who is God?” because we’ll all know – God’s ways are written inside of us. In our hearts. There’s no question. We just know.

Surely the day is coming when we will be in full understanding with God, and there won’t be need for teachers and pastors and theologians…

… But it sure doesn’t seem to be this moment. I testify this pastor struggles. We are here, in the final Sunday of Lent before Holy Week. Here- on this last Sunday of quiet reflection before we come to Jerusalem, and Jesus enters with the welcome of a King. Next week we’ll sing Hosannas. And we’ll consider during the week the cross.

That horrible thing.

The nearly unspeakable thing.

Sometimes, we rush from Palm Sunday to Easter and miss the heartache in between. Sometimes, we rush from Genesis and God calling us Very Good to the Gospels, where God So Loved the World.

And we miss the messy, messy reality in between.

The messy reality where murder happens, and senseless death. When armies rise up against armies. And homes are burned. And lives shattered. Children’s heads dashed on rocks and blood and guts and broken bones galore. We miss the slavery. The beatings. The rapes. The sin.

We miss the cross when we gloss over Holy Week, or gloss over the Bible.

Our stories, our scripture, our message of God is so relevant because it is asking, and reframing, and asking again: what does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be God?

Why do good things happen?

Why do bad things happen?

And to be human, to be alive. is to know good and bad and everything in between.

“My soul is troubled,” said Jesus.

My soul is troubled today, I say. I look at this cross, and I wonder – how could it happen?

How could Peter turn and deny his savior, his master, his best friend?

How could all the disciples run away from Jesus’ last hours, dying there, a condemned criminal?

How could Mary abide seeing her son die?

How could God abide this wrong?

Or all the other wrongs in the world?

Who is God to permit such suffering?

Why do bad things happen?


Theodicy is a fancy term for this problem, for asking the theology of “why do bad things happen?”

The issue is set up like this: why does an all powerful, all knowing, all loving and good God permit bad things to happen?

Some have answered – there must be no god. My God, My God – why have you forsaken me? Because there is no god listening to your cries.

And some have answers – surely there is a god. We just have to tackle this theodicy problem.

These three descriptions of God set up a triangle. If we can resolve one of the angles of the triangle — all powerful, all knowing, or all good — the issue collapses upon itself and goes away. We have an answer for why bad things happen.

Let me give you an example… Maybe bad things happen because God is not all powerful. God loves us deeply and wholly. God knows bad things are going to occur. God works with us to try to stop these things. We pray and God works. We work and God gives the Spirit. But because we are sinful, or we have free-will,  or because God chooses to limit God’s own power… bad things happen.

Maybe the world would fall into chaos if God meddled too much in it and did a lot of miracles.

Maybe God wills a perfect world, but chaos and sin is still too powerful.

Maybe God set up the world to reward the sinful with pain and the sinless with blessings, and to meddle in this would be to disturb the order of things.

For one reason or another, God’s not all powerful. But God is all knowing and all loving.


 

Or maybe bad things happen because God is not all knowing. God can and does do everything. And God is all love. But God doesn’t know the results and the future. Sometimes, chaos slips into God’s plans. Truly humans plan, and God plans better, but even the best of plans can go wrong. God doesn’t plan the bad. Sometimes, it just happens.

Think of the Garden of Eden – it seems God was surprised that humans chose to eat from the trees God banned. God sure acted angrier than someone who planned on this happening!

Or maybe it just appears God doesn’t know what God is doing at times because we have very limited minds and perspectives. There must be a master plan – we just don’t know it.

Or God is just making things up as God goes along.

Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. All things are ordered and what seems random is actually determined due to quantum physics… But what if God DOES play dice? What if change, chaos, random occurrences, happenstance really is a thing… and we and God just plan the best we can?


Or maybe bad things happen because God is not all good. God can and does do everything; and God knows all that will be and has been; but God is not all hearts and sunshine and love. Instead, God is vindictive. Or God is righteous. Or God is just.

If you read the Bible, there is fire and brimstone. Maybe that’s the only way some people learn their lessons. There is hell, and punishment for sins, and punishment just for touching the Ark of the Covenant without permission.

Maybe God is so just and righteous, that the impurities of us on God’s honor, and God’s righteousness, means God HAS to demand satisfaction – demand payment – for our wrongs. There is a universal debt we’re racked up, and someone has to pay.

Or maybe God just appears to be not loving, but in actuality, is loving us like a parent and knows to teach us with soft knocks and hard knocks how to be better people. Maybe God is letting bad things happen to test us, to burn away the chaff, per se.

Maybe God could have designed a way for us to learn how to be good people without heartache, but then God could have just programmed us to be robots and we never would be able to voluntarily love God back or be in a real relationship. Because real relationships require freedom to say no. Freedom to walk away.

Or maybe God is like us… and not wholly all good but has spurts of anger and emotional outbursts.

Or maybe…

Maybe…


The lists and ideas go on and on and on. All of these justifications of God have been argued. And will be argued. And are currently being argued.

And not just in academic books or in seminaries.

I hear phrases like, “That’s karma,” and it means “what goes around, comes around.” If you do good deeds, good things come back to you. If you do bad deeds, bad things happen to you. This is theodicy. Trying to explain our God and why bad things happen.

I hear things like, “God knew what God was doing,” or “It was just her time.” There is a master plan and God is following it. We’re just along for the ride. More theodicy. More explaining why bad things happen.

And I hear things like, “God must have needed another angel,” or “That’s the punishment of God.” Again… more theodicy. More trying to explain our world and our God.

After Jesus died, people struggled greatly to explain how God could let Jesus die. Some concluded Jesus must never had been the Chosen One, the Christ. Maybe he was a great prophet, but not the Christ.

Others concluded Jesus must have known this was going to happen all along. And they remembered things he said that seemed to foreshadow his death.

Still others decided the cross must actually be an act of God’s love, and Jesus was the sacrificial lamb that takes away sins… just like the lamb’s blood in Passover — the time when he was killed.

These are all theodicy answers.

All the gospel writers and early Christians and ancient Jews and ancient Greeks and Romans trying to understand what just happened and who God is.

None of them are right.

But none of them are wrong.

Theodicy is like balancing on a ball. You can do it, but you constantly have to make adjustments. And as soon as you have your balance, as soon as you have an answer, the ball and problem has moved again.

I think of it like a puzzle. I worry it for awhile, come to a conclusion that lasts a month – a year – maybe more — and then I have to come back to it again and think some more.

And people did this long before Jesus’ time, too.

The entire book of Job is a work of theodicy. Why do bad things happen? Each one of Job’s friends offers a different solution. And Job demands an answer from God God’s self — and God doesn’t give a satisfactory one. Or doesn’t answer. It’s hard to tell.

It’s like the author of Job knew we won’t have a satisfactory answer to why bad things happen until we can ask God ourselves face-to-face. Until then, we’re screaming at the sky.

Why bad things happen to people — good people and bad people — seems to never have a perfectly neat answer that works 100% of the time all the time for everyone.

So when you hear John’s answer today for why the cross happened, and why bad things happen, know it is John’s answer. Each Gospel answers it a bit differently. Each theologian answers it differently.

Each person answers it differently.

We all come to the cross as individuals, again and again and again, and each time, we see Jesus, we see God, we see why bad things happen, in a different light. Even if it is just slightly different than last time.

John’s theodicy answer is the cross had to happen. Jesus is like a single grain of wheat. And Jesus will fall, and the seed die, per se, and stop being a wheat seed. But it will then grow up and produce many, many wheat seeds. Much fruit.

And that we are to follow this – to reject the way of the world, and to accept the way of Christ. To stop trying to save our lives and start living for Christ.

John’s answer is that God spreads God’s salvation through what appears to be bad things, but is actually good. The cross looks like humiliation. It is degradation. It is shame. But it actually is glory, and honor, and is a way of lifting Jesus up for all people to see.

The seed appears to die, and all hope to be lost – but it is simply giving up itself in order to reproduce a hundred fold.

Jesus will appear to die, and all hope to be lost – but he is simply giving up himself in order to bring all people to him.

Sometimes I agree with John. Sometimes I do not. That’s the thing about theodicy… its a problem we never solve permanently. We just reach temporary solutions.

One temporarily solution for myself is to think of all of us, and God included, as wounded healers.

Bad things happen. God doesn’t will them, I think (for right now. My answer of course will change. All theodicy answers change.) But God wills good to come out of bad situations.

So God didn’t plan to put Jesus on the cross, but God planned to bring good out of what happened. And God did.

God doesn’t intend for us to have cancer, to lose loved ones, to suffer – but God does intend to help us bring good out of these situations.

God intends to help us become wounded healers.

Wounded healers are people who know what heartache is, who know what loss is, and through their own wounds, are able to heal others.

Because I’ve been in those shoes, I know how to help. Because you’ve been in my situation, you know what I need most. No two people have the same exact experience… but every heart is carrying a wound.

And that wound, that hurt, is a soft spot that God can help us use to connect with one another.

It’s not the Law of God written on our hearts… maybe. But maybe it is: maybe the new covenant is a covenant of love that connects in these wounds, and unites us through the common experience of being human.

The common experience of knowing heartache. And joy. And suffering. And elation. And pain. And death.

That’s the thing about theodicy – about understanding God and why bad things happen – our hearts and minds change as we experience more.

As we transition this week into Holy Week, and into Palm Sunday, I invite you to reflect on the cross – what does it mean? Why did it happen?

Agree with John. Disagree with John. Agree with Mark or Matthew or Luke or Paul or disagree with all of them.

What is the cross to you?

Who is God to you?

Who is Christ?

And why do bad things happen?

Amen.

Made for Good Works

John 3:14-21gandhi
Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul is writing to the little group of religious refugees in Ephesus.

He says, once — all of you — including all of us here at Saint Michael’s — were existing in the course of the world, following the ‘aeon’ or spirit of the air, the gestalt, or the common way of doing things. And the common way of doing things is disobedient to God. It’s full of trespasses and sins. We harm each other even though we don’t mean to just because we’re in the world. The systems we live in have racism, sexism, and ableism, agism, and all kinds of isms built into them. Without meaning to, we participate. Our clothes are made overseas in sweat shops. Our food is often gathered in by hands paid 10 cents a basket – almost slaves. Our electricity comes from the lives of men and women and kids who suffer from coal pollution.

Just by being – we are harming others.

And even if we die, we still harm others – because now we’re embalmed with chemicals, and our relatives burn fossil fuels to come to our funerals, and those fuels pollute the air, and water, and ground and…

You get the idea.

Living or dying, the “normal” way of the world is to harm others… even if we don’t mean to and don’t want to.

So we become the children of wrath, anger, and frustration. If we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why put the extra effort into fair trade and local food instead of the cheapest food? Why bring your own bags to the store when they’ll happily give you plastic? Why conserve electricity. Or not litter.

The world, as it is, encourages us to follow our impulses, our short-lived desires, and have faith only in that which we can touch and sense with our bodies.

Paul says all of this made us dead.

Dead.

Not physically – but inside.

Dead.

Dreading to get up in the morning.

Dead. Depressed and seeking escape.

Dead. Not feeling generous, or merciful, or loving.

Dead. Just existing. Not living. Not thriving.

But, says Paul, God — rich in mercy — rich in love — reached out to us. We didn’t change. We didn’t do anything to merit this. God just in God’s love, and mercy, and grace chose to reach out and touch the world – touch us – full of sin and trespasses and stuck in these systems that force us to just keep sinning against one another – God reaches into this world, and picks us up one by one, and places us in a new world.

A world not ruled by the way things are.

A world instead ruled by the Messiah.

This new world lays atop of the world with the way things are, and we exist in both simultaneously. The new world, reigned by God, is a world of justice, and mercy, and peace. A world where it is possible to live in unified diversity. A world of light, and love, and understanding.

It is the world that one day will be the normal world, the way things usually are. But that heaven on earth is not yet here.

Instead, we get little glimpses of it, and invited to live into it now.

We’re the people with just a foretaste, a little snack, before the big meal.

And since we’re the snackers, it’s our job to get the house ready for the big meal. We know what is to come, and we’re to live that new world into fruition. Live like that new world is already here. Because the more we live like that, the closer by is the realm of God.

Paul says we — who stand with one foot mired in the way things are, and one foot in the realm of God — we’re created for this very work. Created at the very beginning to do good works.

I don’t know if Paul means when we are reborn in Christ, or when God first creates us, but I am confident Paul is saying we Christians have a mission, a purpose – and that is to live our lives in the realm of God.

Living in the realm of God is doing good, doing right, to ourselves and to others.

Now – works and deeds never save us from sin. No one can be perfect. Don’t think church and heaven and God are for the perfect. Paul is not saying earn your way into heaven. Remember? He said God already moved, already opened the door, and is welcoming us into the new creation.

Rather, Paul is saying when we live in that new creation, we cannot help but do goodness to one another. It is what we’re created to do. So keep encouraging it!

Truly, Church and heaven and God are for the sinsick, the people who are sick and tired of the way things are, and want change. The people who want sin to be no more.

We are saved from sin and harm and evil being the norm by God – who came, and showed the world that God is stronger than the sin and harm and evil we inflict on each other, or even God’s own son.

The Easter story is: God won. Jesus is resurrected. Sin, harm, evil, death are defeated.

This is what John and Paul are writing about.

We read today part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus in John. Nicodemus, you may recall, is the man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to ask questions. And in the book of John, Jesus says — remember Moses lifting up, exalting, the serpent? The serpent was a symbol of death. Yet, through it, came life. So, too, do I have to be lifted up – exalted – through a sign of death.

God defeated the serpent at the serpents’ own game. Defeated death through death. And defeats the way of the world, the way of sin, by entering the world and changing the way of the world to one of love.

Remember – “God so loved the world…” God so LOVES the world… that God’s love is transforming the “normal” from sin to love.

And we’re the people asked to participate.

That’s the condemnation, writes Paul. Judgment doesn’t come from Jesus, or the cross, or even God.

We are our own judges and judgment.

If we love light, and goodness, and Truth, if we want to work for harmony, and peace, and love; then we are already living into the new realm, the new reign, of God.

But if we love darkness, being evil, and lies, if we want to work for self-security, profit, and out of fear, then we don’t like God’s message. And we are choosing to live in the world ruled by the way things are right now.

That is our own judgment. We choose to live into the new world, or we choose to try to keep things the way they are.

John writes like it is super easy to pick one or the other.

But, I find it is SO hard.

Change is scary.

I like being secure and I’d like to be rich.

Sometimes, I don’t want to understand what goes into making my shoes because if I understand, and still choose this brand, then I am implicated. I am guilty. I am now choosing to participate in the sin of harming those workers in India and China.

Sometimes, I prefer the darkness. The not understanding. The not knowing.

Knowing, the light, is too painful. I’d rather my deeds not be exposed.

You’ve heard it said before that ignorance is bliss.

Yes, it is.

The judgement is whether we’ll give up that ignorance, and bliss, and choose the narrow path – full of heart-ache, and full of great reward – but not easy in the least.

Being Christian is hard work. It is heart work: the hardest kind. And changing the world is not easy.

I cannot help but wonder how my own little deeds have any effect on the world. What a penny? A jar of peanut butter? A smile? What are these tokens of kindness compared to the massive amount of harm occurring?

I am a single drop of water in a dry desert.

So Paul writes us encouragement.

Every dollar is made out of pennies.
Every forest is made out of trees.
Every house is made out of nails.
Every Christian is made out of single prayers.

In the body of Christ, no eye can say an ear isn’t needed, and no face say no “part we cover up” isn’t needed. Everything, every little bit, together, makes a difference.

And it all comes down to the little daily things we do.

Comes down to the very atoms of our bodies.

The atoms of the world. And universe.

Changing the world begins wherever you are.

For wherever you are, you are called to live into the realm of God and show it, and its victory, over the realm of the way things currently are.

Today we took an offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing. This helps organizations large and small all across our world.

Consider Sarah. She is a young mother, and was faced with an incredible challenge: her nine-month-old daughter couldn’t consume solid foods — or any food, for that matter — and as a result, the little baby wasn’t growing. Starving.

Willing to try anything, Sarah would feed her daughter new foods in the hope that her daughter’s body would finally accept some type of nourishment. Time and time again her hopes were dashed.

Enter Bread for the World, and the One Great Hour of Sharing, and WIC on Wheels of Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Enter the physical, and spiritual, and mental, and social powers of the World That Will Be. The world of generosity, inclusion, and love.

The mobile clinic brings services for young families directly to communities and offers services such as healthy foods, nutrition education and healthcare referrals.

The mobile clinic has been a godsend for Sarah and her daughter. It was there that Sarah was given a voucher for a literally lifesaving formula for her daughter.

Sarah’s daughter has gained strength, and her sensitive stomach has become more agreeable to some foods with the help of the mobile clinic’s nutritionist.

How was this child saved? Through a mother’s prayers, through the pennies we pay in taxes, through the money we donate to the UCC, through the people who volunteer and promote Bread for the World, through all of us who are living into God’s realm now that says no one – not even a young mother, who lacks transportation, with a sickly child, should suffer physically, socially with stigma or mentally with fear.

Pennies and prayers.

Or consider Ramona of the Dominican Republic. Ramona is a widow with three children who feared she would become destitute – and on the streets.
But things started to turn around when Ramona received and raised her first piglet. She gave four of that sow’s initial offspring to neighbors and sold eight, using the proceeds to invest in more animals. She’s sold over 50 pigs to date and made more than $4,000. Ramona’s business has thrived with help from her children and the day laborers she hires from among her neighbors. She now has nearly 100 animals and a brighter future.

Likewise, Juliana, mother of three, saw everything improve thanks to that one small gift. She has made $620 so far from selling piglets after giving six to neighbors. She’s thrilled that the money helped her send her two sons to school and pay for their school supplies, uniforms, backpacks, shoes and transportation.

Best of all, Juliana’s pig business has brought her back to her community. She used to be a domestic worker in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, and made the commute home only on weekends. Now, she earns enough to stay home, raise and sell pigs, and run a small grocery store she and her husband opened in their home.

The pig project is part of the Foods Resource Bank’s Dominican Republic Bateyes project. These programs are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and encourage love of neighbor. Today, families are “paying it forward,” enabling more and more of their neighbors to make life-changing improvements to their circumstances as well.

The program works and is modeled after Heifer International.

Pigs. Pennies. Prayers.

Now consider, when you are an immigrant and disaster strikes, where do you turn for help?
Listen to one survivor’s words of the California fires last year: “The fire busted open the window in the house and woke us up. We left wearing our pajamas, not even wearing shoes. We spent two nights in a parking lot because the shelter was full. We finally came home and we had no food. [A man from the UCC church] brought food to our house so we could eat.

 

Another survivor said, “Gas stations were selling water for two times the usual price. We left our home with nothing. [The UCC] made sure we had food, water, information, whatever we needed.”
A third survivor added, “The people I worked for evacuated so I lost my job. [There are] seven people [in my family] and we’ve moved four times.”
Because these are immigrants, they were unable to receive support from FEMA or other relief organizations. But we are living into the world that could be, not the world that is.
So – we are called to help everyone.
The UCC of California became a safe place to find assistance, food, water, gift cards, holiday food baskets, connection to recovery resources and social support. They became the advocates of the most vulnerable.
Several women “were being asked to clean up fire damage at the hotel where they were employed and were not supplied with any masks or special gear. When they resisted, their manager berated them and threatened them with the loss of their jobs.”
With the help of the church, these women kept their jobs AND were given the proper gear to not breathe in the toxic ash.
Months after the fires, there are still scores of people who need assistance. Out of work since flames sent them fleeing their homes, many are dealing with unpaid bills and food insecurity.
So the church is still helping. Still sending people out, creating a supportive environment where everyone recovers from the fires together as a community.

People. Pigs. Pennies. Prayer.

The world changes with little deeds, and with how we live our life.
I leave you with two guiding quotes:
First, Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Second, Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

Who is the person nearest you?
Live your life as your message- the message of Christ.

Amen.

_________

 

Benediction

 

Sponsor a child . . . Plant a tree . . . Rebuild a home . . . Visit a prisoner . . . Be a mentor . . . Teach . . . Serve a meal . . . Bring water to the desert . . . Pray . . . Donate . . . the opportunities are endless. And they’re all right here. What part of our world is waiting for you to make a difference?

I Dare You

what-would-jesus-do-flipping-over-tables1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Two weeks ago I met with Liberty Union High school Superintendent Todd Osborn. He spoke to our Senior Citizens and myself about LU. With him were some of our seniors. They spoke about how many programs are at LU – active and social programs, like sports. Quiet and reflective programs, like chess club.

They were there to reassure us. One of them said,  “Nothing like what’s happening at other schools will ever happen here. If there’s a gun threat, our whole community would turn out with their own guns to take out that shooter.”

This week, two students threatened to shoot up the school. They were interviewed, and arrested.

Wake up – wake up! What is happening at other schools, in other communities, is happening right here too – with our own seniors. Our own kids. Our own babies.

“That shooter” is OUR shooter.

“That shooter” is OUR child.

“That shooter” who we were so confident the whole community would rally against, is not some outsider. It not some stranger. Is not some demon dropped into our laps.

That shooter is somebody’s kid. Somebody’s brother or sister. Somebody’s classmate. That kid is our grandchild, our nephew. Our niece. Our FFA member.

“Nothing like that is ever going to happen here” is not true.

We just had a brush with gun violence in our own school.

What are we going to do about it?

You’ve heard the story about a frog sitting in a pot of water. It will sit there, letting the water creep warmer and warmer, until suddenly it realizes the water is TOO warm. But by then, it is too late for the frog to leap out.

Gun violence in our country is warming water. The water has gotten warm enough that its threats are being felt in our own tiny community. How warm will we let it go before we do something?

Before we leap out?

You hear — it is mental health. That is why kids shoot up their schools. If this were the case, wouldn’t all counties have the incredible number of school shootings we have? We’re up to one every few weeks. Think of that!

It is not just mental health.

Why children are shooting up schools is complex. It cannot be simplified to just this or that. It is a combination of isolation, as Superintendent Osborn spoke about. It is a combination of bullying – which is made worse with access to instant social media. It is a combination of youth: death and mortality is a hard concept to just about everyone under age 30. It is a combination of our fractured society where people are numbers and not individual souls. It is more. It is complicated. It is nothing that can be resolved just with medication and saying anyone with depression is a potential violent threat.  struggle with depression.

No, the desire to harm your fellows is complex. Multifaceted.

However, solid evidence shows – although the desires are complex… the ability to actually follow through depends on a large part on access to guns – especially guns designed to kill multiple people in a short time.

The DESIRES are hard to control, predict, and work with. The desires are countered by the programs our teacher and staff and family and friends are implementing. We caught and acted on the voiced desires this time. We did rally together. We did listen. We are a community. The desires to harm are countered by our desire to stand together, to love, to truly listen to one another.

Desires ARE being addressed.

But access is not.

And this is a two-sided coin where we are only polishing one side.

I spoken with kids who have considered shooting up their schools. Their desire came from complex issues at home, at school, at life. Desires are complex. I don’t want to demonize any of our kids. They’re normal kids. Golly – I remember wanting to burn my own school some days thinking it’d get me out of a test. That desire is there. And when we’re young, desires are often very, very poorly thought out.

But the ability to follow through on that desire? The access to military style weapons?

I don’t know about our LU case, but in the case of those I’ve spoke with, the lack of easy access to guns stopped the horror. All the hoops and procedures needed to buy the guns they’d need, and the ammo, was too much. It would take time. It would take money. It would take someone to drive them. These teens’ impulsive desire faded as they aged, as family and friends and teachers and students built relationships with them. As they passed out of high school and out of the insanity that is called the hormones of being a teen.

Desires are complex.

And we’re addressing them.

But not access; and not our relationship with guns.

I’ve spoken with you all before about guns. You know I don’t think guns are evil, but are a tool. Like fire. Fire is neither good or bad. It is useful, and harmful, depending on who uses it and if they’re trained to use it and how they use it. You know I don’t think guns should be outright banned. We use them, especially in rural life.

The issue is we then, and now, are so reluctant to change our relationship with guns. Then, I said we’d offer thoughts and prayers… be outraged… but nothing would happen. I showed how already the world was moving on – publishing news on those murdered at the Jason Aldeen concert on the same page as advertisements for guns.

The children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are leading a charge to change this. To change businesses when the law is too stalemated to change. To change how we relate with guns – to not host gun blessings in churches and to not worship guns.

We live by Jesus the Christ – not the Second Amendment.

We live by the Prince of Peace – not the idol called MY GUN.

So I dare you.

I dare you to cleanse our temple.

Jesus strode into the temple in Jerusalem and saw business as usual. Everything needed to run the temple was occurring – people were buying sacrifices, changing their foreign money for local money – doing normal life preparing for Passover.

We’re here. Doing normal life, preparing for Easter – which occurs in Passover. We’re doing everything we need for the traditions of our religion. We’re planning Easter eggs hunts and family dinners.

And Jesus strides in and is infuriated.

Infuriated – not because we’re celebrating. Jesus celebrates the Passover.

Infuriated – because dedication to God had been replaced by idolatry. The Temple and its festivals were not God. As Jesus said, there will be a time when you worship God neither here nor there – for we worship God wherever we are. God is not contained by a building. Jesus wanted them to know the Temple would be destroyed, but our access to God would not be.

Has our dedication to God been replaced by idolatry? How can we celebrate new life, cute bunnies and chicks, and spring colors while ignoring the snuffing of life, the little cold hands who used to cradle bunnies and chicks, and the spring flowers laid on fresh graves?

Jesus dared people to over throw their system, their government, even their own church, to get back to following God and God’s way.

Jesus dares us to do the same. To demand change. To enact change. To be change – even if we get the ire of our systems, our government, or our own churches.

Whatever is stopping you from following God is an idol. It replaces God.

Whenever an object is more important to you than the love of others – that object is an idol.

Whenever a human law is more important to you than God’s law to love God and love your neighbor – that human law is an idol.

We have a stumbling block. Something foolish. Something stupid. Something that makes no sense. It’s called a crucified savior.

A savior who loved others so much, he was willing to lay aside his angels, his sword, his gun, and die for others without a weapon or even a spoken defense.

A savior who loved God so much, he was willing to wholly submit to God’s message of inclusive, love, and radical earth-changing shift in priorities.

A savior who taught us that if we destroy our systems, our temple, our laws, our devotion to guns… even if we’ve spent our whole lives defending these things… That savior will resurrect us. That savior will forgive us. That savior will guide us. That savior will lead us. That savior will, and does now, and always will, love us.

Saint Michael’s, we almost had a Sandy Hook. A Rancho Tehama Elementary. An Umpqua College. A Virginia Tech.

We don’t because people listened to their youth and responded. Let us keep listening. Keep responding. Keep working together.

I dare you to repent, to turn back to God, to release idolatry, and to cleanse the sin of gun-worship in the USA.

I dare you to write to your politicians.

I dare you to speak with your family and friends.

I dare you to speak with your feet at rallies.

I dare you to speak with your money, and where you choose to shop.

I dare you to speak with your youths. Listen to them. Ask them about how they feel. Ask them for their guidance. For “out of the mouth of babes,” no?

I dare you to pray.

I dare you to act.

I dare you to love.

Love as Jesus loved.

What would Jesus do?

Tossing over tables, chasing people with whips, making a scene, and being political are within the realms of possibility.

So too is being crucified, scorned, mocked, arrested and beaten.

So too is living into the Reign of God now, and being resurrected, and given new, ever refreshing, ever fulfilling life.

What would Jesus do?

I dare you to do it.

Amen.

Bickering Siblings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16hijab
Romans 4:13-25

Let me read to you something. It may sound a little familiar. It may sound a bit strange.

(Surah 45-67): The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”

She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”

He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

And [God] will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.

[The] messenger [,Jesus, said] to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers. And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”

When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he asked, “Who are my allies towards God?”

The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”

They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.

God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.”

This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder.

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.

The truth is from your Lord, so do not be of those who doubt.

And if anyone disputes with you about him, after the knowledge that has come to you, say, “Come, let us call our children and your children, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and let us invoke God’s curse on the liars.”

This is the narrative of truth: there is no god but God. God is the Mighty, the Wise.

But if they turn away—God knows the corrupt.

Say, “O People of the Book, come to terms common between us and you: that we worship none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and that none of us takes others as lords besides God.” And if they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we have submitted.”

O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Will you not reason?

Here you are—you argue about things you know, but why do you argue about things you do not know? God knows, and you do not know.

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Monotheist, a Muslim. And he was not of the Polytheists.


These are the translated words of the Quran. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus healed the blind and the leprous, and brought the dead back to life. Like Gospels we have dropped over the centuries, the Quran says Jesus made a bird out of clay and had it fly. Like our own Gospels today, the Quran says that Jesus was taken up into heaven and is with God.

Like the Jewish Torah, and the Christian Old Testament, the Quran says we are made by God out of dust. Says there are no gods but God, alone. This is called monotheism. Mono-one. Theism. God. One God. We are monotheists. Not polytheists. Not many-gods.

When the Quran says “O People of the Book,” it is speaking to us. To all the children of Abraham. Not his physical children – but the children our own Paul writes about to Romans: Abraham’s spiritual children.

Just like Paul, the Quran points out that Abraham followed and believed God long, long before there were the faiths of Judaism or Christianity or Islam; therefore, long before there was a Quran or Bible or Torah.

But he submitted. To submit is to be muslim. Muslim means a person who has submitted to God. In English it means a particular faith. But it has two meanings in Arabic – the faith, but also what it literally means – to submit.

Much like we are all democrats because we are all part of a democracy. Democrat, however, has two meanings: one – a person is part of a democracy. The second, a person is part of a particular political party in the United States of America.

Abraham couldn’t be Muslim-the-Faith because the Quran and The Prophet Mohammad had not come to be. But he could be Muslim-the-person-who-submits-to-God. Because, as all three faiths of the Book read, Abraham did submit.

You’re a democrat-the-government-citizen because you’re an United States citizen. I don’t know which party line you vote with, if any, and that is none of my business.

So why do we feud so much? Why do today’s Jews and Christians and Muslims bicker although we are all faith siblings? All brothers and sisters through the faith of Abraham, and all brothers and sisters literally because we all know, and affirm, God, God alone, creates all of us?

Because most of us don’t care about nirvana.

Here me out – I challenge any of you here to get into an argument with me about how to achieve enlightenment, and how to step out of samsara and into nirvana. Whatever position you take – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayāna or Zen – I’ll take a different one and we can debate.

No one?

The truth is, here in Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, we don’t care much about Buddha or Bodhisattvas.

But we care an awful lot about what someone says about Jesus and God.

We’re not invested into koans and tantras and the holy books of Budhism.

But we’ve staked our whole lives and afterlives on the Bible, and our prayers, and traditions, and rites.

We argue with our siblings because they are the most like us. We argue with our siblings because we share the most interests, investments, and the most is at stake.

We argue with Jews and Muslims and especially other Christians because these groups are most like us. What they say, and how they say it differently, we greatly care about.

This is as true today as it was in the past when the words were set in the Surahs of the Quran translation I read; it is as true as when Jesus walked and said a prophet is never accepted in his home town. It is as true today as when the ancient Israelites and Samaritans – both ancient Jews to anyone else but themselves – argued. As true as when Sarah tossed out Ishmael and his mother because she didn’t want them around herself and her son… as true as when Cain slew Abel.

We fight – we hate – the people who are most like us because in those few, few ways we are different SO MUCH is invested, risked, and at stake.

Paul, writing to the Romans, was trying so hard for the Roman Christians and Roman Jews to see each other as family. You’re not enemies! You’re siblings! Of the same faith of Abraham. The mono-theists, the One God, faith. He goes over laws – laws like the law to have circumcision, or to keep Kosher, or to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath, and says – if laws are making you lose faith, give them up!

We are alive in faith, faith gives us life. Faith – submitting to God, and trusting God will do as God promises – even if it looks impossible – keeping this hope against all hope – KEEP FAITH! Laws are good. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Laws and Prophets, not abolish them… but, in today’s language, if the Kings James Version is too difficult to read, get a different version of the Scripture. If Sunday Morning is too early for you to praise God, find another service time. Another church. Maybe not a church – praise in your house or car or with your friends over coffee. KEEP THE FAITH! The how and where and rules – the traditions – are good, but FAITH is what is essential.

What about our heads? All three books – The Torah, the Bible, the Quran – mention we ought to be covering our heads. No one here is wearing a hat. Why not?

Because, somewhere, our ancestors debated this. Our ancestors changed. They decided the FAITH was more important. The FAITH, the following, the trust, of God – than whether or not they covered their heads.

But other ancestors have chosen to keep following that law out of faith, out of submission, to God. And I’m not just talking about Muslima women who wear hijab; or Jewish men who wear yamakas, there are plenty of Christian churches and denominations where scarves still cover heads.

If Paul were writing to us, I think he’d write – don’t argue over whether or not to cover your heads. Argue – are you being faithful to the one and only God? Are you loving your neighbor? Are you loving God?

When we say things like “Don’t shop there, they jew you.” Or call someone a “towel-head,” we are not loving our neighbors. We are hating them.

When we refuse to speak with our siblings, out of fear, our of ignorance, out of hate – we are not being faithful to God who calls us to be the allies, the disciples, the-ones-who-submit to God who calls us to live our faith and preach to all nations.

When we believe that God of the Old Testament, YHWH, El-Shaddai, and the Lord, the God of the New Testament and Allah, are different gods… we forget our faith. We forget Abraham. We forget mono-theism. We forget there is but one god, and that is whom all of the faith children of Abraham are following.

One God. Understood differently. My perspective on my mom and dad is different than my brother’s perspective. But they are still the same mom and dad.

One God. Related to differently. I like doing crafts with my mom. My brother likes fishing with my mom. Still the same mom.

One God. We’re not the same religion. There are profound theological insights and beliefs that differ among us. I am not my brother. He is not me.

But we have the same parents.

And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have one God. We are all siblings. Bickering siblings, different siblings, but siblings.

Since I razzed on Buddhism a little, I want to end with a Zen Buddist passage… a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”

Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

We don’t worship the Bible. Jews don’t worship the Torah. Muslims don’t worship the Quran.

We all worship the Truth, which is God. The Truth – who is larger, brighter, truer, and beyond what our words, traditions, or experiences can capture.

We all worship God.

And we are all siblings.

Amen.

A Rainbow of Hope

169c6430c0941b6d00f7885d2bb1d7f0--noah-ark-art-partyGenesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22

Noah’s story is a strange one. I usually hear it in one of two ways. The first way is the cute animal ark story. In this, a zoo of animals ride a boat with little smiling Noah under a rainbow. You see it on nursery walls and stitched on baby blankets. Aww – giraffes and lions and zebras! It’s the story we sung for our children’s chat today.

The other way I hear Noah’s tale is as an awful story about God’s wrath and how terrible the Old Testament is. In this version, one day, God lost God’s temper, and so in a fit of rage, drowned every man, woman, child and even all the animals. Then God felt bad, and so like any successful abuser, lured God’s victims back with gifts and apologies until God lost God’s anger again in a generation or two.

Both of these versions of the Noah story the Bible doesn’t contain. The one handed to us to much more nuanced, and can’t be summarized neatly into either a story of wrath or of cuteness.

The story begins with how the world has gotten worse and worse. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banned from the perfect garden. Then their son Cain murdered his brother Abel. And Cain’s son murdered another man. And chaos and violence and rape spread across the face of the earth as humans did.

Genesis 6:5 “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Humans had become evil, all the time. The following verse reads, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

It doesn’t read that God was wrathful and angry. Not that God wanted to punish humanity. But rather, God regretted. God was sorry. God’s heart was heavy and troubled. God was sad. Not angry.

Genesis 6:13-14a – “So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark.” God sought out the man who still honored God, who was not 100% evil, and before the evil could overcome him and his family, God told this guy God’s plan to save the world from absolute evil. God will make a new creation… but will save humanity, imperfect as it is, and give it a fresh slate to try again.

Genesis 6:17b-19: “Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” Everything will die, and the evil will be washed away. But the seed of life that is still good – Noah’s family, these animals – will be released back into the world to cover it with goodness instead of evil. And a covenant — a promise — will be made. God says God will make the covenant, but does not tell Noah at this time what it will be.

So Noah builds the ark. And God God’s self seals him and the animals and Noah’s family into the ark (Genesis 7:16b). And we’re told that for 40 days it rained; and for 150 days the world was flooded. And still longer it took until the waters were down enough that Noah was able to leave the ark. Remember he send out a dove, and it comes back without anything. Noah knows there is no where to land, nothing growing. Later the dove is sent out and it comes with an olive branch – a sign today of peace! – and lastly the dove is released and it doesn’t come back. It has gone on to live in the recreated world.

And God tells Noah to leave the ark then, Genesis 8:17 “Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.” Does that sound familiar? In the Creation stories, God tells the world to do the same: be fruitful and multiply. Here, in this new creation, God tells them the same.

Then Noah makes an altar, and thanks God. God smells the cooking meat on the altar and says, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”

In other words – God knows we’re sinful. From childhood we start lying, harming ourselves and harming each other. God knows this – but accepts it. God will not destroy the world because of the sin of humanity. Whenever God intervenes again, it will be in a different way. God will recreate and redeem us from evil — the evils of our own hearts even — in a different way.

God tells Noah that we may eat all plants and all animals now – but that God will demand an accounting of our lives. And will demand an accounting of our animals’ lives. How have we treated one another? How have we been stewards of the earth and siblings to each other?

Noah’s ark story ends with God’s rainbow and God saying, Genesis 9:12-16 “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

I’ve heard it said before that the rain bow is like a bow — what you use with an arrow. And when a bow is hung up, like a rain bow, it is a sign of peace. God’s bow – God’s violence – is hung up. A new way of dealing with evil on earth will have to be used, now.

I’ve also heard of rainbows being like a bridge, connecting heaven and earth. It symbolizes how we affect one another. What happens in heaven changes things on earth, and what happens on earth changes things in heaven. God promises to keep that in mind, and to be with us working together.

In our communion, we ask God to make God’s church — which is all of us — a rainbow of hope in an uncertain world. When there are clouds, and doubts, and flooding rains… we are the rainbow that says this will not last forever. There is still hope. Even in the most violent, most awful, most terrifying situations… what is will not always be. We can keep hope.

We know humanity needed saved again. And again and again. And God intercedes in and finds new ways to address the evil.

Consider Moses. Just like Noah, water is used to save Moses from evil, but the water doesn’t cover the earth. But just like Noah, Moses is saved by an ark. (That’s the word used for his little basket!) And like Noah, Moses is given a new covenant… this one not sealed with a rainbow but written on stone tablets and seal with blood of an animal and put in — here’s that word again! — an ark. This ark is to carry the tablets and be the movable house for God.

And consider Jesus. Like Noah, and like Moses, water plays a major part in Jesus’ life. The water of baptism. The water turned into wine. The water Jesus stills and walks upon. There is no ark in Jesus’ story, and Jesus doesn’t refer to himself as an ark… but he is, in a way. He is protecting, carrying, humanity from evil and into the newest creation of God. Jesus does tell us the newest covenant is sealed not with stones or animals or rainbows – but with Jesus’ own blood: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

When God saves us from evil the next time around, we are saved through the covenant in Jesus, and sealed with the water of baptism and Holy Spirit.

The first letter of Peter writes to the struggling persecuted church to remember their baptisms. It’s not a bath for dirt. It does not make you stop sinning. It is an appeal to God to remember our covenant, and an appeal to us to remember our covenant. We are one people, many persons, but one people – belonging to one God. And it is together we’re all going to make it. Even those people who died in Noah’s days, says Peter, after disobeying God all their lives, even they – although dead – are offered to repent, apologize, and return to God through Christ.

In other words, says Peter, there’s hope. Even for the dead, there is hope of new life, new creation, new reconciliation and relationship with each other and with God. This is the covenant of Christ. A covenant of hope.

You don’t hope for things you have. You hope for what you don’t have. You don’t hope for sun on a day that is sunny. You hope for sun on rainy days. Rainbows of hope are visible only with storm clouds. Christ’s resurrection hope is only possible if Christ has died, and if we, too, physically die.

The hope is that the story of Noah doesn’t end with an ark. It continues. It ends with a rainbow, a promise, a new covenant.

The hope of Christ is that the tomb is empty. This symbol – a cross – is not just a reminder of our mortality, and of Christ’s death – but it is an EMPTY cross. Nobody hangs here. This is a cross of hope. There is more. The story continues. There is a resurrection.

And we need this hope, now. Our country is deeply divided. We’re told by our Federal Agents that this division, which has always been there, was exacerbated by another country.

The evil inclinations of our hearts were always there. The inclinations to distrust one another, to fear one another, to HATE one another. Those inclinations were incited, and we fell for it with glee. With glee, people passed on hate messages. With glee, we heard only the news we wanted to hear. With glee, we believed only what we wanted to believe. And with glee, we turned our own neighbors, our own brothers and sisters, into our enemies.

Lent is a time of making amends. A time of reflecting on our own sins, and building bridges – rainbows of hope – connecting ourselves to each other.

Lent is a time to reflect – what messages are we sharing? Are we seeking common ground and seeking the common good, or are we focusing on our differences, and focusing on just assisting ourselves?

Lent is a time to pray for forgiveness. A time to remember who we have issue with, and seek them out, to offer the olive branch of peace.

Jesus told us that a house divided soon falls in on itself.

Rebuild your house.

Rebuild your burned bridges.

The storm is happening, but we can be the rainbow of hope in this uncertain world.

Amen.