Tag: questions

The Home of God is Among Mortals

communion_of_saints-ira-thomas-catholic-world-art-690-609x388
Original artwork, “The Communion of the Saints, for All Saints” by Ira Thomas / http://www.catholicworldart.com. Courtesy Ira Thomas.

John 11:32-44
Revelation 21:1-6a

All Saints Year B

John of Patmos is given a revelation, a showing, from God – and it is so hard to describe. He grasps at ways to explain the wonder and love God shows him. He sees in the vision we read today beyond our now, our linear time, and into what was and is and will be. He steps out of time. He steps into God’s realm and way of viewing things.

Outside of time – this is how Jesus was and is and will be. Outside of time – this is how the earth was and is and will be. Outside of time – this is how John sees God has come to Earth and made God’s home among mortals – in Christ – and God dwells with us now – and God will continue to live with us into the remaking of all things.

It’s like… one of those old Magic Eye books. You look at it. Its chaos. It makes no sense. And then, all of a sudden, the veil is lifted and there is a 3D image. An image that has length and depth and height. Or an optical illusion of an old woman and a young maid.

For us, we experience a past, present, and future… but they are all the same to God who is working at all time to remake the world and bring about beauty and good. And John is gifted a little glimpse of this amazing goodness.

But if God is at all times, the Alpha and the Omega and everything between the beginning and the end… why didn’t God stop the evils we see around us? Murders. Abuse. Neglect. “Lord, if you’d been here, my brother would not have died.” If there is a God, and God is present, why is there death? If Jesus can open the eyes of the blind, would it be easier to keep a man from getting so ill he died? If God’s eye is on the Sparrow, why isn’t it on my loved ones? If God can make all of the world with its infinite beauty… why can’t God inspire a bit more goodness into our hearts?

I don’t know. John of Patmos doesn’t know. The disciples do not know. It is a mystery.

A mystery of our faith.

What was, is, and will be.

WHO was, is, and will be.

Those we have lost, are still with us, and will be with us again in the future.

Jesus resurrects Lazarus, which leads those around him to plan to kill both Lazarus and Jesus. And Jesus says this is the Glory of God. The Glory of God is outside of time and able to accomplish all things. The Glory of God brings new life into the most stinking, stagnant graves and into the most dead — literally or not — people. The Glory of God is not in a heaven light years away, in the future — but was on Earth, is on Earth, and will be on Earth.

I don’t know how God is making all things new, wiping away every tear, removing death, and pain, and bringing about the Reign of God to all times and all peoples… but I know God is. And I know in the midst of it, God weeps with us, holds us, and love us – for God in Christ wept over Lazarus. God in Christ wept over Jerusalem. God in Christ feels and knows what it is to be us – and stuck in time.

John of Patmos had a vision of this companionship in Revelation.

Julian of Norwich saw this as God tenderly holding us like a mother, and cherishing us in the palm of her hand.

People – living and dead – have had visions and reassure us: God loves us. All is well. Somehow, outside of this 4D world that has length and width and height and time – and in the 5th Dimension… or whatever a lack of being controlled by time is. Somehow, God lives among us. Dwells with us. God is with us. God is wiping our tears. God is encouraging us. God loves us.

Mary and Martha have so many questions. I have so many questions! And God welcomes the questions, but says… we won’t know for certain until we can ask them to God face to face.

Until then, know…

All was well. All is well. And all will be well. Mysteriously.

Amen.

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Why?

Children’s Chat: Super Why! jesus

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

As a child, I learned the secret answer in Sunday School… I bet you did, too. It goes like this:

“Who walked on water?”
JESUS!
“Who cured the blind?”
JESUS!
“Who loves us?”
JESUS!

The answer to everything was either Jesus, God, love, or Jesus’ love for God. You get the idea. Our faith is simple, and boils down to love. But there’s an issue with this Jesus answer for everything… Sometimes, Jesus doesn’t fit the question.

“Who broke the vase?”
JESUS!
“Who gave you detention?”
JESUS! No – it was God?

As we experience more of life, the questions get harder, and the answer “Jesus!” or God or love fits even less.

“Why do I have cancer?”
Jesus. … Or God…
“Why is there evil in the world?”
… Jesus. God… love?

Our lives get more complex as we experience more, and satisfying answers get more complex. The simple answers don’t just cut it in the face of years of depression, years of feeling isolated, years of chronic illness. “Because Jesus loves you” is a terrible answer to why children die of starvation. Because Jesus loves you, he sent a drunk driver to kill your family. Because God loves children, God sends shooters into schools to kill children and make new angels for heaven. Because of love, our Sunday School theology applied to experienced life does so much harm.

In the words of Dr. Linda Mercadante – bad theology kills.

Bad theology kills our faith. Once we get to the notion everything is caused by God, and everything happens because God or Jesus loves us, we may come to the conclusion God is pretty evil. Or we don’t want Jesus’ love if this love looks like starvation. If God’s love is torture, who needs God? If Jesus’ love is hate, who wants to be a Jesus follower? The simple theology of Jesus is the answer to everything works when life is simple. And it kills faith when life is complex.

Bad theology kills.

It kills faith, but it also kills people. If the reason everything happens is because of God’s love, then any bad fortune is because someone has lost God’s love.

A woman on welfare must be lazy, sexual promiscuous, a thief, and not a good Christian woman. She is poor because she isn’t living virtuously. Her sins are why she is poor.

A man addicted to narcotics must be weak willed, violent, a thief, and not a good Christian man. He is addicted because he isn’t living sinfree. If he just confessed, he’d be clean and back in God’s love.

This theology kills. It denies food and shelter, love and education. It makes a class system when the least are treated as second class citizens – as left-overs – or as unwanted ‘undesirables’ of society. It also directs our public policy and research.

((Many are ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous even through there is no evidence it actually helps people. Oh yes – people leave alcohol there. But just as many do not. The only successful intervention scientifically proven is medication to help rewire the mind after the alcohol has wired it for addiction. AA is a great support network… but it doesn’t touch the physical addiction side of alcoholism. But our bad theology says the flesh is nothing, and the spirit everything. It says just confessing the sin of alcoholism will put you right with God again, and then, you ought to have no more issues.

But that’s not how our bodies work.))

This is bad theology.

Simplistic, early-learning theology.

And bad theology kills.

Jesus’ disciples began with simplistic theology. He told them do not fear, just have faith. And they got this. And it works while their mission is simple. They are simply curing the sick, helping the poor, and speaking of God’s love for people. When life is simple we need simple theology.

But then the disciples get more complex experiences, and Jesus begins to tell them the Messiah will be denied by organized religion, and killed by the government, and be resurrected by God. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Because the answers are terrifying.

Based on simple theology applied to a complex question – ie, bad theology – the reason Jesus will be murdered terribly is because of God’s love. I bet you’ve heard this.

How different is this reasoning than “divinely ordained child abuse?”

How different is this than adults telling little children they are abused out of love?

These are terrifying answers. These are answers that kill my faith and kill people.

If you think these are going to be the answers to “Why did Jesus die?” why would you ever ask the question?

And if you did ask… who would you ask? And when? Where?

Once we know Jesus is the answer to everything, and God is love, then it’s like… we’re scared to be seen as foolish by questioning these simple answers. So we bottle up the questions instead of asking them. Bottle them up because we don’t want judged by our fellow family, friends, and congregation members…. Bottle them up because we don’t really want to know the answers…. And bottle them up because we think we’re Christians and this is our faith and we ought to get it.

The disciples literally walked with God Incarnate and didn’t get it.

They were scared to ask the questions, too.

But the questions are… liberating. They let our faith grow more complex to answer our complex lives.

I am guilty of hiding my questions like the disciples. Before I found the United Church of Christ, I sat with a Buddhist who didn’t know anything about Christianity. I could tell her all my questions around Christianity and she wouldn’t try to give me the simple answers because she didn’t know them. She wouldn’t say my soul was in danger for questioning the goodness of God, or the divinity of Jesus, or the reality of the Holy Spirit because soul isn’t really a concept in Buddhism.

She didn’t feed me answers at all. She sat with me in the questions.

She didn’t FEAR the questions.

And so I asked.

Of course, she had no answers. Christianity wasn’t her faith! But the answers weren’t as important as vocalizing the questions, looking at the questions, and considering the various answers. The journey into the questions was more important. And we journeyed in them together.

Jesus offers his disciples to ask him the hard questions. He doesn’t promise answers – he tends to answer in parables anyways – but he promises to stick with them through exploring the answers.

That is what living faith is about.

Exploring. Moving. Changing.

Our lives are not static. Our lives are dynamic. We gather more and more experiences. Our faith should be the same. Dynamic, growing, changing as we change.

The simplistic theology is important, and good, for when we are drinking the infant milk of our faith. But as infants age, they need solid food. They need carrots to crunch and meat to tear. As we grow into mature lives, we need a mature faith that is crunchy and has substance we can bite into. We need a faith that is satisfying to our more complex needs.

That faith can only come from permitting our faith to be exposed to life. The moment you feel you need to defend your faith from life is the moment you’ve outgrown your faith. Let her out! Let her stretch and grow and yes, pick up some bruises, but grow into the faith you need for your adult life!

The disciples have stopped growing in our reading today. They’ve begun to protect their concepts of Messiah from life. Jesus has been telling them of the bad fate for himself when he returns to Jerusalem, but they are scared to ask what this means. Instead, they focus on their simple faith in the messiah. The simple faith says the messiah will be a military warrior, go to Jerusalem, be crowned king, and toss out the Romans.

The simple faith says your lot in life is based on how much of God’s fortune you have earned. The simple faith says Jesus is a pretty amazing guy, so God’s going to reward Jesus with everything.

So they look at themselves who are also healing the sick and walking with THE Jesus, and they say – hey! We’re pretty amazing guys ourselves. Who is going to be the second most awesome person in the land and the second in charge for Jesus? Who has the most miraculous power, who’s cured the most ill, who’s preached the most good news? Let’s rank up!

And Jesus looks at them, hears their concerns, and realizes they have not grown into the new experience of a servant messiah at all. He realizes their faith is not ready. And we know Jesus is right. They all will desert him in the end.

And “It’s not just that they don’t understand some piece of information. It’s that they don’t understand this specific teaching, at the very heart of the Incarnation. How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die? And why should it happen?

The question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propels so many early Christian attempts to construct an intelligible, if misguided, Christology. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (Docetism) or maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered but the divine part was untouched (Gnosticism). Early Christians struggle with what sort of deity lets her/himself get into a corner like that? They needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies. Underneath verses 31-32 are the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Such a self-demoting God could hardly be trustworthy.” ((Amy Oden https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1356))

Faced with the terror of a suffering God, arguing over a victorious god’s right hand man is much easier. Faced with the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the world is much easier. But it leads to infighting, and all the other woes James writes about. When we avoid the hard questions, our faith doesn’t grow, and the small answers don’t satisfy and cause more issues. Remember, bad theology kills.

Jesus won’t abandon these disciples in their fear. He calls over a child. A child – who has not done a single miracle. Who cannot read or write. Who didn’t see the bread broke and the fish shared. A child – likely not baptized. Maybe not even Jewish. A child – someone wholly dependent on others for protection, food, and clothing. A young child who has no wealth, no status, nothing but themselves.

And Jesus says, “This is the greatest here.” Not any of the disciples, but this unnamed child. “Whoever welcomes the least, such as a child, in my name, welcomes me.”

Jesus is found in the lowest.

“Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

God is found in the lowest.

“The greatest among you will be your servant.”

Not kings. Not princes. Not the best Christians. Not politicians. Not the rich. Not the sinless. And especially not in the person who says they have all the answers. But in children and those like them.

The greatest are the servants… the ones who are humble, low, don’t know better, and not scared of appearances. The ones with curiosity, who are growing, who are changing, who are embracing life as it comes.

The disciples are scared to ask Jesus questions. They want to look like they know it all to each other. And they don’t want their simple theology challenged.

The woman at the well asks Jesus lots and lots of questions. She doesn’t care what others think of her. And she hasn’t a simple theology to be challenged.

We, ourselves – are we scared to ask our hard questions? Do we fear what one another will think of us? Are we scared of how our faith may be changed, or challenged?

I’m guilty of this at times. At times it hurts to grow and the unknown is scary. It is painful to be vulnerable and suffer your friends, family, and congregation’s judgments (perceived or real.) It is terrifying to consider whether or not God is all good, all powerful, or all knowing.

But we’re a denomination of godly wisdom, not worldly wisdom. We’re a denomination of questions. Some of our mottos include

Don’t leave your brain at the door.
Never put a period where God has put a comma, God is still speaking.
Our faith is 2000 years old, our thinking is not.

Our roots are the Puritans who dreamed of free public education for every child, so that every person could read the Bible for themselves. Our roots are the Protestant Reformers who dreamed of a Bible translated into local languages and a physical copy there for each person to read. Our roots are roots of asking the questions and exploring answers.

How would our story of Christianity be different if the disciples had asked their hard and scary questions?

How will our faith be different?

How will our congregation be different?

This is a safe spot. We are on a journey together. We are asking the questions together. It is a journey, where sometimes we will find an answer to our questions that satisfies awhile, or satisfies one or two people but not all people. It is a journey where sometimes we won’t find answers at all… but we can live into the questions.

We can live into the faith.

We can live into the mystery.

There are no stupid questions. Carl Sagan once wrote, “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question”

A question asked might risk you looking foolish for 5 minutes.

A question not asked may leave you foolish for 55 years.

Do not be afraid – ask!

Amen.

Covenant People

Genesis 15:1-18
Luke 13:31-35

Is God trustworthy?

Abram doesn’t know.

God has made him some promises: God promised Abram would have descendants, heirs, and be the father of many. He would be as numerous as dust and own all the land about him… But so far… God hasn’t delivered. In fact, Abram’s one relative, his nephew Lot, has been kidnapped – maybe killed. Maybe Abram and Sarai are the last two people left in Abram’s family.

Abram isn’t 100% certain he can trust God.

Right before today’s reading, Abram hears Lot and Lot’s family has been captured by enemies kings. So Abram gathers up his neighbors and allies and went out and rescued everyone! Abram also got back all the possessions stolen by the kings.

Abram returns to Sodom, where Lot and all the people stolen live. There, Sodom’s king comes out and praises Abram: “Let the people go back to their homes, but you can keep all the possessions as a thank you!”

But Abram says no. He says he promised God that he wouldn’t take anything from those he saved. If Abram gets rich, it won’t be because of the king of Sodom.

I hear Abram saying these words to the king of Sodom… but I think he is thinking about God. God – you said you would give me children. They are the only riches I want. Can I trust you, God?

In today’s reading, Abram has a dream where God tells him that God is his sovereign, his ruler, and his protection and shield. Abram’s great reward for selflessly rescuing his neighbors and his nephew, and leaving them their livelihoods, is God.

But can God’s promises be trusted?

Abram doesn’t know. He honestly doesn’t know. He’s seen no proof that God delivers.

And he doubts God. He questions God. All alone, away from the rejoicing crowds and rescued people, back home, under his tree under the desert sky, Abram is in prayer with God and he’s not happy.

Great. My reward is God.

And land.

God, all I want is children. You haven’t even delivered in children! Why will you give me land when there’s no one to live on the land?! Why is there no one, because you still haven’t delivered me a single promised kid!

And God promises this single man, who is quickly getting up in years, he will have more offspring than the stars in the sky.

We’re told Abram chooses to believe God, and God credits to Abram as righteousness, as grace, as a gift to God.

Abram has doubts, has questions, about God — even as he believes in and trusts God. It reminds me of the man who cried out to Jesus in the book of Mark, “I believe; help me with my unbelief!” Abram believes, and wants help with his unbelief.

… in our journey with God, when promises get delayed, and when bad things happen, and even when life is great and average and ordinary – we have questions about God. We wonder, we question, we ponder, and have moments when the promises of God don’t seem real.

If God is always with us, where is God in the Middle East?

Where is God in all the violence we see in our own country?

How can there be a resurrection? Where will those billions of people live?

Does God really forgive sins – forgive them and forget the wrong – when we pray and ask God to do so? How can we be sure?

How can we trust there really is an afterlife; and what we do really matters; how do we know there even is a god?

We have doubts and questions at times, even when we have thousands of years of God’s “credit history.” We have the Bible, the stories of those who bought us to our faith, our our lives – as testimonies of God’s faithfulness to God’s promises… and yet we still wonder. Abram hasn’t any of these histories .

Abram is who becomes Abraham. At this time, he hasn’t a single child… and yet, now he is the father to billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In this story, he can’t picture even one child – let alone children all around the world.

And our patriarch, our faith father, doubted and pondered and had unbelief, too. Just like we do sometimes. Yet, he chose to believe, and then pray ‘help me with my unbelief.’

And instead of getting angry with Abram, God answers his prayer! Just as Jesus helps the man who prays ‘I believe! Help me with my unbelief!’

When we doubt God’s promises, our relationship with God isn’t over. God counts our trust without evidence, without proof, as righteousness. God counts our confession of faith, and prayer for strength through our many valid reasons to wonder, as worship. Questions and belief, doubts and faith, can go hand in hand. In our reading today, Abram believes, but not without questions. In a bold move, God decides to make a covenant with Abram to seal God’s promises.

Covenants are weird things. First, this fancy word we seem to use only in church. I’ve never entered a covenant with my electric or water company. But in church, we speak of covential elders, Lori gives us The Covenanter newsletter, we speak of being in covenant with other UCC churches and the association, and every month: we hear Jesus’ words “This is the cup of the new covenant, in my blood.” What is this thing God is making with Abram?

Well, it’s something God initiated. God initiates covenants. So when we’re in covenant with other churches, it’s because God asked us to walk with one another as one body. So does that mean covenant is just a fancy word that means a contract with God?

No, not really. A contract is something like, ‘I will loan you $10,000 for a car, and you will pay me back $200 each month. If you miss a payment, I come and take your car.’ Covenants are more descriptive… such as “we will walk together with God.” What does it mean to walk together? Does walking together mean different things at different times? $200 is always $200. Covenants are more flexible and meant to change with the people in them. A contract is meant to be binding and solid – without wiggle room.

The lack of wiggle room in a contract is what lets the contract be enforced by lawyers and debt collectors, police and judges. But a covenant is “policed” by the people in it. It demands spiritual maturity. Demands the people in it stick together even in disagreement. Demands the people in the covenant relate to one another with humility and patience, justice and compassion; deal with one another with the Fruits of the Spirit – with God-given love. So difficulties in the covenant don’t split it, but rather challenge the covenantal partners to deeper relationships.

That is the incredible gift God offers Abram.

A relationship.

A covenant. A description of how to be in faithful relationship to one another.

God directs Abram to set up a ritual so Abram can see what God is promising. We are physical people, in tangible bodies. We often need signs to remind us of our covenants. Signs like the bread and cup. A rainbow. Signatures in frames. Rings.

Abram takes these animals at God’s direction and splits them in two – half a cow here, half a cow there. Half a goat, half a ram – but a whole dove and pigeon. No one really knows what that meant back then. What we do know is that the word for covenant in Hebrew, berith, comes from the word for cutting, making a space, just as is done with the animals.

And into this new space carved out, God walks.

If this were between humans, perhaps they would have sworn an oath – like ‘May God cut me in two, like these animals, if I break this covenant.’ Or ‘I will be faithful even unto being split into two.’

When you consider this is GOD making this pledge… God is pledging, promising, to be with Abram even if it means suffering and death.

Abram cannot know what we know – that the pledge God made that night, the pledge to make Abram a great nation with land… would bring God into the world as Jesus. Our second reading today is Jesus standing before the land of Abram, the city of Jerusalem, and God is still working to maintain the covenant.

“How often I have longed to bring you under my wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks!”

And yet, how often you test our covenant, murder the prophets I send you, and anger me!

But still – God won’t end the covenant. God fulfills God’s promises. Even unto suffering and death.

In a covenant, people walk together, work together, live together, suffer and rejoice together, die together… and have new life together.

We have no evidence, no proof, that God is going to fulfill all of the promises made to us. Rather, we have stories of God’s faithfulness in the past, stories of God acting in the present, and so just faith – belief mixed with unbelief – that God will continue to fulfill God’s promises in the future.

We just have belief mixed with unbelief that God is actively forgiving sins.

We have belief mixed with unbelief that our covenant with God and each other – to be one body, united in Christ – is eternal.

And that belief mixed with unbelief is counted as righteousness… because we’re willing to continue our walk with God even in uncertainties.

Is God trustworthy? Yes. And our covenant with God strong. Amen.

Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore, Ohio, 2-21-2016