Monday, October 06, 2014

instant gratification--a reflection for October 12

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Exodus 32

 It’s comforting to be reminded that our instant-gratification culture is not a byproduct of the digital age, nor a particular failing of “young people these days.” Unwillingness to wait, desire for immediate tangible results, and impatience with the mysterious slowness of spiritual life seem to go back millennia, rather than being a hallmark of the Millennial generation.

Couple that inability to wait with a leader willing to give in to the anxiety, and you have the perfect storm. How many congregations have also faced this problem? The people are anxious and uncertain, so demand a solution. The leader, even while knowing better, gives in to the demands, and soon we are worshipping something that is decidedly not God.

Part of the difficulty is that at least initially, the idea seems to make sense. People desire a deeper relationship with God—how can we resist giving it to them?

Resist we must, because no preacher, teacher, pastor, or parent has ever been able to simply hand spiritual depth over on a golden platter.

Building a relationship with our God takes time. Even face to face, it took many days for Moses and God to get to know each other well enough to reach the point where the commandments could be delivered, let alone the point where they spoke to one another “like a friend” (Ex. 33:11, NRSV). Desire for relationship is the first step, and the Israelites certainly had that. But a spiritual life, whether that of an individual or a community, also requires effort, energy, honesty, perseverance, endurance. We have to be willing to wait, to “trust in the slow work of God” (as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said), to sit in silence, to put in the same amount of time both listening and speaking as we would with a human friend.

But it is so much easier to work with something we can see and touch. As a leader it is so much easier to offer the cheap facsimile than to nurture true spiritual relationship. We know how this story ends: Moses ends up in the strange position of convincing God to reclaim the people as God insists they belong to Moses (God having apparently forgotten how much work it was to convince Moses to go back to Egypt in the first place!). Yet even knowing this story, the temptation is great. It takes a long time, and we “don’t have a clue” (v. 1, CEB) what is happening during the time when nothing appears to be happening, and suddenly we are sacrificing and dancing and giving our hearts to something hard, cold, and unforgiving.

As preachers we may tire of wondering what the golden calf looks like in our community. It is important that our own spiritual lives are strong so we don’t fall into Aaron’s trap of believing we can provide people with anything more than tools and space to seek, no matter how uncomfortable or anxious they (or we) might be.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

up to my eyeballs--a sermon on Crossing the Red Sea

Rev. Teri Peterson
Up To My Eyeballs
Exodus 14.10-14, 19-29
28 September 2014, NL1-4
Harvest 1-4

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’
 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

It’s been years since Pharaoh first ordered our boys thrown into the river; decades of turning the water of life into the fear of extinction. We’ve lost people—precious people, boys and girls, men and women—to the river, and to fear. We’ve lost people to overwork and exhaustion. We were ready to set our faces to a new way, to leave behind that life of doing the same thing day in and day out, that life of constant disappointment that things were not different. We were ready to leave that life of fear that we might be just a few years from disappearing.

But look at us now. One look back and…well…let’s just say that with water on one side and an army on the other, the good old days of a few weeks ago are looking much better. All we want now is to go home, honestly.

But home is on the other side of Pharaoh’s army.

Remember how cozy it was? How full of life and laughter? There was barely room to fit us all in, and we had plenty to eat, and songs to sing. Why did we ever want to leave that?

Of course, our songs were sung with tired cracking voices, since we spent our days working for Pharaoh, being despised by the Egyptians, and constantly being on the lookout for terror. We ate our fill, but it was always the same stuff. Our bodies were sore, our spirits broken, our minds tired from trying to figure out how to get to a new place on the same roads we’ve always used. We’ve worked so hard just to stay alive.

But still…compared to this place, with the water on one side and the army on the other, it was pretty great.

I can’t believe Moses brought us from one river of death to another. We can barely look at the water, it’s been a symbol of chaos and fear for so long. So we keep looking back, but that sea of chariots is no better.

This seemed like a good idea at the time, but we’re having second thoughts.

And somehow in the midst of it all is our leader, saying ridiculous things like “Don’t be afraid” and “stand firm and see what the Lord will do.” How can we possibly look at what the Lord will do, when we’re busy looking back there?

A few people are talking about what we’ve already seen. Our God and Pharaoh have been battling for weeks already. Someone is remembering the day the Egyptians were up to their eyeballs in frogs, and how bad they smelled when they all died at once. And the day locusts ate all the Egyptian fields but didn’t touch ours. The Lord has definitely been busy. Maybe he can do it again.

After all, it’s not like we can go back, I suppose. So might as well tear our eyes away from the army, or rather away from the home we remember back there, and look forward instead. The waves on the sea look rough…we’re not really water people, and this water seems particularly difficult. But it’s the only way we’ve got, so we might as well look for what God will do.

Speaking of looking, there is someone awfully close to the water. Almost looks like he’s up to his eyes in it. Except…well, either he’s insane or I am. Or God is. But it looks like we’re moving between the waves somehow. It’s terrifying to look around and see nothing but chaos. We can’t see much beyond the next few steps, and of course who knows how long this path goes? Is it dry the whole way? What’s on the other side…if there is another side? The water is churning and the spray is salty on our lips. But the pillar of the Lord is ahead, so we keep walking, and walking, and walking. Some are trying to run, others are being carried along. It seems this will work best if we all move together.

This will be a story for the ages. Our children’s children will tell about how God made a way, about the mighty power of the Lord who really does act right before our very eyes. They will remember how Moses got his name—because he was drawn out of the water—and then how God brought us to a new home and a new life, right through the water. We will have to remind them that when they cannot see what God is doing, it helped us to remember what God had already done. We will have to remind them that sometimes looking back is more hopeless than looking at the impossible way forward. We will have to remind them that it took everyone moving together to get safely across.

Most of all, we will have to remember that it is one step at a time, through the water into the promise of life in God’s home. It turns out that water wasn’t the death of us after all—it was our path to life instead. God found us, and now we follow.

No looking back now—the water stands between us and the old ways. The only thing to do is to let it wash over, then keep walking, telling the story of how we are up to our eyeballs in grace. This is the day the Lord has made…and though we don’t know where we will be at the end the day, we will still rejoice and be glad in it!

May it be so.


Monday, September 15, 2014

kneads together--a reflection for September 21

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Exodus 16

The Israelites were in the wilderness just six weeks when they started living in the past. Hungry and cranky, realizing they don’t know where they’re going or how they’ll get there or how long it will take, with no established religion or government, no social safety net, and no leftovers—they complain. “If only we had died in Egypt where we sat around and ate as much as we wanted!” (Ah, flawed memories!) But God again listens to their cries and provides abundance they could never have imagined.

This is the central wilderness experience, the first of many lessons in the making of a people. God said, “I will be your God,” called them “my people,” then had to teach them what that means—they had to work the visioning process and discern a mission statement (“Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18) seems pretty good!). They had to wander in order to discover that God would lead them if they would follow. They had to look back without rose-colored glasses so they could look forward with hope. They had to learn that God is love and discern who God was calling them to be. This first lesson is learning to rely on God’s goodness and abundance. It sounds cliché and naïve now, and I suspect then too—but alone out in the desert, the Israelites literally depended on God for their daily bread, their safety, their lives.

Even as they learned the stark truth that we’re all dependent on God despite our perceived independence, they learned of God’s faithfulness. They learned that hoarding doesn’t get us anywhere. They learned that God’s abundance comes along with justice—not whatever I want, but what we, the community, need. They learned to call on God to hold up God’s end of the covenant, and that God will. They started to learn what faithfulness looks like from our side. They learned that they were chosen to be a community of God’s people, a blessing to the world, not just ragtag wanderers. Most importantly, they learned that the journey from “if only” to “I AM” goes through a question: “what is it?”

They weren’t used to being provided for—it takes time to get slavery out of your system, time to turn from Pharaoh’s non-people into God’s people, time to figure out that God is not just another Pharaoh, time to learn trust and reliance, time to know providence—God will provide, even if we don’t recognize that providence at first.

What is it? (manna) turns out to be heavenly, good enough for 40 years of nourishment. The journey from “If only” to “my people,” from whiner to baker, involves lots of “what is it?” Throughout our whole journey God provides, though we may not see, understand or have words for it. God kneads us together, a community learning to trust, learning to look around and ahead rather than only back, learning to bake.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Loving v. Smiting--a friendly debate (sermon)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Loving v. Smiting
Exodus 33.11, Numbers 21.4-9, Isaiah 55.8-9, Ezekiel 34.11-31, Mark 11.12-20, Luke 6.20-26, John 15.9-17, 2 Timothy 3.16-17
24 August 2014, Faith Questions 10

Have you ever noticed how sometimes it seems like God is mean in the Old Testament and all love and peace in the New Testament? I mean, just listen to this.

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

I mean, sure the Israelites were whiny and obnoxious, but even when they said they were sorry, God didn’t take away the snakes—just made a magical statue!

We like to say that God is love, but it seems to me like God is also smiting.

Well, Mike, that’s a pretty great smiting story! It’s hard to believe that story is in our scripture. Aside from it showing God as really short-tempered and vengeful, it’s also pretty weird, don’t you think?
When I think about stories of God and Moses, I like to think of the burning bush, or the ten commandments, or even that part in the wilderness where it says that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” How great is it to think about speaking to God, face to face like a friend?

You know, the Old Testament doesn’t have the monopoly on weird or angry stories. There are some moments when Jesus got pretty upset too. For instance, there was the day…
“when the disciples and Jesus came from Bethany, and Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
   But you have made it a den of robbers.’ 
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.”

Well, yes, Jesus got angry now and then—who doesn’t? When we see injustice, I hope we all get upset and try to do something to change it. Though withering a fig tree for not having any fruit when it’s not fig season does seem a little out of character…maybe Jesus was extra hangry.

But back to the idea that God is mean in the Old Testament—we have to be careful, because it’s a short leap from there to the idea that God and Jesus are different. Remember that God and Jesus are one, along with the Holy Spirit. We can’t separate them, and we know that “The Word was in the beginning with God, and the Word was God.”

I think the context matters. Remember that scripture was written over many years, by many different people listening to the Spirit. Perhaps what changed was not God, but rather the people and their circumstances. Sometimes they needed to hear more about God’s strength and power, and sometimes more about love and mercy. Sometimes they needed a way to understand terrible things happening in their community, and other times they needed comfort. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of God’s love—which is from everlasting to everlasting, as we heard in the psalm at the beginning of worship. It’s hard to imagine people saying that if God was always mean in those days!

There’s a passage of Ezekiel that seems to show God’s love and justice together—remember this was written to people in exile—far from home, they had lost everything.

“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
 As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
 I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.”

Ah, a covenant of peace, a promise of no more hunger, God is our God and we are God’s people.
I also noticed that in the middle there it seemed like God had some things to say about the people trampling on the gifts God gave them. Not only did they not say thank you, they also ruined it for others. Yet the judgment God mentions doesn’t seem to involve casting them out or taking away the green pastures and still waters—instead God renews the covenant, trying again and again to help us understand that God will bring us together, and there’s room in the pasture, plenty of green grass and clean water, plenty of peace and love to go around. God will be our God even when we get it wrong, even when we think we have to hoard rather than share. And when we wander off and get ourselves lost, God will find us and be with us.

That story from Ezekiel reminds me a little of when Jesus said “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

It seems like we’re supposed to come into the pasture and make room for everyone to know God’s friendship and love.

Yeah…but even Jesus had some things to say about when we don’t make room, when we shut people out and perpetuate injustice. We like to talk about God’s blessings, but when Jesus talks about blessing, he’s usually talking about people who don’t look very blessed to us.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. 

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

But Luke goes on to tell us what Jesus said next, and it’s hard news:

‘Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation. 

‘Woe to you who are full now,
 for you will be hungry.

‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

So basically what I’m hearing is that the Old Testament and the New Testament have both smiting and loving? Which is it, then? Is God loving, or will God smite us? Is God our friend, or an angry judge?

God is Love, and those who abide in Love abide in God.
Right now we are experiencing the danger of reading scripture without its context. It’s easy to make it say what we want. So we need to remember that the written word points us to the living Word. In Christ, we see God most perfectly revealed. When we look at the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see a God who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to show us what love really looks like—it’s more than just a warm fuzzy feeling we have for people we like. Jesus also shows us what true justice is, and it has nothing to do with vengeance. Jesus paints a picture of what community is supposed to mean, and the boundaries don’t leave anyone out.

The Bible is our record of life with God—people figuring out what it means to be God’s treasured possession, wondering how to follow God’s path, with both mistakes and successes along the way. Sometimes it feels like God is absent, and sometimes like God is against us, and sometimes like Love infuses the universe. Often God is speaking but the people aren’t paying much attention…much like we often neglect God’s word ourselves. All those experiences are reflected in the library we call the Bible, and they are, according to 1 Timothy, all useful for instruction and correction, so that we will all be equipped for every good work God has in mind for us.

Overall, through the whole library of scripture, the loving outweighs the smiting, for the record. In addition to simply smaller number of instances where God is talked about as smiting versus loving, eternally merciful and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love…there’s also the part where God says that blessings endure to the thousandth generation, while anger lasts only two or three. Even if we take all the angry-God passages literally and out of their historical and literary contexts, we still will run out of anger long before running out of love.

But what about expectations? It seems like those smiting stories always come when the people have disappointed God, or not lived up to the covenant. What about when we don’t measure up?

Can anyone ever measure up? How would that be possible? Since we’re not God, it seems like we can try our hardest and do our best, but we’ll never be good enough.

Don’t you think God loves us even in our imperfection? Surely the God who made us knows we can’t be God ourselves, even though we try. Surely the loving shepherd wants to guide us gently, not beat us with the crook of his staff until we go the right way. Otherwise, why make all those covenants and promises at all? Why both with saying “you are my people and I am your God” if he’s just going to be disappointed all the time?

Friends disappoint each other too…can’t we assume that God is more patient than even our best friend, and more loving than even our best parents? It sounds a little like we’re expecting God to conform to our rules and expectations, to be disappointed by the same things we are, to have the same breaking point we do, to hate the same things we hate. Isn’t this supposed to go the other way—we read scripture and come to church and pray and learn so we can find out how to be more like God, not how to make God more like us.

Now we’ve stumbled right into the heart of the matter—that, as God said to the prophet Isaiah, “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts—for as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” We’ve been talking all this time about how to bring God down to our level, when what God wants is to bring us up to Kingdom level. Perhaps what we see through the whole sweep of scripture is both people trying to make God more human and also God trying to make humans more Christ-like. It does seem like when we try to play God—insisting that God fit our expectations—that’s when we are most likely to be disappointed. How often do we call the result a punishment, a smiting, a sign of God’s displeasure?

I know there are some people sitting here who want me to dismiss all the smiting stories, and others who think we should read them more often so we can scare people into following the rules. Well, we have to take all of scripture seriously—it is God-breathed and useful. The word written and proclaimed is always supposed to point us to the Living Word, because Jesus reveals God to us, in the flesh. And Jesus said “I give you a new commandment—that you love one another as I have loved you.” Since he and the Father are one, starting from “and God saw it was very good” all the way through “I am your God and you are my people” on up to the cross and the empty tomb, then it seems we can trust that God is indeed Love. If we read something in scripture that does not seem to accord with Christ and his commandment, then we need to pray for understanding, for open hearts and minds that can hear the breath of God in the words. Sometimes that understanding comes through knowing the context, sometimes through looking at the bigger picture of God’s story, sometimes through new insight given by the Spirit. Sometimes we don’t get it, because in this life we see through a mirror, dimly, and we have to take a leap of faith until the day we see clearly, face to face.

From the first page to the last page, this is about God’s promise, God’s faithfulness, and God’s hope—seen through the eyes of men and women, poets and prophets, kings and servants, wanderers and builders, dunces and dreamers. In all these people, through all these years, in all these communities, on all these pages, we encounter the God who creates, redeems, and sustains, and who calls us to join in the work. We won’t always get it right, and sometimes we will disappoint each other, but God is in this partnership to the end and has promised to be faithful even when we fail, because there is a world that needs the good news of grace that finds us where we are and transforms us, and the whole world, on the journey.

May it be so. Amen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Five Women--a reflection for August 24

(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)

Exodus 1.8-2.10

A new king arose who didn’t remember Joseph, and along with short historical memory this king has a taste for power and may be a little prone to anxiety. When he looks at census numbers and discovers that ethnic Hebrews outnumber ethnic Egyptians, he sees a recipe for trouble. He imagines the scenario where this all goes horribly wrong and manufactures a political crisis—so easy to do, after all—which he uses to spread his own fear through the whole nation: what if? What if? Soon the Egyptians hate, dread, fear their neighbors, so being ruthless is easy. Plus with enough effort, maybe they’ll begin to think of themselves the way we think of them—less than human.

But no. The spark of hope seems to grow stronger rather than weaker, the Hebrews continue to multiply and to grow. Desperate measures must be taken—Pharaoh orders the first biblically recorded ethnic cleansing campaign. And, of course, he calls on the women, the keepers of life.

These are no ordinary women—these are midwives. These women are charged with bringing life into the world and they aren’t about to follow an order to turn life into death, especially since they serve the God of Life, even Abundant Life. So they continue doing their jobs, just as before, bringing life and love into the world even if it is a world of ruthless oppression. They continue to fan the flame of hope, a small light in an increasingly dark time. They refuse to be intimidated by manufactured crisis, and they blatantly disobey Pharaoh—the earthly authority, who considers himself powerful even over life and death. Soon they end up in the throne room, answering questions.

My favorite part of this story is the midwives’ answer to Pharaoh’s question. “Why have you done this when I told you to kill them??” he asks. Shiphrah and Puah, faced with earthly power, don’t apologize, plead for their lives, nor appeal to religion or politics. They look Pharaoh in the eye and do the last thing we expect of nice, proper ladies—lie! They tell their made-up story convincingly enough that they leave the palace free women, able to continue their lives and their important work.

Soon their work leads infant Moses’ mother and sister straight into Pharaoh’s own household, through the compassionate princess. The hands of women are resourceful and strong, their wills are defiant and ingenious. Well-behaved women rarely make history, while these women allowed God’s history to continue to be made.

Five women who defy expectations, politics, and fear, who choose to live with a little spark of hope rather than giving in to the darkness. Five women upon whose disobedience the entire future of God’s people depends. Some with names long forgotten, some whose names live on in our collective memory. Five women who redeem an entire people with their courage in the face of power—because they live in the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of fear, as an example for us all.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Bad Things, Good People--a sermon

Rev. Teri Peterson
Bad Things, Good People
Luke 18, Romans 8, etc
17 August 2014, Faith Questions 9

The question of why bad things happen to good people is probably as old as questions themselves. From the beginning of time, we have wondered about this problem. The psalms ring out with “how long, O Lord?” The answers usually end up making us sound like Job’s friends, who insist that everything happens for a reason and that God doesn’t give more than we can handle and that it’s a test…and at the end of the story, it’s revealed just how wrong they are. Those answers are more platitude than they are scriptural truth, and that seems to be the case with almost any answer we can come up with—it falls apart with just a few moments of reflection.

But what if we first consider the question itself—Why do bad things happen to good people? The very question implies that there are some people who deserve the bad things that happen to them, and some that do not. Who are the people who deserve what they get? We might protest that this isn’t what we mean when we ask this heart-wrenching question, but it is an assumption behind the words…an assumption that becomes more clear when we wonder “what did I do to deserve this?”

This implication, that some people deserve the bad things life sends their way, leads to 18 year old boys being shot in their streets, and left there for all to see, while others are protected from view or whisked out of town. Michael Brown must have done something to deserve it. It leads to a government official being able to ignore civilian casualties without any outcry at all, because those civilians are the wrong ethnicity and voted for the wrong political party. It leads to total silence when hundreds of girls are abducted from their school and held captive for months, with no end in sight. It leads to characterizing depression as cowardly, selfish, and lazy rather than deadly. It leads to girls being taught to dress carefully so as not to be asking for it.

Some people must deserve the bad things, right? Otherwise, why do we always ask “why do bad things happen to good people?”

In Luke 18, a young man approaches Jesus and asks the eternal question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers him with another question that pulls us up short: “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

This is Jesus: why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

Maybe the question itself is flawed, and that’s why we have so much trouble answering it: bad things happen, period, and there are no people who are exempt from this world’s suffering. This is part of human reality, as Paul wrote to the Romans: “There is no one who is good, not even one. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” None of us can ever be good enough to earn a bubble of protection from the hurts and tragedies of life. Sometimes the bad things are forces of nature, sometimes they are the result of choices we make, or choices someone else makes. Sometimes they are the consequence of choices made generations ago, and sometimes it’s random chance or the vagaries of physics. Accidents happen, nature happens, being in the wrong place at the wrong time happens.

In my experience, when we ask this question, we usually mean something other than what these words actually say. There is a fancy theological word for what we’re trying to talk about: theodicy, which is the problem of why, if God is all good and all powerful, do bad things happen? If God is good and powerful, then why is there cancer? Why are there natural disasters? Why are people prone to violence? Why does the darkness so often seem to obscure the light?

And more to the point: where is God when bad things happen to me, or to people I love? Where is God when the plane goes missing, or the tornado sweeps through town, or the shots ring out in the hallway? Where is God when a loved one can’t remember who you are, or when your child is missing, or when the doctor says “why don’t you have a seat”?

So often we ask ourselves “what did I do to deserve this?” And yet the answer will always be the same: nothing. In Romans 8 we read “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.“

Nothing—no amount of suffering or hardship, no violence, no illness, no darkness, nothing—can separate us from the love of God. Notice that Paul doesn’t say that God’s love will keep us from experiencing hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword. Rather, when we experience those things, God is right there, within and among and around us, living it with us, and loving us through it. It is that love, never ending and always present, that makes it possible for us to say that all things work together for God’s good. Though we cannot see or understand, we know that God is at work, and will never leave us or forsake us. In the words of Psalm 121, “the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” Even when it seems all we have is silence and despair, when we’re just going through the motions, when we feel like God has vanished into thin air, even then every breath is God’s love. Even when we come to the end of our rope, still God is there. In the darkness, God whispers.

Nothing—in life or in death, in the present or in the future, in this world’s systems of injustice or in the world to come—nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That also means that nothing—not skin color, or geography, or cultural difference, not socio-economic status, or language, or political affiliation—should be a reason for denying love to another person. If every person is made in the image of God, is a beloved child of God, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, then it is also our job as the body of Christ to suffer with those who suffer, to weep with those who weep, to rejoice with those who rejoice. Mr. Rogers tells us to look for the helpers, and see God’s face in theirs. I would ask us also to look at the body crumpled in the street, and see Christ’s body there. See the tears of mothers, weeping for their children, and see the tears of the Spirit running down their face. Anytime we imply that someone got what was coming to them, anytime we forget that only God is good, and anytime we participate in a system that dehumanizes another child of God, we need to step back and repent. Nothing can separate us from the love of God—and there is only us, no them.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. We are not God, so we cannot answer why God’s creation includes suffering, or why people insist on defacing the image of God in each other, or why tragedy strikes some and not others. The whole creation groans alongside us, longing for peace and justice. But we can know that we are not alone. There is not an answer, but there is an Answerer, who says I am with you always, even to the end of the age. And the Answerer calls out to us, reminding us to comfort one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to encourage each other, to be doers of the word, to be makers of peace. As we build up the body of Christ, we may just see the face of God, who truly is good, all the time.

May it be so.