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.

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.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

After This Life--a sermon for August 10

Rev. Teri Peterson
After This Life
1 Thessalonians 4.16-18, Revelation 7.9-17, 21.3-6a, Matthew 13.33
10 August 2014, Faith Questions 8

1 Thessalonians 4.16-18
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Revelation 7.9-17, 21.3-6a
 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ 
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Matthew 13.33
Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
When you hear the word heaven, what comes to mind?

For many people, the mental image of heaven is a shining city built on fluffy clouds, with gates of pearl, streets of gold, angels and harps, peace and light, contentment—a place of beauty, wonder, and rest, infused with the presence of God, as a reward for those who are good during this life, or sometimes as a reward for those who suffered a lot in this life.

And when we think about hell, we conjure up images of fire, darkness, and pain, eternal punishment for actions committed during a finite life.

In these mental images, the colors of hell are reds and black, angry and hurtful; the colors of heaven are sun-kissed white and blue and gold.

Of course, these images come to us mostly from medieval artwork, from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and from greeting cards. Since they are about what happens after this life, they are by definition a work of hopeful imagination. Part of what it means to be human is to not know for certain what God has in store when these bodies complete their earthly journey. We don’t know what heaven looks like, or where it might be, or what it will feel like, or who will be there. Those things are the purview of the creator, not the created.

We do know that God does not break promises, and that God’s promise is for life beyond what we can see and peace that passes all understanding. We know that God is the God of the living, and that our knowledge of what constitutes life is sadly limited. So it’s a fairly safe bet that God will keep this promise: that those whom God loves will indeed rest in peace and rise in glory. As for the physical location or interior decoration or musical choices, unfortunately we’ll have to wait and see.

There is a bit of a cottage industry in Near Death Experiences, though. We long for certainty, for a sense of control, and the reports of people who see a warm light, or who visit heaven and see their loved ones and then wake up on earth again, give us a glimpse of what we hope for. To be caught up in the clouds with Jesus and with those we miss so dearly, to join the multitude from every nation in praising God in the city square, to be in a place where every tear is wiped away—who doesn’t want that? We cling to reports that it is true, because it is so hard to trust a promise we cannot see. It is comforting to know that someone has seen, it makes believing a little bit easier, and somehow makes powering through this life seem more worthwhile.

Interestingly, the early church didn’t focus much on the afterlife. It’s a rare topic in Jewish scripture, and a rare topic for Jesus. Paul talks about it in the context of communities who believed that Jesus would return very soon—and who worried about people who died while they were waiting. And the early church knew that Revelation was a book mostly written in code designed to allow them to tell their story of persecution, and to give them hope in the midst of horror. It wasn’t until the middle ages that images of an afterlife became common. When Christianity had taken over the European continent, and Charlemagne had become the first Holy Roman Emperor, and the vast majority of people were living as serfs, in abject poverty, with incredible suffering as their day-to-day reality—that is when the Church began to teach most about the afterlife, especially as a reward or consequence for this life. It was a way to remind people that though things were terrible, better days were ahead. That use of God’s promise as a way to manipulate people into accepting horrible conditions persisted right through the transatlantic slave trade and even beyond. In fact, it is still in use as a way to suggest that people living in poverty or suffering abuse are earning a reward in heaven, which lets the rest of us off the hook for solving problems of injustice or helping our neighbors.

It is never okay to use God’s promises to manipulate people or to perpetuate injustice. It is never okay to use God’s promises as an excuse for inaction in the face of suffering.

The promise of life abundant is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off—everyone the Lord our God shall call. The reading today from Revelation gave us a glimpse of people from every tribe gathered together, of a world with no hunger and no thirst and no sorrow. Notice the reading didn’t say anyone had earned it—God is the one who sets the table and invites whomever God pleases. All things will be made new—some things little by little, some things all at once. And that promise is both for now and for after. And God keeps promises—every time. Some of those times, God uses us to fulfill the promise for others. Some of those times, miracles happen. Some of those times, we get a glimpse of what is to come, and sometimes we power through in faith.

Is anyone wondering about those first 800 years, before the afterlife became a way to placate people in the midst of this life? What did the early church teach about heaven?

Based on artwork and writings, it seems that they taught something much like what Jesus says in that one verse we heard from Matthew—the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into flour until all of it was leavened. When a person was baptized, they came up out of the water and the first image they would see was of the Garden of Eden—of paradise, which they were now entering. Their calling as Christians was to be the yeast that makes this world into paradise. The gathered church was living already in the kingdom of God, in paradise that was basically invisible, but all can see the results. Yeast gets all mixed in, and we cannot separate it from the flour, but we can see it working. In the same way, the promise of heaven: we cannot separate it from this life, but we can see it working.

At the end of the movie Heaven is for Real, the pastor and father whose child had a near death experience and visited heaven preaches a sermon in which he asks the question: IS heaven for real? He answers it by saying yes, it is, and we get glimpses of it every day: in the smile of a stranger, in acts of kindness and justice, in the touch of loved ones. It’s just that we’re too busy living as if heaven is not for real, as if we have some level of control over God’s promise, and we miss those glimpses. And here’s the kicker: what we believe determines what we see. Do we want to see God’s promise at work in small yeasty ways right now? Or do we want to think God’s promise is only for after this life? Do we want to see opportunities to be agents of God’s mission, or do we want to insist it’s not our job?

Jesus said that the kingdom of God is here, is at hand, is nearby. After his ascension, the disciples stand staring up at the clouds, and I imagine their longing was similar to ours—take us with you, let us see the kingdom that is coming, set our feet on lofty places. Yet the instructions from the angels start with “why are you standing here looking up?” They are supposed to go back to the city, full of people created and loved by God.

What if heaven is so close we could touch it, but we’re so busy looking forward to it that we’re missing it? Instead of constantly looking toward the sky, let’s try trusting God’s promise—for a future with hope, for our welfare not for our harm, for life abundant both now and after, for all the tribes gathered together at one table, for peace that passes all understanding. We may just catch a glimpse of heaven.

May it be so.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

breaking point--a sermon on forgiveness and sin

Rev. Teri Peterson
Breaking Point
Luke 15.20b-24, Matthew 18.21-22
3 August 2014, Faith Questions 7

(A young man made some questionable choices along his life’s path…) While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Over the years I have noticed that sin is simultaneously a wildly unpopular topic and something we love to talk about. I mean, when it comes to other people, particularly people with whom we disagree or people we fear, we stand ready to explain their sinfulness from multiple angles. But considering our own sin—especially in any way that might require us to relinquish privilege or change profitable behavior—is the last thing on most of our minds. Even those of us who think about our wrongdoing are only occasionally willing to repent—to turn around and go another way. The Hebrew word for repent—shuv—literally means to turn your body around and go in a different direction. The Greek word, metanoia, is about changing heart and mind, thinking differently, believing differently, loving differently, living differently.

Differently from what? What is sin anyway? I think the classic definition of “things that separate us from God” can be helpful, except that then we run straight into Romans 8, where Paul declares that nothing can separate us from God’s love. So God’s love is always present, in and through and among us, and we can’t do anything to stop that. We can, however, miss it. We can feel separated, as if there are barriers between us. Nothing can change the fact of God’s love, but many things change or even block our experience of love and our response to God. Those things that block us from experiencing God’s grace and responding to it with gratitude—those are sin. And they grow out of a human reality—that all have sinned and fall short. It is not possible for us to shed that second nature of brokenness.

We know that our calling as human beings made in the image of God is to reflect the glory of God into the world. We also know that we are like broken mirrors—we reflect a cracked, distorted, and incomplete image. Because of the cracks, sometimes the choices we make lead to more brokenness, rather than more healing. In many ways, we can’t help it. In the 7th chapter of Romans Paul talks about how he does the very thing he does not want to do, and he can’t help himself. Only through Christ working in him is he ever able to make a good decision or do a good work. Under his own power, sin will always rule.

If this line of thinking makes you uncomfortable, just wait. Because while I’ve noticed that we don't much like talking about sin, I’ve also noticed that there’s something we are even more uncomfortable with. It seems odd and I’m still very curious about why this is, but I think it’s true: we are incredibly uncomfortable with forgiveness. The concept of forgiveness breaks all our rules of fairness and stomps on our hopes for vengeance. And while we might even be okay with the idea that we should work to forgive one another, we have real problems with the idea that God might just be in the business of forgiving more than we would.

An example, from a story many of us know—that story of the boy who asks for his inheritance, runs away and squanders it all with bad choices, and whose father is waiting for him, watching out the window, running down the road to meet him as soon as he sees the clouds of dust rising behind his steps. So often we read that as being about God the Father—who watches for our return and greets us with an extravagant party. Yet how often are we the next character in the story—the older brother who is bitter and angry that he, who followed the rules, didn’t get a party? He stands outside, listening to the music but refusing to go in because he can’t believe his father would be so forgiving—not even listening to the younger brother’s repentant speech before starting the grill.

How long did the younger brother wait before acting on his hope that his father would be forgiving? How long did the older brother stand outside fuming and disbelieving? How often do we decide what God’s breaking point must be, and live by that, rather than simply coming in the house?

When Peter asked Jesus how many times he was to forgive another person, Jesus answer was preposterous—77 times? or in some translations, 70 times 7? Some commentators say this is an indication that forgiveness is hard work—that it might take 77 steps, or 490 little daily efforts, to truly forgive someone. That is probably true. But I also wonder if it isn’t a lesson for us who seek to be transformed ever more into Christ’s likeness—we are to practice forgiveness over and over and over, until we lose count, because that’s what God is like.

What if God has no breaking point? What if the whole reason that God is God and we are not, the whole reason that eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was enough to get Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden, is precisely because God knows that we humans do have a breaking point—a point when we cannot take any more, when it is healthier for us to step away, create boundaries, leave abusive situations, stand up to bullies. Sometimes the first step we humans can possibly make toward forgiveness is to leave a situation or relationship. But God doesn’t need that—God is relationship, is love, in essence and by definition.

No wonder we don’t like to think about this—it puts God in such a different category from us, a category that refuses to be defined by our ability or our judgment. The idea that God has no breaking point, that forgiveness is possible over and over, that love is present all the time no matter what we do, that all people are broken mirrors and God chooses to use us to reflect the divine image anyway—this reality means that God is outside our control. And part of our sinfulness is that we desperately want to be in control. Isn’t that what the younger brother and the older brother both wanted? Isn’t that what Peter wanted? Isn’t that what Adam and Eve wanted? What Paul lamented? Control. Perhaps that is the true original sin.

But whatever form that takes in our lives, there is a greater reality, something planted more deeply in human beings, and in all creation, a force well beyond our understanding and beyond our capability: for God is love. Whether we like it or not, whether we comprehend or not, and whether we are willing to be forgiven or not, God’s love is all about the seventy times seven, the preposterous grace that makes life possible. What would happen if we lowered our barriers, opened our eyes, practiced the kind of forgiveness Jesus talked about rather than the kind we think we deserve, and lived as if grace and gratitude were from the same root?

May it be so.