Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Living by a Different Story - Matthew 3:13-17

     This morning you have been invited by our first reading to attend a baptism. You know baptism is a very important part of our faith. All four gospels include the story of John the Baptist. Today, we read from Matthew’s gospel about John baptizing Jesus. This is the same Matthew who will end his gospel telling his disciples to go into the world, making disciples and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So  baptism is no small matter in our faith; it is an essential part. But I am not sure we know how to act at a baptism.

We know better how to go to weddings and funerals. We know the ways we are supposed to dress for each of those special occasions and how to act: happy and smiles at weddings and respectful and somber at a funeral. People usually arrive early for funerals and weddings - no one wants to walk in late. “He’d be late for his own funeral,” people use to joke about a guy I once knew. And he was. The hearse broke down and got to the church late. People just loved it. “Hank was late for his own funeral.” All-day, everyone chuckled about that one. People are still talking about it. I also know a pastor, who on a Saturday afternoon pulled up to a gas station owned by one of his members, and the member of his church said, “Pastor, aren’t you suppose to be doing that wedding right now?” It happens.

But a baptism, we don’t usually make as much fuss about, except for the family of an infant being baptized. It is a big deal with relatives coming from all over, often a baptismal gown, pictures after the baptism, and plans for lunch. However, sometimes the many meanings of baptism and the implications for our lives get lost.

So, I invite you to pay special attention to the baptism we are witnessing this morning. In the baptism to which we have been invited, it is Jesus who is being baptized. You may wonder why it is that Jesus needs to be baptized. Isn’t baptism about the forgiveness of sins? How does that apply to Jesus? Isn’t baptism about the death of our old self and rising and being incorporated into the body of Christ? Why does Jesus need to be incorporated into His own body?

          One answer to these questions is that Jesus steps in line with the rest of us so that He reveals His full willingness to join all of us in our humanity. He does not try to stand apart as better than. One day when someone calls him “Good Teacher,” Jesus will correct him and say, “Only God is good.” But there is another focus to this baptism that is important for all of us as well, and that is what happens after Jesus is lifted up out of the water. Jesus comes out of the water and something like a dove descends and falls upon Him. A voice from heaven speaks words of powerful blessing, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”

Jesus is being called into His ministry and beginning His ministry with a baptism, and the voice of God blesses Him. Baptism is also an initiation rite. It marks a new beginning. And that beginning begins with a blessing. If you ever wonder about how Jesus could achieve what He achieved, could endure what he endured, then you might pay special attention to these words of God spoken to Him at His baptism. It is no accident that His baptism precedes his temptation. Everything in His life depends on His hearing and taking to heart these words of blessing. Jesus’ rejection by many leaders of His faith, His times of disappointment with His disciples, betrayal and abandonment and crucifixion, are times He will remember that trusting his blessing will see Him through.

       However, we would be mistaken if we believe that these words from God were meant only for Jesus. Knowing our propensity to sin and all of our own inadequacies, we might want to add a word or two to our blessings before we can hear it spoken to each of us, “Through my grace and forgiveness, you are my blessed son or daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.” But I caution you not to forget that Jesus too would have begun his ministry with feels of his own vulnerability and inadequacies or else he was not a real human being.  Jesus and we both need the same thing in our lives if we are to live a meaningful faith. We need to know that there is a different story that defines who we are and what our purpose is than the one imposed on us by the world around us.

There are so many ways the world we live in communicates that, in one way or another, we are not accepted. Sometimes the world does not like us and approve of us, pointing its accusing finger of judgment at us. It is not easy to hold our heads up and maintain our self-esteem in times like that. The interior echo chambers of our hearts have a brutal way of echoing the negative voices of judgment that are everywhere to be found. But if your heart is still soft enough and your heart  is open, you hear that voice of God, “You are my beloved Son, my beloved daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.” Nothing in this world can take that affirmation away from you.

There is a wonderful book I have taught a class on called “Practicing Your Faith,” by Dorothy Bass. In the chapter on “Loving Your Body,” there is a story of a young girl who was plagued by outbreaks of acne. One day, she felt unable to leave the house because of anguish over her face. They must have been a particularly devout Christian family, so what the father did next would not have struck his daughter as so terribly odd. He led his daughter to the bathroom and asked if he could teach her a new way to wash. He leaned over the sink and splashed water over his face, telling her, "On the first splash, say, ‘In the name of the Father’; on the second, ‘in the name of the Son; and on the third, ‘in the name of the Holy Spirit.’ Then look up into a mirror and say to yourself, 'I am a child of God, full of grace and beauty.” For the rest of her life this girl, now a woman has remembered and practiced that blessing that comes from her baptism. It will get you through life, you know.

He is someone’s grandson. He is someone’s beloved son. He is sixteen-years-old, and he walks down the hallways of his school and on Sunday mornings into the sanctuary of his church with a secret to hide. It is a secret that confuses him and never goes away from his thoughts for very long. The longer it stays a secret, the more shame it gathers. When the other students joke with him about anything, he is afraid they know his secret. He is told that anyone who has feelings like him is “unnatural,” so he tries his best to put them out of his mind and to just find a way to fit in. But it just doesn’t work, try as hard as he does. He feels a moral failure, a flawed human being. He thinks sometimes seriously of ending his life that that is the only way out, but he doesn’t want to, he just wants the find a way to feel ok and apart.

The last thing he needs when he walks through the doors of the sanctuary of the church is to hear some of the same judgments of the world on the lips of his pastor and members of his church. What he needs to hear is not that he is an abomination to God but the words of his baptism, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Those are the only words that are going to save him. He needs a different story from the world around him by which to live.

One of my favorite people in the world was an older woman I knew when I was a pastor in Shelby, Mississippi. Ms. Emma was well-liked in our small town, but most people thought her a strange one. She had outlived two husbands, and after the last husband passed away, she started painting again, something she had not done much since graduating college with a fine arts degree. Like many artists, she looked out at the world and saw shapes and colors and life from a different vantage point. I suppose that made her weird from most folk's point of view. For me, it just made her more interesting.

Emma’s caretaker, yardman, and culinary chef was the same person whom she had grown up playing in the yard behind her antebellum home. His dad had been the caretaker for Emma’s family, and his grandfather the caretaker of the generation before that. One wondered how far back the relationship between these two families went. Slavery days? He lived in the well-maintained shack behind the house until he went through an illness and Emma had him move into the house where she nursed him back to health. When I was there, he would bring out the meal from the kitchen to a formal dining table where we were seated for lunch. Truth be told they were the best of friends. Many wondered about them and use to talk about it. It was not the usual thing for a woman of their generation and social group to be living in the same house with a man of another race. Like I said, Ms. Emma had a different way of looking at things.

So you would not be surprised that people found her spirituality rather odd as well. She is what I could call a mystical Christian, one who looked out to the world and saw that life was a united whole, with Christ at the center holding everything together in reverent love. Most could not understand exactly what Ms. Emma meant when she talked about her faith, so that when she stopped talking there would be an awkward silence, as people tried to make sense of what she had just said and quickly change the subject.

Once a year, Emma would go to the baptismal service. The congregation marched down to the river singing the old spirituals, “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside…”.

They would get down to the river and the singing continued until the preacher was out waist-deep in the water. Looking at those to be baptized, he asked them,
 "Are you ready to give up your old ways and become new in Jesus?”
“Yes, we are.” they responded.
“Are you ready to be made beloved children of God?”
“Yes, we are.” came the response.
“Hold your breath and count to ten,” he said. “By the authority given me by God, I baptize you in the name of the Father...in the name of the Son...in the name of the Holy Ghost.”

Each new child of God coming up from the water with smiles on their faces to shout of "Amen's" and songsof praise.

        Ms. Emma would go home after the baptisms and start painting. One of those paintings was a large canvas painting of the baptismal scene. The figures were large and deeply spiritual. You could make out with clarity the black faces and the muscular arms of the preacher and the congregant about to be dipped into the muddy swamp water. Both were dressed in pure white and brilliant blue baptismal robes, and the woman being baptized wore a white turban. The painting captured the pain and burden in the faces of these descendants of slavery. But it also transported them to a different reality. Ms. Emma painted them as see-through figures, transcendent spirits. As real and concrete as the figures were portrayed, they also were transparent figures, as much spirits as bodies. You get that they have a second identity that the world does not usually see.

  You see Ms. Emma's painting of these people and you understand how they survived hundreds of years of brutal slavery and what came after. “They had a different story they lived by.” In the same way, people thought Ms. Emma odd. And indeed she was. She just had a different story she lived by.

       This morning you are invited to a baptism: your own baptism. You are invited to remember the blessing of that baptism: “You are my beloved daughter (son) with whom I am well-pleased.” You are invited to hear that blessing to hear it again, and again, and again, because it might be just what gets you through. It is a different story to live by.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

An Odd Man with Something to Say

I really do not know what they saw in John the Baptist that attracted droves of people to go out and hear him. He is such a strange man. A man dressed in animal skins wrapped in a leather belt, and eating locust far on the outskirts of town in a forsaken place. If you ask me, it has the making of a circus freak show.  

  Perhaps the fact that the place was hard to reach was part of the attraction. I know where I grew up that the most successful restaurants were either outside of town, out in the country, or several miles away in an old dying town in one of the abandoned storefronts. People seem to want an excuse to get out of town and find something different.  

Maybe it was the drama and the emotions that he exhibited in his preaching. I know people in my home church still talk about Rev. Glenn, who had a booming voice, and could be quite loud and emotional in his preaching. One second he would have us laughing with him, and then a bit later, his eyes were full of tears that caused us to cry with him. People want to know that there is genuine conviction and feeling in a preacher, just as they want that from a soloist singing a moving song.

But maybe they came because he was a strange man with something to say. Desperate people beg for a new voice that will speak to their unfulfilled hopes and dreams. How many hundreds of years had their nation been occupied by a foreign government that was oppressing them with their taxes and defiling their religious values? There had to be some kind of pain and struggle to cause people to listen to this man. A man who was willing to point out their sins to their face and daring them to entertain that something new was happening - different from before - fulfilling what seemed impossible. They came to hear one whom the prophets had foretold would come, “the voice that cries out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight.”

He proclaimed a baptism of the repentance of sins as a way to prepare the way for the one who he said was far greater than himself. According to all four gospels, he was only a prophet who came on stage to warm up the crowd for the main attraction, the coming Messiah. He preached the necessity of coming clean and repenting of the wrong directions they had been taking in their lives. Only then would they be ready to receive the greater One who was to come and bring healing to the nation and to their lives.

Repentance can mean many different things to people. It can be naming something concrete that you have been doing that needs forgiveness and change. I know some of you are former Catholics who could probably tell me a thing or two about the experience of going to confession. Many have told me how much they dreaded having to walk in to the confessional and confess their dreadful little sins through a screen to the priest hidden on the other side. 
But one Catholic woman told me about a wayward Catholic friend of hers that had not gone to church for many years. Once she started her confession about the way she had lived her life, she could hardly stop crying. The priest on the other side kindly listened to her sob out her sins and then lovingly gave her an act of penitence, "she was to search for Christ's love within herself." How lovely and loving. That phrase, “to search for Christ's love within herself,” gained new meaning when she soon after discovered that she was pregnant. She and her boyfriend married, had 5 children together, and a happy marriage.

I know that it's not only Catholics who need to name, clearly and specifically, the ways they have been living that have betrayed their better self and caused harm. Sometimes when I travel, I just want to get away from it all. If I am sitting next to someone, the last thing I want to do is tell them that I am a pastor. It usually carries lots of baggage for people. Some will clam up and quickly go back to reading their book, or maybe apologize for a curse word they had used. There have been times when the opposite happens, and they seize the opportunity to make an informal confession. I remember one particularly bumpy flight where this happened. It made complete sense. I mean, you are traveling hundreds of miles an hour in a relatively tiny tin can, 30,000 feet above God’s good earth. You have a person who is trained to hear confessions sympathetically, and you don’t have to give him your name or ever see him again. It makes sense. Confession, when done freely, is good for the soul. As it was for that person who confessed to me.

However, repentance has a broader and deeper meeting than naming what is wrong with you. The word means a turning away from one direction and going in a new direction. It implies not just a list of what you have done wrong, as helpful as that can be, but a complete change of direction. Repentance means a reorientation of your life. You let go of something that you need to be free from and then have a new conviction to travel in a different direction with your life. It involves not just a change of behavior but also of heart and mind and soul. It is to seek to live out the way of God’s justice and peace in all your relationships and in your social, political, and faith convictions. In reality, it is a gift from God - because only God’s grace can empower us to be forgiven and turn a new direction. That is why John baptized. In baptism, the old self is buried, and a new self is born.

Several weeks ago, while I was down in Biloxi with our mission group doing the back-breaking work of stripping off old roof shingles and nailing down new ones, my father and mother-in-law came to spend the week with Marla and the kids. Butch was a corn and bean farmer in southeast Iowa and also worked for the power company repairing power lines. Somehow he managed to make it out alive from not one but two of the most dangerous vocations you can do: farming and working high-up on power lines. That is because he knows what he is doing and is committed to doing it right. He is good with his hands and does not mind getting dirty. If something is broken, he knows what to do and will work patiently and methodically to fix it. It is what he is good at and what he likes to do.  

He is not one who sits down on the couch and fills the room with lots of conversation. He is good for a joke or two or stumping the kids and myself with riddles he has come up with. He especially likes to see me struggle to figure out his riddles. I think maybe it is to remind me that just because I have two graduate degrees does not make me all that smart. Smarts come in many varieties.

So before he visits, it is my job to prepare for his coming. I need to list all the things in my house that have broken since the last time he came. This time I started my list: the ice dispenser in my refrigerator door, a leak in a faucet, the broken light fixture in the basement, to name a few. When I come home, I am delighted to discover that lots of those things that have been disturbing me for some time have now been repaired and made like new. But almost every time, I come home and realize that I have forgotten to tell him about something that really needed to be repaired. “Oh, I forgot to tell him about that electric plug!”

Today we hear, as we always do each Advent, about that strange man who has something to say to us. We are given an intentional time to reflect on the most important preparations we need to make for Christmas. It is not putting up the Christmas tree, or sending out the Christmas cards, nor is it making sure your gift buying is done on time. It is cultivating a place in our hearts for us to receive the One who comes to make us well - to make us and our world whole again. It is His grace that will save us - but only if we use the grace being given to us to lovingly look within ourselves for what needs to be turned away from and what we need to turn our lives towards.

Christ is coming to heal us - it is what He does - it is what He is good at doing.  
Let us make preparation for Christmas. Amen.

Allen Mothershed - St. Matthew United Church of Christ - Advent 2 - December 8, 2019

Friday, November 15, 2019


Below is from a sermon I once preached, with credit to Barbara Brown Taylor’s insights and words.

The scene that cold winter evening is anything but touching, unless you count the pressing of strangers against you in a town that is overflowing with people.  None of the people that night in Bethlehem really wanted to be there.  They are there because the emperor told them they had no choice but to be there to register themselves so that his henchmen could tax them with oppressive taxes few poor people could afford. There would have been a sea of people all clamoring for food to eat and a warm place out of the winter chill.  Of all the people that night who needed to be touched it would have been Joseph and Mary, with Mary full with child after a long day of travel.  For some reason, the inn keeper was touched, touch at least enough to provide for them a place to stay in the stables where the sheep are sheltered off the busy streets and out of the cold winter wind.

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

And this is the story of the birth of our savior.  This is not the story, like any other.  This story does not match the ancient story of how savior kings make their entry into the world.  Savior kings come into the world with great pomp and celebration, their birth announced loudly to royals and nobles.  Savior kings are born into palaces, surrounded by the most important people. They are born with armies they one day will lead with the promise by all their wealth and their strength they will be in a position to somehow lead and force the changes to the world.

When we are honest this is what we often want from God.  We want the great God Almighty, Lord of the Universe in all his power to reach down into our lives and into this world and touch us. We want to find a way in our lives to transport ourselves into a place of heavenly bliss.  Our dreams of heaven are an ethereal place of escape, off in the sky above life’s troubles and concerns.  We imagine a place where there simply are no jobs to do, no bills to pay, no troublesome relationships to negotiate.  We imagine a space where the body does not have its aches and pains, where sickness cannot longer touch us and those we are loved.  Salvation is an escape from our problems and we imagine it happening by a mighty act from Almighty God above.

But this is not the vision of our Christmas story of Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus lying in a manger.  This child has made his way from heaven to earth, not in power and might, but in a way that is to open our hearts in love and joy.  As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “None of heaven’s escalators are going up tonight.  Everybody up there is coming down tonight, right here, right into our own Bethlehem, bringing us the God who has decided to make his home in our arms.”  And this is love.

Blessings to all this Holiday Season.

Pastor Allen

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Digital Self Verses Body Self

I am a gadget guy. My attention is easily captured by news articles parading the newest technological developments. I feel rather shallow confessing this slight obsession and distraction. But it’s true I am impressed by innovation, especially new phones with fantastic battery life or extraordinary cameras superior to many SLR cameras. I’m drawn to simplicity and elegant design, maybe because I’m not so technologically savvy. You have to keep it simple for me.  

Just this week, the Apple credit card took over my thoughts until I applied for one. This seemed to be a no-brainer: no late fees, annual fees, or international fees, lower interest rates, a running account of spending color-coded with graphs, and payments made with a click of a button. I’m overlooking my concern that a massive corporation is attempting to suck up even more power and wealth.

I worry about that. I wonder if we will find a way to break up such power and make sure such companies attend to the common good, like paying a fair share of taxes, paying their people a just wage, and caring for the environment. But hey, I do not want to miss out, and this innovation is rather brilliant. Brilliance and convenience draw me in.

More concerning is how depersonalized we are becoming with new technology and social media. This past week, I read a New York Times commentary by Bianca Vivian Brooks. On her blog, she had amassed, for almost a decade, a large number of followers. She reached a point where she realized it had to end. Her private life was being sacrificed for her public one. Her digital self was minimizing her body self. She says, “Social media is no longer a mere public extension of our private socialization; it has become a replacement for it. What happens to our humanity when we relegate our real lives to props for the performance of our virtual ones?”

It’s a warning for us not to lose the essential self that is incarnated in a body that can be seen, known, and hugged. When someone laughs, I want to hear it and join the laughter, not type LOL. When someone cries, I want to hand them a tissue, not type a sad face meme on a computer. We are flesh and blood, and we do not fully encounter each other until we are present with our whole self.

John’s gospel begins with an amazing affirmation of our body self. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We are not a spirit up in the sky or electronic data on a server. May our “word” not be disembodied and lost as electronic pulses in the never-lands of the web, but embodied in living and breathing, flesh and blood in relationship to each other.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Where Did We Come From? Genesis 1 A sermon

Where Did We Come From?
Genesis 1-2:4

“Where are you from?” It is a question we ask each other early on when we are just meeting someone new. “Where are you from?” It is a wonderful question to ask, especially if you are like me from the South, where we have a way of looking to the past to discover who we are. 

Asking the question may spark another connection we share with the person we met. I remember asking it of a waiter I once had in Chicago, whose accent had hints of a Southern origin. He said, “Oh, you would not know the little town I am from.” I said, “Try me.” He said, I am from a little town in the Mississippi Delta called Shelby, Mississippi.” I said, “Really, you are from Shelby?”  He said, “You are not about to tell me you know where Shelby is!” I said, “Know where it is? I lived there for three years and served as the pastor of the United Methodist church there!” Next thing you know, we opened up a whole world of things to share with each other. People we knew. Places we shopped. What we’ve heard had happened there since we both left.

Now there is a more profound and important question to ask: “Where are we from?” How did we get here? Why are we here? What’s our story of origin as a human race, a creation? Is there a shared story that we can find together that will orientate our lives and help us to see what we have in common?  

To answer those questions, we Christians and also Jews have always turned to the story of Creation from Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit from Genesis 2. We orientate ourselves and find out why we are the way we are by finding ourselves in these larger stories.  
How is there such beauty, wonder, and order in this world? Where did it all come from? There is a God who spoke creation into being out of chaos and called it good. Why is it we have this longing within ourselves to hear the voice of God and to know God? Well, because there was a time when we walked together with God in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Why do we keep doing things that are not good for us? Well, because we still have a seed of that “forbidden fruit caught in our teeth somewhere, a fruit so delicious and ruin all at once that we cannot get the taste out of our mouths” as Barbara Brown Taylor says it (see reference below). 

We do not have the only creation story. There are creation stories from all parts of the world and in most religious traditions. The Potawatomi Nations of the Great Lake region of North American has a creation story. One version of that story which I found on the web says that the Great Creator (who had created everything) told Anishinaabe to go throughout the world and to name everything. During his wanderings, he realized that he was the only species that did not have a mate, and he was lonely. His travels took him to the Great Lakes, where he heard a song coming across the lake. A woman was singing about making a home for him. He fell in love with the song and the woman. He learned how to cross the river and married the woman, The Fire-keeper’s Daughter. They had four sons who went out in the four directions on the earth and populate the world.  

One native American story-teller told his creation story and when he had finished he said, “Now I do not know whether this really happened…but it is true.” I like that. Our story of creation is not meant to tell us the scientific how of creation but the who and the why. We waste so much energy in our faith when we feel a need to defend our creation story from scientific understandings of our origin. Our creation stories offer us a comprehensive way to understand our relationship to God, each other, and ourselves.  They offer us something that science cannot offer.  

Today as more people are inclined to reject religion, many are finding a need for something that will replace religious belief and practice.  They would like a way that is consistent with science and does not require a belief in God. They value the lessons we are learning from science. They understand the importance of knowing that we live in a universe which is inseparably connected, a sort of dynamic luminous web, in which all the creation moves in an ongoing dance with everything else. They value the idea that we can no longer act as we please and not have what we do reverberate throughout creation in harmful ways. 

As helpful as this new freedom is proving for many, there are limits to what a scientific view can offer. As one thoughtful advocate of a secular approach to life confessed on a TED talk, people are only beginning to attempt to construct a system of thought that can replace all that religion provides for us. He acknowledges that religious faith offers a comprehensive story with rituals and practices and a community joined in a moral purpose that is not easily replicated by those wanting a secular religion.  

This morning we have read poetry together in our Old Testament reading about the creation of the world by God our Creator. The writer, probably a priest or a group of priests around 500 B.C., tells us that God is a master worker, an artist.  
  • God separates the waters on the earth from the waters in the dome of the earth.  
  • God separates the waters of the seas from the dry land of the earth. 
  • God creates all sort of vegetation, trees, fruit and seeds. 
  • God creates the light of the sun for the day and the light of the moon for the night and the seasons of the year.   
  • God then creates swarms of living things from the water in the oceans and the flying birds of the air who populate the dome of the earth.  
  • And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’
  • Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; male and female, God created them.'  
According to this story of creation, God created order out of chaos. God speaks into the preexistent chaos and the formless void, like an artist working with a messy lump of clay. God shapes and forms and breathes life into it, and something beautiful and magnificent is created. Each day God finishes the work and takes a look at what has been created and declares, “It is good.” God does this until the seventh day and we are told that God says “this is very good, very good indeed!” And then God takes a well deserved rest and appreciates what has been achieved.  

We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing the beauty of this poetry that we may not fully understand its purpose and power for those who lived some 2500 years ago. It was likely written in a time when the Jewish people were being held in captivity by the Babylonians who had enslaved them. They were living in a chaotic time. There was enough disorder and loss of control that the people of God were grasping for something they could believe in and hold on to. Politically and socially, everything was up in the air for them. Maybe there is no Lord; only the gods of Babylonia are the real gods (John Buchanan - see below)

In that circumstance, a priest, some group of priests, had a clear revelation of truth from God. It was a breathtaking affirmation, one almost too wonderful to be believed. The creation is fundamentally good in its essence. The creation is good because the one who created everything was good. Not only is the creator good, the creator is powerful enough bring order out of chaos, to shape and form life from lifelessness. This creation has purpose and its purpose is love and relationship. We are placed on this earth to take care of one another as God cared for Adam and Eve, and as Adam and Eve cared for the creation.  

This has profound implication for how we understand ourselves and how we choose to live. If we believe this story, life at its core is good and everything has great value. Physical reality is good, our bodies are good, our desires and pleasures are good, life is good. Our problem is NOT that we are “bad to the bone.” There is no doctrine of original sin in the Bible. Yes, we have a problem with sin, but it is not that we are fundamentally flawed. It has to do that we have forgotten our original blessing. We have forgotten that we have come from love, and for love we were created.  We forget that we are in the hands of a loving God who brings order and life out of chaos and we are God’s partners in this world to the same.  
I doubt we understand what an outrageous affirmation this is. Other people did not believe this. No one believed creation is good. "Life is mean and short, full of injustice, suffering and death. No one believed that human beings were responsible agents, GodΚΌs partners in the management of creation. Everybody knew human beings were insignificant, unimportant, living and dying at the whim of the gods.”

I believe if we are honest, we still find it difficult to dare to believe the truth of such a hopeful affirmation. We have a way of seeing the bad in ourselves and the bad, especially, in others. The good is hard to see and affirm so much of the time. It takes a real leap of faith to believe otherwise. We are more acquainted with the chaos in ourselves, others, and the world. We see the fragility of life. We know something about a hurricane in paradise; that a virus can get loose; that bees in the world are dying; that extinction is accelerating at a break-neck speed; that a meteorite can be hurling towards the earth; that mushroom clouds could one day been seen around the world.

On a personal level we know what can go wrong. Just hearing the word “cancer” is a reminder of how fragile we are. We experience the goodness of life and love the order that we have, but we know out on the edges lives chaos.  

What can we do? We can meditate. In our faith, we can take a stroll in the garden with God and be reminded of the paradise that has been given to us and the goodness of our lives and the One who has created life for us.  

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and the darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the earth. And God said, Let there be light…Let there be land…Let there be plants…Let there be animals. Let us make humankind in our own image, male and female, and give them responsibility, and God said, "It is good. It is very good!”  

“Love dispels all fear,” the little book of 1st John says at the other end of our Bible. I’ve got those words etched into my wedding rings. I keep them with me all the time. It’s a sort of mantra, a repetitive phrase or song that reminds me of what I believe. I don’t want to forget. There is so much in this world that can take me away from what I dare to believe is true.  

Then sometimes, when I feel like a little boy walking in the dark where the shadows are growing large, I start to sing.

“He’s got the whole world in his hands, He’s got the whole world in his hands, He’s got the whole world in his hands, he’s got the whole world in his hands.”

“He’s got you and me sister in his hands, He’s got you and me sister in his hands. He’s got you and me sister in his hand. He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Amen. 

Barbara Brown Taylor, “This Way Home,” November 4, 2012, National Cathedral Archives.
John Buchanan, “Can I Trust God and Science,”  September 19, 1999, Fourth Presbyterian Church Archives. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Clearing the Smoke of Sodom and Gomorra: Genesis 18:20 to 32

I suppose most of us had our moments when we were in school when we were less than proud of our work. One of my moments like that was when I was in theology school. I attended Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, in part because it had a distinguished faculty. In fact, the premier professor of New Testament and preaching had recently joined the faculty. There were students from all over the country who were attending Candler because Fred Craddock was on the faculty. In his generation, he was the one person who, more than any other, changed the way we pastors preach, and he was a masterful teacher.   

As you might understand, it was just a tiny bit intimidating to preach one of your first sermons in front of him. Because I thought it an interesting story, for my first sermon I chose to preach on the story in Genesis where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. It did not go so well. When I got into the room to look at the video tape of my sermon with Dr. Craddock, he began mercifully by saying, “I think we both know that your sermon did not work. But let us look at what you did well first.” He mentioned how I had a nice delivery for someone new to preaching. He went on to say that my problem with the sermon began with the fact that I had chosen one of the most difficult scriptures in all the Bible on which to preach. In fact, seasoned preachers and professors have failed miserably in the attempt to preach on that passage. In other words, you might try climbing Stone Mountain, before you attempt to ascend Mount Everest. I am still moved by his kindness, and I learned more than I knew then from that failure. 

Today we have a story that I would place in the same class as the story of Abraham and Isaac: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is the sort of story that causes so many good Christians to hightail it from the Old Testament to the New Testament in search of more reassuring and graceful words more reflective of the God we know and trust.

I understand. I found myself thinking much of this week, “What was I thinking when I decided to do a sermon on this story?” I suspect some of you might also wonder, “What is he thinking, doing a sermon on Sodom and Gomorrah?”  
  • "Why doesn’t he stay in the New Testament where there is Good News?"  
  • "Why this story of fire and brimstone raining down from the hands of an angry God?"  
  • "Why this story that has been used as a clobber story to beat up on people of different sexual orientations?"
I wondered that myself. If I am going to attempt to climb Mount Everest, I would like to know what best paths have been taken before me, so I do not stumble and fall flat on my face. But they are few and far between. I looked online to see what other preachers, whom I respect, have done with a story like this? I did not find sermons from other preachers I respect on this story. What you will find are plenty of sermons using this story as a weapon to condemn people they deem as immoral and deserving of the wrath of God, like gays and lesbians. What you will find are plenty of sermons by people who have a rather one-dimensional theology of God: violent, vengeful, and condemning.  

So, there are plenty of reasons why we just might not preach about this story. However, the problem is not so much with the story as it is with a couple of preconceived assumptions people bring to this story. The first is that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is homosexuality. So let me start by clearing something up. This story has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with homosexuality. It is about a city so lost in its violence and hatred of anyone different to them, as all the men, young and old, in the city seek to humiliate and sexually assault two men who are angels from God. It is a story about gross obscenity, violence, and dehumanization that is unimaginable. It has zero relationship to homosexuality as we know it in our time.

The other parameter important to understand when approaching this story is to be honest about the historic value of this story. This is not a story that is primarily historic. It is a very old story that may have some historical antecedent - perhaps there were cities like Sodom and Gomorrah that were destroyed by an earthquake or volcano and people attributed the tragedy as a punishment for the evils of these cities. People concluded that “Surely, it was their evil that brought God’s destruction upon them!” The truth is that these stories are a narrative way for ancient people to make sense of tragedies that occur, and the reality of God. They were told and then reinterpreted many times before they found their final form in our Bible.  

What a magnificent reflection these scriptures are for us to ponder in our time. It dares to ask questions we still wonder about:  
  • How can there be such gross evil in this world that goes unpunished?  
  • How can there be a just and powerful God who would tolerate this level of evil?  
  • How do we have a God who is both a God of justice and a merciful God?  
  • What are our responsibilities in dealing with the evil we find in this world?  
  • Are there ways we can partner with God?  
  • Can we influence what God does through our prayers?
One scholar, Walter Brueggemann, suggests that we look at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a reflection of two primary differing ways of understanding the acts of God in the world. The first way is to read chapter 19 in isolation from the other chapters which come before and after it. Chapter 19 is the chapter we did not read from. It tells about the angels who were sent by God to investigate the city of Sodom, to see if the cries of those who have prayed to God about the evil that has been committed is true.  The men are greeted by Lot, the brother of Abraham, and show an extravagant welcome, while we are told that all the men of Sodom venture horribly in the opposite direction. We are told that all of the men of the city, young and old, come to Lot's house and demand that they be given these two strangers so that grave violence can be committed against them. Lot refuses, and the angels blind the men. God now has the answer that was sought. Lot and his family are instructed to leave the city and not look back, and God rains down destruction upon the city and its sister cities, utterly destroying them.

What we have in chapter 19 of Genesis is a depiction of God that would have been a more traditional and widely held conviction of God, and all the gods, when these stories were told.  
  • Sin has been committed and must be punished.  
  • Evil in this world must be met with violence and destruction.  
  • A righteous God, like a righteous king, will execute that punishment and bring justice.  
This is a familiar theology that still reigns supreme in our world. It is preached from many Christian pulpits, some Imams, and some Rabbis. Most of us like to disassociate ourselves from such ideas, and wish we could condemn them to the past.  Such puzzle pieces do not fit neatly with the picture we have on the box about God. We wonder if these pieces ought to be just thrown out and the world would be a better place for it.  
  • For we know that if God can use violence as a remedy for injustice, then, we too, can use it as a remedy for injustice. Bosnia, Uganda, Syria, Cambodia, Nazi Germany are the names of places where violence is seen as the final solution to perceived wrongs and evils. And even those who abhor such atrocities, we find ourselves wondering if maybe the only way to deal with such injustice is, in fact, to commit righteous violence to stop it and to punish it.  
  • We do well to acknowledge how tempting it is to want God to deal with evil in this way. It is not right that the evil prosper and the righteous suffer. Should not God be actively punishing bad behavior and rewarding the good? Or is there another way?
The chapter we have read from this morning offers another vantage point. You will not find in this chapter a complete repudiation of the idea of “sinners in the hands of an angry God” in chapter 19. But you will find that chapter 18 challenges some of the assumptions about God, and our place in this saga. Where chapter 19 is often read in isolation of the larger story of Abrahamic faith, Chapter 18 places the story of Sodom and Gomorrah into the larger context of the relationship between God and Abraham.  

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is enfolded into the larger story of Abraham and God. God called Abraham to be the father of faith. It is through Abraham that God seeks to restore the world to a place of justice and goodness and peace. God calls Abraham and promises to bless those who bless him and to curse those who curse him.  God will enrich Abraham and from him will create a nation of people who will know God’s blessing, and will, in turn, bless all the other nations. From the moral and ethical ways of the people of God, the rest of the world will become a more just and peaceful place. Therefore the relationship between God and Abraham was never meant to be an end unto itself, but a way for God to restore the creation. God and Abraham are in a partnership with each other, one that has been initiated and guided by God but also very dependent on Abraham as a full partner in this venture.  

In our story, God deliberates about whether or not He should tell Abraham about the plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps it would be best to protect Abraham from what is about to happen, you know keep it a secret. But that does not sit well with God. The more God considers it, the more God thinks, "No, Abraham is my partner and we are a team.  I need to tell Abraham my plan."  

This is where our story picks up. God tells Abraham that an investigative team of angels are being sent to look into the reports of unimaginable evil being committed in Sodom and Gomorrah. Apparently, many people have been greatly harmed by the people of Sodom and have been desperately praying that God would do something about this. What sort of sovereign would allow atrocities to go unchecked? Not a very good one. It is the job of a sovereign to be the arbiter of justice in the land.  

But Abraham is uneasy with what is about to happen. For one, his brother and his brother’s family live in Sodom. What will happen to his kin? For another, what if all the people are not evil, but some are in fact good who live in the city. Will God just wipe them away with the evil? Abraham is, in this story, already attempting to fulfill his role to bless the people of other nations in addition to his own people.

Then there is a strange little sentence that you might miss. We are told in our Bibles that Abraham stood before God, suggesting that God is in the dominant position and being address by an underling. But if you look in your Bible, you will discover there is a footnote. Older texts of the Bible have this the other way around. Abraham stands in the commanding position and God is being address by him. That would suggest that the bond between God and Abraham is quite close, so close that Abraham is allowed to challenge and question God.  

If true, this suggest something remarkable. We really are in partnership with God when it comes to dealing with the evil in this world. We are not the final arbiters of justice, but we can dare to speak boldly to God, telling our truth, challenging God when we sense something is not right or good. We do not have to speak timidly, but frankly.  

Abraham ask his questions of God. “Now God, if it so happens that there are 50 good people in Sodom, will you then just destroy them all?" God answers, “No, if there are 50, God will not proceed to destroy, but will restrain God’s self.”  Abraham is on a roll and he continues. “How about 45? Then how about 40? 30? 20?10?”  Each time God says that He will refrain if there are righteous people who will be destroyed by God’s judgment.  

This is remarkable scripture. Just unexpected. In the midst of this horrific story of despicable human violence and unspeakable horror of judgment, we have an alternative narrative that challenges some of the assumptions of the conventional view of God as angry and judgmental.  

First, it suggests that we are really partners with God in this world. We are, in fact, co-creators with God in bringing justice and peace to this world. Our prayers can, in fact, effect God and make a difference. Our sense of morality and what is good matters. It is not a one-sided relationship.

Second, the story suggests that God’s mercy for those who are good far exceeds God’s concern to bring justice to those who have done wrong. It is a false choice when we think we must choose between believing in a God of Justice and a God of Love. The two are tied together. We may not understand fully the ways of God.  But this text suggests when we say God is a God of love also means God, in some way, is a God of justice.

Perhaps a few of you have read an older book by holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, about the Holocaust called “Night.” There is, in that book, a story about three Jewish Rabbis at Auschwitz, who, one night, put God on trial for what was happening to them and the Jewish people. It had been long thought to be apocryphal, but in 2008, Elie Wiesel startled an audience by saying the story was true. “I was there when God was put on trial,” he told the audience. They had just witnessed the execution of a young boy for stealing a bit of food in order to survive. And they made an accusation and a case against God for allowing such atrocities to happen to God’s people. If God did not commit such atrocities, then God stood silent as they were carried out. They concluded that God was guilty of breaking covenant with them. And then, almost as if a postscript, we are told they went away to worship God, for it was evening and they were good Jews. 

There are no simple answers for the problem of evil and the role of God in our world. In another sermon we might look at how Jesus and Christianity struggle with these questions and offer yet another way. But best to stay for now with what the Old Testament story tells us. We have climbed a little ways up this mountain of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and maybe we have found a different view, both of God and ourselves. Like those rabbis who put God on trial, we struggle to understand the injustice of this world, God’s role, and our own role in confronting it. Like those rabbis, we are given the freedom to dare and confront God, to speak our truth, but also the freedom to still turn around in this mystery of life and worship the One we do not yet fully know or understand. Amen.

Jesus and a Foreign Woman

When you read scripture, sooner or later, you are going to come across a scripture that will leave you baffled and disturbed. Jesus and the Canaanite woman is one of those stories (Matthew 15:21-28). This woman was from a despised origin, a non-Jew, and she is desperate to have Jesus heal her daughter, who is possessed by a destructive spirit and who is suffering greatly.  She runs after Jesus, and the disciples do their best to tell her to scram. Frustrated, they tell Jesus that He is going to have to deal with this. So Jesus tells her clearly that His mission is not to help people of her race, but to the lost sheep of Israel, His own people. But she will not take no for an answer, and she continues to beg. Then He says words that I find difficult to believe came from Jesus’ lips: “It is not right to give the bread made for the children to the dogs.” Did I hear that right? Did my Jesus just call that poor, needful, foreign woman a dog? That is something I might expect to hear at an anti-immigration protest rally.

Any interpretation of this difficult story will be ambiguous, but our understanding of the setting of Jesus’ time will help. The truth is that sharp distinctions between people were not unheard of in some circles in Jesus’ time. Parts of the Jewish tradition (like the Old Testament book of Ezra) sought separation between Jews and other people who might corrupt the faith. It is possible that Jesus was raised in a culture and a way of reading scripture that justified distinctions between His people and other cultures as a way of protecting their identity as a people. We find this in our own faith, in some Amish communities, and with some conservative evangelicals who fear corrupting cultural influences on their children.

The conversation continues between Jesus and the woman. She is not yet done with Jesus. Remarkably, she surprises Jesus by saying, “Yes, my Lord, but even the dogs get the crumbs underneath the table.” Jesus is awed and transformed by this woman’s faith. He grants her wish, and her daughter is healed. Clearly, Jesus changes his mind. The most likely explanation of the story is that Matthew told it to signify Jesus’ reception of non-Jews into the faith (something that had happened in His own churches). But it might also be heard as a story of Jesus’ own faith transformed by an experience with a
foreign woman. What we learn about Jesus is that He had humility, an openness to allow others to challenge Him and change Him. Then the story becomes an example of humility, an openness to change the way we see those different from ourselves. Like Jesus, we best reflect God when we are open to doing what is right, even if it means letting go of what we have always believed.

I find the way we talk about racism in our country most unhelpful. We are busy attempting to place the racist label on other people, and point away from ourselves. We talk about racism as if there is a deep, moral flaw that is woven into a person. “There is not a racist bone in my body,” some politicians (both Republican and Democratic) insist. We seek to avoid the label of racist, and in so doing, we find ourselves unable to admit that each of us has our own prejudices and attitudes towards those different from us.
As most of you know, I was raised in Mississippi. I have become conscious of my own racial attitudes and commitments, and have relinquished many of them and have worked for social justice. But I am still aware I must be open to what I do not recognize in myself that is racist and hurtful. We need the openness of Jesus and the will to be freed from any attitude that divides and causes harm to others different from ourselves. We are right to speak out against those who fan the fires of racism. However, the place to begin is by taking out the plank in our own eye, so we might help another take out the splinter from their eye. We need to have honest conversations about racism, and our labeling each other as fundamentally flawed will not get us there.