Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Two Sermons -- Nov. 12 & 19

I was lazy and forgetful last week -- so here are two sermons at once -- a two-part series from the Book of Esther. Your feedback is usually appreciated.

When God is Silent
Esther 1:9-2:18
November 12, 2006

I hear the same questions in my office all the time. “Where was God?” “How could any God let this happen?” I look into eyes that are overflowing with pain and confusion and grief and rage - and they demand an answer. Why a holocaust, God? Why cancer? Why do few get fed while many more go hungry? Why do you allow people to suffer, God? Why September 11? Why were thousands of innocent men, women, and children were destroyed in senseless acts of violence. And for everyone who died in that attack, why do dozens more die throughout the world because of the terrorist whims of evil people?

Then there are the events that hit us in the gut–the personal events that cause us to questions God. People come to me and want to know WHY God didn’t protect them from the assaultive father, the molesting uncle, the bullying mother, the merciless teacher. They want to know WHY God would allow such things to go on. The woman who was beaten as a child for such senseless things as spilling her milk; the little boy who was scared to death of his violent father, the family who lost a loved one to suicide or a fatal accident. Have you ever been through a time in your life when you needed a sign from God, and you got nothing? You yearned for one moment when God would show up, change life around, bring some comfort and justice, and all you heard was silence?

I wonder if the characters from the Book of Esther struggled with the silence of God. The book of Esther has a problem. God is never mentioned. We read the Bible to learn about God’s relationship with creation, and there is not one mention of God in the entire book. Martin Luther did not Esther included in the canon of Scripture. He said, “I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.” The whole book could be taken as nothing more than chance and luck. A literary tale of how a young Jewish orphan just happens to become queen and save her people because she’s in the right place at the right time to.

The book begins on a whim of a king. King Ahasuerus gives a great banquet for all the leading officials and dignitaries of his kingdom. After much revelry, the king orders for his queen, Vashti, so he can show her off. Vashti refuses. In a fit of drunken rage, Ahasuerus, divorces her to set an example that wives are to obey their husbands. After he sobers up and cools down, he realizes that he had no queen. The divorce cannot be reversed, so the search begins for a new queen. All the beautiful young virgins in the provinces are brought into the harem so that the next queen can be found. One of the virgins is Esther, a Jewish orphan who’s being raised by her cousin Mordecai.

Esther is probably a teenager, no older than 16. Ripped out of the only life she knew by the whim of an impulsive king, Esther begins a year of preparation for her one night with the king. She is one harem girl in the middle of harem that likely numbered in the 1000s. She would probably spend one night with the king then be sent to the house of the concubines where she would live out the rest of her life alone and with no purpose, unless the king called her again. When her night came Esther went to the king. In the first coincidence of the book she found favor with Ahasuerus who made her queen. Shortly after this, coincidence number two happened: Cousin Mordecai finds out about an assassination plot and warns Esther who tells the king. The royal servants who planned the assassination are put to death. Later, a man named Haman rises to power and becomes the prime minister of the empire -- second only to the king. All of the king’s servants bow when Haman enters the court – all except Mordecai. Infuriated that Mordecai will not worship him, Haman plots to kill not only Mordecai, but also his whole race, the Jews.

A decree is sent to all the provinces and the Jews immediately begin to mourn. Mordecai mourns in front of the king’s gate in sackcloth and ashes. When Esther finds Mordecai, she has no idea what’s going on. Mordecai tells her about the decree and urges her to go to the king and intercede for her people. Esther won’t do it. She is afraid of the king. Anyone who goes to the king without being called can be killed. This is the king who got rid of his first queen on a whim. This king commanded that the engineers of a bridge he was building be thrown off the end of the bridge when they fell behind due to a horrible storm. When a father requested this king not to send his last son off to war, Ahasuerus commanded the last son be killed in front of the father, then had the father blinded so that the last thing he saw was his dead son. This was the king Esther was going to, without an invitation.

Mordecai reminds her that her position as queen will not protect her from the edict. Then he prods her: “Who knows? May be that is why you are here.” Who knows? maybe all of these coincidences happened for such a time as this. Esther agrees. She will go to the king–even if it cost her life. She will appeal for the life of her people.

I’ll tell the rest of the story next week. Let’s stop here and think for a moment. What stands out most about Esther is the fact God is never mentioned. It is truly a book of coincidences. That is why we need Esther. To often we think that just because there is no obvious working of God in the world that God is not working. Maybe that’s why we need the book of Esther in the Bible.

We need reminders that God’s presence in our world is not always obvious—even to those in the church. There are times in life when we wonder where God is. The book of Esther reminds me that we don’t have to be passive victims of the world’s evil. We don’t have to be scared into stunned silence as we wait for God to show up and save us.

In times of darkness, we are tempted to pull back from others, to move into self-chosen exile. When we pull away from one another, evil festers. Any time we are torn apart from each other, evil has an opportunity to abound. But there is another way. Facing evil can lead us to become peacemakers, like Esther. Peacemakers are people who heal by pulling close instead of tearing apart. Peacemakers are people who get in touch with their own pain and disappointment with God, and then reach out to others who suffer.

Let me tell you about some a peacemaker. A girl grew up in a troubled family and suffered through weariness and depression. At 16 years she was wed in an arranged marriage. The marriage was not a happy one. The husband was a faithless, violent spendthrift who made his wife miserable. She spent the first five years of her marriage in silent, melancholy submission to her husband. For ten years the woman alternated between withdrawal and social activity; there were no children, although her husband had at least one child by a mistress. Then the wife experienced a religious conversion. At about the same her husband became bankrupt. The woman began a life of humble of social work---going into the city’s slums to help the sick poor. Eventually her husband gave his life to God and helped his wife minister to the poor. They moved into the slums and worked there, without pay. Three years later, the plague came to the city, killing 80% of those who lived there. The wife supervised those who cared for the dying. In the year 1496 her husband died and the wife continued working full time until her health began to fail. She died in 1510, worn out with labors of body and soul, and consumed, even physically, by the fires of Divine love within her. The woman’s name was Catherine. She is known in the church today as Catherine of Genoa. This is a woman who faced evil. She knew suffering and pain. At one point in her life she asked the Lord, “Why, Jesus, is there so much pain on earth? Why do people have to suffer?” And Jesus said back to her, “Catherine, if there were any other way, I would have thought about it a long time ago.” It seems that there is no other way to learn how to let go and to learn compassion. There is no other way that we can learn our limits and rely on God and others. Peacemaking is born our of suffering.

The other day I was talking with a Muslim friend who told me that in Islam, silence means acceptance. I think he’s right. Maybe God is silent because we are silent. Maybe God sometimes stays behind the scenes because God’s waiting for you and me to step up to such a time as this. Perhaps God speaks when we are filled with boldness and courage and take a stand against evil. Perhaps God speaks through the peacemakers.

If you see hunger, don’t shrug your shoulders and think about how terrible it is. Silence is acceptance. Buy some food, or give some of your own, to our collection for St. Luke’s pantry. Educate yourself about public policy. Did you know that nutrition and welfare programs together amount to only 3% of the federal budget? Foreign aid is less than 1%. Join the One Campaign or Bread for the World.

If you don’t like the current war, don’t wallow in your frustration. Silence is acceptance. Contact your representatives and let them know how you feel. Send care packages to troops. Disarm yourself from that which divides and dominates. Experiment with putting on the armor of God. Wrap truth around your waist and put on just actions like a Kevlar vest. Lace up your boots that prepare you to do the work of peace. Carry the defense system of your faith to protect you from the missiles of sin. Put on the helmet of God’s wisdom. And carry no weapon but the word of God. And pray.

If you don’t like what we are doing to our earth, then do something. Silence is acceptance. Measure your ecological footprint – inventory your lifestyle. Recycle more. Coordinate a drive for unusual recyclable materials. Conserve natural resources. Fall back in love with nature, and tell others about what you experience. If everyone were to make an effort to make even small changes, the impact could be great.

Did you know that 600,000-800,000 were trafficked as human slaves last year? 80% were female and 70% were trafficked for human exploitation – it’s the international business of rape and profit. Doesn’t that make you mad? Silence is acceptance. Donate your services to an anti-trafficking agency. Pray for victims and perpetrators. Use your influence in your circle of family and friends to raise awareness. Provide advocacy and intervention for slaves.

How about something closer to home – like poverty. The cure for poverty is for people to do something. Silence is acceptance. Volunteer at a street ministry or homeless shelter. Go volunteer with someone like Sr. Theresa in Bridgeport. Help build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

You get the idea. God is not silent. When evil abounds, God compels peacemakers to step up and speak. Still yearning for that one moment when God will show up, change life around, bring some comfort and justice. Maybe all you hear is silence. We can’t expect God do perform a miraculous intervention while we sit back and wait. God chooses you for such a time as this.

Holy Disobedience
Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22
November 19, 2006

Last week we learned about Esther, a Jewish teenager who becomes the queen of Persia. King Ahasuerus chose her his new queen during a beauty pageant. Esther was raised by her cousin. His name is Mordecai. And then there is the bad guy of the story. His name is Haman. Haman is the king’s right-hand man, and he has an ongoing feud with Mordecai. Haman convinced the King that Mordecai and all of the Jews were plotting to overthrow the King’s authority. Haman convinced the King to set a date for the extermination of the Jews. The King had no idea that his new queen, Esther, was also a Jew. He sent a decree to all the provinces of the empire and the Jews immediately began to mourn. Esther had no idea about the edict. Mordecai told her about the decree and urged her to go to the king and intervene for her people. Esther was afraid to do it. She was afraid of the king. Anyone who went to the king without a summons could be killed. Mordecai reminded her that her position as queen would not protect her from the edict. Then he prodded her: “Who knows? May be that is why you are here.” Esther agreed. She would go to the king–even if it cost her life. She would appeal for the life of her people.

This is where we left off last week. Let me tell you the rest of the story. There is a Greek version of the story that has some verses not found in the Hebrew. It says: “In making her state appearance, after invoking the all-seeing God and savior, she took with her two maids; on the one she leaned gently for support ...while the other followed her, bearing her train. She glowed with the perfection of her beauty and her face was as joyous as it was lovely, though her heart shrunk with fear. As the king looked up, his features ablaze with the height of majestic anger, the queen staggered, changed color, and leaned weakly against the head of the maid in front of her. But God changed the king's anger to gentleness. In great anxiety, he sprang from his throne, held her in his arms until she recovered, and comforted her with reassuring words. "What is it Esther?" he said, " Take courage! You shall not die because of this general decree of ours. Come near!" Raising the golden scepter, he touched her neck with it, embraced her, and said, "Speak to me"

Instead of punishing her, the king is pleased to see her. Approaching the king, invites the king and Haman to a dinner party. When Haman finds out about the special invitation, he is in high spirits – until he sees his enemy Mordecai. At the very sight of Mordecai, Haman fills with rage. When Haman gets home, he complains about Mordecai to his family and friends. They suggest that he build gallows and request Mordecai be hung on it the next day.

That night, the king has insomnia. He orders a servant to read the book of the record of his reign. The servant reads the account of Mordecai – about how Mordecai saved the king’s life from a death threat. The king realizes that Mordecai has not been rewarded. At that moment, Haman enters the court, ready to tell the king about his plan to hang Mordecai on the gallows. However, before Haman can open his mouth, the king says, “Haman, what do you think I should do for a man I wish to honor?” Haman is thrilled. He thinks the king wants to reward HIM for his service. Haman says, “King, you should have a parade. Put your clothes on the man, sit him on a horse that you have ridden. Set a crown on his head, and have a prince lead him through the streets proclaiming that this is what happens for the man whom the king wishes to honor.” The king loves the idea and orders Haman to do this for Mordecai. Haman does as commanded then runs home humiliated to prepare for Queen Esther’s dinner banquet.

At the banquet, Esther presents her case to the king. She pleas for the life of her people whom Haman would have executed. On finding out Haman’s plot, the king leaves the room. When he returns, he finds Haman on the queen’s couch pleading for his life. Ahashuerus accuses Haman of assaulting the queen, and in an ironic twist, Haman is taken away to hang on the gallows he built for Mordecai. Esther once again intercedes for her people, and a decree is issued that on the day of the intended massacre, the Jews can defend themselves.

The Book of Esther reaffirms one of by beliefs about human nature. Call me a pessimist, but I believe that humans are violent people who behave on their hidden impulses. While we have the capability to do great good, many human actions are prompted by our jealousies and our desire for retribution. When angry, people tend to blame their problems on their adversaries. When left unchecked, this kind of anger becomes violent, even murderous. Primitive societies provided religious sacrifice as a substitute for the violence in society. Sacrifice regulated the violence and restored order in times of crisis. Sometimes the sacrifice took on the form of a scapegoat – or a surrogate victim. The violence of the community was put onto one person or group who became the sacrificial victim. Here’s how scapegoating works: Those in power make up a story about how all of life’s problems are caused by the victim. The group unanimously assigns blame, and the victim is killed, or cast out of the group. Once the victim is eliminated, peace comes to the group. Harmony is restored. The community feels purified of all its tensions and division – at least for a time. We see this kind of thinking from Haman. He uses his hatred and jealousy to fund genocide against the Jews. Mordecai and his people are accused of a crime that can’t be proven, and are doomed to die to atone for the blood thirst of the Empire.

This happens in churches, too. In times of high stress, we become less tolerant of other’s differences. We only want people who believe what we believe, sing our songs, give their money, serve on the right committees, and not ask too many questions. Eventually, an individual or a small group is labeled as harmful to the community. Gossip starts about “those people.” Soon, the church purges the impure elements from among itself, and a new feeling of harmony comes.

God calls us to something different. The Bible provides the first instance in history where God is on the side of the victim. Instead of being guilty, victims are innocent. Instead of being innocent, the persecutors are guilty. Instead of alienating outsiders, God goes to those on the margins of life and loves them. We believe in a God who is:
The God of the humble,
The Ally of the insignificant,
The Champion of the weak,
The Protector of the despairing,
The Savior of those without hope. (Judith 9:11)

God stands up for those with no power and no voice. God uses people like Esther – a teenage girl from nowhere who is willing to give up her life to save her people. People like Esther point us to Jesus Christ. People like Esther remind us that jealousy, hatred, and conflict do not get the last word. People like Esther direct us to Jesus who taught us to forgive as God forgives us – to love as God loves us – to serve others as Christ who became the servant of all.

We commit to standing with the powerless, and resisting the forces of injustice in our world. We don’t persecute the outsider. We embrace him. We welcome her. I don’t think we have to make grand gestures. We rarely get those opportunities. Most of life is filled with ordinary events and unspectacular choices. Our daily choices are still significant. Each day offers us the chance to creatively express our support for those living on the boundary. Each day gives us the opportunity to resist the powers cast them away as outsiders. Each day we are given the chance practice the alternatives to exclusion: love, forgiveness, and service.

Shortly after the turn of the century, Japan conquered and occupied Korea. Japan overwhelmed Korea with a brutality that would sicken the strongest of stomachs. One group singled out for concentrated oppression was the Christians. The Japanese refused to allow churches to meet and jailed many of the key Christian leaders. Anguish filled the hearts of the oppressed and kindled hatred deep in their souls. One pastor begged his local Japanese police chief for permission to meet for services. His nagging was finally accommodated, and the police chief offered to unlock his church for one meeting. It didn't take long for word to travel. Christians starving for worship quickly made their plans. Long before dawn on that promised Sunday, Korean families throughout a wide area made their way to the church. They passed the staring eyes of their Japanese captors, but nothing was going to steal their joy. As they closed the doors behind them they shut out the cares of oppression.

The Korean church has a reputation as a singing church. Their voices of praise could not be concealed inside the little wooden frame sanctuary. Song after song rang through the open windows into the bright Sunday morning. It was during a stanza of "Nearer My God to Thee" that the Japanese police chief waiting outside gave the orders. The people toward the back of the church could hear them when they barricaded the doors, but no one realized that they had doused the church with kerosene until they smelled the smoke. The dried wooden skin of the small church quickly ignited. Fumes filled the structure as tongues of flame began to lick the baseboard on the interior walls.

The pastor knew it was the end. With a calm that comes from confidence, he led his congregation in a hymn whose words served as a fitting farewell to earth and a loving salutation to heaven. With smoke burning their eyes, they instantly joined as one to sing their hope and leave their legacy. Their song became a serenade to the horrified and helpless witnesses outside.

In the decades that followed, the Korean’s bitterness passed on to a new generation. The Japanese, although conquered, remained a hated enemy. The monument the Koreans built at the location of the fire not only memorialized the people who died, but stood as a mute reminder of their pain. It wasn't until 1972 that any hope came. A group of Japanese pastors traveling through Korea came upon the memorial. When they read the details of the tragedy and the names of the spiritual brothers and sisters who had perished, they were overcome with shame. Their country had sinned. Even though none of them were personally involved (some were not even born at the time of the tragedy), they still felt a national guilt that could not be excused. They returned to Japan committed to right a wrong. They raised ten million yen ($25,000). The money was transferred through proper channels and a beautiful white church building was erected on the sight of the tragedy.

At the dedication of the new church, a delegation from Japan joined the relatives and special guests. Although their generosity was acknowledged and their attempts at making peace appreciated, the memories were still there. Hatred preserves pain. It keeps the wounds open and the hurts fresh. Christian brothers or not, these Japanese were descendants of a ruthless enemy.

The speeches were made, the details of the tragedy recalled, and the names of the dead honored. It was time to bring the service to a close. Someone in charge of the agenda thought it would be appropriate to conclude with the same songs that were sung the day the church was burned. The song leader began the words to "Nearer My God to Thee." But something remarkable happened as the voices mingled on the familiar melody. As the memories of the past mixed with the truth of the song, resistance started to melt. The normally stoic Japanese could not contain themselves. The tears that began to fill their eyes during the song suddenly gushed from deep inside. One Korean turned toward a Japanese brother. Then another. And then the floodgates holding back a wave of emotion let go. The Koreans met their new Japanese friends in the middle. They clung to each other and wept. Japanese tears of repentance and Korean tears of forgiveness.

Faith requires holy disobedience to the powers that want to keep us living in hatred. Faith requires resistance to those who want to claim their power and cleanse their souls by sacrificing victims. We are created for moments when we have to rely upon our deepest convictions to shape our decisions about what we will support and what we will resist. In fact, maybe it is in those daily choices that we discover the presence of God after all.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Sermon for November 5, 2006

Whose Side is God On?
Luke 4:16-21

“If you’re a rock worshiper and a tree-hugger and an animal-rights activist and an anti-war draft dodger, you might want to stay home and tune in to NPR on the radio because you ain’t going to have a good time [here this morning] you ain’t a flag-waving, Bible-waving American.”

Can I get an "Amen"? Anybody?

Those remarks come from the Rev. Jeff Fugate, a southern Baptist minister from Kentucky who has trying to get his congregation psyched up about an upcoming religious rally. Fugate’s “I Love America” sermon lived up to his billing. At the July 2 event -- which cost his church more than $50,000 to stage -- Fugate criticized liberals, homosexuals, cross-dressers, HBO, Hollywood stars, rock musicians and the U.S. Supreme Court, as thousands applauded. He told non-Christian immigrants to “leave your religions, your Bibles, all the other things back where you came from.” How did it become possible to say that to be a follower of Jesus is to be a flag-waving American? Or a flag-waving anything for that matter? Can we really claim that God is on our side and our side alone?

American or Iraqi? Christian or Muslim? Rich or poor? Married, single or divorced? Gay or straight? Patriarch or feminist? Child or adult? Patriots or Giants? (Honestly, people always ask me to pray that their sport's teams will win. They must have money riding on the game. I'm not sure whether God really cares about the outcome of sporting events.) Whose side is God on? One way can figure out whose side God is on is to look in the Bible and read about the people with whom Jesus spent his time.

I think this passage gives a clear answer to our question. Jesus unrolls a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and reads passages about how God is going to restore the Israelite exiles. God will renew the people by being present with those who have been forgotten by society. The poor. The blind. The prisoner. Jesus takes that mission upon himself. He goes where God goes and does what God does. God again reveals himself as the loving Giver. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these categories of people.

The poor are mentioned first. The poor often had to sell themselves or family members into slavery to pay off debts. Jesus was filled with compassion for the poor, not only the spiritually poor, but also those who were socially and economically poor. When you realize how contemptible poor people were, you will understand how revolutionary Jesus was. In the Greek, the verb “I spit” is ptuoh. The word for poor or beggar is ptochos. I poor person was literally a “spit upon one.” Jesus seeks out these spit upon ones and says, “I have good news for you. The day of richness has come upon you.”

Then there are Prisoners. Some commentators think Jesus may have been referring to imprisoned debtors. These people lived behind bars because they owed something to someone. Jesus says that part of his mission is to proclaim freedom and forgiveness for debtors. Jesus forgives the offenses that shackle people. The world around us is also full of people who are imprisoned in fear, anxiety and doubt. Bars of depression, violence, loneliness, and greed cage in all kinds of people. Jesus knew that words of courage, peace, love and justice have the power to bring freedom to those who are imprisoned by situations of life.

A while ago a prison inmate wrote the following account:
In the summer of 1987, I had just finished my third year on San Quentin’s death row. I was getting ready to spend my time exercising when the guard told me, “You’re going to miss Mother Teresa. She’s coming today to see you guys.” Yea, sure. I thought this is just one more of those designs they have on us. But after awhile I heard the commotion and the bells went off, and I realized maybe this was true. “Don’t go into your cells and lock up. Mother Teresa stayed to see you guys, too.” So I jogged up to the front in gym shorts and a tattered basketball shirt with the arms ripped out, and on the other side of the security screen was this tiny woman who looked 100 years old. Yes, it was Mother Teresa. You have to understand that, basically, I’m a dead man. I don’t have to observe any sort of social convention; and as a result, I can break all the rules, say what I want. But one look at this Nobel Prize winner, this woman so many people view as a living saint, and I was speechless. Incredible vitality and warmth came from her wizened, piercing eyes. She smiled at me, blessed a religious medal, and handed it to me. I wouldn’t have walked voluntarily to the front of the tier to see the Warden, the Governor, the President, or the Pope. I could not care less about them. But standing before this woman, all I could say was, “Thank you, Mother Teresa.” Then I stepped back to let another dead man come forward to receive his medal. Then Mother Teresa turned and pointed her hand at the sergeant. “What you do to these men,” she told him, “you do to God.” The sergeant almost faded away in surprise and wonder.
I think that’s what Jesus did. He reached across social barriers and touched prisoners.

Jesus spent a lot of time giving sight to blind eyes. For that matter, he spent a lot of time with sick people. Jesus was a healer who spoke words of wholeness. He prayed for healing for the blind, sick and lame -- people who were looked upon by society as liabilities. Jesus always found ways to be a healer of broken emotions, broken relationships, and broken communities. He knew that when you take care of the physical problems, it allows people to accept new spiritual realities. To the blind Jesus says, “I have good news for you. The day of a new, healing vision has come.”

Jesus also talks about Release for Captives. This phrase can also be translated as “forgiveness for the downtrodden.” Jesus committed himself to speaking words of forgiveness to those who needed to know the grace and mercy of God. Jesus experienced the injustices suffered by outcasts and he treated all people with fairness, and compassion.

Compassion is about opening people up to the reality of God’s love. Compassion has to do with suffering along with the downtrodden. Who is oppressed in our community? What about the grieving parent who is told that it’s time to get over the death of a child. What about those who work for a wage they can’t live on without going into debt, but who cannot get another job? What about those whose housing is appalling, but who can’t afford to move? What about those who may be earning big money, but who have to work every hour because otherwise they won’t get the bonuses or they won’t have the job security, and they won’t be able to pay their huge mortgage? Jesus is saying, “I have good news for you. The day of your release has come.”

Whose side are you on? The next time you are choosing sides for God, look around. Where are the weak and the powerless? Where are the ones that can’t defend or speak for themselves? Where are the ones who are trapped and can’t find the key to freedom? That’s where God will be. So be sure you pick the right side.

God’s on the side of the child, regardless of nationality, searching for a family in the rubble that was once home. God’s with the grief-stricken, the lonely, the desperate and the broken-hearted. Our God, who knows suffering so well, is with those like the disgraced criminal dying on a cross beside Christ. Our God, it seems, is rather passionately on the side of these so-called “losers.”

So, whose side are you on? Ever heard or said something like this:
“There’s so much pain out there. I suppose someone has to address it, but why should I have to do it? I mean, I’ve got my hands full right now, what with working 60 hours a week and my family and all. Besides, I’ve worked hard to get what I have. Why shouldn’t be able to enjoy it?”
How about this one:
“Yes, I know. The world is full of injustice and all. It needs to be corrected, but that will take a better person than I. It will take a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Mother Theresa. Maybe all three rolled into one. I can’t to that; I’m just an ordinary sort of person.”
I’ve thought things like that myself. It’s a problem, because if Jesus reaches out as God’s loving Giver, and we are supposed to follow in his steps, the excuses don’t really do much but to perpetuate the brokenness of the world.
Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he had been asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four-year-old child whose next-door neighbor was an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old man’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”

Of course, you can’t solve the world’s problems by yourself. Most of these problems took generations and millions of people acting badly to create. One person cannot solve any of them acting alone during one life-time.

Even though you can’t do it all, does that mean you can’t do anything? You can’t hold one weeping, broken person in the circle of your love?

God is on the side of the poor, the prisoner, the blind and the oppressed. And through us God says to them, “Today, your day of freedom has come.” Whose side are you on, and what are you going to do about it?

Friday, November 3, 2006

Sermon for October 29, 2006 -- Reformation Sunday

Unforgivable Sin
Genesis 45:1-28

Is there a sin that’s so bad that it’s unforgivable? Is there be a betrayal so treacherous that God would refuse to pardon it? Murder? Suicide? Adultery? Will God forgive the perpetrators? Has any one ever done something to you that was unforgivable? Has anyone ever shown such deep disloyalty to you that the very thought of that person makes you sick?

If anyone could have felt that way, it could have been Martin Luther King Jr. One night, his home was burned down by a group of white men who hated his message about racial equality and the black voter initiative in the south. Under the leadership of Dr. King, African-Americans grew more confident of themselves, less willing to be oppressed and neglected by society. And they were angry -- angry about their treatment by white society. They were particularly angry on the night that their leader’s home was destroyed. A crowd of Dr. King’s friends and supporters gathered. Some talked about getting guns. Others talked about getting gasoline and setting fire to the homes of all the white people in the area so that they could suffer as the black people had suffered. The crowd wanted to hurt those who had hurt them. They wanted to destroy their enemies.

It’s a common human reaction. We instinctively seek revenge. We convince ourselves that evil deeds deserve instant repayment in kind. Violence feeds on revenge, and revenge feeds on violence. We see the cycle of revenge and violence in places like Belfast, Ireland. Those who spent years trying to get Protestants and Catholics to stop killing each other quickly learned that revenge motivated most of the killing. One young man whose brother had been beaten to death said that if he didn’t go after the ones who killed his brother, it would be like his brother’s life didn’t matter.

I wonder if Joseph felt caught up in this cycle of revenge. If anyone had the right not to pardon the betrayal of his enemies, it was Joseph. When we last left him, Joseph was kidnapped from a dried-up cistern. His brothers hated him so much that they dumped him in a hole in the ground and then left to decide whether to kill him. When they returned to the cistern, Joseph was gone and given up for dead. Years later, Joe is now the second-in-command of in Egyptian. While the rest of the world suffers from a sever famine, Egypt has plenty of food due to the wise agricultural practices of Joseph. Now all of the earth comes to Egypt to buy grain – everyone including 10 of Joseph’s brothers. Joseph sees his brothers, and he recognizes them immediately, but they don’t know him. The text says, “He spoke harshly to them.” In an explosion of anger, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. Finally, Joseph’s sees his chance for revenge. Taking the role of the cruel ruler, he will hear none of his brother’s excuses. He demands that they be locked up, and that only one return home to get Benjamin, the brother who stayed behind. Then Joseph changes his mind, imprisoning one brother while the rest go home to fetch Benjamin. His inconsistency is similar to the psychological warfare we see today – designed to create fear and uncertainty in the minds of captives.

Jesus teaches us how to break the endless spiral of vengeance. The gospel says, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.” Jesus often makes statements like this – expectations that are impractical and impossible to live out. How do we do it? How can we do good to people who have gossiped about us, or cheated us, or oppressed us? How do we love the abusive parent, or the teacher who embarrasses students, or the ex-spouse who tries to destroy relationships? How can we love our enemies when everything we feel about them wants to hurt them back as they have hurt us? How can I love someone for whom I feel no love? How can I bless those who curse me?

The night Martin Luther King Jr.’s house burned did not end in violence -- the way that feels so natural. Instead, the crowd left their enemies in peace and they went home determined to win the victory with votes instead of with guns, with politics instead of with fire, with love instead of hate. Dr. King calmed down the crowd by telling them, “When you live by the rule, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, you end up with a nation of blind and toothless people.” Dr. King believed that a new society could not be built by violent means. He believed that one could only defeat the enemy with love -- that the way of violence only leads to more violence -- that hate only fosters more hate. He would not allow others to seek revenge when his house was burned. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.

We can choose be victimized by someone else’s sin, and then replicate it through revenge. We can allow hatred to grow and infest our souls with its hellish tendency towards exclusion. When we do this, forgiveness flounders. We believe that our enemy has committed unforgivable sin, and therefore must be excluded from God’s grace. We think it’s OK for us to take on the role punishers – God’s instruments of vengeance. God never asks us to take that role for ourselves.

Forgiveness happens when we stop trying to justify our hatred by pointing out the wrongdoing we’ve suffered. Liberation comes through confession. Real forgiveness is not about revenge, but about repentance. Only those who are forgiven and willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to turn justice into revenge. Love is a choice. Love is the decision to do right even when wronged, to do good even when bad is done, to bless even when you are cursed, to forgive even when you are condemned, to care even when you are not cared for.

In June 1992, Serbian paramilitaries invaded the Franciscan Theological School in Sarajevo, holding everyone inside prisoner. There were sixteen Catholic priests and brothers, and eight nuns. The soldiers were amped up, some buzzing on cocaine. They went through the school destroying everything: shooting up the chapel, ripping paintings off walls, burning the library, and hitting the priests with rifle butts. The captives were certain that they would be killed any minute.

In the midst of horrific chaos, Sister Isadora, a nun in her eighties, addressed the young militants with love like they were her grandsons. One man, barely in his twenties, had blood spattered on his shirt. He was trying to ignore it, but it clearly bothered him, and he kept trying to wipe it off. Sister Isadora approached him saying, “My boy, your shirt is stained. Let me get some water and clean it.” She took a damp rag and began to clean the blood from his collar. When she finished, she asked to go to the bathroom to clean the rag. The young man and one of the priests accompanied her. When they returned, the young man had his gun pressed hard into the priest’s side. Sister Isadora touched the man’s arm and waved the gun away. “Move out of the way,” she said. “Come with me and let us go into the kitchen and make some tea.” And so he did. When the soldier’s superiors found out, they were angry, but that young soldier never harmed the captives. After several days, a prisoner exchange was negotiated and all of the captives were released. That is the power of love.

Joseph also learns the power of loving his enemies. When his brothers finally return to Egypt, Joseph throws his arms around his brother Benjamin, and reveals his identity to his family. Now the brothers are afraid. Realizing what they had done, and who this man really is, they expect revenge. Their guilt outweighs the possibility of Joseph’s forgiveness. But Joseph breaks the cycle. In untypical human fashion, he doesn’t repay his brothers for their evil deeds. He no longer carries the baggage of bitterness and anger that accompanies an unforgiving heart. Joseph’s brothers expected nothing better than retribution. But Joseph extends forgiveness – a reminder of the kind of forgiveness that God shows to us.

We love because God first loved us. If we want to be forgiven, we must forgive. Jesus sums up this ethic by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is truly a golden rule. Every great religious belief, has a version of it for people to follow.
« Judaism says it this way: “What is hateful to you, do not to others”
« The Hindu faith says it this way: “Do naught to others which would cause you pain if done to you”
« Confucianism tells us “Do not to others what you would not have them do unto you.”
« Islam says: “No one is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself”

The golden rule is held in balance by another spiritual law: “The judgment you give, is the judgment you will receive. What you sow is what you will reap.” I cling to this law the most when dealing with those whom I would rather not deal with - those whom I feel like harming rather than healing. I try to tell myself, “Count to ten Matt - and at every count remember that what you do here and now will come back to you in abundance. Forgive - because you need lots of forgiveness. Bless, because you need lots of blessing.”

How would you have others treat you? What measure of forgiveness do you want to receive from God when you feel like you can’t fix what you’ve done? What judgment do you want to live with - both here, and in the world to come? May your choices about who to love be good choices. Praise God for abundant of grace, the grace that loves and forgives us even as we struggle to love and forgive others.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace.
Heather Zydek, ed., The Revolution
The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: Genesis

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...