Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sermon for Jan 31, 2010

This sermon, in three parts, was part of a Lectio Divina inspired worship service.

Jesus the Servant
Isaiah Ch. 52-53

--One --
In 1620, when our spiritual ancestors prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with an historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” In this powerful sentence, Robinson explained that God’s revelation couldn’t be confined. Our understanding of God is so limited, so fragile. We need to be ready for that crisis of faith – that moment when our old understanding of God doesn’t work anymore, but we have nothing new yet. “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” That is why in our tradition we read the Bible, we study ancient creeds and catechisms, and we look to the wisdom and guidance of individuals and faith communities throughout history and across cultures. It is also why we never let ourselves believe that we have read or heard all that God has to say, or all that God may be calling us to be and do.

Sometimes you have to be to let go, to release, to accept some things in order to come into this new season of possibilities. The same is true about God. It’s easy enough to believe in a God. The question we need to ask ourselves is, simply, which God? What is your image of God in whom you claim to believe? What kind of company does your God keep? What does your God ask of you? What does your God do to you?

Today we are going to think about suffering. A lot of people think that suffering happens because God is punishing sin. Let’s call it cause and effect thinking. Are you sick? God is mad at you, and you won’t get better until you get right with God. Is there a natural disaster? God is wielding unlimited power to punish us. The God of cause and effect is founded on the assumption of power. Is that your God? When you think about God, do you think the last word in sheer might and authority? Or do you think of compassion, mercy, and self-giving love? In cause and effect thinking, we need to find someone to blame. The God of power seemed appropriate. For some, their assumption about God is that He (and it’s always He), must stand for omnipotence and therefore chose to allow suffering to happen. Here’s what we fail to grasp. Gods who prevent evil and set everything right can only do so by overruling someone’s behavior. Those who get mad at God for failing to act godlike and exercise unlimited power are usually the same ones who are most offended when their freedom is taken. They want the world to be what they want to world to be, and the only god they can tolerate is the one whose will perfectly matches their own.

I think that the god of power has failed us. Any god who punishes the innocent is not worthy of our worship. It’s time for us to grow up out of the adolescent belief that God gives good to the good and sends the plague upon the wicked. If suffering is the essence of being, then God shares our destiny by suffering in it with us. God does not interfere with the way things are. We are in it together. God’s power is seen in the power to endure. This is the witness of Jesus the suffering servant – God is with us. God is with us.

--Two --
Driving through Texas, a New Yorker collided with a truck carrying a horse. A few months later he tried to collect damages for his injuries. "How can you now claim to have all these injuries?" asked the insurance company's lawyer. "According to the police report, at the time you said you were not hurt."

"Look," replied the New Yorker. "I was lying on the road in a lot of pain, and I heard someone say the horse had a broken leg. The net thing I know this Texas Ranger pulls out his gun and shoots the horse. Then he turns to me and asks, 'Are you okay?'"

Is God a Texas Ranger? Is God ready to put you out of your misery when you are already down and out? One might think so, if you read the Bible. There are some profoundly violent, immoral and unethical passages in the Bible when it’s compared to today’s secular and religious ethical systems. These passages cast religion in a bad light. They cause many people to reject religion, and may contribute to the legitimization of violence throughout the culture.

What is violence doing in the Bible? It is telling us the truth, that’s what it’s doing. It’s reminding us about our human condition. It’s telling us about the dynamics that lead to human bloodshed. The violence in the Bible shows us that we humans like to find scapegoats. We like to find someone who will carry away our sins – someone who will atone so that we don’t have to be responsible for our wayward actions. God is not the one who crushes the suffering servant. We are. We are the ones who wound and crush others for our mistakes. It’s wrong. But, it’s what we do.

Violence and suffering in the Bible allow us to hear to voices of the persecuted victims and their cried for justice. Violence in the Bible reminds us that God judges our violent ways and sides with the victims, the outcasts, and the persecuted. God loves. God embraces. God frees. And the Bible is persistent in reminding us that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

A spiritual teacher I admire named Richard Rohr once said, “The pain we don’t transform, is the pain we transmit to others.” You know how it goes. You have a frustrating day at work and so you take it out in rage against other drivers trying to get home or when you get home you kick the dog or pick a fight with your partner. We try to make someone else responsible for how we are feeling. And we know how well that works for us. There is a lot of pain being transmitted right now in the world – a lot of pain being blamed on an innocent bystander. What might happen if we realize that we are simply in pain, and God is not to blame? This is why we need each other – not to blame but to support, not to scapegoat, but to learn to see other’s pain and shadow while allowing them to see ours.

--Three --
The news from Haiti leads to a lot of questions about God. One blog I read this week sneeringly used the earthquake to make a case against believing in God at all. The writer implied that he could not believe in a God who would inflict such suffering on so many people. I have to admit; according to that definition I must be an atheist too because I don’t believe in that God either. The God I worship is not a distant judge who is cruelly indifferent to our pain. My God is not some monster who causes random calamities. My God does not make people suffer because of their sins. I worship a God who weeps; a God who suffers not only for us but with us. That’s what I see when I look at the cross – God with us, suffering with us, aching with us, bearing our pain and giving it some meaning. What can we do but confess that this is not a God who causes suffering? Our God bears suffering. God does not initiate suffering…God transforms it.

The reports that came in that first 24 hours following the quake said that when night fell on the streets of Port AU Prince people were singing hymns and psalms. Blessed be God, they sang. People were singing praises to God amidst their entire world destroyed. Yesterday, I also heard a Haitian pastor claim that God brought the earthquake because of the wickedness of the people. I really struggle with this perspective. If what he said is true, that’s a lot of wickedness. There are plenty of other wicked people in the world. Why would God lose patience with the poorest of the poor, the ones God promised to stand beside?

On his flagship TV program, “The 700 Club,” Pat Robertson said that Haitians need to have a "great turning to god" while he was reporting on the most powerful and devastating earthquake to hit the country in a century. Robertson took to the airwaves and said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, “We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the Devil said, ‘Okay it's a deal.’”

I have a message for Pat Robertson. Your 'theological' nonsense is revolting. Don't speak for Haiti, and don't speak for God. Haiti is suffering a catastrophe and you offer silliness at best, and racism at the worst. Haiti is suffering, and the only response from Christians and other decent human beings is compassion, love, and all the concrete support we can supply.
There is no reason for this destruction – but there IS meaning. And this meaning is to be found as we again become the human family of God’s new creation without country, religion, boundary or race to divide us. In this moment, we act like Jesus. We love and care for those suffering from the earthquake as if they are our own beloved family, as if we are all Haiti.

Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, 96-103.

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