Sunday, October 19, 2014

Knowing God in the Time of Ebola

(A sermon based on Job 42:1-6 and preached on October 19, 2014)

We have an Ebola situation.

One of the things that I keep hearing commentators and political figures say about that situation is, “People are afraid.” It seems to me that some of them want us to be afraid because they figure that our fear will help them get elected or reelected or will help their ratings improve.

We should not give in to fear, which is not to say that we should not be concerned.

There is a difference, though, between beings concerned and being afraid; as rational human beings we have good reason to be concerned about Ebola. We should pray for our public health officials, the doctors and nurses treating the sick, for the medical and military personnel who are in West Africa to try to help contain the spread of the disease, and for political leaders as they make decisions that hopefully will be for the good of everyone. Other than such praying, there’s really not a lot that we can do; chances that any of us will come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person infected with Ebola are so infinitesimal as to be practically non-existent.

There are long-standing epidemics in this country about which we should be much more concerned. Since 1976, there has been in the United States an average of 23,000 deaths per year from the flu. There is an average of 32,000 deaths by handguns (both suicide and homicides) in the United States each year. An estimated 300,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related diseases. So far one person has died on U.S. soil from Ebola. All others who have so far been diagnosed with the disease were people who helped treat those who were sick. (Perhaps it should be noted that if helping out someone in trouble is what exposes you to Ebola, most people—a lot of whom are, sadly, Christians— are at little risk.)

We can do something about those epidemics—we can get a flu shot (only about 45% of Americans do), we can enforce our gun laws and adopt more sensible ones, and we can lose weight. (A word to those of you who think that such observations have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ: please ponder how our Jesus-stated goal of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves should impact both the personal behaviors we pursue and the public policies we support.)

But as Christian human beings we do not have good reason to be afraid even of our real and ongoing epidemics, much less one that is not yet an epidemic on our shores. (By the way, while it is good news that only one person has died on our soil of Ebola and that no Americans have, as Christians our hearts break for the 9,000 people in West Africa who have been infected and for the families of the 4,000 who have died. An American is no more valuable to God than is a person in Sierra Leone, in Guinea, or in Liberia; they are, therefore, equally important to us, too—Christ died for them just as he died for us and they are our neighbors as surely as those who live in our neighborhood are).

Given that we have much more prevalent diseases to address, why are so many Americans so obsessed with Ebola? I think there are several reasons. One is that we don’t understand it. Another is that some folks are for their own reasons intent on getting and keeping us worked up about it. Yet another reason so many of us are obsessed with Ebola is that it comes from “over there” and we are always afraid of what the influence of “others”—meaning people who are not us—is going to do to us. As Christians, we need to move beyond such fearful and limiting attitudes and mindsets.

Again, though, even as we are concerned we should not be afraid.

Why should we not be afraid? We should not be afraid because we are Christians.

That is not to say, though, that bad things cannot and will not happen to us Christians. And when they do, we may have no idea why.

Take Job, for example. Job was a good and righteous man; yet he experienced the tragic loss of everything—his family, his possessions, and his health. As he sat with his grief and his pain, he was joined by three of his friends with whom he entered into a dialogue. His friends had Job’s situation figured out; conventional wisdom (backed by biblical teaching) taught that people were blessed by God if they did right and cursed by God if they did wrong and that was the position that Job’s friends took. Job, on the other hand, maintained that he had lived a life characterized by integrity and that he had done nothing to deserve what was happening to him. He was crushed by the silence of God; he wanted nothing more than to have a hearing before God so that God would have to acknowledge that Job was in the right and was not being treated justly.

Finally, God shows up and for four chapters makes a speech about how Job (and by implication anyone else) had no idea how the universe worked and that God and life are characterized by mystery and wonder that Job (and by implication everyone else) could never grasp. In the end Job admits that he had said too much, although—as this is very interesting—God says that Job had, unlike the friends, “spoken of me what is right” (42:7). Was God referring to everything that Job had said throughout the book? If so, then God affirmed that rightness of Job’s asking hard, probing, and challenging questions to God about what was happening to him.

In the end, Job affirms God’s majesty—God is God because only God can do and know what God does and knows. But in the end, God also affirms Job’s humanity—a full human being is one who stands before God with full awareness and challenges God if it is deemed necessary.

I have come to believe that in the end Job also affirms Job’s humanity.

The last thing we hear Job say to God is (and the NRSV translates it like most English translations do), “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6). The first part of Job’s statement seems clear enough: he has moved beyond God as a theoretical construct to be discussed to God as someone with whom to have a personal relationship. God has come to Job. In a very real way, that is for Job enough.

But the last part of the statement could just as well be translated, “Therefore, I relent and find comfort on dust and ashes” (CEB) or even “I repent concerning dust and ashes” [Samuel E. Ballentine, “Job,” Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), p. 695]. In other words, while Job accepts that there is much he can’t know, he also knows that his humanity has been affirmed by God’s coming to him. He now knows that while there is much he cannot know the same God who puts him in his place also honors his place. He embraces an expanded view of both God and of himself in light of the fact that God has come to him.

So—what if Ebola does come to us? What if some of us or our family members contract it? What if an American epidemic develops? What then?

Then we will exercise our full God-given humanity by pouring out our hearts to God in questions and laments. We will stand before God and ask “Why?” We will intercede with God for our family, friends, and enemies just as Job interceded for his children at the beginning of the book and for his friends turned opponents at the end of the book.

We will rest in the knowledge that God is with us no matter what pain and loss we experience. We will remember that like God came to Job in Job’s suffering, God came to us in ours in a far greater way: his Son Jesus died on the cross, thereby actually entering into our suffering with us.

In the 1998 film “Deep Impact,” which is about an impending asteroid strike on Earth, reporter Jenny Lerner (played by Tea Leoni) is estranged from her father Jason (Maximillian Schell). When a large piece of the asteroid hits the ocean, the two of them are standing together on a beach where their family had long ago shared happier times. Reconciled, they stand there holding on to each other as the tidal wave envelops them. In the cross, God wrapped God’s arms around us to hold us tight as we together confront the worst things that life can throw at us.

And we will live in the trust that everything is going to be all right—some day. Scholars are divided over whether or not Job held out any hope for beyond this life but now, on this side of the resurrection of Jesus, we live in the assurance that God is working God’s purposes out and that God has unfathomably wonderful plans for creation and for us.

In the short term, we won’t be afraid because we know in whose love and grace both the short term and the long term rest.

So when those folks keep saying, “People are afraid,” let’s keep answering, “No we’re not!”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grace

(A sermon based on John 1:1-18. I wrote and first preached this sermon years ago; I shared it with our Vespers congregation tonight. It occurred to me that some folks might find it helpful ...)

I know what it is like to be driven. Some of you will have experienced that dynamic in your life, too. When I was in elementary school I was not blessed with attractiveness, charm, or talent. But I discovered early on that I was good at school work. I did not have to work particularly hard to get good grades. Frankly, it was a gift. I was gifted with a love for reading and a love for learning. Exercising the gift was no problem. So, I made good grades. It felt good to be good at something.

Things changed, though, when doing well at what I was good at doing became too important to me. Before long, my self-esteem got all tied up in how good my grades were. If I made good grades, I was a good person; if I made bad grades, I was a bad person. What had been joy because it was a gift became a burden because it turned into an effort. What had been grace became works.

Really, though, the grace existed long before I found that I could make good grades. My good parents loved and accepted and embraced me as soon as I came into this old world. At that point they could not know if I would be gorgeous or plain, dull or interesting, a good student or a bad one, a jock or a nerd, sick or well, or struggling or successful. But they loved me. Why? For two reasons. First, I was there. Second, I was theirs. I existed as a human being and I existed as their child. So they loved me. They would always be there for me. They would always embrace me. That is grace—the love that comes prior to and regardless of any action that might seem to earn that love.

Henri Nouwen told of attending a bar mitzvah. After the thirteen-year-old boy had read the scripture and delivered a short blessing, he was blessed by his rabbi and his parents. Nouwen said that he could still hear the words of the father: “Son, whatever will happen to you in your life, whether you will have success or not, become important or not, will be healthy or not, always remember how much your mother and I love you.” Nouwen said that he thought, “What a grace such a blessing is” [Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 55-56].

I never had a bar mitzvah but I had the grace of such a blessing. How grateful I am.

It is not saying too much to say that Jesus himself knew such grace from his Father. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he heard the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Isn’t it interesting that Jesus heard these words of blessing from his Father before he ever preached a sermon, before he ever offered a parable, before he withstood the temptation of Satan, before he performed a miracle, before he healed a sick person, and even before he was crucified? How affirming it must have been for Jesus, as he was about to embark on his mission of service and sacrifice, to receive the love and affirmation of God the Father! The Father was pleased with him before he did anything. The Father was pleased with Jesus because Jesus was his Son.

The grace shown by my parents is but a magnificent reflection of the grace shown to me and to you by our God in the saving act that he carried out in his Son Jesus Christ. Listen:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people….
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known
(John 1:1-4, 14, 16-18).

The pre-existent Word of God, who has always been and without whom nothing was made that was made, became flesh and dwelled among human beings right here on this earth where we work, play, eat, drink, love, hurt, and live. It is so marvelous as to be almost unspeakable. Yet the Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth so that he could be seen and felt and heard and talked about. The Word became flesh so that we could see in him who God is and what God is like. Jesus was full of that of which God is full—grace and truth. Jesus fully revealed the grace and truth of God.

Now, it is true that it is “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). It is true that not everyone will receive him and so not everyone will be saved. But it is also true that God loves everybody and that God has shown and continues to show his grace to everyone. Jesus came into this world so that everyone might know about the grace of God. By his very coming he showed that God loves everybody without exception.

So I want every person here today to hear this clearly and to know it absolutely: God showed his love for you by sending Jesus into this world; that love was made most obvious in the fact that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He loves you just because you exist. He loves you because he made you. He loves you because you are precious in his sight. He will receive and accept you just as you are. Salvation is not something that you have to earn; it is the free gift of God. He loves you. He affirms you. He will save you.

Christ has all the grace that we need and from him we receive all the grace that we need. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16). About the phrase “grace upon grace” A. T. Robertson said, “Here the picture is ‘grace’ taking the place of ‘grace’ like the manna fresh each morning, new grace for the new day and the new service” [Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. V (Nashville: Broadman, 1932), p. 16]. Because you lose a good bit of moisture during a night’s sleep, it is good to know that you can have some water in the morning to replenish your body’s moisture. It is good to know that each day we can have our supply of grace replenished. From Christ we receive abundant grace and endless grace.

When we feel like we’ve had all that we can take, Christ gives more grace.

When we’ve been hurt and wronged and think that we just can’t forgive, Christ gives more grace.

When we can’t take another step, Christ gives more grace.

When we get down on ourselves and start thinking that we are worthless, Christ gives more grace.

When we start wondering if we are worth anybody’s love, Christ gives more grace.

Brennan Manning tells this story.

Recently I directed a three-day silent retreat for six women in Virginia Beach. As the retreat opened, I met briefly with each woman and asked them to write on a sheet of paper the one grace that they would most like to receive from the Lord. A married woman from North Carolina, about forty-five years old, with an impressive track record of prayer and service to others, told me she wanted more than anything to actually experience just one time the love of God. I assured her that I would join her in that prayer.
The following morning this woman (whom I’ll call Winky) arose before dawn and went for a walk on the beach which was less than fifty yards from our house. Walking along the seashore barefoot, with the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapping up against her feet and ankles, she noticed some one hundred yards away a teenage boy and a woman some fifteen yards behind walking in her direction. In less than a minute the boy had passed by to her left but the woman made an abrupt ninety-degree turn, walked straight toward Winky, embraced her deeply, kissed her on the cheek, whispered “I love you” and continued on her way. Winky had never seen the woman before. Winky wandered along the beach for another hour before returning to the house. She knocked on my door. When I opened it, she was smiling. “Our prayer was answered,” she said simply
[The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), pp. 93-94].

Every morning we can meet God afresh and hear him say “I love you.” What more do we need?

Every day Christ tells us anew that we are loved by God, that we are accepted by God, that we are saved by God, and that we are embraced by God. He takes our brokenness, our frailty, our failures, our successes, our weaknesses, our strengths, and our incompleteness and every day does a little more with us.

This is truly amazing grace!

Know today that God loves you. Know that God accepts you. Know that Christ died on the cross for you without your having to prove that you were worthy of that sacrifice. Know that he is waiting to save you. Know that he will never leave you nor forsake you. Know this little big word. Know God’s grace!

Never Alone

(A sermon based on Genesis 2:18-25 and preached on October 12, 2014)

We sometimes refer to ourselves as “people of the Book.” That is a misleading term; it is misleading because it is often taken as a description of our primary allegiance. Our primary allegiance is not to a book; our primary allegiance is to a person, to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is the one to whom Scripture points; Jesus is the one by whose light Scripture is read. We are Christians, not Biblians. We follow Jesus; the Bible helps us find our way. Jesus is Lord; the Bible is a help to us in following our Lord.

It matters how we come to the Bible; it matters what we are looking for when we come to it. If we come to it looking for proof texts to undergird our preconceived notions, we will find them—but someone of a differing perspective will find proof texts to undergird theirs, too. If we come to it looking for rules to guide our every action, we will find them—but we will soon be hopelessly confused since the rules are not always the same in every part of the Bible. If we come to it looking for discrepancies so that we can be excused from taking it seriously, we will find them—but what an experience we will miss.

I want to suggest that the best way to approach the Bible is as a story, but not just any story—it is the story of what God has done and is doing to bring about the kingdom of God, to bring about what God has always intended there to be. Now, while it is true that the Bible is made up of thirty-nine Old Testament books and twenty-seven New Testament books and that most of those books are made up of many parts that were written, edited, and collected over long periods of time, it is also true—and in some ways more true—that the Bible is a book with a beginning and an ending. Everything that occurs between that beginning and that ending is the working out of the plot. Like any good story—and this is the best story—we readers get caught up in it and find ourselves living within it. Indeed, this story invites us to find our place in it and to be alive in it.

The plot of the book begins with “Once upon a time,” with “In the beginning.” We read that in the beginning God created and what God created was deemed by God to be “good.” In the picture painted in Genesis 1, God creates humankind; God creates humankind in God’s image—“male and female” does God create them. Whereas Genesis 1 is interested in the creation of humanity, Genesis two is interested in the fact that humanity is made up of individuals. In the picture painted in Genesis 2, God creates a man from the dust of the ground; for the first time, we are told that something in God’s creation is “not good”—“It is not good that the man should be alone,” God says. So God sets out to rectify this “not good” situation; God sets out to find a companion for the man, someone to complement him. God creates the animals and brings them before the man to see what he would name them, but (thankfully) none of them is deemed suitable as a companion. Then God reaches into the man, fetches a rib, and fashions a woman out of the rib. When the man awakens and sees her, he declares “This one—she is it!” And they lived happily ever after.

Only they didn’t, did they? No, they thought that in crossing the only line that God had established—in eating of the only tree that had been prohibited to them—they could have a better life. Under the best of circumstances their life was going to be a sojourn, a journey, a pilgrimage—but now their journey was transformed into an exile. They were exiled from the garden; they were barred from the tree of life.

But there is a happy ending; you just have to wait for the end of the book to find it. In the very last chapter of the very last book of the Bible, we find a picture painted of the New Jerusalem that is at the center of the new heaven and new earth. It is portrayed as a garden that has within it the tree of life. There and then Adam and Eve—who are, after all, all of us—will finally find themselves at the end of their exile, their journey over, being who they were always meant to be.

And do any of us have any doubt that when the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, when God’s will is done completely everywhere and all the time, that our relationships will be what God intended for them to be in the beginning—relationships of equality based on mutual respect, trust, and love? Do we have any doubt that God’s goal is to restore us to the kind of relationships that God always intended for us to have?

You see, the picture of human relationships that Genesis 1-2 paints for us is one of mutual respect, vulnerability, and trust; it is a picture of equality. And that is the way that it will be between us—and it will be that perfectly—when God’s kingdom is fully in place.

Now, some of you are thinking that in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, God sentenced Eve to be subordinate. Here’s how that works: because of our brokenness and our sinfulness, because we refuse to live and to love like God intends for us to live and to love, God makes accommodations. Thus in certain times and in certain situations (in some of the situations addressed by Paul, for example), accommodations were made so that the will of God could be lived out as fully as possible in light of the social and cultural realities of the time.

But here’s the thing: we are the Church; we are the people of God; we have the Holy Spirit in us and we are being formed in the image of Christ. We pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Why then would we—why do we—settle for less than the best? Shouldn’t we move as fully toward God’s perfect will as we can? And that means that in all of our relationships and in all of our structures—be they in the home or in the church—we strive for the equality that God means for us to have. That has to do with the relationship between men and women but it also has to do with all of our human relationships.

It is not good for us to be alone. And so God made it so that we are never alone; there are always other people. It is not good, either, for us to settle for less than what God intended for us and for less than what God is moving us toward. Yes, as long as we are here it will be struggle. Yes, as long as we are here we will make accommodations in order to make the best of an imperfect situation. But by the grace and Spirit of God we can move toward being the fellowship of full equality that God intends us to be and that we will one day and for all eternity be …