A sermon preached at North Chevy Chase Christian Church on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Let me just start by saying, In fact, some of my pastor friends just can’t believe I’d be brave (or stupid enough) to pick it for my focus scripture this morning. (Did you read this text? Click on the link above before you move on).
But hang on. Let's see what we can uncover . . .
It has often been said by many sociologists that our view of the Divine as an adult has a lot to do with our experiences of childhood.
Was our father or mother kind, loving and merciful when mistakes were mad? Then, we probably have room in our heart to view God in this way too.
Was our father or mother absent, inattentive, or making promises they could never keep? Then, we probably have little vision to see God in any other way.
Was our father or mother cruel, abusive and manipulative? Then, we probably get stuck in this place often—not realizing God could be something different.
Our parents, for good or for bad, shape us, mold us into grown up beings with distinct ideas about how loved we are, how valued we are, and how all this changes (or not) when we mess up.
And with all of this true-- especially if we grew up in angry or unstable households--- passages like this one from Jeremiah 4 can be hard to swallow. For they can perpetuate our hunches about God as someone we can’t trust or be in relationship with.
Verse 11 begins like this: “At that time, it will be said to my people and to Jerusalem: a hot wind from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my people . . . Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.”
(I know these are some less than positive words to hear, but hang with me for a minute).
Commentators help us see that Jeremiah 4 is situated within a part of the book that speaks of the nation of Judah’s sins. And these are the sins:
And not only this, but going back earlier in the chapter helps us see that Judah will soon be taken over by the Babylon—another country that did not fear the Lord either. An all out rebellious situation.
So from God’s perspective--- it’s as if everywhere God looks in the world—God can’t find a righteous community God can’t find groups of people who are seeking out the Holy. God does not see anyone using their lives to bring about love, justice or peace in the land.
Verse 22 says: “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled at doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” Well, now. Alright. Let’s just pause for a minute right here.
Harsh words, wouldn’t you say? But very clear ones too. Judah was actin’ a fool. There was just no other way to describe it.
So by time we get to verse 28 we hear the punishment: “Because of this earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”
As I read this passage this week, I couldn’t help but have visions of an event that happened 15 years ago today running through my head.
Visions of the day when a city turned into black rubble, smoke and ash. Visions of the great destruction that feel so unexpectedly on our land—a day we will remember by asking one another “Where were you when the planes hit the towers?”
And while reading this passage with visions of that 9/11 day, I couldn’t help but think of all the commentary some offered as to why this horrific event occurred.
Do you remember the story that hit the airwaves less than a week after 9/11/2001 happened?
The Rev Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson asserted on US television interview that an angry God had allowed the terrorists to succeed in their deadly mission because the United States had become a nation of abortion, homosexuality, secular schools and courts, and the American civil liberties union.
These two leaders said America was getting the punished we deserved for not following God’s will on these social issues.
Their words, as you might remember were not readily accepted by Christians or even the general public. But they stuck by them anyway while many other pastors, including those of our denomination scratched their heads and said, “We don’t believe in a God who punishes like that.”
And I can imagine that few if any of you would agree with what Falwell and Robertson said about that day.
So how then do we situate ourselves with this picture of God in Jeremiah 4?
What’s most interesting to me about the choice of language of the passage are the kinds of pronouns used. Did you hear how God referred to the people in verse 22? “For MY people are foolish.”
The word “my” is a pronoun of belonging. We use it when we speak of things or people important to us, don’t we? My house. My car. friends. My child. And even more so, to say that someone is “my people” is a term of endearment, isn’t it? If I were to stop here a list for you this morning those who I consider among “my people” then I would be telling you about my very best friends, wouldn’t you?
I think it’s important to note because it shows us that God is not treating the rebellious nation of Judah with an arm's-length relationship.
No, God is saying, speaking in the lovingly yet firm tone a father might speak to his teenaged son who stayed out till 2 am when they were to be home at 11 for the 5th time:
“My boy, I’m tempted to take your butt to where the sun doesn’t shine.” (or fill in your favorite expression here).
And I think in the same way as father who with a teenaged boy who has kept making bad choices—God speaks to Judah.
Jeremiah 4 is a loving reprimand. It’s a prophetic word not about wanting to be “that mean man upstairs” or the source of evil happening the world, but rather the restorer of the relationship, longing for the relationship to be made right again above all with human kind.
And, things get even clearer as we take a step back from the passage and notice how many times in the text the word “Looked” (or in my Bible the word “see”) is used within the passage. Professor Portier-Young offers us this gem: it’s the same Hebrew word used in Genesis chapter 1 when God looks upon creation and says, the God “sees that it was good.”
The connection between the two texts helps us SEE this intention of the Lord: re-creation.
Judah has messed up. Babylon has messed up. Later readers of the text like you and me have messed up.
The only solution is to start over!
And in order for this to happen, we too, much see what we maybe don’t want to see:
A world that is deeply broken and that has fallen short of God’s best plans.
A created world that groans with the consequences of our evil ways as a collective whole.
And a heavenly parent who allows us to experience the effects of our actions.
And in seeing the world as it really is, then, and only then, Jeremiah helps us to realize can we move forward with God in paths of righteousness once again.
Look with me again at verse 28: “For I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.”
It’s a declaration of unending relationship. It’s a way of saying, “No matter how many times you mess up, I still will be here.”
While I could never find myself in camp of Falwell and Robertson—saying that 9/11 was somehow God’s punishment for our sins —I do think that we miss the mark as Christian people when we don’t take responsibility for our actions, when we don’t ever say we’ve sinned, we don’t fall to our knees and lament.
For when we allow the news commentators to be the loudest voices on days like today—voices that will blast our American supremacy without taking an honest look at who’ve we become as an American people—we miss our prophetic witness as a church.
For isn’t it true?
We are a people who take advantage of the poorest among us by laws that favor the rich.
We are people who devalue others through our offerings of less than adequate schools, healthcare and social services for those who are have brown skin.
We are people who cast aside the untouchables among us: the elderly, the imprisoned, the foster children—allowing them to live their lives without contact and care from us.
And I could keep going and going....
Sometimes God doesn't like what we do. Sometimes we have to make peace with our consequences. And always LAMENT is the only way forward.
So before you rush off to something else-- think about this question:
Where have we as a nation fallen short of loving and caring for our neighbors as the scriptures have told us time and time again to do?
It could be racism.
It could be low wages for the most vulnerable among us.
It could be how we treat immigrants.
The thing is that we’d probably not all agree what we need to lament over as a nation. And that’s ok. It’s a part of the diversity that makes our human family so beautiful.
But, stop right now and write something down. Offer to God in prayer.
Let us be hearers of this text by stopping to take responsibility for how WE as a collective people have missed the mark. Then and maybe then, we won't see God as one who punishes, but a God who longs for us as a people to be WHOLE.
Join me for a conversation with Psalm 63:1-8 . . .
Several years ago a dear friend of mine called me one day to say that she was dating someone new. The longest dinner date, she told me, turned into a dinner date the next night and they’d really been inseparable. And things got serious fast . . . already re-arranged their upcoming Christmas plans to spend the time with one another's families. While my friend sounded really happy (and so I was happy for her) the conversation jarred me.
Truthfully, it made my head spin.
But all I knew was that my friend couldn’t stop talking about her new love. I mean really talking about him. By the time I hung up the call I knew I could not only pick her fella out of a police line up if I had to, but I could write an essay on him too! I knew all about his tastes in flowers, his love of only the best ice cream (Blue Bell, she told me) and the fact that he always perfectly shinned his shoes before he left the house in the morning.
Though I was glad to listen, it almost felt like I was eavesdropping in on a private lovebirds conversation that wasn’t meant for me as she went on and on. I wasn’t in love with him, she was! But, how poetic he sounded!
In the same way as we read Psalm 63, we too might feel like we’re eavesdropping. For this Psalm presents us a conversation between two people who love each other very much. So it might feel to us a little bit awkward too.
For David speaks of a relationship he has with God. And it’s his relationship. But not ours (or is it?)
He begins by saying this about the Lord: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
Dramatic opening sentence isn't it? I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to go without liquids or water for a long period of time. But you simply can’t. Science tells us that our bodies are made up of 60% water and we can only go without for 3 days until they begin to shut down. Dehydration can seriously kill. So what a vivid point!
He can not live without God. And it’s not an intellectual pursuit. It's a pursuit of the actual presence of God.
For David feels confident in the One in whom he adores saying in verse 2, “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.”May commentators say that David was actually writing from the sanctuary, otherwise known as the temple, one of the holiest place in Judaism. And possibly that David was staying up all night praying, seeking answers from the Lord. But then there are others who believe that this phrase “looked upon you in the sanctuary” was just as expression of closeness.
And as a result, he’s got to get his praise on.
Verse 3: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as a long as I live; I will lift my hands and call on your name.”
Bottom line: David's longings have a physical component. David can’t help but speak words about God from his mouth.
David can’t help but turn his posture in response to what the Lord has done in his life.
David can’t help but lift up his hands simply say, “Thank you, God” for giving him life.
So much so that verse 6 David goes on saying about the Lord: “I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help.”
I love this part of the Psalm for it’s so practical. I can just imagine David lying down on the ground and having the thoughts of God consume him making him unable to sleep. Tossing and turning filled with joy.
And it’s awesome language isn't it?
In fact, I dare say that these words of David might just overwhelm us.
Maybe in the same way as we encounter the “my new man or my new woman” is the greatest thing since sliced bread soliloquies from our friends . . . We don’t know God like David knows God.
For as much as our resume says we’ve been a member of a congregation since cradle roll . . .
For as much as our day planner says we’ve been committed to a particular church and its activities for years . . .
For as many songs we’ve sung, prayers we’ve prayed and sermons we’ve heard, we might just land in the place with Psalm 63 as our mirror and have one response:
I don’t know a God I’d thirst for in a dry and weary land where there is no water . . ..
A God I’d hunger for until my soul is satisfied with a rich feast . . .
A God I’d stay up late into the night for. . .
I don’t know a God like this.
Maybe those who do know, we believe are only the religious types like nuns or priests or pastors. Maybe it's for the more spiritual minded or expressive ones in the pews (and that's not us!).
For as many hours in my life I spent as a good church kid to the days and days of coursework in seminary and then to the years and years of full-time employment with the church—there was a moment in my life a couple of years ago where I realized I didn’t know. I too didn't know.
I didn’t know the God David speaks of.
Sure, I knew a lot of facts about God.
Sure, I knew how to lead organizations of God.
And sure, I’d committed to a relationship with God through my baptism and ordination vows years before. I voiced prayers on a weekly basis. And of course I wouldn’t have called myself anything other than a Christian. But I didn’t know. I didn’t really know.
And for this reason, I rarely preached on the Psalms. All of them sounded too much like one of those “Jesus is my boyfriend” worship songs I called annoying. Plus, so many of the Psalm felt bi-polar: “I love you God” in one verse and “God you’ve despised me to my enemies” in the second. Couldn't the Psalm writers just make up their minds already?
But through deep valleys of some of the hardest imaginable experiences in my life (the hard stuff we all go through if we live long enough), I started to read the Psalms again.
And from reading them and talking about them with friends, I uncovered a life changing truth: God of the universe, the God of all of creation, the God of all of the heavens loved me. Yes, loved me very much.
God loved me, Elizabeth Hagan.
There are really no other words (if words at all!)
When we know God loves us our bodies just want to sing with gusto, lift up our hands, and shout in thanksgiving. And we might just shed a tear or two.
In fact, this is why I believe that David ends with this particular description of God in verse 7: “For you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”
Do you hear the personal pronouns in this passage?
For YOU have been MY help.
I will sing for joy.
MY soul clings to you.
It's not that the larger community isn’t important (No we just have to read some of David’s other corporate Psalms to see how strongly he feels about this!) or that we don’t have acts of service to do out in the world.
BUT, David’s models for us the personal nature of knowing God. For, life with God is always about our being loved individually.
The God of the universe wants to satisfy your soul with a rich feast! Really. What an amazing invitation!
It's good news. It's really the best news of all.
In my childhood church, when we prayed, we always prayed to our “Heavenly Father” and we called God “He.”
And because this was true, if you really wanted to be seen as extra holy, you’d be sure to capitalize in writing any pronoun reference for God or Jesus as He to show you held high regard for God's divinity.
But when I entered seminary in 2003, I thought I had arrived at the only “proper” or “theologically sound way” to talk about God.
No more "He" and no more "Heavenly Father."
All of this came about thanks to my studies in feminism. After reading and discussing texts new to me like Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissent Daughter and taking a class from Professor Mary McClintock Fulkerson on Womanist theology, I’d arrived at an epiphany. No, no. Never again would I pray to God in male dominated language.
And it stuck for awhile. I have to admit I looked down on those who still referred to God as He.
In fact, a couple of years later, I dared to correct my husband’s dinnertime prayer (Gasp!), in which he addressed God as, “Heavenly Father."
I reminded him in what he calls my preacher tone of voice: “If he was going to say Father than he needed to say Mother too.”
I’ve barely since lived such down ("the prayer criticizing incident" as we now refer to it) and it's not one of the shining days of our married life for sure …
This conversation and many more brought me to these questions: "Is this what speaking about God is all about . . . converting people to believe exactly as you do? Being the boss of other people's prayer words?"
For so many of us, faith is altogether personal. Who am I to try to take that away from someone?
Anne Lamott has become famous for saying:
And it’s true, isn’t it? While it is easy to create an agenda that you think is the “proper way” or the “right way” or the most “theologically astute way,” it’s not always the God way.
And as I've journeyed for almost 10 years now as an ordained pastor, what I've found is that the church is FULL of people with completely different experiences of God than me. And they talk about God differently than I do. So though we might see the world differently-- I don't want to be isolated from them. I want to stay in relationship.
Professor Roberta Bondi of Emory University's Divinity School says in her volume, To Pray and to Love this about being open to the Spirit in one another: “the goal of life . . . if you want to live by love is not to live by principles . . . rather relationship.”
So, how do I refer to God now?
Lots of names.
Sometimes even names that may be considered improper.
And if you pray at the dinner table at my house, you can say whatever you want. I promise!
I hope the days of my self-righteous innocence are gone. Though I try to avoid pronouns for God as much as possible. "God" alone is enough in my writing and speaking.
You'll hear no complaints from me if you call God Father. Just think about why. This is all I ask.
Because isn't God really a mystery?
We need all of our experiences to even begin to understand, don't you think?
Lessons from the First Family: You are Beloved
A sermon preached on Genesis 1:26-27 at the Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
I’ve had one of those weeks when my message to you could be summed up in one sentence.
Let me explain there’s a story . . .
In my tradition, ordination is a function of the local church. During a special service the pastor-to-be is called out, charged with words of exhortation and endorsed by a congregation. On the day of the event, the candidate comes forward (usually at the end of the worship service), kneels and the entire congregation is invited forward, one by one to place their hands on the candidate’s head. Each congregation member speaks a word of blessing toward the candidate.
On the occasion of my dearest seminary friend, Abby’s service, I was so excited. I had watched her embrace her call to ministry. I loved the woman she was becoming. I couldn’t have been prouder to be her friend. Since I am a person who loves words and not just any words, but the right words, I wanted my blessing on her ordination to be perfect. For the entire week leading up to her service, I practiced what my words might be.
But, then the emotions of the ordination service got to me. I started crying tears of joy and crying more tears of joy.
So when the time came for me to lay hands on Abby, I could not get my thoughts together at all. All those long speeches I’d created in my head about the beauty of her gifts for ministry and how God was going to be with her wherever she went did not come to my lips.
As I approached her all I could come up with to say was, “God loves you and so do I.” And then sat down.
Abby and I still laugh about this shared moment even today about my snot and tear filled blessing.
But in even in its simplicity, it’s one of the greatest gifts I could ever relay to you: God loves you.
Yes, God really loves you. Not just some of you, my Federated Church friends, but all of you.
It’s a simple statement, but it’s one that I fear few of us, myself include actually internalize.
Because when so many of us think about God, it’s often not God’s overarching, unending, unconditional love that bubbles up in our minds and hearts. Rather, it’s words like judgment, sin or even righteousness.
Though we know that scripture tells us that God has loved us with an everlasting love from generations to generations . . .
Though we know that God has called us God's children . . .
Though we know that God is slow to anger an abounding in love . . .
It’s another thing for such a deep truth to seep into our being.
For our culture and the stories from which our lives come are full of messages much to the contrary.
Our culture says love is conditional. If we do ____ then we are loved.
Our culture says love is moody. The love of others can come and go as fast a Oklahoma wind sweeps across the plains and the temperature can change from 25 to 75 degrees.
Our culture models love is self-centered. People love us based on what they can get out of their affection for us instead for the sheer delight of loving.
But, yet from the very beginning of the creation story as told in Genesis, God shows us what love us way that dispels all of these misrepresentations of love.
Our reading for this morning tells us this about how humanity came to be. God says: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.“
Of all of creation, God wanted there to be a creation that was beloved, that was special, that would be called out to be in relationship with the Creator.
And this is the bottom line: We are told that God creates us in God’s image.
As we begin our Lenten series this morning—focusing our attention on the first family— and their experience of being human, what a great place to start to land on this passage.
Though the word “love” is not used in these verses, I could not help but title our first descriptive sermon today, “You are beloved” because love is a theme spoken yet unspoken in these verses.
Remember the last time you were around a child around the age of 4 or 5—in my opinion some of the most delightful years of childhood where the imagination is full active and the possibilities of articulately bonding in relationship with others is possible.
Several years ago when a nephew of mine was in this stage of life, the time I spent with him couldn’t be more delightful.
He’d follow me around the house when we came to visit. He’d bring books to me to read and snuggle up with him in bed. He’d want to hold my hand as much as he could. He’d sit in my lap bounding up and down with happiness when I’d promise to watch a show with him.
But, then he’d do performances modeling my tone of voice and mannerisms and wearing my jacket or scarf. He’d say, “I’m playing a game pretending to be Aunt Elizabeth.”
Because isn’t the popular expression true: “Imitation is the best form of flattery?”
And such is also true in how God feels about us. For you don’t create something, my friends in your image if you don’t like them!
And God more than likes us. God loves us. Not just part of us, but all of us.
To be told that we are created in God’s image, in God’s likeness is more than being told that we part of us is acceptable or part of us come from this holiness.
No, God says, our whole being is created in this love.
So, this means it’s not just our spirit that comes from the Divine.
And not just our heart—or what we deem to be the best part of who we are.
Or not even a body part or two—you know our especially good side we want to show in photographs.
No, scripture tells us that we were created in the image of God. All of us are a part of this.
If you or I were to go and stand in front of a mirror right now, one of those full-length mirrors what would we see reflected back to us?
Would we see our hands only? Or just our feet? Or just our pretty faces?
No, we’d see ALL of us. Our likeness in the mirror would be our entire selves.
And it is exactly in this manner that we are told our being came into existence.
For the story of our humanity—how you and I came to be—began in the fullness of love. And we come to know that this is true as we study the pronoun used in this passage. Verse 26 begins with these words, “Let us”
It seems confusing at first, doesn’t it? Plural pronouns are not used are they when only one person is present? So what is this “us” business all about?
Biblical scholars throughout the centuries have helped us know that this word actually refers to the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit-- the existence of God who was with us from the beginning of time until now—the God who came to us and abides in us in community.
In C.S. Lewis’ monumental text, Mere Christianity he writes this about what our creation story has to do with our beloved status saying, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love’. But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”
Or in other words, we KNOW how much God loves us when we realize that we were created in the context of an “us.”
God loved before God first loved us. And out of that great love we came to be. In creation we were given God’s likeness.
Not merely to be stamped with an “mark” as if we were branded in some way, marked as property out of the context of relationship, BUT created in the very image of God.
One of my favorite spiritual teachers who died recently is Maya Angelou, an American writer, poet, actress and famed speaker. A couple of years ago I watched an interview with Maya where she was asked to describe one of the most significant moments in her life.
The interviewer was on the edge of her seat waiting for that moment when Maya would say something profound, I could tell. What the interviewer expected was something about a famous author or a poet she loved or even an encounter with a person she’s met during her travels all around the world.
But instead Maya tells this story of taking an online class at her church. “There’s a book called Lessons in Truth” she said. “And in the book there’s a line, which is ‘God loves me.’ And when I came to read it to my then-mentor, Frederick Wilkerson, I read, ‘God loves me.’ And he said, ‘read it again.’”
She continued, “I said, ‘God loves me.’ He said, ‘read it again, read it again.’ And finally, I said, ‘God. Loves. Me.’”
To the interviewer, Angelou then became emotional and leaned over for a moment to make sure she got the point. “I want you to really hear this,” Maya said.
“It still humbles me, that this force, which made leaves and fleas and stars and rivers and you, loves me -- me, Maya Angelou. It’s amazing!”
Maya went on: “That’s why I am who I am,” she said. “Yes. Because God loves me and I’m amazed at it and grateful for it.”
So today, my friends at Federated Church, I want you to hear this message loud and clear: God loves you.
From the first moment that our species came into being—from that first moment that our Triune God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image” we came into existence in love.
And though soon in our human story there will be mistakes made by us that separate us from God’s perfect love—the gospel truth is no matter what God never stops loving us.
Romans 8 tells us this about God’s love, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing. No nothing my friends throughout the history of humanity can ever take this truth about who you and I are away: we are beloved by God.
Such a gift is such a hard one to receive from God sometimes, isn’t it? We all so easily take on falsehoods about our identity that ignore our beloved status.
But today, church, I want to tell you this simple but profound truth: God loves you. God really loves you.
A Side of God We Really Don’t Want to See: Exodus 33:12-23
a sermon preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK
In all human relationships-- with our spouses, our children, our friends—there are ebbs and flows, aren’t there?
There are days when we wonder why in the world we ever got married, had kids or keep in touch with so and so from high school . . .
But, there are days when we love beyond any words we can articulate for love.
Maybe it was your wedding day. . . .
Maybe it was the morning your child was born . . .
Maybe it was that girl’s weekend when you laughed and laughed till the sun came up. . . .
If you’ve ever been there . . . if you’ve ever experienced such bliss in your life where you feel safe enough to ask your loved one for anything—then you’ll understand what is come in our Old Testament reading for this morning.
For Moses and God have quite a good thing going on too. And Moses thought he reached such a level of devotion and trust in God that he feels he could ask for the ultimate expression of intimacy with the Divine: show me all of you!
And it was true: Moses and God were pretty close. But how did this happen?
Emotional bonds to dear ones, in my experience, often grow out of conflict.
Times when either you’ve made it through what feels like the unforgivable sin, only to realize the other person is a saint enough to forgive you. Or times when everything is swirling around you and it becomes a case of you and your partner against the world.
And for Moses and God, they’d experienced both!
If we go back one chapter earlier than we read in our text for this morning, what we’ll find is the great calf incident when the conflict came.This was the scene: for many months, Moses is up on Mount Sinai having holy time with the Lord—receiving the words of the law on the tablets, written by God very own hand. Can you imagine what an amazing experience that was?
But, in Moses’ absence the people gathered at the bottom of the mountain. They talk about how lost and left out they feel. They collect all the gold they can find in the camp and create an object to worship, in the shape of a calf, creating their own object to worship like the other religious traditions of the time. They ignore the 10 commandments (which they already had), and each man and woman does what is best in their own sight.
You can imagine how well this went over when God saw what was going on and Moses came down the mountain. . . .
The divide between Moses and the people was thick in the air.
In verse 9 of chapter 32, the Lord speaks of it saying, “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”
Since there is a chapter 33, we know that the Lord’s anger does not get the final word. The people are allowed to live. But like misbehaving teenagers, God grounded them (or in Biblical terms: God sent them a plague).
You can imagine how this changed the dynamic of the relationship between God and Moses—both in God’s disappointment with the people who Moses was seeking to lead and in “you and me” against the world sort of way. Moses was truly the one human being that God could trust.
In fact, earlier than we just heard read a few moments ago, we learn that God and Moses had taken their relationship a notch or two closer together.
Moses traveled a good distance outside the camp and pitches a tent where he could be with God alone. It was the ultimate man-cave if you will. A place where Moses could revel in his beautiful relationship with the Divine without the pesky less mature human-lings able to bother them . . .
In fact, verse 9 says of the splendor of this tent: “ As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.”
Moses and God were BFFs and everybody knew it.
All was be swell, right? But let’s recap. These were not two schoolboys. It was God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth!
But, in this cloud of closeness, Moses wants even more.
“We’re so close, God” Moses says. “And I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me.”
“Very true.” God replies.
“So, can you promise me a thing or two?”
“What do you want Moses?”
“I want you to go with me. You—just like we are in this tent.”
And as the conversation continues, God says no. You can’t have out there what we have in this special place of meeting. But you can have my presence and peace wherever you go.
(Isn’t that something that we ought to go back to more often? God says we are never alone and can always have the Lord’s presence and peace wherever we go).
But it wasn’t enough for Moses. He asks the Lord to “Show me your glory, I pray.”
But the Lord says, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
And instead, the Lord offers up his backside. It’s not what Moses wants to see. It’s not what Moses asks for. And it is a reminder of the fact that God was not just another pal.
But, wow, as many commentators of this passage relate, what God offers is more than what most have seen of God throughout the scriptures: a visual encounter. And, Moses already had a visual encounter with the Holy at the burning bush a few years back!
Humorously, Professor John Holbert of Perkins School of Theology in Dallas asks this question about the passage: “Is it possible that God is mooning Moses?”
I don’t know about you, but it’s not the sight of God I’m dreaming about seeing one day—a mooning.
And we get no indication as the story continues that Moses was thrilled about it either.
I think this is the case because we are a people who like certainty. We say to our co-workers and children, “Look me in the eyes when I am talking to you.” We say to a friend telling us a story, “Are you sure those facts are true?” We say to our partners: “Are you sure that you love me the most?”
In our closest relationships, we want to know that we know that we know!
And the same is true, I think in our relationship with the Divine. We want to know that we know that we are on good terms. We want to know that we are loved and cherished. The side of God we most want to see is what is found in the light of day where all is very CLEAR!
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her newest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark about our fascination in modern Christianity with certainty and what can be known in the light. In fact she gives it a label saying what you find in most churches in America is “full solar spirituality.”
She says you’ll know a full solar church when you find because: “Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.”
And while it works well for awhile—I mean who doesn’t like to go to one of the Disneyland of churches everyone is so happy and helpful? It can’t be sustained and remain authentic.
Things happen like: “you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says.”
And in cases like this, solar spirituality churches say just pray harder, just have more faith, or trust that everything happens for a reason!
Have you been told things like this from a church you attended? I know I have.
Taylor—most helpfully though, gives us another vocabulary for what our life in communion with God can be, though it is a side of God that we don’t often want to see.
She calls it “lunar spirituality”—or learning to walk with God in the dark.
And though most of us hear the word “dark” and think, oh, that must be bad. It’s not. Darkness can be a gift of clarity. Because if we think about it—even in the darkest night there’s always some light!
When is the last time you took a walk outside of the city limits at night? Do you remember what you saw?
I’m a city girl and don’t get out much into the country in the evenings. But the last time I visited my in-law at their farm in Georgia, I can remember being overcome with the light of the stars I had not seen in a very long time. It took my breath away in fact to stop and behold the glory of the night sky, of God’s creation—that I’m usually so in a hurry to get inside for that I miss.
Taylor affirms this when says, “The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be a human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, failing down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”
It’s as if our vocabulary of God has got to change if we really want to know the Lord! For the God of the dark nights, the God of the backside view, the God of the mysterious, who can feel so close to us in one moment and distant in the next: is who God is.
And though it might not be the God want to see—as Moses experienced it, if we follow the path of God’s kingdom, it is what it is going to be.
St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Those of us who wish to draw near God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is the sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.”
And while the theology of “solar spirituality” or “God is the light” are part of our journey—it’s just NOT what we’ll experience all the time.
Like in our relationships with our spouses, our children, and friends, we aren’t going to be in total harmony 100% of our journeys together, even more so with our relationship with God. There are going to be times when we are in the dark. There will be nothing we can do about it, except to sit, to walk and to learn from God there.
We learn that God is altogether not like us.
We take comfort in the fact that God is not like us—and we can’t see all of God’s glory—because the problems of our lives, of our world need a much bigger solution than any human can even wrap their brains around!
And most of all, we are transformed by a side of God that is not like us.
As we wait in the dark we are transformed by God’s grace.
We are transformed by God’s compassion.
We are transformed by God’s sovereignty.
So that as we go through the days of our lives, we aren’t so surprised when the worse possible things happen to us and when the dark nights of the soul come.
We have the capacity to believe when God says; I will send you forth with my presence and my peace. And so we go forth into the world differently, even when the darkest nights surround us.
Though this may not sound like good news to you today, church, I am going to boldly tell you that it is.
It’s good news for all of us who have found ourselves in seasons of life that we really didn’t want and bouts of sadness that just won’t go away.
It’s good news for all of us who have ever doubted our faith or wondered if we were really a Christian.
It’s good news for all of us who like to sit out at night and gaze at the night sky feeling overwhelmed by how vast this universe really is!
Sure, there’s a side of God that none of us might ever want to see, just as Moses experienced long ago, but there’s a lovingly mystery waiting to meet us in those moments when we feel farthest away!
Thanks be to God.
[P.S. If you'd like to read the introduction to Barbara Brown Taylor's book, check it out here. Great stuff!)
I grew up in the type of Christian community that would frequently say things like:
"Work on your relationship with God above all else."
And, "If you let anything come between your relationship with Jesus, then your faith is off track."
For while the intention of such teaching was probably was something like, "Make your faith life as a priority" (which is probably something that would come out of my mouth, even today) what I heard in my head as child was, "You can't have friends who you'd count closer to you than God."
As if friendship was some sort of divine vs. human competition . . .
It was as if God could not be present to us in my friends. . . .
But as much as I grew to love the divine presence in my life as teenager and college student-- sometimes Jesus' presence (in a spiritual sense) wasn't enough for me.
I needed friends. I didn't think Jesus made me to be so lonely.
I'll say it again: I needed friends. Having Jesus in my life didn't take this from me as hard as I tried to believe it would.
But, the church seemed to keep saying "Pursuing close friends would make Jesus jealous."
When I was in seminary and the relational bolts within me began to shift, I had a spiritual director who provided a light bulb moment. She kept noticing how uncomfortable I became when friends got too close to me. And she was right, I didn't like the vulnerability that it required. I was scared in fact. I thought, was I somehow cheating on Jesus if I really loved my friends? Would people really like me if they actually knew me?
But then this was the sticking point that she offered: "You can only be as close to God as you allow yourself to be to other people."
Of course this is not an "always true" statement (for there are countless faithful folks called to the ministry of monastic life or even hermit life for the reasons of prayer and un-interrupted communion with God), but I think there's great wisdom in it.
We can only be as close to God as we allow ourselves to be with other people.
There's power in community isn't there? In deep and abiding community with others the real stuff of our life comes out.
And by this I don't mean community with friends you have dinner with causally once a month or friends from the bleachers at your kids' soccer games-- I mean authentic friendship: those who know what makes you afraid, those who have seen you cry uncontrollably and vice versa, and those who can look in your eyes and know you're stewing about something even without you having to utter a word.
With people like this, there's no hiding. There's no major missing puzzle pieces as to what makes you tick held from the other. There's no shying away from the most unlikable parts of our personalities. It's really honest living for sure.
And when we get this honest-- I believe, our God who is the author of all truth shows up!
Roberta Bondi in her book, To Pray and To Love writes this: "The fulfillment of our deepest purposes and profound longs for God can never be separated from our love of God's own images among whom we live."
We learn about God, she is says, as we abide in relationship with those closest to us. In fact, we are MISSING out on parts of the personality of God when we don't get close to others.
Bondi even goes as far to write that the lack of intimacy many of us have in prayer occurs because we've never really learned how to talk openly and honestly to others. If we can't talk honestly with another human being, how could we talk honestly with God?
Bottom line is this: one of the most spiritual acts you and I could pursue right now and in the weeks to come is deepening our friendships. It might be the single greatest thing we could do to learn how to be closer to God.
It has taken me many years to shake off the baggage of my childhood in this regard. But I'm so glad I'm in the process of re-wiring all of this within me.
In friendship we both get to learn about and practice what it means to abide in God's love. So anybody got a friend they need to call today? Or meet for lunch soon? I know I do.
Resurrection Unfolding: Openness
Preached at Broadneck Baptist Church, Annapolis, MD
I don’t know about you, but it is easy for me to think at certain points of my own story of faith that I have “arrived” at what is the right way. That I’ve finally had enough education, enough life experience, enough personal reflection to make a sound judgment on what I believe on a particular issue is right.
I’ve talked to enough people.
I’ve read enough books.
I’ve been in church long enough. My mind is made up and that’s that.
Before I entered seminary in the summer of 2003 one such moment in my life occurred. I had figured out, or so I thought at the time, the only “proper” or “theologically sound way” to talk about God.
All of this came about thanks to a new friend introducing me to a new genre of books: feminism. These new books I began reading described the world in ways I’d never heard of during my 20+ years of growing up in small, Southern Baptist centric Tennessee towns.
In my childhood church, when we prayed, we always prayed to our “Heavenly Father” called God “He” and if you really wanted to be seen as extra holy, you’d be sure to capitalize in writing any pronoun reference for God.
But after reading and discussing texts new to me like Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissent Daughter, I believed I’d arrived at an epiphany. I’d been taught all wrong. No, no. Never again would I pray to God in male dominate language. Never again would I use the word “He” to refer to God. God wasn’t a man or a woman after all—I believed so why did we refer to God as such?
As part of my new personal practice of referencing God without a gender association, I simultaneously started looking down on those who weren’t as “enlightened” as me. I don’t believe such was intentional. Or even such thoughts often left the confines of my brain.
But, because I’d made up my mind on this—openness to others was out of the realm of possibilities.
In fact, one time, I dared to correct my husband’s dinnertime prayer, in which addressed God as, “Heavenly Father.” Later, I reminded him in my serious preacher tone of voice: “If he was going to say father than he needed to say mother too.” You can imagine how well that went over and I’ve barely since lived such down (the prayer criticizing incident as we now refer to it as)—not one of the shinning star days of our married life for sure …
But is this what growing in our faith is really supposed to look like? Illumination that puffs us up with self-righteousness and isolates others who may think or have a different experience of God than we do? Is this what resurrection unfolding in our lives becomes?
I know that for these past four weeks, Pastor Abby has been helping you stick closely to the idea of resurrection as a season, of resurrection as something that is not a one-time experience, but something that unfolds and finds resonance in surprising ways over time. And such is certainly the case with our resurrection story for today.
In Acts 11, we find a story that asked Peter and asks us, as readers, today to reconsider how open we are to the fresh wind of the Spirit moving among us. Especially as the Spirit’s wind moves through our most cherished set of religious, spiritual, Biblical, or whatever you want to call them beliefs—and says:
Why are you excluding those who believe differently from you?
And, what might you learn about God if you include them?
What I find most interesting about Acts 11 is that it is not the first time we’ve heard the details of the interaction between Peter and Cornelius. Probably the tale you’ve most heard read of this story (if you’ve heard it before) comes from the Acts 10.
In Acts 10 we learn that Peter—the disciple of Jesus, Peter—has a vision while he is on the roof praying. In this vision he see the heavens being opened and a something like a large sheet coming down from heaven full of all kinds of animals. And Peter, hears a voice saying, a voice he believes to be the Lord: “Get up, Peter. Kill and Eat.”
Such a directive did not seem to Peter to be of the Lord. For this word of “eat whatever kind of meat you’d like” went against everything he’d believed to be true about purity.
And not just the kind of purity for purity sake, but prescribed words from the Torah, words that told generations of Jews what relationship with God entailed. There was just no way that the Lord would ask him to associate with people like that!
But after asking the Lord again, Peter receives confirmation that he’d indeed heard correctly. And before Peter could over think his way out of his vision, several men from the household of Cornelius, a non-Jew (who also just had a vision from the Lord about making contact with Peter) showed up. These Gentile men asked Peter and his friends to journey with them to Caesarea.
Peter goes, shares the gospel with this non-Jewish crowd at the home of Cornelius, and as a result the Holy Spirit comes upon all those who gathered. And, then, Peter could not deign that God loved these kinds of people with whom he had previously kept at arm’s length. Peter saw new life coming to this family before his eyes! Soon a baptismal service was in order to make it all official.
In this life altering moment, Peter proclaimed: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
But by time we get to the re-telling of the story in Acts 11 (where Cornelius’ name is not even mentioned specially by the way), we find Peter giving testimony to how this experience opened him up.
For word was getting back to Jerusalem and the established religious guard were upset: Jews eating with Gentiles? No way! If the purity laws were out, in the way of Christ, what was next? As is true of most conversations like this, fear paralyzed.
Yet, in the midst of it, what was Peter going to say for himself?
What follows is not an argumentative debate or even a lecture in proof texting the Torah, rather it is Peter, in a very pastoral way, in a very loving and patient way telling his story of what the movement of resurrection had looked like in his life.
He brings the conversation back to Jesus—how Jesus taught his followers that after he left the earth, the Holy Spirit would be given, the Spirit that would lead this followers in all things.
Peter gives personal witness to the fact that his heart and mind changed. Saying, in the way of resurrection there’s one sign that emerges as guide and that is: the Holy Spirit.
Peter speaks boldly in verse 17 when he says, “If then God gave them (referring to the Gentile believers) the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Or, in other words, “Listen fellas, if the Spirit is a work, you can’t discrimmate. You have to accept. You have to be open to what resurrection looks like even if it is nothing like you’ve ever considered before.”
The believers at Cornelius’ house certainly had the Spirit, and for this, Peter explained to the Jerusalem leaders that openness was unavoidable.
The first time I ever preached a sermon on the Peter and Cornelius story, I was a new full-time pastor as an associate. I had to wait my turn to preach and it when it was finally my turn to speak, I wanted it to be good—piercing, really hitting a home run. When I found out that Acts 10 was the lectionary on that day, I was thrilled. I was thrilled because I knew this text would give me the opportunity to call out the congregation on all the ways I felt their actions did not show openness to the gospel. It was a home-run in the making: for I had so much to say!
But, looking back on it now, I think the particularities of what I defined as “openness” mostly missed the point. For, when I re-read this sermon again this week, I realized that I preached a message that was in line with beliefs that held true for me at that time—acceptance of people I accepted, theology of people I believed in, and acknowledgment of doubts I had already explored in my own life. I hoped the sermon would encourage the congregation to be more like me.
But is this really what openness to the Spirit is all about? Converting people to believe exactly as you do?
Anne Lamott has become famous for saying: “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
And it’s true, isn’t it? While it is easy to create an agenda that you think is the “proper way” or the “right way” or the most “theologically astute way,” it’s not always the God way.
The Spirit really cares little for all our nonsensical categories.
The Spirit really cares little for who we think was made more beautifully in God’s image.
The Spirit really has no time to waste on those who can be approved by church councils and denominational boards for who has the most pristine theological pedigree.
The Spirit lives and moves and breathes in all kinds of people . . . even people, from our perspective, that we find very little common ground with actually often it is the Spirit moves in people we don’t agree with very much.
Professor Roberta Bondi of Emory University Divinity School says in her volume, To Pray and to Love this about being open to the Spirit in one another: “the goal of life . . . if you want to live by love is not to live by principles . . . rather relationship.”
Of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when living as God people in a particular community as you are doing here that you won’t need to be prescriptive or prophetic. Or that principles of faith don’t matter. Or that there won’t be times when the church will discern together on something and not every one will come along 100% and relationships will suffer.
But, it does mean that as we are open to the Spirit, our theology will shift as we grow and the people in whom we converse with about our faith to might just shift too. And, our church has to reflect this kind of growth.
Rather than sticking with labels people place on our faith or our communities like, “progressive” or “conservative” or “justice centric” or “evangelistic” we’ve got to be ready to move with the Spirit, even if there isn’t a label for what exactly it means.
I don’t know what kind of people in your life you have trouble seeing the Spirit of God in or welcoming in your community—
-people who strongly support a political party you don’t belong to
-people who make poorer driving decisions in the car than you do
-people who live in neighborhoods you don’t feel comfortable in
-people who live in regions of this world you don’t like too much
-people who worship with louder or softer voices than you prefer
But, regardless, we are all called out on our exclusive behavior of one kind or another and asked us to be open to the new.
For me today, if push came to shovel and you asked me how I prayed, I’d tell you I rarely use male language for God- as I have since 2003. But, I have been gently led the Spirit over the years, in particular in the last year to be more inclusive in conversation with those who do. After all, Jesus calls God His Father throughout the Gospels . . .
Not only does this make family mealtimes more nurturing and loving environment for both Kevin and me too, but it opens me up to learnings about God that I might miss if I am too stuck on the “proper way.” And, it has given me some friends back and let me to new ones too—friends that might not call God the same thing I do, but who are full of the Spirit with much to teach.
In a world of words flying across the internet and on cable tv about why this party or this type of person or this kind of church is bad for believing or doing a certain thing, what a resurrection it could be if we let the Spirit unfold in us direction.
If we let the Spirit unfold in us expanding wisdom
If we let the Spirit unfold beyond labels we place on ourselves or others
If we let the Spirit unfold in us renewed community
If we let the Spirit unfold in us most of all, love.
Our last in the series of "Sermons by Request" continued this morning. Finding out that this was the passage chosen made my head spin a little... I didn't know what I'd make of such. But in the e d thankful for this week's theological wrestlings.
One of the most important questions of faith that we all must answer, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey is, "What is my relationship to God? And God's to me?"
As we begin to answer this question, it is important to start in the beginning.
It has been said in countless formal and informal studies of the spiritual beliefs and attitudes about God of adults has much to do with the relationship he or she had with their parents. After all, our parents and our immediate family members are our first introduction to navigating the world of human relationships. From our connection with our parents, we gather a lot of inferences about the evil or the good in the world, whom we are to fear, who we are to trust, what it means to love and what punishment feels like.
But even more so than this, this association is important to pay attention to because of how we talk about God in our faith communities. After all, how we speak about God in church each Sunday usually includes a lot of parental language. We say, "Our father who art in heaven" as we begin the Lord's prayer together. We pray spontaneous prayers to our "heavenly father" or "father God" and sometimes even to "Mother and Father God." We baptize in the name of the "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." And, I know if you've been listening closely to my sermons, you've heard me say once or twice something about God as our heavenly Parent.
Blogger Lisa Beklin, recently said in a New York Times post, "Motherlode" the following about the relationship between earthly parents and attitudes about God:
When parents are more supportive of a child’s autonomy – giving her a sense that she is control of her own life – a child is more likely to see God as a more forgiving God. God is an authority figure to be respected, but he is less fearsome.
On the other hand, if parents are extremely strict and punishing – dictating every moment of a child’s life – their children are more likely to believe that God is punishing, angry, and powerful. Girls are more affected by this dynamic than boys, and the way Mom disciplines has more of an effect in this direction than the way Dad does.
And for children who have extremely strained relationships with parents – or when a parent is absent from their lives – scholars have found that children in those relationships increasingly think of God as a surrogate parent. God as the ultimate father figure. They endow God with the traits of an idealized version of the missing parent – someone who is caring, attentive, and highly involved in their day-to-day lives. He’s an understanding, patient confidant, always there to offer encouragement and support.
I don't know what gifts or challenges your parents gave you which have required potential reframing or growing from in the spiritual life of your adulthood, but I do know this, there isn't a person in this congregation this morning who didn't get at least some of your ideas about God from your family situation.
And so when we arrive at our epistle lesson from this morning-- one of your favorite texts (and in this case of how hard I found myself working to make something of this passage, I really want to know who you are)-- it might be very easy for us to read into this text what we think we know about God from our own earthly parental experiences, especially if the parents we had related to us like "the great judge" or "the angry one" or "we could never do anything right" type.
For upon first reading of this text, when it begins with the words, "for the wrath of God" our minds easily can go toward emotions of God as an overbearing, chastising, hateful parent. For the word "wrath" associated with any person's name, doesn't paint pictures of someone we really want to spent much time with. In fact, we want to spent as least amount of time with them as possible!
But, is this who God is? What does it mean for us to claim God as our parent?
The book of Romans-- a letter to the church at Rome, that we know was written by the apostle Paul, is one of the richest books of theology in the entire New Testament. It's a book that seeks to help the earliest converts to Christianity understand this Jesus whom they had put their faith in. It's a book that seeks to lay out the relationship between Judaism and the new movement called Christianity. It's a book that provides the growing communities of followers of Jesus the opportunity to think in detail about who it is that they are worshipping. And from best that we know, Paul wrote Romans to a community of both Jews and Gentiles alike-- who were living in a secular culture of worship of many gods, so they could also say as he did in verse 16 of chapter 1, that "they were not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Upon first reading of Romans 1:18-25, it seems clear to me that Paul is telling us that God has standards. And these standards of relationship begin in righteousness.
We read, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth."
Or, in other words, God's original intention for humanity seems that we were created, Genesis 1 tells us as "very good" but we made choices early on to begin to live as people outside of the bounds of how we were created to live, in complete goodness of our good God.
Ultimately there is a way that God wants to live-- in a world of all love, of all peace and all joy of the best things, but we've made choices throughout the generations and even within our own life that have robbed us of this best living.
And, in God's emphasis on righteousness, we, who as a people have fallen short of God's best for us, are loved with boundaries. We are loved-- not in a "we get everything we want" kind of way, but loved within the parameters that model for us what is better choices kind of living.
Again, here we might want to turn our noses up at God and say, "You are still talking about sin again, and am not sure I can believe a God who uses words like that."
But consider this, when is the last time you were around a family with children or a group of children that you knew didn't have parents that focused much of their time (or focused too much of their time) on their children?
Think toddler throwing food across the floor hitting other nearby customers at the restaurant with noodles or remains of chicken fingers after they've repeatively been asked nicely not to . . .
Consider early grade school child stopping crowds around them with their screams in the middle of the mall or in the parking lot of a grocery store when their mom told them they could not buy something . . .
Think smart mouth of young teen child talking back and then storming off from an adult conversation and slamming the door behind them . . .
Not that this is an occasion to single out children who like us adults, are just having a bad day and may be without the words yet to express their pain (you know, sometimes we all just need to have a good cry, even in public) but the larger point being: that without constantly reinforced consequences of poor choices-- boundaries directed toward appropriate behavior, we are not going to find our way to a better, more healthy path.
And the same is true of God, I believe, as Romans 1 lays it out for us. God loves us enough to not always say "YES" to us. Just as author Anne Lamott once wrote, "No is a complete sentence," so too God also tells us no sometimes. Saying no to us is just what God does from time to time. Look with me at verse 24, "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their own hearts." Or in other words, God allows us to reap what we sow: not to be mean, but to love!
But this does not mean that we are eternally screwed-- left out in the cold on our own, with grave consequences of our shortcomings forever damming us to a place of unpleasantness. Not, God is faithful. We are allowed to taste the bitterness of our own poor choices so that we can learn and come into deeper relationship with the Divine.
If you hear nothing else today, here this and bind these words of hope in your heart: God is a relentless pursuer of relationship with us. It doesn't matter who we are. It doesn't matter what we've done. It doesn't matter how alone we feel. God will make a way for us to be in relationship.
God is like the parent who sends their child to time out for a while to think about the consequences and then later when time is up, crawls on the floor to sit beside them to talk through things. Holding them, hugging them close, then suggesting and going with the child to an activity or way of being in the world that is more appropriate for them. Loving through presence.
Ultimately, it is that God shows us through Jesus how much we are loved. Just as we talked about last week-- through the incarnation of the holy in Jesus Christ, we are given opportunity to know and experience God as one of us. God became our Parent in Jesus Christ who came close.
Fredrick Buchner in his book, The Magnificent Defeat this about our relationship of children of Parent God:“We are children, perhaps, at the very moment when we know that it is as children that God loves us - not because we have deserved his love and not in spite of our undeserving; not because we try and not because we recognize the futility of our trying; but simply because he has chosen to love us. We are children because he is our father [and I'd add mother]; and all of our efforts, fruitful and fruitless, to do good, to speak truth, to understand, are the efforts of children who, for all their precocity, are children still in that before we loved him, he loved us, as children, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Jesus shows us the way of the love of the Father. Jesus shows us what God as Parent looks like.
But what about those, we might wander who have not heard of Jesus? What about those who have not been given exposure to the glorious grace of faith, as we have, all sitting in this room this morning? What about them?
Well, to this Paul, tells us something else about the relationship between our Parent God and all of us as God's children. We, who are made in God's image have all been given a seed of longing within us for what is greater than ourselves, for what is whole, for what, I dare say is even righteouss. In particular, our text for this morning, tells us about creation-- about the splendor of the colors, of the textures, of the peaks and valleys, of the breeze, of the sounds, and of the night lights all around us. Creation is just one example, Paul writes of how we have been given post-it notes all around our lives. We've been given post-it notes all around the house call this world in which we all reside that lead our longing back toward what can ultimately fulfill it.
Didn't the great hymn writer once say, " O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art?"
And, if not creation, something else. Unexpected relationships that just show up and redirect our paths to what is holy. Intersections with communities of faith seekers, like those found within a congregation like this one. Groups of people who are doing works of charity, not just for the sake of feeling good about themselves, but in the name of our Lord. And in all this things we are pointed on our way to God.
Bottom line-- the longing for God is something that is in all of us. If we pay attention to its tugs, it's going to put us on a search to find our truest home with God, our Parent.
Therefore, to claim God this day as our Parent, is not about what was or wasn't done to us as a child. It's not about the big man up on the throne looking down on us shaking his iron fist at us. It's not even about our shortcomings dangled in front of our face as a way of the Divine saying to us, "You are awful. I hate you."
No, rather, in spite of our sin-- our missing the mark of God's best for us, God is a loving parent who helps to draw us back to center, back to wholeness, back to healing, and back to peace through whatever means necessary. God shows us more of Jesus.
I don't know about you, but I need a parent like this. A parent who lovingly pursues relationship with me. A parent who tells me the truth. A parent who teaches me how to grow more comfortable in my own skin each day. A parent who says no. A parent who teaches me how to love others in the same way too.
Let us give thanks this day to the Father and Mother of us all- our God who has called us God's own.
Our sermons by request series continued this week with Psalm 150. I wondered what I was going to do with this text when I first read it (as I've never been very good at my attempts to preach on the Psalms), but in the end I was glad for the challenge. And what a FUN service we had. Everytime the word "praise" or "blessed" was spoken in worship, the congregation was asked to play one of the percussion instruments they were given when they came into worship. It was a joyful day of living this passage together! Thanks for reading.
Let's Praise the Lord: Psalm 150
What we say or do last often has much to say about what is most important to us, doesn't it?
Since our congregation hosts the community "Seven Last Words of Jesus" Good Friday service every year with several other local churches, I have found myself in the position of needing to wrap up the service, being one of the last speakers wrapping the afternoon up before the audience starts to growl back at us long-winded preachers. As I've prepared these sermons the past four years, one thing I've noticed about these last words of Jesus is their deep significance to the larger bulk of his teaching-- teaching about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus' final words have a lot to say about who he was trying to show us to be all along, in surrender to the will of his Father in his words, "Into your hands I commit my spirit."
And the same is true for our lives, I believe too-- not just in our dying moments but in our every day "last" moments. We usually wait till the end of a conversation, till the end of a night, till the end of a service to get to those moments which speak to the identity of who we ultimately are. For example:
When we are having a conversation with a friend or family member, what is the one phrase that we usually end the conversation with if our relationship with them is strong? We say, "I love you." Three such words powerfully express what the foundation of our connection with the other is based upon.
When we are putting our young children to bed after turning out the lights and making sure they are tucked in, what is the thing we do before we leave the room to show our love? We give them a hug or a kiss. The sheer act of physical touch conveys to our young child-- even if we are not able to communicate in words to one another yet how it s we feel about them.
When we end our worship service together each Sunday before we go share coffee hour together, what is the one thing we always do together? We hold hands, form a circle and sing what? "Make Us One." We sing with great gusto this contemporary chorus as a tangible symbol of the unifying community the church is in our lives.
In the same way, when we read our scripture lesson for today, the 150th Psalter-- or the LAST of the hymns in this great hymn book of the Hebrew scriptures, what we find, I believe is a statement about life that this book of prayers has been trying to tell us about all along.
And this is what we are told-- we are told that the highest activity we can offer in our life is that of praise. Specifically in verses 1-5, there are countless ways suggested that we might offer our praise to God.
We may praise God in God's house. We may praise God for the goodness that we see around our lives-- simply lifting up our thanksgiving to God (as we just did in the service a few moments ago) with our words.
We may use our bodies in dance as an expression of praise.
We may gather around us instruments that help us express what words simply lack.
We may beat the tambourine or the cymbals-- in fact loud clashing of cymbals to simply say back to God, "I acknowledge you. I revere you. I want to know you."
In the end, we are told that none of us is without excuse-- not even those of us who can't carry a tune or play the drums or move our body in worship without looking like we are doing the funky chicken. "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!"
Aimee Simple McPherson, a female pastor in the 1920s and founder of the Four Square Gospel Movement was known to say this, " "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord." Why, according to the Psalmist, the only excuse you have for not praising the Lord is being out of breath!"
So take a minute and take a deep breath to remind yourself if you are still breathing . . . and as you breathe out say with me, "Praise the Lord."
If you look closely with me at this Psalm, what you will notice is the ongoing use of a repetitive phrase at each stanza of this poem: "Praise the Lord!" In fact the word "praise" occurs 13 times in six verses which makes it important to pay attention to. . . Or better translated from Hebrew, "Hallelujah!"
If you've been around church for any given period of time, hallelujah is a word that you probably know. But, you might not actually know what it means. One commentator helps us out here: "To be precise, hallelu is the plural imperative of the verb hallel ("to praise"). And jah (or yah) is shorthand for the personal name of God: Yahweh. So, to put it in a Southern idiom, hallelujah means "Y'all praise Yahweh!" It is a summons not primarily to the individual reader or hearer, but to a whole community."
Praising Yahweh a big and bold and countercultural task. We are a lot better, aren't we, at telling those around us what wrong with our lives than what is right? Extending the virtue of praise over our entire lives is not exactly our first instinct. And because of this, praise is something, I believe that we cannot do alone.
How many of you have ever had an experience of coming to church on Sunday morning and by time you sit down, feeling like "What am I doing here? I'm really not in a mood to be spiritual this morning? I'm really not in a mood to worship God this morning? I'm really not a place to get anything out of the service?" (I promise I won't bite if you raise your hands in affirmation).
We've all be there, your pastor included. There are days when I wake up on Sunday morning and as excited as I was on Friday afternoon when I finished writing my sermon about what I have to say, I'm just not feeling it on Sunday morning. I just don't know if I can do it, to climb these stairs into the pulpit and say to you, "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight and in this congregation . . ."
But, like me, I bet you've also had the experience of coming into the sanctuary, being surrounded by this loving community, being drawn into the rhythm of the music or the silence of the prayers and find yourself actually commuting with God, even when you didn't think you had it in you. God has met you in community.
You could call it happenstance, but I believe that this is the power of Holy Spirit. This is the power of the Body of Christ that draws us in and helps us praise the Lord when we simply don't have the strength to muster another word toward a God that we feel ambivalent towards.
We end up, my friends in praise because we are not alone. We have brothers and sisters in Christ to help us, to stand with us, and to give our hearts reasons to sing when we simply do have any on our own.
Furthermore, we say "hallelujah" because we are we are asked in the imperative tense to simply do it. And the purpose is simple: all of life is about praise. All of life will end in praise.
When I comprehend, what I just shared with you: that all of life will end in praise, it's a completely overwhelming statement. This seems to start to merge into the territory of the great scriptural heresy those tv preachers land in when they tell us to:"just smile through the pain" or "everything is fine" or "don't cry when bad things happen, don't worry and be happy." And you know how I feel about tv preachers . . .
For remember some your favorite Psalms that came before this last chapter: Psalms of lament, Psalms of frustration, Psalms of grief-- places in scripture where ALL emotions are validated important to bring before God. In fact, it is the Psalms are is one of the deepest, darkest, most emotionally driven books of all scripture. Consider beloved Psalms like #13 which begins by saying, "How long oh Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" When God feels distant to us, according to the book of Psalms we are allowed to say how we feel.
Our God is not one who ever tells us not to cry or pout or wail if we need to from time to time. Our God never says hide your truest feelings from me. No, but we are told no matter what that all of life will end in praise.
Eugene Peterson, pastor, and author of the Bible paraphrase, The Message writes this about the purpose of Psalm 150:
This is not a 'word of praise' slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile. Don't rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs....Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on our feet, applauding, "Encore! Encore!"[i]
Ultimately, in this way, I believe that Psalm 150 is a call for us remember the end of the story as we walk through whatever life brings us. It's a call for us to struggle-- through all the days of woe is me, and doubts and fears and questions-- with confidence that the end of the story is taken care of. Death may be all around us but resurrection is coming. New life is coming. New possibilities are coming. New dreams are coming. God is coming.
It's the assurance that no matter what heights we must climb and climb again and again, life's greatest message is about hope. Hope that makes us get out of our seats and sound cymbals every now and then just as an expression of thanksgiving for the love of our God who watches over us. Hope that helps us keep walking putting one step in front of the other. Hope that helps us see the best in some of the bleak of bleak situations-- resurrection always rises before our eyes. And, all of life will end in praise of our Lord.
I don't know where your life ends up as you begin this new week-- in a place of pain, in a place of discouragement, or in joy-- but no matter if you are able to shout from the rafters or you are hanging low just trying to survive to the next day, God offer you the gift of praise today and your whole life through. It's good news of grace.
So let's just continue this hour to praise the Lord as we keep singing and ringing and playing and saying with our bodies, our words and our lives, "God we love you."
[i] 1Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row, 1989), 127.
Lent is already half-way over and is anyone dragging like me? The days of self-reflection and self-discipline seem like too much at junctures like today when I'm ready to throw in the towel and just say, "What's the point?"
I haven't been able to keep a Lenten discipline for several years now, but I'm hoping this year will be different. Not just for the sake of saying I've kept it, but because I know it is good for me. Really good in fact.
For the past couple Lents, I've pledged to start something new like adding more exercise into my life, and have found myself failing miserably. While the guilt of not doing what I said seemed to nag deeply in me, nothing changed. I've not be a great example maker in the practice of being self-focused during this 40 day (or 46 day if you count the Sundays) period of preparation of Easter.
But, feeling some new gusto this year, I opted to go back to the traditional "give something up" practice for Lent again. As I thought of what I might choose to do, I tried to be more intentional than in the past. What impulsive habit could I give up? What could I withhold that might actually make me think about the larger purpose of Lent altogether?
I chose to give up Diet Coke.
Seems simple enough, of course. Almost comparable to the popular "I'm giving up chocolate" for Lent idea. But, for me, it's not.
Giving up Diet Coke, as a non-coffee drinker, is helping me understand how dependant I was on caffeine to get through the day. Giving up Diet Coke is helping me make more intentional choices altogether with my eating. Giving up Diet Coke, I know is making my kidneys happy with me as my water consumption has hit a life-time high since Lent began. Today I am really craving soda I'm tired of drinking water ALL the time. I really can't wait for Lent to be over. I'm ready for the "normal" patterns of life and enjoyment to return.
But for those of us on this Lenten journey together as a people of faith, we're not to the finish line yet. Palm Sunday is still more two weeks away. Now is the time when the "joy" of the discipline really kicks in. What might this season be seekign to teach us?
Of course, living in Lent is greater than drinking or not drinking soda, giving up chocolate or fasting on Fridays-- it is about Jesus and spending this set a part time growing closer to him. I always tell my congregation who about this time start asking for "more joyful music" or "less depressing scriptures" that we must stay the course if we want the joy of Easter to be ours.
For this reason, I appreciate the wisdom of this word from the current pope-- though I may disagree with him on many social issues-- I hear such grace in this description of the season:
"Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life... Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters." - Pope Benedict XVI
So, as we all keep living Lent-- even if we've already fallen off the discipline wagon and are preparing to get back on-- let seek truth with the time of Lent we have left. Truth about ourselves and ultimately truth then about God. I know it will all be worth it soon enough!