Sunday, June 24, 2012

Why?

A Sermon based on Job 38:1-11 and Mark 4:35-41.


Why? 
This is a short question that we all have asked countless times. 
Why? 
It is a question that is very easy to ask, but not always easy to answer. We begin asking this question as a small child. Why shouldn’t I touch fire? Why do I have to go to bed now? Why are things the way they are?

We might grow older and ask this question a bit less often, but we still wonder – why? There is a why question that is perhaps the most powerful and hardest to answer and it is “why do bad things happen to good people?” In philosophy and theology we call this “the problem of evil” – how do you reconcile evil in the world with a loving all-powerful God?

In many times and many places – people have answered this question of “why bad things happen” by saying that bad things only happen to those who deserve them. It might seem obviously false to us, but it has been commonly thought to be so, even in Jesus’ time. The disciples once asked Jesus – who had to sin that a man was born blind – was it his parent’s sin or his own sin? (John 9) Jesus said it was neither who sinned. Hindus have a complicated system of reincarnation and karma that insists that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people – that you deserve your fate. Classical Hinduism explains that it is your own fault when you are born into an unfortunate situation – you must have done something wrong in a previous life in order to be born to abject poverty and suffering.

When we try to automatically place the blame for bad things onto the victims we ignore numerous things, but there are three I'd like to mention: 
1. When we blame the victims we ignore when other people or society at large is responsible, and thus things are more difficult to change for better 
2. People really are a mix of good and bad, and 
3. Bad things really do happen to people who do not deserve it

We have a good example of this last point in the book of Job. Job lost everything – his wife and children, his property, his health – and some of his friends tried to offer him advice. They believed that Job did something wrong, and so must admit his guilt. In the story, Job is innocent of any wrongdoing. The book of Job teaches us that there isn’t always a good reason for suffering, and that it is not always our fault.

Towards the end of the book of Job, God responds to the accusations against Job and to Job’s cry to God. God’s response is interesting because God offers no explanation why things have happened to Job. God exclaims: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4) This is an echo to the question that people often asked God – “Where were you when I needed you? Where were you when such and such happened?” God doesn't often answer that question in the way we would wish.  God’s echo of our “where were you?” shows the distance between what we experience and know and what God knows and experiences.

In our gospel lesson today, the disciples are frightened by a storm. Jesus is asleep in the boat, and they woke him up and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" (Mark 4:38) Jesus wakes and calms the storm. The disciples thought that just because they didn’t see an immediate reaction from Jesus meant that he didn’t care. But Jesus was in the boat with them and in control.

Along with “Where were you”, “Do you care” is another way of asking God why something happened. When things go wrong in our lives and in the  lives of those whom we hold dear – we wonder, where is God in all this? Does God even care? We wish that Jesus would wake up from his nap and do something.

I have no clear, easy answer to why bad things happen. If I did, I wouldn’t put it in this sermon anyways. I’d write a book and then become the richest person on earth.  There is not one answer or one statement that will satisfy every situation that we find ourselves in. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that I have the answer for why things happen.

There are certain things that we can know, for we all observe them. We know that there is suffering, there is pain, sorrow, loss, destruction, and death in this world. Sometimes it is our own fault, sometimes it is the fault of another person or group of persons, sometimes it seems to be no one’s fault.

Sometimes we can see the likely reasons why things happened – people do make bad decisions, people do make legitimate mistakes, and the physical world has chaotic phenomenon that can be studied by scientists – like hurricanes and earthquakes. But oftentimes, we don’t see a reason or are not satisfied with the reasons that we obverse. Yes, we know what causes hurricanes but why didn't God stop it? Yes, that person’s decision to drive drunk caused a person’s death but why didn’t God intervene? I wish I had an answer as to why God sometimes intervenes and sometimes does not – I’d write another book about that one.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

God's Bamboo Kingdom

Sermon based on Mark 4:26-34


Jesus taught with parables all the time, they were especially helpful in illuminating what the Kingdom of God is like. There are several reasons why parables are such an effective teaching technique, I just want to mention two today:

1. Stories are easy to connect with, remember, and share. A parable is often a short story that connects with the audience - it contains familiar scenarios so that the listeners can picture what is happening in their minds. A short story also has the benefit of being easier to remember and to share with others, thus the teaching gets shared with more than the original audience. 

2. Parables are different from regular stories in that parables often contain surprising or shocking imagery or outcomes. Parables were not only to teach and instruct, but also to frustrate, to challenge, to transform.

Both of the two short parables today are about seeds and growing. Those are things that Jesus’ audience would have easily related with. These days, the only plants I have regular interaction with are orchids - and they are air plants and very different from anything you would plant to eat. They are surprisingly hard to kill, even when I forget to water them.

As a kid, my parents had a very large vegetable garden and my family regularly ate from that we grew. I have memories of Dad plowing the field, and then he would instruct my brother and me what seeds to plant and where. Some seeds were large, others were tiny. Some you had to be careful about putting enough space in between seeds, others were not so particular. I remember after all the work that went with planting, there was the excitement and then boredom of waiting for them to grow. Some plants grew more quickly than others, some took so long that I had forgotten what we planted by the time they did sprout. Still others never grew at all. It was a big mystery to me. Why did some grow and others did not? Did we do something wrong? Or was there something wrong with the seed itself? I had no idea.

In Jesus’ first parable today, he said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." (Mark 4:26-29)

What is Jesus saying about the kingdom of God in this parable? He is relating it to a common experience of farmers - where there is much uncertainty about the growth of crops. As a farmer, there is much you can plan and prepare for, but there are always some unknowns and some things outside of your control. Likewise, the kingdom of God is something that we can make some preparations for but it is largely out of our control and there are many unknowns. In the parable, it is the earth that does much of the mysterious work of growing the seeds. In the kingdom of God, it is God who does much of the mysterious work. In the end, when the grain is ripe, the farmer better be ready to harvest - or else all that work goes to waste. We do not know when the kingdom of God will be ripe, or will be totally here transforming a new heaven and a new earth - but when that day arrives people will be ready for whatever comes next.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Blame Game

Sermon based on Genesis 3:8-15 

There are so many questions to ask about our world and how things came to be. Why do people wear clothes and animals do not? Why don’t snakes have legs? How did we learn the difference between right and wrong? What was the first thing a person did that caused division or harm in a relationship? Why do people always blame others for their own mistakes? Why are things the way they are?

An etiology is a kind of story that explains the beginnings of something. It answers the questions of why and how things came to be. Much of Genesis is made up of etiological stories. The writers of Genesis were not witnesses to these things, but were writing down stories from a very old oral tradition. The Israelites, like people everywhere, told stories to explain why things were the way they were. Many etiological stories were not necessarily meant to be historical stories, but were rather ways of expressing fundamental truths in ways that people could understand and easily remember for the next generation.

People wanted to understand why humans live in an imperfect world. Did God create it that way? Or did we somehow mess it up? Where does evil or sin or imperfection come from? Our Old Testament lesson today, Genesis 3:8-15, is an attempt to explain these things. The things I want to focus on today are: evil, wisdom and blame.

Philosophers and theologians have explored the concept of evil and tried to figure out how much it is an external or an internal force. This story from Genesis is often used to support the idea of a personification of evil or a being of evil. The text itself does not ever say that the serpent is Satan or even evil, which is an interpretation that came much later. Paul identified the snake as Satan in 2 Corinthians and John did so in the book of Revelation. Part of the reason why they identified the snake as Satan is their connecting the sin and evil beginning with Adam and Eve and then Jesus Christ being necessary to take away our sins and defeat evil.

I think it must be noted that whoever or whatever this serpent is, all it did was ask a question and state the truth – it didn't force anyone to do anything or directly cause something to happen. The human beings in the story, Adam and Eve, were the ones to take action.

The verses before our reading today fill in more of the story, but seeing as how it is such a familiar story I will not reread it but rather highlight the main points.

Depending upon translation, the serpent is described as crafty or cunning – which are words about intelligence that often have negative connotations. However, the Hebrew word used here is used elsewhere in scripture in more positive lights, such as crafty and prudent (Proverbs 12:16) or clever (Proverbs 12:23; 13:16; 14:8; and 22:3).

The serpent and Eve were having the conversation, but the text tells us that Adam was there.  The snake asks a question: ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ (Gen 3: 1) Eve answered that there was one tree that if you ate from it or even touched it you would die. The snake told her the truth: “‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Gen 3:4) This was technically true – Adam and Eve did not die from touching or eating from this tree. And they did know the difference between good and evil. Do you realize what knowing the difference between good and evil is? It is called wisdom.

Now you might be wondering – if the snake caused wisdom instead of sin then how come it was cursed by God?

Eating from the tree can be described as the first sin in that it was the first act of disobedience, but it can also be described as the birth of wisdom – of knowing right from wrong. And while disobeying God is a bad thing, wisdom is a mixed blessing. Ask any nerd in school – wisdom is both a blessing and a curse. Wisdom can lead you to many possibilities – some beneficial, some harmful, some neutral. Wisdom is a deep understanding of our world and what is possible; this has led to the creation of tools that can be used for good and can also be used for great evil. It’s up to the people what they do.

This brings me to the concept of blame. When confronted by God about what happened, Adam and Eve’s response was classic. Neither claimed responsibility but passed the blame along. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent. If the serpent had been asked, it probably would have passed the blame back to Adam and Eve. I think the fault rests with Adam and Eve equally. No one forced them to disobey God. They saw something that they wanted and they took it. Taking what we want without considering the cost and passing the blame to others is human nature, and definitely not a good thing.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

God, Both Near and Far



Sermon for Trinity Sunday, based on Isaiah 6:1-8
June 3, 2012

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a preacher of limited understanding, and I live among a people of limited understanding; yet today is Trinity Sunday and I must preach!

Most Sundays in the church year commemorate something in Jesus’ life (like his birth or resurrection), or something in the life of the church (like Pentecost or Saint’s Days). Trinity Sunday is very different, for it is based on a doctrine. And this doctrine, while central to our faith, is more complicated than our limited understanding can fully grasp. 

When we think of God - many people focus in on the transcendent qualities of God. Transcendent is a fancy way of saying that God is independent and removed from the universe, that God is outside of the world. God is described as being all-knowing, and all-powerful.

Our Old Testament lesson today from Isaiah really brings to mind the transcendence of God. Isaiah is completely overwhelmed by his experience of God. God is so vast and enormous that the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. There are mysterious beings called seraphs that are speaking about God’s holiness. And smoke fills the room, adding a further element of mystery and distance. Isaiah exclaims: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah is very aware of the fact that God is holy and he is not, that God is mighty and he is small. Isaiah is afraid.

We don’t like to be afraid, but in this circumstance fear is a very reasonable reaction. One of the definitions of fear is a "profound reverence and awe especially toward God" (Merriam Webster). This is what Isaiah is experiencing when he exclaims “Woe is me!” Isaiah sees the vastness and power of God and realizes how simple and small and unclean he is in comparison.

It is very hard to understand how small we are in the vastness of time and space, let alone compared to the vastness of the power of God.

I’m sure many of you have heard of Douglas Adam’s multivolume Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this series there is a form of punishment called the Total Perspective Vortex, which is thought to be the cruelest form of punishment possible. Intelligent, sentient beings are placed into the Total Perspective Vortex and are shown the vastness of time and space in its entirety, with a tiny arrow that indicates “you are here.” (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Ballantine, 1981, p.70). That is definitely one way of putting things into perspective!

Fortunately for Isaiah and for us, God does not leave us in a place of isolation and impurity. The seraph with the live coal symbolizes God’s power to purify and make whole. God could have left Isaiah in a state of despair, but God chose to transform Isaiah into a person who is capable of volunteering himself to be sent and used by God. 


God is distant and present, impersonal and personal, outside of the world and in the world.

Although we cannot fully comprehend the nature of God, there are some things that we can say about God. Today I would like to focus on how God is both transcendent and imminent.