Saturday, February 17, 2018

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, "In the Wilderness," Psalm 63:1-4, Isaiah 35

Sermon 2/14/18
Psalm 63:1-4, Isaiah 35

In the Wilderness

            In Jewish and Christian tradition, ashes as a symbol convey two primary meanings. First, they are a sign of repentance. When people realized that they had been turning away from God’s path, that they had been disobeying God, and wanted to recommit to God’s way, God’s path, and ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness, sackcloth – a rough fabric – and ashes were worn as signs of that repentance – turning away from sin and toward God. They’re signs of humility, reminders that God is God and we are not God.
            Second, ashes are a sign of our mortality. Although we claim the gift of eternal life with God, in this life, in this world, we live and we die. We are finite. We are not invincible. God creates us from the dust of the earth, and to dust these bodies one day return. This is a message we need to confront regularly. Sometimes we fail to treat our lives as the sacred but finite gifts that they are. We don’t treat others as though their time with us is precious and limited. We build up possessions and wealth in ways that suggest we believe that we will live forever, have our things forever. We spend our time on things that don’t matter to us, and put off doing what God is calling us to do, what we are dreaming of doing. We have a decided lack of urgency when it comes to nurturing our own faith and sharing faith with others. We give the impression that we believe that we have limitless time to get done whatever is on our heart’s to-do list. Ashes are a sign of our mortality, meant to be a wake-up call. We are dust, and to dust we return.
            And yet, perhaps you feel a bit like I do this Ash Wednesday. Like I don’t need to be reminded of our finiteness just now. We know it all too well. I have my own personal loss and grief on my heart. And I know we are all processing our grief and sadness over Retha’s death. And it isn’t just Retha. We’ve had a hard season as a congregation. A generation of loved ones, people who have shaped us individually, and shaped our church. Together they represent a season in our church and community heritage that we sometimes long for, a season when, with our somewhat rose-colored glasses, feels like a simpler time. And just today, I was reading news of the school shooting that happened in Florida. It isn’t yet certain how many died there today. My attention was caught by the headline photo – a woman, a mother perhaps, in tears outside the school, with ashes on her forehead. Just this morning, some pastor had reminded her of her mortality. We are plenty aware of our mortality, aren’t we? We’re feeling very finite jus now, I think. Very much like we are dust.
            It seems fitting then that our theme for this Lent is “In the Wilderness.” I don’t know what images come to mind when you hear the world wilderness, but I can tell you that until I became a pastor and was preparing sermons, I thought of a wilderness as like a forest-y type place. Indeed, we use the word wilderness in this way. I went to “wilderness” camp at Camp Aldersgate when I was in elementary school, and it meant we were out in the woods in tents instead of in cabins. But in the scripture, when we hear about the wilderness, we’re not talking about the woods. We’re talking about the desert. We’re talking about desolate terrain, rocky, barren places, place with little water or vegetation. We’re talking about terrain that can be dangerous, isolated. It’s a place where you are vulnerable, at risk.
            The Bible is full of stories of people who end up in the wilderness, for one reason or another, from Genesis to Revelation, and this Lent, we’ll be reading some wilderness stories, thinking about these figures of faith who spent time in the wilderness, and seeing what we can learn from their journeys there. Jesus spent time in the wilderness too, as we’ll talk about on Sunday, and it is his 40 day time in the wilderness that particularly gives shape to our Lenten season of 40 days. But tonight, we are thinking about our own experiences in the wilderness. When have you felt like you were in a barren land in your life? When have you felt like you were spiritually parched and dry? When have you felt vulnerable and at risk, exposed? When have you felt like you were off the beaten path, lost? Maybe you are even feeling that way right now.
            This Lent, we are listening for God’s message to people who in the wilderness. We’re listening for God’s message to people who are well aware that they are dust. We’re listening for God’s message to us when we feel faint with thirst. Our reading from Psalm 63 is a Psalm attributed to King David, said to be written when he was in the wilderness of Judah. David was on the run, being pursued by his own son Absalom who wished to succeed David as King. David was literally and figuratively experiencing a wilderness time, and he knew whether Absalom was successful in taking power from him or not, David was closer to the end of his reign and life than the beginning. From this context, we read, “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.”
            In Lent, we seek to attune our hearts to the reality that we are in wilderness, we’re parched, we’re dust, and we’re longing with a thirst that only drawing close to God can quench. God is the water of life for our souls that have become a desert place, a wilderness place. Thankfully, this very God whom we long for is the one who has the power to bring life to the desert, and bring hope in the wilderness. In our reading from Isaiah 35, we hear these hopeful words: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing … For the waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool and the thirsty ground springs of water … A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” In the desert, life. In the wilderness, a holy highway for God’s people. God brings crocuses to bloom where it seems no life could survive. Where there is only dust, God brings a spring of water.
            We are dust, and to dust we return. That is the stark reality that we face on Ash Wednesday. But just as real is God’s promise to bring life from the wilderness. Tonight, as we receive ashes, this sign of repentance, a sign that we are turning our hearts back to God, a sign that we are mortals, dust, we’ll hear a song called Beautiful Things sung by Mark Gungor. Listen to some of the word: “All this pain. I wonder if I’ll ever find my way. I wonder if my life could really change at all. All this earth. Could all that is lost ever be found? Could a garden come up from this ground at all? You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. All around, Hope is springing up from this old ground. Out of chaos life is being found in You. You make beautiful things. You make beautiful things out of the dust. You make me new, You are making me new. You make me new, You are making me new.”
            Maybe we are in the wilderness. But have you heard about what God can do in wilderness? Maybe we are dust. But have you seen what God can make from dust? This Ash Wednesday, may we be reminded that we are dust. May we turn to God with all our hearts. And may we remember that God promises that in due season the wilderness will be glad and the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Is Jesus the Only Way?" John 14:1-14

Sermon 2/11/18
John 14:1-14

Why: Is Jesus the Only Way?

            Today we’re coming to the end of our series on Why: Asking Tough Questions of Faith. We wrap up with a question that isn’t really a “why” question, but it is one that I’ve heard often enough in ministry that I thought it deserved a place in our series nonetheless. Maybe you’ve heard it too. “Is Jesus the Only Way?” The fuller version of this question, including the unexpressed parts of it is something more like, “Is believing in Jesus the only way to get into heaven? Is being a Christian the only way to be right with God?” And related to it are the questions that naturally follow: “What about people who are part of other religious traditions? Are they ok? Can they get to heaven? Are they just wrong? Are there consequences for choosing a path other than believing in Jesus and being part of the church?”
            For contemporary Christians, this question – is Jesus the Only Way – has only become more important, more pressing to us. Many earlier generations of American Christians might have spent most of their lives with their only meaningful exposure to people of other faith traditions being interaction between Protestants and Catholics, or Episcopalians and Baptists; we have different traditions and ways of doing things, but all part of the Body of Christ. But our world has changed. Not only is the United States increasingly a place of diverse cultures, faiths, and practices, but we also have much more exposure to people outside of the United States. Chances are, through work, through school, through social media, through your interests and tastes, through your hobbies, you have connections with people from outside of the US too. Probably, you have friendships with or at least are acquaintances with people who are not Christian, but instead are Jewish, or Hindu, or Sikh, or Muslim. And in light of these relationships, our question for today becomes all the more urgent. We want to know: what about our friends who practice a different faith, who don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who aren’t Christian? What happens to them? Where do they fit in our understanding of our faith?
            Not only has our level of knowledge and interaction with people of other faiths changed, but our culture has also changed when it comes to talking about right and wrong, fact and fiction, truth and falsehood. We’ve become wary of people who speak in absolutes, who claim that their way is the right way and no variation is acceptable. We put a great deal of weight on personal experience, which is subjective. In a time where we hear a constant refrain of “Fake News,” truth seems fluid. People from other faith traditions seem as passionately sure of their faith as we are of ours. Who are we to tell them they are wrong and we are right?
            We have other questions, too, when it comes to wondering about Jesus and whether or not his way is the only way. There are people who have literally never heard the gospel. It’s hard to imagine, but there are still cultures that are untouched by the outside world. How can folks who have never heard of Jesus be held accountable to believing in an “only way” of which they’ve never heard? Or how do we handle the fact that sometimes messengers of the gospel do a bad job in sharing the good news? If the gospel is shared in ways that are harmful and hurtful, how can we blame people for not accepting Jesus, when it is hard to separate message from messenger? And what about folks who aren’t Christian, but they seem to be walking in the path of Jesus more deeply than those of us who claim the title “Christian”? Our question is “Is Jesus the Only Way?” But it is really a question containing many questions. Who is in and who is out? How are we “saved”? What about my friends who aren’t Christian? What does it take for us to claim Jesus’ offered gift of life eternal? I’m not sure we can “answer” all of those questions, but today we’ll try to begin to answer.
            When people talk about Jesus being “the only way,” they are drawing on words from scripture, and in particular looking at the passage that we shared today from the gospel of John. Today’s text comes from the setting of what we call the Last Supper, even though we don’t see that in the passage we read. Just before the section we read today, Jesus has shared a meal with the disciples, washed their feet, sent Judas off to do the work of betrayal, and shared with the disciples a new commandment, that they would love one another just as Jesus has loved them. But laced through Jesus’ words are references to the fact that Jesus will be leaving the disciples soon. Near the end of chapter thirteen he says, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterword.” Jesus’ ambiguous, symbolic languages confuses the disciples. Peter asks “Lord, where are you going? Why can I not follow you now?” This is what leads us into our text for today.
            If today’s passage sounds familiar to you, it is likely because we often share in this text at funerals. These are words of comfort we speak to each other in the painful times of grief and loss, when we’re looking for reassurance of our place in God’s heart. Jesus says to the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He tells them that in God’s house there are “many dwelling places,” lots of room, and that Jesus is preparing a place for them there. Jesus promises that he will take them to God’s house, so that where Jesus is, we might be too. And, Jesus insists, “you know the way to the place where I am going.”
            At this, Thomas speaks up. He and the others are hearing Jesus in a very literal way, and all they can conclude is that they don’t know where Jesus is going or the way to get there. They don’t have a map. They don’t have directions. They’re feeling lost, afraid, and confused about all this talk of Jesus leaving them. “How can we know the way?” Thomas asks. Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. You get to God by way of me! If you know me, you know God! If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen him.” Jesus is trying to tell the disciples that they don’t have to worry that they won’t be able to find a way to God – Jesus is the way to God, and they already know Jesus. He’s speaking to comfort their anxiety, to quell their fears.
            Jesus continues saying that he is in God the father, the parent, and God is in Jesus. You can’t have one without the other. And so if you know Jesus, you know God. If you know the way of Jesus, you know the way to God. And what is the way of Jesus, the path of Jesus? People who are following the way of Jesus are those who do the works that Jesus does. Just after the passage for today ends, Jesus says that loving him means keeping his commandments. Understanding Jesus as the way means living as Jesus calls us to live. As I said, Jesus speaks these words to comfort the disciples and to remind them that they do in fact know where he’s going because they know him. They already know God because they know him. And they know how to claim this way of Jesus because he’s been teaching them just what that means all along.
            What does it mean to live in the way of Jesus? Does it mean to claim a certain set of beliefs? Does it mean to live our lives a certain way? I’m reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicle of Narnia. In the last book in the series, The Last Battle some corrupt leaders have been teaching that Aslan, the great Lion, the Christ-figure in the books is the same as Tash, an angry, frightening god worshiped by the people of Calormen, a neighboring nation. People are confused and afraid. The culmination of the conflict takes place outside an animal stable. The villains claim that anyone who enters the stable will be able to meet “Tashlan,” the name they’ve given to this so-called combined Tash and Aslan god-figure. But instead, they’ve placed soldiers inside, ready to kill whoever comes through the door. Unexpectedly, a young man named Emeth volunteers to go in, to the dismay of the scheming villains who like Emeth, and are trying to catch others in their trap, not him. But Emeth has been a devoted follower of Tash his whole life, and he insists on going in to see Tash for himself.
It is a long time in the story before we learn what happens to him. The stable door turns out to be an entry way into heaven, and eventually some other characters find Emeth sitting under a tree, who tells them that he met Aslan, the lion, face-to-face. He recounts, “I fell at [Aslan’s] feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him … But the [Aslan] bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me … Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”[1]
            I’ve always found this metaphor compelling. I believe that God knows our hearts, and knows when we are seeking to draw close to God. I believe that in Jesus we have been shown the way, the truth, and the life. And I believe that sometimes people are following the way of Jesus even when they don’t claim the title of Christian, and that sometimes people who claim the title Christian aren’t walking in Jesus’ way. Thankfully, I also believe that it isn’t my job to sort out who is on the path, the way, and who isn’t. God never asks us to take on that role. Instead, Jesus just reminds us that we know what the way is and invites us to follow it, speaking to us words of peace and love all the while.
            So what, then, do we take from our wrestling with this difficult question? First, if we believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, if we believe that in Jesus was can draw closer to God than we’ve ever imagined, if we believe that in Jesus we can experience the joy of God’s reign on earth, and if we believe that there is something unique about the way folks can get to know God through a relationship with Jesus, then we have a responsibility to share the message of Jesus with others. I don’t mean that you have to go door to door, and I don’t mean that you should beat people over the head with a Bible, pressure them, twist their arm, or belittle them for choosing a different path than yours. Remember, the news of Jesus, grace, and God’s reign is good news! But, if we believe life with Jesus is life-changing, life-saving, then we have to share the message. We share it through building relationships, through loving one another deeply, and through demonstrating with our own lives how transformative a relationship with Jesus can be. Our own changed lives are the most compelling message we can share.
            That’s our second task, in fact. If we believe that Jesus is the way, the path, then we need to seek, day by day, to live on that path, to live in the way of Jesus. I sometimes worry that we lost the power of the question “What would Jesus do?” when the phrase turned into a marketing phenomenon. But it is a good question. We are called to be imitators of Jesus, to shape our hearts and minds and lives to resemble Jesus as much as possible. Jesus looked with love and compassion on people. He sought to include the excluded. He sought to challenge those who wielded power over others in hurtful ways. He longed to help people draw closer to God, and he was willing to give endlessly of himself for that purpose. We have a responsibility to live in the way of Jesus if we call him the way.
            I think part of the way of Jesus includes nurturing our relationships with all kinds of people, including people from all kinds of faith traditions. Jesus was a boundary-crosser. He didn’t let any differences keep him from forming relationships with others. God our creator made each of us in God’s very image. Each and every one. Each and every one of us has sacred worth. I think, in fact, that we can be better followers of the way of Jesus when we take time to learn from others about how they draw close to God, even as we share how transformative Jesus is to us.
            Today, we’re celebrating the sacrament of baptism. Bryn may be young, but she’s already ready to choose the path of faith she wants to walk. She’s choosing the way, truth, and life of Jesus. As she chooses this path, as her parents promise to nurture her along the way, we, too, are called to support Bryn, by walking with her in the way of Jesus. Together, let’s go in Jesus’ way, and claim the abundant life he offers. Amen.  

[1] Lewis, C.S., The Last Battle, 164-165.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?" Romans 3:19-21, Romans 6:1-11

Sermon 2/4/18
Romans 3:19-21, 6:1-11

Why: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Presbyterian pastor and professor of theology Cynthia Rigby wrote that she started asking the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” when she was just a child. She writes, “The idea that the Son had to die so the Father would be able to forgive us has never made much sense to me. If God loves us no matter what, why can’t God just go ahead and forgive us?
“I remember asking this question even as a child, pointing out to my parents that they seemed to forgive my brother and me for things all the time, and rarely felt the need to punish [us]. If they did give us some kind of penalty, it was not because they needed it in order to be able to forgive us. It was so we would learn, better, how properly to behave. So why couldn’t God just forgive [us], if my parents could? How could Jesus’ dying really help anything, anyway? And how could something as terrible as the cross be something God wanted or needed?
“My mom and dad and Sunday school teachers in our little Presbyterian church … tried very hard to answer my questions. But the answers they delivered were spoken so concisely, and with so much certainty, I figured you had to be a grown-up to understand. “Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sins,” they told me. And so I tried to imagine what I — a really well-behaved, zealously Christian 8-year-old — could possibly have done so wrong that it necessitated the God who created the universe come down here and die. “A price had to be paid,” another grown-up explained — we sinned, and the penalty for sin is death. So God gave his only Son to die in our place. Jesus died for us because he loves us.” Is there any truth to these statements said to us over and over again?” Rigby wonders.[1]
Rigby’s question is ours for the day: Why did Jesus have to die? If God loves us so much, did God really need for Jesus to die in order to be able to love and forgive us? Does God require punishment? How can we find meaning in Jesus’ crucifixion and death? What exactly is accomplished in the act of Jesus dying? Like Rigby, most of us who have been part of the Christian tradition for any length of time have been taught that “Jesus died for our sins.” What do we mean when we say that?
These are questions about atonement. Last week our fancy church word was theodicy, and today it is atonement. Atonement, though, is probably already a familiar concept to you. When we do something wrong, when we hurt someone else, we might say that we need to atone for our wrongdoing. We need to do something to make amends, to repair the damage to our relationship. The act of bringing a broken relationship back to rights is atonement. We expect criminals to atone for their crimes – sometimes through a prison sentence, or through community service, or through paying fines. We might have expectations about atonement in our relationships. If someone hurts you, how do you expect them to make it up to you? An apology? Flowers? Perhaps children get grounded, or have to do some extra chores. All of these actions of rebuilding brokenness are ways that we seek to atone for our wrongs.
In matters of faith, then, atonement is about how we restore our broken relationship with God when we have done wrong, when we’ve sinned. We read a lot about the practices of atonement in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament of the Bible. When someone sinned, against God or others, the law outlined what a person must do to atone for their sin. Atoning actions might include confessing, making restitution or repayment, receiving a legal punishment, or making a sacrifice, usually an animal sacrifice that would be offered as a gift to God. That last part seems pretty strange to us, but it was a tangible way people could demonstrate their desire to heal their relationship with God, offering some of the best of what they had to God. The most sacred day in Judaism remains Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day when the whole people gathers to repent and set right their relationship with God.
In Christianity, theologies of atonement work to explain how it is that Jesus reconciles us to God. Last week I mentioned that there are many different theodicies, theories about God and suffering. So too there are many understandings of atonement, many ways people think about how we humans, caught up in sin, can be permanently reconciled with God. The view that Cynthia Rigby says she learned as a child is called “penal substitution,” the idea that Jesus gets punished on our behalf, for our sins. Another view is called the “ransom view,” where death must be satisfied with some life given, and Christ exchanges his life for ours. A view called “moral influence” teaches that Jesus’ death was meant to bring about true moral change in humanity that would reconcile us to God. The “Christus Victor” view of atonement teaches that Christ’s death and resurrection defeats the power of death, and death’s dominion over humanity. You don’t need to learn all these views, and I don’t mean to overwhelm you with them. But I do want to give you a sense, an understanding that within Christian tradition, while there is a great deal of agreement that in Jesus, we are reconciled with God, there are many understandings of how exactly that works. That’s ok with me, because I think anything as meaningful as what brings us into right relationship with God is something worth mulling over and searching and studying, and thinking about deeply.    
Of course, we have our own sources to check out when it comes to atonement: we look to the scriptures for understanding. We’ve talked before about a concept related to atonement: justification. As you can tell, it’s related to the word justice, and we’ve talked about how justice is God’s vision of right relationships: our right relationship with God, and our right relationships with one another. Justification, then, is the process of our getting into right relationship with God. In our Wesleyan tradition, we talk about justifying grace. Grace is God’s gift of unconditional love, freely offered to us, and we believe that it is only by relying on the gift of God’s grace that we are justified with God. In other words, it is because of God’s work that we can get into right relationship with God, not because of our work. Our work is to accept God’s gift of grace and let it transform us.
The apostle Paul writes a lot about justification in his letter to the Romans. In today’s texts, Paul starts by talking about “the law,” and when he’s talking about the law he means the Law of Moses, the laws of Judaism that held together the people of faith and shaped their way of life and being in the world. In much of his writing, Paul argues not to belittle the law, so important to Jewish identity, but to show instead how in Jesus, Jew and Gentile (that is, non-Jewish people) Jew and Gentile alike find freedom in Christ and no longer have to be perfect upholders of the law in order to have a relationship with God. People understood that adherence to the law was what justified them, set them right with God, but Paul argues that because of Jesus, now we are set right not through adherence to the law, a task at which we’re likely to fail miserably, but instead justified through Jesus’ sacrificial gift of life to us, once and for all. Paul says that “for all who believe” in Jesus, we can be justified, reconciled to God, Jews, Gentiles, everybody. After all, Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” so we all, likewise, have equal access – and need of – restoring our relationship with God. Paul writes, “[we] are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”
Paul concludes that since we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, and since we all are brought into right relationship with God not by our own deeds, but by the redeeming action of Jesus, the gift of grace, then none of us can boast. None of us has the right to say that we are “better,” showing off with how good we are at following the laws of God. That doesn’t mean we ignore God’s law! But it is God’s grace through the gift of Jesus, not our ability to be more perfect than our neighbors, that sets us right with God. God’s actions, not ours.
In our second reading from Romans, Paul confirms that Jesus’s death not just about God demanding punishment. Rather, in fact, Jesus’ death is a necessity of new life. You can’t have new life without experiencing death. And we are invited, called, to join in the death of Jesus so that we can also join in the resurrected lives Jesus promises. Paul doesn’t mean that we all literally must experience a death like Jesus’, although Paul and many other early Christians were certainly willing to and did put their lives on the line because of their faith. Rather, Paul says, we put to death “our old self.” We put to death our enslavement to sin. And when our old self dies, our new life in Christ beings. In his death and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates that death has no power over him – it is God who has power over death. Likewise, Paul says, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Emphasis mine.) Paul wraps up, “So, you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Reflecting on Paul’s words, I don’t believe that Jesus had to die if what we mean by that is that Jesus had to die to satisfy an angry God who must have punishment to be satisfied. So what do we mean? Why did Jesus die on the cross? First, I think it is important to remind ourselves that Jesus chooses. There is no action that Jesus takes in his life and in his dying that he’s forced into, even as he wishes, prays, longs for a different path. Just as God doesn’t take our free will from us, neither did God take away Jesus’ human ability on earth to walk away. Jesus reminds us more than once in the gospels that he has the power and ability to call on God if needed. Jesus chooses his death, in as much as anyone chooses to face the consequences of a corrupt and unjust system of oppression. Jesus died because he chose his path. He believed it to be the path that would demonstrate everything he had been telling the disciples and crowds about God and our life with God. He believed that his death and resurrection would be the fulfillment of the good news he’d been teaching and preaching for years. And so Jesus followed the path he meant to follow, choosing to be faithful to his purpose, knowing what he would endure.
But the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion doesn’t come from thinking that his suffering was unique or the worst suffering ever endured, or the most violent death. Unfortunately, humans have shown an incredible capacity for cruelty over the millennia. Jesus’ crucifixion was a government-sponsored execution, and it was the same style of execution that many suffered. It isn’t the uniqueness of Jesus’ death that is important. In fact it is that Jesus suffers with us, like us, by our side, facing the same things others face that is so powerful. In his suffering and death, Jesus puts himself on the side of all who suffer, all who have been at the mercy of powerful systems of oppression. In his death, in God acting through Jesus’ death, we see that real power does not come through violence or force or domination. Might does not equal right, no matter how many times people or leaders or governments try to prove otherwise. True strength, true power is demonstrated in being vulnerable, in giving sacrificially, in placing others before self, giving away everything, even life, to be faithful to the message of God. Jesus repeats these words again and again in his ministry: “If you want to save your life, you have to lose it.” It’s what Paul means when he says that if we want to live with Christ, we have to die to self first.    
            God comes to the world in Jesus. Jesus is born, lives, dies, and is resurrected. And from one end to the other, from his coming into the world, through his death, to the wonder of resurrection, we see in all of it that God longs not to punish us, but to be reconciled with us. Everything about Jesus is a testament to God’s desire to draw us closer to God. Jesus’ death means many things: It means we’re called to be very careful about how obsessed we get with accumulating power, because power over others is not God’s way. It means we are called to give and live sacrificially, like Jesus, giving ourselves for others. It means we are called to speak the truth and hold on to and speak up for what is right no matter the cost. It means that we can stop working to earn God’s favor. We have God’s favor. God loves us already, immeasurably. Instead, we can focus on putting to death with Jesus our old selves, everything that keeps us from drawing closer to God. We must die with Christ to live with Christ, if we don’t want death to have a hold on us anymore. Let us choose the path of Jesus, so “we too might walk in newness of life.” Amen.

[1] Rigby, Cynthia, “Prodigal Cross,” Presbyterian Outlook. April 9 2014. Accessed on February 2 2018. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?" Job 1:6-22, Romans 8:18-28, 31-32, 35-39

Sermon 1/28/18
Job 1:6-22, Romans 8:18-28, 31-32, 35-39

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

One of the most challenging questions of faith that people have is the question of suffering. This question comes in a variety of forms: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is God punishing me or             my loved one? If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world? If God is all-powerful, why didn’t God prevent this terrible tragedy? How can we say God is loving if God lets such evil things happen in the world? These are all variations of the same basic faith questions about good, evil, suffering, and the nature of God. Wrestling with these questions and getting nowhere is a stumbling block to the faith of many who seek to be disciples of Jesus. It’s often very personal experiences that bring us to the center of this struggle. You cannot get very far in this life without experiencing for yourself or a loved one suffering that feels senseless, baffling, and so hurtful you cannot imagine how or why you should have to endure it. A loved one dies unexpectedly. A child faces an aggressive illness. A community experiences tragic acts of violence. A natural disaster devastates a nation. And we are left asking, “Why, God? Why do these things happen?”
In the wake of suffering, you’ll often hear people trying to make sense of their experiences and their faith by offering the best reasons they can come up with for what has happened. “It must have been the will of God.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God is just testing your faith.” “It was just their time.” “God has a plan, and this is a part of God’s plan.” To people who are suffering and grieving, these explanations are for the most part incredibly unsatisfying, and sometimes downright horrifying. The idea that God’s plan was for a child to die, God’s will, or that a disaster occurred so that the rest of us could learn some lesson from it: there’s not much comfort to be had there, and frankly, these explanations make God seem pretty heartless. But we offer these ideas because we don’t know what else to say, how else to explain things. Why do these things happen? Why does God allow such suffering?
Answering these questions is the task of a field of theology called theodicy. Theodicy is made of two Greek words that mean God and justice, and in this case, we’re talking about how we justify God – how do we make the idea of an all-knowing and loving God fit with the sin, evil, and suffering we experience in the world? Everything from the quick responses we offer – “Everything happens for a reason” – to the deep theological treatises written on these issues over the centuries are theodicies: our attempt to understand how God and suffering work.
Even the biblical witness struggles with the question of God and suffering. Today we heard a passage from the book of Job. We don’t know who the author of the book of Job is, or exactly when it was written, but scholars think it may be from the 6th century BCE. The story has two parts – a frame, a beginning and ending of the book that are written in narrative form – and the center section, long chapters of poetry. In the frame, we find God in conversation with the “heavenly beings” of the “heavenly council.” This is pretty foreign to us, but basically the book of Job envisions God and a bunch of other angel-like beings that together look over what is happening on earth. Included in this heavenly council is the Satan. In the book of Job, Satan isn’t so much an evil figure as Satan is more like what we would call a “devil’s advocate,” someone who offers provocative challenges to claims another makes. God notes to Satan that there is a man named Job who is “blameless and upright,” fearing God and turning from evil. But Satan counters that of course Job is blameless and upright, because everything in Job’s life is going smoothly. He has blessings and family and possessions. But, Satan counters – what if you took all that away? What if Job was suffering? Surely then Job’s faith would fail. And so God says: Go ahead, Satan. Let’s see. You can do anything you want to him except kill him. And sure enough, soon, Job loses his property, and all of his children. At the close of our text for today though we read that even still, “in all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”
What follows, the poetry section of Job, is chapter after chapter of arguments between Job and his “friend,” visitors who come to tell him that surely he has done something wrong and is being punished, otherwise he wouldn’t be suffering. Job keeps insisting that he’s blameless, but they are sure that he needs to repent for wrongdoing. All the while, Job keeps insisting that he just wants to talk to God and ask, “Why?” Finally, God responds, first chastising Job’s friends for being pretty useless, and then answering Job by saying something like: I’m God and you are just a mere human. Who are you to question the way I, creator of the universe, work in the world? Job replies sheepishly saying something like, “I’m sorry; you’re right, thanks for answering me.” And then we’re back to the frame, and everything that was taken away from Job is restored. He gets new kids and gets his lands back, and they all live happily ever after! In the end, although Job is filled with beautiful poetry about the awesomeness of God, Job is, in my opinion at least, pretty unsatisfying if you’re looking for real answers about why we suffer. I don’t believe that we experience pain and suffering because God is making bets with the heavenly council on how much we can endure.
I do not believe that it is God’s will for us to suffer. I don’t believe that God causes our suffering. If we encountered a person who was intentionally planning to cause harm, suffering, tragedy in the lives of those around them, we would consider this person evil, or sick, or think that they needed to be imprisoned.[1] How, then, could we believe that God, our creator and redeemer, would intend to cause us harm? It doesn’t compute with anything I’ve learned of God’s love, mercy and grace. So how can we make sense of suffering?
In his book Why? Making Sense of God’s Will, Adam Hamilton walks us through three key ideas that help us answer this question.[2] First, he says, God has given humans “dominion” over earth.[3] More simply, that means that God has made us responsible for what happens here. As we talked about last week, God’s way of working in the world is usually by sending people to do God’s work. So when we think about people who are hungry or in need of shelter or in need of comfort: God works through us to impact those problems.
Second, we have the ability to choose good from evil. We have free will. Hamilton writes, “Have you ever wondered why, knowing that Adam and Eve would eat of the tree, God put the tree there to begin with? God could have left the tree out of the garden altogether, and Adam and Eve would never have disobeyed. But the tree represents the freedom that God gives human beings to choose God’s way or another way. God deemed the ability to choose to be an essential part of human existence. We instinctively know how important our freedom is to us. We are willing to fight and die for it. As children grow up, they yearn for it. We know that we want another to choose to love us, not be forced to love us. God’s decision to give human beings the ability to choose right from wrong is itself an expression of God’s love.”[4]
And third, we find that we are drawn again and again to things that aren’t God’s will. Our freedom, our free will, is a gift from God. But when we misuse the gifts that God gives to us, our actions can lead to suffering.[5] When we think about suffering, we have to remember that God gives us responsibility to take care of the earth and all that is in it, alongside God, that God gives us freedom, given out of love for us, and that often, we take God’s gift and instead misuse it, causing harm to ourselves and others.
            Keeping these ideas in mind, we can think about the suffering that we experience. Some suffering we experience is from natural disaster, or widespread suffering like hunger and poverty. Science can help us understand the mechanics of why some disasters occur. Earthquakes happen when the earth’s plates move in certain ways. If they didn’t move, the earth would be too hot for us to live on. Monsoons that bring devastating flooding help regulate the temperature of the atmosphere, keeping it cool.[6] Without these features, we could not live on planet earth, even though sometimes they cause devastation that overwhelms us. We might not that much of the suffering from natural disasters disproportionately impacts people who are poor. We have to ask ourselves: why are the most vulnerable people always living in such risky, disaster-vulnerable places? Here, we find opportunities as God’s workers in the world to help alleviate suffering. We have to ask ourselves about the privilege of wealth and how poverty places people at risk and what we can do about it.
            Some suffering is caused by human decision – our decisions, and the decisions of others. Last week we talked about not expecting God to answers our prayers if that would result in taking away the free will of another person. That would be taking away God’s gift from someone else in order to make what we want come true. This same issue of free will comes into play when we talk about suffering. Hamilton writes, “What would it look like if God restricted our freedom so that … tragedies didn’t happen? What would your life look life if God made it impossible for you to ever do the wrong thing? As much as we might wish for this, so that human beings would not hurt one another, would we really like the results? … If we have no choices, and we only always do God’s will, we cease to be human and become puppets … Part of the risk God took in giving us freedom is that we might and probably will misuse that freedom to do the very things that would break God’s heart.”[7] Sometimes we think that we want God to keep us, or keep others, from exercising their free will if their free will results in suffering for people we love. But I don’t believe that we really want to be puppets. Why would God create us and all that we know only to decide everything for us? What would be the point of our existence, or the point of relationship with God, if we weren’t learning and growing and living and choosing? Sometimes, the results of our choosing break our hearts, and break God’s heart too. But God won’t take the gift of decision from us, and even when it hurts, I’m thankful for that.
            Some suffering we experience in the form of sickness, disease, cancer. God does not desire for us to be sick and suffering. I grieve, and I believe God grieves with us, when life is cut short from disease that we don’t yet understand how to heal, or when new diseases emerge in our ever changing world. Jesus was known as a healer. It was a priority of his ministry, healing people. And God gives us amazing abilities to heal and recover and be resilient through so many things. And God gives us brilliant minds, physicians and nurses and researchers who work so diligently to seek new paths for healing. 
            Suffering will always be a part of our human experience. In fact, Jesus repeatedly reminds the disciples that their choosing to follow God would undoubtedly result in more suffering in their lives, not less, because their unwavering commitment to God’s path and to speaking God’s truth would make them the enemies of many who were choosing paths other than God’s. When we choose discipleship, when we choose to throw in our lot with God, and with the vulnerable, with the poor, with those on the fringes, with those who have no one else to stand for them, when we choose to speak the truths that no one wants to hear, we will put ourselves in the path of suffering.
            But we find that God is on that path with us. Jesus walks the path of suffering. Our forerunners in faith walked this path. In our reading from Romans, Paul says that nothing, not life, not death, or anything in between can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. Strengthened by that knowledge, I trust that God can take the broken pieces of our suffering, and draw forth new life. I believe that God can use us to alleviate suffering, if we are willing to serve God and one another with our whole hearts. And when we are mired in grief and pain, I believe that God is with us there, too, suffering with us, never, ever abandoning us. I don’t know that we can every fully understand the suffering of the world. I cling to the words of the old hymn, “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” and long for the day when such things will be clearer to me. But in the meantime, I trust in what I do know: God created us, loves us unconditionally and eternally, and never forsakes us. “If God is for us, who is against us?” Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Hamilton, Adam, Why, 8.
[2] Major themes from this portion of the sermon are adapted from Hamilton’s chapter, “Why Do the Innocent Suffer,” Why, 1-29.
[3] Ibid., 9.
[4] Ibid., 13-14.
[5] Ibid., 15.
[6] Ibid., 16-17.
[7] Ibid., 22-23.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Why Doesn't God Answer My Prayers?" Luke 11:1-13

Sermon 1/21/18
Luke 11:1-13

Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers?

Are you a praying person? Do you feel like God answers your prayers? Have some of your prayers gone unanswered? As a young teen, I experienced the most powerful sense that my prayers meant something to date. I was at Camp Aldersgate, attending Senior High Creative Arts Camp. Our director, Bobbi, was pregnant, in her first trimester. She was a bit older than a “typical” first time parent, although honestly I say that from my teenage perspective – I’m not sure how old she was really, and I’m sure she was younger than I am now. But I know she was very anxious about the pregnancy. And while we were at camp, she experienced some spotting, and she had to leave to go to the hospital and get checked out, and it was clear, she was distraught and fearful. We were a small group of Creative Arts campers that week, and we pulled together, and we prayed, and prayed, and prayed for Bobbi and her baby. And when Bobbi came back from the hospital all smiles and announcing with tears in her eyes that everything was ok, I felt so completely: God has heard our prayers and answered them. My faith was so strengthened by that experience.
But what about those who have prayed a similar prayer only to face tragedy? I’ve certainly experienced loss and grief despite praying for healing. What about the prayers we share with God that express our deepest hopes and desires, and yet what we’ve asked for doesn’t come to fruition? Sometimes it seems that God answers our prayers, and sometimes it feels like God is silent. What’s the rhyme and reason at work here when it comes to prayer? Why does it seem like God doesn’t always answer our prayers?
And doesn’t God say that God will answer our prayers if we’re faithful in our asking? The scriptures seem to point to this idea in more than one place in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt … even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:21-22) That seems pretty clear, right? Whatever we ask for in faith, we’ll get, right? In our text today, in the conclusion of his response to the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus says, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” There is it again – ask, and you’ll receive! Everyone who asks receives! And yet, I know you must be able to immediately think, as I can, of prayers I’ve offered to God where what I was seeking never came to fruition, and what happened seemed to be the opposite of what I asking for.
What do we make of this then? Is the Bible wrong? Is Jesus not telling us the truth about prayer? Or, is there something wrong with us? Is there some sin in our life that is causing God to refuse to answer our prayers? Are we not praying hard enough? Often, people point to these kinds of explanations – blaming the pray-er – when prayers are unanswered. But telling a parent that their prayers for their sick child weren’t enough or weren’t right somehow seems heartless and wrong and contrary to the very nature of our God who is love. So what, then? Why doesn’t God answer our prayers, when the Bible seems to insist that God will give us what we ask for?
In his book Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will, Adam Hamilton suggests that when Jesus’ teachings in the Bible don’t match up with what we know from our life experience, perhaps what is at work is “our failure to understand what Jesus meant” by a certain teaching.[1] So what aren’t we getting about Jesus’ teachings on prayer? Hamilton writes “One of the features of hyperbole is that what is said is not logically possible, so that the hearer knows it is a figure of speech. You can see this in our own use of hyperbole. When a person says he is ‘so hungry I could eat a horse,’ we don’t scratch our heads and say, ‘That’s terrible, you shouldn’t eat horses!’ We understand by the nature of the statement that he is saying he is hungry. And when one of my daughters in middle school said, ‘Dad, if that boy comes to talk to me, I’ll just die,’ I didn’t call the paramedics to be on standby just in case the boy tried to speak to my daughter.”
He continues, “I suggest that Jesus’ hearers understood that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically when he said, ‘Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive’ … They did not think he was suggesting they could pray for wealth and have it, or that they could pray for the Romans to leave, and they would be gone. They did not think he was saying, ‘Pray for world peace,’ and it would instantly happen. Or that if they only prayed with faith all of their problems would magically disappear or be resolved. I think they understood that Jesus was saying, ‘Go to God with your burdens! Be bold when you pray! Trust that God hears your prayers! And, in ways you don’t fully understand, God will see you through this situation you face.’” (38-39) Hear that again: “Go to God with your burdens! Be bold when you pray! Trust that God hears your prayers! And, in ways you don’t fully understand, God will see you through this situation you face.” Like Hamilton, I believe that this gives us a good sense of what Jesus is telling us about prayer. Jesus isn’t trying to tell us that prayer is like giving God our shopping list and expecting God to deliver everything on the list. Instead, Jesus wants to encourage us to be completely open and honest with God in our prayers, trusting that God is listening.
Why, though, doesn’t God just give us what we ask for? Let’s think about that together. First, think about the challenges that would arise if God wanted to say, “Sure, no problem,” to all of our prayer requests. Have you seen the 2003 Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty? In one scene, Carrey’s character, Bruce, who gets to take on all God’s power and responsibilities for a brief time, is answering all the prayer requests that come to God. They arrive in email form, and Bruce thinks it will be so easy to do this part of the job. He decides to simply reply “yes” to every prayer request. You’d think that would be great, right? Everyone’s requests to God answered with a “yes, sure, whatever you want!” But in the film, when everyone gets a “yes,” the results bring total chaos. For example, everyone who prays to win the lottery does – but since so many people win, everyone gets only $1 or so, and everyone is livid. Or, what if two people have applied for the same job, and are both praying that God will give them the new position? Whose prayer should God answer with a yes? I think of the sincere prayers I offered as a young person of faith, including an occasional prayer that the current boy of my dreams might in fact turn out to be “the one.” What if God had said “yes” to some of those prayers, when sixth months later, I didn’t feel the same way? And what about what those boys had wanted? Should God have made them fall for me, just because that was what I wanted? Not if we actually value the precious gift of free will that God gives us! Or what if I pray to pass my math test, even though I haven’t studied? Is it helpful for God to say “yes” to these prayers, and set a pattern where we never bother to learn these skills on our own?[2] Sometimes, we must admit that we’re eventually thankful that God didn’t say “yes” to all of our wants. Sometimes, my new prayer is “thank goodness you didn’t force what I was asking for to take place.” Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that the only way God could answer our prayer is by taking away free will from someone else. And sometimes, we have to admit that our prayers are really requests for us to get what we want without working hard, striving toward goals, and using the gifts and tools God has already put into our hands.
            I think God also works within the natural order, the rhythm and law of the universe most of the time. Hamilton writes, “When God wants something done, god typically sends people. This has led me to conclude that God’s customary way of working in our lives is through what appears to be ordinary means. Rather than suspending the law of nature that God created to do God’s work, God typically works through natural laws and through people … Can God miraculously intervene in answer to our prayers to protect us from harm? Yes, but God’s normal way of working is found within the natural laws God establish and in human beings to whom God gave responsibility for tending this planet on God’s behalf.”[3] Most of the time, outside of miraculous occurrences that are by definition rare, God works within the patterns of the universe that God has created, which means that sometimes our prayers, which would require breaking and bending the order of the universe to fulfill, don’t get answered as we want.
            What I do believe, what the scriptures show, is that God never abandons us, even when God does not answer our prayers in the ways we seek. In fact, God gets right in our despair with us, experiences heartbreak and grief with us, walks beside us in the dark valleys, even coming to us in the person of Jesus to be closer to us and our experiences. God never abandons us, ever. And God takes the pain and sorrow we experience and draws new life even from the hardest moments in our lives. We’ll think more about that together next week.
            So, if God doesn’t promise to give us everything we want, and God might have many good reasons for not saying “yes” to our prayer requests, and God doesn’t often intervene in the natural order of the universe to make things happen the way we want them to, why bother praying? Why does Jesus emphasize how persistent we should be in prayer? What’s the point?  This is when our thinking of God as a parent is so helpful to me. You know my mom and I are very close. She knows my heart pretty well, and knows my hopes and dreams. She can’t always make want I want take place. She can’t fulfill every wish I’ve expressed. And certainly, she wouldn’t, even if she could, if you think about all my hopes over the years and the times that she knew better than I what would be meaningful in my life. Does that mean there’s no point in me sharing my heart with her? Does that mean she doesn’t want to know about what I want? Of course not! Of course, my mom wants to know everything about me, anything I’m willing to share with her. She wants to know about my hopes and dreams because she loves me, and sharing like this is a part of building a relationship, part of building trust and compassion. And the relationship brings me comfort, strength, and encouragement. That’s what God wants with us: to be in relationship with us, to have us pour our hearts out to God, to shower us with love and encouragement, to have us get to know God deeply, and be known by God deeply, to be comforted and strengthened by the constancy of our relationship. Prayer is our way of building relationship with God.
            Prayer is also about listening to God – we talked about that last week. We pray so that we signal to God and to ourselves that we’re listening and ready to hear what God has to say to us. Prayer is not so much about changing God as it is sometimes about changing us. In the words we call the Lord’s Prayer, a version of which appears in our text today, Jesus encourages the disciples to pray about forgiveness, to pray to learn to not hold things against each other, to pray for daily sustenance rather than food to store up, to pray for God’s way and God’s realm to be the way of earth rather than our own way and will. Essentially, Jesus guided the disciples to pray not that God would give them what they wanted, but that they might be transformed into the servants of God that Jesus knew they could be. Prayer changes us, because it helps us tune our hearts to God. It helps us remember that God has placed into our hands already the tools and resources and gifts and abilities to be the answers to the prayers we’re praying, to be the agents of transformation in the world we long for. Prayer changes us, and so we pray because it opens us to the work of God in our lives.
            I want to encourage you to think about your discipline of prayer. I have found keeping a prayer journal to be a helpful reminder of God’s faithfulness: recording prayer requests and looking back over time to see how God has been at work. Rarely does God seem to act in the ways I expect or ask. But always, God is at work, drawing life and hope and good out of everything. And always, God is with me, and with those I have lifted up to God.
            Friends, Jesus tells us to ask, search, and knock at God’s door. I don’t think he tell us this so that God can check everything off our wish list, or so that we can make fools of ourselves praying prayers that will never be answered. Rather, I think when we ask, God does give, even when what God gives is unexpected. I think when we search, we do find, even when what we find is not the original destination we were seeking. And I think when we knock, God always opens the door for us that leads to a deeper faith, a closer relationship with God, and a changed heart for us. And so we ask, with the disciples: Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.

[1] Hamilton, Adam, Why? Making sense of God’s Will, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011, 36.
[2] These scenarios are adapted from Adam Hamilton’s scenarios in Why?, 39-40.
[3] Hamilton, 46, 49. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon, "Why: Why doesn’t God speak to us like God speaks to people in the Bible?" Genesis 12:1-9

Sermon 1/14/18
Genesis 12:1-9

Why: Why doesn’t God speak to us like God speaks to people in the Bible?

            Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called “Why: Asking Tough Questions of Faith.” Each week, we’ll be exploring together one of the faith questions that seems to be a question that many people had, questions that I’ve heard throughout my ministry, questions that Christians have struggled with for generation upon generation. We’ll wrestle with these questions together, and see what we can learn from the scriptures, from God’s direction, from our experiences, and from each other. I have to warn you right at the start that I can’t promise to give the answer to these questions we’ll wrestle with. If they were easy questions to answer, they wouldn’t be questions that people have wrestled with over centuries. But we’ll do our best to be thoughtful and inquisitive and turn to our best sources of wisdom as we try to find God’s voice, God’s direction when it comes to challenging faith questions. Sometimes people get anxious when it comes to questioning and faith, fearing that expressing doubt or confusion or concern is a sign of a weak faith. But I feel strongly that asking questions about faith is a sign of strength. It’s a sign that we’re exploring and struggling and searching, and I think that our searching is what leads to growing in faith. So together, we’ll question, search, and hopefully grow together as we explore.
Today, we’re starting with this question: Why doesn’t God speak to us now like God seems to speak to people in the Bible? This is one of the questions I’ve been asked regularly throughout my years as a pastor. After all, in the scriptures, we read about God speaking out from a burning bush, or God walking through the garden where Adam and Eve lived, or speaking from an overshadowing cloud, or Moses speaking with God on the mountaintop, so in the presence of God’s holiness that Moses’ face is glowing – all these very dramatic ways of getting someone’s attention. Then, even when there are not appearances of God in these dramatic forms, instead, there are dramatic appearances of angels: the heavenly host singing of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, Jacob wrestling with an angel all night long, angels telling of Jesus’ resurrection to the women at the tomb. And yet, I’ve encountered very few people who have said that they have heard God’s voice in direct, clear way, or experienced angels in dazzling white. So why doesn’t God speak with us like this anymore?
Today’s scripture text from Genesis is a great example. In chapter 11 of Genesis, we find a long record of genealogy, and the first mention of a man named Abram, who with his wife Sarai and some of his extended family settles in a region called Haran, a place in present-day Turkey. We don’t know anything else about Abram at this point. And then as chapter 12 begins, it starts with these words: “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”” The next verse tells us, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” And I think, of course he did! Of course Abram did what God said – because what God said was clear and direct and unambiguous! When Abram gets to where he can look into the land of Canaan that God has promised, the text tells us that Abram builds and altar to God “who had appeared to him.” We don’t know any details about how God appears to Abram, but the point for us is that God did appear. And again, I think: Of course, if God just appeared to me, I would be able to hear what God was saying and know what I was supposed to do. So what’s changed? Does God not speak in the same way anymore? And if not, why not?
I think when it comes to hearing God speaking to us, there are a few things we can think about to help us understand why it seems like things are so different. First, I think what we perceive as a difference in how God acts in the world often might actually be a difference in how we speak about our experiences, how we use language, how we describe events. Our language is different today than it was in the Bible. We understand the mind differently, and we have different ways to express how people experience the world around them. For example, the field of psychology has given us lots of ways to speak about what goes on in our minds. We can speak about our conscience and our subconscious. That we might engage in thoughts and behaviors that we’re not really even aware of in the moment, or that we might have moral wrestling in our mind, as we struggle to determine the right course of action – I don’t find these themes anywhere in the scripture, because we didn’t study these concepts, find a way to describe them, until much, much later. So, we don’t read: Abram and his family started feeling like perhaps they should move to a new place, and that God might bless them in new ways if they moved, and this idea just kept tugging at them, and they weighed all the pros and cons, and finally decided that they needed to take a risk and that yes, God was with them in their decision, yes, God was leading them to a new land. Instead, we read: God spoke, and Abram went. Maybe, though, if the authors of Genesis were contemporaries of ours, they’d use different language, different metaphors, to describe how God spoke to Abram.  
Another reason I think it seems like God speaks to us differently is because we are different and so we’re expecting different things from God. Here’s what I mean: I’ve shared with some of you before that part of the process of becoming ordained in The United Methodist Church includes undergoing a psychological assessment. For part of this, you have to answer a survey with hundreds of questions that then get processed to assess your mental fitness for ministry. A repeated question on the tests appearing in multiple different ways is something like: “Do you hear voices telling you what to do?” The expected answer is, of course, “No!” But I always found this to be a fascinating question for potential clergy to answer. We speak all the time about feeling called by God, about God speaking to us. But we also have this clear sense that “hearing voices” in the way we often use that phrase today is a potential sign of a mental illness. If I started “hearing voices,” my first thought would not be that God was speaking to me. I might think I was being pranked or that there was a scam, a trick being played on me. And if that wasn’t the solution, I’d start to wonder, seriously, about my mental health. I’d go to the doctor. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. And so, if I am not likely to respond positively to God speaking in this way – if I’m more likely to doubt and question than trust and act, why would God try to get a message to me like this? I think God is pretty wise, and so God is wise enough to speak in ways we can hear. I think about how we send out meeting reminder messages from the church office. Usually, we send emails. But not everyone has email, and over time we’ve learned that some people who technically have email never actually check their email. How much sense would it make for us to keep emailing someone about a meeting when we know that they are never going to see the message? In the same way, why would God keep sending us messages that we aren’t going to hear?
Finally, I think sometimes God is speaking, but we’re just not hearing it, not listening, not recognizing God’s voice for what it is. We’ll be talking more about God and prayer next week, but I’m reminded of the illustration that talks about a person trapped in their home, praying for rescue from a flood. They’re convinced God will save them. A person comes by in a truck, and another in a boat to help, and finally in a helicopter, all trying to rescue the person, who keeps refusing help because they’re waiting for God to save them. When the person meets God face to face, and wonders why God didn’t save them from the flood, God explains that God sent help three times, only to be refused. I wonder, sometimes, if God is speaking to us in different ways, but we’re so focused on our plan of what we think will happen, how we think God will act, that we can’t see God right in front of us, calling our name.
So, how is God speaking to you? How have you heard God in your life? As a pastor, I’ve had lots of practice talking about my “call” to ministry. I can say that God “called me” to be a pastor, but that simple sentence doesn’t reflect the long struggle of trying to figure out what God was leading me to do. But since part of becoming a pastor includes being able to share my sense of call again and again, I’ve had more practice than many of you in thinking about how God speaks to me. I can tell you that I went through a period of time when I was sure I wanted to do anything but go to seminary, even though I wanted to find a way to serve God with my life. But lots of people that I trusted and looked up to kept asking me whether I had thought about seminary, whether I had thought about becoming a pastor. There was no single moment where I heard God’s booming voice telling me to be a preacher. But there were so many little moments of people pointing me in the direction of answering God’s call.
After I started on that journey, when I was in college and visiting seminaries, I had narrowed it down to two choices: Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, or Drew Theological School in Madison, NJ. After weighing the choices, I settled on Drew, and began sharing the news with folks in my childhood church. One woman there was Bertha Holmes, the widow of a United Methodist pastor. I, along with everyone else in the congregation, deeply admired her spirituality and strong faith. When I shared my choice with Bertha, she said: “Oh, I prophesied that you would go to Drew.” I’d never heard Bertha say anything like this before. She was more quiet and contemplative than someone I would call “a prophet” who made declarations about what she knew would be. And perhaps because of this, her words were all the more powerful. I immediately felt content with the choice I had made. If Bertha prophesied that I would go to Drew, to Drew I would go. I strongly believe that God was speaking to me through Bertha.
And I’ve told you before of the vivid dream I had about my late grandfather, Millard Mudge. There wasn’t much to the dream other than Grandpa looking healthy and whole and giving me a big hug, and me telling him, “I have missed you so much,” and it all feeling so very real that I woke up with tears in my eyes. I don’t think God is speaking to me in all my crazy dreams, but I do think that God was at work in this one, bringing me comfort, and an abiding peace knowing that my grandfather was well in God’s eternal care.
How has God spoken to you? How can we make it easier for God to speak to us? I think we can learn from our forbearers in the scriptures. They had no doubt that God would speak to them, and so they seemed to be ready to listen and respond. Can you cultivate your trust in God by studying the scriptures, by praying regularly, by listening more? If you are interested in exploring more deeply God’s call for your life, I also have resources I can share with you, tools for discernment, for figuring out what God wants you to do. Talk to me, and together we can find some practices that will help you listen for God’s voice. I think we can be on the lookout for God’s messengers: that’s the literal meaning of the word “angel.” If other people keep suggesting that you take a certain path, if they keep telling you that they see a certain gift or strength in you, it just might be that God is speaking to you through them. Will you listen? And when you’ve heard God’s voice, whether you hear God’s voice from the burning bush, or you hear God in the persistent tug of your subconscious, will you claim you call? Will you respond? Will you answer?   
            God does still speak to us. Let’s listen carefully. Amen.