Sunday, March 19, 2017

March 19, 2017 - Suffering

Romans 5:1-11

“But suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces how, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Of all the things that happen in our lives, I would say that it’s suffering that most exposes the heart of our faith. Joy is no problem––we can reconcile our understandings of God quite easily with joy. When we experience those moments of joy, we have no trouble feeling connected to God and praising our Creator for the gift of life. But suffering––suffering is one of those things that frequently causes us to feel separated from God. Suffering is that experience of being overwhelmed by pain––whether it’s physical pain, or emotional pain, or spiritual pain doesn’t matter.

And it doesn’t even have to be our own pain. We can suffer because those we love are in pain, because the world is in pain, or because we see pictures of starving children in Africa. We can feel overwhelmed by the suffering of others, until it becomes our own. Regardless of the cause of our suffering, whether it’s big or small, ours or someone else’s, when we suffer, it takes over our lives. And the cause of the pain doesn’t matter, either. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, said that “suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.” Whether your suffering comes from a migraine, or the loss of a child, from chronic and untreatable pain, or moving away from one’s home, you will know that it fills us up, blocking out everything else in our world. Suffering is an anguish that takes over our mind, and body, and soul. We might be able to live through intense pain, but intense suffering is something else entirely.

So it’s no wonder that suffering exposes what we believe about God. It strips away everything we know, and interrupts our previously comfortable relationship with God. It causes all kinds of questions to come up––questions that we’re often afraid to answer. Questions like: Is God causing my suffering? Does me being overwhelmed by my suffering mean that I’m weak? Does it mean that I have no faith? How can there possibly be a point to my suffering? And when people we love have given in to suffering––who have committed suicide because it was too much––these questions are intensified. Where is God? How could God allow this to happen? When it comes to suffering, at a time when we most need to know God is with us, we can feel that God is nowhere to be found. In those times, Jesus’ words on the cross pierce our hearts: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Because of this, there is a huge range of theological approaches to suffering. And by theological approaches, I mean faith-filled responses. I want to spend a bit of time this morning talking about the different theologies we have about suffering, but I want it to be clear that I am not judging any of them, or even recommending one of them over the other. Theology is how we make sense of God, and how we make sense of our faith, and our lives, and since everyone’s life is unique to them, everyone’s theology and how they make sense of their faith will also be unique. And so I offer these to be helpful, and not as a critique. None of them are more, or less, Christian than the other.

There are basically two broad schools of thought when it comes to theology and suffering. The first school is that God is in control of the situation. This is not to say that God causes suffering. The Bible is pretty adamant about that––in the book of Job it is crystal clear that God does not cause suffering or tempt us or send us pain on purpose. And in the letter from James, it says, “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and God himself tempts no one.” God Does Not Cause Suffering. But that is not to say that God does not allow suffering. In other words, for those of us in this first group, there is an understanding that suffering is the consequence of sin––whether it’s our own personal sin, or our collective sin as a community, or even the world––and that God allows us to face the consequences of that sin and then provides opportunities for us to learn from those experiences. Somebody who has developed bone cancer might say, if this is their belief, “Well, God is really teaching me what’s important by letting me get cancer.” Or, “God has a plan for my life and cancer is part of the plan, and even though I don’t understand it now, I’m sure it will make sense down the road.” The Bible says, in Jeremiah, “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, “plans for your good and not for your harm.’” (Jeremiah 29:11) This is the understanding we have when we say that God sent Jesus to suffer on the cross for a reason, and that it was all part of God’s great plan for Creation. And for a great many faith-filled people, this understanding works.

But it doesn’t work for everyone. This understanding can sometimes lead us to think that God is sadistic, or malicious, or just playing with us. And so the other school of thought proposes that God is not in control of the situation. Not that God couldn’t be if God wanted to, but that God has given up control in order to let us make our own choices and grow into being our own people. The comfort in this understanding comes in God being with us in our suffering––that suffering is not a sign of being abandoned by God, but that God walks along with us when we feel overwhelmed and holds our hand. And again, there is strong Biblical testimony for this view. Many of the psalms speak of God as with those who are suffering, particularly in Psalm 139, which speaks about how there is nowhere we can go that God will not be with us, and says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’” (a description of suffering if ever I heard one), “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for the darkness is as light to you. ... I come to the end––I am still with you.” In the Gospels, Jesus wept with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died. Jesus does not blame God for Lazarus’ death, but he is there with them in the midst of their suffering. In this way of thinking, a person who gets cancer might think, “This is a horrible thing that’s happened, but I know God is with me and suffering with me and I am not alone.” Those of us with this understanding might say that God did not plan for Jesus to die on the cross, but that God was with Jesus the whole time and raised him up in order to right the wrongs committed in crucifixion. And this also works, and is a faith-filled response.
But this doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes, it is not comforting to think of God as being able to help but refusing to, and simply walking with us in our pain. Sometimes we want a God who will take charge. And so while most of us stand primarily in one or the other of these understandings when it comes to our own suffering, sometimes we might even alternate back and forth.  Sometimes we might believe that God has allowed us to suffer for a greater good, and sometimes we might believe that our suffering is just something that happens to all people, but that God is walking with us in that nevertheless. Frequently, we will have someone tell us that we should believe one way or another when we are in the midst of our suffering. We might even have told someone else what they should be thinking in their suffering.

The truth is that we can’t know. We simply can’t know what God is up to when we’re suffering. But we do know that God loves us and is committed to us. This is the hope that Paul is pointing us to (who himself endured a great deal of suffering), that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” And so whatever it is that we believe about God and suffering, so long as it helps us to experience God’s love and care for us, then it’s good. It is right for us in that moment. Whatever directs us to be comforted by God’s lovingkindness, to feel that Jesus is with us, is right. Whatever we believe that enables us to have compassion for others in their suffering, and to work to alleviate suffering in the world, is a theology of suffering inspired by the Holy Spirit. If it brings us that true and healing comfort that allows us to face the reality of our situation and continue to trust God, then it is right.

In the end, regardless of our own particular beliefs about God when we suffer, we have God’s promise that one day, there will be no more suffering. The book of Revelation describes the time when God will come down from heaven and be with God’s people, and God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:4) Whether we believe that God has a plan for our suffering or that God doesn’t and is just with us in our suffering, we always believe that God will end suffering. For all people––for all of God’s Creation. This, ultimately, is the hope that sustains us through our suffering, and so we can say, in every time and every place, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

March 5, 2017 - The Temptation to Mastery

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

So, clearly, on this first Sunday in Lent, as we begin the forty days of self-reflection that is our journey towards the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ on Easter, the theme of this Sunday is “temptation.” And when we hear about the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness to face the devil, and when we hear about God setting up the perfect Garden of Eden with a tree in it that God then tells Adam and Eve not to eat from, one of the questions that tends to arise is whether God is deliberately exposing us to temptation, and for what reason.

For example, if we look at Genesis, the traditional interpretation has been that the snake in the Garden is the devil, infiltrating Paradise in order to steal the first humans away from God. But nowhere in the Biblical text does it actually say that. In fact, it says that the serpent was “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made,” meaning that the serpent was among the wild animals that God had made. The serpent was not the Devil, but one of God’s own creatures. So, the question arises, why would God a) put a Tree in the garden that was deadly to Adam and Eve, b) point out the tree to Adam and tell him not to eat from it, and c) create an animal that would hang out with Adam and Eve and try to trip them up? Is God trying to set up Adam and Eve to give in to temptation? Why would God do that? What kind of God is this?

Similar questions arise when we hear the story of Jesus in the desert, in the Gospel of Matthew. The Scripture we hear begins very explicitly, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Now why on earth would the Holy Spirit do that? Why would the Holy Spirit deliberately expose Jesus to temptation? Is God sadistic? Is God indifferent to our struggle? Is God heartless? Obviously we don’t really think that God is any of these things, and yet we have questions.

Well, to explore this tension between God allowing us to face temptation, or even setting us up and drawing us into a “time of trial,” as we say in the Lord’s Prayer, and believing that God does actually care for us, we need to go a little further into what temptation actually is. What is it that we are tempted to do? What is this temptation that carries such devastating consequences if we give in to it?
Well, an important thing to understand about the Garden of Eden story is that when the serpent is inviting Eve and Adam (whom, you may have noticed, is there for the whole thing, he just doesn’t say anything) to eat from the tree, the serpent is setting it up as a choice between knowing everything or submitting to God’s command. That’s what’s meant by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The phrase, Knowledge of Good and Evil is similar to our phrase from “A to Z.” It means knowing everything there is to know and so the tree of the knowledge of good and evil means the tree of knowledge of absolutely everything. And since knowledge is power, the tree of knowledge is really the tree of power over everything. And so another way of looking at this story is that the serpent sets up a choice between humans having power over their world––mastering it––or being vulnerable to it. The serpent takes advantage of the reality that humans are not actually in charge––God is––and encourages Eve and Adam to “be like God.” To be the ones in control.

And we see this in the story of Jesus in the desert, too. Three times, the devil tempts Jesus to take control of his surroundings and his life. He tempts Jesus to change rocks into bread, to defy gravity, and to take power that he has not yet been given. All of these are various signs of mastering one’s world––feeding oneself from nothing and therefore not having to rely on the natural cycles of food production in nature, mastering the basic rules of physics and not having to submit to gravity or time (not that the writer of Matthew knew about any of these things, but we can certainly understand it this way), and being the one in charge of not only ourselves but everyone around us.

This is the temptation we are constantly exposed to in our lives. The temptation to be in charge. To do it ourselves. Little kids do this all the time––“I want to do it MYSELF!” They want to be the ones in charge, to decide what and when and how things happen. And this doesn’t get better as we get older. We want to decide what happens in our lives. We want to be in control. And, when we are confronted with a lack of control––through unexpected illness, or inevitable decline, or decisions made without our permission––we get angry. We try to take back control. We give in to the temptation of wanting to know everything so that we can be in control, of wanting to eat from the Tree of total knowledge. When things become very clearly out of our control, the temptation is to want to wrest back that control. To be like God. To master the situation.

But why is this so bad? Why is it so bad to want to be the masters of our own world and life? Why is it so bad to want to be the one in control of our relationships, with one another and with God? To want to be God by knowing everything and exerting complete power over it all?

Well, first of all, because we can’t. We don’t have that capacity. We are simply incapable of seeing all the consequences of our decisions or foreseeing the ways in which our actions might actually damage those around us. I don’t need to explain all of the ways in which we hurt ourselves, and others, and the world, when we try to arrange things to protect ourselves. We’ve all made decisions that unintentionally hurt others. We can’t get around that.

But there’s a more compelling reason that God encourages us to turn away from the desire for complete mastery. And that is because it is in vulnerability––the complete opposite of mastery––that we truly grow and mature and become like God. The Tree of Knowledge made Adam and Eve aware that they were naked. That they were vulnerable. This story isn’t about them being ashamed because of their nakedness––God created our bodies and called them “very good.” Our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. This story is about them being ashamed of their vulnerability, of their awareness that they don’t have the power they think they need, of what they perceive as weakness. Their knowledge became a curse when they react to this vulnerability by attempting to protect themselves from it. By hiding, by blaming one another, by trying to cover up their vulnerability and deny it and get rid of it. This is how Eve and Adam react to that knowledge. They hide from God. Adam blames Eve for getting him into trouble. Eve blames the snake. They do all the things we do when we become aware of our own vulnerability.

But the knowledge of our vulnerability becomes a blessing to us when we remember that God’s deepest strength comes not from controlling and mastering the universe, or us, but from being vulnerable to us. This is what we see in Christ, and in the story of Holy Week––in Christ’s voluntary journey to the cross, to death at the hands of those whom he loves. In the story of Holy Week we see that choosing vulnerability to those around us is what brings about new life. Not just for Christ, but for those whom he loves. When we choose to be vulnerable––to others, to the world, and to God––the consequence is life. For them, and subsequently for us. It feels risky, to be sure, because it usually means our own death, but we know that after death is true life. This is why God made God’s self vulnerable to us in giving us God’s own Son. So that we might truly understand that God’s truest essence is shown in being open and vulnerable to us.

The temptation of the Garden of Eden, and of Jesus in the wilderness, and of our daily lives, lies in trying to reclaim being made in the image of God––to be like God––by controlling and mastering our lives and those around us. But it is the opposite that is true. To be like God, we must open ourselves in vulnerability to one another, to the world, and to God. Just as God is vulnerable to us.
So why does God allow us to face the temptation of mastery versus vulnerability? Or even deliberately expose us to it? Because, as I said, God has decided to be vulnerable to us. God could remove this temptation from us––God could isolate us in a bubble where there is no temptation to power, God could have created a Garden with no Tree in it, and could have controlled every single aspect of our environment so that we would never have the opportunity to transgress. God could have directed the Holy Spirit to keep Jesus away from the desert, not lead him straight to it. God could have acted as the complete and total master of our lives, and not have had to send God’s own Son to show us the way by dying for us. But that would be counter to who God is, and to who God wants us to be. Without the constant process of being faced with temptation, of giving in to it, of suffering the consequences of that decision, of learning and resisting, and choosing vulnerability instead of mastery––without all of that process of growth and maturity––without choice, we would not grow. We would be slaves, not children, of God. I believe that God does, in fact, want us to become adults, as it were. God is not interested in having a bunch of perpetual children running around Creation. If that were the case, God would not have created us with curiosity or intelligence or a desire for justice. But God did, and God wants us to grow into the fullness of what God has created us to be, similar to the way in which parents want their children to grow into mature adults. God created us in the image of God, and God wants us to grow into that image.

In these forty days of Lent, as we strive to become aware of the times in life when we are tempted towards mastery instead of vulnerability, there is one last thing to remember, and that is that God is with us in all of this temptation, and stays with us no matter our choice. God remained in the garden with Adam and Eve, and then accompanied them out of the garden when it didn’t work out. And the Spirit of God went with Jesus into the wilderness as he faced the temptations of the devil and enabled him to resist. It is the Holy Spirit that gives us the strength to resist temptation, to choose instead to be vulnerable, and to follow Christ on the path to Easter.  And so we say, thanks be to God. Amen.

Ash Wednesday - The Joy of Ashes

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I am never surprised that there are so few people who come to Ash Wednesday service, because these words are by far the most difficult that we have to hear in the entire church year. Even outside of the church, in our day-to-day lives, being told that you are destined for death, which is what these words mean, is the hardest thing to hear. It is overwhelming and anxiety-provoking to hear that nothing that we have spent our lives on will last, to know that our days are limited, to be told that there is no legacy we might leave behind that will last throughout the ages. Everything is dust. We are dust. Our lives, our jobs, our relationships, our church - these things will all crumble into ashes––into the dust from which they came.
And we are in this for the next forty days. Lent has been a time when people have prepared for the glory of Easter by remembering how far from that glory we are. We bravely face the truth that our failures are more significant than our successes, that the realities of our world show us that we are really nothing more than a tiny speck on a vast and godly scale, and that we really are nothing more than the ashes that now rest on our forehead.

So it isn’t surprising that there aren’t many people here this evening. Who truly *wants* to immerse themselves in this period of sadness and critical self-reflection, especially at a time when the congregation is getting ready to close? Where is the Good News here? Where is the comfort?

“In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up––for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground––then the LORD God formed an adam (a human) from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life; and the adam (the human) became a living being.” (Genesis 2:4-7)

God took the dust of the earth and breathed into it the breath of life, and the dust became a living being, one of God’s children.

This is our comfort, and our hope, and the reason we can, like Paul did, rejoice in the midst of sorrow, call ourselves rich in the midst of poverty and loss, and see ourselves as having nothing and yet possessing everything. It is the reason we can be joyful and grateful throughout the next forty days of Lent, and even after until the end of June. It might seem inappropriate––obscene, even––to rejoice in the midst of all this death and darkness, but the deeper reality of the world is that death and darkness does not have the final word. God, who created the world out of wild and chaotic nothingness, God, who breathed into dust and gave it life, God, who brings Easter Sunday after the death of Good Friday, this God has the last word. When today and the next forty days are over, God will continue to speak. Indeed, God walks through these days with us, accompanies us as we face our own mortality, and then, at the end, speaks words of healing and life and light. And so, even today, we rejoice.

What’s more, we might consider whether continuing to be sad and in despair and hopelessness during these next forty days and beyond is a denial of the life that God offers us. After all, in Lent we do not pretend that our sin and failure and death means the end of everything. Even on Good Friday, which we call “Good,” by the way, we do not adopt an attitude of downheartedness as if we do not know that Easter has already happened. We are somber, yes, and humble, but we look beyond Lent and Good Friday and beyond death, to the new life that is promised, and to the resurrection that has already happened. That is why we celebrate Communion on Ash Wednesday, and why, after I told you all that you were dust and to dust you will return, I then proclaimed that we are all forgiven, by virtue of the baptismal cross that lies underneath our ash ones. It used to be the tradition that forgiveness was not proclaimed for the entire forty days of Lent, in the belief that Confession and Repentance were only genuine if we didn’t hear the proclamation of Forgiveness immediately after. But this came to be understood as a kind of false piety, the kind of thing that Jesus condemns in Matthew, actually, and also as obscuring the heart of the Christian faith which is not that “we are sinners, the end,” but that God saves us and redeems us in Christ. To spend all of our time in confession and sorrow and the loss that comes from dying, to only hang our heads when talking about our death, is to deny that God breathes new life into dust.

So, while it may feel inappropriate, particularly in today’s culture that does not recognize Easter, we ask God in the midst of our losses, like King David did, to restore to us the joy of salvation. We ask God to lift our hearts while the ash is still on our forehead. We ask God to give us joy as we face death because we know that death is not the end. God is moving us towards Easter. God is moving us towards new life. Deeper into dust, yes, but through it. We know that God is doing this for us, but the ashes overwhelm us, and so we ask God to remind us of this deeper reality, to help us remember that Easter is coming, and indeed has already come. 

And God does. And so even on this of all days, when we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return, and in this period of Lent, our last as a congregation together, we nevertheless rejoice in God, in God’s gift of new life, we rejoice even in the gift of dust because it shows us the power of our God, eternally the giver of life, and we say, Thanks be to God. Amen.