Sunday, June 22, 2008

Our Children are not God - ULC Chapel, Berkeley

Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 6:1b-11
Matt 10:24-39

Boy, the story from Genesis today is deeply disturbing, isn’t it? It shouldn’t be - this is not the first time in the Bible that death has been demanded. The whole population of the earth, minus Noah and his family, has already been drowned in forty days and nights of rain. By contrast, Isaac is just one person. But he is a child. And I think that’s what really gets us - that a child’s life hangs in the balance. We are deeply troubled, and perhaps even outraged, that not only does God demand the sacrifice of a child, but that Abraham, this child’s father, obeys without protest - odd, given that he protested the destruction of Sodom quite aggressively - and that Sarah, this child’s mother, is silent. Or silenced, however you want to interpret her absence. This story is deeply upsetting for the way in which Abraham is to end the life of his “only son,” the one whom he loves, by knife on a pile of wood for a burnt offering. It is terrible when Isaac addresses Abraham so trustingly as “Father,” only to have his father dissemble, and it is horrifying when Abraham has gone so far as to have the knife in his upraised hand before God intervenes. From beginning to end, this story flies against every survival-of-the-species instinct we have, and it is deeply upsetting.

Oh, and mind you, it’s not just the Genesis text that does this, either. The Matthew text is no better, with father set against son, mother against daughter, no peace but the sword, and “whoever loves father or mother … or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” It’s not as graphic as the story of Isaac, but it’s just as bad. Once again we are faced with the death of children - perhaps grown children, perhaps not, and we are told that those of us who would try to love our children the way that seems natural - as the most important thing in our life, are being less the people that God wants us to be.

So what are we to make of these readings? How are we to interpret God’s commands, and Abraham’s swift reaction? How are we to understand these words of Jesus that seem to contradict his message of love? Well, when it comes to the Genesis reading, we could say that these are patriarchal texts that are meant to reinforce the male authority of both religion and family, which is why Sarah is left out of the picture. Or we could say that this is one of those rare examples in the Bible that is meant to show us the frailty and weakness of Abraham and is a model of “how not to parent” more than anything else. We could argue that the text in Matthew is a later addition, and that Jesus never actually said that. Or we could say that the author of Matthew was writing during a time of persecution, and so his Jesus takes on the tone of times.

I’m going to propose, though, that we take Jesus’ words and Abraham’s story at face value. That this morning we keep the interpretations simple, that we trust that this is like many other stories, though not all, that are trying to teach by example, and that what it says is what it means. I am going to propose that both of these readings are about the First Commandment - You shall have no other gods before me.

So, let’s look at that First Commandment, and in particular, Luther’s explanation of it in the Small Catechism. “You shall have no other gods before me. What does this mean? That you shall fear, love, and trust only God.” You shall fear, love, and trust only God. What Luther is saying is that the things we fear, the things we love, and the things we trust become our Gods. The things that we think about constantly, the things that we worry about, the things that we put all our efforts towards making happen, the things that we will do anything for, all these things become our Gods. What would you do to protect the things, and the people, you love? What would you do to prevent from happening the things that you fear? How far would you go? Would you break the commandments? Violate God’s covenant of love? Put aside God completely in order to “do what you have to do?”

To be honest, I don’t know always know the right answer to those questions. Call me crazy, but sometimes I think about what might happen if someone broke into my house with a gun and threatened to shoot my family. I can’t say for certain what I would do, and it’s one reason among a very many that I’m glad I don’t have a gun in the house. I am glad that I have not had to test whether or not I am putting my child before God. I suspect it’s coming pretty close, though. We have an online photo account with pictures of my son that we started when we was born, where we can put up pictures of him for our extended family who is all over the country. After two years, I noticed that we have almost 2,000 pictures up of him, and almost 20,000 “views” or hits on those pictures. A family member’s entire Grade Five class sent him birthday cards. We have hours - days - of video footage of him, that I make into DVDs and send to the family. With all the time and energy we spend on him, if that’s not loving someone more than God, I don’t know what is.

But it’s more than just love. It’s fear, too. For some reason, what children really highlight for us is the fear of death. Their death, and our death. Perhaps it’s the extreme vulnerability of children that reminds us of our own indefensibility against death. Illnesses treat them harder; they are less likely to survive accidents. The thought of my child’s death, of any child’s death actually, paralyzes me. I have to be careful what I read in the news, or what TV show I stop on when I’m flipping through the channels. Anything that deals with the death of a child is enough to ruin my whole night. That whole earthquake thing in China, with all of those one-child-per-family families losing their one child - ugh, I can’t even think about it. I fear it, death. To be honest, I think I actually do fear it more than I fear God.

And I wonder if Abraham was in the same boat as me. Internet-technology aside, how could he not love Isaac, and how could he not fear his death, to the point of idolatry? This was Isaac, after all, his only son with Sarah, his heir, the one who would carry his name and his blood through to the nations after him. Isaac’s death would mean the death of Abraham’s line, the death of God’s promise, the death of everything he had worked for when he left Ur. Abraham had already let his love for Isaac bind him to Sarah’s behaviour towards Hagar, behaviour that resulted in Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, being driven out into the desert, where they would have died if God had not stepped in. Flatly stated, it was love for Isaac that allowed Sarah, with Abraham as an encouraging accessory, to attempt murder. There weren’t any “Ten Commandments” at that point, but God’s followers still knew that killing another person was wrong. Abraham was, as parents are wont to do, putting his son above God.

But the truth is that children are not meant to be the be-all and end-all of our existence. As counter-intuitive and counter-survivalist as it might sound, children are not our life. They do not provide an out when it comes to our own death. Only God is capable of that. As Paul reminds us over and over again throughout Romans, God, through Christ, brings us through death to new life. God created us in the very beginning, and God raises us again to new life at the very end. Our children, however much we love them, cannot do that. They are the created, not the Creator.

Which is a good thing. A very good thing. It means, at the very least, that we do not need to fear the death of our children. I remember when I was pregnant, I had just passed the 26 week mark in my pregnancy, and I was talking to a colleague on the phone telling her how relieved I was that it was past 26 weeks. You see, doctors don’t resuscitate babies born before 26 weeks, because there is just too little chance of survival. I remember saying to my friend, “Now I know my baby will have a chance.” And I remember my friend, whose son was born at the 28 week mark, gently reminding me that my baby was not mine, but God’s, and that when she was going through the agonizing process of having her son in intensive care for three months following his birth, and living through the following years of developmental delays, both temporary and permanent, she always reminded herself that her son was not hers, but God’s. And she is right. Our children are not our own, they are God’s. And that means that their lives, and their deaths, are in the hands of God, just like ours are. There are no better arms to care for them, no one more loving, more capable, or better at caring for our children than God.

You see the First Commandment isn’t there to threaten us. It isn’t there to say, “Love God, or else.” And God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac I don’t believe was a threat. God wasn’t saying, “You love Isaac too much so now I have to take him away.” Jesus’ words in Matthew, well - I’m still working on those. But in the first two cases, they aren’t threats, but reminders and comforts. We fear, love, and trust God because who else is better at taking care of us? Only God is able, and willing, to bring us back from death. God’s entire message to Abraham, including Isaac’s replacement with a sacrificial ram - let’s not forget that part - was that God was going to protect Isaac, and do a better job of it than Abraham could. God is not malicious - God knows what it is to lose a child - but God does want to remind us that in the face of death, our children’s and our own, it is God who will bring us new life. We have seen God do it with Abraham and Isaac, we see God do with Jesus Christ, and we will see God do it with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Preposterous Promises - University Lutheran Chapel

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:23

“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Now, Matthew doesn’t say as much, but the implication is that it isn’t just the twelve who are called to do this work, but all of Christ’s disciples - us, too. We, too, are called, privileged to be invited to take part in bringing closer the kingdom of heaven. Christ sends us out to proclaim the good news, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.

And this is the point at which we say, yeah, yeah, whatever. I mean seriously - it’s one thing to go around being a generally good and nice person, to smile politely as we walk by the homeless people on the street, to do our bit for the environment and recycle and compost, and it’s another thing entirely to believe that we are given the power to cure the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. It’s another thing completely to believe that Jesus has given us the power, and is expecting us, to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is more of a reality on earth than it was before, and to believe that we are being called to make it so. To believe that Christians are being given the ability to bring such new life to the world, to believe that the church of Christ’s followers are able to be a presence of real healing in this suffering world - well, forgive me, but to me it sounds preposterous.

Because what we’re talking about here, what seems to be suggested to us, is a wholescale, global renewal of the church that returns it to its roots among the apostles. We’re talking about returning to the embodiment of the body of Christ that was presented to us in Acts: to selling our assets and putting the proceeds into a common pot, to operating soup kitchens for all of the poor who need it, to casting out demons, powers, and principalities - but on a scale much larger than it was two thousand years ago. We’re talking about the re-birth of the Christian church. It’s preposterous.

It’s as preposterous as God proposing to Abraham and Sarah that they should have a biological son at the age of one hundred. Imagine - one-hundred year-old Sarah, with whom it has ceased to be “after the manner of woman,” not only conceiving, but carrying a child to term, surviving the terrifying danger of child-birth, and breast-feeding this child for three years or so. She, and Abraham, were old and withered and probably expecting to die sooner than anything, and here they were, being called and given the power to bring forth new life into the world. And not just any new life, but one single son who would give Abraham his “multitude of nations” and from whom nations and rulers would come, and through whom, as we heard last week, “all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” Is it any wonder Sarah laughed? Is it any wonder she expressed some doubt as to the likeliness of this happening?

The two situations, ours and Abraham and Sarah’s, are actually not that dissimilar. Our presence in the world is minimal, just as Abraham and Sarah’s was in the land of Canaan. The idea that one as-yet-unborn boy should bring about multitudes is as unlikely as the idea that we, so small in number, should have a hand in bringing the kingdom of heaven to this secular world. We are, to a certain extent, foreigners in an alien land, us faithful in this country. Nominal Christians notwithstanding, less than 30% of Americans are regular church-goers, and that number continues to decline. ( It is preposterous to think that so much should come from so little.

The Christian Church, too, could be considered old and withered. There was a time when the Church did wonderful things, and produced many good fruits, but that came to an end very quickly and we could rightfully be called barren. We have had terrible relations with the Jews, trying to wipe them out on more than one occasion. We have proclaimed the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near through forced or coerced conversions - not actually “good news” for anybody. We have attacked heathens and pagans and imposed our “Gospel” on them for their own good. We have treated our own Christian brothers and sisters appallingly when it comes to issues of justice. Even today, we as the Church in America avert our eyes and only whisper very quiet protests when it comes to issues of universal health care, social infrastructures for the poor and needy, when it comes to challenging the powers and principalities of the global systems that enslave and devastate at least two-thirds of the world’s population.

So, given that the extremity of our situations makes God’s propositions so outlandish, is it any wonder that we react to God’s promises the same way Sarah and Abraham did? To laugh, or worse than that, to ignore God’s promises altogether? Given the history of the Christian church, given the Church’s current passivity and its entanglement in the status quo, it is not surprising that when we hear the call to proclaim the good news, to heal the sick and bring new life, we instead try to rationalize away the power to change the world, or underestimate the effect that the Church can have, or pretend that Jesus is not, in fact, calling us to do the preposterous things he asked his apostles to do. We go merrily along our way, laughing at those who do believe, at best calling them naive, at worst calling them dangerously idealistic.

And yet, God makes these promises all the same. And, no less than that, keeps them. Sarah may have laughed at the idea of bringing a newborn son into the world at her age, but that didn’t stop God from making it happen. Isaac was born, and did flourish, and fathered Jacob and Esau, who fathered over twelve sons including Joseph who was Pharoah’s right-hand man. And these twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel, from whom David and Solomon came. The people of Israel established the standards of justice to which we still subscribe: you shall not murder, or steal, or commit adultery or incest, or leave the widows and orphans to starve - standards that have certainly been a blessing to the nations. From these people, from Abraham and Sarah, has come the Christian Saviour, and since him, doctors and scientists like Einstein, Neils Bohr, Jonas Salk, musicians and artists like Mendelssohn, Chagall, Modigliani, great thinkers like Spinoza and Derrida, people who have made the world a better place and have indeed brought the kingdom of heaven closer. Despite circumstances that would normally have made such things impossible, God fulfilled God’s preposterous promises to Sarah and Abraham and used them to bless the world.

And so, despite our impossible circumstance, despite our minority status and our passive faith, despite our deplorable history and our dim-looking future, we can count on God fulfilling those other preposterous promises - that we would be empowered to go out and proclaim the good news, to bring the kingdom of heaven closer, to heal the sick, and bring new life, and cast out demons. We can believe that God will use us to rebirth the Church on earth, in order to make the world a better place and to be a blessing to it. That’s not to say that it won’t be hard - I’m sure Sarah’s pregnancy and labour was no walk in the park. And that’s not to say that there won’t be setbacks along the way - the Jewish people have certainly suffered, and continue to suffer, as they carry out their work as a light to the nations. God does not promise an easy path, but God does promise to bless the world, and invites you to be a part of that, to take part in this new birth. So, doubt all you want, laugh like Sarah did, but the kingdom of heaven is coming ever more near, and God is using you to make the preposterous come to pass. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Faith of Abram - Proper 5 - University Lutheran Chapel

Genesis 12:1-9
Romans 4:13-25
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Well, Abram took quite a leap of faith now, didn’t he? I mean, look at his situation. There he is, living in the countryside, maybe looking after some sheep or something, living off the land with his family. Things are pretty comfortable for him - he’s married, his parents are nearby, his aunts and uncles and cousins are all around. It seem like a pretty good life. Than, all of a sudden, this god that maybe he’s heard of before, tells him to up and leave everything and go off to some far away land that he may have heard of but has certainly never visited. And then this god makes some outlandish promises to him, like how this god will bless all the families on earth because of Abram. All the families on earth - all of them? And this god says that all the land in this new place will go to Abram’s children. Abram doesn’t even have children - he’s seventy-five!! And what does Abram do? He does it!

Abram does what this god says - he leaves behind his parents and brothers and sisters and everything he knows - at an age when he should be in retirement, no less - and sets off for this unknown place. It’s crazy! But he does it. For some reason that we don’t really understand, Abram defies all logic and puts aside all reason, leaves everything he has, and follows God without question. Now God fulfills all that has been promised to him - God gives Abram children and grandchildren, the whole land of Canaan, and makes him the father of nations, but that’s not the point for this sermon. The point is that Abram didn’t know that God would do this when he left. Abram really took a leap of faith. If only we had that kind of faith.

I think that’s one of the most common secret fears of Christians - that we don’t have enough faith. Or that our faith isn’t strong enough, or it’s not the right kind of faith, or it’s not public enough. After all, Lutherans are a fairly unobtrusive bunch when it comes to displays of faith. We don’t speak in tongues, heal people with our touch, or fall down in the aisles in the middle of the service. In fact, we rarely even clap along with the hymns. I know that I don’t say grace in restaurants, I don’t sign my emails with “God bless,” and I would be too embarrassed to put a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Jesus loves you.” I’m very private when it comes to my faith. And sometimes that bothers me. Even before I became a pastor, I wished that I could be more public about my faith. That I could just walk up to strangers and tell them about Jesus. That I could argue with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who always seem to come to my door in particular. I sometimes think that my faith isn’t strong enough for God - that sometimes I’m not a very “good” Christian. At these times, I compare myself to Abram. After all, in Romans, Paul writes that “No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God has promised.” I gotta tell you - there’s no way I have faith like that! And if, as Paul says, our salvation is dependent on faith, then I’m doomed! My faith just isn’t going to stand up to the test! Compared to some believers I know, my faith is nothing.

In the reading from Matthew today, we see Matthew portray the Pharisees as making a similar assessment regarding the faith of the followers of Jesus - that their faith is nothing. According to Matthew, for the Pharisees, material success was connected to spiritual success. Matthew was basically accusing the Pharisees of having a wealth-and-health kind of theology, which, I have to note, was probably based more on Matthew’s hatred of the Pharisees than on what they were actually like at the time. In any case, the Pharisees, as interpreted by Matthew, believed that if somebody was poor, or physically deformed, or suffered from a long-term illness, it was because these people didn’t have enough faith in God. And so Matthew’s “Pharisees” couldn’t understand why Jesus would want to spend time with people like taxpayers, or lepers, or even prostitutes - people who were not only unsuccessful in their earthly lives, but apparently complete failures in their spiritual lives, as well. Why would Jesus, who professed to have such an intimate relationship with God, hang out with people who appeared to have abandoned God?

Well, Jesus tells his opponents very clearly that he is not interested in those who are successful. He has come specifically to be with those people who haven’t got it together. He has come to be not with the so-called righteous and faithful, but with the sinners and doubters. And we see, throughout the gospel of Matthew, that Jesus specifically reaches out to those people who seem less than worthy of his love, who seem to be complete failures when it comes to God - to the lepers, and the sick, and those burdened with demons. We see Jesus’ actions prove that he did not come to call the righteous, but those the world considers unfit - to those who serve money, like the tax-collectors, to the sinners. Jesus did not come to call the faithful, but those who seem to have no faith.

But why? Why would God want such faulty believers? Why would God want followers who are at the bottom of the religious totem pole? Who don’t seem to have any faith? Well, as Paul puts it so nicely in Romans, “If it is adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void… For this reason, salvation depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” In other words, how can God save us if we think we already saving ourselves? How can God give us real faith, true faith, if we think we already have it? How would we recognize that grace comes to us as a gift, if we think we already deserve it? We would be relying on what we do, and on what we believe, to get us to God. And that never works, because we can never believe enough. (You know, I think Paul must have been a Lutheran.) In any case, Paul is reminding us that salvation comes from God alone, not from us, not from what we do.

And thank God for that. Because if we had to rely on our own faith, we would be floundering. But, fortunately, God gives us the faith we need. We know, because God gave Abram the same faith. I mean, I really think there’s no way Abram could have responded so quickly and so unquestioningly to God’s call without some doubts or misgivings. Abram was not perfect; he was human like us. And so he must have had a human’s faith, which is never steady, gets distracted by inconsequentials, and tends to falter quite a bit. Abram had our faith. And yet the story tells us that Abram went, as the Lord told him.” And Paul says that Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness. But there is only one faith that is so strong that it can be counted as righteousness, and that is the faith of God. The faith that Abram had was given to him by God. That’s what enabled him to accomplish such an incredible journey, that’s what allowed him to follow God with complete trust and obedience. That’s what made his faith perfect.

And this same faith, the faith of Abram, is the faith that you are given. Now that’s not to say that you won’t have times of doubt, times when struggle with your faith. So did Abraham, on several occasions. When that happens though, it doesn’t mean that God has abandoned you, or that God has taken God’s faith away from you. God’s faith is forever, and so is God’s commitment to you.

The faith that you have is the faith God has given you. If you are quiet in your faith, that’s the gift God gave you. If you’re outgoing in your faith, that’s God’s gift, too. You don’t need to compare yourself to other Christians, to judge your faith by Billy Graham’s or Mother Theresa’s or Abraham’s. Your faith is a gift given to you in baptism, through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t give weak gifts. Martin Luther said it best, in his explanation to the third article of the Creed, when he said, “I believe that by my own faith or understanding I cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but that the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.” Your faith is the faith of God, and it is something. Thanks be to God. Amen.