Wednesday, September 21, 2011

God's Love Trumps All

Another minister wrote to me: "I cannot imagine . . . that God’s love trumps the requirement of the gospel for sinners to repent in order to become God’s children."

This is my response:

God’s love does trump the requirement for sinners to repent in order to become God’s children. That is the heart of the Gospel. That is it. That is the core. We do not become God’s children by our choice, but by God’s choice, and he chooses us all, and claims us all through the saving death of Christ. If we do not agree on that, then I am not sure we are talking about the same Spirit, the same Gospel, the same God. Jesus said: “You tithe mint, dill and cumin, but neglect the weighter matters of the law: justice, mercy and love.” Paul says: “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet the enemies of God, he sent his Son to die for us.” Jesus says: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And, Jesus tells the story of the gracious father of the prodigal son; and, the point of that story is not the repentance of the prodigal, but the love of the father that trumps all. Before the beaten and battered sinful son can even get down and repent before his father, his father embraces him and weeps tears of joy and celebrates. Before Jacob can tell Esau he is sorry, Esau embraces him and weeps. Jacob says: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God!” This is the Gospel. Before Joseph can stand to put his brothers to the test down in Egypt, he breaks down and cries and discloses who he is. He won’t even hear their cries of repentance. We love because God first loved us. God doesn’t wait for us to repent. God takes the first step, he reaches out and claims us all in Christ. That is grace. That is the Gospel. And, hell yes, God’s love trumps every other requirement in all creation, especially the church’s requirement that sinners repent first before being offered the free grace of God. Until we are loved of God, we don’t know how to repent. So long as you preach a gospel that sets up a gate and has requirements on the front end, you’ve not preached the gospel, but a human distortion of it. And, the sinful woman who wept at Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her tears. He says: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, because she loved much.” Jesus didn’t say: “because she repented, but because she loved.” Jesus didn’t want people’s sacrificial repentance, but their love. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus forgave the paralyzed man’s sins, and healed him – not because he saw the man’s repentance, but because he saw the man’s friends “faith,” which was also their love for him. In fact, the scripture doesn’t tell us one thing the paralyzed man did, but be claimed by the love of God in Jesus and saved, body and soul by it.

I think we need to get first things first.

I also think you have a view of a God who serves the Bible, not a Bible that serves God. Your one-to-one correspondence between the written canon and the Word of God cannot be sustained by any reasonable reading of the Bible itself or church history. Jesus takes the very words of scripture, such as: “you have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you . . . Jesus overrules the previous written code by separating the wheat from the chaff, and by flatly claiming an authority above that of the written scripture. And, regarding the Reformers view of scripture. Luther’s view cannot possibly be the view you espouse in equating the written scriptures with the Word of God. If so, why did Luther and Calvin actually take books out of the canon (books that Paul had in his scriptures! And that the church had had for 1500 years!). Further, Luther flatly criticized Revelation and James, and at times, wanted them taken out of the canon as well. Everyone knows in how high a regard Luther held the witness of scriptures, calling it the ruler over the church and “the Word of God,” but, even Luther didn’t have the mechanistic view of equating written canon with Word of God as a simple one-to-one correspondence. If he did, he would never have removed some books from the O.T., and so harshly questioned James and Revelation. And, he would not have made his famous statement: “The Bible is the cradle that holds the Christ-child.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

sermon notes from the sermon I did preach today, Sept. 18

I remember reading this passage for the first time when I was a senior in high school. I don’t think I had ever heard it read before or heard it preached on. THE DWELLING PLACE OF GOD IS WITH PEOPLE. HE WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY WILL BE HIS PEOPLE. AND, HE WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES.
These words struck me so deeply, it was like they went to fill this big empty place in my heart that had been aching to be filled. I was a high school senior and was really going through a spiritual re-awakening that fall of my senior year. I was spending a good bit of my free time reading the Bible, not running around on the edge of trouble like I had the previous year. And, the words of the Bible were beginning to catch fire in my heart and mind. I have never looked at life the same since these words from Revelation became part of my soul and my view of life.
As I remember that fall back in 1977, I remember it had begun to sink into my awareness that life was a pretty serious matter. I was beginning to realize the tragedy of life too. I was beginning to really feel that some real heartbrokenness was just a part of life, that unfairness was a part of life, that there was some real evil and cruelty and suffering that were going to be around so long as I lived. And, that losing those we love so deeply is also a part of living in this world.
I guess we all come at different points in our lives to these times of growing up in our outlook on life. Some of us have to face adult responsibilities and tragic losses earlier than others, but for all of us, there is a time when some of the trouble of life begins to trouble our mind and our faith.
I began to realize that life could change with a phone call that someone you love had been in a wreck, or that the lab report from the doctor revealed that there was a cancerous lump or that your mother you love so much was in ICU after a heart attack as a phone call did one night when I was 18.
As we grow up, the gravity of life, the weight of its sorrow, starts to hit home in a new way. The losses and pain of childhood are terribly real, but it is in a sense closed up inside so that the child can live on. In adolescence and adulthood, it seems we start opening up to the experiences we have had and to the trouble in the world around us. And, we face ourselves and our world in a new way. Frederick Beuchner writes that as an adolescent and as an adult, we begin to realize that pain, some real pain and loss, is here to stay, and we begin to try to make some sense of it or at least reach a truce with it; we realize it is a part of life that we will have to figure out how to live with.
As a child, bad things come, but somehow the child lives on. As we get older, we not only live on but we have to choose to live on. . . we realize that bad things are not simply disruptions in a life otherwise immune from pain, but that pain and trouble are right there in the center of life, even mixed real closely with joy and hope. As we grow up, we have to will to live in a world where there is going to disruption and struggle with sorrow as a part of life.
And, as I look back to that time when I was just turning 17 years old that fall, I think that my re-awakening to God brought along with it an awakening to the real brokenness and pain of life in this world – my own and others. It dawned on me that my family had really absorbed some losses along the way. Every family has many things to bear over the course of a life.
As I looked out at the world around me, whether it had to do with my family or with others, I saw and felt so much fragility, so much that was precious, but so much that could be lost in a moment. Although I experienced love and security with my family in my house, I saw that so many others were living in horrible insecurity and in the midst of hate and exploitation and violence. I only had to look to my extended family members another city over, another county over, and insecurity and trouble were regular there. Or, I only had to walk into my friends house to see trouble. And, then around the world, children dying of starvation and disease before they have even spoken their first word or taken their first step. And, well, you know, there is a lot of trouble if you open your eyes and hearts to see it.
Good things were going on in my life and in the world around me, but somehow I couldn’t ignore the suffering and the pain in the world anymore.
And, it was when all of this started to come to me, as I was starting to grow into adulthood, that I heard these words. AND, HE WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES. THERE WILL BE NO MORE SORROW, OR SICKNESS OR PAIN OR DEATH . . . Because my heart was starting to protest all of this pain and suffering and death in the world. My heart and mind were beginning to look out at life, and to look towards God, and my response was not: “Well, God all is as you will it. Everything is o.k. because you are in control.” No, that is not what I felt at all. My awakening in faith brought with it a deep protest against all the pain and suffering and unfairness and cruelty in life, Because as I came to know God more deeply, I came to protest and be upset by a world that was clearly not going in accordance with what God’s ultimate will is for human life.
And, all the religious answers and sermons I heard didn’t give me any assurance or answers that seemed true or that helped at all. But, these words from Revelation, they came to me as a word straight from God, like a grace I am still thankful for receiving.
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: AND I TRULY HEARD THOSE WORDS AS SPOKEN LOUDLY FROM THE THRONE OF GOD. I did not feel I was reading. I felt I was listening and an angel of God was speaking:
BEHOLD THE DWELLING PLACE OF GOD IS WITH PEOPLE. HE WILL BE THEIR GOD, THEY WILL BE HIS PEOPLE. AND, GOD WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES (from the eyes of mothers who have just buried their children, from the eyes of children who have been left alone; from the eyes of children who have been beaten or sexually abused days without number, from the eyes of husbands who have lost their wives, and wives who have lost their husbands, from the eyes of mothers whose children have died from drug overdoses, from the fathers of children who have wasted their lives away in prison, from the eyes of inmates who just wish they could go back and start life over again, from the eyes of this and that person who has born the pains of this life. From the eyes of parents who have prayed and prayed and worried and prayed, worked and tried to keep hope alive even as they see their children devoured by mental illness or by cancer or other some disease. YES, GOD, GOD HIMSELF, WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES, FROM OUR EYES. From my eyes and your eyes.
I had begun to be seriously troubled that fall of 1977 by the way things are in this world – troubled in a way that I just couldn’t look away from and forget in my soul. The Word of the Lord came to me and let me know: “you ought to be troubled by the way things are. God is troubled. God cares about the pain of human beings. God gathers it up in his heart. And, God will come to wipe the pain away. One day, God will come and wipe it away.” But, know this: “The Lord is taking all this trouble into his heart, and he gathers up all of the pain and suffering of human beings into his heart, and he will come in his fullness. He helps us bear it now in his love, and he is beginning to reveal his redeeming power among us day by day.” The assurance that all this horror and sorrow is not God’s desire for humanity and that God’s Spirit is completely committed to healing and help and relief and justice, that was enough for me. Because God’s will will be done – on that day completely, but even now day by day, that will of God presses into our broken reality. God’s will has its effect even now. As John Donne once said: “The assurance of future mercy is present mercy.”
There will come a day, when the heavens will open, and God’s glory will fill the earth, and all that has been wrong will be made right, all that has been wounded will be healed, all that has been taken will be restored, when what we have lost will be restored to us again. And, that day is a reality in our hearts that cannot be taken from us. It is sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. But, we carry this treasure in earthen vessels. At times, that day seems so remote, so far away; but, then in faith, we begin to see that that Great Day is at hand, that Great Day is a reality we can grasp in hope even now.
But, the reality of God is not just to be experienced in that future day. Looking to that future day, we are reminded of just what God’s will is, and that gives us hope for today. And, it gives us the courage to say that all is not well in this world, to be honest and protest against all that is broken and opposed to God’s justice and God’s peace and God’s love in this world. It gives us the strength to endure all that is broken in us and in those we love and in those we are learning to love. Because that good will of God to meet our sorrow with his love, to replace our despair with his life-giving presence, that good will of God is being enacted now. God works in hiddenness, but it will be made plain in the end. Paul expresses our present experience of faith very well in 2 Corinthians 4:7-11:
For we bear this treasure (this hope) in earthen vessels . . .
We seein a mirror dimly, but then face to face; but then FACE TO FACE.
We receive the goodness of each day as the gift of God. We keep our eyes open in faith, and our hearts open to what is joyful in life, and we keep our eyes open and our hearts open to what is sorrowful in life, bearing all things in faith. So long as the trouble of life doesn’t break our spirit, we remain open to the goodness and joy of life,and there is plenty of that. There is really plenty of that, if we can open our minds and hearts to see it.
But,we bear this treasure, this hope for the redemption of all of life, we bear this hope in earthen vessels, and earthen vessels get cracked and leak at times, sometimes our hope leaks out through the cracks, and we need a little repair work on these old earthen vessels. Maybe one of the best things we can do to refill our vessels with hope and repair the cracks is to focus our hearts upon the Great Day of the Lord, that hope of all hopes. To remind ourselves and each other of this promise and this hope of our scripture today. This is a treasure. I HEARD A LOUD VOICE FROM THE THRONE SAYING: THE DWELLIN PLACE OF GOD IS WITH HUMAN BEINGS. HE WILL BE THEIR GOD AND THEY WILL BE HIS PEOPLE. AND, GOD, GOD HIMSELF, WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES. THERE WILL BE NO MORE GRIEVING, OR SICKNESS OR PAIN OR DEATH, FOR THE OLD AGE HAS PASSED AWAY.
This treasure is the hope we bear for all humanity, a hope that glows in our hearts, a hope in God for that time when there will be no more pain, nor sorrow, nor sickness, nor death, because the old things have passed away. Carry this hope in your hearts today, as God works in the present to bring the reality of his salvation nearer to us and to our world each day.
I close with the words from the Hymn: O Day of Peace:
O day of peace that dimly shines
through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
guide us to justice, truth, and love,
delivered from our selfish schemes.
May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
our hearts from envy find release,
till by God's grace our warring world
shall see Christ's promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
nor shall the fierce devour the small;
as beasts and cattle calmly graze,
a little child shall lead them all.
Then enemies shall learn to love,
all creatures find their true accord;
the hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
for all the earth shall know the Lord.

sermon notes from sermon I didn't preach this week

I Samuel Chapter 8
The prophet Samuel was the greatest prophet in Israel since Moses. Between Moses and Samuel, there were prophets but none of them had that sense of being the one through whom God guided his people of Israel.
We hear that Samuel was born after the prayer of his mother, Hannah, was answered. Hannah, who was one of two wives of Samuel’s father, had never been able to have children. But, she prayed and prayed, even weeping as she was praying at the temple one day. And, the head priest Eli saw her and thought she was drunk. He said: “Woman,put away your wine.” Then, she said: “I am not drunk. I am praying with all my heart because my heart is deeply wounded.” Then, Eli felt pretty awful I think about what he had said to her because he was deep down a good priest. And, he said, “Woman, whatever your prayer is, may it be granted by God.” And, the answer to that prayer was a little boy born to Hannah. Hannah promised God that she would dedicate him to serve as a priest of the Lord with Eli. And, after the boy was weaned – probably not til 4 or 5 years old, she may have delayed the weaning a bit too. But, eventually she took the little fellow to Eli, with a little priest’s robe she had made and left him there. And, so Eli trained him up to be a priest.
Eli had two grown sons, but they were rotten, taking bribes, sleeping with prostitutes at the temple, etc. I always feel like Eli saw in Samuel a chance to amend his mistakes in raising his own sons. And, apparently, Eli did a great job with Samuel, because he grew up to be a great judge and priest over Israel.
But, now we pick up in our history towards the end of Samuel’s life. It says:
The elders called a meeting, because Samuel was old, he had appointed his sons to serve as prients, and his sons did not walk in his ways. They said: “appoint us a king, so we can be like the other nations.” This struck a nerve deep in Samuel, who had been raised on the prophecies of Moses. Moses had warned against having a king, because a king would oppress his own people.
And, according to our scripture, this desire to have a king among the people of Israel, struck a nerve deep in the heart of God. But, God says to Samuel: “They have not rejected you, but have rejected me from being their king.” But, go, do what they want you to do, but first warn them about what having a king will be like.”
The first time I really read this passage, I did a double-take. What? God doesn’t want them to have a king, but God is going to give them a king? And, Samuel seems to have felt that way too.
I think we see here some of the mystery of God’s relationship to human beings. God’s will was that Israel be led by a prophet, one who listened for and spoke the Word of God. Before Samuel the Word of the Lord was said to be rare in Israel, but with Samuel, the Word of God came to Israel again. The real crisis involved in Samuel being near death was that the Word of the Lord would have no one to receive it and pass it on. Israel would be without a prophet, without one to receive the Word for them and speak it to them. They would be without the Word of the Lord.
If Samuel’s sons were all they had as priests over Israel, the Word of the Lord would depart from the worship and governance of Israel, at least in so far as it was presided over by Joel and Abijah. But, if a king was appointed, it would reveal Israel’s rebellion against the Word of the Lord, because the Word of the Lord comes to prophets, not kings.
I imagine this conversation between God and Samuel:
“Look, Samuel, you have been just as bad a father as Eli was to his sons. But, he was a good father to you. Could you not have learned something from all this?” Now, you put me in a hard place as you have left Israel in a hard place, because your sons are rotten – really rotten to the core. Do you have any replacements to suggest? Is there a true prophet hiding out somewhere that you haven’t told me about?”
Samuel just says: “O Lord, I was going to ask you the same thing.”
God replies: “The answer is ‘no.’ You are the true prophet of Israel, but your days are numbered.”
Go and appoint them a king.
Samuel: “This is not exactly how I envisioned my life coming to an end. Having to appoint a king that will oppress the people, and leaving Israel without a man of God to hear and speak the Word of the Lord.”
God: “Well, Samuel, this is not exactly how I envisioned the history of my people, but I do thank you for your service. You have been a good prophet. So, finish your task. Your task is not to dictate to me, but to obey me, even when it is unpleasant. I have shared with you that this is unpleasant to me as well. That should be enough for you. And, who knows what will happen in Israel before you die. I always think of something good.”
Samuel: “Yes, you do, Lord. You never give up. I don’t know why, but you never give up. Thank you, Lord. I will go and do as you have asked me.”
And, Samuel in obedience to God appointed Saul as king over Israel, and Saul led them in their battles and for most of his reign Israel got the upper hand over their enemies, but Saul had trouble knowing how to obey the Word of the Lord that came through Samuel, the prophet. Saul would seem to do pretty well, but then he just couldn’t get things right with God or with the prophet, Samuel. In time, God rejected Saul as king over Israel. Samuel had a hard time accepting this as well, but he spoke the Word of the Lord. And, after Samuel grieved Saul’s rejection, God called Samuel to get up and anoint a king of God’s own choosing – a king who would follow God with his heart. And, Samuel went and anointed David, a young shepherd, the seventh son of Jesse.
The prophet Samuel was near to the doings of God. He was involved in the working out of God’s plans and responses to human beings in those days of Israel. It was a great and sacred task to partake in holy things like this. But, it was very difficult on Samuel, who had to take actions he didn’t really want to take: anoint Saul as king when the prophet knew God had never wanted a king but was simply allowing this rebellion in Israel. And, it was hard on Samuel to then pronounce and carry out the rejection of Saul as king when it was time for that. God had led him to anoint Saul, but that action was now put into question by God telling Samuel that Saul was rejected as king.
None of us have been where Samuel was. None of us has shared a conversation quite like that with God, or at least not at that level.
But, then again, maybe we have been where Samuel was in some ways. If you have been in thought or prayer before God, you may have wondered as Samuel wondered: “Why does this go on that is against your ways, O God? Why does this horrible situation or condition or injustice or suffering continue when it is not really what you want for human beings? O,God why do you allow a person to just throw their life away when you have created them to live fully and to rejoice in you?”
Samuel wondered why God would let Israel become like other nations and have a king to rule over them. Samuel may have also wondered how God could let Samuel’s sons become so corrupt, even as Samuel begged in many prayers that they would turn around and walk in his ways.
God may have wondered why Samuel didn’t take more time to prepare his sons, and why Samuel was so ineffective in training them to be priests. Of course, God didn’t have to wonder. He knew. Because God knows that we human beings fall short of the glory of God, which is to say most all of us are really underachievers in a profoundly tragic sense.
And, then we turn around and blame our sorry state of affairs on God, not realizing we have put God in an almost impossible position as we are generally proud of what we should be ashamed of and ashamed of what we should be proud of. Yes, God has had a difficult time dealing with a mixed up human race: so much good about us all, and then so much that is twisted and destructive. But, God has never given up. God has continued to come up with a new plan of saving again and again.
But, it is hard to save someone who is bent on their own self-destruction. That was God’s struggle with Israel. The Israelites so often bought into the success strategies of the Canaanite culture. They tried to get along and worship the gods of the Canaanites. They tried to fit in and not stand out, so they could go along and get along with other peoples. But, the Israelites were always putting themselves in the hands of other rulers, other religions, and being abused and oppressed. Only God would protect them – in a sense and most importantly, only God could protect them from themselves.
But, God’s ways are not our ways. He comes over our way a long way to understand and help us understand. If it had been a human ruler in charge, when Israel asked for a king, the human ruler would have just said no and punished those who asked. But, God was in charge who understands things that are very deeply a part of human life and understands things too deep for us to grasp about how the Divine works out his will in history. God basically said: “I don’t want you to have a king, but I’ll let you have a king. I am warning you of the problems of having a king.” And, God did not give up on redeeming his people. God goes farther than we are willing to go with people; God gets dirty in the mess of history and rules from within it. And, God, sometimes sooner, and sometimes later, comes out with the victory – a victory God can share to bless others.
God could have had a victory immediately back then, I suppose, if he were a different kind of God. If God was really like a human king, he could have just made the rules and punished those who disobeyed. But, history shows that though God has brought punishments, that is not God’s chosen way of governing humans in this world. If God was not really after a victory he could share with us, then his course would be an easy one in life. But, God will not be victorious and let the world fall into destruction. God has always wanted a victory for humanity,not one against humanity. And,this takes wisdom, and perserverence, and a love that cannot be defeated by all the forces of resistance and evil among us and among creation itself.
Scripture presents God as a Warrior often in the Old Testament, and at a few points in the New Testament as well. This is a powerful and important image of God. For, God is a warrior for the body and soul of every human being on this earth. And, God goes to battle again and again against the powers of evil that twist and destroy human life; he goes to battle to save the bodies and souls of human beings. And, God gets bloodied in the process. Isn’t that the meaning of the cross? God will go so far to save that he will not spare his own Son, his own Being from being beaten and mocked and executed on a cross of wood?
Remember our God whom we love: he is the God who leaves behind the safety of heaven and comes down to do battle for the lives of human beings right here on earth. And, our Dear and Holy and Good God suffers in the process. We know this from that cross of wood that once stood on Golgatha, with the Son of God hanging on it. We know this from the thanksgiving that wells up in our hearts. And, we know that the suffering of God is a redemptive suffering. When God suffers, redemption and salvation come into the world, into our lives, into those places in which God suffers.
O, God, how can you have allowed yourself to get so drawn into and mixed up in the affairs of humanity? How can you who are holy have taken on the burdens of human beings like us, who are unholy? We have put you in so many difficult situations again and again. You could have given us up. It seems to us you should have given us up. How can we be worth all the struggle it takes to redeem?
Your Love remains the only answer we can find, and Your Love is a mystery far beyond our imagining and greatest hopes. Whatever we seem to ourselves and others, O Lord, we are above all loved by you. Whatever our neighbor seems to us or herself, she is above all loved by you.
Why have you become so involved and burdened with human affairs? Because of your love. Because of your love. Because of your love, we live and move and have our being. Because of your love, we stand up as we hear your pardon. Because of your love, we live on when we feel no reason for living. Because of your love, we love even when hated by others. Because of your love, you chose a king after your own heart, even if having a king wasn’t your idea in the first place. Because of your love, the world exists. Because of your love, Samuel kept on speaking your Word of Truth. Because of your love, we got up this morning. Because of your love. Because of your love. As loveless as we are at times, we love, yes, we love, because of your love. Amen.