Church Is Not About Us

Its not about usThe following is an excerpt from Renewing Our Discipleship Mission to be published in the Farmville Enterprise.

I believe one of the reasons many churches are losing members today is because, for many, the church does not look like Jesus. I believe people still love Jesus and want to follow Jesus today; however, the church does not look like a group of people who have decided to follow Jesus. Church members do not look like a group of people who are on a mission for others but look more like some type of religious club created for the members in order to make them feel holier and superior than others.

Mike Huckabee, former pastor, Arkansas governor, and presidential candidate, wrote about why he resigned from serving as pastor of a church to enter politics. He states: “I had been growing restless and frustrated in the ministry,” As a young minister, he said he envisioned himself as “the captain of a warship leading God’s troops into battle.” But he said, what the people really wanted was for him “to captain the Love Boat, making sure everyone was having a good time.”

This is perhaps why the first thing Jesus says we must do once we decide we want to follow him is to “deny ourselves.”  We must learn that this thing called “discipleship,” this thing called “church,” is not about us. It is not about achieving a good, happy and successful life or even an eternal life.

Discipleship is not about receiving a blessing. It is about being a blessing to others. It is not about feeding our souls. It is about feeding the hungry. It is not about finding a home. It is about welcoming the outsider. It is not about acquiring spiritual riches. It is about giving everything away to the poor. It is not about getting ahead. It is about sharing with people who can barely get by. It is not about triumph. It is about sacrifice. It is not about gaining eternal life for ourselves. It is about dying to ourselves.

I believe the reason that many churches struggle today is because, in our attempt to entice, excite and gain new members, we have made the church all about us. We have said, “Come, and join our church where we have programs that are certain to benefit your life!” Instead of saying: “Come and join our church where you will be given opportunities to give your life away. Come and join our church where you will be encouraged to sacrifice and to serve expecting nothing in return.”

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Pastoral Prayer Inspired by Dietrich Bonheoffer

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer did not have to help Jews escape Nazi Germany and flee to Switzerland.  After all, he was safe and sound in New York in the early 1940’s. He was free to stay in America and preach the gospel from the safety of a free church pulpit or teach New Testament in the peace and freedom of a university. But the gospel he preached compelled him to return to Germany and stand against Nazi aggression.

Before he was executed by the Nazis in 1945, he wrote the following words that I believe the American Church that is embedded in a narcissistic society needs to hear again and hear loudly:

Cheap grace is the preaching of….forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate. Costly grace is…the gospel which must be sought again and again. The gift which must be asked for, the door at which one must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs us our lives. It is grace because it gives us the only true life.

The following pastoral prayer was inspired by Bonhoeffer’s timeless words:

O good and gracious God, we come to this place this morning to recommit ourselves to being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. However, if we are ever going to truly follow Jesus, we will first need to repent of our sins that are derived from our love with what your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

We gather in this place Sunday after Sunday to hear preaching that will remind us that we are loved and forgiven; not to hear that we need to change our selfish ways.

We gather to remember the way we came up out of the waters of our baptism to symbolize life abundant and eternal; not to remember our immersion into the waters to symbolize death to self.

We come to gather around a table to receive the gift of Holy Communion; not to confess our sins and our shortcomings.

We come to this place to receive grace and love; not to be encouraged to share grace and love with others.

We come here to worship at the foot of the cross; not to pick it up and carry it ourselves.

We come here to worship Christ in the safety and comfort of this sanctuary; not fully realizing that the Christ is actually alive today, present  here, calling us, prodding us, pulling us to follow him out into a risky and uncomfortable world.

So, O God, forgive us of our love for “cheap grace.” Help us to truly repent, turn from our wicked ways and seek to live for a grace, in a grace, and by a grace that is worthy of your sacrificial love for us, even if it is “costly.”

May we come to this place to seek this grace Sunday after Sunday. May we keep asking, keep knocking at your door, keep giving our lives away to you, keep denying ourselves, and keep looking to you for the strength we need to pick up our crosses and follow our Lord and our Savior wherever he leads. Because we know that this grace, although it costs us our very lives, is the only way to true life, abundant and eternal. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

Welcome!

jesus_children_orthodoxGenesis 18:1-8 NRSV

Last week I said that the first four stories in our Bible are stories that are considered to be pre-history, that is before the call of Abraham and the history of God’s people. The story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood and the Tower of Babel teach us some very important characteristics about who God is and how God relates to our world. They teach us that our God is a gracious, loving Creator who is committed to suffering with and for all people, people of every nation, race, color and creed.

The stories that follow in Genesis teach us what should be the very important characteristics of the people who claim to worship and serve this God.

Verse one of chapter eighteen is one of the most loaded verses in the entire Bible. “The Lord appeared to Abraham* by the oaks* of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”

When you worship the Lord, the creator of all that is, the one who graciously loves and forgives, the one who is compassionately involved in the creation, stirred by it, moved by it, then you never know when the Lord may appear. It could be the most ordinary of days while you are doing the most ordinary of things, like sitting on your front porch in the heat of the day. You may or may not be in the right frame of mind to recognize the presence, but the presence is nonetheless real and nevertheless powerful.

Abraham is minding his own business in the middle of the day when, out of nowhere, three strangers appear on the street. Next, Abraham simply does what the Bible says the people of God do for others, he very welcomes them with a generous hospitality.

When he sees them, he does not safely call out to them from a distance. He does not cautiously walk over to them. And he certainly does not practically ignore them and allow them to walk on by. When he sees them, the scriptures say that he runs to meet them.

And when he encounters these strangers, he does not stand arrogantly over them, above them, but humbly bows himself to the ground before them and speaks to them like a servant.

“Please do not pass me by. Let me get some water and wash the dust off your feet. Let me make a place for you to rest in the shade. My wife, Sarah, bakes the best bread. Come and allow us to serve you. Then, you can continue your journey, refueled and refreshed.”

When the strangers agree to stay a while, Abraham can hardly contain himself. He runs back inside, “Hurry, Sarah, prepare three cups of choice flour, knead it, and bake a delicious cake. He then runs out back to the field and takes the best looking calf of the flock and has his servant prepare a delicious dinner. He brought it to them under the shade tree and waited on them while they ate.

And as verse one suggested, we later discover that these three strangers were actually angels, messengers from God. When we welcome the stranger, the Bible tells us, we may be welcoming God. When we welcome others, the Lord appears.

We also see this very clearly in the New Testament. In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel we read the following words of Jesus to the disciples, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Mark 10:40-42). In the previous chapter we read where Jesus took a little child in his arms, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:36-37).

And in Matthew we read Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Do you see the pattern here? Jesus said that when we welcome others, we are welcoming Jesus. And Jesus said when we welcome him, we welcome God.

When we open the doors of the church wide, when we invite others in, when we let them know that we are glad that they are here, we are welcoming the Lord himself.

There was once a monastery that had fallen on hard times. The order was dying out. There were only five monks left, the abbot and four others.

The monks feared that the monastery would have to be closed. In their desperation, they went out and sought counsel from a wise man they knew who lived in a hut in the woods that surrounded their monastery.

The wise man agreed to a meeting to talk with the abbot regarding the fate of their monastery. The meeting was very brief. The wise man said that he really did not have any great advice to give them, but he could say this: that the Messiah was among them.

The abbot returned to the monastery, where the monks were waiting eagerly to hear what the wise man had said. “Please tell us! What do we have to do to save the monastery?”  “Well,” the abbot replied, “the wise man was rather cryptic. He simply said that the Messiah is among us.”

“The Messiah is among us?” All of the monks scratched their heads. How could the Messiah be among them? As they pondered the meaning of these words, the monks soon began to think of each member of the order as a possible Messiah. They started to treat one another with tremendous respect and kindness. And when people came to visit, they treated each of them as if they could be the Messiah, too.

People from the surrounding area often came to picnic on the monastery’s beautiful grounds, to walk along the paths, and to pray in the chapel. The visitors were amazed by the welcome they received from the monks. There was an aura of respect and love that filled the place, making it strangely attractive, even compelling. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently, to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Some of the younger men who came to visit talked more and more with the old monks, and they began to join the order. So before long, the monastery had once again become a thriving order, and a vibrant center of light and love for people all over the realm.

When I first joined the conversations you were having a year ago to renovate our windows, to remove the stained plexiglass and replace it with a clear plastic so the windows could be seen from the street, I said that the need was not only aesthetic, as they looked horrendous, but it was also theological. To keep this beauty, the beauty of our Lord and Savior, inward, only unto ourselves, inside these walls was simply a theological travesty.

I have said recently that our education building needs to be renovated or at least refurbished. And like the windows, the need is not only aesthetic, it is also theological.

We have a great building and grounds committee; however, they cannot do it all by themselves. Our buildings are too old, have too many needs for just one committee to do it all by themselves. To be good stewards of our property, to make this a warm, welcoming place, we need to have many more work days like the one we had yesterday in the basement. I want to encourage you to walk through the education building, do it today if you have time, make sure you go upstairs, and ask yourself: what would you do to the building if you knew the Messiah was coming for a visit? Would you paint the walls? If so, what color? Would you paint the windows? Would you replace the ceiling tiles that are stained? Would your replace ceiling tiles that are missing?  What would the plaster in this room look like? Would it be chipped, stained, faded, discolored?

I want us to work hard in these nine months to finish the basement,  and make it a place of welcome for children; renovate our education building, and make it a warm and inviting place for all children; put up a playground right off of church street and make it a sign to the community that this church welcomes children; not so much because we want our church to look nice and pretty, not so much because we want to be proud when we invite over 100 children and their families here next June for the community Vacation Bible School, but because we take the words of Jesus very seriously when Jesus, holding a child in his arms, says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:36-37).

Fred Craddock, one of my favorite preachers, tells a story about going to church when he was a boy. He said that every Sunday morning, his mother took him to church with his sister. When the service was over, he said they followed their mother like little ducks out of the church. As the preacher stood at the door greeting folks, he would always say, “Mornin’ Mrs. Craddock.”  Then he would address the kids, “Good mornin’, Sonny. Good mornin’, Honey. The next Sunday, “Good mornin’ Mrs. Craddock, Good mornin’, Sonny. Good morning, Honey.” Every Sunday, “Good mornin’ Mrs. Craddock, Good mornin’, Sonny. Good morning, Honey.”

Then one day there was a new preacher. After he had been there a few weeks, as the Craddock family filed out of church, he said, “Good mornin’, Mrs. Craddock. Good mornin’, Fred.” And Fred Craddock said, “He was the best preacher we ever had, because there’s a big difference between Fred and Sonny.”

What a difference a genuine welcome makes. We all long for a place to call home. We all long for a place of welcome. Where we look around and it is obvious that someone cares about us, wants to know our names. Even the walls say they care.

As Disciples of Christ, we do not have a creed we follow. But we have a statement of identity. Part of it is on our church sign today. More than anything else, I want it to be the identity of this special place on the corner of Church and Main. I want it to be clear to all, not only through our actions and our words and our living, but also through our bricks and our mortar: “We welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.”

So let us commit ourselves to welcoming all, for when we welcome others with all that we are and with all that we have, we are welcoming God in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Grace in Genesis: Tower of Babel

Tower_of_Babel

Genesis 11:1-9 NRSV

The pastor stands up behind the pulpit, clears his throat, and announces: “This morning we are going to talk about race and racism.”

All over the sanctuary the congregation winces, and beg under their breaths: “Preacher, please don’t do it, for you’re about to open up a giant can of worms!”

But the old preacher, who has opened up more cans of worms than anyone could possibly count, ignores the grimaces and metaphorically gets out the can opener.

I hear many people in the church say that we should not talk about race or make race an issue. However, I believe we make it an issue when we pretend that it is a non-issue. I believe we do great harm to the cause of Christ when we ignore racism or deny that it exists. Furthermore, if we are to accept and do the will of God that I believe is revealed in the story of the Tower of Babel, the church must be willing to openly talk about race and the inherent racism that is prevalent in our families, our town, our region, our world, even in our own hearts.

In the eleventh chapter of Genesis we read:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

The whole earth was one. One language. One people. One tribe. One race. And they all came together to live in one place. They all came together to build something special, something big, something wonderful that would be a symbol of their unity, pride and patriotism.

Now, what is not to like about that?

Unity, oneness, togetherness, harmony, people of the same minds living in one accord.  Isn’t that the aspiration of all? Isn’t true that great minds think alike? Isn’t this the will of our God, God’s great purpose for humanity?

So what’s not to like in this seemingly perfect picture of unity in Genesis chapter 11? As it turns out, according to God, the creator of all that is, not very much.

Let’s look at God’s reaction to this oneness in verse 7 of our story: “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…”

What? Are you serious? What is wrong with this great portrait of human unity, of one race of people, one nation, under God indivisible, all of one mind, coming together to make a name for themselves, to build great things, to be on top of the world, to celebrate their purity and pride as one master race?

The truth is that the builders of the great tower in Shinar had accomplished not what God wants for humanity, but what many throughout history, including the likes of Adolf Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, have wanted for humanity: One master race of people coming together to form one supreme social order, one culture, sharing the same ideals, values and moral principles. Diversity is a threat. Diversity is something to fear. Diversity is something to segregate and discriminate. Diversity is something to send to the gas chambers or lynch in a tree.

I am not sure if anyone in my lifetime has articulated the thinking of the people of Shinar better than Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker back in 1999. Some of you may remember his response when he was asked by Sports Illustrated if he would ever play for the New York Mets or New York Yankees.

Rocker said:

I’d retire first. It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the number 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing… The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there.[i]

The story of the Tower of Babel teaches us that what John Rocker said racked his nerves in the world is what God wills for the world. In verse 4 we read that the purpose of building the tower was to avoid what depressed John Rocker on the No. 7 train leaving Manhattan for Queens, and to avoid what John Rocker heard in Times Square. The purpose of settling in Shinar and building that tower was to live in a world with no foreigners, no confusing babbling in the streets, no queers or kids with purple hair to encounter on the way to work, no eating in the marketplace with people on strange diets, no rubbing elbows with people wearing weird clothes, head coverings or dots on their foreheads. So they came together and said, let’s build a tower of unity “to not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” And God’s reaction to this racial purity and pride was to “scatter them over the face of the whole earth,” to create a world of diverse languages and cultures, to create a world of foreigners.

God was only accomplishing what God had always willed for the creation: diversity. In chapter one of Genesis, we read that the original plan for creation was for humankind to “multiply and fill the earth.” And after the flood in chapter ten we read where God sanctions and wills all nations to be “spread out over the earth.” (Gen 10:32). Simply put, from the very beginning of time, in spite of our will, in spite of our fear and our racial pride, God wills diversity.

Therefore, if we ever act or speak in any manner that denigrates or dehumanizes another because of their race, language, nationality or ethnicity, we are actually disparaging the God who willed such diversity. According to Genesis, diversity is not to be feared, avoided, prevented or lynched. If we want to do the will of God our creator and redeemer, diversity is to be embraced. In other words, if we love God, we will also love our neighbor. And this is what God wants us to be united by. It is why Jesus called it the greatest commandment—love God and our neighbors as ourselves. Love is what should unite us; not racial pride or patriotism.

The story of the Tower of Babel belongs to the same genre of the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and Noah and the Flood. They are considered to be “pre-history stories.”[ii] That is, they are describing God’s relationship to the world before the call of Abraham and the history of the Jewish people. It amazes me how God in each of these stories is so often misinterpreted by Christians who believe that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath; not a God of grace. They say that they believe Jesus Christ is God; however, they fail to see Christ in these stories.

Consequently, God is often seen as one who curses Adam and Eve by kicking them out of the garden instead of as one who bends to the ground and clothes them with grace. God is seen as someone who curses Cain by sending him to the land of Nod, instead of as one who protects his life with a mark of grace. God is seen as one who curses all of humanity with a great flood with the exception of one family, instead of one who makes a decision to graciously suffer alongside all of humanity. And here in this story, God is seen as one who curses the builders of the tower by scattering them over the face of the earth, instead of being seen as one who reacts to racial pride and unity by fulfilling the purpose of creation from the very beginning, filling the earth, by graciously creating diverse languages, races and cultures.

The tragic irony is that throughout history many have used the story of the Tower of Babel to support slavery, apartheid, segregation and other forms of racism. Bob Jones University once used this story to ban interracial dating on campus. However, this story teaches something very different. The story of the Tower of Babel is God’s gracious stamp of approval, of blessing, on every race, every tribe, and every language in every land. It is the fulfillment of God’s original purpose for creation. The song we learned as little children cannot be more true: “Red, yellow, black and white, they are all precious in God’s sight.” God is not color-blind, as I hear some say, for God creates, wills, blesses and loves color. And it is this love that unites us all, as we have all been created to harmoniously see humanity as God sees it: as a beautiful, diverse, colorful rainbow created by, sanctioned by, and graced by God.

As a Bible-believing Christian, it confounds me when I hear that another, supposedly, Bible-believing Christian, has decided to put their house on the market and move because a person or a family of another race has moved into their neighborhood. I often think about this story in the first book of our Bible that describes a beautiful and diverse creation willed by God. But I also think about a passage in the last book of our Bible that describes an eternity willed by God. And I wonder what in the world these people, who claim to be Christian, are going to do if they do get to that place they think they are going after they die to live forever and ever.

Because guess what? According to Revelation, heaven looks more like Times Square and that No. 7 train on the way from Manhattan to Queens than some affluent suburb outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

In Revelation 7, we read these words:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’  And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures [each representing the diversity of all creation], and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

[i] Read more: John Rocker – At Full Blast – York, Braves, City, and League – JRank Articles http://sports.jrank.org/pages/4014/Rocker-John-At-Full-Blast.html#ixzz39oVUCEtA

[ii] See Walter Brueggemann Genesis

 

Other Sermons in this Series:

Grace in Genesis: Adam and Eve

Grace in Genesis: Cain and Abel

Grace in Genesis: Noah

 

Running this Race Called “Life”

running-group

Running is such a great metaphor for life.

It began as an ordinary Saturday morning run with the Greenville Running Group.  We were running our regular Starbucks’ route from Greenville Boulevard to the Town Commons and the Greenway. I effortlessly covered the distance of the first two miles before I even realized it. Into the third mile, I was confidently running down Charles, past Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, as I had many times in the past. I had this. Life was good. I was all smiles, on cruise control.

Then without warning, early into mile three, I really stepped into it. Without seeing it, I managed to step into a metal hoop that was in the road, about 18 inches in diameter. My right heel caught the back of the hoop and stood it up. My left foot joined my right foot inside the hoop and down I went. Before I knew exactly what happened, I was laying in the gutter of Charles Boulevard. Muddy and bloody, my knees took the brunt of the fall.

Three of my running friends rushed to my aid, empathetically asked me if I was okay, then reached down and helped pick me up out of the gutter. They did not judge me for not looking where I was planting my feet, nor did they express any disappointment that I had interrupted their run. They only expressed compassion for me.

They led me to the Duck-Thru convenience store at the corner on 14th Street where they found a spigot to wash my wounds. One of my friends came out of the store with a first aid kit. Another friend, with her own hands, took some gauze from the kit and made sure my abrasions were clean.

Willing to sacrifice their run, they offered to walk back with me to my car. However, their compassion was more than I needed to encourage me to press on and finish the run. Ten miles later, I completed one of the best runs ever.

The scriptures say: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1). Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

May God forgive us for arrogantly thinking that we can do this thing called “life” alone. And may God give us the grace to love one another, to link up with one another in mutual care and compassion, to feel responsibility for one another, and to run this race together.

Grace in Genesis: Noah

Rainbow-flood-ark

Genesis 6-9 NRSV

The Ebola virus is spreading throughout the world, recently killing a renowned doctor. Financial turmoil has seized Argentina. A Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, and fierce fighting has broken out around the wreckage. The death toll rises in Gaza as deadly violence occurs every day. Israel has attacked a UN school killing 20 evacuees. Mobs of Islamic militants have killed dozens in China. Christians in Iraq are being murdered for their faith. An unprecedented crisis at our own border continues. Immigrant families are being torn apart. Kidnapped Nigerian girls for whom churches all over the world prayed, including ours, are still missing. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright summed up the state of the world last week in one simple sentence: “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.”

I am sure I am not the only preacher to point out that the state of the world today is reminiscent of a story found in the early chapters of Genesis. It begins just one chapter after of the story of Cain and Abel, the world’s first two brothers. In Genesis 6 we read:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

In other words, the state of the world, the state of the human heart, caused God great suffering. Other translations read that the state of the world “broke God’s heart.”

We know the rest of the story. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” and in Genesis 7, we read that for forty days and nights the rains fell as God intended to start the whole thing over with Noah and his family.

It is an absolutely dreadful chapter. Whoever that first person was who decided to sentimentalize the holocaust of Genesis 7 into some sweet, adorable bedtime story for children needed to have their head and quite possibly their soul examined.

And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth.

We even teach our children silly songs to dull the horror:

The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide The unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried And the waters came down and sort of floated them away That’s why you never see unicorns to this very day.

“Sort of floated them away.” That’s certainly a nice way to put it.

The scene is horrific; however, it makes perfect sense to many of us. And some of us, deep down, may even like it. For this is how we would rule if we were God; thus, this is how we like to picture our God. Our God is an awesome God. There is “thunder in his footsteps and lightening in his fists.” If you are wicked and evil, if you are mean and hateful, if you are not a Christian, you better look out, for our God will come down and blot you out! Our God controls the sea, creates and steers the hurricanes, breathes tornadoes and spits wildfires, speaks earthquakes and sends or withholds the rain. Our God is an immovable force with which to be reckoned. Our God is a volcanic eruption, an avalanche, a tsunami, a hail storm, and a great flood. After all, we don’t call those things acts of God for nothing. So you better be believing, be shaping up, be straightening out, and be getting yourself right. This is the portrait of the God made in our own image.

However, in spite of what we may have learned in Sunday School, and in spite of what we may want to believe, this is NOT the portrait of the God that is painted in the story of Noah. The God of Noah is not an immovable force that stands safely behind, lords comfortably over, or reigns painlessly above the brokenness and suffering of humankind. The God of Noah is very much moved by it, broken by it. The God of Noah grieves and suffers with, alongside it, in it, and through it.

Just one chapter after the flood scene, the futility of the intentions of the God made in our own image to rid the world of evil became painfully obvious, as the state of the world had not changed. It is the concept, the understanding of God that changes. After the flood “…the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’”

In the following chapter, we read where the rainbow is forever a beautiful reminder of this great promise.

Sadly, I believe we tend to forget what this promise truly means. Perhaps it is due to the selfish inclination that we have had since our youth. But for whatever reason, we tend to only remember that the rainbow means that God will never again try to “blot us out.” Selfishly, we think the rainbow is about us.

However, this promise means so much more. And it is not about us at all. It is about who our God truly is and how our God acts and relates to this world. The rainbow means that our God has freely and deliberately chosen a path of suffering. God has intentionally chosen to grieve. The rainbow is a reminder to each of us that the state of our world, the state of our hearts, continually breaks the very heart of our God.

And again, those of us who call ourselves “Christians” or “Disciples of Christ” should not be surprised.

There is a reason that when we read the words of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah about “a man of suffering acquainted with infirmity who is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,” there is no doubt in our minds to whom the prophet is referring.  And I do not think it is a coincidence that we find following words in the very next chapter:

“With everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer, “This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”

Our God is an awesome God. But not because God is an immovable force to be reckoned with. Our God is an awesome God because our God is a suffering and grieving, merciful and gracious, compassionate and deeply-moved Spirit who beckons us to join with this Spirit in a loving relationship.

There is a reason Jesus said to his disciples that the “Son of Man must suffer many things.” It is the very nature of who our God is. There is a reason whenever Jesus encounters human suffering, sickness and death, the gospel writers tell us that he was moved at the very core of his being with compassion.  There is a reason at the death of Lazarus we read, “Jesus wept.” There is a reason Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For unimaginable suffering and inconceivable pain was his lot. Furthermore, there is a reason the soldier standing at the foot of the cross, standing under a bruised, bloody and crucified body exclaimed: “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Matt 27).

There is a reason that each Sunday we break bread, symbolizing the broken body of Christ and drink from a cup symbolizing the shed blood of Christ. And there is a reason those symbols of suffering give us hope and lead us to follow this way. There is a reason we sing: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”

There is a reason we are called to be with, and minister to, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the sick, the grieving, the least of these our brothers and sisters. And there is a reason that when we do, we encounter God.

Before I went to seminary and thoroughly studied the scriptures, I used to think that the job as a minister was to have all of the answers for the suffering of this world. Stand above the suffering, over the pain. Thus, when I would visit the hospital or a nursing home or go the home of someone who had just lost a loved one, I thought I was supposed to say something that would bring healing and hope. I thought I was supposed to say something that would bring some type of cure. I was supposed to come with power and might, come with thunder in my footsteps and lightning in my fists, come with a vengeance and a cure, wipe out, blot out the source of their ill. However, I quickly learned that all I really needed to do was just show up, be present and care. Care; not cure. Be present with compassion, which means to suffer with, grieve alongside and hurt together with another. And when I truly care, when I truly have compassion, someway, somehow, I believe God also shows up. And it is through God, through God’s presence and God’s compassion, through God’s suffering and grief, through God sharing the pain with and alongside us, through God’s heart breaking with ours, through God’s care, that a cure comes. Healing and hope and salvation come.

This is the great promise of the rainbow in this world that, to put it mildly, is a mess. And this is the good news of the gospel. This is grace, and this is hope, yesterday, today and forever.  Amen.

The Rainbow and the Cross

rainbow crossThe Ebola virus is spreading throughout the world, recently killing a top doctor. Financial turmoil has seized Argentina. A Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, and fierce fighting has broken out around the wreckage. The death toll rises in Gaza as deadly violence occurs every day. Israel attacks a UN school killing 20 evacuees. Mobs of Islamic militants kill dozens in China. An unprecedented crisis at our own border continues. Immigrant families are being torn apart. Kidnapped Nigerian girls for whom churches all over the world prayed are still missing. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright summed up the state of the world last week in one simple sentence: “To put it mildly, the world is a mess.”

I am not the only preacher to point out that the state of the world today is reminiscent of a story found in the early chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 6 we read: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” In other words, the state of the world caused God great suffering. Other translations read that the state of the world “broke God’s heart.”

We know the rest of the story. The Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” and in Genesis 7, we read that for forty days and nights the rains fell as God intended to start the whole thing over with Noah and his family. However, just one chapter later, the futility of God’s intentions became obvious, as the state of the world had not changed. After the flood “…the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’” In the following chapter, we read where the rainbow is forever a beautiful reminder of this great promise.

Sadly, I believe we tend to forget what this promise truly means. Perhaps it is due to a selfish inclination that we have had since our youth that we only remember God will never again try to “blot us out.” However, this promise means so much more. This promise means that our God has chosen a path of suffering. The rainbow means that the state of our world continually breaks the very heart of our God.

There is a reason the prophet Isaiah moves us when we read about “a man of suffering, acquainted with infirmity, wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53). There is a reason Jesus said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things…”(Mark 8)  There is a reason at the death of Lazarus we read, “Jesus wept” (John 11). There is a reason Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt 27). There is a reason the soldier who was standing at the foot of the cross of our crucified Lord exclaimed: “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Matt 27).

Furthermore, there is a good reason that, living in a world which, “putting it mildly, is a great mess,” we sing: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”