On the Side of Children

Florence Track

Mark 9:30-37 NRSV

Hurricane Florence was first predicted to come ashore in southeast North Carolina and then take a take a northwestern path. This was a dire prediction for my friends and family who live in northeastern North Carolina as they were prepared to experience the most dangerous quadrant of the storm. It looked like Florence was going to take the same path of Hurricane Floyd, the storm that flooded our home in 1999.

However, just a couple days before the storm made landfall, the prediction changed. It was still going to come into southeastern North Carolina, but then it would take a turn towards the south before moving westward before heading North. It was this change that spared my friends and family living in the northeastern part of the state.

Last Sunday, I read the following post on facebook:

It is not that the weatherman missed the prediction. It is that God spared us from the worst.

The statement immediately received nearly 50 likes and drew comments like:

Amen.

God answers prayers.

God answers prayers. And not just prayers, but prayers in numbers.

God protected us.

We are blessed.

I understand in part why they posted it. Things could have been so much worse, and they were grateful, and they were grateful to God..

However, I could not help but to think: “I hope no one in Wilmington, Fayetteville, New Bern, Lumberton or Kinston reads this.”

Then came obvious, disturbing questions:

Were the prayers from the people living in those devastated cities not answered? Or were there was just not enough people in those cities praying? Did they have a higher number of people praying in northeastern NC?

If God could spare northeastern NC by turning the storm, why didn’t God just turn the hurricane out to sea before it made landfall and spare everyone? Did God favor one side of North Carolina over another?

I suppose many would tell me that I am not supposed to question God. “God has God’s reasons,” they say. “It is just God’s will and we have to accept it,” they say.

But I am not the first one to ask such questions. In Luke 13, we read people asking Jesus if the Galileans who were massacred by Pilate were killed because of some sort of sin in their life. Or if the Jews were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, perhaps during a storm, because of something they did or did not do.  Jesus emphatically answered them: “No, I tell you.”

Throughout time, it has been very popular to believe that it is always God’s will if someone comes to power, no matter how horrible that person is. It is God who causes earthquakes, sends tornadoes, and steers Hurricanes, sparing some while destroying others.

This very popular but what I would call very “twisted” theology becomes even more disturbing when one considers the children.

On Monday of this week, in Union County, North Carolina, where Lori and I both attended college, the body of 1-year old Kaiden Lee-Welch was found. According the sheriff’s department, she was swept away in rushing waters from a creek that had overflowed.

Last Sunday, in Dallas, North Carolina, just a few miles from where Lori was born and raised, 3-month-old Kade Gill died after a tree fell into a family’s mobile home and struck the boy and his mother as they sat on a couch.

The very first death I remember being reported occurred soon after the Hurricane made landfall on that Friday in Wilmington.  A 7-month-old baby was killed, also by a tree that fell into a home.

What kind of God steers a hurricane on a path that kills little children? It is certainly not the God that is revealed in words and works of Jesus, the one who welcomed the children, the one who said that it was better for one to tie a millstone around one’s neck and be cast into the sea than to cause any child to stumble.

So, why do so many still insist that God is the reason that some are spared from Hurricanes and others, even little children, are not?

I believe this morning’s scripture lesson possibly holds the answer.

Mark 9:30: “They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;”

He didn’t want anyone to know the truth. Perhaps he was afraid that like so many Christians today, they could not handle the truth. The truth that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him….”

Verse 32: But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

One reason some of us insist God is sending and steering Hurricanes is that we still have a difficult time accepting the truth that God suffers. We do not understand the suffering of God, and we are afraid to ask him. We are afraid, because if God is a God who suffers, then those of us who are created in the image of God, are also created to suffer.

I believe that God’s hand can be seen in the desolation of Hurricane Florence; not causing or controlling the storm, but in those who suffer while responding to the storm—the firefighters, police, paramedics, soldiers, doctors, nurses, pastors, counselors and utility workers; those who have left the comfort and safety of their homes to give of themselves to serve their neighbors in need. The hand of God can be seen the suffering servants of God who are doing all that they can do to bring healing, peace and restoration.

Verse 33 & 34: Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’

But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

And there it is.

Perhaps this is the true reason that people are quick to say God controls the path of Hurricanes. People still like to make the argument that they are the greatest—

“I am great, for God hears my prayers. I am great, for God spared my house. I am great, for my home did not flood. I am great, for no one in my family was killed. I am great, for am not suffering.”

Verse 35: He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

Jesus says, “No, I tell you, avoiding suffering is not an indication that you are great. No I tell you, being in a state of comfort and safety does not mean you have God’s stamp of approval on your life. No, I tell you, being spared from a storm is not a sign that you are blessed.”

No, I tell you, if you want to be great, if you want God’s stamp of approval, if you want to be blessed by God, you must be willing to sacrifice, put yourself last, place the needs of others ahead of your own needs, be a servant, suffer with those who are grieving, agonize with those who feel forsaken, betrayed and powerless.

Verse 36 & 37: Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

In other words, Jesus said: Do you want to be great? Do you want to be on the side of God? Then, don’t take the side of the powerful, the privileged and the protected. Instead, always take the side of the most vulnerable among you. Take the side of children who are so precious and fragile, whose lives are threatened or lost. Take the side of women who have been unheard, whose lives are disregarded and degraded. Take the side of victims who have been blamed, whose lives have been disrespeceted and diminished.

As the Proverbs declare:

Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).

So, where was God in Hurricane Florence? Contrary to popular theology, God was on the side of those who experienced the worst of the storm. God was on the side of the children who were swept away. God was on the side of the babies who were crushed. God was on the side of the elderly who drowned. God was on the side of forty-two of God’s beloved who died in the storm.

Where was God in the storm? God was on the side of Windy Newton and Nicolete Green who drowned in the back of a sheriff’s van as they were being transported to a mental health facility. God was on their side feeling their fear, knowing their terror, experiencing their confusion, tasting their deaths.

What was God doing during Hurricane Florence? God was suffering. God’s self was being broken. God’s self was pouring out. God was grieving with those who lost their loved ones, hurting with those who lost property, agonizing with those whose homes were destroyed, distressing with those whose livelihoods were lost.

And the good news is: because God was present, so was life—life—hopeful, abundant and eternal.

God was there to begin the holy work of transforming the anguish into peace, the despair into hope and the deaths into life.

And God is with all of us who choose to follow the Lord in this holy work. God is with us when we become suffering servants, putting the needs of others ahead of our own, giving sacrificially to Hurricane relief through our church, planning or supporting mission trips to the devastated areas.

And God is with us at this very moment. Because as we gather around this table in communion with Christ, we are joined with the trials and sufferings of all people.

This morning we pray that through Christ we too would be with those who endured the wind, rain, and flooding.

As we come to this Table, may Christ’s presence be known to all those who are suffering from the storm, just as He makes His presence known in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup – at this Table and around the world, in every nation, among every people.

These are the gifts of God for God’s people! After we sing our hymn of communion, let us receive them with joy, gratitude and hope.

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Spring Cleaning Our Mouths

wash+mouthJohn 2:13-22 NRSV

Have you ever wondered what would happen if Jesus showed up one Sunday morning in church? Would he politely take an order of service from a deacon and quietly find a place in the pews? Would he stand for the call to worship, sing from the hymnal and say the Lord’s Prayer? Would he eat the bread and drink from the cup? Would he put money in the plate when it was passed? Would he earnestly and respectively listen to the sermon, without any reply or retort?

Or would he have something to say? Would anything here anger him or incite him to take some sort of action? Would he take a look at how we were doing church and want to do a little spring cleaning? Would he take a whip and drive any of us out? Would he turn over table or two? Would he come up here to the pulpit and take my sermon notes and tear them to shreds?

Because that is kinda what he did when he visited the Temple in Jerusalem before the Passover. You might say that he did a little spring cleaning. Most scholars point out that it wasn’t so much that the people were exchanging money or selling in the Temple that burned Jesus up, but it was the manner in which they were doing it. The common practice was to charge oppressive amounts of interest, taxes and fees to exchange currency. And when selling cattle, sheep and doves for Passover, it was a common practice to take advantage of and rip off the poor. Just like today, those who can afford the least, often have to pay the most.

So what angered Jesus is how the religious establishment was preying on and hurting others. And this this text is asking: “Is there anything that the church does today that hurts other people?” “What is it about church today that needs a good spring cleaning?”

I try to talk to people every week who never attended church, or who no longer attend church. And when I ask them why they are not a part of church, they often tell me that they have been deeply hurt by the church. “How?” I ask. “By words,” they say.

The truth is: words have tremendous power. The Epistle of James says it well:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3).

Nathan Parrish, a pastor friend of mine in Winston-Salem said that a mother in his church shared with him her outrage one Sunday after church. She said that during the week, her ten year-old boy came home from football practice and told her that the coach had the audacity to say that “he hit like a girl.” My friend Nathan responded: “The message starts early doesn’t it?”

She asked: “What do you mean?”

Nathan said: “Our children learn it while they are young, don’t they? That females are the weaker sex and need to be kept in their place.”

Laura Johnson, the pastor of Broad Street Christian Church in New Bern, has said that as a female pastor people give her qualified compliments all the time: “Laura, that was a great sermon…for a woman.” “Laura, you are a good pastor, for a girl.”

The message starts early, and it is pervasive. And it is prevalent in many churches. Through patriarchal language, the exclusive use of male pronouns to refer to God, men are touted as being somehow closer to God than women. Thus, in many churches, only men can be the leaders, and women are pushed to a more subservient place. The men belong in the church boardroom; whereas the women belong in the church kitchen.

Words indeed have great power and can cause tremendous harm. So, if Jesus was coming to our church do a little spring cleaning, he would perhaps start with our mouths. So what words in our church vocabulary do you think Jesus would want to drive out with a whip? What words or church expressions would be among the first to be cleaned out? What about:

We’ve never done it that way before, or worse, You are in my seat?

When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” These words espouse a “This-is-my-church-my-house philosophy. It is what the gospel writer meant when he said: “then the disciples remembered what was written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” And any words espousing that this is our house and not God’s house have the power to kill a church. There was a great book written nearly thirty years ago that many churches who are closing their doors for good today failed to read. It was called The Seven Last Words of the Church: We’ve Never Done It that Way Before.”

The Bible clearly says…

As I said this past Wednesday night, whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous. You may have heard that there are many elected officials and TV evangelists in our country who would like to transform the United States into a Theocracy. That means that they would like to take the laws of God found in the Bible and make them the laws of the land. That is how they want to bring God’s kingdom to earth. While a theocracy may sound good to many Christians at first, it really all depends on who Theo is, doesn’t it? Who gets to pick and interpret the laws that they want others to obey? Whenever people talk about enforcing or legislating biblical morality, they are almost always thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!” However their interpretation may be the polar opposite of your interpretation that you try to discern through the words and works of Jesus.

ve the sinner and hate the sin.

 A couple of weeks ago I said that these words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves.  We say: “But I don’t do the things that so-in-so does!” That might be good; however, we just need to understand that just because we don’t, we are not any less of a sinner than so-in-so.”

If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

I believe in heaven and hell, but the truth is that when we infer that following Jesus should only be done for purely selfish reasons, to receive some award instead of punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a  self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said, “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said, “follow me and carry a cross.”

And then there are the classics:

God has God’s reasons.

God does not make mistakes.

God will not put any more on us than we can bear.

It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.

These words have probably caused more people to leave the church, and leave God, than any others. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”

I believe many Protestant churches, in an attempt to distance themselves from Catholicism, have tried to teach the faith while avoiding the pain and suffering of Jesus. We look at the crucifix and say, “My Lord is not on the cross! He is living today in heaven! However, when we move too casually through the season of Lent, too quickly through Holy Week, and even skip Good Friday to get to Easter, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: that our God is a God who suffers. God is not seated on a throne far removed from the creation, pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us, alongside us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. As long as there is human life, our God is still emptying God’s self, pouring God’s self out. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

It is almost Passover. And once again, Jesus is visiting the Temple. Jesus is coming, and he’s cleaning house. He is taking a whip and driving out all that we do, and maybe more importantly, all that we say in the name of God that harms others.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.

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.