A God who laments

I had already written this sermon on Lament before the horror of Christchurch on Friday. We heard the statement from the President of the Uniting Church and prayed together; but I left the sermon unchanged apart from one small paragraph.

Reading
Luke 13.31–35

Lament is a complex language of complaint, protest, and appeal directed to God. At times, lament may be subdued in tone as a poet wrestles with trouble; at other times, lament may be as loud and vigorous as any praise song.… laments share one commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain. — Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God, p.30

…the merciful humility of God [is] the most powerful force imaginable. — Jane Williams, The Merciful Humility of God.

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Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s already told the disciples why, though they will not listen:

Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands. But they did not understand this saying… (Luke 9.44–45a)

Jesus is going to the last great confrontation with the powers that be, a confrontation that ends with his death. 

In his mind’s eye Jesus sees Jerusalem, and he laments over the city: 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

We can say that a lament is a faithful expression of grief. In lament, we ask for God’s help. We know things should be different, we want God’s justice. We may even accuse God, like the Psalm 77 (verses 8–10): 

Has [God’s] steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High
  has changed.’

Here, Jesus is continuing this tradition of lament. He is pouring his heart out to God. Why does Jerusalem, the home of God’s great Temple, turn its back on God’s prophets? 

Jesus wants to embrace the people of Jerusalem as a mother hen embraces her chicks under her wings. In this queer imagery, Jesus shows what is in his heart: it is the salvation of Jerusalem. Jesus loves the people as a mother loves her children. 

And Jesus will do whatever is needed to protect her children. 

Jesus laments for Jerusalem. Jesus grieves, all the more so because Jesus knows just what Jerusalem needs: to welcome God into their midst. 

Anyone who laments is aware of their powerlessness. We have grieved over the boys and girls who suffered abuse at the hands of ministers and priests, and not only in the Catholic Church. We have grieved the choice of the special conference of the United Methodist Church in the USA to turn its back on its queer members. We have grieved because we care for the people involved; because we want a safe church; because we want an inclusive church; because we are powerless to bring it about ourselves. 

Most recently, we have grieved over the horror of Muslim believers killed while at prayer in Christchurch. We have asked ‘How long, O God?’

Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? But surely God is almighty, not powerless? Couldn’t almighty God just fix things like *that*? And if God can fix everything but doesn’t, what good is God? 

What do you think about that?

I ask this question about God because the New Testament says things like this about the risen Jesus:

…the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity… (Colossians 2.9 GNB)

Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…’ (Hebrews 1.3)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1.1, 14)

In Jesus, in his humanity, we are met by ‘the full content of divine nature’. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, “Show us the Father”?’ (John 14.9)

So, that question again: Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? 

There are plenty of people with a pagan idea of the Christian God: that is, the central thing about God is that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing. Oh, apart from that, and reassuringly, God does love us.

Yet perhaps the most profound statement about God in the scriptures is found in 1 John 4.16: ‘God is love’. 

That’s the first thing and the last thing we should ever say about God. Can God do anything? No! God cannot act against God’s nature. God is love—God cannot be unloving. 

So the way forward for Jesus is the way of love. Not to gather an army together. Not to plot and scheme. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Self-giving Love. 

So Jesus laments, and in Jesus God laments too. Is God almighty? Yes, if we are talking about the love of God. God is almighty in love, but love waits, loves serves, love gives and gives again to the beloved. And we, dear friends, are God’s beloved. 

A lot of people who say to me they can’t believe in God mean that pagan God, the all-powerful being who can slay, and punish, and put people in hell for eternity. Some parts of the Bible talk that way, but we see God in and through Jesus Christ. 

And anyway, I don’t believe in that pagan God either. 

The clear image of God our faith gives us is Jesus Christ. In him ‘the full content of divine nature lives…in his humanity’. 

We see God in the humanity of Jesus Christ. A God who loves to the end, who laments when God’s beloved turn away. A justice-bringing God, but only by the narrow way, the Way of self-giving love, the Way of the cross. 

One more thing to add, and it’s the end of Jesus’ lament. Jesus cries out,

I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Do you recognise that? We sing it every week: 

Blessed is the One who comes
  in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We welcome Jesus as he comes to us in the Holy Meal of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion. 

Jesus (and we) are quoting Psalm 118.26:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This psalm was a thanksgiving for a returning hero. But Jesus turns it upside down. When he comes to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, people are shouting these words; but Jesus is coming on a donkey, not a war horse. He is coming to the cross, which is the only throne he gets. He comes in peace. 

When we sing these words in church, we welcome Jesus into our hearts, we prepare to receive him in bread and wine. Not as a hero, but as the very love of God made flesh. We commit ourselves to follow his Way of self-giving love. 

And yes, we often grieve for the world that turns its back on the ways of peace, the ways of love, the Way of Christ. And we lament, keeping our hope in God, whose ‘almightiness’ is the Way of Jesus. Amen. 

 

West End Uniting Church, 17 March 2019

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Finding ourselves, and others

Readings
Deuteronomy 26.1–11
Luke 4.1–13

All this is the role that Jesus is acting out in the wilderness. He learns to be the precarious one in the desert. But where Moses reassured his listeners with the little word when, as in ‘when you come into the land,’ the devil comes to Jesus and thrice tempts him with the word if. If is the entry to privation, not abundance. ‘If you are . . .’ is supposed to cause Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God and feel the need to prove it. If is the trigger for me to foreclose, to grasp my identity before time, to settle for a fake identity rather than to wait for the identity that is mine already, but coming upon me, not available to be grasped. —James Alison, https://outline.com/EULmKB

…my son continued his hand-me-down exposition of the text. Leaning closer to me and dropping his voice to a loud whisper, he said, ‘If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and’—his hushed tones became downright conspiratorial at this point—‘there was candy…’ He paused for effect. ‘The devil would say, “You should take some!”’ I am not sure what was most startling to me in this retelling of the story of Luke 4:1–13 by my three-year-old: that he could, in fact, retell it—especially in such dramatic fashion—or that the version he had learned placed such heavy emphasis on the temptation and the personified tempter. — Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2

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What are you giving up for Lent? You have to give something up for Lent, don’t you? Alcohol, chocolate, Facebook… Something, anything.

Lent is all about self-denial. Isn’t it? 

Not really.

Jane Williams writes

Lent is not primarily about ‘giving things up’, or denying ourselves. It is about finding ourselves.

Lent is about finding ourselves… The thing is, we’ve been hiding ourselves, and hiding from ourselves, ever since Adam and Eve discovered they were naked. 

We hide from ourselves by achieving things, and defining ourselves by our achievements. And of course, an achievement can be almost anything—a well-paying job, a trophy spouse, a PhD, a child who has done well, winning a competition… 

We hide from ourselves by drinking, by using other drugs, by driving too fast, taking risks, anything really that turns our eyes away from ourselves and who we actually are. 

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Not the mountain, the plain

Reading
Luke 9.28-43

There is a terrible cruelty to it. Baptizing them as children, teaching them in Sunday school, hosting lock-ins & game nights in youth group, encouraging their calls to ministry, and then, when they work up the courage to tell the truth about their sexuality, kicking them out. — @rachelheldevans, Twitter 28.02.19

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record—that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.

The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life. — Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, p.186 (https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/downward-mobility/)

The transfiguration is something any old atheist could understand: ‘glory’ is a body and face shining with supernatural light. This does not unsettle my pagan presuppositions of what ‘divinity’ and the ‘supernatural’ mean. What we need faith to see is this: that the dead Jesus, forgotten and abandoned, naked and hanging on the Cross, is truly the Love of God Incarnate. In the wounding of his fragile being is the fullness of the divine glory. He is not ashamed to be our God. — Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God, p.135

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There’s a tradition in preaching on the Transfiguration of Jesus, that we talk about ‘mountaintop experiences’ that we take down to our everyday lives on the plain.

So where do we start today, on this Day of the Transfiguration of Jesus? Do we start on top of the mountain, along with Peter, James and John, with Moses and Elijah in glory? Do we begin bathed in the reflected heavenly light coming from Jesus? Do we start with a privileged glow mixed with strange feelings of awe or even dread?

Well no, not today. Today, we must start on the ground, along with the helpless, hapless and confused disciples who couldn’t expel a demon from a young lad, the only son of his father. That’s where we are today, at the bottom of the mountain. 

We have to start—and stay—on the ground today because as Christians in Australia, as members of a mainstream church, many people see us as representatives of something that is not only wrong but despicable. There’s a man I know who frequents the same coffee shop I do. We get on, we pass the time of day. The first time he saw me in a clerical collar he wondered if I should be wearing one, because it could make me look like a ‘paedo’. 

This week, Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of child sexual abuse. The charges relate to acts committed in 1996, while he was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell had forcefully denied all charges, but now that a media ban has been lifted the news is known within Australia. 

A number of prominent figures have leapt to his defence, he will mount an appeal, but the fact remains: today, Pell is a convicted child abuser. 

We have to stay on the ground and not go to the mountain today because last weekend one of our sister churches in the USA, the United Methodist Church, discussed the place of LGBTIQ people in their church. Their special conference began with hopes of full inclusion of people regardless of their sexuality. Instead, the conference voted to accept the so-called ‘Traditional Plan’ which keeps the current exclusions of LGBTIQ people in place. 

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Love your what?

Readings
Genesis 45.3-11, 15
Luke 6.27-38

After I finished my lecture Professor Jürgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: ‘But can you embrace a četnik?’ It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called ‘četnik’ had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a četnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. ‘No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.’ — Miroslav Volf, Preface to Exclusion and Embrace

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Perhaps you’ve heard this before: ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’ Or so they say.

Joseph’s brothers were lucky he didn’t subscribe to that little piece of wisdom. They had thrown him into a hole, sold him to slave traders, and never expected to see him again. Years later, they were begging for food while he had risen to the top in Egypt. Now, they were at his mercy. Would there be any mercy, or would they get what they deserved? Would they get the reward for their dreadful actions toward Joseph, or could something else be born out of their situation?

Well, the story goes, Joseph treated them with grace. Unmerited favour. And Jesus today speaks about treating people with grace, even our enemies.

One of our kids came out from preschool after his first day there. His face was beaming, and I wondered what he would say to me about his day. Excitedly he said to me, ‘Dad, I made two […pause…] enemies today!’ I never did get to the bottom of that; but most of us like to think we don’t have any enemies. 

But suppose you do. Just suppose there’s someone in your past or present who’s tried to do you harm. To damage your reputation, or undermine you at work, or just dead-head your favourite flowers in the garden. It could be anything. Enemies don’t all come in one size or shape. They’re not necessarily obvious at first. 

(Maybe you really don’t have any enemies; but there may be people who annoy you, irritate you or rub you up the wrong way…)

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The Great Reversal

Readings
Jeremiah 17.5-10
Luke 6.17-26

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The Uses of Sorrow

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift. 

— Mary Oliver

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Nations tell stories about themselves. Stories that establish who they are, how they see themselves in the world. For example, in 1950s and the early 60s in England, we could sing Rule Britannia and half believe it were still true. Now, they can’t even manage an orderly Brexit. 

The USA has its Declaration of Independence, which contains these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [men] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

‘All are created equal’? Yet some of the men who signed this document were slaveowners. 

‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’? Tell that to the ever-increasing American underclass. 

Australia’s founding story includes Terra Nullius, the lie that the land was unclaimed before Britain established a jail here for its own underclass. Terra Nullius enabled us to think of Australia as the land of the fair go, while ignoring the frontier wars that are our real history. Australia, the land of the fair go—but don’t arrive by boat. 

Luke has a foundational story for the Good News of Jesus. It’s been called the Great Reversal. We see it firstly in Mary’s Song, the Magnificat. Mary sings:

[God] has brought down the powerful
  from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

And Jesus himself follows it up, by reading from Isaiah 61 in the Nazareth synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim
   release to the captives
  and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Luke’s Great Reversal subverts all other stories. It’s a story of the poor being raised up and the rich being cast down. 

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Holy, Holy, Holy

Readings
Isaiah 6.1–8
1 Corinthians 15.1–11
Luke 5.1–11

 

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. — 1 Corinthians 15.17–19

Christians, for instance, are not, properly speaking, believers in religion; rather, they believe that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose from the dead and is now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, present to his church as its Lord. This is a claim that is at once historical and spiritual… — David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions

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Our three readings today have one thing in common: the Lord is present in each one in a way that changes everything. We live in a world confronted by the Word.

Let’s start with the big one. This world is confronted by something that for many is literally unbelievable: that is, the Risen Crucified Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul says,

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day…

‘He was raised on the third day…’ We might be used to the story of Easter, but really that is quite shocking. And just a bit after today’s reading, Paul says something even more shocking than that:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 1.17–19)

‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…’ 

The risen Christ is present with us in a way that changes everything. It’s a way that is not easily described, though we can and do experience it. 

The risen Christ brings life where there was death and decay. In the presence of the risen crucified One, we find ourselves confronted by life when we are confronted by death. Let me tell you about my dad. 

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Love never ends

Readings
1 Corinthians 13.1–13
Luke 4.21–30

 

…you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. — Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 1, 36:40

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Have you been to a wedding lately? If so, chances are you’ll have heard today’s New Testament Reading. It’s 1 Corinthians 13, often called ‘the Love Chapter’. And it must be the most common reading for a wedding.

It’s also one of the best-known passages of scripture there is. Its cadences trip off the tongue; Paul was writing in a pretty high style of Greek just here.

Love is patient and kind. Love envies no one, is never boastful, never conceited, never rude; love is never selfish, never quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs, takes no pleasure in the sins of others, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance.

Feels great, doesn’t it?

No wonder we love it at weddings. 

It may encourage us to believe that the Hollywood myth is true after all: true love does conquer all. 

But that’s not what Paul says. Let’s hear those last few words again:

There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance.

Love doesn’t conquer all; love endures all. Perhaps Paul would say love endures whatever others may throw at us. Love endures whatever circumstances may test it.

(In the English language, we have one word for love. I love ice cream, though I shouldn’t; I love reading; I love my wife. But are all those expressions of love the same? I think not.  Continue reading

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