Thursday, August 13, 2015

If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the world?

From a sermon by Jack Cabaness preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Katonah on Sunday, August 2nd, 2015:

This morning we continue our sermon series entitled Questions from the Floor. This morning’s question is: If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the world?

As the writer Frederick Buechner once pointed out, if we break down that question into three statements—(1) God is all-loving; (2) God is all-powerful; and (3) terrible things happen--then we can easily reconcile any two of those statements with each other, but we have a very hard time reconciling all three statements. Maybe God really is all-powerful but not all-loving, and that’s why terrible things happen. Or surely God is all-loving, but maybe God isn’t all-powerful, and that’s why terrible things happen, which is in essence the conclusion of Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But if we try to hold onto the notion that God is all-loving and all-powerful, and we acknowledge that terrible things happen, it’s difficult to reconcile all three statements.

One of my favorite preachers, Thomas G. Long, published a book a few years ago on the Problem of Evil, and he used the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat to explore what Christians can say about evil in the world as well as what we cannot yet say. I want to acknowledge at the outset that my meditation this morning draws heavily from his insights.

Tom Long's book is an extended meditation on the Book of Job.
The concluding chapter explores the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat.
The first audience for the Gospel of Matthew may have well have been a young, struggling Christian community in present-day Syria. They were trying to be and do what Jesus had taught them to be and do, and the results were frankly, mixed and discouraging. The culture around them was morally conflicted, and the church itself was turning out to be not so pure. Matthew’s community looked at a hopelessly conflicted world and church and wondered, “What’s the use?” Evil and good are all mixed together, seemingly intractably. How were they to understand this? How were they to understand the trustworthiness of God in such an environment? (Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 2011, p. 124).
The Gospel writer Matthew took a parable from Jesus, this parable about the weeds among the wheat, in an attempt to answer these questions. In the Parable the servants go directly to the Master of the Estate and exclaim, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?”

Thus, the first thing we learn about the problem of evil is that we have every right to go to God and ask for an explanation! Evil and suffering are wounds in creation, and a deeply Christian response is to turn to God in pain and protest. In the words of John Claypool, “There is more honest faith in an act of questioning than in the act of silent submission, for implicit in the very asking is the faith that some light can be given.” (John R. Claypool, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, as quoted by Long, p. 127).

The late John Claypool, a Baptist preacher turned Episcopalian priest, whose book Tracks of a Fellow Struggler is a beautiful and poignant meditation on the grief he experienced when his young daughter died of leukemia.
So, the first thing we learn is that we have every right to make our protest to God about the presence of evil in our world. In doing so, we refuse to legitimate evil, and we appeal to the honor of God by asking that God do something about it.

When the servants went to the Master demanding to know what happened with the weeds in the field, the Master replied, “An Enemy has done this.” It’s not the worker’s fault. It’s not the landowner’s fault, either.

The answer “An Enemy has done this” raises new questions, but it tells us that a Christian theodicy insists that God is not the author of evil. It is NOT God’s will that the innocent suffer, not even for some larger good.

Years ago, a young woman graduated from Princeton Seminary and received a call to serve a small church. Since the church was small, she vowed to visit everyone in the membership within the first six months. Near the end of that time, she had visited every family in the church except one. Some of the elders advised her, “Oooh, be careful there. They haven’t been here in a couple of years, and they probably aren’t coming back.”

But the young pastor had made herself a promise, and one day she knocked on the door of this couple’s house. Only the wife was home, but she invited the pastor in for a cup of coffee. They sat around the kitchen table and chatted. They talked about this, they talked about that, and then finally they talked about IT. And IT was the fact that more than two years before the couple’s young son had drowned in their backyard pool. “Our friends at church were very kind,” the woman said. “They told us it was God’s will.”

The pastor put her coffee cup down on the table. Should she touch that or not? She decided to touch it. The pastor said, “Your friends at church meant well, but they were wrong. It wasn’t God’s will. God doesn’t will the death of children.”

Surprisingly, the mother’s jaw clenched, her face reddened, and she said in anger, “Well, then, who do you blame? Are you blaming me? Are you blaming me for this? Is that what you’re saying?”

“No, no—I’m not blaming you, the pastor replied, now on the defensive. I’m not blaming you, but I’m not blaming God, either. God was as grief-stricken by your son’s death as you are.” But the woman’s face remained frozen in rage, and it was clear that this conversation was over.

Driving back to the church, the young pastor kept saying to herself, I shouldn’t have touched it. Why did I go there?

But when she got back to the church office, there was a message already waiting for her on the answering machine. “I don’t know where this is going,” the trembling recorded voice said, “but my husband and I want you to come out and talk to us about this. For two years we’ve thought that God was angry at us, but now we wonder if it’s not the other way around.” (story told by Long, pp. 131-132).

Despite the obvious risk, the young pastor was right to affirm that it was NOT God’s will that this child die. If not God, then how do we understand the words “An Enemy Has Done This?” In Matthew’s Gospel, the enemy is the Devil.

As Tom Long writes, "perhaps the devil is best imagined not literally, as some demonic figure             lurking in the shadows, but as a symbol of a deep theological truth—namely, that the evil we experience in history is more than the sum of its parts and transcends logical explanation--the horror of the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda, the massacre at My Lai—none of these forms of evil can be fully accounted for by political, anthropological, or psychological explanations . . .To say that the enemy is the devil is not to revert to pre-scientific fairytale images but to say through the ancient language of Scripture that evil has a cosmic, trans-human reality. Evil is not just a failing; it is a force. (Long, pp. 134-135).

With the knowledge that an enemy has sowed the seeds of evil in the field, the servants ask the Master, “Do you want us to gather the weeds?” In other words, do you want us to fix it? The landowner’s response is swift, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

Tom Long tells the story of a woman he grew up with in South Carolina in the early 1950s. She was stricken with polio as a child just a few years before Jonas Salk perfected his vaccine. She is in her sixties now, her body still twisted by the virus that attacked her in her childhood. She makes her way awkwardly on crutches. But the moment she enters a room, the level of grace is elevated greatly. She lights up with joy every place she touches. She is a college professor and an artist, an accomplished human being with profound gifts. Now, what about the evil she has endured?

Do we think that God gave her polio?
No, a thousand times no!
Did God put polio in her life do give her a beautiful soul?
No, a thousand times no!
Do we think that her soul has been formed by this? Yes.

Tom Long writes, "If someone handed me a magic wand now and gave me the power to change anything about her past, to pluck up the weeds from the wheat, I think I would want to wave it and banish the polio, make it so she never suffered from that disease. But to tell the truth, I really wouldn’t know where the limits of my wisdom were. She is a beautiful and radiant human being, and I wouldn’t know what to take away from the personal history that brought her to this place. In short, I might want to fix it, but I lack the discernment to do so. (Long, pp. 138-139).

If the servants in the parable are not allowed to gather the weeds, then what is the response to the problem of evil? Or to ask the deeper question, what is God doing about the problem of evil?

What the parable suggests about God is that God’s way in the world is not to go into the field and immediately start whacking away with a machete.

Right after this parable, Matthew includes two more short parables from Jesus. He tells a story about a tiny mustard seed that eventually grows into a giant bush that provides shelter for the birds. And he tells a story about a woman taking a little bit of leaven, or yeast, and how it leavens the entire lump of dough. Together, these two tiny parables suggest that God’s ways in the world are hidden, perhaps sometimes frustratingly slow, but nonetheless effective and ultimately victorious.

More and more, I am convinced that God’s way in the world is the way of non-coercive, persuasive love, persuading us to do the right thing in response to the evil we encounter, as best we understand that right thing, to carry on our ministries of compassion and caring as a witness to the final triumph over evil that God is bringing about.

When I was growing up in El Paso, Texas, our next-door neighbor Mrs. Vaughn, a first grade teacher, would spend the late afternoons on her hands and knees in her front yard, uprooting little tiny weeds, before they had a chance to get very big. In El Paso, we didn’t just have dandelions, we also had these tough, prickly desert weeds that were meant to discourage thirsty critters from taking a bite, and they definitely discouraged me from ever touching those things with my bare hands.

Sandbur, a notoriously prickly desert weed

 Mrs. Vaughn would uproot the prickly weeds when they were no more than an inch high. She would painstakingly go over her entire yard on her hands and knees, painstakingly combing through the Bermuda grass with her hands, uprooting all the infant weeds she could find. The whole process was so laborious that she could never weed more than a tiny square section of her yard each day, but the next afternoon she would be at it again.

Mrs. Vaughn is now in her mid-90s. She lives with her son in San Antonio, Texas. Through the years she did her best to nurture her husband through the deep depression he could never shake, and she did what she could to support a daughter-in-law who lived with breast cancer for over a decade before passing away a few years ago.

In deep faith, she patiently prays and waits as God’s own loving hands comb through the grasses of her long life and ours, ultimately uprooting every cause of evil and suffering, in anticipation of a great harvest and homecoming meal.

And we will see that the fire fueled by the weeds is excellent, and the flour that the wheat makes is excellent, and when the harvest finally comes, the owner of the field will call us all together—farmhands, reapers, neighbors, and break bread with us, bread that is the final distillation of that whole, messy field, and we will all agree that it is like no other bread we have ever tasted before, and that it is very, very good. (This imagery is suggested in a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Live with the Weeds” in The Seeds of Heaven, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990, 2004, pp. 36-37).

May our communion bread this morning be a foretaste of the good things to come.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How do we understand Jesus' teaching to "turn the other cheek" in light of ISIS and other examples of extreme violence and terror?

Many of us are aware that Fred Rogers, in addition to being the star of a children’s television show, was also an ordained Presbyterian Minister.

But according to a new book by Michael G. Long, Mister Rogers was also a prolific peace activist.

In his book Peaceful Neighbor Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogersthe author describes how the very first episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood aired in February 1968, which was just three weeks after the Tet Offensive, when 84,000 VietCong staged surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam.

While South Vietnamese and U.S. forces quickly regained any lost ground, the sheer shock of the Tet Offensive led to a growing public disapproval of the Vietnam War.

Three weeks later, television viewers made their very first visit to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The ever-mischievous puppet,
Lady Elaine Fairchilde, has used her magical boomerang to rearrange the landscape, even moving the Eiffel Tower to the other side of the castle. The mischief so angers King Friday XIII—the dogmatic and often bumbling ruler of Make Believe—that he establishes border guards so that no other changes can come in.

When Mister Rogers shares this news with neighbor Betty Aberlin back at his television house, she exclaims, “That sounds like a war!” Distressed and concerned, she dons a burlap cape and leaves to find out what’s going on in the normally peaceful Make-Believe.
Once there (she’s now Lady Aberlin, the niece of King Friday),
she discovers King Friday and Edgar Cooke, the singing castle cook, dressed in full military regalia and prepared to use force to turn back anyone seeking to make further changes.

Sporting a helmet with thirteen stars, King Friday then instructs Lady Aberlin to check the north gate while Edgar checks the castle gardens.

When Lady Aberlin protests, saying she was not planning to stay, the king angrily retorts, “You have come during a state of emergency, and I have drafted you.”

Both the draft and draft resistance have come to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Meanwhile Lady Aberlin and Daniel Striped Tiger come up with a plan to send peace balloons to the castle so that King Friday will know that the whole neighborhood wants peace. The balloons will have signs tied to them such as love, peaceful existence, tenderness, and the word peace by itself.

Back in Mr. Rogers’s TV house, Mr. Rogers is not sure the plan will work because the king is in such a fighting mood. But then he smiles and says I think this can work.

On the day of the balloon launching, King Friday mistakes the balloons for paratroopers and shouts out, “Fire the cannons!”

But Lady Aberlin pleads with King Friday and the soldiers to read the messages before they start firing. One of the king’s soldiers reads the messages aloud and, lo and behold, the surprised king immediately says, “Stop all fighting!” even though no fighting had technically begun.

The residents of Make Believe sigh a collective sigh of relief, and back in Mr. Rogers’s TV studio, Mr. Roger muses, “Isn’t Peace Wonderful?” (recounted by Michael G. Long in Peaceful Neighbor).

Peace is wonderful, but what if we’re talking about the real world and not the neighborhood of Make-Believe?

What if we’re not simply talking about puppets rearranging the furniture, but we are talking about terrorists determined to do us harm?

How do we understand Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek in light of ISIS and other examples of extreme violence and terror?

The phrase turn the other cheek comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In that section, in Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus expounds, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you."

Is this meant to be taken literally?

Imagine someone taking the train from Katonah to New York City one morning and deciding to do everything Jesus says here: to turn the other cheek, to give to every beggar, and to respond to every lawsuit by settling out of court for double the amount.
One biblical scholar predicts that such a person would be broke, homeless, and in the emergency room of Bellevue Hospital before noon! (See Thomas G. Long, Matthew, p. 63).

So, how do we understand Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek?

Many faithful Christians have understood this saying as literally as possible, and the members of the traditional Peace Churches, Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, Quakers, base their theology of Christian Pacifism largely on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Other Christians interpret Jesus’ words more broadly and abstractly. What Jesus is condemning is the tendency toward violence. In this interpretation Jesus is not saying never hit back, because there might be a need to use violence to restrain an evildoer. But Jesus is saying, that if there is to be peace, then eventually, one slap must not be answered by another slap.

During most of the first three centuries the earliest Christians were pacifists who lived as a  persecuted minority under the military dominance of the Roman Empire. If a would-be convert to Christianity was a Roman soldier, the soldier had to stop being a Roman soldier before beginning the three-year catechism to become a Christian. The reasoning was that the soldier could not say "Jesus is Lord" while still being obligated to obey the Emperor, especially when the emperors were persecuting Christians.

But the situation changed when the Emperor Constantine espoused Christianity and outlawed the persecution of Christians in 313.
Now that a Christian emperor wielded the power of the sword, a new theology was needed. This paved the way for St. Augustine (354-430) to draw upon Paul’s arguments in Romans 13 about the state having the right to use force to restrain evildoers. Thus, Augustine became one of the first Christian thinkers to articulate criteria for just war. Under certain circumstances, war is justifiable, especially to restrain evil.

Nearly nine hundred years later, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) refined Augustine’s criteria for a just war, and he held that for a war to be just:

It must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state.
Second, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain.
Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.

These criteria for just war, with some additional modifications, are still part of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.

In our own Reformed Tradition, the early Reformers likewise embraced the doctrine of just war, in contrast to the Anabaptists, who later became Amish and Mennonites.

John Calvin advised the city leaders in Geneva. The early Reformers were in the seat of power, and they devised their theology accordingly. They believed that the magistrate did have the power to wage war.

The Second Helvetic Confession, written in 1566, and part of our Book of Confessions, advises that “if it is necessary to preserve the safety of the people by war, let him [the magistrate] wage war in the name of God; provided he has first sought peace by all means possible, and  cannot save his people in any other way except by war” (5.256). The confession explicitly condemns the pacifist “Anabaptists, who, when they deny that a Christian may hold the office of a magistrate, deny also that a man may be justly put to death by the magistrate, or that the magistrate may wage war” (5.257).

The 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith similarly adopts Just War criteria.

During the American Revolutionary War, Presbyterians were somewhat famous for their willingness to take up arms in support of the Revolution, while one of my own Quaker ancestors did not take up arms in support of the Revolution. (Alas, no DAR membership for me!, or for my genealogical line, rather).

In essence, we have two faithful responses to violence in our world—pacifism and just war. Both have longstanding support in the Christian tradition.

My own position is closer to the traditional just war theory, although as I get older I think that the threshold for justifying a particular war should be harder and harder to reach. Perhaps I’m inching towards pacifism, but I’m not there yet. Particularly when it comes to terrorism and extreme violence. And particularly in this community, where we knew and loved people who died in 9/11.
Where we know and love people who have faithfully served and continue to serve in the military.

This is not an abstract issue. We are doing our best to figure out how to live faithfully in a violent and unpredictable world.

When I was serving a church in Kansas City I got to know a man named Bill Eckhardt. Bill is a  retired army colonel and military lawyer. In fact, he was one of the prosecuting attorneys during the trial of Lt. William Calley for the My Lai massacre. During a discussion of just war and violence, Bill turned to me and said, “Jack, never forget that no one desires peace more than the soldier.
No one desires peace more than the soldier longing to go home.
No one desires peace more than the soldier’s friends and family who long for reunion.” I’ve never forgotten that.

We all want peace. And one of the central convictions of our faith is that God desires peace. And one of the central challenges of our faith is to keep asking the hard questions about peacemaking in our world.

The late Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), in words printed on your bulletin covers, challenges us by reminding us that

"… you are Christians only so long as you look forward to a new world, so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in, so long as you emphasize the need for conversion both for yourself and for the world, so long as you in no way let yourself become established in a situation of seeming calm, so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come. You are Christians only when you believe that you have a role to play in the realization of this new kingdom, and when you urge everyone you meet with a holy unrest to make haste so that the promise might soon be fulfilled. So long as you live as a Christian you keep looking for a new order, a new structure, a new life." (Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands)

Where pacifists and proponents of just war can find common ground is by doing peacemaking work together.

A few years ago, a group of Christian theologians and ethicists at Fuller Seminary came up with ten peacemaking practices that offer a model for Christians working for peace in our families, in our communities, in our nation, and in our world.

I’ll quickly list the ten practices here:
1. Support nonviolent direct action.
2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.
3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.
4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.
5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.
6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.
7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.
8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.
9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.
10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations. (Google Fuller Seminary and "Just Peacemaking" for the latest on the Just Peacemaking Initiative. This list of ten practices was quoted in a sermon by my friend and seminary classmate Mindy Douglas, preached at the Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC, on September 21, 2008).

The late Glen Stassen, one of the authors of the “just peacemaking” initiative, wrote in an article in Sojourners magazine, that "the ethic we need for a viable future is not only an ethic of restraint in making war, but an ethic of just peacemaking initiatives for preventing war and building a future that is better than war after war, terrorism after terrorism.” (Glenn Stassen, "Winning the Peace," Sojourners, January 2005).

In essence, we are urged to imagine a better world.

At the end of the first visit to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Mister Rogers debriefed their narrow escape from war.

He said, “You see people can imagine bad things, hurtful things, angry warlike things, but people can also imagine good things, helpful things, happy, peaceful things.”

And as Mister Rogers debriefed the successful plan to use the Peace Balloons to diffuse the warlike mood, he used the word “work” nearly two dozen times. Peacemaking is hard work.
But it’s necessary work. (Michael G. Long, Peaceful Neighbor).

At the close of a 1983 episode of Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood, Mister Rogers encouraged us to make the world a better place and better place for people to live so that people won’t have to be scared of other people.”

And then Mister Rogers sang a song called Peace and Quiet, a simple song he had written for his father long ago:

Mister Rogers smiled as he finished the song and he said, “I wish you peace.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Did Jesus Have to Die for Our Sins?

This morning we continue our sermon series Questions from the Floor. All of our sermons this summer are based on questions that you submitted. Today’s question is "Why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Why didn’t God just love us enough to forgive us without Jesus having to die?"

At the beginning I need to acknowledge my reliance on two sources. The first is a chapter from a book by the late Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., who taught theology at Columbia Seminary in Georgia and whose book Christian Doctrine generations of Presbyterian ministers have used to cram for their theology ordination exam.

The second source is a book by my college classmate Tony Jones, which is entitled Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution.

Imagine the Scene. 

A young boy goes to a revival meeting. He had grown up in a Christian home and in the church, but he heard something that night he had never heard before.

The preacher held up a dirty glass. “See this glass? That’s you. Filthy, stained with sin, inside and outside.” He picked up a hammer. “This hammer is the righteousness of God. It is the instrument of God’s wrath against sinners. God’s justice can be satisfied only by punishing and destroying people whose lives are filled with vileness and corruption.”

The preacher put the glass on the pulpit and slowly, deliberately drew back the hammer, took deadly aim, and with all his might let the blow fall.

 But a miracle happened!
At the last moment he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck with a crash that echoed through the hushed church. He held up the untouched glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other.

Then the preacher said, “Jesus Christ died for your sins. He took the punishment that ought to have fallen on you. He satisfied the righteousness of God so that you might go free if you believe in him.”

When the boy went to bed that night, he could not sleep. Meditating on what he had seen and heard, he decided that he was terribly afraid of God. But could he love such a God? He could love Jesus who had sacrificed himself for him. But how could he love a God who wanted to “get” everyone and was only kept from doing it because Jesus got in the way? The thought crossed the boy’s mind that he could only hate such a hammer-swinging God who had to be bought off at such a terrible price. But he quickly dismissed the thought. That very God might read his mind and punish him. (Illustration from Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, 250-251).

The question for us this morning is can we think about the atonement in such a way that helps us to love both God and Jesus? Can we think about what happened on Calvary long ago in a way that makes it clear that God is for us and not against us?

Listen again to the two scripture readings that were shared this morning. From Romans 5, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And from First John 4, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

It’s about Love. Love Wins. And God is the one who loves us, and God loves us every bit as much as Jesus loves us. Whatever theory best helps you understand the atonement, make sure that it enables you to sense and experience the love of God.

According to Shirley Guthrie there are at least four main perspectives that emerge from the New Testament to interpret the meaning of the death of Jesus.
The first is redemption. This is the financial image. Imagine a slave market. People have lost their freedom and are being sold into slavery. But someone steps forward and pays the ransom, the price for the purchase of all the slaves. The price is high. His life for ours. But Jesus on the cross pays the price of our redemption and sets us free.
The second perspective draws upon the imagery of war. Jesus is the liberator. A terrible cosmic battle is being waged between God and Satan. Satan has stolen humanity from the Kingdom of God and carried it to the kingdom of darkness. At the cross, the devil takes the prisoner, Jesus, captive and wins the battle of death for but a moment. But on Easter morning, Jesus the prisoner becomes Jesus the liberator and wins the final victory delivering humanity from death to life.
The third explanation of the cross has to do with sacrifice. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Humanity stands guilty before God, deserving of punishment. There is no hope except that the sins be assuaged. But a priest comes forward and serves as the mediator between heaven and earth. The priest makes a sacrifice to atone for the people’s sin. Blood is shed. The lamb is slain, reconciling humanity to God.
And the last of the perspectives comes from the language of the courtroom. God is a righteous judge, who sits behind the bench, with humanity standing in the dock as the accused. The facts are placed in evidence. The defendants are found guilty, and all receive the same sentence: death. 
But a righteous and good person comes forward and offers himself as a substitute for the guilty, taking their punishment to himself even though he has done nothing wrong.

Whichever perspective resonates with us the most, we should make sure that we interpret each of these images in a way that makes it clear that God loves us just as much as Jesus loves us and in a way that makes it clear that God is for us and not against us.

For example, the financial model does not mean that God is bought off by Jesus.
It means that we are purchased for God. God purchases for us the gift of a new life, much like the bishop in Les Miserables gives to Jean Valjean as a gift the very silver that Jean Valjean had tried to steal from the bishop. And the Bishop tells Jean Valjean to use the gift of the silver to make for himself a new life. “I have bought your life for God,” the bishop tells him.

Likewise, with the sacrificial image, we should interpret that image in such a way that God is for us and not against us. In the ancient world, many people believed that when the gods were angry at humanity, the gods had to appeased with sacrifice. But what if it’s not God that needs to be appeased, but it’s humanity that needs to see and understand that violence only begets violence and that violence is never redemptive?

RenĂ© Girard studied and taught world religions and ancient myths. He later converted to Christianity largely because of the theology of the cross. My college classmate Tony Jones summarizes Girard’s view in this way: When we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we are looking in a mirror. God is reflecting back to us the outcome of our systems of rivalry, sacrifice, and violence. Jesus’ death shows conclusively that these systems are bankrupt, that they do not assuage guilt, and that they do not minimize violence. Jesus, as the ultimate innocent victim, is the final sacrifice because he reveals the fiction behind the entire enterprise of sacrifice. (from Tony Jones, Did God Kill Jesus?Looking for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution, New York: HarperOne, 2015. See especially chapter 16.)

Girard draws upon the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Book of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers try to kill him but decide to sell him into slavery instead. Joseph eventually rises from a slave to being second in power only to the Pharaoh. Many years later, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt because there is famine in their land, Joseph does not seek revenge against his brothers. He does toy with them for several chapters, but he doesn’t seek revenge and he doesn’t try to have them killed. Tearfully, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them who he is. And Joseph tells them, what you intended for evil, God intended for good.

Girard’s view of the crucifixion is similar. What humanity intended for evil in killing Jesus, God intended for good. We see an example of this in President Obama’s moving eulogy on Friday for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. In that speech the President reflected on the shooter’s announced motive of hoping to start a race war. The President described that as …

"An act that [the shooter] imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. (Applause.) God has different ideas. (Applause.)

He didn't know he was being used by God. (Applause.) Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The             alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the allen would respond when they saw him in court -- in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn't imagine that. (Applause.)

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond -- not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life. (Transcript of President Obama’s Eulogy of Rev. Pinckney from, retrieved June 27, 2015).

Truly, what the shooter intended for evil, God redirected for good.

Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God have just forgiven us without Jesus having to die? In the quote that is printed on the cover of your bulletin, Shirley Guthrie responds by saying that God loves us and cares for us too much to dismiss our sin and guilt with a flippant “It doesn’t matter.” God wanted to stand with us in the loneliness and alienation we bring on ourselves when we separate ourselves from God and other people. Because it is just when God comes to our side in our loneliness, alienation, and guilt that they are overcome. (Guthrie, 260).

In his book my college classmate Tony Jones takes this a step further and says that in the cross God identifies with us so completely that when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” that even God suddenly realizes what it is like to feel abandoned by God. (Jones, chapter 19)


And at the end of the day, contemplating the cross is more of a matter of the heart than of the head. And I’m not talking about the emotional manipulation of a preacher who points the finger and says that because of your sin Jesus died a horrific death. No. Instead, I’m talking about journeying to the cross in our hearts with honesty and authenticity. In the words of the old spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it makes me want to tremble.” A theory of the atonement is not likely to make us tremble. A journey to the cross will.

I’ve had the good fortune to see the traditional site of the crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but in truth my real journey to the cross took place in a chapel service at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. It was a year after my father had died of pancreatic cancer. My mother was facing her own significant health issues, and I was an only child in my mid-twenties and feeling lonely and more than a little overwhelmed. In the chapel service we sang

                        What Wondrous Love is this, o my soul, o my soul,
                        What wondrous love is this, o my soul
                        What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of Bliss
                        to bear the heavy cross for my soul.

And I had this sense that all the fear, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, brokenness, and all the other heavy things were being borne by Jesus on the cross. And the tears started flowing and they wouldn’t stop.

            --All of you who grieve.
            --All of you who mourn the loss of life or the end of a marriage.
            --All of you who mourn the loss of a dream.
            --All of you who are living with a terminal illness.
            --All of you who deeply regret something that you have done that you wish more                                     than anything that you could undo.
            --All of you who worry about an adult child making his or her way in the world.

Jesus on the cross identifies with you in all of your struggles and even knows what it’s like to cry in desperation, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

God experienced humanity fully in the Cross of Christ. And the hope is this:
that just as God experienced humanity fully in dying a real human death--even a brutal human death--so we, too, can experience new life with God in the resurrection.

As I stood there in the chapel service with tears streaming down my face, those around me sang the third stanza, even as my heart was too full to sing myself. Those around me sang

                        And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
                        and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on
                        And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be.
                        And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,

                        and through eternity, I’ll sing on.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Do We Mean When We Say "Jesus Saves"? Is Jesus the Only Way?

Sermon preached at Katonah Presbyterian Church

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Texts: Luke 19:1-10; John 14:1-6

Today we continue our sermon series “Questions from the Floor.” Today’s question is What Do We Mean When We Say “Jesus Saves”? Is Jesus the Only Way?

We’ll use the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 to reflect on the first part of the question, and we’ll use Jesus’ monologue in John 14 to reflect on the second part of the question.

First of all, what do we mean when we say, “Jesus Saves?”

A class of seventh graders asked a very similar question in a Confirmation Class. The pastor, Scott Black Johnston, invited the class of twelve to submit questions on 3X5 index cards. Four of the twelve cards came back with some version of the question “Is Jesus the only way to salvation?”

Before the pastor would answer the question, he asked the class, “Well, what do you suppose that Jesus is saving you from?” “Hell” most of them replied in unison. The pastor thought to himself, that’s a good answer, that’s certainly the traditional answer, but he worried that the class responded that way because they thought that hell was supposed to be the right answer.

So, the pastor decided to change tactics with the seventh graders. “Let me put it this way," he said to them, "if God was on the ball, what would God save you from?"  

Suddenly, the conversation got very interesting. One of the youth raised her hand and said, "Death." Another fellow offered that God could really help him out by saving him from an upcoming math test. Then one of the seventh graders said, "Pressure." And another youth said, "My parents' expectations." Then another, shy individual, almost in a whisper said, "Fear.  I want God to save me from my fears." All of these answers struck the pastor as more sincere than "hell."  Although it occurred to him that their comments gave a pretty clear picture of what "hell" looks like to a 7th grader.
 (From a sermon by Scott Black Johnston preached at New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, April 5, 2009)

When we hear the word salvation in the Gospels, its meaning is almost as varied as the hopes of a 7th grade confirmation class. The Greek word sozo, to save, can mean everything from rescue or liberate to heal or comfort.

When Jesus announces to Zacchaeus that salvation has come to this house, what do you think Jesus means?

The faithful Jews in the crowd were most likely hoping for liberation from their Roman oppressors. So, how ironic that Jesus turns to a well-known collaborator with the Romans--the chief tax-collector Zacchaeus—and announces that salvation has come to this house!

When we hear the story of Zacchaeus, we hear Jesus promising salvation to Zacchaeus as an individual. Here’s someone who has gotten wealthy by taxing his own people, and when he encounters Jesus, he offers to give away half his possessions to the poor and to repay four times anyone he may have defrauded.

It makes for a great story if Zacchaeus is a greedy tax collector spending his ill-gotten gains on all kinds of vice who suddenly meets Jesus and turns his life around. But the story of Zacchaeus is more complex and nuanced than that. When Zacchaeus promises to give half his goods to the poor, the Greek verb tense is one that connotes present, on-going action. Zacchaeus is actually saying, “I have already and I am giving half my possessions to the poor, and I am already paying back four times anyone I may have defrauded.”

We might say that Zacchaeus is an honorable man doing the best he can in a despised but necessary profession, for which he endures a lot of ostracism from his own people. And when Jesus announces that “salvation has come to this house,” he then addresses the crowd about Zacchaeus and says, “for, he, too, is a child of Abraham.”

It seems to me that Jesus is not only addressing Zacchaeus, but he is also offering salvation to the crowd, promising them salvation from their own prejudice and bitterness even as he offers to Zacchaeus the very salvation and redemption that he needs.

What do we mean when we say Jesus saves? We mean that Jesus comes and gives us what we need the most, because we’re not capable of making it on our own.

One of my favorite writers Frederick Buechner preached a sermon entitled, “The Sign by the Highway.” At the time, during the late 1960s, he was the chaplain of Phillips Exeter Academy, and he did his best to maintain the interest of high school boys who would rather be anyplace else besides the required chapel service. In that sermon Buechner imagines someone driving down the highway who notices a spray-painted “Jesus Saves” on the concrete abutment of a bridge. The driver winces and feels that the graffiti is vaguely embarrassing, evoking too many negative associations with revivalism and fundamentalism. Buechner goes on to say ...

       And maybe, at a deeper level still, Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing, if any part at all of what it is trying to mean gets through, what it says to everybody who passes by, and most importantly and unforgivably of all of course what it says to you, is that you need to be saved. Rich man, poor man; young man, old man; educated and uneducated; religious and unreligious—the word is in its way an offense to all of them, all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, “You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole.” That is an unpardonable thing to say to a man whether it is true or false, but especially if it is true, because there he is, trying so hard to be happy, all of us are, to find some kind of inner peace and all in all maybe not making too bad a job of it considering the odds, so that what could be worse psychologically, humanly, than to say to him what amounts to “You will never make it. You have not and you will not, at least not without help”? (Frederick Buechner, “The Sign by the Highway,” in The Hungering Dark)

Jesus saves, reconciling the tax-collector Zacchaeus with members of the crowd, and offering each one of us the kind of salvation we most need.

The second part of our question this morning asks whether Jesus is the only way.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus bids farewell to his disciples. His death is imminent. He offers them final instructions. He tells them that they know the way, and Thomas immediately rejoins, “No, we do not know where you are going! We do not know the way!” And Jesus responds, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

I hear these words as words of assurance. Jesus is reassuring troubled disciples that they have indeed chosen the right path, they have indeed chosen the right teacher, even if that teacher is about to be crucified.

And to me the important distinction is that Jesus says that he is the way. He does NOT say that certain exclusive forms of Christianity are the way; he says that he is the way. And I see Jesus as the human face of the God who is always reaching out to us, always seeking to reconcile humanity to God and to each other.

In our interfaith dialogues with our friends and neighbors, we could simply say something to the effect of “all religions lead us down similar paths,” but then the dialogue would be over and we would not have learned much about each other’s faith traditions at all. Wouldn’t it be a much richer and fuller discussion if Christians were to articulate a distinctly Christian hope for the world even as their Jewish friends talked about the meaning of Shalom and as still other friends expressed the distinctive hopes of their faiths?

To me as a Christian there is a distinctive message of hope as God in Christ reaches out, always seeking to reconcile us to God and to each other. And there is an optimism that this message will be heard, even in places where there is strong resistance. I find this hope expressed in Jesus’ parable of the Sower in Mark 4. Jesus tells a story about a sower who went out to sow. Some seed fell along the path and was eaten by birds. Some seed fell among the rocks and sprang up immediately, but when the sun came it withered because it had no root. Some seed fell among thorns, which soon choked the fledgling plants. And some seed fell onto fertile ground where it had the best chance to flourish. 

Why doesn’t the sower save all the seed for the fertile ground? Why does the sower even bother sowing seed along the path, or among the rocks, or among the thorns? 

Could it be because of a deep, underlying hope that even in those places the word of salvation might take root and grow and flourish?

Last Wednesday night, twelve people gathered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and studied the Parable of the Sower from Mark’s Gospel. They were discussing that very parable when a stranger walked in and asked to join them. They welcomed the stranger with open arms. An hour later the stranger took out a gun and killed nine people in a particularly heinous and racially-motivated hate crime.

One of the many questions that haunts me is whether anything could have been said in the course of that hour that would have changed the shooter’s mind. Did the seed that was sown have any chance of taking root and flourishing amidst the rocky ground and thorns of racial hatred? Yet, they sowed anyway. And when the shooter had a bond hearing, families reached out to the shooter offering forgiveness--not an easy forgiveness that ignores the heinousness of such a horrific hate crime, not an easy forgiveness that excuses us from the difficult work of racial reconciliation--but a forgiveness according to God’s timing offered by the same God of justice and mercy who is forever reaching out, forever sowing seed on the rockiest and least promising of soils.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Prayers for Emanuel AME Church and for All of Us

I am hard-pressed for words this morning in the wake of the terrible news from Charleston, South Carolina. Pictured above is the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where nine people lost their lives in a mass shooting while they had been engaged in a Bible Study. It's likely that they had welcomed the shooter to the Bible Study with open arms and that the shooter even sat down for a while before commencing the shooting.

The late Jack Stott, a former president of Austin Presbyterian Seminary, offered the following thoughts in the weeks following 9/11, and I find his words helpful today ....

"No matter how dark and widespread the shadows of death, God is with us. To guide us. To comfort us. . . . And to point us to the day when all sit at table together, when former enemies become friends, when abundance overflows and covers the earth. We are bearers of a dream, a vision that refuses to be distorted by hatred, anger, and fear; a dream of forgiveness, love, and righteousness."

May such a vision give us courage to work for racial reconciliation as we have never worked before.

Questions from the Floor

This summer we are beginning a new sermon series at Katonah Presbyterian Church. A few weeks ago we asked worshippers to submit questions that they would like to see addressed in the Sunday sermon. These sermons will be preached on Sundays during the Summer, and they will also be published here on this blog, so that an online conversation can take place for those who are traveling and away and unable to attend worship as well as for anyone else who would like to take part.

Stay tuned ......

Monday, January 13, 2014

Reflections on Noah, Getting Ready to Journey with Abraham and Sarah

Thank you again for your participation in our journey to read through the entire Bible in 2014.

For Week Three (Monday, January 13th through Saturday, January 18th), please read the following:

Genesis, chapters 12 through chapter 25, verse 11.  These chapters tell the story of the Life and Journey of Abraham and Sarah.

How do Abraham and Sarah react when they are told that they will have a son?  
What does the name "Isaac" or "Yitzak" mean in Hebrew?
Would you characterize the faith of Abraham and Sarah more as a noun or as a verb?

Last week we read Genesis 4-11 and Psalm 69:

Here's a trivia question based on last week's reading.  Where in the Flood narrative does it state how the people made fun of Noah for building the ark?  

.... That is something of a trick question, because that detail isn't explicitly mentioned in Genesis but is hinted at in New Testament accounts about the "Days of Noah."  (See Matthew 24:36-39 and Luke 17:26-27).  As we read through the Bible this year, we will see how later biblical writers reflect upon and build upon the earlier stories.

Did you notice that in the entire account of the Flood, God speaks several times, but Noah doesn't speak at all.  Instead, the book of Genesis simply notes that "Noah did as God commanded him."  When Noah does finally speak directly near the end of chapter nine, it is regarding a mysterious incident with his grandson Canaan and not in direct response to something that God has said.  

Still, in the entire account of the Flood narrative, the primary actor is God.  In other ancient accounts of a Great Flood, including "the Epic of Gilgamesh," the Flood is a result of infighting among the gods with humanity caught in the middle.  In contrast, the Genesis account focuses on the actions of one God, describing the broken heart of the Creator and the Creator's subsequent promise not to flood the earth again.  

Psalm 69 on a first reading may have seemed like something that might have been expressed by a victim of the Great Flood. Traditionally, the 69th Psalm, after the 22nd Psalm, has been one of the Psalms most often interpreted by Christians to be a reminder of Jesus' sufferings during the Passion.  I also hear it as a prayer for anyone who might feel flooded or overwhelmed.

Thank you again for joining us on this journey through the Bible.