Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mourning into Dancing, Take Two

Mourning into Dancing, Take Two
Psalm 30 [1]
Last week I talked about how the way this world looks can shake anyone’s faith. In light of the suffering and tragedy in our world, I asked the question, how do we go on celebrating the good news of Epiphany that God has not left us to our own devices, but has entered this world, so that wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, the all-powerful and all-loving God is always there. I think there’s another question we have to address, however: In light of all the suffering and tragedy in our world, should we celebrate that good news? At any given time, people around us are going through all kinds of hardships—loss of health, loss of job, loss of marriage, loss of loved ones. Does our celebration of the Gospel of Epiphany come across as so much gloating?
When we look at the world at large, there are even more reasons to question this good news. Places like Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, have been wracked with the violence of for years—in some places, for decades! Those whose lives are not directly threatened by the violence of war are in many cases still threatened—either by the consequences of war, or by government corruption, or simply by crises in nature. Aid organizations estimate that 1/2 of the world’s population—roughly 3 billion people—live at the level of subsistence, and are only one drought or flood away from extinction. And in this country, millions are just a paycheck from being destitute and homeless. And millions more are homeless.
When you look around our world at the tragic suffering that is so widespread, at the injustice that is so prevalent, it may seem obscene even to talk about “dancing” with joy, as the Psalmist does in our lesson for today. How can anyone in good conscience feel happy while so many are suffering so desperately? Sometimes we might get that feeling from Psalms of praise like our text for today. When you look at the tragedy around you—and you probably don’t have to look far—it seems almost delusional to say something like, “Sing praises to the Lord”!
But the praises of the psalms don’t stem from naïve delusions about life. They come right out of the depth of pain and suffering.[2] The difference is that they look at that pain and suffering from a different perspective. The Psalms of praise reflect the joy of redemption —or at least the joy of the hope of redemption. The Psalms of praise to God reflect the faith and the hope that we’ve been talking about—that wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, we are constantly surrounded by God’s love.
The praises of the Psalms reflect a joy that is inspired by God—the confidence that God will never fail us or forsake us, but will be with us as a “very present help” no matter what our circumstances.[3] The praises of the Psalms reflect the joy that comes from the assurance that God will keep his promises, especially his promise never to leave us or forsake us.[4] That very faith itself transforms our lives. From that perspective, the praise of the Psalms reflects the “laughter of the redeemed, the dance of the liberated”; [5] it is “the deep confidence that God is good and that God’s goodness somehow prevails.” [6]
Is that kind of confidence in God’s goodness and love inappropriate in our world full of violence and oppression and suffering? Should we express “the joy of being restored to life?” Should we utter the “laughter of the redeemed?” I think it depends entirely on how that joy is expressed. If it is expressed in an arrogant and condescending way—as it sometimes can be—then I think it is entirely out of place in our world.
But if it is expressed humbly, sensitive to the pain and suffering around us, I think it is entirely appropriate for us to celebrate the good news that God constantly surrounds us all with love. Especially the case in that most of us have a history behind our celebration—most of us have gone through the fire, and come through the high waters, and endured pain and suffering, and come out on the other side with the conviction that “had the Lord not been on our side” we might never have made it.[7]
From that perspective, it is entirely appropriate for us to express our joy over the goodness of God that has prevailed in our lives. It is entirely appropriate for us to celebrate the Gospel of Epiphany that God is always with us, surrounding us with love, regardless of our circumstances. The witness of our deliverance joins with the a virtual chorus of witnesses throughout the ages who have not only believed the Gospel of Epiphany, that God does not leave us alone but is with us constantly, but also have experienced in our lives as we ourselves have come through our personal suffering. In fact, we are called to celebrate that Good News in part to encourage those around us who may be in the midst of their own suffering.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/12/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-59, 356.
[3] H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 357: “The new reality of the nearness of God and the help of God fills life and determines the understanding of existence.”
[4] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 141: “Praise is the way the faithfulness of the LORD becomes word and is heard in the LORD’s world”; cf. Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 31, where he says that only God can be the true source of our joy. Cf. also ibid., 18, 48.
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Passion for Life: A Messianic Lifestyle, 72, 73, 74.
[6] Nouwen, Mourning Into Dancing, 51.
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreter’s Bible IV:796, where he says, “the psalmist has arrived at a new awareness of God’s presence, even amid suffering, when God appears to be absent.”

Monday, February 13, 2012

Never Lost

Isa. 40:21-31[1]

I think one of the greatest challenges to faith of all time is the Holocaust. The tragic suffering inflicted on so many millions of people can cause even the most ardent believer to question God’s ever-present love. One of the most famous people to question faith out of his experience of the Holocaust is Elie Wiesel. What you may not know is that Elie Wiesel was studying the Talmud and thinking of becoming a Rabbi when he began his journey through the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It was the terror of that experience that led Wiesel to question deeply the belief that God is all-powerful, to doubt whether God is able to prevent injustice and violence in the world, and to despair of hoping that God is able to really make a difference for those who place their faith in God.[2]

In his most famous book, Night, which is essentially a diary of his nightmare in the camps, he recounts one particularly haunting story. Three prisoners, two men and a boy, were to be hanged in front of the whole group. Of course, the men died instantly. But the boy did not. As they were made to file past the gallows, the whole camp had to watch him struggle as he slowly strangled to death. At one point, someone in the crowd cried out, “For God’s sake, where is God?” Wiesel says, “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’” [3]

You may have heard this story, because the obvious parallel with a Christian theology of the cross, where God suffers with Jesus on the cross and even sacrifices himself for us all, has made this story fodder for many a sermon. But that’s not what Wiesel meant. What Wiesel meant when he said that God was hanging there from the gallows is that God was dead—or at least his faith in a God who could or would intervene on behalf of his people or any other people for that matter.[4]

Elie Wiesel’s experience made him question the gospel of Epiphany that we’ve been celebrating the last few weeks. I think it would make anybody question their faith! That’s what our lesson from Isaiah is about. The very words of our lesson—words of encouragement and trust—were addressed to people who were probably just as dispirited and discouraged as Wiesel. The prophet was speaking to people who had lost pretty much everything that defined their lives—homes and land, family and identity, and to some extent even their faith.[5] They had been taken captive in Jerusalem and had been forced into exile in Babylon. I think many of those whom the prophet addressed could very well echo the sentiments Elie Wiesel expressed in his moments of deepest despair.[6]

If you take a long, hard look at the world in which we live, there is much in our world to shake one’s faith in God. You may not personally experience anything as horrific as Wiesel had to endure. Nevertheless, the world in which we live can often feel terribly cold and mean. In view of the widespread injustice, greed, cruelty, and oppression in our world, it would be easy for just about anybody to say with the captives in Babylon, “God pays no attention to us! He doesn't care if we are treated unjustly” (Isa. 40:27 CEV)![7]

Our world can feel terribly god-forsaken at times. When you look at all that’s going on, it’s easy to think that we’re all lost to God. It’s easy to conclude that somehow God doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that there is so much injustice. But in the face of that kind of despair, the prophet of Isaiah 40 reminds us that wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, the all-powerful and all-loving God is always there. It’s the Gospel of Epiphany that we’ve been celebrating. But how do we go on celebrating that good news in the face of what we see in our world?

The prophet calls us to “wait” for God in the midst of this world where we can feel so lost. But that doesn’t mean what we normally think of “waiting.” This is a kind of waiting that is defined by the confidence that God is with us, constantly surrounding us with God’s life and love. It is a kind of waiting that is supported by the confidence that God is powerful enough to make things right—if not now, then ultimately. It is a kind of waiting that is shaped by the faith that this incredibly powerful God who holds the vastness of the cosmos in the palm of his hand is also the one who individually carries each of the lambs in his arms (Isa. 40:11).[8]

It is a kind of waiting that could better be called “trusting.”[9] Essentially, the prophet calls us to hold on to the faith that God is always there, constantly drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love—even when it seems that God has forsaken us, especially when we feel so lost in this world. When we can do that, then no matter where we are, or what our circumstances may be, we are never lost to God.[10] When we can hold on to the gospel of Epiphany that God is always with us, then we can renew our strength and soar with eagles wings. Then we run the race set before us without wearing out.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/5/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Wiesel’s view of God is complex. See Gary Henry, “Story and Silence: Transcendence in the work of Elie Wiesel,” PBS documentary, “Elie Wiesel: First Person Singular,” aired beginning October 24, 2002; accessed at http://www.pbs.org/eliewiesel/life/henry.html . He says that after the horrors of the Holocaust, Wiesel wrestles with the question how it is possible to believe in God. But Wiesel also wrestles with the question, in light of the Holocaust, how it is possible not to believe in God.

[3] See Elie Wiesel, Night, 65.

[4] In fact, Wiesel’s view of God is more complex than that: cf. Henry, “Story and Silence”; he says, “Wiesel stands in [the Jewish] tradition when he argues that the Jew can only retain his humanity if he boldly takes issue with God and his apparent indifference to the Jews’ suffering, and insists on believing no matter what.” And so, “Man denies God by affirming humanity — and this he must do. But in affirming humanity, man makes an affirmation of God which transcends his denial of God.”

[5] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 13-14; cf. also James Limburg, “An Exposition of Isaiah 40:1-11,” Interpretation 29 (October, 1975): 406-411.

[6] Cf. Mary W. Anderson, “Who is Like Thee?” The Christian Century (Jan 26, 2000), 87, where she says, “in the midst of their captivity the people are wondering how their God can be omni-anything when they are so miserable.” Cf. also Paul Tillich, “We Live in Two Orders,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 12-23.

[7] Cf. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made For Goodness, 101, phrase it this way: “How can an omnipotent God be so impotent in the face of injustice?”

[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.105-106, where he sees these two qualities of transcendence and immanence brought together in Jesus the incarnate Word.

[9] Cf. John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 628-29.

[10] Cf. Barth, Dogmatics 4.3.771, where he emphasizes this: “His omnipotent mercy rules over all without exception, … no matter how lost they are they are not lost to Him.”

What Are We Afraid Of?

1 Cor. 8:1-13[1]

Our world is a world in which boundaries are more and more important to us. Whether they are national, cultural, racial, or religious, it seems that in our world of increasingly challenging diversity, boundaries make us feel safe. I think for most of us, these boundaries were ingrained in us at an early age. Most of us were raised with certain taboos about things that “good people” just don’t do. And so, when we as adults are faced with the question of whether to cross a boundary, we tend to retreat into the imagined safety of what was prohibited to us in our childhood.

These days, it seems that we are so afraid of crossing boundaries that we are reinforcing them with literal walls, fences, barriers, and bars. Our own experience ought to teach us, however, that those kinds of barriers only keep us isolated from a world we’re afraid of. They can’t really keep anything or anyone out of our lives! Whether it’s a fence to keep people out of our country, or bars on our windows to keep people out of our homes, we ought to know by now that people will always find a way around, through, under, or over all of those kinds of barriers. The only thing our barriers succeed in doing is cutting us off from the world.

It would seem from our Scripture lesson for today that St. Paul was no different when it came to crossing certain boundaries. In this passage, he is addressing the believers at Corinth, who lived in a setting that was filled with all kinds of beliefs and lifestyles. That kind of context inevitably raises a difficult question—do Christians withdraw to protect themselves from the world around them, or do they engage the world with all its challenging diversity from a robust and vibrant faith? The indications are that St. Paul was on both sides of this fence.

In one sense, Paul found himself in agreement with the freedom they felt to engage a diverse world based on a robust faith.[2] The principle upon which he based this was the conviction that there is only one true and living God, and that Jesus the Christ has set us free from our fear of the world in which we live. Instead of a “den of iniquity,” full of dangers and temptations, Jesus approached the world from the perspective of the Gospel of Epiphany, that wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love. And so we find Jesus crossing all kinds of boundaries and joyfully engaging the world around him.[3]

But on the other hand, the believers at Corinth were crossing some boundaries that made St. Paul very uncomfortable. One of the things that Paul seems to have had the most difficulty answering even for himself was the fact that some of them were joining their friends at ritual meals in the temples of pagan idols.[4] That was a line Paul just could not cross! To be fair to him, we have to realize that the cultural and religious barrier between Israel’s worship of one God and the worship of many gods in the pagan world was centuries old! So it’s no wonder that when it came to the question of whether Christians should go so far as to actually participate in a meal in honor of an idol, Paul would not cross that barrier. Even his clear conviction that there is only “one God” and “one Lord” didn’t enable him to overcome that taboo.

We should also acknowledge that there was a practical issue—some of the converts at Corinth came out of pagan idolatry, and seeing their Christian brothers and sisters participating in idol feasts created some severe challenges for them. But instead of taking this as an opportunity for teaching—and instead of following through with his own principle of becoming “all things to all persons”—Paul retreats behind the Jewish taboos against idolatry. He even pulls out what seems to be the equivalent of warning children about the “bogey man” by claiming that participating in idol feasts exposed them to demons (1 Cor. 10:20)![5] I think St. Paul missed an opportunity here, and I think he has influenced generations of Christians to retreat behind one boundary or another. Instead of engaging the world the way Jesus did, we draw lines that separate us from the world around us.[6]

But the good news of Epiphany—that wherever we are, God is there, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love—is a message that sets us free from hiding behind walls and fences and barriers of all kinds. If the one true and living God is with us wherever we go, then what have we to fear from crossing those boundaries to engage the world with our faith? I’m not saying anything goes—there are some things that are incompatible with loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. But if the one true and living God is the one who is constantly surrounding us with life and love, then what are we afraid of? What do we have to fear from engaging those people in our world who challenge us with their different lifestyles and faith systems and cultural expressions?

It seems to me that the God who is always there, wherever we are, does not call us to isolation, but to engagement.[7] The God for whom all space is sacred calls us not to withdraw but to reach out. The God for whom no one is beyond the scope of mercy and love calls us not to retreat behind walls and barriers, but to take our faith out into our world that is so full of challenging diversity. And the same God promises to be with everywhere that calling takes us. So I ask again, “What are we afraid of?” Perhaps the better question is, “What are we waiting for?”

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/29/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf., among others, Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 143-45; David E. Garland, “The Dispute over Food Sacrificed to Idols (1 Cor 8:1-11:1), Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 (Summer 2003): 173-197, disputes this interpretation.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 112-15.

[4] On the background of this problem, see Garland, “Dispute,” 174-77.

[5] Dieter Lührmann, Galatians, 109, gives St. Paul more credit here when he says Paul’s concerns relate to “the religious permeation of life as a whole.” Cf. similarly G. C. Berkouwer, The Church, 82 (note 14), where he says that the “reality of fellowship” means St. Paul does not contradict his affirmation of one God with his proscription against idol feasts.

[6] Cf. Garland, “Dispute,” 185, where he points out the difficulty faced by prominent Christians regarding participating in idol feasts: “To shun gatherings that lubricated social and economic relations would make Christians conspicuous outcasts who held outlandish, anti-social, perverse religious beliefs.”

[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 360: the church’s “particular commission” is to “testify by means of word, deed and fellowship to the liberating lordship of Christ, to the ends of the earth and to the end of time.”

Saturday, February 04, 2012

A Terrible Love of Hatred
Jon. 3:1-5, 10[1]
Some of you may know that I’m a “bachelor” this weekend. What you may not know is that I’m not a very good bachelor! I usually spend a lot of time watching mindless movies. This weekend, I’m going through the Star Wars series—in Blu-Ray! I haven’t always been a fan of what are now known as Episodes 1 through 3—they aren’t the original Star Wars! I’ve always much preferred the original films—even though the acting is pretty bad, and the effects are primitive by today’s standards.
But I decided to watch them anyway. And this time I noticed something. When you only watch the original movies, Darth Vader is this evil, cruel, brutal villain. He’s somebody just about anybody could love to hate, because he’s the right hand of the emperor, the instrument of oppression, injustice, and cruelty in the galactic empire. But something different happens when you watch the new movies. You meet Darth Vader as cute, sweet, wounded little Anakim Skywalker! It’s pretty hard to hate Anakim. Even when he whines like a spoiled teenage about not getting the recognition he believes he deserves. Even when he turns to the dark side of the force and becomes Darth Vader. You still have the image of that cute, sweet little boy!
In the days of Jonah, city of Nineveh represented the center of evil and brutality and cruelty. It was the capitol of the Assyrian kingdom, and they were known throughout the Ancient Near Eastern world as ruthless conquerors. Nineveh was to Jonah what Babylon and Rome would be to later generations.[2] It was a city that any Israelite would love to hate. You would think that Jonah, as an Israelite, would be happy that God was planning on destroying Nineveh. Of course, being happy about it, and obeying the call to go into the heart of the devil’s den to announce it are two completely different things![3]
Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Jonah winds up in Nineveh, walking the streets and declaring God’s impending judgment. And, lo and behold, the people of the Nineveh repent! Even such a brutal and hated city—called a “city of bloodshed” by the prophet Nahum (Nah. 3:1)—isn’t beyond the power of God’s Spirit to soften their hearts to repentance. No less than the “King of Nineveh” proclaims a fast on the odd chance that they might avert disaster.
And it would seem that not only is Nineveh not beyond the power of God’s Spirit, it is also not beyond the scope of God’s love and grace and mercy! In response to their repentance, God relents. Instead of rejoicing over the success of his preaching, Jonah goes off on a hillside to pout. Turns out he wanted the people of Nineveh destroyed—men, women, children, and even the animals![4] In fact, he admits that’s why he ran the other way in the first place—he was afraid that God would have mercy on them (cf. Jon. 4:2). Seems Jonah had a terrible love of hating the people of Nineveh.
What is it that makes us so fond of this terrible love of hating certain people? For some of us, I think it is fear. There are many of us who are afraid that someone will take away what is ours, or violate our sense of safety and security by a crime or an act of terror. We are so afraid that we can only respond to certain people whom we have “decided” are criminals and terrorist with fear and hatred. For some, it is religious arrogance. They are so certain that they are on God’s side and God is on theirs, that anyone who differs or disagrees with them in any way become not only their enemies but also God’s enemies. And if they’re God’s enemies, then we’re perfectly right to hate them. Or lock them up in prison camps as long as we please. Or summarily strip them of all human rights.[5]
I think that was Jonah’s problem.[6] He bought into a version of the Jewish faith that basically said that they were God’s chosen people and everybody else was not. All of the grace and goodness that God showered on the Jewish people made those who bought into this idea think that somehow they were immune from the possibility of displeasing God in any way. They believed, regardless of what they did, they were automatically on God’s side. And as a result, everybody else was excluded. But it would seem from the story of Jonah that God had a lesson for all those who think they have an exclusive claim on God’s love. Even godless, ruthless Nineveh is not so far gone as to put them beyond the reach of God’s Spirit softening their hearts to repentance. Even the people that Jonah and others who shared his inflated sense of self-importance loved to hate are not beyond the scope of God’s mercy and love!
Of course, it’s all too easy for us to sit back from our comfortable vantage point and shake our heads at such religious egotism. But the fact of the matter is that we too have people we love to hate. During the era of the Second World War, for many people it was Adolf Hitler or Emperor Hirohito. That hatred shifts as one enemy after another falls by the wayside. During the “Cold War,” the people we loved to hate had names like Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Then it was the Ayatollah Khomeini. Then it was Saddam Hussein. Then it was Osama Bin Laden. But no matter what, we always seem to have this terrible love of hatred. It seems we’re not capable of seeing them as little children who were once as innocent and sweet as Anakim Skywalker.
The hard truth is that we share the terrible love of hatred that kept Jonah from rejoicing in the miracle of repentance and restoration wherever it happened. In fact, in the Christian faith, we have a place for the people we love to hate—we call it hell. And there are certain people we love to hate so much that we’re all too happy for them to literally go to hell! And yet, the joyful lesson of this season, the good news of Epiphany—that wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love—that wonderful good news isn’t just ours to hoard; it is a message that applies to all people, everywhere. Even those we love to hate. Especially those for whom we cherish a terrible love of hatred. No one is so far gone that God’s Spirit cannot bring them to repentance. No one is beyond the scope of God’s mercy and love.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/22/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v., “Jonah, Book of,” by W. Neil; James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, 139-140.
[3] Cf. Phyllis Trible, “The Book of Jonah,” VII:515 on the disjunction of an Israelite prophet preaching to the people of Nineveh.
[4] Cf. Limburg, Hosea-Micah, 152-57.
[5] Cf. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness, 89, for a similar perspective based on the Rwandan genocide.
[6] On this view, see Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v., “Jonah, Book of,” by W. Neil, p. 967; for a range of different interpretations, see Trible, “The Book of Jonah,” NIB VII:488-90.