Merciful and Mighty

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on May 27, 2018.

Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17

Isaiah and Paul present two very different images of God.

In Isaiah’s vision God is powerful, awe inspiring, even frightening. God sits high on a throne, so massive that the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. Six-winged creatures called seraphs fill the temple with smoke and shake its foundation with their cries of Holy, Holy, Holy! This is God strong, glorious and transcendent, sitting above and apart from humanity.

Paul, on the other hand, invites us to imagine ourselves as children adopted by a loving parent, in a relationship so intimate that we call God, Abba, or Papa.

In my experience as a pastor, many people today are drawn more to Paul’s tender Abba, while some flatly reject the fearsome God portrayed by Isaiah.

But there are days that I’m just not in the mood to cozy up to Abba; Some days I need some of that temple-shaking power of God! Yesterday was one of those days.

For decades, I have had a strong dislike for McDonald’s hamburgers. Hear me out. They’re awful. Cooked frozen, these small, gray, chewy discs taste more like shoe leather than the 100% beef they claim to be. I dislike them so much, that they make me angry at McDonald’s. I went years without ever setting foot in McDonald’s until, in 2001, when I saw a commercial with the Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant biting into a brand new, delicious looking, McDonald’s hamburger called the Big and Tasty! Finally, I thought, McDonald’s has seen the light and made a proper burger! I wasted no time going to the closest McDonald’s and ordering a Big and Tasty! Imagine my disappointment when I took my first bite, not into the big, juicy burger that Kobe Bryant had, but into the same gray, chewy, hockey puck McDonald’s had always served, this one with lettuce and tomato! I was so mad at being duped that I went right home and wrote a letter to McDonald’s telling them that instead of a Big and Tasty, they should call their burger a Small and Nasty.

I stayed away from McDonald’s for another ten years until I was again drawn in by an ad for new “gourmet burgers,” but was again left feeling betrayed and angry.

So, did you hear? McDonalds now says that they have seen the light. They have replaced the patty on their Quarter Pounder with fresh, never frozen, ground beef. I saw the commercial, this one with retired basketball star Charles Barkley. It looked delicious! So, yesterday, in the drive through to get Abby her favorite Chicken McNuggets, I saw the picture of the new improved Quarter Pounder and thought, “What the heck?”

But I didn’t even finish giving my order before I knew this wasn’t going to end well. After I said that I didn’t want mustard or onions, the voice in the speaker said, “Well, that will only leave pickles and ketchup.” “What about lettuce and tomato?” I asked, knowing the answer. There is no lettuce and tomato on a Quarter Pounder, not even on the new improved Quarter Pounder. To add insult to injury, after I paid, I had to go park and wait more than ten minutes until the burger was delivered to my car, “because it was cooked fresh,” the attendant explained.

And the final verdict? Not good. I learned that just because a burger is made with fresh ground beef doesn’t mean it tastes good. But this is about more than bad burgers. I am outraged that that one of the largest, wealthiest corporations in the world can’t care for and respect their customers enough to make a decent hamburger! And that they manipulate the appetite of their customers by misrepresenting their product, making it look like it’s big and tasty when it continues to be small and nasty. It’s more than a bad burger, it’s an injustice!

Which brings us to Isaiah.

Isaiah speaks to the injustices of his time.

In the first five chapters he lays bare the corruption and greed of the wealthy and powerful of Judah and the injustice they perpetrate:

Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

Called to respond to the rampant injustices perpetrated by Judean leaders, Isaiah has this vision of God sitting high on a throne, more powerful than any human evil. For his part, Isaiah confesses. I have unclean lips,” meaning, “How can I confront injustice if I am also a sinner?”

Reading this yesterday, I felt convicted. I realized that in my years-long battle with McDonald’s over its lousy hamburgers I also have unclean lips and need to confess. You see, I haven’t been completely honest. In spite of genuinely loathing McDonald’s hamburgers, I am sometimes overcome by a forbidden craving, for a Big Mac. Yes, hypocritical as it may be, every year or so I will sneak to McD’s for two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. It’s the special sauce that gets me. I also have unclean lips.

In response to his confession, God blots out Isaiah’s transgressions, and Isaiah says, “Here I am, Lord, Send me,” then goes on to confront Judah’s injustice.

My McDonald’s example is admittedly a little silly. But this is my point.

There are certainly times when we need the love and acceptance only Abba can provide. And there are other times when we need God to be bigger and stronger than any human injustice; we need a vision of a God who transcends human sin.

Today we honor those who have been members of First Church for fifty or more years. Think about that! I asked Ken Poppe, a member of our Heritage Committee, what was happening in the church and in the world fifty years ago, when these folks joined the church.

Not unlike Judah in Isaiah’s day, 1968 America was a time rife with injustice and electric with opposition to that injustice, including:

  • The Viet Nam War and anti-war protests
  • Riots at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago
  • The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
  • Urban disturbances in Newark, Detroit, and LA
  • Civil rights marches and protests
  • Women’s Rights demonstrations
  • and The Cold War versus the USSR

For all I know, Class of 1968, some of you may have been seeking refuge here from a mad, mad, world. But the seraphs cried, Holy, Holy, Holy, the foundation shook, and as a member of First Church you were sent back into the world changed, to represent all that is good and just.

Its sobering how much the events of 1968 look like a list we could make today, isn’t it?

  • Civil rights marches and protests
  • Women’s rights demonstrations
  • Cold War-like tensions with Russia and North Korea

Add to the list:

  • Terrorism
  • Mass shootings and gun violence
  • Economic inequality
  • And a politically divided nation

Truth be told, whether a member for fifty years or a first time visitor, many of us came here this morning seeking a little love and validation from a loving, parent God, our Abba. But hear the seraphs’ cry, Holy, Holy, Holy; feel the foundation shake, and listen as a mighty God, greater than any human failing and injustice asks, “Whom shall I send?”

None of us is innocent; if we are honest, we all have unclean lips.

But here’s the thing. When we confess, and step forward in response to an awesome God, God blots out our transgressions, and we are led forth by the Spirt of God as children of God. For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

And it is as children of God that we say with confidence, “Send me, Lord. Send me.”

 

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Faith Enough to Let Go

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 18, 2017.

Romans 5:1-5

There is an old story of a man who fell off a cliff, but before falling to his certain death, he was able to grab hold of a limb protruding from the side of the cliff. As he grips the limb with all his might, he cries out, “Help! Is anyone up there?” He is heartened when a voice responds, “Yes, I am here. I can help you.” Frantic, the man screams, “Please help me. I am loosing my grip. Please help me now!” A calm voice comes from the top of the cliff, “Do not worry my child. It is God. All you have to do is let go.” There is a long pause. The man looks down at the 200 feet drop and the raging river below…takes a deep breath…and yells back, “Is there anyone else up there?”

I begin with this old joke, first, because much of the rest of this sermon is unapologetically theological so I thought you could use a good laugh, and second, because I am inviting you to think about faith as an act of letting go.

The word theology comes from two Greek words – theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word, discourse, or reasoning. Theology, then is thinking about God, or making sense of God. I hope to craft a theological framework to help us think about faith, and God’s invitation to let go.

These verses from Romans, in fact, the first five chapters of Paul’s letter, figured prominently in the theology of Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The Catholic Church at the time was promoting a belief that the faithful needed to earn their way into heaven by freeing themselves from sin and doing good. This theology had been corrupted to include practices like selling indulgences, paying the church money for the forgiveness of sins

In 1517 Luther, a monk, famously nailed 95 theses, questions and propositions for debate, to the church door in Wittenberg Germany. He didn’t intend to leave the Catholic Church, but wanted to reform it. But the Catholic Church excommunicated him, and so, Protestantism was born.

Luther took his faith and his salvation very seriously, he tried and tried and tried to perfect himself, filled volumes of journals documenting the minutest of sins in the hopes of ridding himself of them. He came to recognize that if human salvation depended on perfection, no one would ever meet this standard. This is when he turned to Romans to articulate what would become the foundation for Protestantism, that we are justified by grace through faith.

I expect that many have heard this, but although this theology is central to our Protestant faith, I also expect that some would find it difficult to explain.

Let’s look at some of these words: justified, sin, grace, and faith.

Justified means to be made righteous, to be seen by God as righteous, to be accepted by God, to be in right relationship with God, or to be reconciled with God. So, a contemporary paraphrase of Luther’s theology could be that we are reconciled with God by grace through faith.

Now, let’s turn to sin and grace. The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich talks about the relationship between sin and grace.

For Tillich the core human predicament is the problem of separation, or of estrangement. We are separated from each other, we are separated from God (who Tillich calls the “Ground of Being”), and we are separated from ourselves. This separation, Tillich says, is what Paul calls sin.

Tillich does not speak of sin as particular acts of moral failing about which we should feel guilty. Tillich argues, instead, that sin is a state of being; a state of separation or estrangement – of alienation.

The only thing that can really overcome this state of sin, of estrangement, is grace. Grace is the work of God, the divine gift which unifies that which has been split apart, alienated, separated. This unification is not something we can achieve or even work toward. That’s what makes it grace.

As Tillich puts it, in a sermon,

“In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin, grace abounds more.”

Writing in the 50’s, Tillich notes that the divisions between nations, peoples, competing interests, and the tragic suffering of so many across the world, call for the divine grace of forgiveness to heal the estrangement and alienation. And that healing begins with an acceptance of ourselves.

There are those moments, says Tillich, when grace comes over us and creates in us the capacity to accept ourselves, to truly love ourselves, to accept God’s acceptance of us.

 

So, bringing Paul and Tillich together, we are justified, accepted and reconciled with God and each other, by grace… through faith.

Christians sometimes assume that faith is primarily a matter of believing things on the basis of little or no evidence. But faith does not need to be understood as believing a particular something – for example, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, or even that Jesus died for our sins – rather faith can be understood as the act of letting go, letting go of our own way, letting go of our belief that we are right or in control.

Theologian Garrett Green writes, “The person insistent on achieving righteousness through his or her own efforts is in effect refusing God’s grace, like an obstreperous toddler, the self-righteous moralist is saying, “I can do it myself.””

Faith is something more than and quite different from mere belief.

The Twelve Steps of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous articulate the need to let go beautifully. Step 1 acknowledges that we are ultimately powerless; Step 2, recognizes that our lives are unmanageable on our own; and Step 3, turns our lives over to a higher power, let’s go into the reconciling grace of something greater than ourselves, our Ground of Being.

Like the man hanging off the cliff, do we have faith enough to let go?

By its nature, theology is pretty abstract. Thinking about God is a step removed from practicing our faith or experiencing grace.

So here’s a story, one that on its surface has nothing to do with God or grace or faith, but demonstrates what happens when we let go of our own way.

In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving writes of her experience as a second grade teacher with a Haitian student, Rosie, who would repeatedly jump up during math class to talk to a classmate across the room. Like many of us, Irving had been raised in a culture that taught the value of thinking and working independently, of being self-sufficient. This cultural norm of self-control had been made explicit in Irving’s education as a teacher, and she in turn communicated this expectation to her class. But despite Irving’s constant intervention, Rosie continued to get up and interact with other students.

One day, in a workshop that she attended on multi-culturalism, Irving learned that both Hispanic and African-America cultures revolve around a collective orientation rather than an individual one. The idea of working independently goes against everything that many Hispanic and black children are taught at home.

The next day, with this understanding fresh in her mind, Irving resisted her inclination to chase Rosie down, and instead watched as she again made her way across the room to a classmate’s desk. Arriving at her destination, Rosie put her hand on her classmate’s back and leaned in to help her with a math problem.

At lunch that day Irving approached Rosie and asked her about the morning’s exchange with her classmate. Assuming she was again in trouble, Rosie shot Irving an, “I know, I’m sorry” look. But Irving continued, and asked, “Do you think some of those times that you get up it’s because you wanted to help a classmate.” Irving writes, “Rosie beamed at me, put down her fork, and hugged me.” Irving and Rosie were then able to negotiate a compromise that identified work-alone times and work-with-friend times.

Like most of us, Irving had assumed that her interpretation of a situation was correct and judged others by how they conformed or didn’t conform to her understanding. She saw Rosie’s “inability” to work independently as a flaw, a deficit, not her exquisite ability to tune into the needs of others as a strength and an asset.

Tillich writes:

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is great then you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”

It was only when Irving was able to let go, that she and Rosie were able to overcome their separation and alienation and experience reconciliation and acceptance.

God accepts us. Will you accept that God accepts you? Do you have faith enough to let go?

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