Sunday, February 26, 2012

"God on Trial"

First Sunday in Lent, Year B
February 26, 2012
Scripture: Genesis 9: 8-17; Mark 1: 9-15; Luke 4: 1-13
Preacher: The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence

I have a good friend who happens to be an atheist. The other day we got into one of our epic arguments: whether or not, in the end, when everything is said and done, it’s all good, or it’s all just a big waste.

My friend says it’s all just a big waste – except he doesn’t use that word. He uses a word for waste material – if you get my drift.

“It’s all waste material,” he says. “In the end, when all the stars implode and the universe finally collapses in on itself and everything that is returns to a state of rest in some enormous black hole, what then?

“Face it!” he says, “It’s all absurd; none of it means anything. All of our history as a planet, our entire existence from soup to nuts, all of it is nothing but a tiny little blip on the screen; we live on the remote edge of a vast universe that couldn’t care less about us.

I try my best arguments on him, but they just don’t get through. Not for lack of trying, though. The other night we got into this debate while driving to our favorite bar in Sebastopol. We continued the argument as we ordered and waited for our beers. We were still deep into it when the bartender brought our second round. That’s when my atheist friend asked the bartender what she thought.

“Which is it?" he asked. In the end, is it all waste material, or is it all good?”

And then she got into it. So while she was going on, I asked the woman sitting next to me at the bar, and she, much to her credit, rose to the occasion and joined in on the side of it all being worth it in the end.

Pretty soon we had the whole bar debating the question. The guys at the pool table, of course, were pretty sure it was all waste material; but the shuffleboard players were surprisingly more inclined toward a benevolent universe.

I just made that last bit up. It was rally just the 4 of us. But I like the idea of the entire dive bar coming alive at this question.

Anyway, I got to thinking about all this friend as I considered this story from Genesis about how God created the rainbow and made a covenant with his people that he would never again bring a flood to wipe out all of humanity.

"I establish my covenant with you," god says,"that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth."
- Gen 9:9-11

Now, I’m not sure if this is a correct interpretation. But this sounds to me like God is saying, “That flood? Big mistake. I don’t want to ever do that again – if I ever feel like doing it again, just tell me about the rainbow and remind me.”

Well, that’s very nice of God, to promise not to kill us all off – at least not all at once. But to me it sort of sounds like an abusive husband – he just beat up his wife and now he needs to apologize. It’s the morning after and the bruises on his wife’s face don’t indict him nearly as much as the look she gives him now. So he makes some kind of big promise to make up for his terrible destruction.

Well, you can imagine how my atheist friend likes this story – he has a field day with it – because of course it doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of God, to be honest.

When I was a seminarian living in Chicago, way back in 1985, I got into a conversation with the kids in the youth group about nuclear war. If you remember, Ronald Reagan was still in office, and there was a lot of controversy about the possibility of nuclear war going on. So I asked the kids in the youth group if they ever worried about nuclear war breaking out, and one girl said, “Oh, no, that would never happen - God would never let that happen.”

In her mind, the extinction of the human race by means of nuclear warfare was an impossibility – because of that covenant with Noah. It would be a violation of one of the oldest covenants we ever made with God.

And then another kid said, “Well, if there were a nuclear war, I don’t think it would be God who sent the missiles. It would be us – it would be people killing other people. God didn’t say he would prevent us from doing that to ourselves. In fact, we’ve been doing that to ourselves since the very beginning.”

And now, here we are with all the challenges we face: global climate change, which is turning the earth against us; not to mention the threat of bio-terrorism, nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states – you name it. Talk to any high school kid today and you’ll find out that the possibility of our extinction– and the meaning of it all - is very much on their minds.

Last night I stayed up too late watching a film done by Masterpiece Theater, entitled “God on Trial.” It’s a beautifully written play about a time during the Holocaust, when some inmates at Auschwitz decided to hold a trial. The accused was God. God, according to the charge, was guilty of breaking the covenant with his people – the covenant he made, beginning with this covenant that we read about today – the covenant with Noah.

A trial was formally held. There was a panel consisting of three judges. Experts were called to provide testimony: a rabbi, a Biblical scholar, a scientist. And ordinary people also testified, some defending God, others accusing him. Chilling stories were told about the atrocities people had witnessed up to that point.

At one point, a man made a passionate argument for the idea that God was with them, even then, in the midst of their suffering. Maybe he’s right here – I think he is - suffering right along with us. But he was interrupted by another man who said, “Who needs a God who suffers! What use is that to anyone? What we need is a God who will come down from on high, with his host of angels, and kick these Nazis into hell!”

In the end, the judges reached a verdict: God was guilty as charged. God had broken the covenant. As the trial was coming to an end, the guards were approaching to take the men to the gas chamber. As they were being led away, one of the men said, “What do we do now?” And another man said, “Now, we pray.” And they go to the gas chambers, praying.

In my opinion, it would be irresponsible of us to teach this story about Noah and the covenant to our children without also teaching the story about the Holocaust. If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that extinction can come to any of us. Thousands of other animal species have gone extinct – what makes us think that we are immune? Especially since our own extinction will not come at God’s hands, but our own.

And so, what does that say about the covenant?

Well, this is what I say about the covenant. I am willing to say, with a certain degree of confidence, that God never sent a flood that killed everyone on earth but one little family and a boat full of animals.

That is not my God. I would not worship such a God.

No, that story of Noah is not a history lesson, and it is not a story about what God did to us, that story of Noah and the Ark is an ancient story, told by an ancient people, in order to understand how it was that such a catastrophic thing as a thousand-year flood could happen.

It’s a story that tries to understand natural disaster as a consequence of human sinfulness. I reflect an ancient idea of divine causation that I, for one, no longer find credible. Floods are not typically caused by sinfulness – except, of course, those caused by global warming.

When Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, he was given three temptations: Bread, Power, and Freedom from Suffering. He could eliminate world hunger, turning those stones into bread. He could take on ultimate power, become the supreme benevolent dictator over all he surveyed. He could leap off the highest tower and not be harmed.

I wonder whether any one of us would be able to withstand any of those temptations.
Jesus answered each of those temptations by clinging to the God that exists, and by rejecting the god that he wanted.

Jesus came, not to avoid suffering, and not to take our suffering away. He came, not to promise a fairy tale ending in which suffering never comes to God’s faithful people; but rather, to point us to the necessity of suffering in the accomplishment of God’s love.

If it were left up to us, we wouldn’t choose this God of Jesus’ We would choose the god of the man in the concentration camp, who asked what use is a god who suffers. We would choose the god of Barabbas, who promised a host of angels.

But we don’t get to choose which God actually exists. We only get to choose whether we’re going to worship a true God, or a false god, unworthy of our devotion.
For better or worse, we have to make our peace with the God we have, not the god that our desires would have. And the God we have is one who comes to earth, not to eliminate suffering, but to show us there are some things worse than suffering.
Suffering is inevitable – but what’s worse is to let our suffering deprive us of our humanity. What’s worse is to let our suffering deprive us of our compassion, of our dignity, of our ability to give thanks for the sheer miracle of life itself. What’s worse is to let our suffering keep us from forgiving one another for the sin of being human; to forgive our enemies; to bless those who persecute us.

We will all suffer and we will all die: but this God of Jesus would have us go to our maker with our heads lifted high, despite our suffering, with our dignity and love intact. We will all suffer and we will all die, but that is never an argument against God, who is with us, even now, teaching us how to suffer in love; teaching us how to face it with courage and love.

I pray it may be so.


Friday, February 24, 2012

We Just Want You To Be Happy

For KQED Radio "Perspectives"

Done for KQED Radio "Perspectives"
aired Feb 23, 2012

Maybe you’ve heard about how the Vatican is reaching out to unhappy Episcopalians. They have even developed a process by which married Episcopal priests (like me) can become Catholic priests! Yep, you heard that right – now, Catholic priests don’t have to be celibate any more – as long as they started out as Episcopal priests.

Well, speaking unofficially on behalf of all Episcopalians, I would like to make a counter-offer to the Vatican: We will gladly trade all of our unhappy Episcopalians for all of your unhappy Catholics.

If you have any gay priests, for instance, who might be unhappy about living in the closet, you’ll be happy to hear that the Episcopal Church has been ordaining openly gay men since 1990.

Or maybe you have some women on your hands who are unhappy because they are called to the priesthood. No worries – send them over to us: we’ve been ordaining women since 1976, and the current head of our church is a female bishop. She seems very happy.

Or maybe you’ve got some priests who are unhappy because they’ve fallen in love and can’t get married. We want you to know that our priests have been getting happily married for hundreds of years now, and everyone is happier as a result.

Or maybe some of your people are unhappy with the amount of money you spent to keep gay people from getting married. Well, they might be happier with the Episcopal bishops of California, who unanimously opposed Prop. 8.

And then there’s the folks who might like to feel good about the birth control they’re using; or maybe they’d like to make their own decisions about abortion. Well, the Episcopal Church has supported birth control and a woman’s right to choose since at least 1967.

But I do know that if there’s anything that makes a Catholic happy, it’s your ancient rituals. Well, the good news is that those are our rituals, too! We’ve been happily swinging the incense and chanting the mass for 2,000 years now.

So what do you say, Vatican? Let’s make a trade! Because we just want you to be happy.

With a Perspective, I’m the Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Matthew Lawrence is an Episcopal priest in Santa Rosa.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Magical Thinking
February 12, 2012
6th Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

Sometimes I think my job on Sunday morning is just to repeat what Garrison Keillor said on the radio the night before. Which is okay with me - why try to improve on perfection?

Last night Garrison told the story of the man who, in his early 40’s went to his doctor and the doctor told him he was very sorry to have to say this but he only had a year to live. So the man quit his job to pursue his life-long dream, which was to become a guide in the wilderness. And so he moved up to the Boundary Waters wilderness and bought this little cabin in the woods, and taught himself everything he always wanted to learn about hunting and fishing and surviving. This was something he had always wanted to do and now he was doing it and he couldn’t have been happier.

And he lived for 40 more years.

In fact he outlived the doctor who diagnosed him. He actually went to the funeral of his old doctor; where he met the doctor’s wife; and so he introduced himself as one of her husband’s former patients, and the wife said, “I’m so sorry; he really wasn’t a very good doctor.” But the man said, “No, no, that’s not true: he was the best doctor in the world, for me.”

Sometimes I wish there were more stories like that in the Bible, don’t you?

I was thinking about this all week while I was reading this Gospel story about healing. It’s one of those stories we’re heard so often: Jesus meets a leper; the leper asks to be healed; Jesus says, “Make it so,” like Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, the healing happens, end of story.

And it’s a lovely story – but I have to confess – and I say this with great respect - there are days when I wonder if stories like this don’t do as much harm as good.
I mean, don’t get me wrong: I believe Jesus was a healer; and my God is a God who heals in all kinds of ways. But It’s just for most of us, our healing doesn’t very often happen the way it happens in the Bible.

I mean, just once I would like to find a story in the Bible that describes healing the way I encounter it in my world. In my world, someone gets sick; if they’re lucky, they have a loved-one who is able to care for them – in which case, the care-giver often times gives up whatever life they had going on in order to take care of their loved one. That’s all good; it’s a beautiful thing to see, even if these days it’s looking more and more to look like people in their 60’s and 70’s and 80’s starting a new career as skilled nurses.

And let’s say this person who gets sick has been a faithful Christian all her life – she’s gone to church and read her Bible and done her prayers. And she’s heard these stories about Jesus coming along and healing people with a wave of his hand, and so of course now she starts praying for healing, and her care-giver is praying for healing, and everyone at church is praying for healing, but there is no instant miracle to be found, and meanwhile the couple spends out their life savings on medical treatments that only prolong the agony; and they travel hither and yon looking for miracle cures; and still the miracle doesn’t come, and after many agonizing months and years, death comes, as it does to all of us.

And then eventually, the question is put to me: where was God? Where was the miracle? We were praying without ceasing; we were praying with all our hearts; we were begging Jesus by name. Why didn’t he come? Why did he abandon us?

Sometimes, I think if it were up to me I would be like Thomas Jefferson and create my own very own Bible, made up only of the parts that I liked. And maybe some parts that I'd add.

Just once I’d like to read a story in the Bible about how someone got sick, and Jesus came along, and held her hand, and spoke wise and loving and comforting words to her, and helped her let go of her bitterness and find her gratitude; and gathered her children around her to say goodbye, and then blessed her, and kissed her on her cold forehead, and stayed with her while she died.

Because that’s actually what happens – at least in my world. I think it would be helpful to have a story like that in the Bible.

Again, listen, don’t get me wrong, sometimes there are miracles. Some of us have witnessed them with our own eyes. I myself have witnessed one or two. But what is so confusing is how in the Bible, every time Jesus shows up, a miracle happens – when, in reality, healings like that are so very much the exception to the rule.

Even now, I’m sure there are people right here in this room who are resisting my words with all their heart, because when any of us are up against the wall, when death is breathing down our necks, we need to believe in that miracle.

And when the miracle doesn’t happen, of course what I hear about is how God abandoned them.

When my brother got brain cancer, some of us were so determined to believe in a miracle that we weren’t able to talk directly about the fact that he was dying. To talk about him dying was to give up; to show a lack of faith; possibly even to contribute to his decline. No! We had to buck up, believe in God and expect miracles.

This is what they call “magical thinking.”

Where do we find God in all this? Where is Jesus when we need him most?

Well, all I can talk about is what I’ve seen with my own eyes. When my brother was dying, I found Jesus in the love that poured out from us to him and him to us. I found Jesus when I held my sister’s hand and we prayed together – something we had never done before. I found Jesus in the pastor, who came by faithfully, and stayed in touch, and helped us to pray. I found Jesus in my brother’s eyes, as he told me he loved me and that I was the best little brother a guy could ever have.

I found Jesus on the last day I saw my brother alive. There were about a dozen of us packed into the hospital room; and the pastor came by to celebrate communion, and in the Eucharistic Prayer we all traveled back in time to the night before he died for us, when Jesus looked death in the face, and did not run away, and did not resort to violence, and did not escape into magical thinking, but instead pronounced blessing, and forgiveness, and absolute, unconditional, undying love for us.

As we ate that bread and received that wine, Jesus was as present to us as you are to me now. I found the presence of Jesus as we became more and more fully present to one another.

I was going to say, I wish there were more stories like that in the Bible – but then I realized there are. I just told one – about the night before he died for us.

At our Vestry retreat yesterday, we pulled out that old reading from Ecclesiastes, about how “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” I asked the Vestry what “season” they thought we were in as a congregation. And I was not surprised that several of us said it’s a “time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

I agreed with this. This is going to be a difficult year for many of us. There are several folks in our congregation right now who are staring death directly in the face. My prayer is that we will all be there for our beloved brothers and sisters, according to their wishes; and that when the time comes for us to let go of our hope in miracles, we will do so with serenity and gratitude for the incredible miracle of life itself. My prayer is that we never stop praising God for the many ways in which God’s love comes alive for us, as we are present to one another and to the truth of our lives in this all-too real world, where blessing and joy are so deeply mixed with suffering and pain.

God’s love is so much bigger than us; God’s love is infinitely greater than anything we can control or command. God’s love expands to the very edge of the universe and beyond; infinitely bigger than what we want, infinitely more than what we deserve. One day we will all be absorbed into that vast field of light; and when that time comes for us, I pray that we will all face it, not with bitterness over what we have lost, but with gratitude over what we have gained – which is everything.
We’re going to go through this year together. We’re going to pray together, and break bread together, and find Jesus together. Because we are the Body of Christ – and this is where we find him, here, in this real world.

Jesus shows up for us when we show up for God and for one another. That won’t necessarily heal us of cancer –though it might - but it will heal us of our deeper disease, which is our alienation from one another, and from the source of all life. For that, I give thanks and praise..