Tuesday, July 11, 2017

With and without God

Romans 7: 15-25a (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 9, 2017


         This is Andrea when they were almost a year old with their first pair of shoes.
Andrea learned to walk in the summer and went barefoot everywhere. But now it was October and time for warmer clothes, socks, and shoes. But look at the magic shoes can do. Like Forrest Gump said, they can take you places. And so Andrea’s first walk with shoes was down the driveway, away from the house and Mom with the camera, to whatever adventure awaited them.

        This is the marvelous dance we do with those who love us and keep us safe: we walk away on our own, to whatever adventure awaits us, only to return once again. And each time we move away, we take another step, we exercise our muscles of independence, we make mistakes, sometimes we get hurt or we hurt others, we make awkward attempts to engage those twin spiritual disciplines called repentance and forgiveness. Growing up is messy, joyous, painful, fun, and rarely an orderly path forward. And hopefully it doesn’t ever end. We keep growing, evolving, mostly by making mistakes and learning from them.

         As we get older, though, the mistakes become more than just an oops. At some point we become acquainted with evil, that one thing we wish we could shelter those we love from, that one thing we wish we could escape. We live within a system that benefits most of us in this room, a small minority, at the expense of others who are not only punished by the system but are kept there permanently for the success of the small minority.

         If our education was effective in any way, it taught us how to question and self-reflect and think critically, just like Paul who studied the law, and so we know what is good and right and true and yet we do not do it.

Author James Baldwin sounds as though he was paraphrasing Paul’s letter to the Romans when he wrote, “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are, and we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we’re willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”

         At some point we all bite into that fruit and our eyes are opened, and we see the wages of sin all around us and within us. Every day we put on our shoes and make more steps in our lives, most of them safe, some risky, some purposeful, but also a lot of wandering or staying in place or aimlessness or our path was decided for us long ago or we’re running and we can’t run fast enough.

         For Paul the answer to this problem, this human conundrum, for some, this trap, is Jesus. God’s commands are not enough. It’s easy enough to disobey a command, to not do what is required of us. After all, how many of us do as we are told? We resist, we rebel, we delight in our own way. But for Paul, it is the obedience, the faithfulness of Jesus to the law of love, even to death on a cross, that saves Paul from himself, releases him from sin’s prison to live a life of grace.

         I want you to ask yourself, when was the last time the thought of Jesus on the cross prevented you from cursing out a driver or influenced your purchases or finances or informed an important decision or changed the direction of your life? When was the last time you afforded yourself or someone else some mercy, especially when you or they didn’t deserve it?

I ask because there is a growing segment of our society who are doing just that: making decisions and choices without any reference to God or religion or even a law called love. With and without God we stumble, we create havoc, we cause pain, we make damn beautiful music out of it, but we also change very little. As James Baldwin said, we who are so fat, so sleek, so safe, so happy and so irresponsible are most of the time content to stay that way.

         For we who call ourselves Christians it is a life with God and specifically a life with Jesus that urges us toward discontent, makes us restless, and inspires us, in the words of a prayer, to be something more of who we mean to be and can be.

         Toward the end of his time on this earth, from a Nazi prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that with “science and human affairs in general, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”
Bonhoeffer wasn’t just depressed or anxious about his impending execution but rather he was facing his life as well as his death as he believed Jesus had. Not with a false, dependent, human view of God but as one come of age.

         He continued, “So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as [those] who manage our lives without [God]. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets [God’s self] be pushed out of the world on to the cross. [God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us.”

         When I first read that quote about ten years ago, it haunted me until it rang true. Since then I’ve been in what you might call a theological closet, and it’s time to come out. I can no longer (and haven’t for some time) believe in a supernatural, interventionist god. Which makes me in the truest sense of the word an a-theist. We need to deconstruct our God language. God is not a being but a force, a mystery, a power, working in and through and with all living things, all matter, all that we can see and all that we cannot see or know or understand as yet.

If this power, this force is working for the good of all life everywhere, then that means I’m going to be on the losing end sometimes, many times, especially if I’ve got more than my share. In fact it would be better if I cooperated with this will toward the good of all, if I willingly gave up some of my fat, sleek, safe, and happy so someone else can have some too.

         But I don’t know how to do this without Jesus—who for me is the clearest picture of that force, that power in the flesh.  I don’t know how to love my neighbor, let alone my enemy without Jesus (because sometimes I get them confused). I don’t know how to forgive, how to be merciful, what grace is without Jesus. I don’t know how to have faith in humanity without Jesus.

         So the problem is, how do we grow up, how do we learn to do these things without being dependent on someone else, something to tell us to do them? At some point we made our way in the world without our parents. In fact, at some point we rebelled and rejected some or much of what our parents taught us, which is how we became adults, our own persons.
We lament the absence of adult children in this church but are they not intelligent, good, and kind people—what this world needs more of? We know the whole world will never be Christian but if human beings are going to survive this adolescence we’re in, then as a species we need to grow up. We need to find a way for people of faith, all faiths, and people of no faith to find common language and meaning and work together.

         Often it’s not what we believe that brings us together but how we live and how we want to live. We all do better when we take care of each other. Justice is love with its boots on. Many say the Church hasn’t walked the talk, and we know it. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. Even the United Church of Christ stumbles now and again, because we’re human. But like that little one almost 20 years ago, like every one of us, we have to step out in faith: faith in ourselves and faith in each other, in everyone and everything, that a power is working in and through and with each one of us and in our life together.

         This is the next Great Awakening, and we have the capacity to recognize it as we’re living through it, to choose our path forward, and to shape it as compassionately as we can. The most Jesus-y thing we can do is to make room for everyone. And everyone means EVERYONE. All the children of the universe.


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