*Terms and Conditions (Do Not) Apply

(sermon 3/17/19)

christchurch mosque

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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You can hear the sadness in Jesus’ voice in today’s gospel text. First, some Pharisees come to warn him – look, we know you’re a man of God, we agree with what you’re saying, but you’re ruffling Herod’s fathers. You’ve got to be more careful – there must be some way you could continue to spread your message without upsetting or discomforting people. If you aren’t more careful, there’s going to be a backlash, and you’re going to get squashed like a bug.

It must have been the same kind of feeling that Dr. Martin Luther King felt as he was sitting in the Birmingham jail, reading the letter from the handful of local clergy telling him they agreed with him in principle, but urging him to be more moderate, not to make waves, to take things more slowly and not upset the governmental or social powers that be.

It had to be frustrating to Jesus when people wanted him to moderate and modify his message to make it more palatable. To add an asterisk, fine print, terms and conditions to the good news that God had sent him to proclaim. As he said in this passage, he knew that it wasn’t anything new; people had done the same with the prophets who had come before him, and now it was the same with him.

As he’s considering that reality, he refers to his love, and God’s love, being like that of a mother hen, protecting all of her chicks under her protective wings, and leaving none of them unprotected. It’s beautiful imagery. It’s also one of the times that we see God being described in female terms, reminding us that we always need to try to use inclusive, non-gendered language when talking about God.

But when it comes right down to it, we’ve always had trouble accepting the fullness of that image. It’s easy for us to imagine God’s protective wings for us, but many times we’ve had difficulty understanding that those wings are meant for all of us.

This morning, we’re experiencing yet another in a long line of examples of just what that sinful way of thinking can lead to. Today, God’s heart must ache along with ours in the wake of the terrorist attack on the two mosques by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just as God’s heart ached when the local Hindu temple was broken into and vandalized. Just as it ached after the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Just as it aches in the wake of every church burning and bombing and killing. Just as it aches every time someone tries to mistreat or threaten violence against someone else because of a difference of religion, or any other distinction.

These kinds of tragedies can only happen when we think that some of us are less worthy of being loved by God; less worthy of being under those wings, than we are. They’re only possible when people accept  this vile, obscene argument that God, the Creator and Parent of us all, loves some of us more than others; or even worse, loves some of us but some others not at all.

Some more conservative Christians criticize more progressive Christians by claiming that the progressives portray a God who’s too warm and soft and fuzzy, and that denies that God would ever exhibit wrath. Well, I think it’s in precisely these kinds of times, when we want to put terms and conditions on an unconditional God; when we want to limit which of God’s chicks are worthy of being under God’s protective wings; when we refuse to hear and accept God’s saying “No! All of them; they’re all mine!!!” – That’s when I believe that God’s wrath is real, and at its greatest. I firmly believe that whenever we try to put terms and conditions on God’s unconditional love for all people, that’s when we really risk facing the wrath of God.

As we continue our Lenten journey this season – as we recommit ourselves to hear and follow Jesus, who accepted no terms and conditions on the gospel – let’s also offer prayers for all those affected by the New Zealand terrorist attack. Let’s pour out our compassion and our love for them in this time of their suffering. And just as importantly, let’s examine our social structures, our churches, organizations, governmental systems, and public figures – anyone or anything that would proclaim a false gospel of fear and ignorance and hatred against different groups of God’s people. Let’s examine anyone or anything that would directly or indirectly incite violence against other supposedly less desirable. Anyone or anything that would say that some of us are insiders worthy of God’s love and protection, and others are dangerous “invaders” who aren’t.  As part of our Lenten journey of moving closer to Jesus and closer to the cross, let’s examine all of those people and things that would put forward this obscene false gospel of tribalism and tribal supremacy, however they might want to define the tribe. And whoever t is, and wherever we find it, let’s recommit, in Christ’s name, to having the courage to stand up against it and to call it out as the literal evil that it is – even in cases where it might cause discomfort; even if it might ruffle feathers or make for difficult conversation at the dinner table; even if Herod doesn’t like it.

At the same time, let’s recognize that this false gospel doesn’t only show up out there, in others. In ways large and small, sometimes in ways we don’t even notice, we fall into that same false gospel that there are others outside our own tribe who God cares about less, too. It’s wired into us as part of our evolutionary development; it’s part of the survival instincts encoded into our most elementary, reflexive brain functions. I fall into it; you fall into it; we all do. But through Christ, God has called us new creatures, and has called us to seeing life as God sees it.

The reality of the no-strings attached way that Jesus describes God’s love is very good news for all of us, because no matter who we are, at some point when people are trying to define tribes, and who is, and isn’t, worthy of being under God’s protective wings, we’ll all be defined as outsiders, supplanters, invaders. So in these weeks of Lent – this time of self-examination, and meditation on our relationship with God and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, let’s try with God’s help to refocus on the reality that all people are God’s people. Let’s remember the good news from Genesis that God created all human beings and called us very good. Let’s remember the good news from the gospel according to John that God so loved the world, not just part of it. Let’s remember the good news that all of us are worthy of the same love, and protection, and justice, and mercy, and being under God’s wings. All of us. No asterisk. No fine print. No terms and conditions. Not now. Not ever.

Thanks be to God.

Mind the Gap; or, Einstein and Jesus Will Walk into a Bar Yesterday (sermon 2/21/16)

mind_the_gap

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”- Luke 13:31-35

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There’s been a lot of talk in the news and in scientific circles the last week or so about the news that recently, a full hundred years after Albert Einstein mathematically predicted their existence, scientists have been able to detect the existence of gravitational waves in the universe. According to astronomers, this is huge, it may be the most important astronomical discovery of the century, and could possibly rewrite the way we understand the universe. After reading a number of news stories about the event, each one incrementally dumbing down the details until it was simple enough for me to get even a basic understanding of it all, it seems that gravitational waves are wrinkles, or ripples, in the fabric of space and time, that are produced when objects of immense mass move through space at very fast speed; comparable to a boat on the lake produces waves that move outward as it’s pushing through the water. In this particular discovery, the scientists discovered an infinitesimally small ripple, which they say was produced when two massive black holes – each one having 30 times the mass of our sun – got caught in each other’s gravitational pull and began orbiting one another, gradually drawing closer and closer together and moving faster and faster as they did, sort of like a galactic version of an Olympic figure skater picking up rotational speed in a spin as they draw their body mass inward.

I’ve gotten to the point where I understand the basic concept, but I still haven’t been able to learn what the actual applicable significance to the discovery is. I mean, if this phenomenon created a distortion, a ripple in space and time that does something meaningful for me, like, if I could catch one of the waves just right, like a surfer, and suddenly, someplace that’s a four-hour drive is now just five miles away, and I could actually arrive there two hours before I’d even set out, now *that* would be a big discovery.

Well, any kidding aside, I think this discovery is fascinating, and it can lead to some really interesting theological conversations – but it has caused people in some Christian circles to be troubled. Their anxiety stems from the idea that science has just increased its ability to understand and explain the universe in ways that don’t require a supernatural presence to make it all work. This can be a threat to those whose belief in the existence of God relies on what’s become known as a “God of the Gaps” – that is, that proof of God’s existence is that there are some things that we can’t understand; great, unsolvable mysteries that can never be explained other than to say that that’s where we see the indisputable hand of God. The problem with relying on this kind of thinking for a belief in God, though, should be pretty obvious. Every year, we learn more and more about the nature of the universe, from the smallest to the largest scales and everywhere in between. Belief in a God of the Gaps, then, means that every day the God you believe in becomes smaller and smaller, and weaker and weaker, until you reach the point where it wouldn’t seem make any sense to believe in God, or at least to consider who or what you do believe in to be any kind of “God” at all. The idea of limiting the nature and definition of God has been a real problem in our faith, and especially for people outside the faith.

Another way we’ve engaged in this kind of limitation of God comes into play in today’s gospel text. As I pointed out in this week’s Westminstergram, Jesus exhibits a bit of cynicism, sarcasm, even snark in his comments regarding Herod, and the fate he’s about to meet at the hands of the people in Jerusalem. And yet, in the middle of his dark mood about what’s about to happen to him, Jesus still reaches out and talks about the people of Jerusalem, these same people who in just a short while are going to reject him, and he does so in the most tender and loving way. He talks about his desire to gather them to himself, and his desire to guard and protect them, using the imagery of a hen sheltering her chicks under her wings. This is one of a number of scriptural passages that describe God in terms of female imagery. We all know that during most of the history of the Christian faith, and the Jewish tradition before that, God has traditionally been imagined and discussed in male terms. We also know that for the last several decades, many in the church, including our denomination, have tried to adopt a more inclusive way of imagining and talking about God – referring to God in ways that aren’t tied to gender, or at least not exclusively to one gender. In fact, the very first hymn we sang this morning, “Come and Seek the Ways of Wisdom,” draws on some of the female imagery of God found in scripture, particularly in the Book of Proverbs, where God is portrayed as the female Sophia, or eternal Wisdom. And we’ve made a lot of progress in the church; we’ve adjusted liturgies and readings to get rid of a lot of exclusively male references to God. And this is important, because when we see God as only male, no matter how hard we might try not to, we impose a lot of assumptions about what God is like, based on our social, cultural presuppositions about what it means to be male, or a father, and whether those assumptions are right or wrong, they end up giving us a distorted image of God. It’s just another way of limiting God, just like the God of the Gaps.

It’s true, sometimes, our attempts at inclusive language can get a little difficult. We can end up twisting our tongues like pretzels trying to avoid referring to God as “he,” “him,” or “his,” but most of the time we can find good wording to achieve it. We’ve made progress. But there’s still a lot of work in order to break the habit of thinking of God as male. As evidence of that, think how you’d feel, how it would jar your ears if I started always referring to God as “she.” And yet, that would be no more inaccurate than if I did constantly called God “he.”

So I guess I’d invite you to think about two takeaways from this passage from Luke. First, as we can see from the whole text, Jesus’ compassionate words in the midst of his own obvious hurt and anger regarding his situation show us that even when we’re at our worst, even when our thoughts and actions grieve and even anger God, God still reaches out to us and offers us love and protection, in a way and to a degree that defies any sense of human logic. Second, for Jesus to point out that God can’t possibly be imagined as exclusively male or female speaks powerfully to God’s equal accessibility, and equal love, and equal call, to all people. Getting rid of our older, limited way of imagining God, and moving toward the more inclusive, comprehensive God that Jesus illustrates here, means that no matter who you are – whether you’re male, or female, or frankly, someone who doesn’t feel they fit completely in either of those two black and white categories – you can have assurance and trust, knowing that you are in no way “less than” in God’s eyes. His image is big enough to encompass you. Her love is broad enough to embrace you. Their wings are wide enough to protect you and strengthen you and keep you, now and forever, across all space and time. And the implications of that are just astronomical.

Thanks be to God.