Monday, June 26, 2017

Sodom & Gomorrah

Genesis 18 & 19
Sodom & Gomorrah
Now the story of the destruction Sodom and Gomorrah falls in the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah and isn’t a very important story as far as the lineages or God’s covenant with Abraham goes, but it’s a significant story because it does make a very interesting point about this new burgeoning relationship between God and humans.
And it has been so misused against people and God that I didn’t want to ignore it.  

Most people have interpreted this story to say that the sin of  Sodom and Gomorrah
is homosexuality and/or  sexual promiscuity.
That’s what made God so mad and that’s why God destroyed it.
Supposedly the moral of that story is 

“God is likely to destroy things, people and whole cities, etc,
and God doesn’t like homosexuality, so don’t be that way,
don’t make God mad and you won’t be destroyed.”
Obviously, I don’t think that is a very good moral..

But emphasizing the sexual sin of Sodom started pretty early,
and since the 13th century, the name of Sodom is synonymous
with any different kind of sexual act.

That is a terrible for what it has done to gay and lesbian people,
and for what it reduces God to – an angry judge who’s
happy to destroy everything in his path.
It’s disturbing AND I don’t think the story says that,
it doesn’t paint a picture of God like that.

Two questions  I would like to answer about this story:  

What was Sodom & Gomorrah’s sin?
Does God really blow cities up?

Before we get to these two questions,
just a bit of background on Lot. 
Lot's Wife, Chris Goodwin
Lot is Abraham’s nephew.
They left their homeland together and they traveled together.

They were both very prosperous in their own right – lots of cattle and livestock.
But they had so much, it said, that their shepherds were  
getting into arguments about who’s livestock were grazing where. 
And so they decided to go their own ways.

Abraham went  to Hebron and Lot went to Sodom.  
Now Sodom was one of the cities of the Plain. Which were on the intersection
of the Jordan river and the Dead Sea, in what is now the country of Jordan.
It was a very prosperous area.  Lots of things grew there then, even though its mostly desert now.
There were 5 cities together and Sodom was the real Metropolis.
So Lot lived in Sodom, and he was a really rich guy,
 but he was a new comer. A visitor.

After the two mysterious strangers come tell Abraham and Sara that they
are going to have a son, the three strangers
walk away from the tent and are talking.  

The Lord is talking to the two other strangers
(further proof that one of the strangers is God)
and this conversation seems to be in earshot of Abraham. 

God wonders aloud to the other strangers if he should keep his plans
about Sodom and Gomorrah secret from Abraham.

God has apparently heard a lot of bad things about Sodom and Gomorrah.
God has heard many cries of injustice from the people there
and God plans to do something  about it.
The two other strangers go on to Sodom,
And God decides to go down there too and see for himself.

So to the first question:

What was Sodom & Gomorrah’s sin?

As I said, for many years, the answer has been assumed to be .   
that the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah was sexual in nature.
Specifically same-sex relations

And some people who believe this take that anyone who
has a consenting same-sex relationship is angering God,
and could cause God to snap and destroy them or everything.

Now the truth is, the story really doesn’t actually say what the sin of Sodom is.
So people have had to guess from the context.
The only thing the story definitely tell us is that
some of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah
are crying out and that is what gets God’s attention.
The stuff about sexuality comes from the
rest of the story after the strangers go to Sodom : 

The other two strangers get to Sodom in the evening before God does.
Lot is sitting at the gate almost waiting for them and invites them into his house.
They say, “no no, it’s no problem, we’ll just sleep outside.”
But Lot convinces them and they come in the house
and Lot makes a big dinner for them,
which Abraham and Sarah had just done just a few hours earlier .
I don’t know how they ate again.
It’s like trying to juggle Thanksgiving with the in-laws.

So, the strangers are eating their second feast of the evening,
and all the men of the city surround Lot’s house
and demand that the strangers be sent out to them so they can “know them”.
The Hebrew word they use is  “yada” and it can mean lots of things --
To know, to perceive, to understand, to meet, to get acquainted with, to acknowledge
so there’s not a complete agreement about what they mean.

But I think the context is pretty clear and it does seem that “yada”
means here “to know”, as we say, “in the biblical sense”.

In other words, the men of Sodom demand that Lot send his
visitors out to them so they  can sexually assault them.
It’s terrible and frightening, no matter who is doing it to whom.
It was meant to humiliate the strangers.

This is not a relationship between consenting adults.
This would be non – consensual, it would be assault, rape.
Even in early biblical times, where the rules of
intimate interaction are decidedly different than they are today,
this was a horrible violation of some vulnerable people.

So equating this with two people who have a
consensual relationship is just ridiculous.
Apples and oranges really.

This is a violence by the village on two people who are new to the town.
Like all rape, it’s about power, exercising it and taking it away from people.

So there’s this sin, which is terrible.
But the sin is sexual assault, not sexuality, not even promiscuity really.
But there’s more to this town’s sin than assault and some people say it’s hospitality.

Now hospitality doesn’t sound too important today,
today it’s about hotel work or putting out the right cheese and crackers for guests.
But thousands of years ago,
In these desert environments, hospitality was a matter of life and death.

And it was about more than the random wandering stranger.
It was about how insiders treated outsiders.
How the powerful treated the powerless.
And if the Bible is a source to us, this concept  very important to God.

This story is exaggerated, it  shows blatantly the lack of hospitality of the people in Sodom
contrasted with the super hospitality of Abraham and Lot.

When the strangers visit Abraham and he gives them his best.
He doesn’t hold back, he gives them a huge spread of food.
He probably could have gotten away with bread and water, but he
gives lots of bread 20 loaves or something like that, a young calf to eat, water, and milk.
He goes overboard on the hospitality.
Then when two of the strangers go onto Lot’s house,  
He gives them another meal, even baking bread for them  in the middle of the night.
Another crazy thing to do.
The chosen family of God welcomes strangers and treats
those are the most vulnerable with kindness.

But the rest of Sodom doesn’t treat the vulnerable with hospitality.  
Not only do they reject the strangers, they want to harm them.
They actually ask them out of the house so that they can humiliate
them in what was considered the absolute worst possible way.

Now, I will not go into Lot’s solution to this request.
where he offers up his two young daughters to the mob of men.
I cannot reckon this with any kind of righteousness today.

But I will say that there were other rules in play,
and protecting visiting male strangers by offering up his
own daughters might have been seen as the ultimate in hospitality  - even though it’s crazy today.
And I will say that Lot and his daughters have a complex relationship
that you can go on to read further in chapter 19.
But back to the story at hand:

When Lot stands in the way and offers an alternative to attacking the strangers,
the men of Sodom yell at him and reveal their true feelings toward Lot,
and tell him that he’s just a lousy “immigrant”, a new comer,
an interloper, and that he shouldn’t judge them.

For this story, the faithfulness of Abraham and Lot and this chosen family
is contrasted with the waywardness of the rest of humanity.
The way they treat the other, specifically the weakest among them.

The sin of Sodom is not about who they chose to love,
it’s about how they chose to hate.
It’s about how they treat the stranger, the immigrant, the less powerful in their midst.

And to prove my point, I refer to the Bible, to the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 16:

49 This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud,
had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity;
but she didn’t help the poor and the needy.
50 They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me,
and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it. Says the Lord.

So the sin of Sodom is about how the powerful treat the un-powerful.
It’s about the rape (in many ways) of those who are weaker.

And we know about that.
When we’re looking at a health care bill coming from
our ruling class, the congress and senate –
some of the wealthiest and best paid and best insured people in the country
and how they are planning to take away emergency
health care from the most needy, the most vulnerable,
the oldest, the youngest,  the poorest, in our country -
and transferring that money to the richest in the form of tax breaks,
we’re talking about the sin of Sodom happening in our own backyard,
and should take this story as a warning for all of us.
As is stated in the bible over and over again, God does not like this kind of behavior.
 And we know what happens when God doesn’t like something.
Which brings me to my next question:

Does God really blow cities up?

Some modern TV evangelists like Pat Robertson 
would like you to believe that God does just that.
He blamed the hurricane in Haiti several years ago
on the fact that God was angry with the Haitian's practice
of voodoo one hundred years or so ago
So even though now the country is mostly Catholic, God destroyed it.

And some Christians have spent a lot of time proving
that there really was more than a natural disaster in the
place that they believe Sodom and Gomorrah to have been.

But does God really destroy, and whole civilizations?
I don’t think I’m very comfortable with that thought.
It goes against most of what I know and understand about
God through Jesus Christ.

Here’s some things to remember: this a new relationship between 
God and God’s people.
Previous to this relationship and revelation,
human’s relationship with the divine was difficult at best.
Gods were understood as arbitrary and acted to satisfy their own desires.
Humans were mostly seen as pawns and play toys.
But now we have a God who is not just using humans for entertainment.
God has a relationship with us.

And this story of Sodom and Gomorrah makes the point
that the relationship with this God is not the same as the old gods
Things do not happen arbitrarily outside of the relationship between God and humans.
People aren’t just pawns in the gods’ games anymore.
 As Walter Bruggemann, the renowned Old Testament Scholar writes,
“it is no longer a closed system”,
humans are now involved, God is concerned about how we treat each other.
And in comparison to the old way of thinking of the divine,
God’s actions are just and merciful.
And in the story, Abraham has been bold enough to intercede in this    
divine retribution, and God responds to him. Interacts with him.
It’s no longer a closed system, and the system now includes an element of grace.
Abraham argues with God:
“If there are 100 good people, would you save the city?
Okay, how about 50 good people? You’re way more merciful than that.
How about 45, 40, 30, 20, how about 10 God?
Would you save the city then? ” God is moved by Abraham’s plea.
Even though in the end it doesn’t seem to matter.

And Abraham, the righteous child of God,
does not just pray and barter with God for himself,
he puts himself out there with God and prays for others, again, hospitality.
He leverages his relationship with God
for the weaker among him.

One other thing about how we read these stories,
 we shouldn’t just read them and say, “this is exactly how God acts.”
We have to look at the TRAJECTORY  
of what this story  is trying to tell us about God and about God’s people TODAY.

The exchange with Abraham tells me that God is just and merciful
and loves his people and is in relationship with them. 
And the trajectory of that truth tells me today --
knowing where humanity has come to
and that redemption and loving our enemies is part of God’s plan --
that a God would not destroy a city even with only 10 righteous people.
God is capable, but God does not.

Still, I was thinking about Sodom and Gomorrah and I was
still stuck on this question of whether God destroys civilizations.
And so I had a conversation this week with my Facebook friend, Jesus  -- son of Joseph.
And he said something that I thought was very insightful,
Which makes sense because he is Jesus.

He said:
The pattern I see (in both OT and NT) is that every time a corrupt, evil civilization dies, Yahweh takes credit for it. It happens to Sodom, to Egypt, to Canaan, to Israel, to Judah, to Babylon, to Persia, and then Israelite civilization dies completely in 70 AD (something I will have lots to say about in my own preaching), and it has continued happening in the 2000 years since, and still is. And in each case, it's described as something like "the Coming of the LORD."

Is it accurate to say that when Nazi Germany was defeated, it was in some ways the work of Yahweh?
I would say yes, sort of, from a certain point of view.

Another point of view is that every civilization reaps what it sews.
Civilizations built on hate are not sustainable, and they eventually experience the results of their behavior.
 And this is as it should be.
You could say it is the will of God that people experience the natural consequences of their choices.

"Civilizations based on hate are not sustainable.”
So in other words, God has formed a world that will eventually reject hate and rejects evil.
This is easiest to say by telling a story where God suddenly destroys an evil city.
But in reality, it doesn’t happen that quickly, in the flash of a moment,
it happens over decades and centuries.
It’s a slow process, but inevitable.

In other words, as Martin Luther King Jr. Said,
“The arc of the universe bends towards justice.”

Our systems can’t sustain forever under the weight of greed, and violence, and inequality.
Brian McClaren, another great theologian of today, calls it The Suicide Machine

We can see our own system now imploding from 
consumerism, exploiting others and our natural resources for personal pleasure.
We can see it coming apart from the love of weapons, guns,
the machines of war, years of hate and fear.
And after centuries of the weakest being enslaved and cast aside,
used and ignored and thrown away, our sins have come to roost.
Our greatest hope and our greatest fear is that God’s will will be done.

Right now, our plan of action as people of faith,
is to try and help change the society that we both love and hate.
To help us all see the error of our ways and change course. 

But at some point the story of Lot tells us that the
answer might be to get out before it’s too late,
and don’t look back longingly, like Lot’s wife did,
to our wealth, and comfort, and ease of life.

So this story is bad news for the rich and the haughty.
Because they have the farthest to fall.
And it’s bad news for those who
laugh at and ignore the weak,
and don’t have mercy for the helpless
They have already had their good times. 

But the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is good news for the poor,
for the immigrants, for the elderly, and the weak, good news for the peacemakers.
For those who have cried out at the injustice in the world.
Good news for those who have been chewed up by the suicide machine
since it started churning.
It’s actually good news for everyone.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah tells us in, its own way,
that the arc of the universe does bend toward justice.
God’s way will be our ways.
Good will triumph.
Love and justice will win.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Three In One God

Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday
June 11, 2017

 I think Holy Trinity Sunday is the only
church day that celebrates a doctrine.
A doctrine is a basic principle or teaching
that the church holds as 
true and teaches to its adherents.
Today we remember 
the doctrine of the Trinity.
The doctrine that says that God is one,
and at the same time, God is three.
Most often known as 
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Many a pastor and teacher has spent this Sunday morning
trying to explain this doctrine using apples, or ice and water,
ice cream, or clovers, or triangles,
and using sleep-inducing
words like ”modalism” or  “perichoreisis”

Now I like thinking and debating these ideas
as much as any seminarian, but I’m not sure doctrines
like this are that important to people’s faith
that we need to spend an entire sermon picking
apart the esoteric pieces of it,
and there are plenty, believe me.

Until a few decades ago, doctrines
used to define and divide the church.
I think we’re past that now, thankfully,
but we still shouldn’t just get rid of them,
because what doctrines do, is they remind us
important things about God that we shouldn’t forget.
And that thing that the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us about,
is that God does not work alone.
God in God’s self is an example of Community.

The word community is one of those
words that can have a couple of meanings
The differences are subtle, but they’re different.

When we hear community,
we might think of neighborhoods or cities,
people in schools, or even churches.
They use the word a lot in the news I’ve noticed.
They call a place a community just because
there are people who spend a lot of time in the same place.
And the dictionary says that community is
a group of people living in the same area,
or having the same interests.

But it’s more than that, it’s it?
Just because something is called a community
doesn’t mean that it’s a Community. With a capital C.

Community with a capital C brings along
images of more than just people who live
on the same street or share an interest.
It brings images of people who support,
and of love one another.
Who treat each other as equals.
It talks of shared respect, shared work,
being mutually accountable to one another
and helping each other.
Having love for one another that includes others.
People who are not all related to one another
that treat each other like family.
There is a lot of talk about community these days.
Mostly , I think, people are talking about it so much
because we feel that it’s slipping away
It’s something that some of us remember from the past,
or seen it in the movies, read about it
or heard about it from others,
but over time, Community with a capital C has become scarce.
We don’t easily form Communities here in the US
we don’t rely on them, we don’t seem to need it.
So for many people, it doesn’t exist.

Lots of things have taken away our Communities
There’s technology which is giving us wider spread communities
but without human contact or responsibility.
We’re also more self sufficient –
when we’re more financially secure,
we don’t have to rely on others.
We can buy what we need ourselves.

And I think we spend a lot of our lives now
living in protection mode, there is a level of
paranoia that we seem to be living with,
and so we spend a lot of energy protecting what we have:
our families, our time, our privacy, our feelings, our things,
and with the need to protect everything so much,
it’s hard  to let other people into our lives.
In some ways it’s easier not to be part of a Community of any kind.
To just be responsible for yourself and your business.
It’s just simpler to be alone with family, a few friends.

As a culture, Americans have been shying away
from being part of a Community with a capital C.
But at the same time, we long for it.
People talk about it, we dream about it.
There are countless articles written about it.
“Community” is the marketing buzzword
when talking about those who are thirty five and younger.
We might not have it, we might not know how to make it,
but we want it, we are drawn to it.

I think that is because God created everything to be in community.
And everything that we see and know --
the earth, the sea and stars, plants, animals
and humans -- we are all created by a God
who in God’s self is a community.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that
God is three in one.
All equally important parts who work together
Not just a couple but three
It tells us that the nature of God is Community
 – with a capital C.

To be part of a Community is our natural state,
to be in relationships that stretch beyond family and
selected few friends - is in our DNA, it’s part of us.
The world would love us to live for ourselves,
and just our small family units
because we’re more manageable that way.
The market would love for us to surround
ourselves with things instead of people.
The devil would love us to be in separate silos
to not trust or rely on anyone else.
But Community is part of God,
and therefore Community is part of us.

In the Gospel reading for today,
we hear Jesus’ last words in Matthew.
On Easter morning, Jesus told the women
to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.
The disciples find him there on a mountain and he gives them
these instructions, “make disciples of all nations.”

Now some have taken this command
that to mean that we should convert every person
to our culture and our religion by force if necessary.
And sometimes its hard to look at it any other way.
But that’s how humanity has taken it in the wrong direction.

What I hear Jesus saying to us is this:
Go and gather people that are different than you,
people that you don’t know, people of all different colors
that speak different languages than you,
and make them part of your community.

Meet them and talk to them gather around
the worship of Jesus.
Learn to love one another and care for one another.
Become sisters and brothers with one another.
Individual parts, but one body.
Go and make a community in my name.
Father Son and Holy Spirit
Creator, redeemer and sustainer
God eternal, God in flesh, God in inspiration.
God in us, God for us, God through us.

However you want to say it,
We love and worship a God that works in relationship.
An equal relationship, sharing the pain, the glory
the sorrow, and the joy equally.
The work of any one rests on the other two.
Any one would be less without the other.
God the Trinity.

And the Community in the Trinity,
that is the Community we imitate.
That is what churches are:
Not hothouses to grow theologians in,
not a place to send your kids and grand kids to
so that they can learn morals.
But a place where we all go to learn how to live together
using the teachings of Jesus.
A place of Community,
imitating the God that we worship.

And Jesus said where two or three are gathered in my name --
Where there is an effort to form this love
across bloodlines, beyond family, across cultures and languages,
- this Community with a capital C –
Then we know that God -- the three in one –
will be there with us always till the end of the age.

Monday, June 5, 2017

We've Got the Spirit!

John 20
June 5, 2017

We have two stories of Pentecost today.
Two times that the disciples were given the Holy Spirit
made new and basically collected
 together as Christ’s church.

The first one we get from Acts we hear every year:
Jesus has been resurrected and making
appearances for the last 50 days.
Then he ascends into heaven in front of everyone.
He’s really gone now.

After this, the disciples are gathered together in a house,
it seems to be some kind of open courtyard house,
since lots of other people join them later.
And then some mysterious rushing loud wind,
the text calls it a violent wind,
and it fills the place,
their heads catch on fire.

Then lots of other people come to see
what all the ruckus was about,
and they are all from different countries
and they speak different languages,
but for some reason,
 these country hicks from Galilee can speak all of their languages,
They don’t even have to translate,
the word touches their heart directly and they understand.
so, of course, some of the crowd assumes they’re drunk.

And then this Spirit gives Peter the ability to preach
to everyone, and it moves them, it “Cuts them to the heart”,
and even though we don’t hear that part today,
as a result three thousand people became baptized believers
and they start to share everything they have with each other.
Very exciting. This story of the Spirit is like an action movie.

And then in the Gospel, we have another one
which we usually hear the week after Easter.
It’s Sunday night before the disciples know that Jesus had risen.
They are are in a locked room, alone talking,
probably about Jesus crucifixion
which was still hard for them to believe.
Someone has suggested they were fighting with each other.
Then, quietly, Jesus appears in the
room even though the doors were locked.
There’s just the 11 of them,
Jesus doesn’t even have to raise his voice,
he says, quietly “Peace be with you.”
and then he breathes on them and says
“Here’s the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive sins, they’re forgiven, if not they’re retained.”
And the next time Jesus comes, they’re still in that room.

These are two very different experiences of the Holy Spirit.
It’s like the extroverts version and the introverts version.

Which one do you like?
Which one would you rather experience?
Which one is the right one?

Well, of course they’re both right in their own way.
They’re different versions of what the authors know to be true:
That there was some mysterious force
from God which has been binding the people
who believe together into one body
and motivating this body to act in Christ’s place.

The people of the early church knew what we know now.
Something makes us move and act and follow Christ’s lead.
Something gives us peace and lets us know we are forgiven.
There is something, besides obligation or habit,
that has been drawing us and others together as people of God
and enables us to do what we thought was impossible.

That is the Holy Spirit, The Advocate, the Sustainer,
The Holy Ghost, the Breath of Life, Spirit of Fire,
The power from the most high, The Counselor,
The Spirit of Knowledge, The Dove, The Spirit of Truth,
the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding.
The Spirit has many different names
 and is experienced in many different ways.

Sometimes we feel it in these rushing exploding moments,
and some it’s in peaceful quiet times.
Sometimes the Spirit is the thing that brings us peace and consolation.
Sometimes we can’t sleep until its mission is finished.
Sometimes we feel the spirit in a crowd or a group.
And sometimes  feel the Spirit best when we’re quietly alone.
Sometimes the Spirit is a comforter and sometimes an agitator.

There is one Spirit, but there are many expressions
of God’s power and movement.
There many ways for God to reach us and move us.
And since we are called together by the Spirit,
there are many ways that we are called to be the church.
We are an extroverted and an introverted church.
Sometimes we are filled with a gentle breath
and sometimes our heads are on fire.

And like the disciples,
We are called to be a church in the world.
We reach out to old and young.
We reach out to people of all nations and languages.
Like the disciples, we are called to preach out in public,
calling to question the powers in the world,
agitating and upsetting the establishment.
And we are also called to be a personal church
caring for the individual, not just the numbers.
We bring God’s peace to the world one life at a time
And we who have been forgiven,
have been given the power of forgiving others
and we are asked to share that power graciously.

We are the church of Christ.
And despite our brokenness and our flaws,
we are called together and motivated by God’s Spirit.
Like those disciples on the first day,
we speak in tongues: tongues of justice, peace,
equality, understanding, forgiveness, and love.

And we are called to gather together,
to pray, and read the Word of God,
and to do the work we are called to in Jesus name,
until God’s will is done on this earth,
until the Spirit has been poured out
on all people, until everyone knows

God’s power and grace.