the road

faith, jesus, and a conversation on the road

Tag: love

what do we expect of god

This sermon was preached at the 8am and 10:30am Sunday Services, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 8:12-25

There is a great groaning in creation, deep within our souls, labor pains as we await the full potential, the full expectation for creation to be realized. It is this groaning, this painful expectation for something, for kingdom, to be seen, to be felt, to be actualized in the here and now, that we have been struggling with for our entire history as a church, perhaps our entire history as creation.

Paul, in writing to the Romans, really was convinced that Jesus’ return was to happen literally at any moment. Paul felt that the end of times had come, that Jesus’ second coming was nigh, that the work of the church was to prepare the way for that to happen the very next day, if it weren’t to happen that very day. Paul (at least while writing to the Romans) was convinced that he, himself, would see the second coming of Christ in his lifetime. Thus, for Paul, these groans of labor pains reverberating throughout creation signaled the moment where we were to be pushed into a new existence, leaving the place of our creation in the womb to be fully realized in the embrace of God in God’s kingdom experienced here in God’s creation. But, Jesus did not come again while Paul was still alive. Jesus has not yet come again for these past two thousand years. These groans have continued as the labor has proven itself to be laborious and long. We are still waiting. We are still pushing to see the promise of creation fully realized. We are groaning as this creation pushes back against our best efforts.

And yet, we are co-creators in this world with God. As much as creation may push against us, fight us, tear down what we try to build up, we must continue to persevere and build up, create life, create opportunities for life to be experienced in its true fullness, full of love for self, love for neighbor, love for the stranger, love for our enemy, love for God, without fear of how others may react to our loving and faithful expression of that life. Because of this, because we are co-creators with God, because we must persevere and persist in building up even as others try to tear down, we must operate with the following expectations.

We must first approach this work with the expectation that the work we do betters this creation for all in it. When we have this expectation, it serves to drive us forward in doing the work of creation and it verifies our work, even if those whom we do it for do not know, or can not acknowledge, for whatever reason.

We have to approach this work with the expectation that God approves of the good work that we do. When we do work in the model of ministry that has been left for us by Jesus Christ, when we do work that spreads the Good News of Christ, the Good News of God’s love in this world, then we must know that God approves of this work and that we are creating because it is what we are called to do as followers of Christ and co-creators with God in this creation.

We have to expect that we will make mistakes. We are human, we make mistakes. I make mistakes. I make mistakes here in this role as a priest. And in making mistakes, we must work with the expectation that we will be forgiven for those mistakes, both by those who are impacted by them, and by God.

We have to expect that, at times, some may turn from God in sin, in lack of faith, in hurt and anger. Sin is an easy avenue to slip into, and slip deeper and deeper into. And it’s not just the public facing acts either, it’s the sin of our hearts, the sin that permeates through our being and prevents us from creating in this world. Faith is hard. And I will come back to that. Hurt and anger, at each other, at God, happens in this world. Hurt and anger, especially at God, leads many to turn away. They are left wondering why God would allow violence and catastrophe to impact creation. They are left wondering why God would see a 19 year old girl die of complications from routine surgery. They are left wondering why God would allow that person to do that thing to them. And yet, even in turning away from God, we must have the expectation, the knowledge that God will always be there to welcome us back, to hold us tight, to say “I know” as we scream in our pain and anger.

We have to expect that as co-creators in this world we have the gift and responsibility to see the labor pains ended and the birth of a fully realized creation seen on this earth in our lifetimes.

These expectations mean we have hard work ahead of us. It will be, already has been, discouraging. It will be, already has been, life-giving. This dichotomy is what makes this work so hard, for with the highest of highs, we also get the lowest of lows. But it is also this dichotomy that makes this work so worth it.

Facebook often reminds me of how good and how hard this work can be. I use facebook primarily as a tool to stay connected to (in addition to close friends and family) colleagues and to those who I am active in ministry, which means many of you. And while I scroll through the Facebook news feed, I feel many emotions. Often I’m happy, for people, for work being done, for the gift of comedy and humor. Somewhat less often, but still pretty regularly, I have feelings of anger, which do follow a scale from eye roll up to shaking of fist, an emotion I’d like to have less of, and an emotion that I’m largely responsible for. I have a smattering of other emotions but if you scroll through my facebook feed you’d understand why it is predominantly those two emotions.

Which is why something I saw this past week has really stuck with me. It was a post that initially got a reaction of anger, roughly a combined eye roll and general huff of dismissal and disgust, but after seeing it pop up over and over as more and more people left comments, and after reading this passage from Romans today, I felt an emotion I don’t normally associate with facebook, true sadness for another person, not because they or a loved one was sick or had died, but because of the hurt and pain and anger that person must have been feeling to post what they did.

The poster felt that over the past few months their identity in this world has been belittled and categorized into neat, offensive check boxes, a reality that I would personally counsel that person to challenge in their thinking, but it must have hit home enough to post it in a public sphere, so there is definitely something there. There is definitely hurt and pain and anger that this person is feeling about how they are viewed by others. There is definitely hurt and pain and anger about how this person feels they are threatened for holding views that others find offensive. And, there is hurt and pain and anger that perhaps some of these classifiers ring a little more true than they would like to admit to themselves, something I think we all experience when we are labeled negatively.

This post reminded me that, as much as we are co-creators in this world with God, if we aren’t also co-creators in this world with each other, none of the good work will get done. We cannot create, create life, create joy, create the kingdom, if we are constantly tearing each other down, destroying the trust we must have between each other, destroying the chance to listen faithfully and honestly to one another, knowing that we will disagree but still needing to understand how that actually impacts others. We cannot be co-creators when we are so busy being the destructors of this creation.

And this is where hope comes in. This is where faith, comes in (I told you I’d come back to it). Hope, as Paul tells us, cannot be seen. And yet, hope is often all we can have. Hope drives our faith. Hope is that expectation of God, that knowledge of God, and, that faith that through these expectations, through our knowledge of God, that we can still be the co-creators with God, that we can change the hearts of those who turn away from God, in hurt and pain and anger. We can still be the co-creators with each other. For without hope, what is the point of our work as co-creators? Without hope, what is the point of our existence?

When we embrace hope, we embrace faith. When we embrace hope we can answer to the pain of others and serve them as givers of light and love. When we embrace hope, we embrace our role as co-creators in this world. When we embrace hope, we embrace the groaning of the labor pains as we work to help shepherd this place, this time, these people, into the creation that has always been planned for us, that has always been intended for us, if we simply accept it and have faith that when we do this work, God is with us, our expectations are known and realized, and our faith carries us through it all.

Amen.

one of our own

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, preached at the 8am service

John 17:1-11

Fair warning: I’m going to be discussing an important interfaith understanding today and I want you to know that a) I have a point beyond the mini-points I make throughout, and b) this will tie into today’s gospel reading if you promise to follow along.

Now, with that warning out of the way, I’m going to make a statement that I think many, if not all, of us here today would at the very least agree with: I respect Islam and its followers, a group of people known as muslims.

Islam and Muslims are a constant topic on our news cycle, this past week in fact marked the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and prayer. But more often the news reflects stories of attacks on refugees from predominantly Muslim countries (including here in Spokane earlier this month on a family that are members of St. Stephen’s just up the hill), attacks on Sikh men (or our very own Sikh Temple here in Spokane) because they “look” Muslim, the proposed travel ban to restrict entry in this country for people from predominantly Muslim countries (including blocking families who put their life on the line to serve as interpreters and guides for our military in their home countries), or the use of the phrase “Islamic Extremism” or the fact that “Terrorist” is nearly instantly defined in many people’s minds as a brown foreigner from the Middle East (even if most acts of terrorism that have occurred on our soil were perpetrated by white men), or perhaps most shockingly this past week in Portland where two men, Ricky Best and Taliesin Meche, were murdered when they stepped between a man verbally attacking two women for their muslim appearance, it’s easy to understand why my opening statement of “I respect Islam” has become a radical thing to express, especially from a pulpit. But why should it be so radical? What has happened to our understanding of the world that fear and hate have flourished towards a different culture and a different religion?

During the refugee crisis with the travel bans this spring, one of the statements from the administration was that Christian refugees would be allowed in, I assume meaning if they could pass a test or something proving their worth as “one of our own”. Apart from the dangers of a religion test to enter a country with no official religion and in fact the right to express any religion firmly ensconced in the most revered of the constitutional amendments, what I want to know is why people don’t think muslims who practice Islam are not “one of our own”?

First, for clarification, in case this is new information, I want to clarify that those who have been labeled “Terrorists” by media and government are not “Islamic Extremists”, they are radical religious fanatics who represent a departure from the organized faith tradition known as Islam. This is the same as saying members of Westboro Baptist Church (those who protest military funerals, holding up homophobic signs decrying homosexuality) are not practicing Christians, the Ku Klux Klan does not represent the teachings of Christ, or Madonna practicing Kabbalah does not make her an Orthodox (or even Reformed) Jew. So, with that understanding, when we speak of practicing muslims, those who actually follow the teachings of Islam laid out in the Quran, I again have to ask, how are they not “one of our own”?

For all of the differences we share between us, theology and interpretations where we agree and disagree, we also share common ground. We have fundamental differences for sure, our understanding of faith and our experience of God in relation to us as creation are both similar and vastly divergent, but we share so much if we simply stop and look at each other face-to-face. We both draw our roots (together with Judaism, of course) from the first prophet, Abraham. And we both recognize the prophet Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the final prophet in Islam before the prophet Muhammad receives the word of God in the form of the Quran. Jesus is referred to as Messiah, sent to guide the Children of Israel with a new revelation (starting to sound familiar?). As the most mentioned person in the Quran, Jesus takes a very prominent role in the understanding of faith, named “Spirit of God,” “Word of God,” “Messenger of God.” Many miracles are attributed to Jesus, and he ministers to the Children of Israel. Jesus is known as a Muslim, meaning he was one who submitted to the will of God. Now there are differences, for example, there is not the same understanding of crucifixion and death, but they do keep the tradition of the Ascension, believing Jesus was raised alive to Heaven, to await the final battle of good vs. evil. And this is important information to know, because the words and actions of Christ are echoed by the prophet Muhammad throughout the Quran. We cannot divorce the historical and cultural contexts during the writing of the Quran, but we also cannot ignore how similar teachings about faith and how to follow God exist throughout both of our traditions.

And so today, when we hear Jesus speaking to us from the Gospel of John, we have to understand what is being said and who it is being said for. John serves in many ways as the divine gospel, in that the divinity of Christ is John’s greatest thrust, influencing our understanding of Jesus as deity, but not informing our understanding of Jesus historically. This is not a bad thing, John provides for us a firm foundation for our faith and is one of the earliest to describe the life of Christ in the manner of a faithful follower that has been greatly impacted by Christ’s life and example.

It is with this historical context of John and of Islam that we must read verse 3 of today’s lesson: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

There are many pastors and priests out there who will read this verse and declare it as proof that the only true religion is Christianity and everyone who has not personally accepted Christ into their hearts will be spending an eternity in the hell fire. Furthermore, they will use this verse as proof that those muslims over there are sinful heathens that simply need to know Jesus in order to turn their lives around and start living the right way (which for some unknown reason closely resembles a version of America that has never really existed but most closely resembles a, very, segregated and idealized version of a Christian-only town in the rural south circa 1950). But, they miss the point because that’s not what Jesus is saying in John, and historically this interpretation makes no sense.

Muslims know the only true God through Islam, because it is the same God that John writes of today. It can’t not be the same God when we share our foundation on the first prophet Abraham.

Muslims know Jesus, they know him differently than us, but John knows Jesus differently than even Mark knows Jesus (to use the earliest gospel as a counterbalance).

So, how are they not “one of our own”?

Why do we insist on hate and fear?

If we simply stop to look at each other, if we start to bridge the chasm that has erupted between us because of cultural and historical misunderstandings that have been allowed to perpetuate and permeate our respective cultures, we will see we are way more alike than we are different. If we simply stop to look at each other, we will see Christ reflected in the faith and actions of a muslim man, woman, or child, not because they are trying to become Christian, but because Jesus is the most highly revered prophet of the Quran, apart from the prophet Muhammad himself.

When we look at our interpretations of the words and actions of Jesus that we find in our gospels, it’s important to remember that there exists a greater context into which we enter. Christianity is not an insular faith with no connection to anything else in the world. We grew out of Judaism, our messiah was himself a devout Jew. And, we share the prophet of Jesus with Islam. We share an understanding of the great role that Jesus played as a messenger, as the Word of God (an understanding which we get from John’s Gospel). This is why it is so short-sighted to read the words on the page and declare that there is only one faith in one God that can only come through Christ, and that’s Christianity, because it simply doesn’t actually pass muster upon closer examination. This is not to say I don’t think Christianity is a very good way through which to connect both with Jesus and God, but I find it hard to say it is the only way, when I know that it really isn’t in practice.

I want to leave you with this: these past few weeks we have honored the post-resurrection time of Christ among us and now is the time where Jesus has ascended into Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father following his ministry among us after the resurrection. As we set out to follow in the footsteps of Christ and do his work, with our Advocate the Holy Spirit alongside us, I want you to ask yourself: does Jesus care more about me converting people to being Christians, or about reaching out and helping my neighbor, all my neighbors? And, what does your answer mean for you today? Amen.