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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Redeeming Time (Exodus 20:1-17)

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

At Cross Trails Church in Gainsboro, TN you’ll find a version of the Ten Commandments translated into Jackson County English. Now, my Hebrew isn’t all that good, so I guess God must have given these commandments in Southern Hebrew. And you know what? I love that God speaks to us in our native language. When God speaks to some of you, I have no doubt that God says “y’all.” When God speaks to me, God says, “yous guys.” To people in middle Tennessee, God says: (1) Just one God. (2) Put nothin' before God. (3) Watch yer mouth. (4) Git yourself to Sunday meetin.' (5) Honor yer Ma & Pa. (6) No killin.' (7) No foolin' around with another fella's gal. (8) Don't take what ain't yers. (9) No tellin' tales or gossipin' – I suppose this would also include following up statements with “bless their heart” or couching gossip as a prayer request. (10) Don't be hankerin' for yer buddy's stuff.

In our society, something about the number ten suggests completeness. For one, it’s a manageable number. Most of us have 10 fingers, except my friend who goes by “Nub,” so keeping something to ten keeps it manageable. A quick search on Google will reveal lists of Ten Commandments – the Ten Commandments of Investing, the Ten Commandments of Home Ownership, the Ten Commandments of Fly Fishing, the Ten Commandments of selecting the right college, and so on.

I think everyone here today would agree that the 10 Commandments are important for Christians to know and follow. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, and that’s exactly what we’ll talk about today. May we pray.

As I say the words, “Ten Commandments,” no doubt a number of thoughts will come into your head. Perhaps you have an image of Charleton Heston coming down off the mountain in that great epic movie, or the time you accompanied your Jewish friend to synagogue. Perhaps you’re thinking “law,” or “rules.” Perhaps “guidelines” or “covenant.” Perhaps you’re thinking of Miss Kitty who taught you the Ten Commandments back in your 3rd grade Sunday School class.

On one hand, they have a universal character about them. Recent polls indicate that roughly ¾ of Americans – this number has not changed significantly in decades – affirm the Ten Commandments as an important set of moral standards with broad and far-reaching applicability. It is hard to avoid recognizing that the kinds of directions in the Ten Commandments are widely present in a variety of societies and religions and cultural traditions throughout space or time. Within the Ten Commandments are moral guidelines found in many of the world’s major religions. In the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, the biblical narrative recognizes the wisdom of the big ten and obeying them beyond the confines of Israel.

On the other hand, the Commandments have a particular character about them. That is, they are given within a particular faith – the Hebrew faith – and passed along to the descendents of that faith, including Christianity.

You can feel the tension between those two positions – one extreme that says the Ten Commandments are universally binding, and one that says they belong to a particular faith. I know faithful, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled Christians who fall along this entire spectrum, and who have vehemently strong opinions on this matter.

So what do we do? This is one of the things I love about being a United Methodist – we do not have to hold identical opinions about everything. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, “In matters that do not strike at the heart of scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.” Whatever we think the place of the 10 Commandments is outside the synagogue and church, we are free to hold differing opinions.

Second, I’d like us to consider the context in which the Ten Commandments are given. It’s back in verse 2 of today’s reading: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Ten Commandments come in the context of a relationship. It’s as if God says, “Just as a reminder – I am God. I’ve done some things for you that you may remember. I’ve made a covenant with you. I am your God, and you’re my people. Since you’re living in my house, I have some rules I want you to follow. Don’t think of these as restrictions, but think of these as helping you grow in your relationship with me and with each other.”

So, the point of the Ten Commandments is not to enforce some universal moral code, but to draw us into deeper relationship with God and each other. What if we took the time and effort that goes into the debate about where and how the Ten Commandments ought to be displayed and devoted that to inviting people into covenant with God? What if we devoted that time and energy to building our relationships with each other? It seems to me there are a whole lot of people out there vehemently arguing about the importance of the Ten Commandments, but is that really the church’s role, or the best use of our time, for that matter?

The 10 Commandments are not something we follow in order to please God or earn God’s favor. God first delivered the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and then gave them the 10 Commandments. God’s grace works in our lives, and then we respond. For this reason, I am less concerned with fighting about where in public the 10 Commandments ought to be mandated to be displayed than I am with inviting people into a covenant relationship with God. Our task, as Christians, is not to work to get the 10 Commandments displayed in public buildings. Our task is to announce God’s kingdom, to work in ways that are consistent with it, and to invite people into relationship with God.

While we could focus on any of the Commandments in greater detail, I want to consider this one: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

From the very beginning, a rhythm and pattern is established by God in the account of creation. During those proverbial days of creation, God works six days, and then says, “I’m not going in to the office tomorrow.”

The pattern of six days of work and one day of rest is a good one to follow. God created us with a yearning to rest and enjoy what we have done, to stop working, and breathe deeply. John Calvin wrote, “Work is good, but when we work all the time work becomes a curse, not a blessing.”

And yet, our tendency toward workaholism continues at a blinding pace, and yes, I’m aware that I’m not a good one to talk about being a workaholic. Even so, we can all recognize the dangers of workaholism! I don’t know why we do it, but work and stress seem to be the name of the game for too many of us.

Not only do we work like dogs, a lot of us are proud of it! We don’t need rest! We don’t need sleep! We don’t need time for renewal or recreation! Look at how hard we work! When I was in college, I was proud of the fact that I could go for months on end averaging 3 hours of sleep per night! Granted, I was drinking the equivalent of a pot and a half of coffee a day, but I was running at a blinding pace! Granted, the quality of the work I was doing was less than stellar, but I was keeping all the plates spinning! And I wasn’t the only one.

Nevermind the fact that we’ll have a nervous breakdown at 33. Nevermind that we’ve neglected our families at the times they’ve needed us the most! Nevermind that you’ll have a massive stress-induced heart attack in your 50s! 24/7 is not just a phrase, anymore – it’s a way of life.

Many of you recall when society itself seemed to support a sabbath. Stores, restaurants, and gas stations were closed on Sundays. The nostalgic among us will yearn for a return to these simpler, more innocent times. But I also know that many of you experienced those Sundays as oppressive. Oddly enough, you had to help prepare that big mid-day meal, you had to set the table, and then you had a mountain of dishes to wash. After you did all that work, odd considering that is the type of work prohibited in legalistic interpretations of the sabbath, you were confined to the living room or perhaps the front porch for the remainder of the day. Some of you weren’t allowed to play games, or invite a friend over, or head to a friend’s house, or go to the playground, or spend money on anything.

While I appreciate these attempts to remember the sabbath, they completely miss the point. First, if you want to be that legalistic, the sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday. You have to get into a Jewish mindset here, and the seventh day, the day of rest, is the sabbath. But Christians worship on Sunday, and this is significant. Sunday is the first day – the day associated with creation. But Sunday is also the eighth day – the day the Jews associated with redemption. Sunday is the day of our Lord’s resurrection, and so every Sunday, Christians celebrate a little mini-Easter. Christians worship on Sunday to celebrate who we are as God’s beloved children created in God’s image, but we also celebrate our redemption in Christ. We celebrate that because of Jesus, we find our rest in him through the power and witness of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the sabbath is not about legalism or restriction. Indeed, Jesus reminds the religious leaders of his day, “The Sabbath is made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.” In other words, a day of rest is a gift to us. The purpose of the tradition was not to add another rule to the list of religious requirements and obligations. It is about the nurture and restoration and healing of human lives. Jesus wasn’t interested in legalism, but he was interested in whole, healthy human beings. John Calvin again: “On the Sabbath we cease our work so God can do God’s work in us.”

So then we find ourselves back in a more traditional understanding of the Protestant work ethic – work hard all week, and then take a day to rest and enjoy the fruit of your labor. In the narrative of creation, after all, this is what God did! However, I’d like to remind you where humanity shows up in that particular story, and perhaps reframe the discussion a bit.

Notice in that great narrative tale of creation that humankind is not created until the sixth proverbial day. Before that, God has been creating all the creatures – wild animals and creeping things (Gen 1:24) – it seems to have been a full day. But the last item on God’s agenda before he turns out the lights on that sixth day is to create humankind – male and female God creates us in God’s image, and God blesses us, and makes us stewards over the whole created order. The next day, the proverbial seventh day of creation, the sabbath God consecrated, is humankind’s first full day. I imagine them waking up, saying, “Hey God – what are we gonna do today? Name and catalog the animals, or the rivers or the oceans? Name the mountains or the stars? See how many kinds of trees you’ve planted in this garden?”

“Today, my children, we’re going to rest.”

“But God, we haven’t even done anything yet! We haven’t worked! We haven’t earned our rest yet!”

The sabbath is a gift from God before we have done a thing to deserve it. The sabbath is itself a gift from God who is gracious, who gives good gifts to God’s children before we have asked for them, before we have earned them, before we deserve them. God does not give the sabbath as reward for work completed – God gives the sabbath as a pure and simple gift before we’ve done a thing. Honor the sabbath and keep it holy, because it is a gift from God, it is a means of grace, it is how God redeems and hallows time, it is where our relationships with God and one another are nurtured.

The story is told of an American boat that docked in a small Mexican fishing village. The owner of the boat complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Not long.” “Then, why don’t you stay out and fish more?” The small catch was sufficient to meet his needs and those of his family. “What do you do with the rest of your time?” the American wondered. “I sleep late, I fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village, see my friends, have a few drinks, and have a good time. I have a full life.”

The American interrupted. “I have an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I can help! First, you should fish longer hours every day. With the extra money from all the fish you sell, you could buy a bigger boat. Then, with the extra money from the bigger boat, you could eventually buy a second, and a third, and a fourth, and eventually have a whole fleet of boats. Then, instead of selling to the middle man, you can negotiate directly with the processor and perhaps have your own plant! Then you could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, Charlotte, or even New York City!”

“How long will that take?” “I dunno, 20, 25 years. When your business gets big, you can get into the stock market and make millions! After that, you can retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children and grandchildren, take a siesta with your wife, and spend the evenings enjoying your friends.”

We can spend a lifetime working to get somewhere. Many times, however, we find that we’re already there. We can work and work to earn some rest or a chance to slow down. But God invites us to recognize that rest is a gift we already have.

Remember the sabbath and keep it holy. Slow down, and enjoy the good things in your life as a gift from God. Spend time with God and with those you love. Time is both a gift from God and a precious resource. Remember the sabbath, and keep it holy.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bigger than Fear (Galatians 3:23-29)

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Many of you may know that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his brother, Charles, were both ordained as priests in the Church of England. In fact, they never left the Church of England and both died as priests in good standing. You may also know that they both served for a brief time as missionaries to the prison colony of Georgia. Today, you can go to Savannah and St. Simon’s Island and see all sorts of statues and plaques at sites of Wesleyan importance, and most of these are really quite impressive.

You’d never realize that the Wesleys missionary activities were actually a complete failure.

John arrived in Georgia in February, 1736, and Charles arrived in March. By August, Charles was on a ship headed back to England and would never return to this continent. He was largely rejected by the settlers in Georgia. John, a bit more stubborn than his younger brother, managed to stay in the colony almost two years, but was also a failure. He left the colony under threat from the father of a young woman who was less interested in him than he was in her.

But make no mistake about it – the Wesleys were failures as missionaries to America. Do you want to know why? It wasn’t their message that was so offensive. They proclaimed the Gospel of God’s free and radical grace available to all, much as you or I would preach it today. But in addition, it was packaged in highly-structured, civilized, blue-blood, propriety that was more suited to the sophisticated halls of the Wesleys beloved Oxford University than it was to the colonial frontier populated by debtors and prisoners. As they tried to impose a sophisticated, liturgical, high-ecclesial version of Christianity on the rugged frontier colonists, they were met with apathy. It’s not that people were against their message of the Gospel, they just had no interest in adopting all the packaging that went with it.

Sometimes, our attempts to share the Gospel are so cluttered with pieces of our particular culture that it becomes nearly impossible to discover the good news of Jesus Christ – the gift – amidst the wrapping. The Gospel often gets lost in the way we present it, and the situation wasn’t much different in today’s Scripture reading. May we pray.

Paul writes to the church in Galatia, comprised largely of Gentiles, and is distressed to learn that many there have been persuaded to adopt circumcision and adherence to Jewish law in order to be counted among God’s covenant people. Not so, said Paul, and that’s where we pick up his discussion.

Paul said the law was a guardian until faith in Christ came. In the Greek, he describes the Law as παιδαγωγός (paidagogos), which we translate as “disciplinarian.” However, this “paidogogos” was not a teacher, but a slave who was entrusted to guard and supervise the children. Therefore, the law served a purpose and was subservient to its master. Who was the law’s master? God, of course. And God gave the law to the people to supervise them and to protect them and to guard them until such time as faith in Christ would be made available. We say that the law was disciplinarian because it taught discipline – discipline that is not punishment, but the guidelines for instruction in living in the ways of God.

Think of this figure sort of like a babysitter. My friend Marianne Romanat, who is the pastor of FaithBridge United Methodist Church in Blowing Rock, tells this story: When my brother and I had a new babysitter one time, the next day my parents asked us if we liked our new babysitter and we said yes, except she wouldn't get us our ice cream (which we had every night). Mom asked why she wouldn't get us our ice cream, and I said, "Well, when her boyfriend came over and we wanted ice cream, she said, Get it yourself!" Needless to say she was never invited back.

A babysitter agrees to watch, care for, and nurture children under a parent’s authority and on their behalf. Growing up, I had some good babysitters, and I have some that weren’t so good. They ranged from some that were like Mrs. Doubtfire (soft yet firm, nurturing, kind) to Mrs. Sturak, the babysitter from the 1991 cult classic movie of my generation – Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, whose true colors showed a mean, angry, whistle-blowing warden. Yet, to the people of Israel, for generations they had experienced the Law as a kind yet firm disciplinarian. Learning requires discipline. We learn because disciplined people teach us how to be disciplined.

The process of developing Christian virtues, Christian character, a Christian life, takes a life of discipline.

We will baptize you, but you need counsel with the pastor first. We will officiate your wedding, but you need to attend pre-marital counseling. We will teach you how to pray, but you're going to have to come to church. We will teach you about the love of Jesus Christ, but you're going to have to come to Sunday School or Bible study and be open to Christ’s love. We will teach you how to give as Christ gave, but you're going to have to learn how to tithe. We will teach you how to love others, but you're going to have to love and support the poor.

At every such suggestion, we meet opposition. Folks always want the church's services without the church's discipline. That's fine. It's part of our discipline to serve, and to serve generously. It’s this tension in which we live between holding the door wide open for anyone and everyone – loving and serving all with the abundant and non-discriminatory grace of God – but lifting up a high standard for those who would be disciples, because spiritually-stunted disciples will produce a spiritually-stunted church. If we want genuinely to live Christian lives of joy and generosity, then we will at some point take on discipline.

At its best, this is what the Law was to the Hebrews of old. It was a way of learning God, not punishment. It was instruction toward a greater good. The Law cared for the Hebrews, and the Hebrews loved the Law.

Yet, for all of this, for all the deep joy of the disciplined life, Paul knew the potential dark side of the Law. The dark side of any law which we use as a standard for our lives is that it can lapse into legalism in place of a living relationship with God.

This is why Paul says that the Law was our disciplinarian until Christ came. Paul in no way disparages the Law, or discipline. But Paul is saying that the Law leads to the living Christ. The law leads to something greater. When Christ comes, when we discover living relationship with Jesus Christ, we are in touch with what discipline was designed to teach us in the first place, and this is why Paul implores believers not to be sucked into the lie of thinking they are subject to the statutes and restrictions of the law.

The Law served a purpose – providing discipline until faith in Christ had come. But it was always a means to an end, not an end in itself. People got in trouble when they did one of two things. First, they got in trouble when they worshipped the Law itself instead of God who gave the law. Second, they got in trouble when they acted as if the law belonged to them, when in fact, it belonged to God.

The same caution is true for Christians today. We can get in trouble when our particular brand and flavor of Christianity is more important to us than a living relationship with Jesus – when our traditions, our particularities, our certain time and place in history, our styles of worship, and a whole host of other things – are allowed to creep in and sheer us away from experiencing true, authentic, unvarnished living faith in a loving, timeless, and transcendent God. Likewise, we can get in trouble when we treat the church as if it’s our property and not God’s – when we use and abuse the church to accomplish our earthly purposes, instead of allowing ourselves to be used through the church to accomplish God’s purposes – announcing and establishing the kingdom of God – in our time and place.

Paul goes on to say that all of those temporary, provincial, earthly categories of distinction, difference, and division go out the window when we are baptized into Christ. In baptism, we are all clothed with Christ, and that becomes the only thing God sees, and it is imperative upon us to come to see the world in just the same way. We come to Christ with lots of labels – labels of race, status, class, education, nationality, gender. But the labels really had less to do with defining class or status then they did with defining ingroups and outgroups, who is one of “us” and who is one of “them” – building walls of exclusion that are designed to keep us in and others out.

On the afternoon of April 16, 2007, just hours after 33 people lay slain on the campus of Virginia Tech, I was charged with organizing a community prayer service for later in the week. I called leaders of religious communities all over Boone and throughout Watauga County to invite them to be present and participate. When I called the leader of Boone’s Jewish community, he broke down in tears over the phone. He regained his composure and told me that in 12 years in Boone, no pastor had ever called him to invite him to anything. When I made the same phone call to the pastor of the local congregation of the United Church of Christ, her reaction was similar. Apparently, their congregation had long ago been singled out as too “liberal” to be invited to participate in any ecumenical activities. I invited them anyway, because we all needed a chance to gather, to remember, to grieve, and to embrace one another. It hardly seemed the time to get hung up on our labels of difference and divide.

Religion has too often been used as a dividing force rather than a uniting force in society. Violence has been used to advance agendas in the name of Jesus. More often, however, the attacks are verbal rather than physical. In 1980, when the leader of this country’s largest Protestant body announced “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” I think our Lord Jesus, a Jew, must have cried. When a famous fundamentalist TV preacher wished we’d go back to the “good old days” and start stoning religious minorities and was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation from his congregation, Jesus must have cried. Anytime we advance violence, hate, fear, or exclusion in the name of Jesus, I am sure Jesus cries.

Yet, in today’s Scripture reading, Paul clearly takes up the case for those who are marginalized, oppressed, and disenfranchised. While religious groups have felt justified in keeping some people out, the Gospel invites them to a place at the table. When women have been treated like property, the Gospel makes them worthy of a place in God’s story. When slaves have been treated as less than human, the Gospel invites them to be children of God. When people were excluded based on their national origin, the Gospel declares that we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom, and whatever country we may reside in now is only a temporary home; we are strangers, sojourners, and resident aliens in a foreign land.

Baptism makes us one and gives us the potential of seeing each other, regardless of differences, as brothers and sisters, all baptized into Christ. We all live in Christ, and Christ lives in us all. “The Christ in thee meets the Christ in me,” the Quakers say.

Christ will not be divided, and as we draw closer to the heart of Christ, we begin to feel Christ’s own longing for unity. We who live in Christ learn that we belong together, and there is an ache in our hearts whenever we are separated from one another. The separations are there because there are always some among us who would drag some of the rubble from the walls into the church, and differences become barriers again. Bits of the rubble become weapons of words and actions and attitudes with which we wound each other and the Christ who seeks to holds us together. Perhaps the worst wound of all is the one caused by our not even caring that we are divided.

Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, "for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ.

Continued attempts to categorize and label one another in the church, and to diminish one another on the basis of those categories and labels, are signs of spiritual immaturity. Since Christ has come, we are no longer enslaved to those old divisions. All are justified solely by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Through baptism into Christ, we belong to him and to one another. All share fully and equally in the inheritance of God's promises and in the mission to which God has called us (Elisabeth Johnson).

There are a lot of things in which we can place our identity, but if we place it in anything or anyone other than Christ, we’ll be sorely disappointed every time. When we encounter difference and diversity within the body of Christ, I invite you to marvel at God’s creativity rather than fear what is different. As we encounter differences among those who follow the Christ, I invite us to practice John Wesley’s approach: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

In her book, The Strength of the Weak, Dorothee Sölle recounts the story of a rabbi who asked his students how one could recognize the time when night ends and day begins.

“Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?” one student asked.

“No,” said the rabbi.

“Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” an-other student asked.

“No,” said the rabbi.

“Then when is it?” the students asked.

“It is when you look into the face of any human creature and see your brother or your sister there. Until then, night is still with us.”

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Where Was God? (John 9:1-7)

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back and was able to see.

Every cloud has a silver lining. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. Look out for blessings in disguise. Well-intentioned, however misguided, idioms and platitudes that people offer when tragedy strikes. They are usually said from people who may not have experienced any sort of tragedy or suffering in their life. Most perplexing is that these axioms aren’t even true. It is not, in fact, darkest just before the dawn. I am not frequently up so early, but when I am, there is quite a bit of light in the sky before dawn. It might be more accurate to say, “It’s always darkest when the moon isn’t out and when the lights are off.” In other words, it’s always darkest when there is no light.

Even so, when tragedy strikes, many of us offer platitudes and explanations for the tragedy that are usually of more comfort to us than anyone else. We have certain views of God and the world and how the whole thing works together, and we offer our explanations in an attempt to meld these things together in a way that makes sense to us. The only problem is that they don’t always make sense to God.

The disciples ask Jesus a question that shows their hand – a belief that every hardship is directly orchestrated by God as an object lesson or a punishment. They see suffering and they want to know what purpose God has behind it. After all, Newton’s Third Law of Motion tells us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So why was the man born blind? If God is in control, then God must have a purpose for every incident of suffering, which means God must have caused the suffering. But, if our theology makes God the author of tragedy, we can spend our lives trying to find the purpose behind every incident of pain and suffering. May we pray.

It was June. June 13, 2000. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I was still working for the same regional food store company I had worked for in high school, but now on the executive fast track, I was an assistant manager at the highest volume store in the company. They were grooming to be the executive vice president of marketing operations by the time I was 35, which seemed a lot further away then than it does now.

My parents came by the store on their way home from dinner to pick up some ice cream. I poked my head into the walk-in cooler where Matt was replenishing the beer. Matt had been my best friend since second grade. I went back up toward the front end and talked with Regina, the last cashier on duty responsible for closing up with me that night. She was 72. She had taken this job a few months earlier because her husband was ill at home, and she was trying to make a little extra money to buy groceries with. I emptied the drop safe and headed up to the office around 11, doing the final nightly paperwork so that when we closed at midnight, the only thing left to do would be to balance Regina’s drawer.

Around 11:30, I heard a knock on the door that I recognized by now as Regina’s. Without looking up from the books, I told her I would be down in a minute. She simply said, “A.J., would you please come down here now.” I looked up at the security monitor whose camera was trained right outside my office door, to see Regina standing there, but she was not alone. A man with a ski mask was holding a gun to the side of her head right outside my office.

I opened the door, he waved the gun in my face, and told me to open the safe in the office. He followed me upstairs, and as I knelt on the tile floor in front of that safe, spinning the dial desperately trying to remember the combination, I felt the unmistakable feel of cold steel pressed into the back of my neck. Somehow, the safe popped open, he took the cashbox, and fled without harming anyone.

And so here, I invite the disciples back into the discussion with the question they asked Jesus in the text just read. “Why did this happen? What good was God trying to work out of this situation?” The disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, why did this happen?” and we find ourselves asking the exact same question.

It was June. June 10, 2004. My mom called after an appointment with an oncologist. Her mammogram had shown some irregularities. The oncologist confirmed it. Cancer. Aggressive. Early stage 4. Treatable; not curable. Angry, so many questions swirled through my head. But at their root, they all had the same curiosity. “Why did this happen?”

People offered explanations. I wish they’d have kept their opinions to themselves. Mom kept a journal all through her illness, and toyed with turning it into a book to help other families going through the same process. One of the chapters in that book was going to be “Stupid Things Not to Say When You Find Out Someone Has Cancer.” Some of my favorites: “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” “All things happen for a reason.” “I’m sure God knows what he’s doing.” I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “God didn’t do this!”

Too many of us learned that God micromanages everyone’s life – that God has a good and perfect plan for our life, and that every significant event in our lives – good or bad – is caused, organized, and scheduled by God. These beliefs may give children a sense of comfort – a sense that God is in control and that everything is right in the world, but they only work as long as things are going well. However, childish views of God are only harmful when we face adult problems.

Think about what gets said around other tragedies in which people specifically make God the author of suffering, always for some divine purpose. When a child dies, someone will inevitably say, “I guess God just needed another cherub in heaven.” I don’t believe in a god who takes children away from us for selfish reasons. When the AIDS epidemic broke out 25 years ago, how many so-called Christians rejoiced in what they perceived to be God’s judgment on homosexuals? I don’t believe in a god who is used to promote hate speech, bigotry, and exclusion. When an earthquake shook Haiti, how many false prophets said it was God’s judgment on that nation for its rebellion against God? I don’t believe in a god who is so insecure in himself that he kills off those who rebel against him, because I believe in a God who sent his son to die for us while we were yet rebellious sinners – and that proves God’s love toward us.

Has anyone here ever experienced hardship, suffering, or tragedy? Has anyone here blamed themselves for those things? Like the disciples, have you wondered, “Who sinned to cause this calamity to happen?” I have. Or, have you found yourself angry at God for allowing, designing, or orchestrating suffering in your life? I have.

First, let me invite you to stop blaming yourself for every tragedy that’s happened in your life or in the lives of people you love. God isn’t punishing you or them for something you did. There is a whole lot of suffering in the world that happens senselessly, or by circumstance, or dare I say, because of the presence of evil in the world.

And the presence of evil allows me to invite you to do one more thing. There are factors and forces at work in the world that do not come from the hand of God, which means that God probably doesn’t have anything to do with the pain you’re going through. And since God didn’t do it, you can stop being angry at God.

God doesn’t give people cancer. God doesn’t cause traffic fatalities. God doesn’t inflict illness upon children. God doesn’t do to his children what we wouldn’t do to our children.

The scriptures tell us that God is kind. God is loving. God is merciful. God is compassionate. These things describe God’s nature, and God acts accordingly. Anything that falls outside the purview of love, or mercy, or compassion is not the work of God. God can still work in the midst of the greatest tragedies, but God has not caused them. God can still redeem good out of the jaws of the most tragic circumstance, but God did not commit the tragedy.

It was June. June 7, 2008. I knelt in Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska. Bishop Lawrence McClesky put his hands on my head and invoked the work of the Holy Spirit in my ordination as an elder. My dad – who was my pastor until I was 18 – was among those with their hands on my shoulders, representing the great cloud of the ordained who had gone before. My mom was in the congregation, proud to see a day her doctors had told her she would not live to see.

The day was, in many ways, the culmination of a series of events that started in motion on another night in June 2000. The night the store was robbed began an intense discernment process trying to determine what God would have me do with my life. Several months later, I was finally able to recognize and accept my call into the ordained ministry.

Did God cause the store to get robbed? Did God place it within the heart of the robber to hold up the store that night? Of course not. That is not who God is. Nevertheless, God was still able to use the situation. Though the powers of the world intended that situation for evil, God was able to use it for good. God was able to stare the powers of evil right in the face and say, “You shall not have the last word. I am still God, and I am still good.”

Perhaps the question to be considered this morning is not, “Where is God?” but rather, “Who is God?” I cannot believe in the God who loves pain. I shall never believe in the God who does not know how to hope. I cannot believe in the God who only cares about souls and not people, who is unmoved by human suffering or thinks it’s simply people getting their just desserts. I cannot believe in a God who is incapable of making all things new, who never weeps, who has no mystery, and is nothing more than a little more powerful, vindictive version of ourselves. I cannot believe in a God who is not love and does not transform everything he touches.

If we understand who God is, we will be grateful. Gratefulness is a state of being that springs from deep within the heart. Gratitutde is an attitude – it is the disposition that leads us to give thanks in all circumstances, even those situations in which it seems we have nothing for which to give thanks.

Rose Kennedy said, “Birds sing after the rain. Should not humans be allowed to delight in whatever sunshine remains in their lives?”

God doesn’t do bad things to God’s children. God is our rock and refuge. And in the midst of suffering, we have an outlook on our suffering that says, “God, do something good with this. Help me to count my blessings and savor the joy I have each day.” Finally, we rest in God’s arms, knowing that we have a Father who loves us more than we could imagine or believe. As people of faith, that’s how we’re called to face those darkest and stormiest moments in our lives.

Back in our text, why was the man born blind? Jesus tells us it was not because of anyone’s sin. He was not born blind as an object lesson. He was not born blind in order to teach us something. He was not born blind in order to be given sight. We can waste a whole lot of time asking, “Why did this happen? What was God trying to teach us through this? What is the secret message of God in this instance of suffering?” Rather than asking, “Why did this happen,” we would be better served by asking, “What does God want us to do about it?” Where we find God is not necessarily in the tragedy, but in the response of God’s people in ways that are consistent with God’s character.

It was June. June 7, 2009. Exactly one year after my ordination, my family gathered in the foyer of St. James United Methodist Church, and took a long walk down the center aisle of a sanctuary packed with friends and family who had all come to celebrate my mom’s life and mark her transfer of membership to the Church Triumphant. Oddly enough, I found myself grateful. Grateful for the full and wonderful life she lived. Grateful for her faith. Grateful for her example. Grateful for her love. Grateful for the evidence of God working in her life.

I went back over some of my personal writings from a year ago, and came across some things I wrote in the hours after she died. “Her time of pain and struggle is over, for which we're grateful. We're grateful for the life of a wonderful lady who loved us all infinitely. We're grateful her life ended with dignity. We're grieving for our loss and dealing with all the pain that goes with it. We're also grateful that her suffering is ended and that peace has finally found her.”

Julie Thomas chose not to be a victim to cancer, because by focusing on the particular storms of life, we do not see God. However, throughout her life and especially in her last months, Mom said, “I am going to enjoy the people and the things in my life that bring me joy.” She saw God all around – in her friendships and family relationships, in the beauty of creation, in the laughter of her grandchildren. As a family, the moments we shared together became all the more precious, and we recognized every additional day with her on this earth as a unique and precious blessing from God. Through it all, she taught us all about gratitude. Not once did anyone in our family give thanks for cancer. Cancer is an awful disease for which I never give thanks. I said it before and I’ll say it again – to hell with cancer. What we learned to do was give thanks in the midst of cancer. This week, grief is very real for not only for me, but for many of you as well. But even as we grieve the loss of those who have been dear to us, God is still God – holding us and our suffering close, reminding us who we are and to whom we belong. Even in the midst of grief we can be grateful, because the character of God proves itself to be trustworthy.

And then, some reflections I wrote a few hours before her funeral. Had I been in any sort of emotional state to preach her funeral, the sermon may have sounded something like this:

Today is Sunday. At 4pm, there will be a service of my planning to celebrate my Mom's life. We're taking Mom to church today. She wouldn't want it any other way.

“We're going to celebrate. We'll celebrate the wonderful, full, and rich life of a great lady. We'll celebrate a lady who looked death in the face and said, "I'm not afraid of you." A few months ago, mom expressed to all of us that she wasn't afraid of death and was living in a "win-win" situation. "If I get better, I'll spend more time with all of you. If I die, I'll go to heaven and be with the Lord." She was clear that her service was not to be a time to dwell on sadness and sorrow, but a time to celebrate. We'll witness to our faith - a faith that celebrates victory over death, a faith that looks death in the face and says, "I'm not afraid of you."

“I've told the organist to throw out anything that even resembles "usual" funeral music. No dirges. Nothing sad or sorrowful. We'll sing. A lot. Family favorites that witness to our faith in the one who is stronger than death. For funerals, organists will often play softer as very little of the congregation sings. We've got musical talent on both my dad and mom's side of the family, and they love to sing. I've told the organist to just hit the tutti button and play the hell out of it. Open up that organ and blow the roof off.

“Our grief and our pain is still with us. Even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.

“But death is not the end of the story. Even as we shed tears for our loss, we place our faith in the one who has overcome death. Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, is thy sting?

“Today, we'll head to church, and there will be a service that celebrates our faith in the one who overcomes death. Even up until a few weeks ago, Mom would have been in church on Sunday.

“Sunday has been established as the day we Christians remember that death is not the end of the story. We celebrate our faith. We witness to the lives of the saints who have passed from this life before us. We find ourselves caught up in a great story that is larger than ourselves. We allow God to insert hope into our lives.”

One of the things we people of Christian faith affirm is that we enjoy perpetual fellowship with those who have gone on to the Church Triumphant ahead of us. We call this “The Communion of the Saints.” Every time we gather around the Lord’s table, we live out this belief, because joining us at the table, through the mystery of the grace of God, are all other Christians around the world and throughout time, including those who are dearest and closest to us. When we celebrate Communion, we celebrate a lot of things, but among the things we celebrate is our connection to all the saints through Christ. For this reason, it is always appropriate to celebrate Communion at a funeral, because this is a meal not of death but of resurrection, and it is a tangible way of remembering and communing with those who are no longer with us on this side of the resurrection.

God knows our suffering and enters into it with us. God can still redeem even the most damaging and harmful situations for good. God leads us through the valley of the shadow of death and teaches us not to fear evil. God sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, God calls us to a table, and promises to strengthen our bonds with him and with each other in the breaking of bread and receiving from a cup, and invites us to a feast and gives himself to us as the Bread of Life.