Hosanna, God Save Us

Hosanna, God Save Us

Sermon for Palm Sunday, B, March 29, 2015, on Mark 11:1-11; 15-19

Mark 11:1-11; 15-19

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”  They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves;  and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.   He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.  And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.  

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I  heard a man telling a story about a dangerous underwater scuba dive he made.  He almost died. It was a tragic story; his dive partner did die.  He told about being down so deep that he became disoriented in utter blackness.  His oxygen regulator broke from the pressure.  He passed out several times; he lost his guide rope for several minutes.  There was a lot of tension in the story. But he was telling the story, so even in the moments in which he was most at risk of losing his life, we knew that he made it.  For him, it was a survival story.

Palm Sunday’s Two Sides

In many ways I think the Palm Sunday story is like that: it has two sides, a dark side and a happy outcome.  It is like men telling stories of combat in which they experienced terrible things, but survived and can speak of it afterwards, remembering the outcome.  It is like women telling stories of difficult labor delivery, but who see the new baby and the wonder of life; it transforms the memory of the pain. Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.30.31 AM

Was the day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a happy one?  Certainly there was a lot of joy and anticipation along the parade route.  People were quoting Psalm 118, as we did in our reading, singing to God:

    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
    Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
    Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

But we know two things that radically change that picture.  One is that these happy people were nowhere to be found when Jesus was arrested, tortured and killed.

And two, Jesus’ death was not the end. In fact Jesus lives and reigns as our King!  So we can be happy and sincere as we say, today,  “Hosanna!” which is a prayer to God that simply means “Save us!”  God does save us!

We can be thankful at the outcome, even though we know that what is coming is a dark story.  It is first full of betrayal, abandonment, pain and death, before it starts to get good.  Yes, we celebrate the outcome, but that happens on Easter.  Let’s not rush the story.

The Entry and the Day After TogetherScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.24.06 AM

How much of the story should we tell at once?  This time I have included in the reading the events that took place at the temple the following day.  This was all planned.  When Jesus rode that donkey into town, he knew what he was going to do.  The whole thing was choreographed, from the colt on the parade route to the coins on the floor.  Jesus was being intentionally provocative.   And, predictably, people were provoked – even to the point of being provoked to murder.

Of course what got people especially upset was money.  Money can get people upset faster than just about anything, besides infidelity.  Certainly faster than religion.

Jesus intentionally and dramatically provoked a confrontation with a whole economic system, which, in his day, was run by the religious establishment which supported and profited from it.  And, ironically, all of it was happening at Passover, the very festival which was supposed to commemorate liberation from Egyptian oppression and slavery.

So, getting back to the story, Jesus and his crew planned this dramatic entry into the city at the Passover festival, and people got excited.  Jesus was conducting a parody of the entry of a victorious king.  People got into it.  They did what people could do for victory marches, in the days before helium balloons and confetti: they used what was at hand; they used leafy branches and their own cloaks.

And they used their voices:  “Hosanna”  “God save us!

Save us?  From, For What?Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 11.40.15 AM

Save us from what?  Save us for what?  This is where the story starts getting dark.  The darkness comes from the quest to be saved from the wrong things, and saved for the wrong things.

This is where we come into the story.  We too, need God to save us.  But it is crucial that we get right what we want God to save us from and save us for.

Hell?  No.

First, let us get this out of the way: nobody at the parade that day was asking Jesus to save them from being sent to hell.  They meant “God save us” in the exact way that people in the past meant it when addressing a king: they meant “save us from our enemies.”

Clearly most of them wanted exactly what their ancestors wanted on the night of the first Passover: to be saved from oppression.  Back then, the oppressor was Pharaoh’s Egyptian empire; currently they wanted liberation from Caesar’s Roman Empire.

So, they were not asking to be saved from hell, but what did mean when they said   “Hosanna, God save us”?  How did they imagine God would do that?

That is why they added the line, not found in Psalm 118,

“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” 

They wanted King David’s old kingdom back, with Jesus as the new king, in an Israel free from Roman occupation and oppression.  If that meant starting a violent revolt, many were thinking, so be it.

Most people shouting Hosanna wanted Jesus to literally be the next king of the Jews, and when Pilate thought that was what Jesus himself wanted to be, he did what Rome did to their perceived political threats, by the thousands: he crucified him.  Remember the sign Pilate put on the cross: King of the Jews.

Jesus’ AgendaScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.44.20 AM

That is where the people were tragically mistaken.  They did need God to save them.   But Jesus never had the agenda of saving them from Rome.  And Jesus never wanted to save them for a renewed state of Israel.

This is where this story gets personal.  We too need salvation.  Not from hell, but real salvation starting here and now.  We need to be saved from things that are oppressing us and saved for a liberated future, and yes, it is going to include confronting our relationship with our money, along with a lot of other issues.

Let me make a modest proposal: it is simply that we allow Jesus himself to be the one who gets to say what we need saving from, and what we need saving for.  Let us allow the one we look to for salvation and deliverance to name the the problem and the solution.

If we do, what do we hear him say?

Deliver us from evil…Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…”

The problem is deeper than Rome, it is the problem of evil itself.  That is what we need to be “delivered” or saved from.  And the solution is the kingdom of God, where God’s will is done on earth.  That is what we need to be saved for.

Jesus’ Action

And that is exactly why Jesus did what he did after the parody of the kingly triumphal entry.  He went to the heart of the place where evil was being manifested and literally turned the tables over.

Jesus was an economic threat to ones who had so completely lost any sense of the common good that they were willing to exploit people, all the way down to the widow’s last mite.  They were complicit in the oppressive Roman occupation as well.  It was “everyone for themselves.”

In those very dark days, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer; the gap between the two was growing exponentially.  They were bad times for most people, except for the few who manipulated the system to their own benefit.

Evil is always selfish, and apathetic of the consequences.  Evil is what we need to be delivered from.

Saved for the Kingdom

The solution is the vision of the kingdom of God in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  That  is what we need to be saved for.  A vision of the common good that is based on the life of faith in God as Father.  It is a vision of one common human family, loved by God, reconciled to God, and in harmony with each other.  This is the liberation we long for.

So what is God’s will that we pray will be done on earth?  There is no mystery here: God will is that we

“do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God,” (Micah 6:8)

as the prophet says.  It is to express love for God and love for our neighbor, which, according to Jesus, sums up the entire law.  Not love in sentimental or psychological ways but practical ways.  As James would later summarize it,

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1)

The world stains us with evil; the evil of cynical selfishness and moral apathy.  The evil that wants to keep every penny in our own personal pockets, regardless of the consequences.  This evil is rampant in our time, all around us.

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For example, the state of Alabama has the 49th lowest property taxes in the nation.  But the threat of an increase, amounting to less than the price of one restaurant lunch a month, makes people get all red-faced and indignant.  And that reaction,   despite the huge overcrowding of our schools. Selfishness combined with apathy about the common good.  Hosanna!   God save us.

But that is only the latest in a whole series of anti-common good sentiments we keep hearing.  It is as if the vision of the future some people want is an entirely dystopian world like the Hunger Games shows.

And this is happening in the Bible belt where there are nearly as many churches as McDonald’s.  It is amazing to me to hear people trot out the bible in debates about who can marry whom, and then completely ignore the overwhelmingly clear consistent biblical call to champion the cause of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant stranger, in other words, to work for the common good.

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No, we have a much higher calling.  We do lift up our voices saying, “Hosanna, God save us.

Save us from the evils of cynical selfishness and moral apathy.  Save us for the kingdom.

Save us for a living faith, a love of God our Heavenly Father that is real and deep and has profound effects on our entire lives.

Save us to love our neighbors as ourselves, even the poor ones, even the ones who need extra help, the disabled,  the mentally ill, the elderly, the unemployed, the underemployed, the school children.

Save us to be a community that looks like the Kingdom where God’s will is done on earth.

That is the cry we make to the king who rides into our lives on a humble donkey, the king who broke bread with sinners, the king who shared bread with the hungry, and the king who died without violent resistance on Good Friday.

This congregation is living into that kingdom vision of the common good.  We are happy to be a supporter of the Christian Service Center, the Children’s Home, and to tutor the children of our community.

We go on turtle hatch watches, and some of us are actively involved in being advocates for our environment.

We sponsor children in Africa.  We respond to disasters through Presbyterians for Disaster Assistance and bring hope to urban areas through the Self Development of People projects.

When we shout Hosanna, we mean it, and God is at work, pushing back against the darkness, the evil so rampant in our times, saving us for the kingdom of Shalom, inspiring us to seek the welfare of the city God has put us in, as Jeremiah told the exiles.

So, on Palm Sunday 2015 though we are pressed down by the zeitgeist of selfishness and apathy around us, we do not loose hope.

We expect this to be a double-sided story:  of betrayal and abandonment, of suffering and death.  But we also know that this is going to turn out to be a story of new life, of resurrection, and salvation.

To that we say, Hosanna!  God save us!  Amen.



Imagining a Better World

Imagining a Better World

Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2015, March 22, 2015, on John 12:20-24 &  Jeremiah 31:31-34

John 12:20-24
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.23.16 PM

A fiery preacher took the stand and whipped up the believers into a frenzy.  When the service was over they left, not as a congregation of worshipers but more like an angry mob.  They went to the nearby Catholic church, broke in, and started smashing “idols” as they called them, and looting the gold and silver.  They completely gutted it.  Then they made their way to several monasteries, looting and smashing statues.

I’m not taking abut what ISIS is doing in Iraq and in Syria to Christian churches, though it is eerily similar.  I am taking about John Knox and the Protestant Reformation in Scotland in 1560.

That was not an isolated event.  In the years following the start of the Reformation in the 16th century, there were religious wars between Protestants and Catholics throughout Europe for decades and decades.  Each side had real armies.  Governments were overthrown.  It was brutal.  At one battle alone, the Battle of  White Mountain which helped bring to and end the famous “Thirty Years War” the casualties numbered over 4,000.

Many of these wars were civil wars.  Some were primarily religious in motivation, but many were the result of a toxic mixture of politics, ethnic animosity, and national rivalry.  It all sounds very familiar, and modern.

Civil War in the Middle East
Right now there is a huge civil war going on, under the banner of religion, but motivated underneath by other factors too, like ethnic conflict and the quest for power, control, and of course, money.   This time I am talking about the Middle East.
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This past Friday, quadruple suicide bombers attacked mosques in Yemen killing at least 137 and wounding hundreds more.  These were Muslims killing Muslims.   Sunni Muslims attacking and killing Shiite Muslims; a civil war.

ISIS and Al Qaeda are both Sunni Muslim organizations.  Sunni’s account Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.27.31 PMfor three-fourths of all Muslims.   Shia Islam is the minority.

ISIS and Al Qaeda both base their radical version of Sunni Islam on one particular movement called Wahhabism.  Named for its eighteenth century founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, it started as a reform movement.  Wahhab wanted to purify Islam of non-Islamic practices like idolatry, the “cults of the saints” and tomb visitation.

We might notice that an iconoclastic reform movement that smashes idols and calls people who venerate statues “infidels” was what John Knox was leading also.  We need to be humble when we get the urge to feel moral superiority, and we do not need to reach back to the Crusades to find reasons for such humility.

Wahhab and the House of Saud
Anyway, Mr. Wahhab made an alliance with an influential family, the House of Saud.  The deal was this: as long as the Saudi’s Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.28.45 PMpromoted and propagated the strict teachings of Wahhabist Sunni Islam, then the Wahhabi’s would bring them “power and glory” and rule of  “lands and men.”  In other words, military support.

That was the eighteenth century.  The alliance held.  By the 1970’s the Saudi’s are becoming rich with petrol dollars.  So, keeping their end of the bargain, they use this enormous wealth to propagate this fundamentalist, rigid, extremist version of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, all over the Middle East, and the world.

They have been spending an estimated $2 to 3 billion per year since 1975.  They sponsor schools for Islamic learning called Madrases.  Some actually teach things besides memorization of the Quran, but many do not.  Of course they produce extremists.  That is what movements of radical purity reform do.  Ask John Knox.

One of their chief targets are the Shia Muslims whom they consider idolators and infidels.  It just so happens that Iran is predominantly Shia, and ethnically Persian, making the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran intense on several levels at once.  They are both ethnically and religiously different.

Let us consider a question here:  When is it ever a good idea to get involved in someone else’s religious and civil war?  I cannot imagine when that is a good idea

So What?  The Alternative Vision
So what does all of this have to do with us on this 5th Sunday in the Season of Lent, one week from Palm Sunday and Holy Week?  Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 8.33.20 PM

Exactly this:  we are people of an alternative vision.  It is the vision of the prophets; it is the vision of Jesus.  And even though that vision has been betrayed time and time again by the church itself, by its many capitulations to the violent, divisive ways of the world, we are called to embrace that alternative vision.

It is the vision of a world reconciled.  It is the vision of the peaceable kingdom.  It is a vision of embrace as a real, possible alternative to exclusion.

The Hour of Openness
Consider our gospel reading. At what moment, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus finally say that the hour for him had come?  At the moment that the Greeks, the non-Jewish gentiles come to Philip saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Everything in John is symbolic.  This is the symbolic moment of the door swings open to the world.  God’s grace is for everyone.  No exceptions.

Though the world of humans may be expert in dividing up into mutually exclusive oppositions of “us” versus “them” we have an alternative vision.  It is the vision of the world reconciled; of Jews and Greeks, slave and free, male and female all finding a place at the table together; a feast of shalom, of peace, well-being and wholeness.

This is exactly the kind of openheartedness that Jesus demonstrated time and time again.  He reached across gender lines to heal suffering women.  He looked past religious and ethnic differences to minister to Samaritans.  He even overcame barriers constructed by by the binaries of oppressor and victim in his compassion for Roman soldiers.

Jesus taught and practiced the forgiveness of enemies.  He refused resistance, even when it was offered in the Garden.  He was faithful to God’s purposes even to the point of death, trusting that,

“unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  

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We are that fruit. We are the people of the New Covenant.  Jeremiah imagined a time when the old covenant of Moses, chiseled in words on tablets of stone would be replaced by concepts written  on the heart.  We are called to internalize a new vision.

It starts with a new vision of God as Loving Father instead of vengeful Monarch.  When we embrace for ourselves the truth that God is for us, not against us, we can be transformed.  When we internalize the message that “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” we can live authentically and compassionately.

When we know ourselves as entirely forgiven, we become people capable of forgiving others.   When we hear and know the words of Jeremiah that God’s desire is to be our God and have us as God’s people, it fills us with hope instead of despair.

The Call to Imagination
People who have the new covenant internalized in their hearts are called to imagine a better world.   It begins with us.  It begins with a commitment to understanding  people who are different from us instead of knee-jerk vilification of them.

We are called to understand people of different races.  We can start right here in our own country.  It is simply uninformed ignorance that writes off the behavior of young black men in our country as disobedient belligerence; the product of bad parenting.  The seeds of systemic injustice sown for years does produce bitter fruit.  But blaming the bad apple for the poisoned soil that the tree grew in is unworthy of  thinking adults, let alone Christians, no matter who their father was.

We are called to understand Muslims.  Most of them hate what ISIS is doing.  Most of them reject a Wahhabist version of their faith, even though the minority who do are  ready to be so violent.  We know that Christians, Jews, Yazidi and others lived side by side Shia and Sunni Muslims in what is now Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt for centuries with out violent conflict.

We are called to seek levels of understanding that go beneath the cable news surface and talk radio demagoguery.  This is God’s world, and everyone in it is God’s creature.  Therefore we are called to dialogue, to conversations that promote understanding.

I know this is a minority view; I accept that it is far more gratifying to the ego to simply pick up the the biggest club you can find and start swinging it at the bad guys.  But that is exactly the tactic of the bad guys.  If evil fights evil, what do you call the winner?  Evil.

But there is another way.  It is the way of the internalized New Covenant.  It is an embrace of a world of neighbors.  It is a vision of a shared humanity.  It is the vision of the way of shalom, of peace, of reconciliation.

People of the New Covenant: know that you are forgiven and loved, and go into the world with the mandate to live as loving forgivers.  The world desperately needs advocates for peace, advocates for understanding, and advocates for love.  If it is not we who can be those advocates, than who else can it be?

The Universal Message

The Universal Message

Sermon on Psalm 19 for the Third  Sunday in Lent, Year B, March 8, 2015

Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
 and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
 and night to night declares knowledge
There is no speech, nor are there words;
 their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
 and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,
 which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete runs its course with joy
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
 and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of God is perfect,Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.02.05 PM
 reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure,
 making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right,
 rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear,
 enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure,
 enduring forever;
the ordinances of God are true
 and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
 even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
 and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
 in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
 Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
 do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
 and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth
 and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O God
 my rock and my redeemer.

The Universal Message

I am a softie for nature.  Besides music, I am most often moved deeply and spiritually by Creation.  Quite often the sky draws my heart upwards in wonder and awe.  Sunshine, streaming through clouds, sunrises and sunsets, amaze me.  And so do the stars on a clear night.

We now know from scientists that the light we see when we look at the stars has taken a long time to reach us.  We know the speed of light and the distance of the stars from the earth, so we can calculate how long the light we see has spent traveling to us.


They say that Polaris, the North Star, may be over 400 light years away.  Four hundred years ago would be 1615.  The light we see today started its journey back then.  I have a personal connection with the events of that year.

That was the year Hungarian Gabriel Bethlen was recognized by Holy Roman Emperor  Mathias, as Prince of Transylvania, endorsing what had happened several years earlier at the Transylvanian Diet at Kolozsvár (or, in Romanian Cluj-Napoca).  That was the city where our family lived for two years from 1991-1993.

Prince Bethlen was a Hungarian Protestant, or Calvinist, which was what they called Reformed Christians in those days.   Hapsburg Europe was predominantly Catholic and persecuted Protestants.  Bethlen had the freedom to practice his faith because Holy Roman Emperor Mathias had signed the Peace of Vienna in 1609 providing religious tolerance at least in his area.

So we had the privilege of living among Reformed Christians whose faith survived because of tolerance which was signed into law 400 years ago.  The light I see from the North star tonight left when that was happening.

The Declaration of the HeavensScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 10.52.03 AM

Today we read a Psalm of praise that begins looking upwards at the heavens with awe and wonder.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God”

For me, nothing truer could be said.  No matter how much science I learn to explain the universe, it still fills me with awe and wonder.

Without a voice confined to mere spoken words, the heavens, the sun, the moon and all the stars, the Psalm says:

   “…proclaims God’s handiwork. 

Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 

…their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”

The message is universal.  Everyone can see it, and hear it. Everyone feels the heat of the sun and sees its light.  One sun illumines all the diverse places on earth.  One source of light shines on all people of all languages, races, customs and religions.

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But the idea that this one sun is the work of one God was not known for a long time.  This simple Psalm represents a revolutionary idea that changed the whole world.  In this Psalm, one God, not many gods, exist.  The One God is the Creator God.  The sun that travels across the sky by day silently sings praise to this One God.

Previously, before the Jews brought Monotheism to the world, people were poly-theists.  They believed in many gods.  The sun, in fact, was one of them.  His name, in Mesopotamian cultures, was Shamash.  Shamash was just one among many gods.

Besides the big gods of nature like the sun god, the moon god and star gods, there were also local gods, tribal deities for each people-group.  The concept that there is only one God leads immediately to the concept of universality: if there is only one God then this one is the God of all people.  There are no tribal deities any more.

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That means that there are no favorites with God.  There are no people who can claim exceptionalism.  All people, every race and tongue is equally made in God’s image and treasured by the Creator.

That is why the scandal of racism is so deeply and profoundly scandalous. Racial discrimination is a direct attack on the very roots of our theology.  No one can despise any other human without despising the God who made them.

This weekend, today, we celebrate the gains that have been made in the civil rights movement in our country, as we commemorate the tragedy of “Bloody Sunday” fifty years ago in Selma, Alabama.  But we also hear the scathing report of the Justice Department about the racism in the Ferguson system and know that there is a tremendous amount of work left to do.   We believe in One God, and therefore we are committed to a world of equal justice for all.

What is the Creator Like?

But there are still some questions left open.  What is this one Creator God like?  This is not an easy question.  If you simply observe nature, you get a mixed answer.  The same sun that can thrill you with wonder as it rises and sets can scorch the earth with drought, leading to the deaths of thousands.

Nature alone may fill you with dread as much as wonder, in the face of hurricanes, tsunamis, and bitter winter storms.  The heavens that declare the glory of God without words leave us without explanations for the inglorious insults of nature.   Maybe God is malevolent, or simply apathetic to our suffering.  Who knows?  The sun doesn’t say.

The Joy of TorahScreen Shot 2015-03-07 at 12.11.23 PM

So we do need speech that goes beyond the silent declarations of the heavens.  Which is exactly why the Psalm that begins with the wordless speech of the heavens immediately turns to praise God-the-Creator for being God-the-Revealer: the God who has given Torah, Guidance, or Instruction.  The Psalmist sings:

“ The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure
making wise the simple;”

The Law, or, literally, the “Torah” of the Creator God is perfect, reviving the “soul” or, inner being, making us wise.

Revolutionary Moral Monotheism

What enlightenment does Torah give us?  The second great revolutionary concept: that God is morally good.  That the Creator God is for us.  That God in fact loves us and wants what is best for us, our flourishing.

If there is only one God, and God is the creator, then God must be Great in every sense – greater than the sun or moon; creator that all the stars together.  And, amazingly it is exactly in those places in Torah where God’s greatness is proclaimed and celebrated, we see something else:  we see that the greatness of God is directed towards the humans that God made.  In fact, specifically towards the weakest of humans.

One example, among many, will have to do for now.

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”  – Deut. 10:17-18

In Torah we learn that the God we celebrate when we look at the ancient stars is the God who created us in God’s image, and whose greatness is on display precisely in his moral goodness, and especially in his compassion and mercy for those who suffer.  This is why the Psalmist says that the torah of God “revives the soul;” it is life-giving!

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Recently columnist Ana Marie Cox found faith and came out publicly as a Christian in an article in the Daily Beast.  She was interviewed about it on Morning Joe.   Joe’s cohost, Mika Brzezinski who had known her in the past, told Ana that she had seen a big change in her, as if she had gone from being “tied up in knots” to being “at peace.”

In both the article and interview Ana explained that what had changed for her came from her discovery of grace.  She said that she had been aware of herself as a “bad person” and even an “unforgivably bad person” but what “the gospel of grace has taught me is that I may be fallen…but that I am saved despite that.”

You cannot get that from looking at the sun and stars alone.   But in Torah, in scripture we learn that the creator God is also the Redeemer God who sets us free.  That God loves us and does forgive us.  This is what Jesus came to announce; this is the good news of the gospel: that God is best defined as God defines Godself in Torah:

“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Exod. 34:6)

This knowledge is, as the Psalmist describes it,

“More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.”

For us, as Christians, who believe that God is best and most fully revealed in the Living Word of God, in Jesus, the “Word made flesh” we have even more grounds for rejoicing.  God is in fact our Heavenly Father who “forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

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So, let us close this circle.  We began with the Great God who is on display in the heavens, the God who is One, as universal as the sun he created to shine on every  place on earth.  The One God who can never be harnessed to any one tribe or people, but the God of all people.

We noticed that the light of the stars that displays the glory of our Creator God is ancient light; that the North star’s light we see is already 400 years old.  That back in those days people of good courage were willing to sign declarations of religious tolerance and peace.

Sometimes I think we have not progressed much as a species in the past 400 years.  Racism still exists, and religious intolerance seems to be at an all-time high all around the world.  It is as if people have reverted back to the days when they thought that God was their own  tribal mascot.

People are willing to do terrible things and say horrible things in the name of upholding the fragile honor of their gods – and I do not just mean ISIS and Boko Haram.  People in this country attack Islam, as if the murderous extremists that pretend to represent it had any legitimacy.  We need to be clear:  ISIS no more represents Islam than the Irish Republican Army represented Christianity.

Our Calling 

But let us be the people who finally take to heart the wordless message of the heavens.  God is One; the sun that declares God’s glory shines on all the people of the earth, whatever their perception of God, whatever their religious practice.  As Jesus said, God

“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45).

We have been enlightened by the words of Torah and by Jesus, the Word made flesh.  We understand the One Creator God as the Great God whose greatness is made manifest in moral goodness, in compassion in mercy and forgiveness.  No one is excluded.  No one is exceptional.

Let us also be the people who know what a blessing and privilege it is to live on this planet in a world that reflects the glory of God.  We have been given the mandate of stewardship of the planet on our watch in this generation.

Let us commit ourselves to live in such a way that there will be a glorious, clean planet around for the people who will be here 400 years from now; the people alive to see the light leaving the North star today.

May they be people who have learned to live in peace and in respectful coexistence with each other.  May we set the example and lead the way.