Proper 24, Year C, 2013

This is the story of how God loves us.

Billions of years ago, in the middle of nothing, a hot mass explodes.  The debris flings outward, turning into atoms, neutrons and protons.  The mess becomes planets and suns, black holes and mysteries we cannot imagine.

And on one of those planets, the God of the Universe decides to conduct a holy experiment.  He moves into the chaos and holds the waters back and makes sure the sun’s light and warmth hits the planet in just the right way.  This planet has just enough carbon and light and water and warmth for really interesting things to begin happening.  Bacteria and amoeba start to swim in the waters, grass and small trees start to burst forth from the ground.  God thinks to himself, “Well, that’s good!  What should we do next?”  And suddenly there are fish and mice crawling and birds flying around.  Cows and horses and goats chew on that new grass.

God thinks to himself, “Well, that’s good, too!  But you know what I really want?  Someone to talk to; someone to love.”  And so humans begin to walk the earth.  And God comes down and talks with them and they have some good times.  And God says to himself, “Well that is very good!”

But then it turns out human beings are a little more complicated than God intended.  Or maybe we are exactly as complicated as God intended.  In any case, right from the beginning humans turn out to be pretty selfish.  In fact, some are beyond selfish.  Humans can be wicked. Some humans choose to really hurt one another, even murder one another.  God does not think this is good.

So God searches humanity for one good person.  And he finds Noah.  He tells Noah to build a boat and then in a moment of horrifying editing, God wipes the slate clean.   All the animals, all the humans drown.  Only Noah, his family and the animals on the boat remain.

This is how God loves us.

God promises Noah he will never destroy humanity in a mass flood again.  He loves humans, he doesn’t want to destroy them.  He wants to make this relationship work. And he gives us the sign of a rainbow to reassure us.

But over time, the same wicked, murderous, greedy impulses come back into our behavior.  God has promised not to destroy us, so he tries to find a new way to be in relationship with us.  For now, he gives up on the idea of being able to relate to all humans, and he decides to choose one family.  He goes from family to family asking them if they are interested in following him.  Most people, ask, “Where?”  And when God tells them “Wherever I tell you.”  They say, “No thanks, I really like my tent right here, thank you very much.”  But Abraham and Sarah, they are up for an adventure.  They follow God on a long journey.  God promises to establish a kingdom out of their little family, which is laughable really, since Sarah is barren.  But against all odds, after many missteps, Sarah has a baby, Isaac.  And out of Isaac, the Jewish people are born.

God has his people now.  Finally.

This is how God loves us.

Even when God has his own special people, now called the Israelites, they still act like jerks.  And on top of that his people have been enslaved by the Egyptians.  So God decides they need some liberation and some structure.  He asks a man named Moses if he is up for the job of freeing his people from Egypt and Moses says, “No thanks, I don’t really like public speaking.”  God takes a deep breath and says to himself, “I can’t believe I’m about to negotiate with this guy.”  But God does negotiate with Moses and agrees to let Moses’ brother Aaron do the public speaking for him.  Against his better judgment, Moses agrees and goes into Egypt and argues with the Pharaoh for a long time.  Frogs fall from the sky and rivers run with blood, but the Jewish people are freed.

It doesn’t take long before the people following Moses start to get crabby.  The Israelites don’t much like wandering around in the wilderness.  God tries to use the time in the wilderness to shape his people.  He realizes he’s never really told his people what he expects of them, so God gives Moses ten pretty sensible rules for his people to follow.  No more murdering or coveting, worship only the Lord.  Basic stuff like that.  The people following Moses follow the rules.  For about five minutes.  But then there is calf worshiping and more grumbling and so they stay in the wilderness a long time.

Eventually God leads these people onto some nicer property, but not before Moses dies.

This is how God loves us.

Several generations pass and the Israelites start noticing how other groups of people around them have kings.  They tell God, “You know what would be awesome?  If we had a king!”  And God says to them, “You do have a king!  Me!  I am your king!  Have you not been paying any attention?”  And the Israelites said to God, “You are adorable, but we mean a king-king.  Like a crown-wearing king.  Get us one of those guys.”  And God rolls his eyes, and gets them a king.  The first one, Saul, doesn’t work out, but eventually God chooses David.  And David is not the kind of guy you want to marry, but he’s a pretty good King.  For a long time the presence of God has been carted around in a little ark and David decides to bring that ark into Jerusalem and it is a pretty big deal.  The Israelites are really happy about having a city to call their own and eventually David’s son builds a temple for that holy presence.  God really, really likes David, and he promises David that his descendants will always be the kings of Israel.  This is nice for David, because David’s personal life is a disaster, so at least he has something to look forward to.

Well, David’s son Solomon was a pretty good King, but after that, surprise, surprise, things go downhill.

The kingdom splits into two, and the kings are the worst.

This is how God loves us.

God is not happy with how the kings are doing.  The kingdoms are now called Israel and Judah and God sends them both various prophets who say things like, “You guys!  Shape up!  Why are you being such jerks?  How hard is it to be just and be kind to widows and orphans and worship me alone?  Get it together!”  And because Israel and Judah are not following God’s laws, he allows them to be taken over by other kingdoms.  The worst of these are the Babylonians.  When the Babylonians took over Israel, they forced Israelites to leave Jerusalem and move to Babylon.  This shook up the whole self identity of the Israelite people.  Who were they if they weren’t in Jerusalem?  Who was God if God allowed them to be uprooted in this way?  What about the covenants God had made with his people?

And God thinks to himself, “This really isn’t working. I need to try something new.”

So God sends this prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah wasn’t really a people person.  He was crabby, really, but he had some good news for the Israelites.  He told them that God hadn’t abandoned them.  They were still God’s people even in Babylon.  And that God had something new in mind.  God was going to make a new covenant with Israel.  No longer would Israel be judged and punished for its ancestor’s sins.  God was going to offer forgiveness to Israel and change their hearts so they would follow God out of love.

This is how God loves us.

God realizes that changing hearts isn’t enough. God wants to be in relationship with us.  God knows we won’t change.  We will still be selfish and murderous and kind of awful.  And so the God of creation, the God of Noah and Abraham and Moses and David decides to come to earth.  He comes to earth as a little baby and he experiences our suffering.  He learns what it means to lose people you love.  He learns what it means to be sick.  He learns what it means to be betrayed.  And he loves people.  Not in an abstract way, but in a hands on, healing way.  He still thinks everyone should be kinder to one another, but he actually comes down and lives that out.  He shows us how to speak truth to power and lift up the lowly and makes us realize God loves every kind of person.

And then we kill God.  We reject him again, in the most absolute way we can reject a person.  But God comes back to us. God comes back to us from the dead. Despite being rejected again and again.  Despite our inability to be good, our inability to climb our way to God, God comes back to us and loves us and invites us to be with him in a new way.  For eternity.

This is how God loves us.

The people who followed Jesus are pretty gobsmacked by every thing that has happened, so God sends them another part of himself:  the Holy Spirit.  That Holy Spirit moves in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ friends and helps them to love each other and tell the story of Jesus—God coming to earth.  In fact, the Holy Spirit helps these people become the very hands and feet of Jesus.  Now that Jesus has ascended into heaven it is up to these people—the church—to be Jesus on earth.

They are very brave and tell their story and soon it spreads across the world. Thousands of years pass and home churches turn into the Catholic Church and then the Eastern Orthodox Church splits off and then the Protestant reformation happens.  All because people are trying to follow God the best way they know how.

And now we are here, in Ivy, Virginia, in one very particular church, with a few hundred particular people.  We are a very blessed part of the church.  We aren’t persecuted.  We have beautiful liturgy.  We have a beautiful building.  We have a community of people who love each other.

This is how we love God.

We look around and think “Oh my goodness. I am part of a huge, incredible, epic story.  The God to whom I pray is the same God who created the stars in the sky.  The God I worship by singing hymns is the God who called Abraham and Moses and David.  The Holy Spirit who breathed on the first Christians breathes on me and helps me to grow and change and become more like Christ every day.”

And we realize stewardship is the holy responsibility to play our part in the story.  Who are we in the kingdom of God?  Where are we supposed to be acting as Christ’s hands and heart?  How can we work together as a congregation to make the world a little bit more like the place God envisioned when he created those first humans years ago?

Our lives matter and the choices we make matter.  We are part of a story that is more powerful than our minds can comprehend.  We are part of the greatest love story ever told.

Thanks be to God.



Easter Vigil, Year C, 2013

God has a problem.

God made this amazing creation.    He made suns, moons, planets—galaxies full of whirling dust and light.  And in one of those galaxies he made this remarkable planet, this lush place full of water and rich soil and plants that nourish and shade.  He made animals of every color and station, invisible amoebas and awe inspiring whales.  And then he made people.

People are God’s problem.  God made people to love them.  And he does love them.  God loves people so much he allows them to be free in a way animals and plants are not.  But the trouble is, in that freedom, people turn out to be a real mix of wonderful and terrible.  We discover fire. We create art.  We create ideas.  We are the architect of St. Peter’s bacilica and the Declaration of Independence.  We learn to clothe ourselves and provide for our families and love our children the best we can.  But we also lie, cheat, steal.  We find old girlfriends on Facebook and betray our families.  We hoard money instead of caring for the poor.  We invent and use guns that can murder two dozen children in five minutes.  We too often turn our back on God, and our neighbor.  God wants to be in relationship with us, but we reject him.

So God tries everything.  He tries wiping us off the face of the earth with a giant flood and starting over again with Noah’s family.  But people are still wonderful and terrible.  So, God tries choosing one family, Abraham’s family, and makes a covenant with them.  But even that special family is still wonderful and terrible.  So, God sends a list of rules to Moses so we’ll at least know when we are being terrible.  But after we finish oohing and ahhing over the shiny tablets Moses brings down from the mountain, we just go back to being rude to our parents, coveting our neighbor’s cattle, and murdering those who become inconvenient to us.  God tries Judges to rule us.  No dice.  He tries kings.  The kings end up totally abusing their power and taking advantage of God’s people.  So God tries sending prophets.  These prophets really let us have it.  They yell at us to start worshiping God properly and treating other people with care and respect.   They don’t hold back one bit.  Some of us listen to them, but mostly we just feel kind of bad for the prophets since they smell funny and don’t have a lot of friends.  We continue to be wonderful and terrible.

Now, if we were out for a drink with God and heard him tell this story, we might pat God’s hand and say, “Oh my GOODNESS, break up with them already! They are never going to change.  Go get some therapy and find a hobby or something.  They are just not that into you!”

Thankfully, God is not interested in our advice. God is relentless and creative.  God made us and loves us and is going to be in relationship with us even if we are congenitally unable to be faithful to how God wants us to live.

God sends us his Son.  The God of the Universe, who made all those stars and suns and moons willingly takes on muscle and bone and flesh.  He becomes one of us, except he is able to live in a way God intended.  He lives a life of generosity, selflessness, creativity, and love.  He sees people for who they are and speaks to them honestly.  He heals the broken and brings life to the dead.  People start to see that obedience to God isn’t about following a bunch of rules, it is about relationship.  In fact, Jesus flouts some of the rules that clergy created. He always puts people ahead of rules.

This rule breaking freaks out the powers that be.  They can’t stand losing their power.  They can’t stand the idea that God’s authority could rest with someone other than themselves.  And so, Jesus dies.

This might be the end of the story.  This would make sense.  In a world filled with the abuse of children and corruption of governments and hopeless poverty, a dead God seems like the only explanation.

But we know, of course, that Jesus’ death is not the end of the story.  Because God is relentless.  Because God loves us. Because God won’t give up on us, even when we murder him.

God defies the very rules of the Universe that he created and breathes life back into Jesus’ body.  In so doing, he changes everything about our lives, too.  No longer are people sentenced to alienation and death for their terribleness.  Now, humans are judged through the lens of Jesus.  God can relate to us, because Jesus stands between and intercedes for us.  God can be in relationship with us, even if we aren’t perfect.  And we still aren’t.  We are still wonderful and terrible.  But we are forgiven.

We are forgiven not because of anything we’ve done.  We are forgiven because our God would not stop until we could be together. Our God loves us more than is reasonable, more than we can comprehend.

This forgiveness is not just a blank check.  As God forgives us, he draws us closer to himself and starts to form us into the people he intended us to be.  The more we realize our brokenness, and ask for forgiveness, and get forgiven, and get drawn closer to God, the more we live lives of honesty and grace and love.  We realize the greed and lust and corruption are all about fear—fear of not having enough, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being loved.

When we start to believe God’s love for us, we experience our own resurrection.  Finally, all those fears that have ruled our hearts are put to death, and hope and joy are borne from their ashes.

We rise from those ashes and say, Alleluia, Christ is Risen!