Something Substantive About God #ProgGod

Tony Jones dropped the gauntlet challenging liberal Christians on the ways in which we speak about Jesus, the Bible, and the church, while neglecting to say something of much substance about God.

It was hard to not get bogged down with disclaimers and subjectivity… but just one before we start: In talking about “God” we’re talking about one member of our more holistic, Trinitarian understanding of God. We’re talking about the first person of the Trinity. The typical “God, the Father” person. Okay. Disclaimer, over.

Here is something substantive about God.

1) God changes.

Right off the bat in Genesis we hear stories about how God changes. This change is embedded in the very creation in which we exist. God spends 6 “days” [not necessarily 24-hour periods] bringing the world into existence. Then on the 7th day, God rests in creation. There’s never a point in time where God exits creation. So then, because creation changes, God must open God’s self open to changing as well.

If we needed any more evidence of this, we can see a complete shift in how God relates to humanity when God comes down to earth in Jesus. So that’s the first thing we can say about God — God changes.

2) God is constant.

This may be seen as a BUT to the first one, and that’s okay. God changes, but God is also constant. Even though God has changed, and will continue to change, there is a constancy in God’s presence. Though the circumstances of the world may be continually changing and evolving, the presence of God is constant in relationship with creation. It’s as simple as that.

3) God is genderless.

This is one I’ve hit on here before. And you may have noticed some awkward phrasing earlier in this post. But it’s to draw attention to the fact that we constantly attribute male nouns and pronouns to God. God is not male. God is not female. Gender is a sociological construct. Sex is a biological construct. These are both human categories. God is bigger than human categories (this could also be the title of #3) We assign gender to God for a deeper understanding, but it can become harmful when we stick rigidly to those gender categories to our own peril.

4) God knows the end, but doesn’t know the future.

Follow me on this one. In the act of the crucifixion and resurrection, God secured the end of the story. If we use the cosmic chess match example, the resurrection of Jesus is the check mate in struggle between love and destruction (love wins, in case you hadn’t heard). So that’s the first part of it, God knows the end.

BUT God doesn’t know the future. In part I blame that verse from the book of Jeremiah for the view that God knows everything that will ever happen to us. God knows what we’ll have for dinner 10 years from now. God knows what book we’ll read in the living room of the house we’ll live in when we’re 50. No. I firmly believe that God doesn’t micro-manage like that.

Instead, I think we ought to orient our belief more toward the idea that God is constantly working with us to bring a future of hope, grace, and love. This is because God is dwelling in creation with us — as noted earlier. God works with us to bring about good, but God never usurps our power of choice to force God’s will on us.

So, to recap, God knows the end, but doesn’t know the (immediate) future.

5) God is love.

This is, above all, what I believe about God. At the very core of God’s existence is love. Any time I start to question or doubt, no matter how much of my faith I deconstruct, this is the one statement I just can’t deny.

These are the 5 things that I can absolutely say about God. Usually my God-talk is bogged down in deconstruction or linguistic caveats, but it’s been a good experience to make declarations and say these things about God.

These are the things I like about God. God is dynamic and changes along with creation. But the things that are constant are radically inclusive love and a future oriented toward hope and openness.

Cheers,
Eric

A Sermon on “The Bread of Life”

“So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” – John 6:24-35

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

An author by the name of David Foster Wallace wrote an essay a few years ago that mused on the presidential election in 2000. In this essay, he wondered why so many voters, especially in the younger generations, seemed so disinterested in politics. He concluded that, more than anything else, the younger generation found politics disheartening and frankly, were quite bored by it. They were put off by talking heads that seemed to say nothing of great significance. They were cynical about people who talked about “serving a higher cause”, but who appeared to only be in it for themselves. Above all, they were disappointed, because where they were looking for genuine leaders; all they found were power-hungry opportunists.

Wallace then describes what he sees as authentic leadership:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do, but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. … Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please…. In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own. [Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Pg. 224-225]

This is the kind of leader that we hear about in the letter to the Ephesians today. It’s the kind of leader the early church needed – someone who can motivate the earliest followers of Jesus “to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.” By ourselves, we simply cannot do the things that God calls us to do. By ourselves we’re selfish, stubborn, and blind. But when we follow God’s call, incredible things can happen.

That’s where our writer of Ephesians meets today’s gospel text from John. We pick up where we left off last week in John. Jesus and his disciples have just fed the 5,000. Jesus has just walked on water and gotten their boat to the other side. The crowds were confused about where Jesus had gone so they started off to hunt him down and they find him. Jesus starts in on them right away. I can imagine the crowds were pretty confused. They ask him, “When did you get here?” He answers them by ripping into them. He says you didn’t come here because you saw the meaning behind what just happened back there. You’re here because you got enough to eat back there and you’ve come back wanting more. He essentially accuses the crowds of using Jesus as a means of getting food, while completely missing the deeper meaning behind the things he does.

We do this too, don’t we? We come to Jesus when we need something from him. We feel the need to escape our present pain or suffering – whether that’s a broken relationship, a lost job, a sick loved one – so we come to church. If we’re not careful, the church can become like a painkiller. When we gather together as a community, we sing songs, we hear readings, we experience communion, and that can leave us feeling pretty good. It can give us that escape. It makes us feel good for a while, but then we are forced to again face that downward spiral of broken relationships, lost jobs, and sick loved ones. We have to come back to church and get that relief again.

That’s what these people who come to Jesus are looking for. Jesus gave them relief from their hunger, and so they’re back for more. Jesus is well aware of this and says,

“Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures, which the Son of Man will give you…. Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

Now if we would’ve been reading John’s gospel straight through, we would start to see some patterns, particularly with the Samaritan woman at the well a mere two chapters previous to this. Tell me if this sounds familiar. Jesus says to the woman,

‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Then what comes next? … The woman says to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Flash forward back to John 6, our Gospel for today. These men come looking for bread that spoils. They look to fill a hunger that will keep coming back. Jesus tells them of a bread which comes from heaven and gives life to the world. And what is their response? “Sir, give us this bread always.”

“Sir, give me this water.”
“Sir, give us this bread always.”

When we were in New Orleans a couple weeks back, one of our dome speakers spoke to us about bread and water. His name is Shane Claiborne and he talked to us about his work in Philadelphia with his activism and work with the homeless population. The city had passed an ordinance outlawing the feeding of homeless people in public spaces.

So one night, Shane and his friends went down to the park with bread and wine. Surely the officers wouldn’t arrest them for communing people in a public park. The cops stayed back. Soon enough people got the idea and started to add on to the communion line. The people who were living in the park could come through the line and get bread and wine, the some pizza, a sandwich, some fruit, a bottle of water and other food. Bread and wine have a way of turning into more food than we could ever imagine.

It’s in this bread and wine: Two of the most ordinary substances in the world, yet when they come from Jesus, they are sustaining and give us life. Why? Because Jesus says in the following verse, “I AM the bread of life.”

Wow. What happens here is that Jesus says that he, in himself, his very own body is the only bread that will last forever and does not spoil. It’s in these incredibly ordinary things – bread, water, and wine – that Jesus pulls back the curtain a little bit to reveal who God is for us.

Jesus is the bread of life whose life ends, ultimately, so that ours may begin.

But what do we do with that life? I think that’s where the writer of Ephesians comes back around. We are nourished and sustained by the bread of life, the very body of Jesus, so that we may go out into the world emboldened to speak out of our own brokenness, suffering, and need for daily bread so that others may experience the living water and the bread of life.

And this is a journey. There are some days we’re better at this than others. I think of the John Mayer song “In Repair”. The refrain of this song proclaims, “I’m in repair, I’m not together but I’m getting there.” Those words describe us all. None of us has it completely together all of the time. None of us go through our life unflawed and whole. But by the grace of God we are given the bread of life to enable us to put one foot in front of the other as we go out into the world to spread God’s mercy and hope. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

Living the Questions: Why Are You Angry?

“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 
but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.
So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 
The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry,
and why has your countenance fallen?'” – Genesis 4:4-6

Of all the questions to live, this one is probably the hardest for me. Anger lives in a very dark place. But if we look at the story of Cain and Abel, it’s a pattern we know a little too well.

Proceeding any of this is an offering. Cain makes an offering to God — something that he gave his life to. His brother’s offering was met by God’s approval and satisfaction, his was not. We come with offerings everyday. In a very real way, Cain and Abel were offering their livelihoods. Looking for their worth. In essence, Cain’s livelihood was met with rejection, while his brother’s to satisfaction.

After Cain’s rejection comes anger. But the anger is just what’s on the surface — as is so often the way. Anger is all the deep-seeded emotions that we have boiled to the surface, but it’s not what’s so deep down. Anger is a surface emotion.

Behind anger is often where jealousy is found. 

A lot of times jealousy can rear its ugly head and take us off course faster than we even realize. With Cain and Abel, the jealousy isn’t too far from the surface. Abel’s sacrifice was excepted. Cain’s was not. BAM! Jealousy. Where does jealousy creep into your life? A lot of times we don’t even become aware of it until it’s already taken hold. We don’t even notice it sneaking into our thoughts until its already firmly planted there.

The grass is always greener

One of the things we have to realize, but is so faulty with our thinking, is that no matter what we do, if we get that thing we’re jealous of, if we get our neighbor’s new Porsche, or the promotion or whatever, we’re still going to be jealous. It just moves on to something new. So behind anger is often jealousy — with Cain it certainly is the case.

Behind jealousy is pride.

Pride is one of the things I fall victim to a lot. With Cain, he had pride in his crop. I have pride in my ideas. I want my ideas to be found the best among all others. That’s where my pride comes in. And it can be awfully hard to have so much stake in such fluid objects as “ideas”. But there it is.

A lot of times we take pride in our work — and that’s okay, “I’m not saying don’t take pride in your work.” But when it becomes a barrier between you and other people, that’s when it’s a problem. For Cain, pride lead to jealousy, anger, and ultimately killing his brother. I’m going to go ahead and say that was not the “good” kind of pride.

Be proud of your hard work.

Be proud of projects that have taken you a long time.

Be proud of overcoming things that have been difficult for you.

BUT

Don’t let it become a barrier to you. Because when it becomes a barrier, you do things like killing your brother. Not good. But even at pride, we’re still not at the root of the problem. We’re not at the very core of what the issue is in Genesis 4, the question that God asks of Cain.

So we have anger ==> jealousy ==> pride. And now we have one more dimension to add on.

Behind pride is selfishness.

This is where Genesis ultimately leads us — back to selfishness. Cain’s parents (Adam and Eve) went against the command of God because they were selfish and put their own curiosity above living with God. God’s only rule was “Don’t eat the fruit from that tree over there.” That was the only rule.

But then, when someone tells you there’s only thing you can’t do — every bit of you longs to do that one thing. It doesn’t matter how little sense it makes at the time. When someone prohibits, our desire is to test that rule. To push it just a little bit further. Because we’re selfish. Because we look out for numero uno — ourselves.

This is how it’s always been. And until we can break out of this mold, or at least acknowledge there are people outside of ourselves — we will always be a culture steeped in anger. But when we move beyond our anger to name and acknowledge the jealousy, pride, and selfishness behind our anger, it can do a lot to really get us to acknowledge the things we have in common — our humanity.

A little acknowledgement was all Cain ever wanted anyways.

So what are the things that make you angry? What gets you really pissed off? And what experiences could you share about how God works in those times of anger?

Cheers,
Eric

Living the Questions: What Have You Done?

The man said, “The woman you put here with me —
she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 
Then the Lord God said to the woman,
What is this you have done?” – Genesis 3:12-13

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? That “oh sh*t” moment. Maybe you just shut your locked car door to see the keys taunting you from the ignition. Or you’ve gotten to the bus stop/subway station/carpool meet up spot to see nothing but tail lights pulling away. Or maybe you’ve gone for a drive, left your wallet at home when the red and blue lights come on behind you.

Or maybe it’s a bit deeper than that. A lie exposed. A terrible mistake uncovered. A damaged relationship pushed to the brink. Regret is a hard emotion to deal with. If you could just go back and do things over, maybe they would have ended in a different — better — way. It almost always leads to some sort of guilt or other form of remorse. It can get pretty bleak.

If you’re a religious person, particularly a Lutheran — as I am, this question of “what have you done?” is brought to our attention every week. We start off our services with confession (well, after announcements and maybe an opening hymn). But not long after everyone gets as comfy as they can in their pews, we’re standing and confessing all the crap we’ve done. The sins known and unknown, things done and left undone.

We start our time together feeling terrible about ourselves.

Then we hear words of forgiveness. But for a lot of people, the damage is already done. Once we’ve had time to meditate on all the bad stuff we’ve done and the good stuff we’ve neglected, some people are in a pretty dark place. We don’t even hear those words of gospel that we’re forgiven. We get so caught in a feedback loop of how terrible of people we are that there can be a point of no return. (This is one of my beefs with Lutheranism — it makes you feel like crap an awful lot of the time)

When I was doing my CPE, I dealt a lot with guilt and regret of the “if only I’d done this” variety. That’s a road to nowhere good. My supervisor lead me to a book called “Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality” by Matthew Fox (no, sadly this is not the same Matthew Fox that played Jack in LOST. But that would be awesome).

Fox’s whole point, and what I have been thinking about as I’ve reflected on the question that God asks the woman in Genesis 3, is that we forget that before any sin or wrongdoing happened — before anyone ever asked “what have you done?”we were created as a part of a good creation.

When we gather for worship, the first thing we do is answer the question “What have you done?”, but that’s the 3rd question God asks. We’re missing the first two, which can be incredibly fruitful.

What would it look like if we took time in worship to honor and celebrate our good-ness as created beings of God? Not to pat ourselves on the back or get haughty (we’re still Lutheran, for crying out loud). But what if we made room for ourselves to primarily be the good, created beings that God made us, THEN we moved to the part that we’re steeped in sin and cannot free ourselves?

To me, that just feels lighter. As a worshipper, I would feel much more secure to then explore the indicting question God asks of all of us — “what have you done?” — and then be able to hear those words of forgiveness.

My fear is that by beginning our gathering time as a community with confession, we’re leaving people in that “oh sh*t” moment of having locked their keys in their car. When we feel that pang of shock, we’re often not very open to seeing the blessings that are all around us.

And they’re everywhere.

Cheers,
Eric

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