Tag Archives: Good Friday

Reflecting on the Flood, Part 2

rushingwater1In this space last week, I reflected on the story of the Great Flood, suggesting that, above all, it’s a story about God and not about floods and geology and arks and animals. In that post I argued for a view of God that is based, not on God’s anger, but God’s grief over human sin.

When we get to the other side of the The Great Flood, Noah and his family have been spared and God makes a promise never to abandon that which God has created.

One of the startling reports from the Genesis text is that before and after, nothing has changed on the part of humanity. Before the Flood, God “saw that the wickedness of humanity was great in the earth.” (6:5); after the Flood, God still makes the same judgment, “for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (8:21)  The cataclysm of a great flood has done nothing to change the inclination of humanity to rebel against God’s purpose and will. If there is any hope for the future, it will not be found in any change in the human heart apart from the touch of the love and grace of God.  Hope for the future depends on God doing something. Human beings are not, apparently, capable of saving themselves. We cannot, in the end, rise above our calculated self-interest.

Yet this humanity that has been created in God’s image is still regarded by God as good. God yet gives an affirmation about the value and the dignity of human life and human work. “Never again,” is what God says. (9:11)  What has changed is not anything in the human heart. What has changed is the heart of God.

What has also changed is the formula. We seem to be hard-wired for a formula that says wrongdoing must exact a proportional punishment.  An eye for an eye, and all that.  But in the Flood story, God breaks the one to one connection between guilt and punishment. Death and destruction are still real; evil has not disappeared. But after the Flood, death and destruction are no longer rooted in the anger of God, and they are not God’s necessary and inevitable response to wrongdoing.

These reflections are particularly timely for a couple of reasons. First, in the church, we are coming close to the annual Holy Week commemoration of the events of Christ’s last week, culminating in his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. I still hear, far too often, about Christ’s death as the punishment wrought by an angry God for the sin of humanity. It’s just not a helpful way to talk about or think about Christ’s death, nor is it consistent with the picture of God that courses through Scripture, going all the way back to what we learn about God from from the Flood.  Christ’s death and resurrection certainly bring salvation to all humanity, but not in the one-dimensional “payment to an angry Father” schema that is so pervasive in popular western Christianity.

Second, I think it’s particularly important to say in a world where violence and retribution hold sway. The picture of God presented here, a picture which finds its fulfillment and sharpest focus in Jesus, offers another way for us to live together. It is not necessary that punishment be meted out in proportion to the crime, especially when punishment is not a deterrent, and when the drive for punishment completely overshadows any thought of rehabilitation. The current world stage is as much proof as we need that retribution solves nothing; in fact, it serves to escalate the violence and increase the suffering and death of mostly innocent people.  Early yesterday morning, two police officers were shot outside the Ferguson, Missouri City Hall. Retribution? You kill one of ours and we’ll kill one of yours?  Who knows? We still haven’t shed our tendency toward violence and bloodshed; it must still grieve God.

For all of that, I’m grateful to be on the receiving end of a gracious God and still hope that in the peaceable kingdom that is coming in our midst, the same grace might have something to do with how we live with each other.

“My God, My God, Why Don’t You Just Fix Stuff?”

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My God, My God, why won’t you just fix stuff?

We have known almost from the beginning of our lives that things are not right. When that kid in second grade looked over Mary Grace’s shoulder, copied the answers, and got the same perfect score she did, we knew it was not right.

When we passed the note in junior high and someone else got in trouble for it, we knew it was not right, and yet we did not say a thing.

I knew every time I rode my bike past that ramshackle house where the migrant workers landed for several weeks every year that people should not have to live like that.

When we figured out how to game the time-clock in that summer job, we knew it was not right; and yet it seemed so easy to justify. “I work hard. I deserve it. No one appreciates what I do around here.”

Now, what we know is not right is so much bigger. It’s hard, O God, not just to bury our heads in the sand. What we see in the world cannot be what you intend for the world. You do not intend for The Ukraine to be the setting for a power play in which people are coerced, controlled, and killed. You do not intend for Syria to be decimated and hundred of thousands of innocent people to be killed. You do not intend so much strife and division in the land where your Son came to bring peace to the world. You do not intend for innocent people to die daily in shoot-outs over turf wars in Chicago neighborhoods only 20 miles from where we live. You do not intend for ferry boat accidents to take the lives of high school students. And on and on and on.

You do not intend that there be so much garbage in the oceans that we can’t distinguish between pieces of trash and pieces of tragedy. You do not intend for there to be places where the air is so foul that living creatures cannot even breathe without becoming sick. You do not intend that we who have perfected the art of excess burden the rest of the world with our garbage.

And we know the pain and heartache of brokenness even closer to home. In our own families and our own lives, you do not intend for beer and bourbon and valium and vicadin to take control of peoples’ lives. You do not intend peoples’ lives to be consumed by cancer or heart disease or MS or ALS or Alzheimer’s.

For our whole lives we have heard that your death on the cross was so that our sins could be forgiven and that we could have the promise of eternal life. We believe that, as far as it goes. Tonight it doesn’t seem to go far enough. What about everything else? What about your promise that you sent your Son to save the world? How is that working? Why does it seem that there is no progress toward the kingdom of peace that you have been promising for years, for centuries, for millennia?

Tonight when we would love to have answers, we see only a cross. We see and witness and reflect on the event of your own Son handed over to sinners just like us to endure cruel torture and eventual death.

And so, tonight, we wonder. What does it all mean? How does it all fit?

Tonight we see no reasonable explanation. Least of all tonight do we see any reasonable explanation. So maybe tonight we are called simply to trust that you are God. That in the death of Jesus, all of our violence, our cruelty, our self-centeredness, and our greed are wrapped up and placed on his shoulders.

Tonight, we feel your absence. We wonder about your silence in the face of all of it. We know it would be easier to find other gods: to keep busy, to make a name for ourselves by doing good work, to perpetuate the fallacy of perfectionism, to honor the needs of our own families and expect that others will take care of themselves, to look at the big problems in the world and convince ourselves that they are not our responsibility and we can do nothing about them.

But then we look at the cross again. We see that in our Lord Jesus’ determination to follow his work and his purpose to the very end, you intended to create something new. You have created a people who would die to themselves and rise again to your larger purposes. So that when we look at Jesus’ broken and dying body, we see somehow, mysteriously, that you do have other intentions than what we see superficially. We see that through the cross you have called us to that larger vision and purpose in and for the world you have created, the world you love beyond description.

Tonight as we stand in the shadow of the cross, you do not stand over us in anger or judgment thereby inducing shame. You do not call us in such a way that overwhelms us. You simply call us to the cross. You call us to kneel before it, even to kiss it. And you promise that in your Son’s death, we are given life. Not life as an end in itself. Life as a means to bring life to this broken, hurting, strife-torn world.

So, dear God. My God. Our God. Accomplish what you will and what you intend. Work in us. Accomplish what you will. We are ready. We are willing. We offer ourselves to you. At the foot of the cross.

(A sort-of sermon at Faith Ev. Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois on Good Friday, April 18, 2014.)

“Jesus Died on the Cross to Save Me from My Sins” Is Not Enough

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For those of us who have been around the Christian tradition in North America for any length of time, Good Friday has always been about the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross to save us. Since I was a child, I have heard the theological soundbite, “Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.” And that is true, as far as it goes.

But a faithful reading of the New Testament witness suggests that there was something bigger going on. If Jesus’ entire ministry was about bringing in the reign of God, then what happened on the cross certainly has to be bigger than the personal forgiveness of my sins or anyone else’s. Yes, Jesus healed individuals, and proclaimed to individuals the forgiveness of their sins. I’m not trying to deny or minimize any of that. When he did that, however, those miracles and those proclamations were signs pointing to the larger work that he came to do: to bring in the reign of God. If there was something cosmic going on in Jesus’ life and ministry, then it seems reasonable to believe that something larger was also going on in his death. “For God so loved the world. . .”

For whatever reason (it probably has something to do with what I’ve been reading the past several months) those larger implications of Jesus’ death have filled my reflections, my prayers, and my writing this Holy Week. Those reflections become so hauntingly sharp and troubling as I look around at the world. For instance:

  • In the month or so since the disappearance of the Malaysian jet, the search for debris from the wreckage has brought to our collective consciousness just how filled with garbage the oceans are. Every time we have thought we have located some of the wreckage, it has turned out to be more floating garbage — the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of what has already sunk and lies at the bottom.
  • We’re witnessing a classic international power-grab in the tension between Russia and the Ukraine.
  • The capsizing of a ferry filled with high school students off the coast of Korea, the increase in kidnapping of girls from boarding schools in Nigeria, the violent last weekend in the City of Chicago, and on and on and on.
  • The civil war in Syria in which the Assad regime seems willing to pay an extraordinarily steep price to maintain their hold on power — the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents and the decimation of their country.
  • The gradual, and nearly complete, transition in our own country from a democracy to an oligarchy, confirmed by yet one more decision by the U. S. Supreme Court removing the limits on how much individuals can contribute to political campaigns.

For me, these are clearly signs of a broken and fallen world that is not only full of pain and struggle, but is full of evil.

If what Jesus did on the cross did anything at all, it must have something to do with God’s intentions to overcome sin and evil on a grand scale. And I can ’t believe that it’s only eschatological, that it will only come in that grand chase scene at the end of this long movie that we call time. So, what is happening? Does Jesus’ death make any difference for the sin and evil of humanity on this grand scale?

I don’t know that I have any clear answers. What I know and trust and believe — we don’t call that “clear answers,” we call that faith — is that God must have done something in the cross that still remains hidden. And that what Jesus did for me personally on the cross must have something to do with my part in that larger work that God is even now doing.
(And if you’re interested and in the area, that’s exactly what we will be reflecting on this evening at our Good Friday Liturgy of the Cross.)