Sunday, February 26, 2012

So He Told Them This Parable, Part 1 (Luke 15:1-3; 11-32)

Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. The sermons for the next few weeks will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.

In a way, Elvis Costello was right and there's no such thing as an original sin. Nearly every human sin stems from the same root and is a variation of one kind or another on the same theme: Idolatry, or the attempt to make a god of something that's not God.

We do that two different ways. The first is that we try to put stuff in place of God. That might mean stuff like our possessions or our wealth, or it might mean qualities or activities that connect to stuff, like greed or power or physical pleasure. We all know people like this (and sometimes we might be people like this), who will orient their lives towards acquiring something. Sometimes those people are rich and already have everything they need, and sometimes they are poor and are just consumed with what they don't have but want. Sometimes people desire fame and will do anything to get it -- if there's another reason to appear on The Bachelor/ette I don't know what it is, given the show's dismal track record of spawning marriages. Some people will center their lives on a particular pleasure they get from food or drink or sex, or from some kind of drug or activity that gives them a real feel-good feeling.

Another kind of idolatry tries to put people in place of God. Perhaps it's a spouse or significant other, or maybe it's your children if you're a parent or your parents if you're a child. Maybe it's someone with whom you want a relationship but don't have one, so you try to redirect your life so that the other person will notice or connect with you and set aside your own principles and ideals for theirs. Somehow, you make another person the center of your life in a way that God has said is reserved for him.

Timothy Keller quotes St. Augustine in describing this kind of behavior as stemming from "disordered love." In other words, we are to love God the most, God's people second and God's stuff third. When we elevate stuff over people, we're being jerks, but when we elevate stuff over people and God, we're being idolatrous jerks. When we elevate people over God, we're making idols of those people -- or of ourselves, because that's certainly possible as well. I'm phrasing it as making sure God is at the center of our lives, instead of something or someone that God has made.

In the parable usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we see the idolatry of stuff played out by both sons. They don't necessarily deal with the idolatry of people, but the story wouldn't look all that different if they did.

It's more obvious in the younger son, of course. We don't know if he was a good son or a mediocre one before the story starts, but it seems he wasn't bad enough to get kicked out of the house and must have been fulfilling at least some of his family responsibilities. Then one day something happens and he realizes he can't fulfill those responsibilities and get what he wants at the same time, so he asks for his share of the estate that will come to him when his father dies. He completely disrespects and dishonors his father by saying, in essence, I was only doing what you wanted me to do so I could get your stuff. I didn't care about you.

In our faith, we might see this as the kind of person who follows God, going to church and praying and doing all of the right things until one day they confront the reality that there's something they want or something they want to do and they can't get it or do it and follow God. They must choose, one or the other, and they choose their wants over following God. Whatever effort or energy they've put into following God wasn't for God's benefit or glory or honor; it was just a way to get something and now they've found something they want more.

The older son's response at the end of the story shows a similar idea, even if he comes at it a different way. The brothers were more alike than he wanted to admit. The younger son has returned and the father celebrates the way we would expect a parent to celebrate if a lost child came home. The family is whole again! But the elder son sees only that the younger's return means he will lose part of the inheritance that was supposed to be his, and now he disrespects the father by not even going inside the house and by counting his potential loss as more important that his father's joy. All my life I worked for you and did everything you asked, he says. I deserve better than this!

Again, in the life of faith we might see this as the times when we point to our long, unblemished record of righteousness as proof to God that God owes us something. I went to church every week, Lord! I tithed my income! I helped the poor! I prayed every night! I read my Bible! It's time to make with the blessings! You owe me!

Neither son cared as much about dad as they did about dad's stuff. And neither kind of lost person -- younger-son lost or elder-son lost -- cares as much about God as they do about the supposed benefits of a relationship with God. Younger-son lostness makes us cast God aside as soon as it seems we will find more benefit to us elsewhere. Elder-son lostness sticks with God not for God's sake but for our own.

And behind them both is the idolatrous agreement with the voice of the original tempter, as we believe that somehow the acquisition of God's stuff will make us like God.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Noah and Us (Genesis 6:5-9)

Most of the time, the first questions people seem to want to deal with when they work with the story of Noah have to do with its accuracy -- is it true? Did it happen?

There's not a lot of geological evidence for a flood that covered the whole globe, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there's nothing to it. When the folks retelling these stories and putting them together said "the whole world," they meant a pretty limited slice of it compared to what we know. They didn't travel far and had limited knowledge of just a few areas -- they had no clue about North and South America or Antarctica or Australia, for example.

And there are possible disasters that could have covered their part of the Middle East with water in the way that Noah's story describes. We're still telling the story of Noah some 3,500 years after it was collected into Genesis  -- perhaps it goes back at least that long as an oral tradition? If so, we're coming up close to the end of the Ice Age and in many places, melting glaciers created huge inland seas that flooded low-lying areas when they finally surged back to the oceans.

There's also some geological evidence that meteors may have struck the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean Sea, or both. Large rocks dropped in water make ripples the same way small rocks do, but we call them tidal waves or tsunamis. They could have flooded the entire region as water surged out of the seas onto the land, and the superheated meteors would have created steam that came back to the earth as torrential rains lasting for weeks. Greek legend tells of Deucalion, who along with his family was saved from a flood in a large boat. A meteor in the Mediterranean would have flooded low-lying Greece as well as the area where Noah was said to live.

But to be honest, the historical character of the flood isn't the most interesting part of the story for me. Even if we found out exactly what happened it wouldn't affect me all that much, because according to God's own promise to Noah in the rainbow, such a thing will not happen again.

If we say this is a story of Noah saving the animals, we miss the point. But if we see this story as one of God cleansing a corrupt world, we can find some more useful handles to use to learn something from Noah for our own lives.

The word translated as "corrupt" is like the word used for spoiled when it refers to food gone bad. The world has gone from being good as God made it to fallen and now to corrupt. It needs cleansed, and God decides to wash the corruption away from the world. But Noah is not corrupt; we're told he walks with God. Since it would not be fair to wipe out Noah too, God spares him and uses him to spare the animals that can help repopulate creation after its cleansing.

In the church, you may have heard people use that same kind of cleansing language when they talk about baptism. Cleansing is one of the important symbols we attach to baptism, as we say it's a sign God washes us free from our sin the way water washes things clean.

It's possible to see the creation story, from the beginning through Noah, as a model of our own condition. We are created "good" by God, but our own selfishness and desires lead us away from following God as the man and the woman were led to try the fruit. That sin, now present in our lives, will harm not only us but those around us as Cain's sin brought about Abel's death. The only way to erase this corruption is God's cleansing grace -- we can't "uncorrupt" ourselves. We require that kind of all-encompassing cleansing in order to be made right with God once again.

In the midst of our corruption, though, there's a remnant of the image of God we were all born with, in which we were all created.  Something about what God wanted us to be is still inside us, able to grow within us and recreate us completely in that image. But that something must be saved from the corruption around it and that can only happen through the work of God, just as Noah survived the flood only though hearing and following God's direction.

There's an important difference between the flood story and our story, of course. In the flood story, the waters rose up and came down without warning or notice. The earth didn't know it was to be cleansed or even recognize that cleansing was needed. But we do know. We can come to the place where we understand we need God's cleansing spirit in our lives or else we will never be clean and never be what God created us to be. And we can ask for that cleansing, trusting that God, having once begun his work will complete it and we too will one day greet a renewed world as renewed sons and daughters of God, made clean and whole by his grace.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

How It's Made (Genesis 1:1; 26-31; 2:15-17)

Our creation stories have a lot to work with for people who want to explore them for faith development. But we know that much of the focus of the discussion falls on the methods God used to create the universe and life.

Accept the literal account of creation as its found in Genesis or you are rejecting the Bible and rejecting God's truth, some say. Even folks who don't accept those stories as scientifically and historically true accept the premise and so they reject Christianity. People who accept the version of events given to us by modern cosmology and biology say that their story doesn't have any room for God, so they reject belief in him. And others who don't buy their idea of creation accept the premise that the scientific story erases God from the picture, so they reject the scientific story.

Even though I accept most of what those scientific observations and deductions tell us about the world around us and some of the most likely ways it came to be what it was, I don't think that leaves God out of the picture. Nor do I think that someone who chooses to accept the Genesis accounts as literally true is 100 percent wrong -- as long as they see what the true center of the story and the true center of creation is: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Hebrew verbs are tricky; that sentence can also read, "When God began to make the heavens and the earth..." But either way, to my way of thinking it shows what the people who brought us our modern-day book of Genesis figured as the most important thing about that story: God is the author of creation. If we look at their story of how the world came to be -- waters overhead and underneath, earth dividing seas from other seas, humans made from the dust of the ground -- we see many similarities. Did someone copy from someone else? No more than any two scientists who have different understandings of star formation copied from each other if they both start with the big bang. Just as each scientist describes the big bang in terms that led to his or her theory about how stars form but both use the big bang as the start, so do the Genesis writers use the best observational knowledge of their day as their start and show how creation looks different when God is at the center.

Take the creation of people. In the Babylonian myth, Marduk the king-god makes human beings from the dust of the ground and breathes life into them. Sounds familiar. Genesis does say that the woman was fashioned from the man's rib, but she's still made from the dust of the ground since he was.

But Marduk made human beings because the gods were bored and wanted something to make fun of and run errands for them. God made human beings to be in relationship with him and gave them a purpose of their own -- to take care of his creation. Without God, human beings are the playthings of forces beyond their control, but with God human beings are valuable for who they are.

The creation story ends with the fall, and that's where we see the results of what happens when we move God from the center of our lives and try to be our own gods. You know how it runs: The man and the woman are told they can eat any fruit of any tree they want, except for one. The serpent tempts them to eat that very fruit, telling the woman that if they do, they can be like God themselves. They need not listen to God tell them how to live because they can do it just fine on their own.

Again, sometimes the fuss over whether or not there was ever a literal Adam and a literal Eve who ate of the fruit can obscure a much more important point: That you and I are tempted every day and give in. Maybe some days we do better than others and maybe we've grown so that we recognize the temptations and allow God to help us past them, but we still give in. If we don't see that, then whether or not Adam and Eve ever really lived is not all that relevant.

As Christians, we say that Jesus came not only to direct us to turn back to lives with God at the center and to show us what that might look like, but also to enable that to happen. Our choices, represented by Adam and Eve's choice to eat the fruit, move God out of the center but we find that we are unable to move him back by ourselves. Only God can return himself to his rightful place, and he does that through the work of Jesus.

Whether you believe the story was literal or figurative, the choice of the first man and first woman in response to the serpent's invitation to take and eat represents the misery of sin that human beings have caused themselves and each other over and over again. That invitation still exists, and we all too often take it.

But many years later, another invitation to take and eat was made, this from the man who would be our Savior and who was also the Son of God. His invitation remains as well, good news for all who would accept it and dine at his heavenly banquet.