Broken Justice to Becoming At-One

The Sermons for Good Friday and The Easter Vigil is a two-part series. I am presenting them as one document with two sections.

Atonement: From Good Friday to Easter

Learn in the Darkness

A sermon for Good Friday: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, John 18:1-19:42, Psalm 22

How did we get here? In years past, I’ve explored all sorts of ways we got here: from specious crowd behavior to corrupt Jewish and Roman officials acting from fear. But I am inviting us to be a bit more personal and to understand the question “How did we get here?” as “What did I contribute?” And that is going to take us to the cross, more specifically the crucifix, the cross with Jesus dying on it; and that is going to take us into the murky world of atonement.

There are multiple thoughts about atonement. Atonement is thought of: Jesus succeeding where Adam fails, or Jesus dying to defeat death, or Jesus dying to bring positive moral change, or Jesus paying the price that had to be paid to release humanity from captivity by Satan; who discovers that God pranked him~ because Jesus lives! Atonement can also mean Jesus victory over death, or Jesus paying the debt to God on behalf of our sins, or the idea that sin must be punished, which Jesus takes upon himself, to keep moral order, or that Jesus’ dying is the penalty substitute to satisfy God’s sense of justice; which is the dominate understanding today (wesleybros.com).

Generally, the beginning assumption is that God and humanity are one, and should be in a harmonious relationship; that God and we should be “at-one”. The need for atonement is because we breached the created unity between God and humanity (Genesis 3). The question becomes how to heal the breach.

The Hebrew words associated with atonement are: to cover, to offer, to effect reconciliation; and the Greek words are: to be, cause to be friendly, to render, and to leave (Carver). There are no good English translations.

The Old Testament emphasis is the sacrificial system; that eventually is centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the system God sets up so that the Jews could make an offering to restore fellowship with God. There are lots of details on how to offer a sacrifice, but almost nothing about what is at work to heal the breach (Carver). By the way, one such sacrifice is for the High Priest to lay his hand on a goat, then set it free into the wilderness, taking with it the peoples’ sins; this is the source of the term ‘scapegoat.’

The New Testament emphasis is on the cross and metaphors for Jesus’ work: lamb, take away sin, ransom, give his life, blood which is shed us (Dominy). The New Testament is clear about reconciliation, but not the means by which it actually happens (Easton).

There is no question that Jesus dies on the cross. There is no question that his death is related to our salvation. our relationship with each other, enemies included (Sakenfeld, Carver). All this considered, today, Jesus as the substitute penalty is the denominate belief about atonement. The Temple sacrificial system could never be perfect; Jesus, the perfect human, is the sacrifice for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

The trouble is we’ve not been very good at being precise in what this means. David Lose writes:

… because God is just, God has to punish sin, and because God is loving, God beats up on Jesus instead of us. But I have a hunch that this understanding of the cross says more about our inadequate understanding of justice than it says about God.

 

Benjamin Corey put it this way

 a rather poor realization of this notion of atonement has evolved and contributes to a broken justice system (Corey).

Edward Wimberley notes that “abuse is the attempt to gain meaning and value at the expense of another.” In oppressive and abusive situations, the object can internalize the abuse, taking responsibility for the abuse and oppression. An unhealthy connection between this process and atonement theology of Jesus as the substitute for us gives abusers an ideological powerful justification for their actions. A rejection of substitute or surrogate sacrifice is emerging, and we will explore those options in a day or so. For now, I want to us explore other ways skewed atonement theology furthers the breach between God and us being at one.

One consequence is a glorification of suffering. Jesus suffered for our sins; therefore, suffering is good for us. Such thinking can allow those with the responsibility to act for the common welfare justification for not acting because the suffering of the oppressed will lead to their greater glory in time to come. Another consequence is the presumption of moral or spiritual defect of those people whose life circumstances are penury. Their suffering is a sort of punishment; that will lead to their greater glory in time.

One of the background factors in Ferguson MO. was a police and court system collaboration that ticketed poor, disenfranchised people trapping them in a very expensive cycle of ever increasing court fines. It is an abusive relationship, with the police and the courts in the role of the abuser and the marginalized people internalizing their circumstances, assuming the emotional-spiritual responsibility for their inequitable treatment. The overly complex system, of social safety net services, behaves in a similar way and again the least of these suffer.

I don’t believe these decisions are actively made we just instinctually make these decisions. However, the harm is very real.

Tonight as we stand at the foot of the cross, Jesus’ broken, bloody body bears witness to the grossly out of control perverted justice systems of both the Temple and Rome. Jesus’ broken, bloody body bears witness to:

  • the perversion of justice as tens of thousands of refugees are wintering in the open,
  • as billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies quit producing effective, inexpensive drugs in favor of ruinously expense medications, sometimes of questionable improved efficacy
  • as corporations move off-shore to avoid paying their share of the cost to sustain a safe and just society at home.

You get the idea. And perhaps you are uncomfortably aware, that with a little self-examination, you will discover similar instinctive behaviors of your own.

I know that you know, that the story is not over. However, the growing edge for us tonight is to resist the temptation to jump to the next chapter. Our growing edge is to stay here in the midst of the uncomfortable truths, of our actions, as a community and individuals, instinctive as they may be. Our growing edge is to learn in the darkness.

 

A Surprise To Live By

A Sermon for the Easter Vigil: Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-4a, Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21, Isaiah 55:1-11, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Romans 6:3-11, Luke 24:1-12

Good Friday’s homiletic reflection was a rejection of today’s dominate understanding of The Atonement. It was:

  • a rejection of the idea that Jesus is a substitute or surrogate sacrifice for our sins
  • a rejection of thinking that suffering is good for us
  • a rejection of allowing those, with the responsibility, to act for the good of the people, the justification for not acting, because the suffering of the oppressed will lead to their greater glory in time
  • a rejection of the idea that those people whose life circumstances are penury have some sort of moral or spiritual defect
  • a rejection of the notion that suffering is a sort of punishment;that will lead us to greater glory in time.

Friday night we left sulking in the darkness born in the midst of the uncomfortable truths about our actions, as a community and as individuals, instinctive as they may be. Having spent the last day pondering our stance in the shadow of the cross this evening is a reminder that the cross is a symbol of grossly out of control perverted justice systems.

Tonight we have journeyed through several reminders of life in the presence of God.

We:

  • have traveled from creation; from the first light to our creation in God’s likeness and our stewardship of cosmos
  • have traveled through Israel’s being guarded by a pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day, and being saved from destruction at the Red Sea
  • have traveled to gleaning that God thoughts are not our thoughts, so, as stiffed necked as we have been, everyone who thirsts, comes to the waters; and those who have no money, are to come, to buy and to eat; they are to buy wine and milk without money and without price
  •  have traveled to dry desert valley and witnessed that even though our lives are as desiccated as dry bones God’s spirit breath will be breathed into us, and we will live
  • have traveled to the point where we have grasped that all judgment has been removed from us, that disasters have been turned aside, that our oppressors have been dealt with, that the shame of the lame and the outcast will be changed to praise and renown
  • have traveled to where we have seen, this very night, light bursting forth from a new fire as the Light of Christ.

We have not only renewed the story, but we have also renewed our baptism, in which we are bound to the story of life in Christ including the requirements, the vows we make governing how we will live in this world. We have heard Paul’s summary of this surprising morning; that Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so that we might also walk in newness of life.

The summary is surprising because the story is surprising. And the story is surprising because it is completely unexpected for Jesus’ tomb to be empty. It may have been reasonable for the disciples to think that the authorities would steal Jesus’ body; but not likely. But it is in no way reasonable for anyone to anticipate that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women, would see God’s messenger and be asked: “Why are you seeking the living among the dead!” Yes – I know Jesus told everyone he would rise on the third day, but no one really believed him. We have a hard enough time believing it now, and we have generations of generations of witnesses to the power of the hope that arises from this morning’s joyfully disturbing surprise.

From Friday night’s experience, we can now confess: Jesus died not for our sins but because of our sins. However, at this moment, we can also confess that by God’s almighty grace the Divine Word did not return empty, but is accomplishing God’s purpose (Isaiah 55:11) in that by The Resurrection Jesus is restoring us to right relationship with God and each other (Sakenfeld). We can now confess, that with Jesus returning to God, at his Ascension, and with the sending of the Spirit, a complete holistic understanding of atonement: including Jesus’ Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension (Wimberly (112-117).

This morning’s joyfully disturbing surprise is a surprise because no one expects it. It is disturbing because tombs should not be empty. It is joyful because now we know God’s grace is more powerful than our all sins; now we know that we and all creation are becoming at one with God and each other.

It is a surprise here and now because the Atonement is no longer a millenniums ago moment in which Jesus’ followers became at one with God and themselves. Now The Atonement is the continuing transformation in which each of us, and all of us, with all of the cosmos, are becoming at one with God and each other just as Jesus and God are one (John 17:1-2, 11, 20-23). It’s a surprise we can live with. Better yet, it is a surprise we can live by.

 


 

References

Carver, William Owen. “Atonement.” INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE ENCYCLOPEDIA. Ed. James Orr. WORDSearch, 2014.

Corey, Benjamin. “How A Poor Theology Of The Cross Created America’s Broken.” Sojo.net. 04 02 2014. <sojo.net/blogs>.

Dominy, Bert. “Atonement.” Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent C. Butler. Prod. Holman Bible Publishers. n.d.

Easton, Matthew George. “Atonement.” Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp. n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

wesleybros.com. 21 July 2015.

Wimberly, Edward. Counseling African American Marriages and Families. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1977.

 

Dry Bones and Beginning

A sermon for an Easter Vigil

Genesis 1:1-31, 2:1-4a [The Story of Creation], Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea], Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all], Ezekiel 37:1-14 [The valley of dry bones], Zephaniah 3:1420 [The gathering of God’s people]

At The Eucharist: Romans 6:3-11, Psalm 114, Mark 16:18

Israel is dead. Defeated by Assyria in 724 Israel ceased to exist. A hundred and twenty years later, when Egypt is defeated by Babylon the scraps of Israel, throws her lot in with Babylon, and regains vassal life. A decade later Jehoiakim rebels; he is killed; over the next several years there is more fighting and in  597 about everyone in Israel is exiled to Babylon among them is Ezekiel.

Throughout all this mess and most of Israel’s exile Ezekiel’s prophecy rants judgment against Israel for:  false prophets, idolatry, corrupt kings, and apostasy. He doesn’t leave other nations out, spewing prophecy for doom for grievous abominations.  (Holman Bible Dictionary) Ezekiel’s message? Israel was destroyed because she was not capable of being God’s covenant people. (Petersen & Bevery, 2010)

But, woven throughout Ezekiel’s doom and gloom is a glimmer of hope a message of restoration.

I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; … so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

Israel cannot hear it, cannot see, cannot imagine it because they believe they are dead, betray by leaders, and abandoned by God, they are forgotten; Israel is dead. They cannot hear God’s recent promise:

…you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezekiel 36:28)

If promises and rational argument won’t work, perhaps absurd, ridiculous images can reinvigorate Israel’s crippled imaginations, so that they may know the presence of God. (Petersen & Bevery, 2010)

So, God snatches Ezekiel away to a wide valley, the scene of a long ago lost battle, full of uncountable dry bones. The conversation moves from the question of if these bones can live, to the words, the knowledge, by which these bones can live, to the breathing of new life into freshly joined and enfleshed bones. The ‘breath’ is ‘ruach’ the breath, the spirt of God blown into apar of the adama giving life to adam, blown into the dust of the ground giving life to humanity. The woof and warp of the story reveals the knowledge to bring new life and the breath of life itself comes from God. Israel, does not have regenerative ability within herself; only God does. The knowledge and source of life, draws from Genesis, the beginning.

But tonight, with the still raw experience of Jesus’ death shaping our imaginations I’m wondering what beginning we, right here, right now envision. I have a suspicion, in a world of ‘I-whatever’ we read the creation narrative as being about the end product, us, so creation is all about us. I invite us to back up just a bit, to see the larger picture, to notice that we are created in the divine image as stewards of creation. We are, by divine intent, connected to all creation, not only in our making, but in our purpose. We are a part of a grand cosmic whole; something Israel forgot.

For Israel the grand cosmic whole was for sure what we call the Middle East perhaps a bit more expansive, capped with the vast night sky, full of uncountable stars, and mystery.

Today, our cosmic vision is vaster, (to my surprise in the dictionary). We know of our planet, our solar system, in our galaxy, in a galaxy cluster, part of a super cluster, thousands upon thousands of which rush through billowing clouds of dust, and immense un-seeable energy and mass; all this make up our universe, that just maybe part of unknowable numbers of universes. And all of this the known and unknown is all interconnected, ebbing and flowing in continuous cycles of creation, and destruction. It’s ever moving, ever shifting, but always, always connected; from the teeniest particle to the largest unknowable mass, it is all connected. It is all part of a single cosmic whole spoken/sung into being by God’s word of such love, become such energy, become such matter that we, humanity, bearers of the divine image, became ~ are.

The Valley of the Dry Bones, invites Israel back into their cosmic image of being in God’s presence, from which all of and all life is. The Valley of the Dry Bones, invites us back into our grand cosmic image. Some night, go deep into a farmer’s field to observe the stars.

Find NASA’s website and explore cosmic image after cosmic image, after cosmic image, and see what we are a part of, connected to.

Like Israel we forget our cosmic connections, or at least we reduce it to small images, we think we can control, or are comfortable with. We tend to see Easter as Jesus’ resurrection and through this miracle “my connection” to God’s presence. But Easter does so much more. Easter does reconnect me to myself, reconnects you to yourself, reconnects each us to each other, reconnects me to God, reconnects you to God, reconnects all of us, all of humanity to God. Easter reconnects all of us to each other, all of us to all that grand, beyond imagination, beyond cosmic being to the absurdity that a measure of God’s original love for us, revealed in the cosmic vastness is exceeded only by  God’s death shattering resurrection of Jesus by which, and in which we are reconnected, by which and in which we are born anew.

This Easter you are invited to the valley of death, to the valley of dry bones; you are invited to the tomb the death place  of all your hope and dreams; you are invited to be surprised by the endless connections of grand cosmic possibilities of new life.


References

Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Holman Bible Dictionary. (n.d.). WORD – QuickVerse .

Petersen, D., & Bevery, R. G. (2010). New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press.

You are about to die and be raised in Christ!

A Sermon for The Easter Vigil

Genesis 1:1-2:4a [The Story of Creation], Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 [Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea], Isaiah 55:1-11 [Salvation offered freely to all], Zephaniah 3:14-20 [The gathering of God’s people], Romans 6:3-11, Psalm 114, Matthew 28:1-10

This evening Sarah will be baptized. The Vigil readings give us the opportunity to explore how Baptism’s roots   go far beyond Jesus all the way back to creation.  The place we’ll start is Paul; he tells us we are baptized into Christ’s death, not a real comforting thought. Paul’s reasoning is simple:    when we die because we are connected to Jesus death by baptism, by baptism we are connected to Jesus’ resurrection, and we will as Paul writes: walk in newness of life.  It’s a story captured in a baptismal liturgy of a remote people whose fonts look like small water-filled coffins; and whose children are plunged into them as the priest shouts:  “I kill you,” and who witness their children are raised high as the priest proclaims:  “and raise you in Christ!” It’s dramatic;  almost as dramatic as the connection baptism has with all of scripture. So, off we go, and plunge into the darkness of chaos.

And that what it was, all darkness and chaos, but also the lack of reason the lack of relationship the lack of love. The first thing God does is to show up, ruach – wind, spirit, or breath; and then God sings, harmonics of love burst forth first in light, not illumination, but presence a declaration I am here! And then there was all sorts of stuff, including the light of illumination, by which we see the world, and by which we perceive truth.

On the very last day we are created. Two bits are critical. One is that we are created in the image of God; that doesn’t mean we look like God; it means we bear, or carry, God’s image into the world. Imago Dei Signifier, it’s not as poetic as I’d hope, but you get the point.  Second: God makes us male and female in God’s image. I, she, we, are all forged as Imago Dei Signifier; none more so than any other, for sum of us all is less than a mere passing of infinite love.

The last thing God does is to call us to vocation. We are to:  fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over … over every living thing… Remember this is an agricultural vocation, tilling the earth. To subdue and dominate is to bring forth earth’s bounty. This is a calling to be stewards, the care takers of every living thing.

Famine drives the Hebrews into Egypt. They survive, they grow in to an overly prosperous people, and the new Pharaoh enslaves them. God calls Moses, to lead the Hebrews from slavery to freedom. It requires a dramatic set of signs, including the death of every first born Egyptian. They are making their way out of Egypt when Pharaoh decides: Nope this isn’t going to happen. and sets out after the Hebrews, who panic. Why? Have they already forgotten all those divine signs, I guess so, Pharaoh seems to have. Or do they not quite trust God and faced with death, reflexively turn back to the deceptive ways of worldly power? Moses tells them: Do not be afraid, stand firm, and witness the salvation God will provide for you today. They do, and witness a massive technological failure, it’s amazing what mud will do to the best we can think up, and the Egyptian army drowns as they dance to Miriam’s song on the shores of the sea. You would think it be unforgettable.

And it was ~ sort of. They enshrine Miriam’s song in liturgy, but pretty much forget everything else. Half a millennia later Isaiah is preaching to Judah, who’s trying to establish their own destiny. Isaiah questions their tactics, their reasoning, and their theology; here they go again, not trusting God. He asks: Why do you spend your money at Macy’s, Dillard’s or Land’s Ends? Why do you seek bargains at Wal-Mart, or Dollar General? What do you think you’re really going to find at Amazon or E-bay?  Thirsty? God provides living water, ~ no charge. Hungry? God provides bread and milk ~ no charge. Isaiah is pointing to the covenant that originally linked them to God. He’s telling Judah God wants to reestablish that covenant. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s God’s way.Isaiah also lets them know God has no worries, what God seeks, God will see.

Another hundred years and this time Zephaniah is speaking to God’s people. The message is the same, trust God, the emphasis is different: God is in your midst, gathering the outcast, healing the sick and broken, transforming shame to praise darkness and chaos to light.

And now we are three days after monumental divine failure, the messiah is dead, crucified at the request of his own people, at the hands of Rome. Mary and Mary go to the tomb. They witness: an earthquake, the appearance of an angel, the guards freeze in fear. They see Jesus and he tells them to go tell his disciples, he will meet them in Galilee.  

We do not know what they expected; none of the above was on the list. I’m not sure what we expect, yes we know about Jesus’ resurrection, but we don’t expect Mary and Mary to be the first apostles, but they are, they are the first people sent to bear witness to the resurrected Jesus.

All of this is what we are baptized into. The end point for us is the promise of resurrection. Our entry point is our sharing in Jesus’s death. But the foundation, is laid all the way back in Genesis, with light that brings light, that shapes us as Imago Dei Signifier, that calls us to tend every living thing. At the Red Sea we witness God’s continuing refrain:  Do not be afraid, stand firm, and witness the salvation God will provide for you today. Through prophetic voices we hear God’s offer of living water, bread and milk, and covenant life. Through prophetic voices we are prompted to trust God to take care of all the details. And just as God provided a vocational calling so does Jesus’ we are called to follow Mary and Mary to go and share Imago Dei in a crucified messiah now risen from the dead, who brings us into complete covenant relationship for all eternity.

It’s not a job I’m up to, but neither was Moses, or David, or Isaiah, or Zephaniah, or the disciples, or Mary or Mary; but that’s God’s way. And the truth is they carried God’s image, after all we have it, that being said, we can trust God to trust us.

Sarah, you are about to die and be raised in Christ!  so welcome to the church, the body of Christ, as Imago Dei Signifier, to live in light,  stand firm, trust God and go about tending to all creation. It’s not what anyone would expect, but God’s ways are not our ways, and our risen Christ, is the eternal witness.