In the Fullness of Time

Excerpt from God Has A Dream:

There is a lovely phrase which St. Paul uses in his letter to the new Christian converts in Galatia.  And that phrase is “in the fullness of time.”  Paul speaks about how when Jesus was born it was at just the right time, all the pieces had fallen into place, the antecedents were just right, and it all happened at exactly the right moment.  A little earlier would have been too soon and a little later would have been too late.  When it happened it could not have been at any other moment.

Last year, many of us had a good laugh at the hype created by a fringe religious group who claimed to have exclusive knowledge that the end of the world was coming on May 21, 2011.  As you may (or may not) recall, the day itself came and went without event.  This was by no means the first time someone tried to cash in on apocalyptic hype.  At the turn of the Millennium, there was “much ado about nothing” regarding the Y2K computer bug.  In the 19th century, a man named William Miller made three unsuccessful attempts to predict the end of the world before his followers lost faith in him.  Even before that, at the turn of the previous millennium, Pope Sylvester II trembled in prayer in his church, convinced that the world would come to an end that very night.  Later this year, so we’re told, the Mayan calendar is supposed to run out, leading some people to speculate that this ancient civilization knew something we don’t about the apocalypse.

Predicting the what, where, and when of the end of the world has never failed to be a sensationalistic, money-making pastime for would-be prophets and their paranoid followers.  We Christians have proved to be especially vulnerable to these scam artists, mainly because of the presence of the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament.  Many claim that this document, when read and interpreted properly, provides a detailed road map for the end of the world.  It’s bizarre and cryptic imagery are said to contain secret messages about the Apocalypse that are meant to be decoded by those with the proper biblical study tools.  The downside of this approach is that every single prediction supposedly “decoded” from the book of Revelation has turned out to be wrong.  God’s plan, it seems, is not so readily available for human review and approval, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to figure it out anyway.

Many of us might find it easy to laugh at them for their misguided pursuit.  However, I’d like to take a moment to sympathize with them.  My theory is that folks who tend to obsess over this kind of thing are looking for something.  I think they’re looking for a sense of meaning and purpose in life.  They want to believe that God has a plan for the world and that we’re not all just wandering aimlessly through history.  I can relate to that.

The next step that most of these folks take is to apply this concept of God’s plan to their personal lives.  They might say, “Not only does the universe have a destiny, but so do I.  I’m an important part of God’s plan.  Therefore, my life has meaning.”  Like I said before, I can respect that need.  I feel it too.  I think we all do.  But we have to watch out and make sure that we don’t carry this idea too far.

Our ancestors in the Calvinist tradition were famous for believing that God predestines the fate of every single human being.  They believed that some people were destined for eternal bliss in heaven while others were doomed to endless suffering in hell.  What makes the difference, they said, is “unconditional election” by God.  God chose who would be “saved” or “damned” from the beginning of time, and there is nothing that anyone can do or say to change their fate.  What’s more is that there was no way to know with any absolute certainty about which category you were in.  This theological belief, called “double predestination”, caused people a lot of anxiety.

I’ve also seen people take the idea of God’s plan to unhealthy extremes in rather mundane matters.  When I was in high school, I worked in a bookstore that had a section where we sold religiously themed posters.  One day, I was walking through the stacks when I came across a woman who was kneeling on the floor, weeping.  She had two posters laid out on the floor in front of her.  The problem, it turned out, was that she couldn’t figure out which poster God wanted her to buy.  Just like those folks who are obsessed with predicting the end of the world and the early Calvinist belief in double predestination, this person in the bookstore had taken the idea of God’s plan too far.

When I think about the idea of a divine plan for my life or history, I try not to get too hung up on the details of what, when, and where certain things are supposed to happen.  If we occupy our time with those kinds of questions, I think we’re more likely to end up in an unhealthy state of mind.  Rather, when I think about God’s plan, I prefer to ask questions of who, how, and why.

God is far less interested in what you’re doing and more interested in who you’re becoming, how you’re living, and why you do what you do.  These are questions of the heart.  Answering these questions goes a long way in helping us forge a sense of meaning and significance in our lives.  For example, let’s take a young person in school who is trying to decide on a career path.  I don’t think God tends to care very much whether someone decides to become a lawyer, a doctor, or a minister.  Those are questions of what, where, and when.  Of greater concern to God is whether that person wants to become a lawyer in order to just make money or to serve the greater cause of justice.  In God’s eyes, a waitress in a diner with a heart for hospitality is more holy, more in step with God’s plan, than a minister who just likes to hear the sound of his own voice.  Who we are is much more important than what we do.

That’s why I tend to avoid the phrase “God’s plan” when it comes to the events of history.  I much prefer to think of “God’s vision” or “God’s dream” as Desmond Tutu calls it.  God’s dream is a dynamic thing.  It’s always changing and in motion.  God is the ultimate creator of this dream, but has invited each one of us to become co-creators with God and each other.  Archbishop Tutu says it like this:

It has often been said, “What we are is God’s gift to us.  What we become is our gift to God.”  What we become is not about status, it is about love.  Do we love like God, as God so deeply desires?  Do we become like God, as God so deeply desires us to be?

As for the substance of the plan itself, the shape it takes is up to us, and God works with and around what we bring to the table.  Again, in the words of Archbishop Tutu:

There is a wonderful Portuguese saying that God writes straight with crooked lines.  God works through history to realize God’s dream.  God makes a proposal to each of us and hopes our response will move His dream forward.  But if we don’t, God does not abandon the goal, He does not abandon the dream.  God adjusts God’s methods to accommodate the detour, but we are going to come back onto the main road and eventually arrive at the destination.

I love that phrase: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  To me, it describes so well my experience of life in this world where things don’t always go according to plan.  Accidents happen.  Things don’t always go your way.  Life goes on.  It doesn’t mean that God isn’t present or working in this world and in our lives.  It means that, if we’re going to look for God, we have to look deeper than the level of surface appearances and random events.

When someone gets sick, or an accident happens, or a terrible tragedy overtakes us, people are prone to ask, “Why is God doing this?” or “Why did God allow this to happen?”  I have to be honest with you, I don’t think God had anything to do with it.  The God of love that I believe in is not in the business of causing cancer and car accidents.  I think these things just happen.  The God I believe in is the one who meets us in the middle of these disasters and leads us to respond in a certain way.

One of my favorite examples that I use to illustrate this point is the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Some people said that God allowed those airplanes to crash because God was judging the United States for one reason or another.  I don’t think that’s true.  I don’t see God in that at all.  I see God in those volunteers who climbed the smoldering piles of rubble with buckets in their hands to get the trapped survivors out.  I see God in the police and fire fighters who risked or gave their lives to save others.  That’s where God is.  That’s God’s plan, God’s dream, in action.

I don’t know if there will one day be an apocalyptic end to the world.  I don’t know if there will be a once & for all victory of goodness over evil “in the fullness of time”.  I don’t know if we, or our children, or our grandchildren will ever live in a perfect world.

I don’t know much, but this is what I believe:

When I look out at the stars in the heavens, I see a harmony that human selfishness cannot touch.  We might destroy ourselves and each other someday.  We might even take our whole planet into extinction with us.  But the beauty of nebulae, quasars, and galaxies will still be there.  The impulse toward order and equilibrium will never be gone from our universe.  That same impulse exists in each one of us.  We call it life, we call it justice, and we call it compassion.  I call it God.  As long as there is a universe to exist, God will never stop working within it to shape darkness, death, and chaos into light, life, and love.  As long as we are alive in this world, God will never stop inviting us to join God in this continuing mission.  I close this sermon and end this series by going back to the words of Desmond Tutu himself:

All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation.  God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.  What can separate us from the love of God?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And as we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.

Stillness: Hearing God’s Voice

Psalm 131

Excerpt from God Has A Dream:

God is available to all of us.  God says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Each one of us wants and needs to give ourselves space for quiet.  We can hear God’s voice most clearly when we are quiet, uncluttered, undistracted—when we are still.  Be still, be quiet, and then you begin to see with the eyes of the heart.

One image that I have of the spiritual life is of sitting in front of a fire on a cold day.  We don’t have to do anything.  We just have to sit in front of the fire and then gradually the qualities of the fire are transferred to us.  We begin to feel the warmth.  We become the attributes of the fire.  It’s like that with us and God.  As we take time to be still and to be in God’s presence, the qualities of God are transferred to us.

Far too frequently we see ourselves as doers.  As we’ve seen, we feel we must endlessly work and achieve.  We have not always learned just to be receptive, to be in the presence of God, quiet, available, and letting God be God, who wants us to be God.  We are shocked, actually, when we hear that what God wants is for us to be godlike, for us to become more and more like God.  Not by doing anything, but by letting God be God in and through us.

As many of you already know, we’ve been making our way through this summer with Desmond Tutu’s book, God Has A Dream.  Last week, we read the chapter entitled “Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart” and we talked about the way in which you and I are called to look past our present life-circumstances and deep into this present moment in which we find ourselves.  It is here, in the very essence of this moment, that we find the loving presence of God: creating and sustaining us moment-by-moment.  We took a look at the lives of those remarkable individuals who, through their own “seeing with the eyes of the heart”, were able to bear witness to God’s ongoing redemption of the world.  We talked about Joseph from the book of Genesis, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit, and eventually elevated to a high office in the land of Egypt.  He looked with the eyes of his heart and saw God at work in his life, drawing light out of darkness, order out of chaos, and life out of death.  When his brothers came back, groveling and begging, he seized the opportunity for reconciliation instead of revenge.  He said to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

We also talked about Nelson Mandela, who went to jail as an angry young man in the 1960s and emerged to become the first black president of South Africa and a moral leader of the free world.  Finally, we also talked about Jesus, who suffered an ignoble death by torture and execution as a failed nonviolent revolutionary under the thumb of corrupt political and religious leaders, but whose life continues to shine as a beacon of hope for over two billion Christians in the world today, two millennia after his birth.

This week, we’re going to talk about how it is that we too can learn to see “with the eyes of the heart” and become the kind of people who see past surface appearances and into the very essence of reality.  The key element in this process, according to Archbishop Tutu, is the practice of stillness.

We North Americans, on the whole, tend to be suspicious of stillness.  Personally, I have a three year old at home, so I usually equate the sound of silence with trouble.  There have been many times when I’ve emerged from an extended period of pleasant silence only to discover the bathroom sink decorated with lipstick or a dining room chair entirely slathered with diaper cream.  Silence is not golden.  Silence is suspicious.  Tell me, parents and grandparents, am I right?

But, even without the presence of our tiny little bundles of destruction, we North Americans still tend to be suspicious of stillness.  We prefer to keep the radio or TV going at all times in order to keep the stillness at bay because the bottom line is that, at heart, we’re afraid of stillness.

Why?  What is it about stillness that scares us so much?

Based on what I’ve seen in myself and others, I think it’s two things.  First of all, we’re afraid that if we surrender to stillness and allow ourselves to just sit in silence for a while, we’ll be overwhelmed by that haunting sense of loneliness and isolation we carry inside us.  This is true for all of us, without exception.  Deep down, we are all afraid of being alone.  So we try to keep moving with the herd and keep up with the pack of our fellow homo sapiens.

The second thing that scares us about stillness is the way that our own thoughts tend to creep up on us when we’re not constantly overloading ourselves with information.  Specifically, I’m talking about that inner voice of criticism and self-hatred that follows us around.  You know the one I’m talking about: it’s the voice that says things like, “You’re not good enough.  You’re not smart enough.  You’re not pretty enough.  You’re not successful enough.  You don’t work hard enough.  You don’t make enough money.  Your house isn’t clean enough.  You don’t spend enough time with your family.  You don’t spend enough time at the office.  You don’t pray enough.  You don’t go to church enough.”  It could be any or all of those voices that you hear inside your head.  It could even be something else that pertains specifically to you, but you get what I’m saying.  We feel guilty because there’s always something more that we could or should be doing.  It’s really too much for any one human being to manage, so we just try to stave off the guilt by drowning out that inner voice with noise… any noise will do, so long as we don’t have to be left alone with our thoughts.

Aloneness and self-criticism, those are the two things that scare us most about stillness.  Together, they form the reason why we fill our lives with endless amounts of what Shakespeare called “sound and fury”.  Our fear keeps us running from our true selves and, ironically, the source of our power to overcome our fear, change our own lives, and maybe even the world around us.

Most of my heroes in this world points to their respective practices of prayer and/or meditation as their primary source of energy and inspiration for the extraordinary work they do.  I’m thinking of my usual list: people like the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, and yes, Desmond Tutu.

Archbishop Tutu says:

The Spirit of God sends us into the fray, as it sent Jesus, but we must observe the sequence in his life and we will see that disengagement, waiting on God, always precedes engagement.  He waited to be anointed with God’s Spirit, which made him preach the Good News to the poor and the setting free of captives.  He went into retreat in the wilderness.  He had experience of the transfiguration and then went into the valley of crass misunderstanding and insistent demand.  If it was so vital for the Son of God, it can’t be otherwise for us.  Our level of spiritual and moral growth is really all we can give the world.

So you see, not only is the practice of stillness essential for Desmond Tutu in his work, but it was even essential for Jesus himself.  There is something about the stillness itself that empowers us to overcome the fear that keeps us from stillness.

There are several scenes in the gospels where Jesus deliberately takes time away by himself or with only a few close friends to pray and commune with God.  I like to imagine that it was in these moments of quiet contemplation, as he observed the world around him with the eyes of his heart, that he received the inspiration for most of his parables and teaching.  Maybe there was a day when he was struggling with how to explain the Kingdom of God to his students.  Then, looking around on the lonely hill where he had gone to meditate, he spotted a mustard bush with a bird’s nest in it.  And that’s when it hit him: “Aha!” he says, “That’s it!  The Kingdom of God is like this mustard bush.  It starts as a tiny seed, but then grows into a great, big bush where birds can come and build their nests.”  Maybe the same kind of thing happened for those times when he compared the Kingdom of God to crops growing in a field, a woman kneading bread dough, or farm workers calling it a day.  I can easily imagine that it was through his practice of meditation that he came to realize the truth of God’s abundant providence as it was revealed in the natural world.  With the eyes of his heart opened through prayer and meditation, he was able to look around and see God’s love in the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.  Birds and flowers don’t drive themselves crazy running rat race or keeping up with the Joneses, yet God feeds and clothes them so well that we hold them up as our highest standard of beauty.  Think about it: what do people do at weddings and proms when we want to look our best?  We decorate our clothes, our dinner tables, and our churches with flowers.  It’s like all our finest fashion designers and interior decorators just give up because nothing they make can compete with the beauty of what God has already made.  Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

Jesus’ practice of prayer and meditation gave him the eyes to see that.  And I think the same can be true for us as well.

The great prophets, mystics, and sages of the world’s religions drew spiritual power from their cultivation of stillness in the practice of prayer and meditation.  Like each and every one of us, each and every one of them probably wrestled with the same fears and insecurities.  They too probably had times when they were afraid to be alone or were haunted by the inner voices of criticism and self-hatred, but they bravely faced the darkness, the silence, and the stillness rather than running away or trying to fill every moment with some kind of noise or activity.  And the amazing thing is this: they found what Jesus found in the stillness.  The eyes of their hearts were opened and they began to see another, deeper reality.  They began to hear another voice in the silence.

Instead of that haunting voice of criticism and condemnation, they began to hear the voice of love and acceptance.  You are loved.  You matter.  Paul Tillich, the great twentieth century theologian, described that voice like this:

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

Likewise, instead of the loneliness of which we are so afraid, the great mystics, in their stillness, experience a deep sense of belonging and interdependence.  I am not alone.  My life is connected to and dependent on yours.  We belong to the trees, the animals, the earth, and they belong to us.  We share this one planet in common.  All life has its origin in the heart and mind of God.  Therefore, all life is significant, important, and worth preserving.  Everything and everyone belongs in this web of existence.  We can never truly say “I don’t need you” to anyone and no one can truly it to us.  We affect each other.  We are a part of each other.

My favorite illustration of this truth comes from science itself: Did you know that most of the atoms in your body could only have been formed during the superhot explosion of a supernova?  Do you know what that means?  It means that, at the most basic level, the very substance of our bodies is made of the remnants of old, exploded stars.  You and I are literally made of stardust.  Isn’t that amazing?  And, since matter cannot ultimately be destroyed, it makes me wonder what the atoms of my body will be part of in another four billion years.  Who knows?  Maybe these very oxygen atoms coming out of my lungs right now will one day be breathed in and out by another preacher in another kind of church on another world where she is telling her congregation about this same reality of interconnected existence.

I’m sorry if this is starting to sound a little too much like science fiction for you, but I get really excited about it because it’s just so amazing.  We are never alone.  We are all connected.  We are part of an interdependent web of existence.  Within and around us all is that great, eternal mystery that we Christians call God.

This mystery is the ultimate reality that the great spiritual geniuses of the world have discovered in their practice of stillness.  Instead of the voice of criticism, they discovered the voice of love.  Instead of being alone, they discovered that they belong to the great community of life.  That dual sense of acceptance and belonging is what gives them the power to stand up, speak out, and overcome all kinds of wrong and injustice in the world.  Archbishop Tutu, Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama were all able to face the darkness because they knew from their practice of stillness that injustice was doomed to fail because it goes against the grain of nature.  Exclusion and inequality based on something as ridiculous as ethnicity or skin color is not only offensive, it is ridiculous.  There’s no way it can succeed because that’s just not how the universe was designed.  Martin Luther King, quoting the Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker, once said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

When we are troubled by the evil we see in this world, we can laugh in its face.  We can know that it’s ultimately doomed to fail and disintegrate.  Just as sure as the law of gravity, the wrong in this world will one day fall to the ground.  This promise woven into the very fabric of space and time.  When we cultivate the practice of stillness through our own exercises of prayer and meditation, we can learn to hear that voice and trust that promise as well.  We, like our prophetic heroes, can be empowered to become world-changers.

All that is required of us is nothing.  We must simply be.  As someone once told me, we have to remember that we are human beings and not human doings.

If you have never taken the time to cultivate a practice of stillness, I would like to encourage you to do so.  Take fifteen or twenty minutes out of your day and just sit in the quiet.  Just be.  Many of us have heard the urgent phrase, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”  Right now, I want to encourage you to do the opposite: “Don’t do something, just sit there!”

With your eyes closed and your back straight, focus your attention on rhythm of your breathing.  Whenever you notice your mind beginning to wander, just gently bring your attention back to the unconscious rhythm of your breath.  If your mind wanders a thousand times, just gently bring it back a thousand times.  It’s simple, but it’s not easy.  Try this for twenty minutes a day and see what a difference it makes in your life.  If you can’t find twenty minutes, then do it for fifteen, or ten, or five.  Any practice is better than no practice at all.  Believe me, I have two jobs and two kids, so I know how hard it can be to find twenty quiet minutes to yourself in a day.  But if I can do it, anyone can.

Stillness is frightening, but it is also your friend.  Within its bosom, we find the power of acceptance and belonging that can set us free from what we fear most.  In silence, we can hear the voice of God reminding us that we are loved and inspiring us to love the world as God does.




Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart

Morpheus, a character from ‘The Matrix’ who introduces people to “the real world” by inviting them take a red pill. “If you take the red pill,” he says, “you stay in Wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Genesis 50:15-21

Click here to listen to this sermon at

Excerpt from God Has A Dream

Dear Child of God, I am sorry to say that suffering is not optional.  It seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, but suffering can either embitter or ennoble.  Our suffering can become a spirituality of transformation when we understand that we have a role in God’s transfiguration of the world.  And if we are to be true partners with God, we must learn to see with the eyes of God—that is, to see with the eyes of the heart and not just the eyes of the head.  The eyes of the heart are not concerned with appearances but essences, as we cultivate these eyes we are able to learn from our suffering and to see the world with more loving, forgiving, humble, generous eyes.

I have to confess that I really get a kick out of those movies and TV shows whose plots are built around the premise that the everyday “normal” world we all inhabit is a hollow fantasy and the “real” world is way more intense and exciting than most people can imagine.  I went to college in the late 90s and the movie that most exemplifies this idea for people my age is The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves.  In this movie, the “normal” world turns out to be a computer simulation used by evil robots who are trying to control the minds of the human race.  The main character, a regular guy with a boring job in the beginning, turns out to be a hero with super-powers who is destined to save humanity from the robots.

Another example is the TV show Weeds.  This show takes place in sunny, suburban California, where a soccer mom named Nancy is trying to make ends meet for herself and two kids.  But the deep, dark secret is that Nancy is actually selling marijuana.  The show follows Nancy as her life drifts farther and farther away from the world of PTA meetings and white picket fences and into the criminal underworld of gangsters and drug dealers.

What all of these movies and shows have in common is the idea that the “real” world is somehow darker and seedier than the “normal” world.  Wesley Snipe says it like this in the movie Blade: “You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it – the real world. And if you wanna survive it, you better learn to pull the trigger!”

Sounds pretty intense, doesn’t it?

I think these stories tend appeal to people because they reflect, in a metaphorical way, the experience of disillusionment that everyone goes through in the process of growing up.  When we were young, our parents tried to shelter us from the harsh realities of life.  We do the same for our kids and grandkids.  Are there any good parents who don’t worry about the amount of gratuitous sex and violence their kids see on TV?  I doubt it.  We instinctively want to protect our kids from being exposed to those realities too soon, even though we all know our kids will eventually see them anyway, in spite of our best efforts.

So, why do we try to shield them?  Why, instead, do we bring them to church and enroll them in Sunday school where they can learn the stories of the Bible and the basic beliefs and values of our faith?

There are many out there who argue that we are simply trying to delay the inevitable.  They would say that we are trying to keep our kids locked up in a fantasy world that’s “just a sugar-coated topping” in the words of Wesley Snipe.  They would say that we parents are pining for our lost innocence and therefore trying to prevent that loss from happening to our kids.  Afraid of reality, they say, we try to keep ourselves and our children imprisoned in a fantasy world where everything is fine and everyone is happy all the time.

Religion, according to these folks, is the ultimate enforcer of the fantasy world.  Karl Marx, the philosopher who founded the idea of Communism, called religion “the opiate of the masses.”  Faith in God, he said, was part of the fantasy world.  The real world, according to Marx, was a struggle to the death between the haves and the have-nots.  Religion, he said, was one of the tools that the haves used to keep the have-nots in line.  Similarly, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared that “God is dead,” considered virtues like compassion and humility to be part of the morality of the weak.  According to Nietzsche’s thinking, might makes right.  The only real winner is the superman who rises above the masses and imposes his will upon his fellow human beings.  Power, according to Nietzsche, is the only real morality.  It should come as no surprise then, that Nietzsche’s number one fan in the twentieth century was a man named Adolf Hitler.  Nazism was basically just Nietzsche’s philosophy in practice.

Both Marx and Nietzsche (the founders of Communism and Nazism, respectively), as materialist philosophers with a cynical edge, believed they had found the real world beneath the surface of everyday “normal” reality.  Each one thought he possessed the secret knowledge that held the key to history.  And you know what?  They were right… to a point.

They were right in observing that the happy world of easy answers, black & white morality, and “happily ever after” fairy tale endings is ultimately a fantasy constructed by people who want to shield themselves and their kids from the harsh realities of real life.  They were right in observing that many people use religion as a means of enforcing belief in the fantasy, threatening hellfire and damnation to those who question or doubt the fantasy’s validity.  They were right in guessing that truly mature people are those who can face the darkness of reality and see this complicated world for what it really is.  They were right in those things.

But they were also wrong.  They were wrong insofar as they believed that they had fully sounded the depths of reality.  They were wrong insofar as they presumed that this new level of consciousness they had uncovered was the final one.  They were wrong, not because they went too far in their quest for the truth, but because they didn’t go far enough.

As a person of faith, I believe there is another level of reality, of which Marx and Nietzsche were apparently unaware.  The existence of this level of reality can be neither proved nor disproved by philosophy.  Reason can lead us only to the point of possibility, at which point each of us must then freely choose for ourselves what we will accept as the more probable truth.

The world I see beneath the so-called “real” world of harsh realities is characterized by the presence of justice and compassion.  Hindus call this reality “Brahman.”  The ancient Greeks called it “Logos.”  Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout history have traditionally identified this reality as personal and called it “Adonai,” “Allah,” or “God.”

God, so we say, is the one “from whom, through whom, and to whom” all things come.  It is in God that “we live, move, and have our being.”  For us, God is the mysterious “all in all” at the heart of the universe.  And what is the character of this ultimate reality?  We say that it is love.  “God is love,” as it says in the Bible.  How do we know this to be true?  We don’t, in an absolute sense.  We trust it to be true, however, because of what we have experienced in and through the person Jesus of Nazareth.

Looking at the life of Jesus, we experience something that Christians for millennia have chosen to accept as a revelation of God, the ultimate nature of reality.  Because of Jesus, we choose to believe that God is love.  We see it in the way that he drew our attention to flowers, birds, sunshine, and rain as evidence of God’s providential care.  We hear it in the parables he told about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  We feel it in the way he touched the unclean lepers and welcomed outcast sinners to dine at his family table.  Above all, we encounter it in the way that he died: forgiving his enemies and entrusting his spirit to God’s care.  Because of this, we say, “This is love.  This is ultimate reality.  This is what God is like.”  Because of this, the cross of Christ has become the central symbol of our faith.  And, because of this, we refuse to believe that death can have the final word over such love, so we celebrate Easter, the central holiday of our faith.  We tell stories of how, after Jesus’ death, some women came to his grave to pay their respects.  Upon their arrival, they found the tomb empty and the stone rolled away.  Then an angel suddenly appeared and asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen.”

Can we prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these things actually happened?  No.  But we believe them to be true because the love we see in Jesus leads us to believe that “love is strong as death” and is the creative power that gave birth to the universe.  The belief that “God is love” is the ultimate truth that “was from the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our eyes, that we have looked at and touched with our hands” in the person of Jesus.  We can’t prove any of this.  The truth of it can’t be forced on anyone.  It must be freely chosen.

We are free to choose whether we will confine Jesus and his message of love to the annals of history or see him as our living window into the ultimate nature of reality.  This is what Desmond Tutu means when he talks to us about “seeing with the eyes of the heart” in this week’s chapter of God Has a Dream.

This new way of seeing, Tutu says, changes things.  It changes the way we look at Jesus, the way we look at others, the way we look at ourselves, and the way we look at the world.  Archbishop Tutu says:

Many people ask me what I have learned from all of the experiences in my life, and I say unhesitatingly: People are wonderful.  It is true.  People really are wonderful.  This does not mean that people cannot be awful and do real evil.  They can.  Yet as you begin to see with the eyes of God, you start to realize that people’s anger and hatred and cruelty come from their own pain and suffering.  As we begin to see their words and behavior as simply the acting out of their suffering, we can have compassion for them.  We no longer feel attacked by them, and we can begin to see the light of God shining in them.  And when we begin to look for the light of God in people, an incredible thing happens.  We find it more and more in people—all people.

There is another story in the Bible of a person who was able to look past his own disillusionment and “see with the eyes of the heart.”  I’m talking about the story of Joseph, from the Old Testament book of Genesis.  Joseph, you may remember, was his father’s favorite son.  This fact made his brothers green with envy to the point where they faked his death and sold him into slavery.  Later on, Joseph was falsely accused of rape by his boss’ wife and ten thrown into prison to rot.  Much later, after a few providential run-ins with royal officials, Joseph was freed from prison and appointed to what we might call the Vice Presidency of Egypt.  It was at this point in the story, in the midst of a severe famine, that Joseph’s brothers show up again, this time groveling and begging for food, not realizing who they were talking to.  This would have been the perfect opportunity for revenge.  No one would have blamed him for holding a grudge, but that’s not what happened.  In this story, after telling his brothers who he was, Joseph wept with them and forgave them.  He said to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”.

Joseph knew all about disillusionment.  His fairy tale dreams were shattered at an early age.  He was well aware that, beneath the world of his childhood dreams, reality was a lot more complicated.  However, unlike Marx, Nietzsche, and the producers of those movies I mentioned, Joseph never stopped searching for that presence of justice and compassion at the heart of the universe.  I think it’s pretty clear that he must have found, or at least glimpsed, what he was looking for.  Somehow, he was able to look past the darkness and into the light beyond.  This way of seeing with the eyes of the heart brought Joseph to the point where he was able to forgive those who had done such unforgivable things to him.  He was even able to see the hand of providence at work at work in his circumstances, saying, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

Desmond Tutu tells us the story of another modern-day Joseph who was able to overcome injustice and let it shape him for the better.  He writes:

Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, eighteen of them on Robben Island breaking rocks into little rocks, a totally senseless task.  The unrelenting brightness of the light reflected off the white stone damaged his eyes so that now when you have your picture taken with him, you will be asked not to use a flash.  Many people say, “What a waste!  Wouldn’t it have been better if Nelson Mandela had come out earlier?  Look at all the things he would have accomplished.”

Those ghastly, suffering-filled twenty-seven years actually were not a waste.  It may seem so in a sense, but when Nelson Mandela went to jail he was angry.  He was a young man who was understandably very upset at the miscarriage of justice in South Africa.  He and his colleagues were being sentenced because they were standing up for what seemed so obvious.  They were demanding the rights that in other countries were claimed to be inalienable.  At the time, he was very forthright and belligerent, as he should have been, leading the armed wing of the African National Congress, but he mellowed in jail.  He began to discover depths of resilience and spiritual attributes that he would not have known he had.  And in particular I think he learned to appreciate the foibles and weaknesses of others and to be able to be gentle and compassionate toward others even in their awfulness.  So the suffering transformed him because he allowed it to ennoble him.  He could never have become the political and moral leader he became had it not been for the suffering he experienced on Robben Island.

All of us are bound to become disillusioned in the process of growing up.  That much is inevitable.  What is not inevitable is how we will respond to our disillusionment.  Will you halt your search for truth with those cynics who say “God is dead” and “might makes right”?  Or will you continue to follow the living Christ ever deeper into the heart of reality where you can experience firsthand the love of God giving birth to the universe?

My prayer is that we would all choose to see with the eyes of the heart, that we would all come to know this eternal love for ourselves, and that we would all be forever transformed by that experience.




God Only Has Us

John 6:1-15

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’

Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Excerpt from God Has a Dream

Dear Child of God, do you realize that God needs you?  Do you realize that you are God’s partner?  When there is someone hungry, God wants to perform the miracle of feeding that person.  But it won’t any longer be through manna falling from heaven.  Normally, more usually, God can do nothing until we provide God with the means, the bread and the fish, to feed the hungry.  When a person is naked, God wants to perform the miracle of clothing that person, but it won’t be with a Carducci suit or Calvin Klein outfit falling from heaven.  No, it will be because you and I, all of us, have agreed to be God’s fellow workers, providing God with the raw material for performing miracles.

There is a church in Rome with a statue of Christ without arms.  When you ask why, you are told that it shows how God relies on us, His human partners, to do His work for Him.  Without us, God has no eyes; without us, God has no ears; without us, God has no arms.  God waits upon us, and relies on us.

A couple of weeks ago, I returned home one day to find my wife in tears, sitting on our living room sofa with our laptop open in front of her.  Looking up, she said, “You’ve got to see this!”  It was a YouTube video recorded in the Spanish city of Sabadell.  For the first time ever, I wish we had a video screen in this church so I could show it to you instead of describing it.  In this video, a man, dressed in a tuxedo and holding a large double bass, is standing out in the town plaza with an empty hat in front of him.  After a moment, a little girl, probably about five years old, walks up and drops a few coins into the hat.  The man with the bass immediately starts playing a tune.  After a moment, a woman walks up behind him with a cello, sits down in a chair, and starts to play along with him.  A moment later, a couple of violins and a bassoonist appear.  By now we’ve begun to recognize the tune as the choral finale from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, better known as The Ode to Joy.  One by one, every few seconds, another musician emerges from the crowd and joins the growing orchestra.  By the end, there is a full symphony with chorus in the plaza, belting out this most beautiful and memorable piece of music above the din of the crowds and traffic.  The people who have gathered to listen are either singing along, dancing, weeping, or just standing there with their mouths hanging open.

What I love most about this video is how it reminds me of the story we just read from John’s gospel, where Jesus feeds the crowd of five thousand people with only a few loaves and fish.  In that story, the loaves and fish came from a kid who had brought them along for his lunch.  Just like the little girl in the video, this boy’s small offering triggered a pre-arranged event that transformed an ordinary moment into a miracle.  All that was needed was one small gesture of generosity to set things in motion.

That is so like God.

People tend to have this idea about God as this all-powerful “sky wizard” who can do anything and everything.  God just sits on a cloud all day, controlling every little thing that happens.  For this kind of God, human free will is kind of an afterthought.  In fact, it doesn’t even really matter at all.  We’re all just pawns in a chess game to that kind of God.  But that’s not the God we read about in this week’s Bible reading and it’s not the God that Desmond Tutu tells us about in this week’s chapter of God Has A Dream.

The God that Jesus reveals to us in this passage from John’s gospel is the God who actively invites human participation in the ongoing process of creation and redemption.  This God makes a special point of going out of the way to include contributions from the members of society who matter the least (in the world’s eyes).  The author of John’s gospel goes out of the way to mention that the loaves and fish used by Jesus came from a boy’s lunch.  John’s gospel is the only one of the four that mentions this point.  It’s no small detail.

Children, in the ancient world, were not typically the objects of affection that they are today.  We tend to idealize childhood and give special attention to our kids, but in the ancient world, a child was just another mouth to feed until she or he was old enough to work.  In that world, many children died before the age of five, so most parents would hesitate to get too attached to a child who they weren’t sure would survive.  That’s why it’s such a big deal that Jesus was the kind of person who went out of his way to bless children and value their presence, like he did in today’s gospel reading.  Jesus was probably one of the only adults to do so in his society.  To everyone else, children were nothing but a nuisance, but Jesus saw them for the human beings that they are.  That’s why, on another occasion, he made a special point of welcoming children and blessing them when his disciples were trying to send them away.  It must have blown their minds the first time Jesus held up a child as the role model for pure faith!

The God who Jesus reveals is a God who works with us, in us, and through us.  And, by us, I mean all of us, from the greatest to the least.  This God is not some distant “sky wizard” who treats people like chess pieces.  This God sees human beings as partners.  This is what Desmond Tutu calls us in his book.  You and I are “God’s partners”.  He goes even further to call us “God carriers”.  He says: “In the Christian point of view, our God is one who took our human nature…  You don’t have to go around looking for God.  You don’t have to say, “Where is God?”  Everyone around you—that is God.”

Personally, I like that idea of us being “God carriers”.  It kind of makes God look like a virus that spreads from person to person until the whole world is infected.  That might not sound very pleasant at first, but imagine a kind of virus that, instead of making you sick, makes you healthier.  Imagine a virus that gives life instead of taking it.  A virus is the smallest kind of life form that transforms its host from the inside out.  It gets passed around through little moments of contact, like a touch or a kiss.  Pretty soon, it takes over the world.

Isn’t that what God is like?  That’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  A little later, Jesus made the same point again: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  In both of these parables, something small and insignificant grows and grows until it transforms its environment from the inside out.  That’s how God works in the world.  God does not impose God’s will on the world by coercion from the outside.  No, God brings about God’s will in the world by persuasion from the inside.  Do you get the difference?  It’s subtle but important.  Coercion forces another person to do what you want.  Persuasion invites another person to join you.  Coercion takes away a person’s freedom.  Persuasion respects freedom.  Coercion changes only the outward circumstances.  Persuasion changes the heart.  Our God, the God of Jesus and Desmond Tutu, works from within.  God is transforming the world from the inside out and we, you and I, are all invited to be God’s partners in this project.

God is a virus.  And you and I?  We’re carriers.  Our job is to spread the God virus until the whole world is infected.  Every little moment of contact, every good deed, every gesture of compassion, every random act of kindness, and every senseless act of beauty, no matter how small or unnoticed: each of these contributes to God’s ongoing vision of changing the world from the inside out.  You are all “God carriers.”  You are all God’s partners.

I want to invite you to go out into the world this morning like the little boy from our gospel reading or the little girl from that YouTube video.  Go out with your little offering, your loaves and fish or your pocket change, and offer that up in the full and conscious faith that your little gift is really part of God’s big idea, God’s dream.  Know that you, in your small and intentional acts of kindness, are offering up to God the raw materials out of which miracles are made.  You might never know what kind of impact your life will have, but, like a small stone dropped into a large pond, the effects of your actions will become ripples that eventually reach to the farthest shore of eternity.  No life is insignificant and no person is without dignity for we are all God’s partners in the task of transforming the world from the inside out.




God Loves Your Enemies

This week’s sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.
Excerpt from chapter 4 of the book:

Dear child of God, if we are truly to understand that God loves all of us, we must recognize that He loves our enemies, too.  God does not share our hatred, no matter what the offense we have endured.  We try to claim God for ourselves and for our cause, but God’s love is too great to be confined to any one side of a conflict or to any one religion.  And our prejudices, regardless of whether they are based on religion, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else, are absolutely and utterly ridiculous in God’s eyes.

This past week was one of those weeks for me when current events caused me to rethink my entire Sunday sermon.  We’ve been making our way through this book, God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu, and I was already planning to preach this week on chapter 4: “God Loves Your Enemies”.  I had planned on using historical figures and events in order to illustrate my points about justice and forgiveness, but then we all woke up yesterday morning to news reports about a brutal massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  With 71 people wounded or killed, some of them children as young as 6, this is now being called the worst shooting spree in U.S. history.

Integrity prevents me from ignoring this awful headline while I extol the virtue of forgiveness in your presence.  I’m a firm believer that anything we talk about, sing about, or pray about “in here” (i.e. in this sanctuary on a Sunday morning) has to matter “out there” (i.e. in places like Aurora, Colorado) or else it just doesn’t matter.

In moments like this, I think justice and forgiveness matter now more than ever.  However, unlike some other preachers you might hear, I won’t be offering you Bible verses or bumper-sticker slogans designed to help you get around or get over horrible tragedies like this.  Instead, just like we’ve been doing these past few weeks, we’ll be talking today about the kinds of spiritual values that can help us get through the horror.

The main value I want to talk about today is one that guided Archbishop Tutu and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in their work of rebuilding South Africa after the fall of the racist Apartheid regime.  They knew that if they were going to create a new society where people of all races could live together in freedom and equality as “the rainbow nation”, then they would need a different model of justice than the one most commonly associated with western culture.

You see, the model of justice to which we westerners are most accustomed is technically referred to as retributive justice.  You might not have heard that term before, but you are almost certainly familiar with the concept.  Retributive justice is built on the principle of crime & punishment.  “You do the crime, you do the time” is one example of retributive justice.  “An eye for an eye” is another example of the same principle.  The idea behind retributive justice is that, if a perpetrator suffers to the same extent that he or she has caused others to suffer, then justice has been served.

On the whole, this isn’t a bad starting point for thinking about justice.  It’s based, first of all, on the principle of reciprocation.  “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is a positive example of the principle of retributive justice in action.  Many of our professional and business relationships are solidly built upon this idea.  The promise of reciprocation provides people with an incentive for cooperation, since they can accomplish more together than they can alone.  Reciprocation works out pretty well for most people, most of the time.

When it comes to crime and punishment, this same principle seems to apply as a good foundation for fairness: “If you give me something, then I owe you something of equal value; If you take something from me, then you owe me something of equal value.”  All in all, it sounds pretty fair.

Over time, we’ve managed to build a complex criminal justice system around this basic idea of fairness.  The development of governments means that some offenses aren’t committed just against individual people, but against society as a whole.  We’ve come up with multiple ways for offenders to pay back the debt they owe to society: through paying fines, performing mandatory acts of community service, serving time in prison, or (in extreme cases) paying with their lives.  Some other cultures who operate with a retributive model of justice still make use of physical suffering as a means of restoring the balance of fairness.  In those societies, thieves have their hands cut off and delinquents are publicly whipped, although most people in our country find the ideas of maiming and torture distasteful, to say the least.

So, while the basic principle of retributive justice tends to work pretty well for most people, most of the time, it does have its limits.  There comes a point when we need to go beyond it in order to serve the causes of real peace and justice.

For example: what do you do when a perpetrator commits a crime so heinous that no amount of retribution can restore the balance of fairness?  I think we’re all finding ourselves in just such a situation this weekend as headlines pour in about the massacre in Colorado.  12 people are dead and dozens more wounded.  Even if James Holmes (the shooter in Colorado) was to receive the death penalty, there’s no way for him to be killed 12 times.  It’s just not possible for the balance of fairness to ever be restored through retribution in a case like this one.

Here is another example: what do you do when retribution brings no peace?  Larry Whicher, whose brother Alan was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, was present for the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for that attack.  After it was over and McVeigh was dead, Larry said, ”I expected more of a sense of closure and relief than I had. It was weird.”  “An eye for an eye” was not enough to serve justice and bring peace to Larry Whicher.

Jesus seemed to have an inner sense that retribution was not enough to right all the wrongs of this world.  In defiance of his own culture and religious tradition, he called upon his followers to move beyond the “eye for an eye” principle of justice.  He seemed to indicate that something more is needed if people truly want to find peace in the wake of injustice.  What could that “something more” be?

Desmond Tutu ventures a guess, drawing on his own cultural traditions.  He says:

We have a had a jurisprudence, a penology in Africa that was not retributive but restorative.  In the traditional setting, when people quarreled the main intention was not to punish the miscreant but to restore good relations.  For Africa is concerned, or has traditionally been concerned, about the wholeness of relationship.  That is something we need in our world, a world that is polarized, a world that is fragmented, a world that destroys people.  It is also something we need in our families and friendships, for restoration heals and makes whole while retribution only wounds and divides us from one another.

The end-result, the goal, of the justice process, according to Desmond Tutu, is not punishment but forgiveness.  Justice is served and peace is found when genuine friendship between victim and offender is able to emerge.

This is difficult.  Forgiveness is far more difficult than mere punishment.  Some might even call it impossible.  But if we are going to call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus, then we have to at least allow for the possibility that he was onto something when he said what he said about moving beyond “an eye for an eye.”  The call to Christian peacemaking is a call to trust that forgiveness is much more foundational to the fabric of the universe than retribution.  We might even say that forgiveness lies at the very heart of God.  Therefore, when we mere mortals choose to walk the hard road of forgiveness, we aren’t just laying the foundation for greater peace in our hearts and justice in the world, we are drawing near to God.  In fact, I would venture to say that we are never closer to God than when we find it in our hearts to forgive those who have sinned against us.  Forgiveness is the single hardest, yet most worthwhile, calling of the spiritual life.

While I was preparing for this sermon, I came across the story of Rais Bhuiyan, a gas station attendant from Bangladesh, living in Texas in 2002.  One day, he was working behind the counter when a man came in and pointed a shotgun at his face.

The man with the gun asked him, “Where are you from?”  Before Rais could answer, the man shot him in the face at point blank range.  Miraculously, he survived, although he was horribly scarred and lost his right eye.  The man with the gun, Mark Stroman, had already killed two other men in the same way.  Mark called himself “the Arab Slayer” and claimed to be carrying out these killings as vengeance for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While he was recovering in the hospital, Rais Bhuiyan promised Allah that he would make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca if he was allowed to live.  As it turned out, Rais lived and made good on his promise to Allah.  During his pilgrimage, Rais came to the conclusion that God was calling him to forgive the man who shot him.  From then on, Rais formed a relationship with Mark Stroman and tried to stop his execution.

“This campaign is all about passion, forgiveness, tolerance and healing. We should not stay in the past, we must move forward,” Rais said, “If I can forgive my offender who tried to take my life, we can all work together to forgive each other and move forward and take a new narrative on the 10th anniversary of 11 September.”

In response to this, Mark Stroman had this to say, “”I tried to kill this man, and this man is now trying to save my life. This man is inspiring to me.  Here it is, the attacker and the attackee, you know, pulling together. The hate has to stop – one second of hate will cause a lifetime of misery. I’ve done that – it’s wrong, and if me and Rais can reach one person, mission accomplished.”

Ultimately, Rais Bhuiyan’s attempts to stop Mark Stroman’s execution failed and Mark was put to death by lethal injection.  The article I read was published on the day he died and I was shocked when I looked up at the date it was published: July 20, 2011.  Exactly one year to the day before James Holmes opened fire on a movie theater full of people in Aurora, Colorado.

This is what restorative justice looks like.  This is what we get when we move beyond “an eye for an eye”.

I’m not saying that it comes easily or quickly.  The road to forgiveness is a long one.  It’s full of twists and turns and pot-holes along the way.  Sometimes, it feels like you’ve been traveling it forever with no end in sight.

When I think about the struggle to forgive, I think about the closing scene from the movie Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.  The scene takes place at the funeral of Matthew Poncelet, a young man who has just been put to death for murder.  Sister Helen, the main character of the film, looks up to see Mr. Delacroix, the father of the murder victim, standing on the outskirts of the cemetery during the service.  After it’s over, she walks up and talks to him.

He says to her, “I don’t know why I’m here.  I got a lot of hate.  I don’t have your faith.”

Sister Helen responds, “It’s not faith.  I wish it were that easy.  It’s work.  Maybe we could help each other find a way out of the hate.”

“I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t think so.”  And then he walks away.

But then, in the very last shot of the movie, we see Sister Helen walking into a church.  The camera peers through one of the windows from the outside.  Inside the church, we see Sister Helen and Mr. Delacroix kneeling together in prayer.  I love this final image.  Here we have a man who is not there yet, when it comes to forgiveness, but is walking the path and working through the problems.  I love this image because I think it’s a perfect analogy for where we are today: you and I, together in this church.

Only two short days since a brutal massacre, you and I are not there yet when it comes to forgiveness.  Yet, we have come together this morning because we choose to have faith in “that which is within each of us and yet greater than all of us.”  We have come here today because we suspect that there is more to this universe than senseless violence, that life itself has meaning, and that the powers of death and hatred will not have the final word.  We have come here today following a “holy hunch” that there is more at work within us and around us than the blind forces of reciprocation and retribution.  When it comes to forgiveness, we may not be there yet, but we are walking the path, participating in the process, and working through the problems.

We are here today, we are together, and we are not alone.  That fact, by itself, gives me hope and strength enough to keep going on the journey toward forgiveness.

I love you.

God loves you, God loves each and every person who was in that movie theater on Friday, God even loves James Holmes, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing.

God Believes In Us

This week, we begin our 8 week journey through Desmond Tutu’s book, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time.

Archbishop Tutu talks to us this week about what he calls “the principle of transfiguration”.  He says that, while we live in a “moral universe” where God is in charge and good is ultimately destined to prevail over evil, this truth is not always readily apparent.  Sometimes, darkness, evil, and the powers that be seem to be winning.

He talks to us about one such time when:

Apartheid was in full swing as I and other church leaders were preparing for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss one of the many controversies that erupted in those days.  We met at a theological college that had closed down because of the government’s racist policies.  During our discussions I went into the priory garden for some quiet.  There was a huge Calvary—a large wooden cross without corpus, but with protruding nails and a crown of thorns.  It was a stark symbol of the Christian faith.  It was winter: the grass was pale and dry and nobody would have believed that in a few weeks’ time it would be lush and green and beautiful again.  It would be transfigured.

As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration—of God’s transformation—in our world.  The principle of transfiguration is at work when something so unlikely as the brown grass that covers our veld in winter becomes bright green again.  Or when the tree with gnarled leafless branches bursts forth with the sap flowing so that the birds sit chirping in the leafy branches.  Or when the once dry streams gurgle with swift-flowing water.  When winter gives way to spring and nature seems to experience its own resurrection.

A transfiguration is a kind of miracle.  The word literally means “transformation” or “metamorphosis”.  It refers initially to that story in the New Testament where Jesus, normally a rather plain-looking carpenter from Nazareth, is momentarily seen by his disciples to be glowing with the light of eternity.  They saw him for who he truly was: the one they came to call “the Son of God”.

There are other kinds of transfiguration miracles in the Bible.  There is the Apostle Paul, who went from being a vicious hunter and killer of Christians to becoming the first great theologian of the faith he once persecuted.  Then there is Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus, but later became an outspoken leader in the early church.  Finally, there is the example of the Cross itself, which hangs at the front of our church.  It was a symbol of shame and death, but has become for us a symbol of eternal life.  Paul, Peter, and the Cross: all of these are examples of the principle of transfiguration at work in the Bible.

Desmond Tutu has also seen the principle of transfiguration working miracles in his own life and that of his country.  He tells the story of the 1994 presidential elections in South Africa.  Tension was in the air as the day of the election drew near.  There were massacres, conspiracies, and boycotts all around.  This first free and fair election in decades seemed to be doomed to failure.  However, they decided to go ahead with it anyway.  On the day of the election, despite long lines and technical difficulties, there was no violence.  Tutu says, “It would have taken just two or three people with AK-47s to sow the most awful mayhem.  It did not happen.”  He describes the act of casting his first vote at age 62 as “a deeply spiritual event.”  After voting, he toured the other polling sites, where he saw a transfiguration miracle in progress.  He writes:

People entered the booth one person and emerged on the other side a totally different person.  The black person went in burdened with all the anguish of having had his or her dignity trampled underfoot and being treated as a nonperson—and then voted.  And said, “Hey, I’m free—my dignity has been restored, my humanity has been acknowledged.  I’m free!”  She emerged as a changed person, a transformed, a transfigured person.

The white person entered the booth one person, burdened by the weight of guilt for having enjoyed many privileges unjustly, voted, and emerged on the other side a new person.  “Hey, I’m free.  The burden has been lifted.  I’m free!”  She emerged as a new, a different, a transformed, a transfigured person.  Many white people confessed that they too were voting for the first time—for the first time as really free people.  Now they realized what we had been trying to tell them for so long, that freedom was indivisible, that they would never be free until we were free.

The president they elected that day, Nelson Mandela, is himself a story of transfiguration.  He was jailed for 27 years as a violent saboteur against the Apartheid regime.  After his release, Mandela went on to become a living symbol of freedom and “one of the moral leaders of the world.”

Archbishop Tutu fervently believes that “nothing, no one, and no situation is ‘untransfigurable’”.  No one is so bad that he or she is beyond hope or the love of God.  This was one of the central features of Jesus’ life.  He willingly associated with the most despicable members of society.  He welcomed outcasts and pariahs.  Jesus was not afraid to be labeled as “a friend of sinners” by the religious establishment of his day.  Tutu declares, in the spirit of Jesus, that, “Societal outcasts remain God’s children, despite their desperate deeds”.  He continues:

However diabolical the act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon.  When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility.

There is no such thing as an irredeemable person.  No matter how far we’ve fallen, God’s love never gives up on us.  Do you remember that story in the Bible about the “thief” who was crucified next to Jesus?  That word, “thief”, is not very accurate.  This person was not a heroic Jean Valjean or Robin Hood type of character.  In fact, centuries of church tradition have called him a “thief” in order to hide what he really was: a terrorist.  Crucifixion was a punishment so brutal and so shameful that it was reserved only for those who tried to overthrow the Roman government by force.  The so-called “thief” next to Jesus on the cross, if he was alive today, would probably be a member of Al-Qaida.

I tell you this so that you will realize the extreme lengths to which Jesus was willing to go in order to show God’s love for all people.  The terrorist called out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And how did Jesus respond to this dying Al-Qaida terrorist?  “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus says this, not because terrorism is justified, but because this person is just that precious to God.  No one is irredeemable.  God’s love never gives up (even at the bitter end for the most despicable people).

“This is all well and good,” you might say, “and it makes for wonderful Bible stories and spiritual principles, but what about real life?  In the real world, people can be downright intolerant and intolerable!”

Archbishop Tutu realizes this.  In fact, it’s fair to say that he knows this fact more intimately than you or I ever could.  As chairperson of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was charged with the task of rebuilding his country after Apartheid.  It was up to the members of this group to decide how they were going to deal with the horrible atrocities and hate-crimes committed in the name of racism.  Should they hold something like the Nuremberg Trials, which were used to prosecute and execute Nazi officials after World War II?  There were certainly those in South Africa who deserved it.

There was one white officer in the South African security forces who “shot and killed a fellow human being, burned his body on a pyre, and while this cremation was going on actually enjoyed a barbecue on the side.”  Outside of South Africa, Tutu was one of the few who visited Rwanda after the brutal genocide that was committed there in the 1990s.  He saw piles of skulls with machetes and knives still stuck in them.  He said of the experience, “I couldn’t pray.  I could only weep.”

How can there be any hope for us, as the human race, when we are capable of so much evil?

Desmond Tutu believes we can begin to devise an answer to that question by first looking at the horrified shock we experience when we witness or even hear about acts of human brutality.  He says that the reason why we experience this shock is because we normally expect people to be good and decent.  Goodness, rather than evil, is what we tend to think of as “normal” for human beings.  People tend to instinctively believe that our lives were meant for something better than selfishness and cruelty.  And, even though each of us is a mixed bag, neither perfectly good nor totally evil all the time, we tend to be good and do right more often than not.  If this were not the case, says Tutu, we would not be so shocked when people behave badly.  It would just feel normal to us.  The horror we feel is a sign that goodness still lives and reigns in our hearts and in the world at large.

The next logical question that a rational person might ask then is this: If goodness reigns and God is still in charge of this world, why then is it necessary for any evil to exist at all?

In order to answer this question, Archbishop Tutu points us in the direction of freedom.  Freedom is one of God’s greatest gifts to the world.  We were made for it.  Yes, God wants us to be good and do what is right, but God wants most of all for us to freely choose to do what is good and right.  God wants to have a real relationship with us but, as we all know, a relationship can’t happen unless both parties are willing to participate.  So great is God’s respect for freedom that God was willing to take the risk that we would not choose good.

As the gift of God, freedom is “an inalienable right.”  Archbishop Tutu says that, “an unfree human being is… a contradiction in terms.”  This, he argues is the primary reason why all injustice, inequality, tyranny, and oppression is destined to ultimately fail: “they seek to deny something that cannot be denied.”  “The tyrant is on a road to nowhere,” Tutu says, “Freedom will break out.  People are made for it just as plants tend toward the light and toward water.”

God has reverence for freedom.  God could have made human beings like robots that always do what we’re told, but instead chose to make us as free partners and co-creators with God.  The ancient saint and theologian, Augustine of Hippo, once said, “God without us will not as we without God cannot.”

Have you ever read the story of Exodus in the Bible?  When the Hebrew people were suffering under the oppression of Egypt’s Pharaoh, subject to slavery and genocide, God decided that it was time for them to get back the freedom that had been taken from them.  And what did God do?  Instantly whisk the Hebrews away to the Promised Land with a snap of the fingers?  No.  God invited Moses to work as a partner.  God worked through Moses to liberate the people from tyranny.  But that’s not all…

Not only does God work through us, God also works with us.  We are not given a task and left alone to complete it.  Archbishop Tutu, tells a story from the Holocaust where a Nazi guard taunted a Jewish prisoner who was cleaning the toilets in a concentration camp.  The guard asked, “Where is your God now?”  The Jewish man replied, “Right here with me in the muck.”

There is a story in the Old Testament book of Daniel where three young Jewish men were forced into labor in the Babylonian Empire.  The king of Babylon tried to force them to bow down in worship to the gods of Babylon.  When the three young men refused, the king had them thrown into the fire, but they didn’t burn up.  And when the king looked into the fire, he saw them walking around, unharmed.  He also saw a fourth person in the fire with them, who had “the appearance of a god.”

When it comes to dealing with the evil in this world, God does not prevent us from facing it, but promises to walk through the fire with us and gives us strength to bear the pain.

God took an incredible risk in giving us freedom and calling us to work together as partners with God and each other in the task of creating a better world.  But God has decided that the risk was worth it.  Regardless of whether or not we decide to believe in God, God believes in us.  God never gives up on us.  God loves us with a love that will not let us go.