Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

Sermons

Past Sermons

JUNKYARD RELIGION AND THE GIFT OF WHAT JESUS BRINGS

Micah 7.1-4   Psalm 31.9-16   Philippians 2.5-11   Mark 11.1-26 

The Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey

March 25, 2018

 

As the Gospel of Mark tells it, Palm Sunday started out with a bang but ended in a bust.  Jesus parades down from the Mount of Olive accompanied by shouts of Hosanna from his disciples.  But when he reaches the Holy City, his disciples are nowhere to be found.  He climbs the temple steps, looks around all alone, and returns to a quiet supper in the village of Bethany.[1]  

Apparently the people of Jerusalem did not stream out of the city to join Jesus’ disciples in his triumphal procession.  Even the palms are absent from Mark’s Palm Sunday.  It appears that only group of his disciples spread garments to line Jesus’ path along with rushes which they cut from the fields. As the shadows of the evening put a lid on the day, a Palm Sunday that began with a shout ends with a sigh.

It’s what happens on Palm Monday that makes sparks fly.  What does Jesus do on Palm Monday but create a major incident through trashing the worship service in the Temple!  It’s like a one-man takeover of the Temple.  No one was able to move without his permission, and he did not give it. Jesus sits outside on the Temple steps with his back to a pile of debris from a smashed religious establishment. There, he spell-bounds the crowds with his teaching.  He is so popular that the religious authorities would not dare to kill him.  The chilly embarrassment that brought Palm Sunday to a close has melted in the heat of Palm Monday’s uproar, created, first, by Jesus’ one-man assault on the money-changers, second, a population electrified by his teaching, resulting in, third, furious religious authorities with blood in their eyes.

It appears that Jesus has done all this deliberately to set himself up as the teacher to the crowds, to the common people, in order to spite the establishment’s credentialed professors.  Mark reports that the “multitude [outside the Temple] was astonished at his teaching.” And that’s how it had been all through his life.  When he first began with his trial sermon in Capernaum, “all were amazed and said, ‘This is a new teaching.’” People hounded his path throughout his life to hear him teach. The demons recognized his true nature from his teaching.  Even into the final days of his life, Mark says that the common people heard him gladly. (Mark 12:37)

So you shouldn’t be surprised that it is his teaching that compels the religious authorities to conspire to kill him. The common people were glad to hear him.   But the religious authorities who spoke for the establishment, the teachers, the sages, the opinion makers and cultural arbiters could not let him go on.  What happened on Palm Monday sets off the ultimate battle between two types of teaching, two stories to live by, two narratives having power to shape you in two different ways.  His teaching sets up the battle of Good Friday. 

I want to know what the crowd heard Jesus say that so electrified them, that so astonished them, that made them beg for more.  And I want to know what they had been hearing week in and week out, Sabbath by Sabbath, that made what Jesus had to say, by contrast, so electrifying, so heart-rending, so soul-satisfying that they could get enough of it.  What had they been hearing all this time? 

To answer these questions, let’s begin with what Jesus said on that Palm Monday. Turning to everyone outside the Temple, he quoted from the prophet Jeremiah.  “My house shall be the house of prayer for all peoples.”   With his back toward the wrecked Temple he looked back over this shoulder and said, “But you have made it a den of thieves.”

On Palm Monday Jesus actively destroys the machinery and liturgy of the Temple.  He sets himself up in a position outside the Temple to teach about the very things which should have been taught inside the spiritual center of a nation—prayer to God and building community with each other.  He gives his back to a junkyard of a Temple.  Something is at stake here in his turning the Temple into a junkyard. What might that be?

We can figure it out from Jesus’ comment, “den of thieves.”  A system of collusion existed between religious leaders and political leaders.  Jesus calls this collusion the “den of thieves.”  This combine of religion and politics used the sanctuary both as a place to rip-off the common person, and to give religious cover to oppressive policies of an occupying power.  And to fill out the picture of a “den of thieves”, remember what the prophet Micah supplied today.  “The official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; thus they pervert justice.”  This is what Jesus destroys. 

Jesus makes the Temple and its religion a junkyard.  Jesus turns his back on junkyard religion.  Jesus puts himself physically between us and junkyard religion.  Now listen to me carefully.  Jesus still has to teach his way against the lure of junkyard religion which is filling the minds and hearts and spirits of fellow Americans Sunday by Sunday.

  • Junkyard religion is shaping political candidates to say, “If you want to dream, go back to your own country and dream!” and “If they were brought here as children, they’re still illegal.”[2]But Jesus says, “My house is a house for all.”
  • Junkyard religion makes Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, unable to see that the money African-American ball players earn makes them all the more obligated to take the knee in support of racial justice. Jesus points to a better way for that pastor to read his Bible.    
  • Junkyard religion denies same-sex couples their request to adopt a child because they do not represent a “holy family.” What kind of holiness is this religion talking about? 
  • Junkyard religion insists that religion stay out of politics. That’s what national evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Jr., the President of Liberty University, said as he tried to rally evangelicals who are conflicted with President Trump’s alleged affairs.  Falwell tweeted: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome—he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help the poor. That’s our job.” What Jesus-story has he been reading?[3]
  • In what religious junkyard does a man worship who thinks he has a perfect right to enter a pubic restaurant wearing a tee-shirt bearing an obscene political message?[4]
  • What junkyard religion encourages politically correct extremists, usually on the left, to shout down unorthodox opinions on university campuses instead of engaging in reasoned and civil debate?[5]

“My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples,” says Jesus. The crowd gasps in astonishment. But, didn’t we learn this when we were kids in Sunday School?  “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white, [also brown] they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  Has the religion now being taught in our national temples gotten to such a state that this simple nursery song has become astonishing news, electrifying teaching, something to make us clap our hands in joyous surprise?

Jesus says, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.” It is his house.  He makes the rules in his house.  Religion in the Jesus-house is global in reach, inclusive to all, discriminating to none.  Religion in the Jesus-house turns its back on all elitist, nativist, racist, sexist or chauvinist cant.  Religion in the Jesus-house surrounds you with the strong presence of God as you step into a global future.  The religion of the Jesus-house is expansive in human scope and deeply rooted in transcendent power. 

But somehow, all people in one house is not good news to lots of people. They say they are overwhelmed by powerful economic and cultural anxieties.  They blame globalization, immigration, and multiethnic societies for their stagnating wages.  They fear they cannot keep up with the pace of change, so they have opened the doors of their hearts to the junkyard dogs of religion and politics who prey on these anxieties.  And in order to feel secure they are willing to sacrifice their very children in school houses so that they can keep any gun they want. 

Remember I told you that what happened on Palm Monday sets off the ultimate battle between two types of teaching, two stories to live by, two narratives having power to shape you in two different ways.  The Jesus-way was put to the test on Good Friday.  Well, again, the Jesus-way is being put to the test.  Jesus taught a religion that insists that the past does not have to be forgotten, but it can be left behind so you are freed up to move forward into greater wholeness.  That is good news for forward looking, forward thinking people.  This news is being put to the test.  The religion of Jesus keeps your moral compass true as the country gyrates under a libertine, quixotic president and the media is filled with the swill of on-line nihilists. This is good news for folk who want to feel clean in their daily lives. This news is being tested. The religion of Jesus promises to you that God can make astonishing new life come out of the most deadly of situations.  This is good news for you to hang your hopes on.  This news is being tested.  

Jesus is our Savior because he puts himself between us and junkyard religion.  With our eyes fixed on him we can know gladness in our hearts and generosity in our spirits.  The junkyard dogs are out there roaming.  Jesus gives his life in order that you may be safe from their pernicious teaching.  And Easter will show that this simple nursery song about Jesus and the little children of the world has the power to bring crashing down the house of cards dreamed up by a den of thieves.

           

[1]See Paul Brooks Duff, “The March of the Divine Warrior and the Advent of the Greco-Roman King: Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992), 55-71 and David R. Catchpole, “The ‘Triumphal’ Entry,” in Ernst Bammel and C.F.D. Moule (eds.) Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 319-334.

[2]Bud Kennedy, “Joe Barton Liberal?”  Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 20, 2018.

[3]https://www.vox.com/2018/1/26/16936010/evangelicals-jerry-falwell-trump-caesar-rome.  Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove explores the connection between a type of evangelical theology and Trumpism more fully in Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder-Religion

[4]Cynthia Allen “T-shirts, f-bombs and Responding to Trump in Kind,“ Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 16, 2018, 11A.

[5]Amy Wax, “The Closing of the Academic Mind,” The Wall Street Journal.February 17, 2018, https://global-factiva-com.ezproxy.tcu.edu/hp/printsavews.aspx?pp=Print&hc=0

Restless Religion

Isaiah 40:21-31

By The Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey

February 4, 2017

Most people have enough religion to be restless, but few people have enough religion to be at peace.

  • Most people know about guilt and paying for your Shame is a deeply rooted emotion, and bad things happening must mean you are being repaid for being bad. But you are invited to be among the people who know a God whose mercy and forgiveness is abundant.
  • Most people have an idea of God being unreachable, anonymously powerful, harshly judging and unmovable by any human action. But you are invited to be among those who know a God who uses power to create new beginnings in the grittiest of situations.
  • Everybody is very familiar with the fragility of the human creature, how we can be blown away in a millisecond. But you are invited to be among a special people who know how the weary can be marvelously lifted from the depths of exhaustion.
  • Everybody can tell you a story of someone who became drunk on power and made power an object of worship. But you are invited to be among the few who can tell a story of power transformed into selfless service.
  • Most people know that power alone will not quiet the restlessness inside our souls. But just a few people know a power that can bring them peace.

Most people have enough religion to make them restless. Throats seared with pain speak this restlessness in the chapter from Isaiah we read today. “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” It is not that the speaker is an atheist. God’s existence is fully acknowledged. It is precisely that God exists so far away, so seemingly uninterested and uncaring, that produces the restlessness.

They have enough religion to be restless, but not enough to be at peace.

Life itself has a way of giving us a restless religion.

  • If you are in a community that suffers a serious trauma, it will make us all restless. You all know how it feels when death shatters a friendship, when divorce blasts a family apart. We do not want to walk away, but, you.ve got to admit, our collective soul takes a hit, and we inch up on the scale of restlessness.
  • We can be overawed by dot-com millionaires, IPO wizards, and flashy entertainers. How they preen and glide through the centers of prestige and power with so much self-assurance! “Is this what I’ve got to do to find peace?” we ask, and the needle on our restlessness gauge creeps upward.
  • Perhaps you are sickened through and through by presidential politics, and all you can see is grown men being manipulated like puppets by invisible special interests who are the real government. “Shoot, it’s all a sham,” as a noose of restlessness tightens around our throat.
  • Maybe you’ve got too many kids and not enough
  • Maybe you’ve got too many expectations to satisfy and not enough understanding and support from your wife and family.
  • Maybe you’ve got a disease that will not turn you loose, or a problem that will not go away. Restlessness is your daily companion.

When life hammers on us, it makes us restless. That’s a central theme to the Netflix Western series Godless1. Have you seen it? Outlaw Frank Griffin is a wickedly charismatic leader who dresses like a preacher in a dog collar. He has been betrayed by Roy Goode, his protégé. Roy’s desertion drives Frank to rain biblical fury upon anyone who gives sanctuary to Roy. When Frank happens across a small group of Norwegian settlers camping on the trail, he demands one of the women join him that night just so he doesn’t kill them all. “You are no man of God!” her husband cries out. “God?” Frank hisses. “What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are.”

Then, paraphrasing broadly from the prophet Isaiah, he explains. “This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the bleeding and the wrathful. It’s godless country.” The reason the West and movies about the West continue to resonate with us more than a century beyond is that its bleak and hostile landscape is the mirror image of our bleak and restless existence, and the religion of the West which deals mostly in guilt, an unmovable God, human frailty, and the search for power is the go-to religion of the restless and the rankled who live in our neighborhoods.

But it is a sorry religion that can only cater to our restlessness. That is why the one who wrote this chapter in Isaiah expresses irritation and exasperation to folk who once knew a better religion and then shrank it, down-sized it, so that all it can do is coddle their restlessness. Listen to how that irritation comes through:

  • Why do you say, O Jacob and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord…? Do you not know? Have you not heard?”
  • “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy
  • Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?

Now maybe you think preachers ought not to talk like that. They need to be understanding pastors that are much too polite to tell people that they are selling themselves short when they shrink-wrap their faith. But the pastor who wrote Isaiah 40 was not afraid of getting in your face and taking you by the lapels and shouting at you, “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” Let’s get real about religion. Let’s get to the fullness of the faith. Let’s get you back into peace.

Isaiah does not try to sugar-coat over our restlessness.

  • True, all people are grass…The grass withers…when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. Will God ever stretch out an arm to help us?
  • True, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the What will become of us?
  • True, the inhabitants [of the earth] are like grasshoppers and the rulers of the earth as chaff. Will God recede forever far back into remoteness?
  • True, youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted. Why would any one of us attempt to deny this, especially in our present circumstances? Finally, there is no safety

Isaiah uses all the words we use to describe ourselves: weak, flower, wither, dust, chaff, faint, grow weary. grasshoppers. Scripture writes into it the human word. I hear you. I get it.

Isaiah does not deny the awesome majesty of God either.

  • Who has directed the spirit of the Lord?
  • Whom did God consult for divine enlightenment?
  • To whom then will you liken God? Are the heavenly hosts greater than God?

Isaiah uses all the words we use to describe the awesome remoteness of God. Here is one who never faints or grows weary. Here is one who sits serenely above the circle of earth looking down upon the powerful playing out their games like so many grasshoppers. The word of God writes into it the human word. I hear you. I get it.

However, if all Isaiah did was to repeat what we say, he would be preaching a religion of restlessness. But he does not stop there. Now listen carefully.

The astonishing news of Isaiah is that this great God who does not grow weary or faint gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. No other God can do this.

  • Who but this God can choose to use unstoppable might to bring mercy? And what a load of mercy can be generated by such might!
  • Who but this God can choose to use raw power to bring forgiveness? And what a wealth of forgiveness can flow from such power!
  • Every other power that passes for a god is something that we have to work in order to keep itself propped up so that it can command our absolute obedience. How stupid!
  • An idol cannot go out to find you. You must find it, placate

Only the God whose vision reaches into the farthest recesses of where humans can be taken by disease and death can go out and find you, recall and reclaim you from your godless desert.

Fifteen years ago on February 2, 2003, the space ship Columbia blew up over East Texas as it was coming home. There were many expressions of our nation’s grief on behalf of the seven astronauts who gave up their lives in the pursuit of discovery of outer space. But no one expressed those sentiments more eloquently than our President George W. Bush during his announcement of the tragedy. At the conclusion of those remarks, he made specific reference to words which have shaped our thoughts for today’s sermon.

26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?
He who brings out [the starry] host and numbers them, calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength, mighty in power,
not one is missing.

 Then, President Bush preached a two-sentence sermon. He said, “The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.         The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.” That is an example of a religion that triumphs over restlessness and brings peace.

 

1 Material in this paragraph is borrowed from Sophie Gilbert, “What Godless Says About America,” The Atlantic.com. November 27, 2017.

Genesis 3: The Fall

Genesis 3: 1-24

by Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

January 28, 2018

Many of us have been deeply disturbed by the crimes of Dr. Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor who used his unique position to sexually abuse girls as young as six, many of whom went on to be world gymnastic champions. Over the past week, after Nassar had been found guilty and the trial entered its sentencing phase, 160 of these girls, now grown women, confronted Nassar about his crimes before a packed courtroom. Nassar stood and emotionally apologized for his behavior. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina looked at him and said, “I’m not buying it.” She pointed to a letter that Nassar had sent to the court in which he expressed his feelings of victimization. He said that the women had trumped up charges in pursuit of personal gain and then said, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

When I heard that he’d said that, I felt a chill. That a man guilty of such behavior could use that phrase in that context clearly shows he is deeply self-involved and has no remorse whatsoever. But it also puts in plain view the larger issues that the #metoo movement is addressing: the ways that men have too often victimized women and then gotten away with it by putting the blame on them. Historically, Christianity has reinforced that attitude by maligning women as temptresses who seductively and often maliciously lead weak, vulnerable men down the path of sin. To see a man like Nassar attempt to attach such a charge to young girls whom he mistreated while in a position of power and authority over their lives disturbingly illustrates just how crazy this male- dominant, misogynistic way of thinking actually is.

A lot of people, though, believe this very attitude is enshrined in the Bible. Some people use the Bible as a way to justify misogyny. Others increasingly think that if the Bible says such things, then the Bible can’t be believed. Both sides will point to this very passage to justify their view. After all, isn’t Eve created from the rib of Adam, clearly implying that woman is inferior to man? And isn’t it the woman who is misled by the serpent and then seduces the poor helpless man to eat of the forbidden fruit?

But really, the only way you can read the story that way is to be already starting from the assumption that that’s what the Bible says. And it’s also to read the Bible in a way that the Bible itself indicates is not correct. It is vitally important to notice that in our passage for today, the domination of woman by man comes as a result of human sin. It is one of the curses that comes from the fact that Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the first place. That’s not the way God made things, and it’s not what God intends for male-female relations. And most of all, it is not the way we’re supposed to act.

This story tells us why it is that so many things are wrong with the world, and one of them is the whole idea of domination, of one person being superior to another.

Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, together, God says, “Your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16b).

We can always get thrown off if we get literal when we read a story like this, a story that is clearly not meant to be taken literally. The first chapters of Genesis are theology that is presented as a story. So don’t get caught up in, “Why’d God do it this way?” questions. God didn’t do it this way. This is a story. And the point is, God didn’t intend for women to be inferior to men. This is a human-caused problem, and it’s a problem caused by the very human desire to dominate, to be in charge of our own destiny.

By disobeying God in the Garden, we started that ball rolling, by thinking we could control our destinies without God; but once we thought we’d severed that tie, we then turned inward on ourselves, and so now we practice this need to be in control, this need to dominate, on one another. One of the ways we do that is by imagining that one sex is dominant over the other.

Now, many Christian and Jewish fundamentalists will point to the fact that woman was created from the rib of man to say that woman is inferior to man. But that’s actually a misinterpretation of the story. When the first Human is created, it is called Adam–the human. It is in fact a genderless creature, neither male nor female, or maybe both male and female. But God, sensing the human’s loneliness, causes a deep sleep to fall on the human; and while the human is asleep, God splits the human in half, creating in

Hebrew ish and ishah—husband and wife, male and female, man and woman. Theologian Phyllis Trible says this is a second creation story. She writes:

[The Human] has no part in making the woman. He exercises no control over her existence. He is neither participant nor spectator nor consultant at her birth. Like [the Human], woman owes her life solely to God. To claim that the rib means inferiority or subordination is to assign the man qualities over the woman that are not in the narrative itself. Superiority, strength, aggressiveness, dominance and power (me: all the so-called “manly” traits!) do not characterize man in Genesis 2. By contrast, he is formed from dirt; his life hangs by a breath which he does not control; and he himself remains silent and passive while the Deity plans and interprets his existence.1

In fact, there are many different ways to interpret this story. French theologian Mircea Eliade maintained that woman was the pinnacle of creation because she was the last thing that was created.2 Distinguished theologian and preacher the Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey points out that the term used at her creation, which means “helper,” is only used in the rest of the Bible in reference to God. Warner points out that woman is made right after God warns the human not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. To him, this suggests that God knew Adam couldn’t resist the temptation by himself. He needed a 

backup, perhaps even someone stronger than himself, so woman was invented.3 Notice that the woman at least tries to resist the Serpent’s temptation. Also notice that the man is actually standing right there next to Eve while the Serpent and she and are speaking, but he never says a word; and when she gives him the fruit, the man just caves. He gives in. Poet John Milton shows us Adam pouring out a love song to Eve:

…Some cursed fraud
of Enemie hath beguil’d thee, yet unknown
And mee with thee hath ruind, for with thee
Certain my resolution is to Die;
How can I live without thee, how forgoe
Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly joyn’d
To live again in these wilde Woods forlorn?
(PL IX: 904-910)

Adam, the fool for love according to Milton, eats the fruit, but will soon change his tune when Yahweh God confronts him in the Garden. “The woman you gave me,” he says, “she gave me of the tree and I ate!” Cherchez la femme: and the first domino falls that leads ultimately to Larry Nassar blaming little girls for his horrendous abuses. How pathetic. So much for male superiority.

But the real, larger issue in the story of the Fall is not just male superiority but the human presumption of superiority, what theologian Gerhard von Rad calls Titanism4, after the mythical race of people who sought to overcome the Greek gods and claim their power for themselves. Our author in this story is the Yahwist, who I told you about last week, an author who wrote during the 10th century BC, the period of the first kings in Israel, Saul and David and Solomon; and many scholars believe that the Yahwist has a bone to pick with the kings.

We often forget, or do not know, that God very specifically warned the people through the prophet Samuel that having a king was a very bad idea; that kings would arrogate power to themselves at the expense of the people—essentially that kings would play God. “You shall be his slaves,” Samuel warns the people (I Sam. 8: 17). But the people are fine with that. Both Saul and Solomon turn out to be disasters, and even David, the greatest of the kings, is proven to have feet of clay. It’s quite likely that Genesis 3 is written specifically to address what Walter Breuggemann calls “the new emergence in Israel of a royal consciousness of human destiny.”5

When the prophet Samuel raises the red flag about kings, he is upset because the people are choosing not to have God as their king, but rather to allow a fallible human being to control their destiny. This is exactly the issue in the story of Adam and Eve. While they live in the Garden, they are blissfully unaware of how absolutely dependent they are on God. They don’t need to be aware of it; their lives are so integrated into God’s that they no more need to think how much they need God than they need to think about breathing. But the temptation that comes is really about humans claiming that they can control their own destiny apart from the God who made them, the God who surrounds them and embraces them as atmosphere embraces the earth, the God whose spirit is our very breath, the God in whom we live and move and have their being.

Through the Fall, Genesis tells us, domination itself–the drive to control, the drive for power– enters human history. And so by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, another set of dominos begins to fall that leads ultimately to Franco in Spain, Hitler in Germany, Stalin in the USSR, Duterte in the Philippines, and Bashar al Assad in Syria.

And the United States is hardly immune. From the earliest point in our history, even though our Constitution was specifically written to restrain the power of demagogues, presidents have tested those limits. It started way back with the second president, John Adams, and it has happened quite probably with most, if not all, presidents. For us, from a political perspective, protecting our own freedoms from the powerful has been an ongoing battle; but from a spiritual perspective, we do well to look to our own lives–because the story of Adam and Eve is our story, as well. We need to see the ways that the human desire to dominate, to be superior to others, to build ourselves up at the expense of others, is not only detrimental to others, it is also a usurpation of God’s ultimate authority over us. We aren’t just being arrogant to others, we are being arrogant toward God. Any racism, any sexism, any jingoism, any presumption of religious or ethnic or national or personal superiority, any desire to have gain at cost to others, puts us at odds with God’s rightful dominion over our lives. To use the Bible to justify it–to say God ordains it–as has so often been said about the lie of male superiority–is to insult God and to actually be claiming to have God’s authority vested in our own persons. It is the sin of Adam and Eve.

On the other hand, we can also live into the possibilities of the Original Blessing in which we were created. You may recall this incident from the 2016 Olympics. During the Women’s 5000-meter event, US runner Abbey D’Agostino

… was involved in a chain-reaction tumble… with New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin.
Instead of scrambling up to keep running, D’Agostino went to Hamblin, helped her up
and urged the New Zealander to keep running. Later, Hamblin did the same
for D’Agostino as she, also injured, struggled to finish the race.6

You probably remember the photos of the two runners hobbling across the finish line as best they could, supporting one another. All the time, D’Agostino said, she wondered how they would make it; her own knee was like jelly. “It was a miracle we made it across the finish line,” she said. It turned out that D’Agostino herself was actually the worse injured of the two, and could not run for the rest of the events. But she said she had no regrets. She’d done the right thing.

Now at one level it’s a great example of what we like to call the Olympic spirit. But at another, D’Agostino’s reaction shows how deeply ingrained in her nature the state of Original Blessing is for her. Original Blessing is the way God originally made us, how we live into the image of God in which we are made. And think about this: God’s last act of creation in the Genesis story was to create a Helper. God made the one being Adam into two beings specifically to create the role of Helper. That means that being helpers, as Eve was created to be, is the highest calling of God’s creatures, the way in which we are most like God, who is our ultimate helper, upon whom we are absolutely dependent.

In the story of D’Agostino and Hamblin we see a brilliant example of people who toss aside the spirit of domination— the spirit of winning the Olympics—in order to live into their true created purpose—to help one another, and to submit themselves to the help we all most certainly need, from others and from God. For German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this is the truest lesson of the Creation and the Fall. He writes:

Freedom is not a quality which can be uncovered–
it is not a possession, something to hand, an object,
nor is it a form of something to hand–instead it is
a relationship and nothing else.… Being free means
‘being free for the other,’ because I am bound to the 
other. Only by being in relationship with the other
am I free.7

When we live bound to one another, we are truly free. When we live for the sake of the other, when we live to be helpers, we’re living most truly into the image of God in which we are created.

 

1 Trible, Phyllis. “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLI March 1973), pp. 30-48.

2 Unfortunately, I cannot source this.

3 Conversation with Warner Bailey, January 22, 2018.

4 Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis, The Old Testament Library, Wright, Bright, et al., eds. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961, SCM 1972 edition. p. 90ff.

5 Brueggemann, Walter, Genesis, Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Mays and Achtemeier et al., eds. Atlanta: John Knox, 1982. P. 40.

6 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/runners-who-helped-each-other-after-dramatic-fall-hailed-as-symbols-of- olympic-spirit/

7 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 3, Floyd et al, eds. Augsburg Fortress, 1997, p. 63.

Genesis 2: Original Blessing

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch 

January 21, 2018

Rev. James Forbes, the retired pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, is an African American pastor and he values the African American religious tradition. In fact, he was raised Pentecostal. But he is also aware that much of that is pretty alien to the standard Presbyterian or the standard secular American. He commented once that

Black people in my community talk about God and
sometimes talk to God. It’s always interesting when some
of them have been to mental hospitals and they’re getting
ready to meet staff and get a chance to come out if they
prove to be well from their neurosis or psychosis. And we
have to counsel them: Now, when they ask you do you hear
voices, don’t you tell them, “Yes, I heard God tell me this
morning that everything’s gonna be alright.” I mean, it’s so
real that someone who did not understand the worldview
would think that here’s somebody hallucinating. For us,
God talks and walks with us.1

For many people, to say that “God is my friend” as Marvin Gaye does on his classic album, “What’s Goin’ On,” or “Jesus is my Friend,” as Beth and Scott Thompson do in their award- winning country song, isn’t just a metaphor, it’s a statement of their personal reality, their personal experience of God and Jesus. But it’s hard for a lot of Americans to understand: to many, it borders on insanity and sounds extreme. When I was a chaplain on the mental ward of the hospital, one of my jobs was to explain to staff the difference between heartfelt expressions of faith and the deluded ravings of a paranoid schizophrenic. For many non-religious or differently religious people, it is hard for them to tell the difference.

But this is the way that God interacts with humanity in the Second and Third Chapters of Genesis. God is personal. God talks directly to Adam and Eve. God walks in the garden in “the breezy time of day,” as one Jewish translation puts it. God “took the human and placed him in the Garden,” suggesting that God personally picked Adam up as a parent would pick up a child. God personally breathes life into the human, an act of deep intimacy, almost a kiss. And God personally takes Adam’s rib and fashions the Woman from it.

We are told about this deeply personal and intimate God by a biblical author that scholars call The Yahwist. Last week I told you about the Priestly writer of Genesis Chapter One. The Priestly editors and writers told their part of the Biblical story during the period of the Babylonian Exile, from 603 BCE until 533 BCE. But this Yahwist writer reflects a much older tradition, probably the oldest in the Bible. Many scholars think the Yahwist wrote during the height of the early monarchy, possibly as far back as the 10th Century before Christ, during the time of King David, when the religion of the Hebrews was still young. That would mean Genesis 2 was written some four hundred years BEFORE Genesis 1. By the time of Genesis 1 and the priestly writers, this sense of an intimate, personal God had been replaced by a more staid, distant, incredibly holy God, the kind of God known best through theology and worship. There was an understanding that God is too holy to interact directly with human beings. You could say that the Priestly God of Genesis One is a Presbyterian God and the Yahwist God of Genesis Two is a Pentecostal God. And it’s important to say that one isn’t right and the other wrong. The truth is, both are enshrined in scripture, which means they are legitimate ways to be in relationship to God.

But don’t you think that we Presbyterians are missing out on something? We Presbyterians are right that God is certainly holy, but isn’t there a sense of loss in feeling like God is also wholly distant? Don’t you sometimes feel secretly envious of those people around whom we are so uncomfortable, who talk about Jesus as if he’s in the room with them, and we think they’re crazy or silly, but also we think, “Wouldn’t it be cool if my relationship with Jesus was like that?” We are aware that something has been lost.

You’re right. Something has been lost. According to the Biblical authors, when the world was first created, everything was different. The world was “very good.” It was filled to abundance with plants and creatures. Human beings were created not only to tend this garden paradise, but to live in a deep harmonious relationship with each other, all of nature, and the loving, personal God who created them. The prophets would long for that original Edenic state, saying, “They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). This “knowledge of God” that the prophet is longing for was once the true state of human beings. The word “knowledge” in this usage doesn’t just mean, “I can state facts about God.” It means you know God as intimately as one lover knows another lover, with a sense of profound commingling of spirit that is almost impossible even for one human with another. It means a relationship filled with passion and deep mutual awareness.

And humans didn’t simply have that relationship with God, but with nature and with each other. Violence did not exist and there was no such thing as alienation, and therefore no need for reconciliation. God and all creation lived in a state of individual distinctness, yet also in a state of full and complete harmony and union.

Often when we read the early stories of our creation, we go immediately to “The Fall,” or to the concept of “Original Sin,” as if the whole point of the first three chapters of Genesis is to tell us just exactly how bad we are. This has been especially true of Western Christianity since Augustine and of Protestantism since the Reformation. It gives us the impression that brokenness is the most important thing about being human, and about our sad, fallen world. But that’s not the message of the first two chapters of Genesis. In fact, the message is the opposite. God creates the world good and when God creates humanity God says that it is “very good.” The world was created for us, and we for the world. The world is beautiful, majestic, wonderful.

And what of God’s relationship with humanity? Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation, the star in God’s crown. We are made in the image of God. God has personally breathed God’s life, God’s very spirit, into us to give us life, through a vivifying intimate kiss of divine love. And God loves us, deeply, intimately, personally. We were created to be in unique relationship with God, the relationship of child to loving mother or father, or perhaps even the relationship one lover to another. We were made to walk in the garden together with God.

This is the doctrine known as “Original Blessing,” and the Original Blessing precedes “Original Sin.” This original blessing is what we were made for, and it’s what we need to get back to. In Genesis, the story of Creation and Fall doesn’t tell a story as simple as the Puritan formulation, “In Adam’s Fall, sinned we all.” In Genesis, humans have within us two warring natures, the one of the Original Blessing, and the other of the Original Sin. Each of us takes the path of Adam and Eve, and which choice will we make? The path of Original Blessing, in which we are aligned with God’s harmonious will for us and for creation; or the path of Original Sin, rebellion against God, and self-centered assertion of our own will and desire over God and creation? Though the Genesis story makes it clear that rebellion is likely and quite human, it also doesn’t assume that the human fall is preordained.

Later Christianity, and especially the Apostle Paul, comes to interpret human nature differently, to understand that sin isn’t so much a choice as it is a built-in flaw of human character. But it’s important to remember that for Paul, what sin is is really alienation from God. It’s larger than simply making the right or the wrong decision. It is the impossible distance between us and God, a distance that is beyond our ability to overcome. Furthermore, sin is empirically verifiable. Just look at the world around us and human inhumanity to other humans. The evidence of sin and its consequences is, sadly, all around us. We are far from God’s intent for us. How can that distance be closed? How can we ever get back to a state of Original Blessing?

The answer, Paul says, is that God helps us back to that state of Original Blessing, by sending Jesus to be the bridge between humanity and God. Faith in Jesus returns us to that state of Original Blessing, or at least puts us on the path of that return. We can have the same relationship humans had with God in the Garden of Eden, that deep, intimate, personal relationship, if only we put our trust in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It will be imperfect, and we will be imperfect, but it will still be real.

And it only starts in this world. It finishes in the realized Kingdom of God. This is the shared witness of both the Old and the New Testaments. As Jews began to develop a theology of resurrection, they pictured it as a return to Eden, a return to Paradise, to the way things were at the time of the Original Blessing. The prophets pictured the arrival of God’s Kingdom as a return to Eden. Isaiah:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah 11: 6-9)

Jeremiah:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD.
(Jeremiah 31: 33-34)

This passage from Jeremiah is a promise that one day God’s people will return to that deep, soul-to-soul bond that God had with Adam and Eve in the time of the Original Blessing, that powerful spiritual knowledge of God, that unique oneness with God that we have lost but which we all secretly long for, because it will complete us. It’s a marriage between heaven and earth, and we Christians celebrate it in the Book of Revelation as well:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the
first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and
there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the
new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from
God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people,
and God will dwell with them. They will be God’s people,
and God in person will be with them and be their God.
4 ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be
no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old
order of things has passed away.” 5 The One who was seated
on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
(Rev. 21: 1-5)

What we believe, you see, is that the Creator God is not done creating. At the end of time, God will make all things new— including us. Including nature. Including the universe. Including all relationships, whether between people and people, or people and nature, or people and God. Ultimately God’s creative impulse to make all things and declare them good, God’s Original Blessing, will win out, as it inevitably must, because God is God and God’s will cannot be thwarted. And God’s will—God’s perfect will—God’s original impulse— is blessing. And when God says something is blessed, one way or another, it will be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 From Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Galilee Paperbacks, 1999. P. 21.

Journey

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

January 7, 2018 – Epiphany

Matthew 2: 1-12

Ephesians 1: 1-12

Part of the enduring appeal of the magi who visit Jesus is that they are on a journey, a journey with a destination that in some ways they understand, but in many ways remains, as we read in Ephesians, a mystery. They know they seek the King of the Jews, the messiah, but they don’t know exactly what to expect, or where to find him. They’re taking a bit of a risk, and it’s for something they don’t fully understand, but they’re willing to take the risk. This is a theme many of us can relate to. After all, we, too, are on a journey. Life is a journey. For us Christians, we have a sense of the destination: it is the Kingdom of Heaven. It is God. We Presbyterians say that the purpose of life is to magnify God and to enjoy God forever. As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ is the goal and purpose of our lives, and worth the giving of our whole selves in pursuit of him.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit we have a better understanding of the journey than we do of the goal. We seek the Kingdom of Heaven—but what exactly is it? A place of peace, hope, eternal love, oneness with God—but those are still largely abstractions.

And not only that—the path to get there isn’t that clear. We’re like the wandering magi in that we know that Christ is the goal;

we’ve seen his star on the horizon; but the exact location for that which we seek isn’t easy to discern. Furthermore, it takes us through unforeseen perils. The magi end up in Jerusalem, innocently asking where to find the Christ-child, not realizing that they are talking to Christ’s greatest enemy, Herod the Great, or that they are putting their own lives at risk by doing so. Likewise, our own journey is fraught with unforeseen peril and surprises. We don’t know what we’ll run across on the path. We often find ourselves lost, or at least misdirected, unsure where the path is. The path isn’t always clear— sometimes we have to find it, and as a result we take the wrong turn. Or maybe we get tired of the path and are tempted to take a different road, one that seems easier or clearer.

But here’s a thing that happens. There are angels on the way. They may not appear to us in dreams like the angel who warns the magi that Herod will try to kill them, but they’re angels nonetheless. We have friends, family members, mentors, who appear along the road to help us when we have wandered off or can’t discern the path. We have wisdom in authors and leaders and the saints who have trodden the path before us. Whether and when we take their advice depends on us; depends on how open we are to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. But the angels are there.

The Christian’s life is a life of wandering, but I’m reminded of a line from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien: “Not all who wander are lost.” Those of us who love Jesus Christ know our goal—it’s just that sometimes we aren’t sure how to get there. Furthermore, there’s an exquisite mystery to the path we travel, and it is this: as long as we are seeking it with even imperfect sincerity, even with part of our hearts, we

can trust that we’ll reach our goal. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that our goal will reach us. This is what Jesus means in John 14, when he tells his confused disciples that

I go to prepare a place for you; and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to

the place where I am going.

Jesus promises that he will come to take us to the place we seek, the journey’s end. But he also tells us we know the way there. Thomas, mystified, says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” And Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”

In other words, if we know that the journey’s end is Christ, then we also the way to get there, because the way to get there is also Christ. The way we can get confused is to believe that somehow by not following him, by not following his path of love, mercy, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice, we can somehow shortcut our way to the Kingdom. That may work with some other things, but it doesn’t work with Jesus. The way to get to Christ is to be Christlike. A big part of the journey is learning how to be Christlike—getting better and better at it—seeking to improve at it consciously and deliberately every day. We don’t need to be perfect at it, but we do need always to be on the path. Let’s keep that in mind for the new year—may we this year, and every year, consciously seek to follow the path that is Christ, that we may find Christ.

In other words, for you Journey fans: Don’t stop believin’.

Good News – Christmas 2017

by Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

Good news! That’s what the word gospel means. Good news! That is the gospel that is proclaimed by the angels, the gospel that the shepherds spread after they see the Christ child, the secret that Mary his mother treasured and pondered in her heart. Good news, not only in words spoken, words sung, words mobilized and sent into the battle to change hearts and minds: but also good news in person, and good news in persons, good news personified, good news embodied, good news made concrete in a person and in persons.

Good news for poor teenaged mothers, having children too young, by surprise, in a place where there is no doctor or midwife and no public healthcare. Good news! You are forever blessed by the mother of the savior of the world.

Good news for the poor and the working class, who labor dark uncomfortable hours at jobs none of the rest of us want to do. Good news, because angels honor you in heaven and make you the first to hear that God is among us–that God is among you.

Good news for a land torn then and now by war, conquest, and the tensions between races and ethnicities, a land torn by oppression from without and dislike and distrust and prejudice from within: Good news for a land of deep darkness, because it is on you that a light has shined.

Good news for scientists and philosophers, for that is what the Wise Men who come to see Jesus are: Good news that we can find the wonders of God in the wonders of nature, and that all your striving to teach the world virtue and goodness has not gone unnoticed by God, and in the end virtue and goodness will triumph.

Good news for the commonplace, for the drudgery of everyday: Good news because it was in the midst of a bureaucratic necessity, a census, that the Christ child was born; good news because it was in a modest, overcrowded inn, run by a harried innkeeper, in the stable of that inn, with the stink and smell and bleating of animals, that Immanuel, God with us, came to be with us.

Good news for the poor, so often neglected, or worse, victimized by the bureaucratic machinery; whose needs are so often ignored or considered a burden on society; good news because God specially chose the poor to receive the good news of the gospel.

Good news for the rich, for those who can afford gold, frankincense, and myrrh; good news that if they humbly give of their abundance to the most vulnerable and the most needy, they are giving to the Son of Man.

Good news for children, children everywhere; children who are so often the most tragic victims of war, or societal neglect, or parental self involvement, so often victimized because they are

simply such easy targets: Good news for you, children, because God came among us vulnerable and weak and helpless and innocent, came as one of you, to honor your childishness, and to call us all to child-like faith.

Good news for angels, which is why the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest”—for the angels know better than most the suffering of God in the division that exists between the realm of God and the realm of the human; good news for the angels because they know at last that wound will be healed and that heaven and earth are made one in this one tiny infant, this impossible combination of God and human, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.

Good news for us, if only we are willing to see what God has hidden in plain sight, in children, in workers, in the poor, in the rich, in the wise, in the foolish, in the weak, in the strong, in nature, in our fellow human beings, in ourselves, in the world all around us: God is with us. God is with us. If we see.

Lenton Sermon Series

 

“God of Open Arms”

Lent began on March 1, Ash Wednesday, and continues through Saturday, April 15. (Easter on April 17) This Lent Dr. Ritsch is preaching a series of sermons called “God of Open Arms” Each Sunday sermon focus on one significant story from scripture. 

March 5: Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:15 ; 3:1-7)

March 12:  Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-17)

March 19:  The Woman at the Well (John 4: 5-42)

March 26: Jesus heals a blind man (John 9: 1-41)

April 2: The Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37: 1-14)