Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 25, 2016
Genesis 3:1-16, James 4:1-7
He was running late for class. Our son Andy was in his first year of middle school and was running late for his next class. His middle school was not the easiest around…actually I suppose most middle schools are not that easy. He had already been pushed down some stairs and been picked on because he had not yet hit his growth spurt. He arrived at his locker, quickly whirled the combination, opened his locker, but before he could place one set of books inside and retrieve another, the kid next to him slammed Andy’s locker closed. Had this been the first time his hall-mate did this, it might have been funny. Had it been the second time his hall-mate had done it, it might have been annoying. Yet this had become the ritual. Andy was running late. He would open the locker. The kid would slam it shut, forcing Andy to redial his combination…and you get the picture. Normally Andy just put up with it, but this time he got mad. His anger took hold of him and opening the palm of his hand he hit his hall-mate hard enough to send him flying to the floor. Needless to say, the teacher standing in the hallway saw the hit, dragged Andy to the principal and we picked him up for his three-day suspension. On the way home he uttered those words we have all said, “Life is not fair.” “No,” Andy we replied, “Life is not fair.”
I have often wondered if those were the words Cain said to his parents, Adam and Eve, when God rejected his offering. To get the full gist of this I think that we need to go back to the story. There are two brothers, Cain and Able. Cain is the older and has been given the more difficult vocation, to be a farmer, while his younger brother Able is given the easier job of being a shepherd. I say Cain had the easier job because farming means, tilling the soil (without a plow by the way), planting the seeds, watering the land, weeding and protecting the plants from all sorts of enemies. If there is not enough rain he would fail. If there was too much rain he would fail. Able on the other hand could simply move his animals from place to place. Then, one day both Cain and Able offered their gifts to God. Able’s was accepted and Cain’s was not. Now, let me be clear, the Bible story does not say why one was accepted and the other not. It was just the way it was. Needless to say Cain was angry. He had done everything right. He had worked hard. And this is what he got, rejected by God? Life was not fair and he didn’t like it.
At this point in the story, God returns and warns Cain that Cain is at risk of being consumed by the anger he feels because life had not been fair; because God had not chosen to accept his offering. God then offers Cain some advice. First he tells Cain to try again. Maybe the next time, if things work out, his offering will be accepted. Maybe life will be a little fairer. Then God warns Cain that if he is not careful, his anger will take hold of him and he will do something that he regrets. “Sin is lurking at your door,” God says, using the image of a ravenous lion waiting to consume Cain. Finally, God says something very interesting. Cain must master sin. Cain must master the anger that is waiting to consume him. Needless to say, this response was not what Cain was looking for. Instead Cain gave into the anger, sent a text inviting his brother into the field, and then killed him. If life was not going to be fair, then Cain was going to even the score. As we all know though, this is an act which Cain quickly comes to regret. He is not only suspended he is expelled from the land. His anger had gotten the best of him.
Chances are that most of us, at one time or another, have uttered those famous words, “That is just not fair.” Maybe we have been waiting patiently in an orange-cone zone, where traffic is slowing merging and moving, when some guy whips around everyone else and forces his way in front of you. Life is not fair and our anger grows. Or maybe it’s at work. We have toiled long and hard on a project, perfecting it, writing the best reports and then someone else gets the credit, the raise and the promotion. Life is not fair and our anger grows. Maybe it is at school. We are working on a group project (let me ask here, how many of you liked group projects?) and we pour our heart and soul into it, but there is one kid who does not contribute anything. Then the grade comes back and we are all marked down because the one kid did not follow through. Life is not fair and anger grows even more. And it is in those and many other moments when life is not fair that our anger is crouching at the door urging us to unleash the dogs of war; to say or do something to someone, in order to set the world aright. It is, as Amy put it last week, a train wreck waiting to happen. And even though we know that we must master it, as God said to Cain, we are not sure that we can.
It is in this moment then that I want to say that not only must we master it, but that we can master it; that regardless of how unfair life is, we have the power to master the anger that arises in our lives. I say this because this is what God tells Cain, and what James tells us. First this is what God tells Cain. In the story, when God tells Cain that he “must” master sin, he is also telling him he can master it. I say this because the Hebrew word that is translated in our Bibles as, must, as in must master, can also be translated, as shall; as in Cain you shall, you will master it. In other words, the Biblical story teller is letting his audience know that they are not helpless in the face of the anger that arises from the unfairness of life; that they have a choice to set aside the anger and the power to do it. In fact, I would argue that this sense of how we deal with an unfair world is at the heart of this story. The story is written in such a way that it calls out to our own sense of unfairness and injustice and puts us in Cain’s place; a place that events all around us show us to be a place that can lead to violence and death; in families, communities and nations. The writer of Genesis shows us however that this does not need to be the case.
James takes up this same issue. He places the center of unfairness in our not having what others have. “You want something and you do not have it so you commit murder (either figuratively or literally) and you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in conflicts and disputes.” In other words, life has not been fair to me so I will allow my anger to take hold of me and I will rip apart the world around me in order to level the playing field. And the very fact that James is writing about this means that members of the Jesus community were allowing the unfairness of life to rip apart their lives and the life of the church. Yet, James, tells the church, it does not have to be this way. It does not have to be a train wreck. Instead, if people do two things, they can deal with the unfairness and the anger it brings.
First we are to return to God. James says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God.” The image here is one of us placing ourselves in a situation in which God and not our anger is in charge of our lives. We are submitting to God and not to anger…the lion waiting to take hold of us. By so doing we are allowing the love, peace and presence of God to invade our lives and take charge. It is an intentional act that reconnects us to the very one who has created us, given us life and placed the Spirit within us. Second, we are to resist. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” Or to put it in terms of our story, resist anger and it will flee from you. I am not sure how many of you drive by Seaholm High School, but this last week the school’s electronic sign posted the start date for school, followed by “resistance is futile.” And that is the way we feel sometimes about the anger that arises from the unfairness of life. Yet James and the writer of Genesis both argue that as God’s people we can resist; that we have been given everything we need when plugged into God, to stop the train wreck before it happens. Submit and resist; they are the keys to overcoming.
The challenge for us then is to put this into practice. It is to intentionally practice submitting and resisting. It is not easy…especially in our day and age in which letting anger loose seems to become more and more of an accepted practice. Yet if we are called to be people of peace and reconciliation, then we are called to this practice. So my challenge for you is this, to ask yourselves how am I practicing submitting and resisting in those moments when the unfairness of life is leading me to anger?
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 18, 2016
Genesis 3:1-13, Philippians 2:3-11
I can see a train wreck coming a hundred miles away. It’s just how my mind works. I’m on the lookout for opposing forces, objects on a collision course. In my childhood, the train wrecks were often between my parents and one of my siblings. Or between friends. As I got older, I predicted relationship wrecks and watched out for the speeding trains of world forces.
When you see the world this way, you can’t help but react to it. Sometimes I would duck for cover and hide my eyes until the wreck was cleared away. Sometimes I’d breathe a sigh of relief if the trains happened to miss each other or change course. But much of the time, I’d try to head off the wreck. Which is why I wish I could have been there in the Garden of Eden. We’ve read this story so many times, it’s become so familiar. I know Cindy Judson’s favorite lines.
The train wreck seems almost inevitable. The crafty serpent putting poisonous possibilities into Eve’s mind. Sharing the fruit like a drug dealer offering a free first hit. And the terrible knowledge, the hiding and shame. Then train number two comes walking in the garden, expecting to see open rails ahead. Instead, BAM, it collides with a train made of fig leaves and snake skin and there’s blood and toil and dust all over the place.
But maybe I could have headed off the wreck, talked Eve and Adam out of this disastrous mistake with such long-standing consequences. Intervened before the snake got his slick ideas into Eve’s head. Defended the fruit of the tree with walls or weapons. Don’t we all wish we could stop the train wrecks? The collision of warring factions. The disaster of a friend and an abusive partner. The impact of our son and heroin. We wish we could intervene, put on the breaks, even jump in front of the train to stop it sometimes.
Ultimately, the train wreck we most want to stop is the one we are about to be a part of. The forces within us that drive us on toward disaster, toward self-destruction. All that fuel that we keep piling on, going faster, heating up the engine, shearing off the breaks; all the blind turns we take; all the signals we miss. Most of us know, on some level or at some time, that we are trains on a collision course with despair, loneliness, meaninglessness, fear, anger, and self-hatred. And boy, do we wish we could head off that wreck.
Much as I’d like to think I have the power to stop the train, change the course, even sacrifice myself to stop the wreck, I learn time and time again, crash after crash, that I don’t have that power. I can’t stop the serpent, or Eve and Adam, or God. I can’t stop time or age or disease. I can’t stop anger or fear or hatred or greed. But how can I stand idly by watching the trains, hearing the whistles blow as they barrel down the tracks toward each other? It seems like there must be something I can do, some intervention, some force I can apply to change the disastrous course we call life. It seems like it’s something I should do. After all, Jesus conducted the diseased onto the track of healing, the outcast onto the track of community, the whole of creation onto the track of salvation. It seems like that’s what we should be about.
But then we look at what happened to his own train. Jesus, who was in the form of God, who had all the power to halt the forces of geopolitics and religious fanaticism and mob mentality and violent brutality, chose not to. The only one, really, who had the ability to stop the train, change the track, even suspend the natural forces of physics – that one decided not to. He wasn’t impotent, like you and me. He chose to empty out the luggage car, throw out the emergency break, take off all the safety controls and ride that train right into the cross.
Jesus had no interest in preventing a wreck. In fact, there was no greater wreck in history. If you read the gospels, you can see the wreck coming. Jewish zealot, getting people excited with healing and miracles and even resurrecting the dead. Train #1. Roman empire, beleaguered by uprisings while trying to move forward with plans for expansion and building, bringing law and order and civilized society to barbaric lands and people. The Pax Romana. Train #2.
But Jesus sees it coming the whole time. He keeps telling his disciples, this train is coming. This wreck is going to be messy. But if they see it, they ignore it. Or they try to stop it. Change the track. Put the breaks on the Jesus movement. Or jump off the train. They do all these things. And so do we. We pretend we don’t see our neighbor’s suspicious black eye. We re-rout our Google map to avoid that neighborhood we’d rather not drive through. We pencil things in so we can erase our commitments without guilt, choose another track or hop another train if this one looks like it’s in trouble. We do everything we can to avoid the train wreck that is our lives, our neighborhoods, our world.
Why doesn’t Jesus?
Because his wreck destroys the train barreling down the track toward each of us. The power of sin and death, the power of broken desires and broken relationships, the power of forbidden fruit and sinister suggestions collides with the power of love and goodness and righteousness. And the wreck is ugly and awful. Twisted scraps of a failed uprising. Mangled pieces of messianic hope. Dreams charred beyond recognition. The howl of forsakenness. Metal piercing flesh. The impact is nothing short of catastrophic.
Those who tried to stop the wreck or jump overboard didn’t fare too much better. Perhaps they avoided that wreck of the cross, but they hopped on trains of self-loathing, regret, and despair. More wrecks in the making. Judas collided with his greed, Pilot with his unanswered questions, Peter with his self-recrimination.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus somehow walks away from the wreck. He is not unscathed. No, he is scarred. He is transformed. He is sometimes unrecognizable. But he walks away from the wreck of the cross and gets on the train to glory with that wreck still smoking on the tracks. And this is our impossible hope. Hope that, out of a wreck of a marriage, walks a new love that lasts a lifetime. That out of the wreck of a job loss comes the finding of a meaningful vocation. That out of the wreckage of a miscarriage comes a family that exceeds any possible expectations.
We hold onto this hope because the truth is, no matter how we try, we can’t avoid train wrecks. We can’t head them off for those we love. And what Jesus came to show us is that he is there in the wreck with us. He is on the train, and he will ride it into whatever wrecks we encounter. And with the help of God, we will walk away from those wrecks. Not unscathed. Probably transformed. Perhaps even unrecognizable. But in all the smoke and rubble, Jesus is there, and with him, there is hope we will walk away from the wreck.
And that is what we are called to do for others as well. Use that judgement of good and evil we so tragically gained in the garden of Eden to decide which trains could use another passenger. Instead of avoiding those trains we judge to be on a collision course, perhaps we are called to hop on board. Perhaps we are called to be the Body of Christ heading into those wrecks.
Instead of dodging that train carrying our neighbor with the black eye, maybe we need to hop on board. She may not listen to you when you tell her she ought to leave, pull the break on this situation. But she may let you loan her an ice pack, and listen to her story, and maybe even be there when he gets home from work, just in case it’s been a bad day. And when the train wreck comes, you might be the one she runs to, the one who helps her find her way on her own, put the pieces of her life back together. You may be the one to help her walk away from that wreck.
Instead of choosing the rout that avoids the crime-ridden neighborhood, maybe we need to buy a ticket strait into the heart of it. Not so we can ferry in the crews to clean it up for our comfort, but so we can ride alongside the residents, hear their stories and challenges and ideas for solutions. It may need us drive in and bring our business rather than going around it and avoiding it. And when the train wreck comes, we might be the ones who understand the dynamics and know the people and can help bring healing and reconciliation and constructive dialogue. We may be the ones to help them walk away from that wreck.
Those penciled-in commitments and hop-on-hop-off trains are not what we’re called to. We are called to stay on the train. Whether that train belongs to us, our neighbor, our community, or our world, we are called to ride it straight into whatever wrecks are ahead, whether we see them coming or not, trusting that the God who desires to create and bless and bring life, the God who brought life out of death in Jesus Christ, will be at the very center of each of those wrecks and will walk with us, scarred and transformed, away from them. To God be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 11, 2016
Proverbs 8:32-36; John 1:1-6
You, yes, you can control the weather. I know that sounds pretty amazing, yet in a recent interview, a politician turned theologian said that we could control the weather. Now I know that many of you are asking yourselves, how can we do this. I would love to be able to make it rain only at night, sort of like Camelot, so how do I go about it? The answer according to the author is that we can control the weather if we live perfectly according to God’s will. That’s right, if we live perfectly according to God’s will, God will do whatever it is that we ask. Thus, politician turned theologian intoned, we will be able to control the weather. What this also means is that we can control nature such that there are no more hurricanes, earthquakes and the like. In fact, this individual has said on numerous occasions, that all of the misfortunes to befall our nation, floods and the like, have happened because we have not been faithful to God.
Some of you I realize, may be a bit unconvinced, perhaps even skeptical, because this does not appear to be Biblical. Yet, in some ways it is, if we look directly at what scholars have called Wisdom in the Old Testament, a bit of which we read in our first lesson this morning. Now just to be sure that we are all on board let me explain Wisdom. Wisdom, according to scripture, is not simply having good judgment, or applying what we have learned to make smarter choices. Instead Wisdom is a part of God…a creation perhaps of God. In the middle of Proverbs 8, a little before our reading we hear, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” In other words, Wisdom is the essence of how God wants the world to work. And the way wisdom works is that when one lives wisely, or how God wants you to live, you are rewarded. When one lives opposite God’s wisdom, one is punished. As we read, “For whoever finds me, wisdom, finds life and obtains favor from the Lord. But those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.” Thus if we live wisely we can get from God exactly what we want…including controlling the weather.
In some ways, I have to say, this seems logical…it is the way the world works. After all, at work, when we do well we expect to be rewarded. We expect a raise, a promotion, a bonus or at least a pat on the back. When we do something nice for someone else we expect a thank you, or I appreciate that. When we show love to our children, spouse or significant other we expect that love will be returned. On the other hand, at work, when we mess up, when we do not do our jobs, when we do not follow the rules, we expect there to be negative consequences. We expect a demotion, a fine or some other painful event. When we bring harm rather than good, we expect that there will be punishment, or condemnation. When we are mean to our children, we ought to expect little if nothing from them, except dislike. This is the way the world works. This is the logical way of things. So why shouldn’t we expect God to work the same way? Why shouldn’t we expect God to be logical? This is the heart of the Wisdom tradition. This is what proverbs implies. This is what our politician turned theologian believes. Which is great except for one little thing, and that is that according to the Gospel of John, Jesus turns this entire idea on its head, meaning Jesus comes as illogical Wisdom.
First Jesus comes as Wisdom. The Gospel of John opens with John’s account of creation. In this account he speaks of the Word being in the beginning with God and being God. An easy way to translate this text would be see that the Word equals Wisdom equals Jesus; thus in the beginning was the Word that was Wisdom that was Jesus. This echoes Proverbs where we read that Wisdom was in the beginning with God as the very first of God’s creation. John wants his readers to make this connection between the Word and Wisdom and Jesus. He wants them to see that just as Wisdom was an essential part of God showing people how to live according to the will of God, so is the Word and so is Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is the one in whom the world will see what it means to live according to the will of God. At first glance this might then say that it is now Jesus who does the logical thing; the one who rewards or punishes us according to how well we live…except this is not what is at the heart of the Gospel of John…or Jesus’ ministry. Jesus comes instead as illogical wisdom.
Jesus is illogical Wisdom because Jesus does not offer the love and grace of God based on one living perfectly according to the will of God. We see this illogical wisdom when Jesus forgives people who do not deserve to be forgiven; people who have been caught in adultery, or who have cheated others, or who have betrayed their nation. We see this illogical wisdom when Jesus chooses his followers which include people who have problems with anger management, who do not understand him, who fight for place of privilege and who will betray him. We see this illogical wisdom when Jesus teaches his followers to forgive seventy times seven, to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. We see this illogical wisdom when Jesus forgives those who crucify him. Jesus’ illogical wisdom is one that as John puts it at the end of Chapter one, allows us to know that “…from Jesus’ fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The Law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This is the illogical wisdom of God that called Abraham, that freed a slave people, that brought people back from exile and that sent the only Son into the world to save everyone and not simply those who were above average.
The challenge for us is that we are to be people who live by this illogical wisdom. As Jesus puts it we are to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, give to all in need, forgive more times than we can count and otherwise be illogical…giving people not what they deserve but what grace provides. This is never easy because our tendency is to judge; it is to hold people to higher standards than we hold ourselves. We want to use logic rather than illogic as the basis for our interactions with others. Yet Jesus calls us to be those who offer illogical grace instead.
On this fifteenth anniversary of 911 my mind has been returning to the images that will be forever embedded in my mind. One of them is of the people running away from the buildings; away from the dust and terror that were there. They were doing the logical thing; running from harm. The other image I carry is of the first responders who rushed toward the burning towers. Their actions were illogical. They were rushing into buildings which might not stand. They were rushing in risking their lives. And they were doing so in order to save people whom they had never met; who might not be citizens; who might not be nice people; who might not be ethically upright people; who might not deserve the lost life of these responders. Yet in they went. It was illogical wisdom that sent them; wisdom that said those people in the building were worth saving because they simply were.
This is our task; to live by illogical wisdom. It will not allow us to control the weather, but it will allow us to help others see that they are beloved of God; that they are precious and that their lives matter. My challenge to you then is this, to ask, how am I living by illogical wisdom in such a way as to show God’s amazing grace to all that I meet?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 4, 2016
Genesis 2:4-25, Mark 12:28-34
She was gathering a crowd. Cindy had gone out to wash the windows at our home in Pampa in the Texas panhandle. We had not lived there long and since Cindy is not a fan of dirt and dust, she decided they needed cleaning. As she wiped the windows a number of our neighbors wandered over, watched her for a few minutes and then asked, “So what are you doing?” A bit surprised by their question, she answered, “Cleaning my windows.” “Why?” they responded. “Because they are dirty, “Cindy continued, “why do you ask?” With a bit of a smile they said, “You’ll see.” We were both a bit perplexed about their response, until a few days, or maybe weeks later, I was out in the backyard with the kids when I looked at the horizon and all I could see was this massive, grey-red wall. I wasn’t sure at first what it was. Then I realized that it was a wall of dust; a dust storm barreling down on us. Cindy and I went into action trying to ensure that our house was sealed…but to no avail. The dust came in under the window sills, the doors…everywhere. And those clean windows … well they were not very clean any more. At that moment, Cindy was even less a fan of dust than she had been before.
I would guess that many of you feel about dust the way that Cindy does…not a fan. It bothers our sinuses. It gets all over our furniture. It is irritating. Even so, this morning I want to offer you a different perspective on dust…that dust matters in a way most of us never considered possible … that dust is the stuff of connection. It is what connects us with everyone and everything in the world around us.
First, dust connects us with all of humanity. In our story this morning we read of God taking dust and forming man, and here I mean man, since God forms Adam, or man of the ground, first. For many of us this is a nice throw away story. Sure, sure, we say, God formed man from the dust of the earth, now let’s get to chapter three and talk about the snake and the apple. Yet if we do this, if we pass by this story of the dust, then we miss one of the most important aspects of the scriptures; and that is that all human beings are people of the dust; of the same dust. Rabbinic tradition tells us two very important things about the dust. First it tells us that God gathered dust from all four corners of the earth in order to form man, so that no person could say, “My father is greater than yours.” Second, the writer of the story does not describe Adam’s color. It is said by the scholar Rashi that “the first human being is neither white nor black nor brown nor yellow. Rather drawn from the whole earth, Adam’s dust represents all the variegated colors of the human species. No one is prior to another, neither higher nor lower. Every human being is created equally in the image of God.” (*) See dust is what we all are … the same dust. Thus we are all equal. We are all connected. We are all God’s.
Second, dust connects us with the creation itself. When we read this story, we are often focused on the creation of Adam or Eve, or perhaps on the order of creation since it is different from the first story, or that man is given the responsibility to care for the garden (some things never change…we have to go to work). Again when we do so we often miss that Adam is not the only thing that is created out of the dust. Right after Adam is created the writer tells us that, “Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Later, when God decides Adam can’t hack it on his own and needs an ally, God forms from the dust all of the animals of the field, and the birds of the air. God then forms Eve from Adam, so that as the rabbis say, man and woman would be formed from the same material, thus making them one; neither superior and neither inferior. Where all of this points us is to the fact that we are not above creation. We are not greater than creation. We are part of it. It is from the dust that all of creation comes; humans, plants and animals. We are all one.
Where this leads us then is to Jesus and his discussion about the greatest commandments. When asked to name the greatest commandment Jesus offers the standard rabbinic answer, that we are to love God with all of our of heart, soul, mind and strength. And that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. His questioners agree with him…and they do so because these commandments are based in the creation story we read this morning. First we are to love God because it is God who formed us from the dust of the earth, breathed into us the breath of life and set us in the world; in other words, we love God because of what God has done for us. Second we are to love our neighbor as ourselves because, well, our neighbors are us. They are of the same dust as are we. There are no distinctions.
I wish I could say that loving God and neighbor was easy; that it was easy to look at all other human beings and see them as being of the same dust as are we. Yet I know it isn’t. It isn’t because the cultures in which we grow up teach us to make distinctions; to see some people as better than others; some people as more worthy of our love than others; some people as more important than others. Yet if we allow the dust to speak; if we allow the scriptures to speak, we will find ourselves called to see and to respond to the world differently. We will see ourselves called to all people as made of the same God-created dust.
My challenge for you this week then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I striving to view every human being I meet or see, as made of the same stuff of which I am made; the dust of creation, and therefore helping me love them as my brother or sister in God?
(*) Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105), quoted in The Torah of Reconciliation, Sheldon Lewis, Green Publishing House, 2012/5772