I preached the last two Sundays. Sunday June 18th I preached at my parent's church St. Paul Presbyterian in Aurora CO, and yesterday June 25 I preached in the congregation I am Interim Associate Pastor with First Presbyterian Norman OK. These two sermons have little in common other than that I preached them...and that in the end both are at their core about saying you are sorry. So lets all be better at that!
Incongruously Consistent Love
A Sermon on Psalm 103, 1 John 4:7-14, Matthew 5:1-16
I bring you greetings from First Presbyterian Church of Norman Oklahoma. Thank you for inviting me to lead worship with you today.
Happy Father's Day St. Paul! When I chose today’s scripture texts with Father's Day in mind, they seemed appropriate- yes let's talk about God’s love on Father’s Day. And then in good Presbyterian preacher fashion I lived my week with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper (or my phone and news agencies websites, in good Millennial Presbyterian preacher fashion) in the other, these texts came to say something else altogether to me.
This week’s news began with the story-
of congress staff and a congressman being shot in our Nation’s capitol on Wednesday
and the deaths of many, at least 58, in an apartment fire in London,
and went on to include the anniversary of the murder of 9 people in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston by a white supremacist two years ago,
the Anniversary of the murder of 49 people and injury to 53 others at the PULSE night club in Orlando last year by a homophobic transphobic man in the largest terrorist attack by a single attacker in US history
and the week also included the deaths of 57 people in a forest fire in Portugal.
A bombing in a mall in Columbia led to the death of 2 and injuries to others.
The death of Navy sailors on the USS Fitzgerald in an accident on Saturday.
This was not a week where the news, and our history as a nation left me feeling particularly joyful and loving, and in fact made me quite sad and thinking that perhaps we all could use a timeout and a hug. I came away from the news each day more convinced that we are a broken people- racism, sexism and homophobia, are alive and well, we are unable to see one another as whole and valuable people, and death and pain are everywhere.
...Which is why I must keep the Bible in the other hand.
Scripture tells us today that God’s love is steadfast, it is never ending, and it will help us. Our theology as Presbyterians and Calvinists tells us that we are a mess, we will never fix that, but God’s grace and love have our backs. Which is wonderful...we will be ok, things can get better.
But scripture also tells us today that God in Jesus told us explicitly that those the world that we would not bless are the exact ones God blesses...those who are without hope, who grieve, who are humble, who are hungry and thirsty, who show mercy, who are pure of heart, these are the ones God blesses. These are not the ones we seem to be blessing as as a nation and a a church. We appear to want violence, to hurt one another, to jump to conclusions instead of showing one another grace and love, we inflict our own pain and fear on one another. And that is not God's way.
And then we doubt those who express their pain and anger at being targets
...we tell black people that they are wrong when they say white supremacy is why at least 19 black Americans have died at the hands of white people who went unpunished since the death of Trayvon Martin, and why they are lamenting and protesting this week in the face of the acquittal of the murderer of Philando Castile.
...we ask the LGBT community what need there is for a Pride celebration when our LGBT+ siblings still face violence, exclusion, and death just for claiming their identities and after a long history of facing legalized bullying, imprisonment, violence and bigotry for loving one another.
Many of us may not do these things explicitly, we may even try hard to do the opposite- to first offer love, care, understanding and listening, but the way our nation, our world, and our church is entrenched in these ways of being means we all participate in these patterns of demeaning one another, of excluding those we don't understand or find it inconvenient to reach out to or care for, and as long as that is true we have not really held the words of Jesus in the beatitudes in our hearts, we have not found a way to live the truth of 1st john that tell us that if God loves us, and we know that to be true, then we must love one another. That Jesus was sent to save the world, and he told us again and again, and lived as one who loved all those he met- the outcasts and the sinners, the pharisees and sadducees, the roman leadership and all those who wanted nothing more than his death. He loved them all, and asks us to love them all.
He asks us to particularly care for those who have less than us- to feed, clothe, visit, and love those who don't have what they need, but in the beatitudes he also challenges us, he says to us, and to those at the Sermon on the Mount, that God blesses the meek- in their humility the world belongs to them, not out of luck because someone else fought, or debated or ran a campaign well enough to have the world and then give it to them...no in God’s world the humble have it all. blessed are those who show mercy- they are not pollyanna or short sighted or weak, they are the ones who will receive mercy.
In God’s world all things are turned upside down. and on this Father’s Day the world could use being flipped upside down, because we are living in ways that hurt one another.
If there is something my Father (and my Mother) has taught me it is that hurting one another is never the right answer, that if we have hurt one another we must ask for forgiveness, not because the other person is obligated to forgive, but because we have broken something important and we have to start fixing it by being willing to say we have done wrong.
One of my Mother’s least favorite famous movie quotes “Love means never having to say you are sorry” and I must agree with her, the sentiment of that is totally backwards...love means you should be quick to say you are sorry...if we love one another- as father and child, as friend to friend, as child of God to child of God, then we should be first and quickest to say we are sorry and to back that apology up with actions that prove we are ready to do better, to show our love in ways that show true willingness to be in mutual relationship with one another, to love by listening, by showing mercy, by giving up power that we did not earn so that all can have a just and good life. And to show love by knowing that the God of scripture does indeed heal us- of our pain and illness, and of our -isms, God does lead us to compassion and goodness, but God gets us there when we join him in the journey. We must walk the path of repentance and forgiveness, we must ask for what we need or we have not joined those who are salt and light. We must be salty and shine our light in the world through our actions and relationships. If we do not, then it is not that God does not love us, it is that we are not looking in the right places for God's love for us. We have turned away from God’s wishes for us.
But we don't have to be alone in the journey of turning to God’s love, and in God’s grace we know that every time we turn once again toward what is Good and toward love for one another, then we find God right where we need her.
God loves us so much that he sent his son to lead us, to perform miracles for us, to live life with those the world would ignore in our midst, and ultimately to die for us and to return to God’s presence and pray for us. If that God is what a Father is like than this is a great day to celebrate- not all of us in this room have happy memories of fathers- of having a father or being one, but in a God who is in some way a father my prayer for us all is that in these oh-so broken times we can find love, comfort, caring challenge for our broken ways, and forgiveness in the father/mother/parent/caretaker God that we worship and serve because we know God’s love is bigger than our fear, than our failings, it will find us when we most need it and keep us forever. It is consistent even as it lifts up those who have faltered, and waited with those who wait, it serves those whose lives are too hard, and rejoices with those who rejoice.
So in gratitude for love let us go into a new week and pray, and more than pray- act, so that our world turns toward love and away from fear and violence, toward the love that guides us to goodness and wholeness for all, and makes us one family everywhere. Amen.
The Keeping of Brothers
A Sermon on Genesis 4:1-16, Luke 12:32-34, Hebrews 11:1-7
This morning we have our second story from the book of Genesis. Barry and I are doing a series the whole summer long that will cover the stories from this first book of the Bible that share the foundations of so many things in our faith and our understanding of who God is and who we are. Today's story is arguably one of the most difficult of the stories we will share this summer although others coming will be difficult as well. Today is the story of Cain and Abel the first two brothers of the Bible, with many others to follow, and the story of sin as central to the life of faith.
Today's story starts almost exactly where last weeks left off. Adam and eve have been in the garden they have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil after dealings with the snake and God has sent them out of the garden. We attribute this story for the foundations of where human sinfulness begins. As one seminary professor told us, and I admit I do not know if it was his words or part of some other author's text we read for class but the explanation was that in Christian theology the story of creation and Adam and Eve Christians have come to understand as explaining what God did in the beginning of things where is our Jewish forebears would more accurately have assumed that the story was about why God did what God did. Adam and Eve is not a story that tells us how we came to be sinful people but more accurately a story about why God behaves with us the way God does. And you might notice, if you go back and read chapters 1 through 3 in Genesis, there is no mention in those first three chapters of sin itself. Those stories are not actually directly about sin they are about how people and God come to be in relationship such that God is sometimes distant but it still our caretaker and beloved creator.
Then, with chapter 4, we move on to Cain and Abel. Adam and Eve's first children are born and they are sons. One who tills the ground and the other who raises animals to eat. Both sons bring sacrifices to God and one pleases God and the other doesn't. Now, we don't know from the story why it is that Cain’s sacrifice does not please God as much as Able’s or even that it does not please God at all just that Able’s is looked on more favorably. And instead of asking why, or what he could do better, or what it is about his brother’s sacrifice that is so good, Cain just becomes enraged. Not so unfamiliar a story. Stories of brothers getting angry with one another are as old or older than this ancient story and are told again and again and even now.
Cain And Abel here in ancient scripture,
To Romulus and Remus in the founding of Rome,
to Hamlet and Claudius in Shakespeare's,
To Thor and Loki in both Norse myth and Marvel comics and movies
to Stephen and Damon in the vampire diaries,
to a number of situations in Game of Thrones,
to Michael and Fredo in The Godfather,
to Scar and Mufasa in The Lion King
To the entirety of the plot of John Steinbeck's East of Eden
Again and again we have stories of brothers being killed by brothers. And so often this story, as a scripture story- a story we hold in our holy text and say is God’s story, and our story, is one we avoid because who wants to talk about fratricide?
But in the end this is actually the story where sin enters the story of humanity for both Jewish and Christian believers. God says to Cain before he murders Abel “if you don’t do the right thing, sin will be waiting at the door ready to strike! It will entice you, but you must rule over it.” and of course, Cain does neither the right thing, nor does he rule over sin, it comes to rule him and his whole life.
So he murders Abel, and God knows it, and comes to him and says he is cursed because of his brother’s blood which he has spilled and this curse means he can never again till the land, and so he will have to wander the earth as a nomad. This overwhelms Cain and his anguish at his punishment, not at the death of his brother, is that he will find no home and that those he meets will kill him. And so God, loving Cain even in his sinfulness, puts a mark on him that will protect him, that will keep others from killing him. And so Cain leaves and settles in the land of Nod, East of Eden.
This is not a bedtime story, it is not a story of human encouragement- Cain does not repent, he does not mourn his brother, he does not show any awareness at all that he has done anything wrong or destructive. Like a child railing at the unfairness of his punishment he points out to God that his punishment will lead to Cain’s demise as well. And God- the loving and consistent parent- upholds the punishment, but gives Cain the blessing of his hand, and the protection that will keep him safe even as he is sent even further from God’s presence in Eden.
In essence this story should be read right along with chapters 1-3, it begins as the fruit of Adam and Eve leaving the garden- these are the first children after the exile, and continues with God’s physical and guiding presences just as Adam and Eve have it, God is physically and vocally present to Cain. It is the same story, and if we are going to tell the story of Adam and Eve as the story of the entrance of sin into human existence, which is not the only way to tell the story, then we must tell the whole story including Cain and Abel. Adam and Eve do what they are told not to, but they do it in a certain kind of innocence, Cain on the other hand is told not to give in to his anger and instead marches off and kills Abel. When read together, the story is about sin and God’s love and presence beyond sin and despite it. It is about a loving creator who punishes humans when they mess up, but who remains present and active even when they do. It is the story of a family being given the chance to try again when its members ignore what is good for them. It is the story of us all. We all have times where we innocently do something even when we have been showed why we shouldn’t just because the warning didn’t seem important, and we have all willfully done what we should not, and put pride and anger first.
If these 4 chapters are a story of why we come to be God’s people and even as God’s beloved children we know a certain distance between ourselves and God. They are perhaps more like a parable or a metaphor for our situation- how we mess up- both willfully and innocently- and what God’s presence is like when we are at a distance from God because of sinfulness, then we are all Adam and Eve, and we are all both Cain and Abel. The story tells us something true about what it feels like to love God, but to know that we are broken, flawed people who know distance sometimes or a lot of the time in our relationship with God, who even sometimes create that distance with our actions, knowing they are wrong.
But Paul tells us that we also have the example here of what it means to be faithful- Abel brings what is good, and more that that what is best to God. Abel does what makes God happy, and while his brother kills him for it, God has already blessed him. And Paul lets us know that the stories we will read later this summer together- Noah and others, also show us what it is to be faithful.
And Jesus tells us the simple truth that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be too”. Simple enough, and I’m sure it's a right enough logic that we all know it’s truth. But Cain ignores this truth. Whether in giving God something less than his best offering, or murdering his brother and removing him from life, Cain has forgotten that these treasures of life- both the work of his hands and the love of family, are more important treasures than whatever gain he might have in keeping the best back, or whatever momentary satisfaction killing his brother might bring.
Cain is an unrepentant bad guy. But he is also our brother, and more than that he is Jesus’ brother. He is in the family line of Jesus, and of us all through scripture. He is part of the family, and we tell his story to remember. It is not an easily redeemed story, for he does not ask forgiveness or find it. No, this is a story in scripture where we most often shrug our shoulders and say ‘he’s a bad guy, but in the end God protects him, I suppose that is like us too’ for we know that when we mess up, and even before we repent, God still loves us.
Repentance is not about regaining God’s love, for just as at the end Cain is blessed even in his wrongdoing, so are we by God’s love. Repentance is about turning ourselves around and facing God in spirit and truth, a thing that Cain doesn’t do. Knowing God’s love and knowing its importance to us gives us something Cain doesn’t have, something Abel, even in his early death, knows. It gives us faith, it helps us believe, and it connects us to one another. So instead of simply feeling righteous about Cain, or angry at him, I feel sorry for him, as I feel sorry for anyone who keeps hate in their heart, or who judges someone else for their distinct gifts or who God created them to be- for those who judge people as inferior or sinful based on their race, or a disability, or sexual or gender identity, for their education level or how much money they have, or the language they speak, - in that judgement and exclusion they are committing the sin of Cain- the sin of deciding for God what is good and right. And if we do not ask for forgiveness and turn and face God we live every day the sin of Cain, we choose our own pride or comfort or not wanting to be embarrassed over the ultimate goodness and mercy we know we will receive if we just say ‘I’m sorry’ and listen for God’s encouragement about how to make things right and live in God’s love renewed.
The sin of Cain is also murder of course, but more than that it is murder and pride, murder and his own way of acting like God doesn’t matter, his lack of faith. He holds as treasure his own autonomy, his own strength separate from what God has done for him, his own abilities above his love for his brother. And at the conclusion he is both made a nomad and blessed by God in his obstinate actions. He is, even as he is punished, still God’s child and descendant of the Garden. He is still loved. So in this sad story, this story of family strife and judgement, there is still hope. Hope that when we act like Cain, we can find our way to the words of Jesus, to the faith of Paul and make amends, and walk refreshed and renewed in God’s love. May it be so. Amen.