What if God Didn’t Mean it at All?: Sermon for April 15, 2018

Many of you know that before I was a parish pastor, I was a chaplain at a children’s hospital, working mostly in the emergency room. I spent a lot of my time sitting with parents who were scared and waiting for some good news. And while I as there, I heard people, people who were trying to be helpful, say some of the most amazingly thoughtless things.

“God has a plan,” they’d say to these parents. Or, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” Or, “this is God’s will…we can’t understand it.”

I would hear these things, and I would always tense up and try to keep quiet until the “helpful” friends were out of the room. Then I’d tell the parents that I was sure God had not meant for their child to get hurt or sick or abused, and I’d explain that sometimes when friends don’t know what to say they say the first thing that pops into their head and makes themselves feel better. 

One day I was sitting with a mother whose child had been injured by a stranger who had broken into her school. She was distraught, and her friend kept saying to her, “It’s okay…it’s okay…it’s okay.” Finally she broke, and yelled out, “It’s not okay…it’s not okay…it’s not okay.”

I was pretty proud of her. She was telling the truth, a truth that I believe God would have believed as well. God does not will bad things to happen to children, and God did not think this was “okay”.

It’s because experiences like that that I have trouble with today’s passage. In particular, I have trouble with one of the last lines we read today: you meant it to harm me, but God meant it for good.

This comes from the story of Joseph, which the elementary students have begun reading in church school. As you know, I like to preach on whatever they’re studying so that we will all know the story, and can all help them with it. And it’s this part of the story in particular that I want to talk about, because I don’t want us as a church to create another generation of people who witness tragedy and call it God’s will. I think we can do better than that.

But first, to remind you of the story, Joseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel. He had ten older half-brothers, all of whom thought their father loved him most of all. Jacob didn’t help to reassure them when he gave Joseph a special coat of many colors, either. The brothers grew more and more jealous, and after Joseph had a series of dreams in which they were shown bowing down to him, they decided something needed to be done.

At first, they decided to kill their brother. But one brother, Reuben, said “no, let’s not kill him. Let’s just sell him into slavery instead” And so that’s what they did. They sold him off  and they brought back his coat covered with goat’s blood, gave it to his father, and said he had been killed.

But Joseph wasn’t dead. He ended up in Egypt where his ability to interpret dreams gets the attention of the Pharoah. He predicts a coming famine, and so the Pharoah begins to store up grain in advance, which no one else does. So when the famine comes, people come from other lands looking for food. And one day, Joseph looks out and sees his own brothers there. He’s no longer a boy, though, so they don’t recognize him. And for a while he pretends not to know them

It goes on like this for a while. Joesph even sets them up to look like thieves, and tricks them into bringing their father and youngest bother to Egypt. But when they are finally all there, Joesph tells them who he is. And he feeds them and keeps them safe during the famine. And his father is overjoyed, and before he dies he blesses Joseph.

But now, the brothers get scared. They knew Joseph wouldn’t do anything to them while their father was still alive. But what about now? They beg Joseph not to harm them, the way they harmed him. And that’s when Joseph says these lines: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you meant to harm me, God meant it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

Joseph is a good person. A forgiving person. I wrestle with whether or not I could be that forgiving. But more than that, I have always wrestled with that line: “God meant it for good”. It sounds too much like those people in the hospital.

Photo_of_The_Rev._William_Sloane_Coffin,_Jr._(1924-2006),_Senior_Minister_of_The_Riverside_Church,_New_York,_NY_(1977-87)

Rev. William Sloan Coffin

And I remember a story that William Sloan Coffin, a minister who was once the chaplain at Yale, once told. Coffin’s son Alex was killed in a car accident at the age of 24. A week later he got up into the pulpit and told the story of people who had tried to comfort him. In particular he recounted how one woman, loaded down with quiches she had brought, off-handedly said to him, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”

Distraught and heartbroken, he lit into her. “I’ll say you don’t, lady”, he told her. He went on to say that God was not some sort of “cosmic sadist” who makes these things happen. Instead, he said, when his son died, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

I think that’s true. I believe that when we are hurt, God hurts with us. And that’s why I don’t believe that God wills bad things to happen to us. And I don’t believe God wanted Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery.

If you go back to the original Hebrew of this text, you find that what we read as “God meant it for good” actually translates more accurately to something like “God devised it for good”. I hear that as “God used if for good”. 

I don’t believe God ordains bad things to happen so that later on more bad things won’t happen. I don’t think we are chess pieces being moved around without free will. Joseph’s brothers had complete control over what they were doing. But I do believe that, no matter what, God can meet us in our suffering, and God can transform it for good. 

That means that God does not give us cancer, or crash cars, or make the people we love betray us. But it does mean that God can be beside us in even the worst of situations, and God can help us find a way through. God can bring new life after destruction. That’s literally what Easter, this season, is all about. 

Now, I don’t mean that in a naive way. Joseph’s brothers should never have done that to him. And especially when what has been done to us intentionally, we have to be allowed to name that. But in the aftermath, we can become hard, bitter, and hateful people, slow to forgive and quick to lash out. In other words, we can become exactly like the people who have hurt us, which means that we will likely become people who hurt others.

Or, we can accept that what was done to us was wrong and, knowing that God is with us, knowing that God can help us to transform even the worst of it, we can choose to be better. We can become Joesphs in a world of jealous brothers, finding ways to transform the trauma into hope and new life. 

We will all be Joseph from time to time. But, truth be told, sometimes we will also be the brothers. Truth be told, I’d rather be the noble Joseph even with all the pain than the conniving brother. But none of us is perfect, and so there’s also the question of what to do when we find that we ourselves are the brothers. And I’ll leave you with this story. 

Alfred_Nobel3

Alfred Nobel

In 1867 a man named Alfred Nobel patented his new invention. It was a a mix of nitroglycerin and explosives that came to be called “dynamite”. It was a new, more deadly, way to make war, and Nobel’s invention would bring him plenty of money.

But then, in 1888, his brother died. And the newspaper, thinking it was Alfred who had died, ran an obituary for him instead. The headline, translated from French, was this: “the merchant of death is dead”. It went on to read that, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Nobel was horrified that this was his legacy. He realized what he had done. And so, he took the money that he had made from his weapon of war, and donated it in order to form a new series of prizes for contributions to humanity. The greatest of all of these awards we know today as the “Nobel Peace Prize”.

When it comes to metaphorical “brothers of Joesph”, Nobel took the cake. And yet, even he could change his legacy. Even he could transform what he had done into a small source of hope for a broken world.

That’s true for me, and that’s true for you. Whether you are Joseph, a brother, or a little bit of both, God is not done with us yet. What ever has happened to you, whatever you have caused to happen, it does not have to be the last word. As long as we breathe, God can always help us to turn things for good. 

Journey Through Advent – Day 17

Monks brawling in Bethlehem. Copyright, The Times of London

Monks brawling in Bethlehem. Copyright, The Times of London

When we tell and retell the most important stories of our life, we often find that every time we tell it, there are a few details that we can’t leave out of the story. Whether it’s the name of the hotel where you stayed on a honeymoon, or the hospital where your children were born, or what the course looked like on the day you got that hole in one. There is some detail about every important story of your life that may seem insignificant, but that you can’t leave out.

The story of the nativity, the birth of Christ, is no different. There’s one detail we never leave out: When Mary and Joseph got to the inn, they were told there was no room for them there.

 Have you ever wondered whether that was really true? Have you ever wondered if maybe there was room at the inn? Maybe the innkeeper had a couple rooms left, but he saw this unmarried couple with this woman who was obviously pregnant, and decided maybe he didn’t want to rent them a room? Or maybe, even if there weren’t any rooms left, they could have found some place for a woman who was nine months pregnant and about to give birth?

But they didn’t. And so Jesus wasn’t born in the inn.

Sometimes God knocks at our doors and we are asked if there is room in the inn. And sometimes we look out and we don’t really like what we see, or we don’t like what it would mean to let Christ in, and we close the door and say “there’s no place for you here”.

The question is, when you tell the story of your faith, do you want to be the inn that closed its doors? Or do you want to be something else?

Scripture tells us that out in the fields, the shepherds heard the baby had been born. And they got up and they came to the manger and saw the new thing that God had just done in the world.

That’s who I want to be on Christmas Eve, and everyday. I want to be the one who doesn’t close the doors to my heart when God is about to do something new, but the one who hears about it, and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of that story. Like that piece of ground in Bethlehem, I want to be the everyday thing, that becomes holy, not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. I want to be a part of the story.

I can be. And so can you. And so can we all.

“Resolutions” – Sermon for New Year’s Day, 2012

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

2:25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

2:27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

2:33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Someone asked me once why the church acknowledged January 1st as the start of the New Year. According to Christian tradition, the new church year started back on the last Sunday of November, which was the first Sunday of Advent. According to that tradition, the significance of today is not that it’s New Years, but that it’s the first Sunday after Christmas. So, aside from changing over our calendars, why does this day matter inside the doors of this church?

It was a good question, and one I wasn’t so sure about. The church year having started over a month ago, it seems redundant to talk about a new year again a month later. And so I researched, and found out that really, this tradition of January 1st as New Years is fairly new, in the big scheme of things. The Gregorian calendar wasn’t introduced until the 1500’s, and in England the first of the year, until the 1750’s, was in March. Russia even held out with the old Julian calendar until the 20th century. And one thing is sure. Jesus, as a good Jewish rabbi who followed the Hebrew calendar, was not popping open champagne at midnight on January 1st.

So why does it matter? Why should January 1st have any more meaning for the worship of the church than the start of the fiscal year months from now?

It’s a question I pondered when reading today’s text, which on the surface seems to have little to do with the New Year. In it, Jesus goes to the Temple in Jerusalem for the first time. And when he comes Simeon, who is this old, wise, holy man, takes him into his arms, and he knows who he is. And Anna, an old, holy woman who stayed in the temple and prayed all the time, sees Jesus and begins to praise him. And Joseph and Mary, already aware that their child is somehow different, leave the Temple with their eyes open.

And that’s what a new beginning, in the truest sense of the word, is all about. Because when Simeon held the child, his eyes were opened to who he was. When Anna saw him, she knew in her heart that something new was happening. When Joseph and Mary walked out that door, their whole lives had changed. It was, spiritually, a new year for them. And everything was going to change.

We know about new years in the church. We celebrate them all the time in one way or another, because we are constantly looking for the ways that God is doing something new in us and in the world. And if you use that as the benchmark, January 1st is as good a day as any to stop, look around, and decide how you want to work with God in the new year.

And as it turns out, January 1st makes a lot of sense. In Jewish tradition, eight days after a baby boy is born, the family has a bris. Today is the eighth day after Christmas day, so today would be Jesus’ bris. But what makes today special is not that one activity that we all know about that happens at the bris, but the other, which is the naming of Jesus, and his reception into the covenant of Abraham. Churches worldwide celebrate this day, and some call it the Feast of the Holy Name. And the significance is not so much that Jesus got a name, but that the world found out what it was.

New Years can be like that for you too. This is the year when, like the ones there at Jesus’ bris, you can learn who Jesus is, or like Anna and Simeon, you can truly see him and be amazed.

Today can be a start of a whole new phase of your relationship with Christ. It can be the day when you call out that Holy Name, and decide that you are ready for the next part of your life with God. And it can be a day when you make resolutions for the coming year.

We talk about resolutions a lot on New Years. We make a list and we promise ourselves that this year we are going to do better. But the thing about resolutions is that they are more than just a game plan for how things will go; they are signs of what we want for the future. They are symbols of what we want to accomplish. They are our hopes and dreams laid bare. And some years we’re better at fulfilling them than others.

Maybe you’ve made your list already. It may have the typical items: eat better, exercise more, do better at work, get your life organized. And you will, at least for a while, do your best to make those things happen. And those hopes will be there all year, showing up from time to time like those bills in your mail bow for the gym membership that you only used three times.

That’s okay. Be gentle with yourself. Because January 1st isn’t magical. This isn’t the only day of the year that things can change. God has given you 365 days this year to do that. And God can help you use all of them to make the resolutions that matter.

February 2nd is my special day. It’s my sobriety date. And when I look at my big celebrations of the year, February 2nd matters infinitely more to me than January 1st does. And maybe that’s because on February 2nd years ago I didn’t wake up with hope and a plan for how the year would go and with my eyes set towards the future. I woke up feeling crummier than I ever had before, and wondering if God could help me make a resolution and stick to it.

I know some of you have been there too. And like me, you know that we had to be ready to make that resolution, and we had to be ready to ask God to do the next. February 2nd is my new year, because it’s the day that taught me, in the most tangible way, that God’s grace is real.

You may have your own. Maybe it’s your sobriety day. Maybe it’s the day you were married. Maybe it’s when you became a parent. Or maybe it’s when something turned in your soul, and you decided that you wanted to become the person that God created you to be. It could have been January 1st, or February 2nd, or October 4th, or just yesterday. If God could use February 2nd, then God can use any day to change a life. God doesn’t need January 1st, because they all work fine.

But that means that this day is as good as any.

This day is as good as any to make a resolution, not just for the year, but for the rest of your life. And maybe you’ve already joined the gym, or bought the file folders to organize those papers, or set your budget, and that’s great.

But are there other resolutions that you want to make this year? Are there ways that you want things to change in your life? And are any of those ways spiritual? Are any about the way your want to love God in the new year? Are any about how much time you’d like to spend in prayer, or helping those who need it, or just getting to spend more time on your relationship with God? If they are, maybe they are worth being on that resolution list.

They may feel too daunting, or too big. “Be a better Christian,” on the top of the list sounds so unspecific. So hard. You can’t measure that by a scale or a bank account balance. In fact, you probably won’t be able to measure it at all. But chances are, like Anna and Simeon, the people who see you will notice that there is something different about you, and that God is doing something new in you. It may not happen on January 1st or 2nd or 3rd, but it will happen. And, it will continue to happen.

John Wesley started a tradition still found in some Christian churches to spend New Year’s Eve together in prayer. The idea is to reflect on the past year, think about the next one, and focus on your relationship with God. Now, John Wesley was really mostly trying to keep his parishioners out of the bars and streets on New Year’s Eve. But there’s something about that idea that makes sense. Not just for New Year’s Eve, but for any day when you want to start again. Begin it in prayer, and reflection, and decide where you want to go next, and call on God’s name to help you.

May this year be a watchful one for you. May it be one where you learn the name of Jesus, and never fail to see him for who he is, and what he is doing. May it be one where God does new things in your life, not just on one day, but on all of them. And may it be one where you resolve to live with hope, and with love for God. Christ’s blessing be upon you in 2012, and always. Amen.

Christmas Eve sermon, 2011

When we tell and retell the most important stories of our life, we often find that every time we tell it, there are a few details that we can’t leave out of the story. Whether it’s the name of the hotel where you stayed on a honeymoon, or the hospital where your children were born, or what the course looked like on the day you got that hole in one. There is some detail about every important story of your life that may seem insignificant, but that you can’t leave out.

The story of the nativity, the birth of Christ, is no different.

We know this story: Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the three wise men. We know about how there was no room at the inn. And we know about how there was a manger.

It would be an important story without any of those things, because this is the heart of it: “God loved us so much that God became one of us, so that we all might love God and one another.”

But that’s not the way the Gospel tells it. The Gospel tells us about a baby, born to an unmarried couple, under extraordinary circumstances. And they tell us where it happened. And where it didn’t. It wasn’t enough for the Gospels to just say “he was born” or even “he was born in Bethlehem”. They tell us he was born in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

A manger isn’t much. It was a sort of container for the hay that the animals ate. It wasn’t a crib, or a bed, or anything like that. It was perhaps the most unexpected resting place for a newly born Messiah. For God, on God’s first night as one of us.

But as much as we remember that manger, we also remember why Jesus was there. We remember that when Mary and Joseph got to the inn, they were told there was no room for them there.

Have you ever wondered whether that was really true? Have you ever wondered if maybe there was room at the inn? Maybe the innkeeper had a couple rooms left, but he saw this unmarried couple with this woman who was obviously pregnant, and decided maybe he didn’t want to rent them a room? Or maybe, even if there weren’t any rooms left, they could have found some place for a woman who was nine months pregnant and about to give birth?

But they didn’t. And so Jesus wasn’t born in the inn.

There is a Christian tradition about the spot where Jesus was born. There is a church in Bethlehem that was built over the very spot where Jesus was said to have laid in a manger. It is considered so holy that three different Christian traditions, Catholic and Orthodox, have laid claim to it for centuries and now they all have monks that live there and there is sort of an uneasy truce. The monks still to this day sometimes even have fist fights over the space.

Now, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants for the place he was born. I’m not even sure if that’s the exact place he was born or not, or if it even matters. But what I am sure of is that we remember that place where Christ was first born. We remember it enough to want to know exactly where it was, and to keep that place holy.

You know what we don’t remember? We don’t remember the name of the inn.

Was it the Bethlehem Hotel? The Road to Nazareth Convention Center? The Holiday Inn?

We’ll never know. But, I often wonder if the inn ever realized who they turned away. I wonder if a few decades down the line they realized that when Jesus’ mom had come to the door, they hadn’t given her a room. They’d given her some hay.

Now if this was just a story about an innkeeper who missed a chance to open the doors to Christ over 2000 years ago, I wouldn’t be telling it tonight. But this isn’t about what an innkeeper did 2000 years ago. It’s about what God did, and what God still does. And it’s about what we do next.

Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time.

Sometimes God knocks at our doors and we are asked if there is room in the inn. And sometimes we look out and we don’t really like what we see, or we don’t like what it would mean to let Christ in, and we close the door and say “there’s no place for you here”.

But sometimes even when we don’t really want to, even when we’re not sure we want to open that door up, we do anyway. And that matters. Because Christmas may be about the story that we read. It may be about Mary and Joseph and the baby and the manger and no room at the inn. But that story teaches us about more than just an event that happened centuries ago. It teaches us about opening ourselves up to what God is trying to do in us in this world. And it’s about telling God that, even if we don’t know what it means yet, there is room for God in our lives, and we want to be part of what God is doing.

There’s a good chance that if you are here tonight, some part of you wants to be a part of that. Some part of you wants to be a part of love made real, of God being active in our world, of a world that can change. Some part of you wants to be a part of the Christmas story. Maybe not the one that’s written in the book with the shepherds and the manger and the wise men, but a part of the Christmas story none-the-less.

The denomination that this church is a part of, the United Church of Christ, has a saying that I’ve always liked. We say, “God is still speaking.” I believe that. I believe that God is not only still speaking, but God is still active in this world, and God is still writing the Christmas story. God is still writing the story of what happened when Christ came into this world as the Prince of Peace, and what happened next. And you can be a part of that story.

The question is, do you want to be the inn that closed its doors. Or do you want to be something else.

Scripture tells us that out in the fields, the shepherds heard the baby had been born. And they got up and they came to the manger and saw the new thing that God had just done in the world.

That’s who I want to be on Christmas Eve, and everyday. I want to be the one who doesn’t close the doors to my heart when God is about to do something new, but the one who hears about it, and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of that story. Like that piece of ground in Bethlehem, I want to be the everyday thing, that becomes holy, not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. I want to be a part of the story.

I can be. And so can you. And so can we all.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that that baby born that night grew up to become an adult. And when he did, and he was asked what we God asked us to do, he answered this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, open the door, open your heart, and let it all in. If Christmas is about the incarnation of God, and this is what God incarnate saw fit to tell us, then this is the ultimate Christmas message

When the tree is put away, when Christmas dinner has been eaten, when the nativity sets go back into their boxes, these things remain. And the ultimate test of how well we have celebrated Christmas this year will not be in what was under the tree or anything like that. It will be in how well we opened our hearts, and let that Christmas message in. May we do so this Christmas, and always. Amen.