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. 

Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

1975236_10151948034931787_549958369_n

Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.

“Out of the Depths”: New Stillspeaking Daily Devotional

stillspeakingOut of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” – Psalm 130

My first call out of seminary was to a children’s hospital. I was a chaplain in a pediatric emergency room, and I spent most of my time meeting families on what were often the worst days of their lives.

The staff at that hospital were all exceptional. Thanks to them, most of the children who came through the trauma bay doors survived, and even thrived. But that was not always the case. And, for each family, for at least a little while, there was fear and pain and uncertainty.

I would sit with anxious parents while they waited for news. I always felt that it was a holy privilege. And I saw some extraordinary friends who would come and sit with them too, and try to give comfort. But, from time to time, sometimes a well-meaning friend would try a little too hard to make everything alright.

Read the rest here: http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/out-of-the-depths.html

Journey Through Advent – Day 14

8855_10151138633161787_1774694977_nI want to know why.

I want to know why a 20 year old would kill his own mother and then open fire on innocent children and the adults who were dedicated to them. I want to know why he had access to a stockpile of weapons that no civilian needs. I want to know why whatever happened in his mind happened.
But there are bigger “whys”. We want to know why a God who is always loving lets horrible things happen. It’s the classic question of theology. If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God stop tragedies? I’ve never believed that God wills or wants bad things to happen, and I come from the school of thought that believes that we humans make our own choices, and they are sometimes very bad ones, and in those moments no one hurts more than God. But on a morning after loss, that “why” sits with us, and no explanation seems anywhere near good enough.
And yet, here we are in Advent, preparing for the birth of the child who would someday be called the Prince of Peace. And this world needs peace more than anything. But how can we get ready for that when our hearts our so sad, and our heads are filled with questions of “why”? We might even feel a little angry at God today.
I think God can take it.
One of the last things Christ said before he died, in his hour of greatest suffering, was “My God, my God, why?” If Christ himself demanded to know why, what makes us think that we are any different?
It this Advent season it is possible to both prepare your hearts for God’s incarnate love and to ask “why”. In fact, maybe it’s even imperative. Advent is about building a relationship with God, and you can’t have a good and real relationship with anyone if it is not first an honest one. Our questions, our pain, our anger, all have a place in the life of faith. Belief does not preclude bewilderment.
As we wake up on this Advent morning with heavy hearts, those “why” questions matter. And as we ask them, whether we realize it or not, we are doing Advent preparation. Because with every question asked, we are opening our hearts up to God, and asking for a deeper relationship. We may not get the answers we need, but we may just find a love that we need even more.
Especially on the days when there are no answers.

Pastoring in the Wake of a Hurricane: 5 things I learned after Irene that I’m passing on to colleagues after Sandy

Dot's Restaurant in Wilmington, VT the day Hurricane Irene hit.

Dot’s Restaurant in Wilmington, VT the day Hurricane Irene hit.

1. Monetary donations are the most useful.

People will want to send all sorts of things in the wake of a hurricane. Food, water, and clothes. Especially clothes. Clothes are sometimes called “the disaster after the disaster” by natural disaster responders. But money is really the best thing for people to give. Some people gave to my pastor’s discretionary fund, and we used those funds to help people in town who needed immediate help with bills and rebuilding expenses. Meanwhile, within days we received generous checks from the United Church of Christ, who sent us disaster relief funds. They take donations at: https://secure3.convio.net/ucc/site/Donation2?df_id=1340&1340.donation=form1 Another great place is Church World Service:  https://secure2.convio.net/cws/site/SPageServer?pagename=hurricane_sandy&JServSessionIdr004=77wa8mtpp1.app244b They sent us lots of cleaning buckets that contained all the things we actually needed. They also sent hygiene kits for the shelter. They are pros at this stuff, and are supported by an ecumenical coalition of churches. They also do not evangelize. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Some religious groups will try to to use natural disasters as an opportunity for conversions.

It’s great that so many religious groups want to provide aid. It’s not so great when they exploit traumatized and vulnerable people while doing it. There were reports of volunteers who would go to people’s homes after Irene, but do little other than try to get the homeowner to pray with them. Here in my community a group of fundamentalist Christians presented themselves as Red Cross “trauma chaplains”. (Read more here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/wise-as-serpents-finding-_b_1692251.html ) Local clergy should be “wise as serpents, gentle as doves” when dealing with outside religious groups. It’s okay to be the gatekeepers for your community if it means protecting traumatized people.

3. Be cautious about bringing in outside volunteers.

In the aftermath a lot of well-meaning churches and organizations called the church asking how many people they could immediately send as volunteers. While we were grateful they wanted to serve, the roads in were literally falling into the river and the few resources left in town were already running out. Aside from very skilled contractors with specific rebuilding skills, or those with disaster sanitation experience, an influx of untrained volunteers will likely tax an affected community more than they will help. There will be plenty of volunteer opportunities for church groups and the like in the coming months.

4. Get involved as a community leader and use your resources

Hopefully you will have already laid the groundwork for this. Now is the time to reach out to emergency responders, the Chamber of Commerce, and other local organizations and to tell them what you can do. It’s also the time to be as visible as possible so that you can best serve those who need it. I spent a week solid after the flood wearing my clergy collar everyday. It helped people to be able to easily understand my role, and what I could do for them. We also opened the church, which was right down the street from one of the hardest hit areas, and provided a quiet prayer space. We kept bottles of water, energy bars, and fruit on hand too. To get to the work area, people had to pass by our church on foot. So we had volunteers sit on the front steps and hand them out to people going in and out. We also reached out to local 12 Step groups and opened our building up to the ones that had been displaced by the flood. Natural disasters can be particularly tough for those in early recovery, so we also worked with the existing groups and hosted emergency meetings every evening. We all have a lot of resources in our churches that we might not even know about, starting with ourselves. Take an inventory of what you can give, and then work with community leaders to give it.

5. Preach the good news of the Gospel.

For most of us this goes without saying, but natural disasters are so often breeding grounds for bad theology and judgement. In your public prayers, stress God’s love and care. Make God’s presence a theme during pastoral counseling encounters and practice a ministry of presence in all you do. And really think through what you want people to take away from your Sunday sermon this week. They are going to be listening for the good news of Christ’s love. Speak to your particular situation, and give comfort and hope. (This is what I preached the following Sunday: http://revemilycheath.com/2011/09/05/noahs-dover-and-the-olive-leaf-sermon-for-august-4-2011/ ) At all times remember that you are a representative of the Gospel, and of Christ’s love. In the wake of disaster, people need it more than ever.

Blessings to you and all your serve!