Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why Ask Why? (Part 2)

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.   14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
--Psalm 22:1-2; 14-16

 Sunday we began our Why? series.  “Why?” is a question on many people’s minds.  Why?  God, why?  Why this?  Why now?  Why me?  Why my children?  Why cancer?  Why an earthquake?  Why a car accident?  Why an innocent baby?  Why so much suffering?  Why so much pain?  Why?  God, why? 
Growing up, I often heard that you shouldn’t ask why, that “questioning God” was somehow off limits.  You know what I wondered when I was taught that?  Why?  Can God not handle our questions?  Does the God of the Universe not understand when we get angry and want to know why?  
On Sunday, part of what we did was look at some reasons, I think, it’s okay to ask why.  So, let’s review.  Why Ask Why?
  1. People of faith always have--All throughout Scripture are stories of people who suffered terrible tragedies and pain.  Time and again, they asked why.  The Psalmist in Psalm 22, prays, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Did you know that 70% of the psalms are psalms of lament?  The Book of Psalms is Israel’s prayer book, and 70% of them are psalms of lament where the psalmist prays to God, “God, where are you?  It feels like I’m all alone down here.  God, why are staying so far from me?  God, why?”  If Israel’s prayer book is composed of prayers like that, I think it’s okay to question, and cry out to God that way too.  There is an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations.  Guess what’s in that?  That’s right.  Laments.  Complaints to God.  Honest, authentic relationship with God requires honest, authentic prayer.  Job and his friends questioned why Job’s fate had befallen him.  He was a good and upright man, yet he suffered tremendously.  Why?  That was the question they repeatedly asked.  Jesus, even asked why.  From the cross, he quoted Psalm 22, “My God, my God why?”  See, God desires an authentic relationship with us.  God doesn’t want us to hide stuff from him, why to keep from hurting his feelings?  
  2. That brings me to the second thing: God is big enough to handle our little questions--This is the God of the universe we’re talking about here.  God created everything there is.  By the power of the divine voice, this world was spoken into existence.  God just said, “Let there be light,” and there was.  I doubt that our questions will threaten God.
  3. Third, God’s not going to be threatened by our anger, either.  And, let’s face it: Why is a question we generally ask out of anger and a place of deep pain and grief. It’s not often you hear somebody say, “God, why did you let me land this great job?  I don’t deserve it.  God, why would you let this happen to me?”  Just doesn’t happen.  Why is a question we ask in the midst of our anger.  And that’s okay.  
  4. Since Sunday I thought of a fourth reason: “Why?” is a faith question.  You don’t bother asking why unless you believe there is some sort of an answer.  You don’t bother asking, “Why God?” unless you believe in God.  So, at its core, “why?” is a question asked in faith.
So, the overwhelming weight of Scripture suggests that “Why?” is a perfectly natural question to ask, especially in times of pain, sorrow, and grief.
The answer?  Well, that’s a good bit tougher. 

Looking forward to this Sunday,
Pastor Michael

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why Ask Why? (Part 1)

1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 
--Genesis 1:1-3

Yesterday, at Advent, we began our Why Series.  In trying to start to put our arms around the colossal question of why bad things happen to good people, we began--like Adam Hamilton’s book on the same subject--with the creation story. 
My thoughts about the creation story have forever been shaped by my friend, former professor, and mentor, Bishop Will Willimon, who was the first to point out to me the depth of the Hebrew word translated “formless void” in our English translations.  “Formless void” is an adequate rendering of the Hebrew, but it doesn’t quite capture the menacing nature of the dark nothingness of the tohuw wabohuw (click on each word to see a small word study, hear the pronunciation, and see other instances of the word in the Old Testament).  In the beginning, there was already this brooding emptiness, chaos.
Bishop Willimon’s insights on this passage were revelatory to me.  God did not create the tohuw wahohuw.  It was already there.  But, God went to work on it.  God spoke light out of the darkness, and started bringing order out of the chaos. 
If you’re in the throes of chaos, grief and pain, I’m not sure this helps, but it certainly helped me to try and make sense of the problem of suffering and evil.

Asking Why,
Pastor Michael

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jordan River

34 The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
--Acts 8:34-39

On Sunday we had wonderful worship services remembering Jesus’ baptism and celebrating our own.  It was powerful for me to see so many people  come forward to touch the water and renew their baptismal vows and commitment to Christ.   
When it comes to baptism in the Christian tradition, there is quite a variety of thought.  What happens in baptism?  Who should be baptized?  And, how much water should be used?  These are all questions about which faithful Christians have disagreed.  
When it comes to how much water should be used, some of our Christian brothers and sisters from other denominations teach and practice only immersion.  For these Christians, baptism is only baptism if it is by immersion.  So, it takes a lot of water, because you literally have to  go under the water and come back up.  A little dab won’t do you.  You need a lot.  
In the United Methodist Church, we will actually baptize by any method.  We will immerse--I have baptized folks in a swimming pool before--but we also baptize by pouring and by sprinkling.  We believe that God is working in this sacrament of baptism regardless of the amount of water.  
Another big area where Christians disagree on baptism.  Some of our Christian brothers and sisters practice only a believer’s baptism (these are the folks who consider baptism an ordinance as opposed to a sacrament).  The way that they read and interpret Scripture leads them to contend that you should only be baptized after you place your faith and trust in Christ.  That’s what believer’s baptism means--that you have already become a believer and baptism is just a public symbol of something that has happened already.  
According to Christians who teach believer’s baptism, you shouldn’t be baptized until you intellectually understand salvation and baptism.  
When we’re discussing this, I always like to ask my believer’s baptism friends: Well, what about the severely mentally handicapped?  Should they never be baptized because they are intellectually unable to understand what’s going on with salvation and baptism?  And, who among us completely understands what God has done for us through Jesus Christ our Lord?  Doesn’t that understanding evolve over time for all of us?  At what point of that evolution should we be baptized?
As United Methodists, we believe that we’re always growing in our understanding of salvation and our life of faith.  We have never arrived.  If waiting until a certain level of understanding or faithfulness is achieved must be a prerequisite for baptism, then some of us would be waiting a very long time.
That’s why, in the United Methodist Church (along with Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.), we baptize infants as well as adults.  In the Book of Acts, we learn that when people would hear the good news of the Gospel, they would be baptized along with their entire households--including infants and small children.
So, we do baptize babies.  In fact, we think that there’s not a better sign of our position before God.  A baby is completely helpless, utterly dependent upon her parents to do everything for her.  When it comes to our salvation, we are completely helpless to earn it.  We are utterly dependent upon God.  Salvation is a free gift of grace that we can do nothing to earn.  We can only receive it.  
Make no mistake: We always baptize people on faith.  In the case of an infant, we baptize him or her on the faith of the parents and the faith of the local congregation promising to help raise the child in the faith.  We claim the faith for the child until that time when the child grows up and can claim the faith for him or herself.  Eventually, every person must profess the faith as his or her personal faith. 
Trying To Live As One Marked,
Pastor Michael

Monday, January 14, 2013

That'll Leave A Mark

A photo I shot of the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee.

4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
--Mark 1:4-11

Yesterday, we had the great privilege of baptizing four people and, after taking a long hard look at what Scripture and The United Methodist Church teaches about baptism, we all had an opportunity to remember our baptisms and renew our baptismal vows.  
This week, by way of this blog (or e-mail...however you are receiving this) I plan on sharing with you some teaching material on baptism that I had to cut from yesterday’s sermon, but for today a quick recap.
In The United Methodist Church--along with our Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we refer to baptism as one of two sacraments (the other being Holy Communion).  While other denominations might call baptism an ordinance, we insist that it is a sacrament.  This is more than just semantics.  At stake is what we believe happens in baptism.  
For those who use the language of ordinance, baptism is merely a symbol of something that has already taken place.  The person has already given his or her life over to the Lordship of Christ and baptism is the symbolic action publicly declaring that.  Nothing really happens at baptism that hasn’t already happened in the person’s life.  The primary actor is the person who is coming by faith to be baptized.
For those who use the language of sacrament, however, baptism is more than simply a symbol of something that has already taken place.  We believe that God is really doing something through water and the Holy Spirit, that God is marking us, claiming us as God’s own.  Baptism is a sign and seal of a covenant between us and God whereby God washes, cleanses, and marks us as we, in turn, pledge our lives to God.  The primary actor is God.  The action is what God does for us.
The Greek word used by the earliest Christians for baptism and Holy Communion was mysterium, which means mystery.  They believed that God was busy in baptism and Communion, conveying grace, and transforming lives, but exactly how and what God was doing remained a mystery.  
When it came time to translate the Greek into Latin, though, the earliest Christians had a very difficult time with the word mysterium.  There was no Latin word that corresponded to it.  Eventually, they started using the Latin word sacramentum, to translate mysterium, but where did they get that word and why did they choose it?  The answer is: In a general sense, sacramentum in the Roman world was an oath that rendered the person making it “belonging to the gods.”  In a more specific context, sacramentum was the Roman Army’s process for transforming a civilian recruit for the Roman army into a soldier.  That process of transformation that had two parts: 1) the soldier took an oath of office, and 2) the Army branded him behind the ear with the number of his legion.
Branding, obviously, leaves a mark.  The sacramentum for Roman soldiers involved their promises and oaths to the army and involved them being marked.  A Roman soldier was different than a civilian recruit.  Once they went through the sacramentum, transformation happened.  They were branded.  Marked.  They were no longer free to do whatever they wanted.  Their lives didn’t belong to them any more.  They belonged to the Army.   They had new responsibilities and duties.  They a whole new life.
It is easy to see why the early Christians would have latched onto that word to describe what happens to us in baptism.  In baptism we are branded, we are marked by God as children.  We are no longer free to do whatever we want.  Our lives don’t belong to us anymore.  We belong to God.  We have new responsibilities and duties.  We have a whole new life!  We have been marked! 

Branded By Grace,
Pastor Michael