Friday, February 27, 2015

Noah and God's Repentance - sermon for the first Sunday of Lent

The story of Noah and his ark includes in it a story of God's repentance and transformation. One kind of transformation comes when we have our eyes opened to see ourselves in a way that allows us to ask, "What have I done?" about the pain we have caused to others or to ourselves. God has that moment after flooding the earth, and offers a covenant of the rainbow. Waters of flooding and death become later waters of baptism and new life. We are no longer punished for our mistakes (not by God, anyway), but instead God reminds us of love and mercy and holds us in tender hands.

Have you had a "What have I done?" moment of transformation? How did it happen, how did it work out? 

“Noah and God’s Repentance”
Sermon, Year B, Lent 1, February 22, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Genesis 9:8-17 andMark 1:9-15 

(you may also listen to this sermon)

We started by reading the end of the Noah and the flood story. I’ll be honest, I find Noah’s story to be a terrible story. It’s a story of destruction and death. I don’t understand why it’s become such a cherished children’s story. People write children’s books about, and make artwork and paintings for children’s room, and toys. Now, it is at one level the story of God saving some lives: Noah’s family, some animals. But at the time that God is saving those few lives God is also sending floods to destroy everything else. All the surface of the earth is being destroyed. Destroying everything. God is so angry at humanity’s sin that it all has to be wiped out, except Noah’s family. And when we read that story it’s so easy to get to the part about the flood waters coming and to say the words about the flood covering the earth, without taking a moment to pause and think about what that means. That God sent the waters to flood the earth and destroy everything. We read those words with no more thought than we might recite a grocery list. Where’s the contemplative pause after reading such terrible words?

I will say, that I do not believe that this literally happened. I do not think the Noah is true in a factual, historical sense. It’s out of character for God, for one thing. It also reflects the point of view and the issues of people thousands of years ago when the story was first being told, retold, and passed down. There is also no archaeological evidence for a worldwide catastrophic flood five or six thousand years ago. But there is some evidence of flooding in the Mideast about that time. So this could very well be a story that began with flooding, perhaps numerous floods over a number of years, and the stories get passed down. If you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know that as stories get passed on, they get changed, embellished, mistakes creep in. These stories also come at a time when people were worshiping a god or gods that were believed to be in control of things. So when a flood happens, then they have to think, “Why is this?” Often, then, the logical conclusion that they make is that the gods must be causing it, and they are causing it because they are angry at us for something. We must have done something wrong, and we’re being punished. Unfortunately, that thinking continues into today. When we have natural disasters now, seems like there are always some Christian leaders who come out and say that the hurricane came because of New Orleans’ sin, or that the school shootings happened because punishing us for our sins, and so on.

That’s a kind of thinking that is stuck in a Noah’s ark ancient understanding of God sending disaters to punish us.

But even without belief in the literal truth of Noah’s ark story, we still have it. It is in our text. It is in our scripture that we call holy. And we have to deal with it.

One thing that I see in it, in the verse from today and also the verses before this one, is a point of redemption in this saga. As we talk of transformation this Lent season, transformation of self, church, community, etc., one part is repentance. To repent is simply to turn around, to change direction to a more godly way. It is not to flog ourselves our feel terrible. Just to turn around from sin, and sin just means to miss the mark, to make a mistake. There is in this story a transformation of repentance: on God’s part. God has a moment here. Whether literally true or not, the text has a transformation that God goes through.

At the beginning of the story, God is getting angry at humanity. We are sinful, wicked, evil. God is angry at humanity for all of its sin and wicked ways. God’s anger seethes and seethes, and rage builds up like water behind the Three Gorges Dam until it bursts and floods the world in watery death.

And I bet that felt good! God may have had a moment that it felt really, really good to let all of that anger out. It can feel good to us, yes? Let that anger out! Throw the plate at a spouse, punch the guy who is offending you, flipping of the guy in traffic, insulting a loved one who, because you love them, you know them well and you know that one place to insult them that’s going to hurt them the most. You tear them down and it feels sooooo good in that moment! Let that anger out!

But as good as succumbing to the anger feels in that moment, it is often followed by remorse. Perhaps you have felt that. Been through that process. A moment of remorse. After all the destruction of the flood, God sees the destruction once the punishment is rendered, once it’s too late to not do it... once God really sees the death and destruction that has been wrought, there is a moment at which God has a change. The text does not say that God was ashamed, but I wonder if that was part of it. I can imagine God looking on the world and saying, “What have I done?”

Perhaps you have asked that of yourself at some point. Or multiple points. I’ve asked it.

I had one big moment, and I don’t want to turn this into a personal confession time, but last September I had a moment. During the week of September 11, I had a very tough week. Most of you know that I was in NYC during the attacks, and so the week around the anniversary is always kind of weird. Usually not too bad, but for some reason last year it was not a good week for me at all. Plus, my car broke down that week, and some other things happened not related to the anniversary just piled on the bad feelings.

So I’m feeling bad that week, and I send messages to Yuki, my partner in Japan to let her know how I’m feeling and what is up. And I didn’t hear back from her for days. For days! And finally, late in the evening on September 11 I was at a total low. One should never write letters when one is really angry. Lesson probably not learned. I was in a rage from not hearing from her, and wrote from my suffering a note to her. It wasn’t long, but it was sufficient, and it was mean-spirited, nasty. She called me soon after receiving it, and we talked a bit. But mostly it was just me yelling at her, and then hanging up. And then I turned off my phone and computer so she couldn’t call me back. And it felt so good! I was in that moment of anger, and I was totally justified in what I said, and totally right! Because she was the sinful, miserable, wicked people and I was the perfect God who was being insulted and having indignities heaped upon me. I totally won! I was so triumphant and so proud of myself. I had won!

But of course, if you’ve been there you know, that you don’t win. It’s not a win. When I woke up the next day, I turned my electronics on and I had some emails from her. And by rights of my rage, her emails should have been full of apology and contrition. By rights of my rage, that’s what I deserved! But they weren’t full of that. They were, instead, a sharing of her story – of what had gone on in her week. They were actually quite compassionate. Way more compassionate than I deserved. And I saw that she was not being the unsupportive intentionally hurtful wicked enemy of all that is good. That was me. I was the one being that.

I’ve done things in my past, been a person that I am not proud of. I don’t know that any of us escape those moments of failure. That’s just part of being human. But we have grace. The gift and beauty of grace and love is that they don’t come to us because we are perfect, and they don’t wait until we are perfect, we have them – God gives them to us – because we are faulty human beings who make mistakes. Who do things that we know we shouldn’t, but we do them anyway. That’s the gift of grace and God’s love, that they come to us despite who we are.

And so that night, I don’t know if I’ve ever been a more horrible person than I was that night. That was perhaps my lowest point at being a decent person. And the irony is that it felt so right at the time! I was so convinced, I felt so justified at the time. I don’t know that I have ever been that mean or unreasonable. That morning, after reading the emails from Yuki, I looked upon the destruction I had wrought and I thought, “My God, what have I done?”

I was transformed there, in that moment of repentance, realizing just how much of a jerk I had been.

I think there is also in this Noah’s story, a moment when God repents. When God looks upon the world that had been created out of love, and then destroyed in anger, and God says, “Never again. I will never do this again.” God creates the covenant with Noah, and with the rest of humanity and with ALL living things, not to do that again. That’s a life changing moment. And I wonder if God had a moment in all this, after all this destruction, that God might have thought, “If Noah and his family want nothing to do with me after this, I will understand. They would be totally justified to want nothing to do with me again.”

There is another transformation that we can see between the Genesis passage we read, and the Gospel lesson we read about Jesus’ baptism. Another transformation that takes place in the biblical epic, and it’s about how water is used. Water, essential for life on earth. Water, out of which our ancestors a billion years or so again crawled onto the land for the first time. The way God uses water changes. God uses water to kill all but a few of humanity and billions of animals in collateral damage, to cleanse to the earth of evil. But of course, it didn’t cleanse the earth of evil, because Noah and his family are still human. They still sin. The destructive power had no power to bring the ends that God had hoped. There is no power in violence. Then God makes a new kind of cleansing via water. Not to destroy life, but to grant life, through the waters of baptism. We are flooded not by suffocating power of water, but flooded with grace and love. Cleaned by the water. God says “I’m not going to wipe you out, I am going to clean you of your guilt, your shame.” God, who stood at a distance and send flooding waters to destroy us, now comes to us as Jesus into our brokenness, into our pain. God came as Jesus, was tempted and understands temptation, knows our human lot, came to live our story and hear our story with a tender heart, and with a tender hand, reaching out with cleansing waters on them to touch us and say, “You are my beloved.”

You are my beloved just as you are. No more floods, no more destruction, just this covenant of the rainbow and baptism. A covenant of hope, of life, and the transforming power of love.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Staying Transformable - sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Sermon from Transfiguration Of Jesus Sunday. It makes reference to clay toward the end - we handed out blocks of clay as people came into worship, and told them to just play with it during worship. No directions about what to make, simply to enjoy playing with it and seeing how many ways they could reshape it and transform it. 

I ask a lot of questions in this sermon, so won't ask them in this introduction. They make more sense in the context of the sermon, anyway. So please feel free to answer them in the comments section!

You can also listen to the sermon.

“Staying Transformable”
Sermon, Year B, Transfiguration, February 15, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Mark 9:2-9 

So I had this crazy thought this week. Thinking about the Transfiguration. Here we have Jesus up on the mountain. It takes a couple of disciples with them. Doesn't tell them why. Basically just says, hey come with me. We don’t know if this was typical for Jesus to go off with just a couple disciples at a time, or if this was a new thing. And why these? Why not one or more of the others? So they go up the mountain and there's this incredible transformation. Event. Happening. Almost a kind of performance art. A kind of flash mob event that only Jesus could pull off – one made up of Moses and Elijah.

Very much out of the realm of experience. I doubt any of the disciples had seen anything like this before. The text says that they were terrified. Outside of the realm of experience. The disciples see Jesus and he is glowing bright white. Brighter white than anyone could bleach. He’s glowing. There’s a bright light. And there also are Moses and Elijah. I don’t know how the disciples knew that was Moses and Elijah. They never would've seen pictures of them, they had been dead for hundreds of years. Well, Elijah wasn’t. He had been taken up into heaven while he was still alive hundreds of years before.

Incredible moment up on the mountain. Jesus appearing with these two important prophets from Jewish history. Moses the one who led the Hebrews out of Egypt. Elijah one of the great prophets during Israel’s existence. So important that he was taken up into heaven while he was still alive.

And so my crazy thought was this: what if that happened to us? What if one of us had that experience of being transfigured, or bring with someone to whom this happened? I’m assuming that none of you have that had happen. I haven’t. I would hope that as your pastor, if something like this happened to you, you would tell me.

What if that happened to you? What if one of us got transformed, transfigured, whatever word we want to use.

It would certainly be pretty crazy. Probably uncomfortable. It’s weird. This is not the kind of thing that happens in a sensible universe. But then, God is not always sensible. Gods does not always do the sensible thing. The Holy Spirit is not always sensible. Rarely, in fact, does God do the sensible. Very little of importance that happens in scripture happens in a sensible, orderly and proper way. God is most often doing what is not sensible, what is not orderly, what is not proper. The God of Surprises!

And so what if this happened to you? I’m thinking that Jesus knew this was going to happen. Maybe he didn’t. But he knew enough to go up the mountain, anyway. So imagine if you knew this kind of thing was going to happen to you, if you knew that you were going to go to the mountain and have this happen to you, getting transfigured transformed whatever, who would you take with you? Jesus brought a couple of his friends. Who would you take with you? Who would you want with you to witness this event with you?

A friend, spouse, a family member, your pastor? Someone from your past? A teacher, a mentor? Do you take the bully from work or school, that makes your life miserable, as a kind of “Hey, look at this – stop being a jerk.” Take someone that hurt you? Or do you take the people that you are closest to? A mix? Who would you take with you, if you had two, three, four choices?

And when you’re up on the mountain and you are going to be transfigured and have two people, supposedly dead, show up next to you, who would you want that to be?

For Jesus it was Moses and Elijah. Which I think we can take that to mean as a sign that Jesus is in that historical succession of prophets. That Jesus is in line with these two great and famous prophets from Israel’s history. We can see it as a kind of legitimizing event that put the stamp on Jesus, saying yes he is trustworthy. The voice also says, “This is my beloved son: listen to him.” Who would you have show up next to you while you’re radiating this bright light?

I think it would be awfully cool to have Jesus as one of those people. And then have one of the prophets that I really resonate with, like Jonah or Amos or Micah. But we don't have to stick with biblical figures. Would also be pretty cool to have my dad and my mom, or a grandparent and a parent. Or some others from the family who have died that I really connected with. Or maybe some of the people that taught me a lot about life, faith, how to be a generous and kind person. One person I think about, I’ve mentioned her before, is a neighbor lady, Evelyn Kettle. She had an in-ground pool, and when I was a kid she would invite all the kids in the neighborhood to come over every Monday in the summer to swim in the pool. She’d have a hundred kids. She was generous, created bowling leagues for kids because she felt it was important for children to have a place to go. She did a lot for her church. She was a big inspiration to me. Having her next to me would be quite a stamp of approval, to say that I am living, however poorly I do it, at least living into her model.

Maybe you opt for Right Shark and Left Shark...

Who would you have appear in place of Moses and Elijah? Maybe you are thinking of someone in your family who was a big influence on you. Someone who would be proud of the way you are living. Maybe a teacher or a mentor on one side, and on the other side, one of their teachers or mentors. That line of succession there. Or a great, great, grandparent.

Who would you have stand with you to witness, and who would you want to appear?

Maybe not such a crazy idea. But I’d never thought of this story in this way before. What if it were us who were being transformed?

We're going to talk during Lent about transformation, transfiguration, how God is working in our lives, how is God working in Plymouth, how God is working in the world, in the church. And how can we can work along with God, what God might be calling us to be as individuals, as community as a church. How can we be changed? How would we like to be changed? What can we do to bring change, to make the world a more loving world, bringing Jesus’ message to the world?

So maybe within these questions, the bigger question is simply, Who do I want to be? Who does God want me to be? Who do I wish I were? Or who am I growing into being? If we allowed it, what would God shape us into? Like the clay that you have had in your hands this hour.

And in all of this is the question, How am I going to invite God to be part of who I am? Do we bring God with us, or do we forget about God?

Because God can do miraculous things. It is good to have God with us, and that we do what we do, at least as followers of Jesus’, as a response to God’s love and presence in our lives.

And what is God saying inside of this process? Certainly God is saying “You are my beloved.” That is always there. But the rest of the call will be different for each of us. What is God saying to you? What is God saying to you on that mountain with whoever you brought with you and whoever has appeared next to you? What would you like God to say to you?

We are being formed and transformed. God wants to work in us. The Holy Spirit working in us to be God’s people. Like those pieces of clay that you've had in your hands, that you can mold and shape and turn into many things. But which still always remains clay.

But also, just like clay that becomes more and more difficult to shape as it dries out, so also with us. If we lose our moisture, God can't mold us if we dry out. If our spiritual disciplines dry out, it becomes harder and harder for God to mold us. We stay pliable by keeping our spiritual disciplines up, the disciplines of giving, of being in fellowship, or praying, of worshiping, of learning, of being invitational... part of our discipleship is to invite others to join us on this journey. To invite others into God’s realm. So if we don't do those, then we dry out and even God can do little with us. But if we keep up those disciplines, and Lent is a good time to remind us of those disciplines, and opportunities abound during Lent: our street ministry will still be going, our quilters will still be meeting doing service for others, we have the Wednesday noon and evening meals and fellowship time. Those are spiritual discipleship times. We will have opportunities to give, and lots of opportunities to invite. Keep up those spiritual disciplines and we stay hydrated and malleable, and God can do beautiful things with us. God can transform us more and more into God’s people and Jesus’ followers. And by doing all of that, we might just find ourselves being transformed. No, not might – we will! We will find ourselves being transformed. Amen.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Climate Change, Faith, Science - essay for Leader-Telegram for Evolution Weekend

Article for Leader Telegram, February 7, 2015
Evolution Weekend
© Rev. David J. Huber

[read at the version at the newspaper]

Evolution shows that we are not separate from other life, but are related to it. Climate change shows we are not above the created order, but live within it. Our actions affect God's creation; or at a minimum, this pale blue dot called Earth. We are not outsiders looking in, but are part of this grand experiment of God's called "life."

This is Evolution Weekend. Hundreds of religious communities around the world are celebrating how science and faith ought not be confrontational, but cooperative. They will talk about evolution and other scientific truths, like climate change, genetics, the Big Bang, a 4.5 billion year old earth.

Evolution Weekend was started by the Clergy Letter Project by Michael Zimmerman, a Professor of Biology at Evergreen State College. As the CLP's website says, "Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. An ongoing goal has been to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries."

As good as that news is, there are still religious communities who deny some science. This is why I and other faith communities continue to speak that there is no controversy, and that reasonableness is better than dogma when it comes to things scientific.

America has an incredible scientific history, but we also have one of world's largest anti-science populations. People who deny evolution and climate change because of what they claim is their literal reading of scripture, though even the literalists cannot agree on what "literally" reading Genesis means, and so date the age of the earth variously from 6,000-10,000 years, or allow for a billions year old earth, but life only existing for 6-10,000 years. As I've written before, the Bible was never intended to be scientific revelation, nor to be taken literally (however one wants to define that word). Don’t take it literally, take it seriously.

I saw a facebook photo meme on Groundhog Day that said "Only in America do we accept weather predictions from a rodent but deny climate change evidence from scientists."

Climate change, like evolution, gravity, and the impossibility of lifting oneself by one's bootstraps, is established science accepted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. The Department of Defense says climate change is a significant threat to our national security. It is a critical theological and ethical issue because it affects people and our entire planet.

We are to love our neighbor. If we believe Jesus' words, anyway. But our consumption habits and policies made by politicians who deny science are hurting our neighbors.

Forcing neighbors to choke on dirty air or lose their shorelines because we refuse to live sustainably is not an act of love. South Pacific islands like Tuvalu and Maldives are losing shoreline to, and their fertile ground is being poisoned by the salt in, rising oceans. Belize and Bolivia have had armed conflict because of water shortages. Climate refugees leave their homelands because of water and food shortages.

We have a responsibility to consider our neighbors. Our policies and lifestyles ought to be such that the earth remains healthy for all life. This is our only livable spot in the universe, and it is a precious gift from God. Our neighbors are also precious gifts. Let us trust the people who have the training and expertise to give us facts, however difficult it is to hear.

My congregation is celebrating Evolution Weekend with a talk by a climate change scientist, Dr. Jim Boulter, Prof. of Chemistry and Director of the Watershed Institute at UW-EC, who will speak about how his faith informs his scientific and civil work during our 10:30 am worship service at Plymouth United Church of Christ, with question and answer session afterward. For more information, please see the church's webpage or facebook.