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“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…

 

“The Radical, Costly Love of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, 31-35
Mark 10: 35-45

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 31-35

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your[a] chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your[b] chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your[c] messengers,
fire and flame your[d] ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

 

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


 

Again we find ourselves between juxtaposed images.

In the Kingdoms of the world, those honored are lifted up and, all too often, as Jesus says, they are tyrants over the people.  But Christ’s way is opposite.  Those who want to be great must be a servant, and those who wish to be first must be slave of all.

Now Jesus makes this statement in response to James and John’s request to be seated on Jesus’ right and left in his glory.

Did they know what they were asking of Jesus?  Did they believe Jesus would claim a throne of the world?  Were they vying to secure their authority when he came to power?  Or did they comprehend that Jesus’ Kingdom would transcend this world?  Could they have imagined that Christ’s Kingdom would be won in death and suffering, in Jesus’ pouring himself out as a ransom for many??

It is doubtful they could have seen what was to come – or even began to imagine it.  And Jesus’ response conveys just that: “You do not know what you are asking…”  Not only did they not understand what this Kingdom would be, they also did not realize that those positions could not be granted but only prepared for what appears to be those most deserving.  Putting their request into perspective, Jesus asks them whether or not they can drink the cup that he himself will drink and be baptized with the baptism that Jesus would be baptized.  But continuing in their blind overconfidence, they answer, “We are able.”

Indeed, the disciples James and John cannot comprehend the implications or qualifications of their brazen request.  But Jesus does not shame them.  Rather he seeks to answer their question of how they might advance themselves in God’s Kingdom, reminding them of his own purpose, because Christ’s own life and purpose are the measure, and Christ came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

 

Now this brings us to our Psalm.  This is a long Psalm, so we didn’t read the whole thing, but there in the final verse there is that uncomfortable line that reads, “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”  This kind of prayer in the Psalms, these sung prayers, is not uncommon.  In other Psalms, we read, “Oh God, that you would slay the wicked.”  And taking it much further one Psalmist rejoices in this gruesome and brutal defeat of his enemy writing, “Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks.”

Now, I am sorry to even speak that Psalm verse.  It is distressing and disturbing.

And these sorts of verses are what have many disillusioned and even disgusted with Christianity.

I will not defend those verses.

But I want to discuss them with you.  Because Christ has changed our entire worldview.  Christ shattered all our understanding of how the world works.  Christ broke open the dividing wall between good and evil, heaven and hell.  When Christ died on that cross, history recorded that the veil between the holiest of holies in the temple and the outer court was torn in two.  More than symbolic, Christ made a way!  Christ bridged the gap!  Christ poured himself out as a ransom for many!

 

And this was a worldview shift.

 

Before, people understood some as good and others as bad.  There were the wicked and the righteous.

Much of our Old Testament texts read this way – black and white – good and evil.

And while good and evil are real, Christ’s teachings to us revealed to our darkened minds that no one is without sin.  No one does good.  No one is righteous.

 

Only Christ.  Only Jesus.

And so for all this talk of good and evil, there is no way to wholly be on the side of good, without Christ’s ransom.

But people were and are desperate to be rid of the ravages of sin and evil.  We are desperate to overcome our societal and personal sins.  We are desperate to be rid of evil-doers.  We are tired of the loss of life.  We are tired of exploitation and oppression.  We are distressed that bad things seem to happen to good people!  We are weary with the blaming.  We are weary with the bickering.  We are weary from the pointing of the finger.

We yearn for justice!  We yearn for wholeness!!!  We yearn for eternal life – meaning that QUALITY of life that makes our lives worth living!!!

And we are not unlike those who came before Christ.

But without Christ’s bridging of this divide, individual and society imagination could not conceive that God would care about the wicked, much less come to save them and give his own life as a ransom for them!  This was inconceivable.

And so folks yearning for justice and life and healing, prayed the prayers they could imagine:  “Kill the wicked,” “Let the wicked be no more,” and “I’ll be so happy when my enemies and their children are dust and I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder anymore!”  Limiting God to their own imaginations, they prayed that God would do the only thing they could imagine – getting rid of evil-doers – wiping them out so evil would be no more.

And God, who encourages us to pour out our hearts before the throne of grace, heard these prayers.

 

Was it the kind of hearing that automatically grants a wish?

Absolutely not.

Was it the kind of hearing that does whatever is asked without regard for the other?

Absolutely not.

Scripture has made it clear that ALL are made and beloved by God.  Christ said that he came in order that all might come to knowledge of the truth – not just some.

 

God loves all.  Christ came for all.

 

And that was a major worldshift.  God cares for all.

 

But this was exactly what we all needed.  Despite our efforts to do good, we were sinners too.  Despite our good intentions, we sinned blindly and ignorantly.  And we needed a God who would see past our checkered reality and love us anyway.

NOT condoning sin 

NOT excusing sin

But loving us WHILE we were sinners and calling us to a better way…

 

Christ condemned sin WHILE loving the sinner.

 

And that is life to us all – to all who will receive it!

 

I am glad that we are a people who think for ourselves and question the kind of passages like these from the Psalms that seem so heartless or violent.  Let us also keep in mind that we are able to IMAGINE other ways because of Christ, of whom our Old Testament ancestors did not have the benefit of knowing when they wrote these words.

But nonetheless, in these Psalmist’s angry and sometimes small words, we can relate to their cries for justice.  And we know that we are not alone in our wishing for evil to come to our enemies.

 

But in Christ we are shown another way.

No one is beyond Christ’s reach, not even the most hardened.

And so may we,

in our living

and our relationships

and in our communities

and in our policies,

remember that Christ came to save sinners, and that we are all sinners, except by the ransom of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came that ALL might be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.

As James and John’s ambitions were redirected to find their stature beside the measure of Christ’s own life, so may our lives take their shape and purpose from Christ’s.  For we are the light of the world and the salt of this earth AS MUCH AS we are indeed following after Christ in our day by day lives.

 

How often do we, still today, wish for the destruction of our enemies?  How often are we fantasizing of another’s downfall?  What delight do we take in retribution?  As easy as it is to point the finger, we need to get honest with ourselves about our own secret desires and prayers.

Christ – who ALONE is without sin and has every right to be angry and every right to condemn us – Christ chose the radical and costly path of love and forgiveness.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Following after our Lord Jesus Christ,

may we too

choose

the radical and costly path

of love and forgiveness

Not living as those in darkness – failing to comprehend the expansive love of God –

But living as children of the light

And working and praying that ALL might be saved

And come to knowledge of the truth.

 

Thanks be to God for the radical, incredible, costly love of God for us, in Christ Jesus!