Why Good Things Happen to Bad People (third in summer sermon series: Name That Sermon!)

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I.
I once attended an interfaith prayer breakfast at which the opening prayer was delivered by a very highly-regarded chaplain from a local denominationally affiliated hospital. In his effort to be inclusive since this was after all an interfaith event he closed his prayer with a simple, “Amen.”  He did not precede the word, “Amen,” by saying, “In Jesus’ name we pray,” which is a very typical way for conservative Christians and others to conclude a prayer.  Most don’t even know why they are saying, “In Jesus name,” but I can tell you the reason behind the tradition is negative.
It rests on the belief that an individual cannot come into the presence of God on the basis of her or his own volition but must instead only come into the presence of God with Jesus interceding for her, for him, for us. The reason for this theological notion is that a very anthropomorphized God is so disgusted with human sin that if Jesus–now in heaven calling the shots on earth with God–did not mediate, there is no telling what horrible things God would do to us just for daring to show up in God’s presence.
Similarly, with prayer, the idea is if one does not say at the conclusion of her or his prayer, “In Jesus’ name we pray,” it’s an entire waste of time because, as folks of that theological persuasion believe, only coming though Jesus could get God’s appropriate or loving attention.  This is the same mentality that motivated a one-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention several years ago to declare that God could not hear the prayers of Jews since Jews more than likely would not pray in Jesus’ name.
So Chaplain Royce Ballard prayed a stirring prayer and closed with a simple, “Amen,” not preceded by an, “In Jesus’ name  we pray,” and the pastor of the local large fundamentalist church pitched a fit. He immediately called the hospital administrator and and demanded that the chaplain be terminated because, though he was employed as a Christian chaplain, when away from the hospital at least, said the complaining pastor, he was ashamed to profess the name of Jesus around whom Christianity was supposedly structured.  Chaplain Ballard wasn’t exactly called on the carpet by his administrator, but there was this trace in the voice of the administrator wishing that Royce, knowing which people would be attending such a breakfast, would just go ahead and say as a conclusion of his prayer–paying no attention and exhibiting no respect for Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims or Jews–”In Jesus’ name we pray,” pretty much to appease the conservatives.  Royce wasn’t big on appeasement.
The reason I bring that issue up today is because it is a testament to superstition to insist that God will only hear the prayers of people who remember to conclude by saying, “In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”  What about those who simply forget to say it. What about those who feel that life itself is an ongoing prayer from beginning to end?  Thus there is never a need to say, “Amen,” at all much less with any preface.  “Amen” isn’t a magic word; it simply means something like, “So be it.”  It’s kind of like a verbal period.  The “In Jesus’ name” part reflects some theological underpinnings as I’ve attempted to describe, but there’s also some superstition involved.  I believe when we approach today’s subject–namely, why good things happen to bad people–superstition prevails.
The assumption that God causes good things to happen to bad people is as superstitious as the more frequently stated notion that God causes bad things to happen to good people or, as more of us would wish things were, God causes bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.  The truth is that no one knows how much involvement God has, if any, in the events in anyone’s life or in the events that occur to a nation. What Jesus inherited from the ancient Hebrews was the notion that everything that happened was willed and planned for by God. And one could see whether she or he were doing well in the sight of God by taking an honest look at what was going on in her or his life.
If good things are happening the assumption was made that God brought those good things about. Conversely, if bad things are happening, just as surely, God was causing those as well.
What if destiny is determined by individual choices, by the choices of others that impact that same individual, and by random factors such as winning the 600 million dollar lottery or being an unfortunate passenger trying to ride your train through Connecticut?

II.
I refer to people who believe that every single thing that happens is determined by God on a moment by moment and play by play basis as providentialists.  If someone gets a great parking place at Walmart, God must have because involved.  By the same token, f someone gets a disturbing medical diagnosis God is behind that too, according to this way thinking.
Then there are people like me who have tried to say that only good things come from God, and the bad things come from who knows where but definitely not from God.  When I say such a thing I’m clearly in violation of the teachings of the ancient Hebrews, but not necessarily terribly far from the position Jesus took on this issue.
I don’t know if it’s my own process of seeking truth or my nearly13 years of having served as pastor this free spirit congregation that has rubbed off on me–(scary thought!), but my more recent perspective on this issue is that God is clearly not calling all the shots, as if human beings have no power to influence their own future. God is not in the business of relating to humanity by having a specific detailed plan for every moment of everyone’s life–to include for most people a little good, a little bad; and for a few, complete good or complete bad.
The brilliantly pastoral preacher of last century, who happens to have been British, Leslie Weatherhead, attempted to deal with these questions of fate or destiny by talking about God’s “intentional will” over against what he called God’s “permissive will.” To oversimplify Dr. Weatherhead’s view, and he was a liberal preacher in his day, every event has been caused by God in some kind of way–whether God was its direct cause or not.  Perhaps that sounds pretty good if you absolutely must make room in your theological framework for God who in some kind of way is in on everything that occurs.
The interesting question comes up in the case of what he would have called the permissive will of God:  If God doesn’t will something directly but permits it, is God not still complicit in the outcome?  God puts something else in motion so that some sort of horrific event could come someone’s way with God making no effort to stop it.  I have tremendous admiration for Leslie Weatherhead as a pulpiteer as well as a theologian–though we are not even close to each other on a number of theological issues.  It’s all the same when it comes to his explanation of why things happen–whether God wills something directly or passively “permits” it seems to me to end up at the same place. God is behind it even if God merely “allows” it.
Eventually this subject gets us into the theological realm of prayer, at least as many people have traditionally practiced prayer.  If I pray each day or several times each day asking God to enter into my life to be a power source for me, keeping me from giving in to what is self-centered and hurtful to others, I may come to believe on the basis of consistent experience that God actually answers my prayers so anything good that comes along I eventually trace back to God. And if I don’t get what I’m asking for in my prayers the assumption is that God is holding out on me.  I don’t deserve what I’m asking for.
There are lots of people, lots and lots of people, who have religious backgrounds, thankfully not gained in this congregation, who have had to spend a significant portion of their lives getting rid of the damning intellectual effects of providentialism.  They are told if they pray correctly and in the right place and for the correct amount of time that there will probably get results that look very similar to precisely what they prayed for and about.
There is a pivotal story in what has been reported as having come from the life of Jesus about a time when Jesus is said to have healed a man who’d been blind from birth.  There were additional healing stories about Jesus and other healers restoring sight to people who had gone blind somewhere along life’s journey, but according to the story before us no one knew any accounts of someone who had been blind from birth suddenly getting the gift of sight well into her or his life.
Before Jesus gets underway with the healing process, his disciples ask him a question that reveals their understanding of the tradition their forebears passed along to them–namely, everything that happens is God’s will, and if what happens is painful or troubling God is still causing that to happen.  A human being chooses evil, and someone suffers but not always the person who acts in an evil manner.  The person who chooses evil may see the consequences fall on her or his parents or her or his children. It was clearly potentially generational.
So the disciples ask Jesus as he’s preparing to carry out this healing process, “Who sinned–this man or his parents?”
Jesus comes back by saying, “You disciples need to learn how to ask the right questions if you’re going to ask questions. Nobody sinned in this case.  And this an inappropriate issue to raise at any point but especially as I’m standing here with this person trying to help him become whole. If there’s a reason this happened, let’s just say it’s so God can be glorified because of the healing that will occur.”
In this case at least, something bad plagued the man, and there was no reasonable reason for it.  Healing would bring glory to God, but that didn’t help give the man back what his blindness from birth had robbed from him.

III.
May I say with all due respect, and I mean that sincerely, karma as it is popularly understood and spoken of is nothing more than another helping of superstition. The popular notions about karma are that if you do good things then good things will come to you; on the other side, if you do bad things bad things will happen to you.  So pro-karma people who have been wronged a little or a lot frequently say, “Fine. I don’t have to worry about this person who has done me wrong because it will all catch up to him or her sooner or later.”  They are referring to karma, and people say this frequently despite the fact that all of us know good people who can’t seem to get a break in life.  Bad things happen to them frequently.
Then, there are people who do very little for the betterment of humanity; in fact, just the opposite is the case.  They are bringing negativity into the world, evil even; and, yes, good things happen to them.  So karma maybe is the way we wish things would be, but it’s not the way things are.
Good things happen to bad people in this world. That is frustrating. That is complicated to explain. And that is just downright distasteful.  It appears that God is falling down on the job. Some of the psalmists ask aloud in their worship prayers questions like this, “Dear God, how long can evil flourish?”  In Psalm 37 for example, we read this testimony, “I have seen a wicked and ruthless person
flourishing like a luxuriant native tree.”  I trust you get the frustration and disgust in tone.
Jesus, in a sermon intended to reverse the typical patterns of living in which we hate our enemies and love our neighbors, says that we should be living beyond the standards of that so-called folk wisdom.  One of the reasons, he preached, is that God doesn’t attempt to withhold anything intended to benefit the whole of humanity from the evil folk.  As Jesus explained his point, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good just as God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  If God can be so magnanimous, then, Jesus insists, so can we.
The minority of people in our world who are acting according to the standards of terrorism have the rest of us tense and occasionally fearful.  Some special ops military personnel may take out Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, and pro-karma people along with providentialists can say, “See!  See! He’s finally getting what he deserves.” But for a long, long time before the ending of life stops his acts of the evil, all sorts of wonderful things were pouring into his life.  How can that be?  Not fair! Not fair!  It’s not a question of fair or unfair, though; it’s simply what occurs.

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Blessed Are the Peacemakers (or–No Excuses for Neglecting Peacemaking) Second Sermon in Summer 2013 Series

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I.
        Aristophanes was a comic playwright well known in ancient Athens.  One of his plays, “Lysistrata,” was written and probably first performed just a tad more than 400 years before Jesus was born.  Lysistrata is the name of his lead character.  As the risqué play opens, she has called a meeting of all women in Greece to discuss a plan to end the Peloponnesian War, the infamous war between Athens and Sparta and ultimately Sparta’s allies.  As she waits, she bemoans the weakness of women.  It isn’t necessary, she thinks, and she intends to prove it by having the women of Greece join her in what she believes is a sure fire plan to end the war and restore peace.   
        Lysistrata’s plan is this:  the women will refuse to have sex with their husbands until a peace treaty is signed.  Women from from the various city-states assemble as requested, and Lysistrata calls on them to swear an oath that they will withhold sex from their husbands until peace is signed, sealed, delivered.  She is very persuasive arguing in particular that war is a special concern of women because of the tremendous sacrifices women have made in order to accommodate war.  They are the ones who have lost husbands and/or sons on the fields of battle.  As you may not have time to read a Greek play this afternoon, I will tell you that it worked!       
        What I do not wish to do today is to present yet another well-intentioned though impractical message on the importance of world peace.  I do not want to preach to the choir as it were since most members of our congregation absolutely favor world peace. But there is no world peace today despite the leanings and the pleadings of bleeding hearts.
        I recently stumbled across an article, “What Every Person Should Know About War,” that originally appeared in the New York Times almost ten years ago.  Its author, Chris Hedges, claimed that in all of human history there have been about 270 years of world peace. That is, in approximately 3400 years–the time span during which we can document human communal activity–there have only been some 270 of those years when there were no recorded battles being waged somewhere. That’s something like eight percent of the total.  It is reasonable to assume that before histories were generally being recorded with some consistency the same patterns prevailed.  
        Doing all I can to promote optimism today, I need to add to your fact list some data about war dead.  It is said that in the twentieth century alone,108 million people were killed in wars.  In the ninety-two percent war time of those 3400 years, estimates of war dead point toward the one billion mark.  
        There have been regional peace times of significant lengths.  For example during the Edo period in Japan there were about 255 years when that country was not engaged in any war. The rulers enforced a strict internal order, practiced absolutely isolationist international policies, promoted the arts, and of all things insisted on the protection of the environment.
        Another 200+ year period of regional peace may be the best known. It’s called Pax Romana; it was the peace time envisioned by Caesar Augustus who was the Roman Emperor during a large part of Jesus’ lifetime.  One wonders if per chance Jesus ever heard a speech on the subject by Augustus or someone in service to him. If not from Augustus, one wonders who or what influenced Jesus to envision absolute peace. The Hebrew Scriptures he would have read do indeed picture God Godself as a promoter of peace.  From the earliest of the three great prophets who shared the name, Isaiah:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. God shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Rabbi Tanhuma bar abba, in the late fourth century, offered this homiletic summary of core ancient Hebrew theology:  “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace.”  Who knew?
      Sadly, there are many mores portrayals of God as a warrior god such as this one from the book of Exodus:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord, for the Lord has triumphed gloriously;
   horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might
   and has become my salvation;
this is my God whom I will praise,
   my father’s God whom I will exalt.
The Lord is a warrior;
   the Lord is the divine name.”

      OK, so that misunderstanding of deity by people in the ancient world is one thing, but what about those of us who know better than to read about such perceptions as if they are anything more than human projections?  What’s our excuse for not making peace our relentless hope?  

II.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

    “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.” That is one statements of several in the teachings of Jesus that we designate as the Beatitudes, the word “beatitudes” coming from a Latin word for blessing.  Obviously, in the Beatitudes that I have just read, Jesus teaches that blessed are or happy are those who are behaving in a certain way or who are caught in a certain plight.
    What I notice about the Beatitudes as a whole is that all the people receiving blessings according to Jesus’ teaching here are strugglers or minority groups–not ethnic minorities. They are people experiencing difficulties in life sometimes because of choices they’ve made and sometimes through no choice of their own:  the poor or the poor in spirit, the bereaved, those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, those who are reviled because of their devotion to the teachings of Jesus, and those who are in the minority because of their ethics based on how Jesus lived:  the meek, those who give their all trying to see that justice (righteousness) prevails in all situations, the merciful, and the peacemakers.
    The good news is, peacemaking is on the list.  The bad news is, peacemaking is on the list.  What I mean by this is that Jesus didn’t envision a time when peacemaking would be unnecessary despite is remarkable familiarity with the teachings of his forebears.  
    Another subtle point Jesus is making by having peacemakers on this list is that peacemakers in any given group are likely to be in the minority.  That is precisely one of the reasons that there may always be the need for peacemakers though in the best of all possible worlds, peacemakers would put themselves out of business.
    Until peace prevails all over the face of the earth, as First Isaiah describes the divine goal for humanity, with weapons manufacturers forced to revamp their factories to mass produce agricultural implements instead of death tools so the citizens of the world may be fed rather than executed, there will be a need for peacemakers and more of them than most people have wanted to imagine.  
    Crandall Kline, writing just before Y2K, insisted that world peace is within our grasp as a human family.  In defense of his position, he is pragmatic and not esoteric.  
    The first thing we have to do if we can establish a prioritized list is to convince the killers to stop killing.  Most killers are male.  Most are adults.  Most are killing because they have been commanded to kill by the political leaders of their respective countries.  They comprise no more than two percent of the total human population at any given point in time.  Ninety-eight percent non-killers.  Two percent killers.  The odds of having their way are clearly on the side of the non-killers.
    According to Kline, peacemakers must absolutely be committed to nonviolence at every level.  If nonviolence is always or typically reactionary rather than anticipatory, we have problems.  Peacemakers can’t wait until a war is underway to call for peace.
    Kline, whose 1999 book it titled Peace Within Our Grasp, reminds us that peacemakers need to live lives of activism; they consistently call for world peace in writing to newspapers and government entities.  This is my idea, though Kline’s hopeful suggestions inspired me:  what if–in countries where leaders are voted in or out, on the anniversary of every elected leader’s election–we wrote a personal handwritten note to that leader saying, “I believe in world peace, and I vote for peacemakers”?  Kline says that a society willing to live by the standards of peace rather than war will have an “active intelligencia” supporting governmental movement toward peace.  Quoting him now:

World peace is not a utopian dream–it is within our grasp.  Wars are caused by conflicting ideas on what is acceptable national behaviour.  The urge to exert national will and protect perceived rights, however irrational…is a powerful emotion.  Wars begin in the minds of people.  For world peace, the upper brain must be in control.

    Most of you will recall that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was awarded not to one person, but jointly to three peacemaking women:  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peace activist and author of the book, Mighty Be Our Powers; and Tawakkol Karman, Yemeni peace activist and journalist.  The Nobel organization explained that these influential women were selected because of their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
    William Ross Wallace:

Woman, how divine your mission

Here upon our natal sod!

Keep, oh, keep the young heart open

Always to the breath of God!

All true trophies of the ages

Are from mother-love impearled;

For the hand that rocks the cradle

Is the hand that rules the world.    

 

 

III.
        Professor Stephen Walt teaches courses about international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He writes in such a way that I want to hear him lecture!  Here’s a sample:

The United States started out as 13 small and vulnerable colonies clinging to the east coast of North America. Over the next century, those original 13 states expanded all the way across the continent, subjugating or exterminating the native population and wresting Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California from Mexico. It fought a bitter civil war, acquired a modest set of overseas colonies, and came late to both world wars. But since becoming a great power around 1900, it has fought nearly a dozen genuine wars and engaged in countless military interventions.  Yet Americans think of themselves as a peace-loving people, and we certainly don’t regard our country as a “warrior nation” or “garrison state.” Teddy Roosevelt was probably the last U.S. president who seemed to view war as an activity to be welcomed (he once remarked that “A just war is in the long run far better for a person’s soul than the most prosperous peace.”), and subsequent presidents always portray themselves as going to war with great reluctance, and only as a last resort.

        Some say our country is addicted to war.  Professor Walt, I gather, agrees.  He has listed five reasons our leaders are always ready it seems to have us engaged in war.  It’s not a pretty list, but here it is.  Why are US American leaders generally more than willing to have us engage in war?

1) Because we can.  Because, regardless of national debt or rising numbers of hungry and homeless people in our country, getting the funds–even when that means borrowing against the future–to send our young women and men into conflicts where many of them will kill and a significant number killed.  (I say, any number above zero is too high.)

2) Because no super power is at present our avowed enemy.

3) Because we have an all volunteer military these days.  If we drafted our young people and sent them into armed conflicts against their own better judgements we likely would see less congressional apathy about the effects of war.

4) Because of foreign policy philosophies that say we must always DO something.  Professor Walt believes, and I quote, “Foreign-policy thinking in Washington is dominated either by neoconservatives (who openly proclaim the need to export ‘liberty’ and never met a war they didn’t like) or by ‘liberal interventionists’ who are just as enthusiastic about using military power to solve problems, provided they can engineer some sort of multilateral cover for it. Liberal interventionists sometimes concede that the United States can’t solve every problem (at least not at the same time), but they still think that the United States is the ‘indispensable’ nation; and they want us to solve as many of the world’s problems as we possibly can.”

5) Because Congress has checked out.  Though the Constitution clearly states that congressional approval is needed in order to send our troops into war, presidents for a while have sent troops first and then kinda sorta sought congressional approval after the fact.
        The United States Institute for Peace says that our country has been engaged in war the majority or all of its history because we suffer from “conflict syndrome.”

Conflict syndrome consists of a set of attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that become embedded over decades of bitter conflict and are difficult to unlearn even if some kind of peace agreement–or exploratory truce–has been signed. The individual elements of the syndrome are familiar, but, taken as a whole, they exert a powerful influence on most peace processes and inform the choices each side makes. Thus, distrusting the opposite side’s motives by default, cheating for fear of being cheated, making only tentative concessions that can easily be revoked, and asking the other side to prove its good faith by making large initial concessions, among other things, generate a peace process that can easily become a “race to the bottom.” This implies that the stop-and-go, on-and-off, crisis-driven peace processes…should not be taken as aberrations: they are the norm that should be anticipated and planned for.

    We need help.  We have a poor record of trying to heal ourselves.  If the hand that rocks the cradle really does rule the world, maybe Aristophanes and the Nobel selection committee are on to something.  Happy Mothers’ Day.

Progressive Evangelism (First in Summer 2013 Sermon Series, Name that Sermon! All Topics Given by Congregants to Challenge the Pastor)

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I.
“The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin….”  In the earliest years of my impressionable theological awareness–long before I knew or had ever heard any of the three words I just used (“impressionable,” “theological,” or “awareness”)–I knew by heart the whole first stanza of the hymn whose opening words with which I began a minute ago.  Needless to say, and yet I do, there would be some undoing that would have to be seen to in order for me to find the fresh air needed to get me to places of spiritual wholeness.  You can well imagine that getting to that fresh air wasn’t accomplished overnight.
Since children had to “set,” as we said at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, in big church from age 6 and on I heard plenty of sermonic support for this notion that there was a point in time when the whole world was lost in the darkness of sin.  Did I believe it? You bet I did, and so did everyone else I knew.  No wonder a 12 Step program came into being called Fundamentalists Anonymous.
(The remainder of Sermon Segment One is not available in any written form.  You may hear it by using this link to the audio recording of the Gathering and fast forwarding to a point just beyond the Service at the Seekers’ Table.)

II.
Christian evangelism–the traditional yet prevailing perspective.  It is not an innocuous concept or practice.
God created the skies and the ground and humanity.  God called humanity “good.”  Nonetheless, the first humans rebelled against their Creator, and God reacted punitively.  Other humans didn’t take the hint, and finally an enraged Creator destroyed, through the fierceness of a flood, the whole of humanity and all other creatures except for a minuscule remnant.
That remnant included representatives from the animal kingdom and a single human family–a husband and wife and their three sons and their three daughters in law, one wife per son since at that point in time the widespread polygamy to come had not yet arrived.  And there were no third generation humans at that point.  It isn’t funny that anyone ever believed this to be literally the case in terms of how God became a punitive God and how the world was nearly wiped out because that’s what God, given God’s disappointment with how humanity was turning out, called for. Nonetheless, given the story, there are some reinterpreted possibilities that could cause someone to laugh a little bit. For example, my friend Frann Anderson sent me a cartoon the other night, and it showed two little dinosaurs sitting on the tiny bit of dry ground that was left as they watched the Ark moving ever more completely away from them. One of them says to the other, “Dang!  That was today wasn’t it?”
After the flood was over and humanity all but wiped out, this family had the responsibility of starting all over again. Wasn’t long until the first vineyard had been planted and harvested, and the apple of God’s eye, Noah, became drunk by overdoing it with the earliest-to-ferment grapes. Now, many people who read this story believe that the sin that would lead to further problems between humanity and God was Noah’s drunkenness. Actually, that is not the case. It contributes only because his drunkenness had something to do with contributing to what was erratic and irresponsible behavior on Noah’s part–namely, lying around his tent naked. One would think that if somebody wanted to lie around naked in the privacy of one’s own tent it should have been just fine, and I suppose theoretically it was.
The problem, though, was that one of the sons walked in unwittingly to his father’s tent, and there before his eyes was his naked father.  In the ethical standards of the day, to behold a parent naked was at the top of the list of defilement possibilities–that is, defilement of a parent’s dignity by a child including an adult child. It seems not to have mattered that seeing naked old drunken daddy was an absolute mistake, but it happened; and apparently this pushed God over the edge in divine frustration and anger.  Humanity will never be sterling in God’s eyes again.  It is a good thing that God had at the end of the flood put a rainbow in the sky to remind Godself never to punish humanity with a killer flood again.
Not infrequently you will hear me mention my brilliant Hebrew Scripture professor from college, the late Ben F. Philbeck, because his interpretations were so insightful and amazing and memorable. He taught us that the summary of the flood story and the Noah debacle after the flood is very simple: there is no return to paradise. Apparently God did not notice that reality until the divine trial and error experiments had failed.  Human beings in the minds of the ancient storytellers were simply incapable of long-term, consistent good.
Once blame had been squarely placed where blame was due, namely on Eve and of course not on Noah or his son, Ham, or Adam or the serpent or God. The theological thinkers of the day left that pervasive assessment of humanity as the heritage of all monotheists.  Some few moved away from it.  Some tried to make uncomfortable peace with it; most have fully embraced it and taken it to extreme interpretations.
Now, what to do about those
people who are evil and sinful and alienated from God. The first answer was the one given by the ancient Hebrews:  keep all the laws, and in so doing you will purify yourself and make yourself right for God’s embrace.
Neither Jesus nor Paul harangued people and held them over hell to get them to buy into the Way that would eventually be called Christianity.  Jesus sent out his disciples to minister as well as to preach and teach. We know that we have some stirring words, called the Great Commission, words of Jesus to his followers about  going into all the world to make disciples of all nations and so forth.
Passed Jesus and into the ministry of the Apostle Paul, repentance by all humans came to be regarded as a necessity; therefore, the need for evangelism sprang up.  Paul took it to the next level, and he envisioned that one of the special spiritual gifts God bestowed upon certain people was evangelism, meaning in this context a call to turn away from evil, to repent, and to start walking in a new direction. The model of evangelism has to be to go out to those who are separated from God and try to find ways to bring them back into the fold.
Interestingly enough the Jewish religion of which Jesus was a part from birth to death was not a proselytic faith.  You do not go out and try to convert people to Judaism. You may share insights about God saying in conversation with those who inquire, but you will never find yourself knocking on a stranger’s door trying to get her or him to embrace your brand of faith.

III.

Moving words sometimes attributed to Francis Xavier:

My God, I love Thee–not because
I hope for heaven thereby;
Nor yet because, if I love not
I must for ever die.
…..
Then, why Bless’d Jesus
Should I not love Thee well?
Not for the hope of winning heaven,
Or of escaping hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as Thyself hast lovèd me,
O ever-loving Lord!
So would I love Thee, dearest Lord,
And in Thy praise will sing;
Solely because Thou art my God,
And my eternal King.

 
The very first book I read as a seminarian way back in the summer of 1978 was for a class called “Contemporary Preaching.”  Little did I know at that point that preaching, the whole field of homiletics, would become my fascination. The book was by brilliant novelist and theologian, Frederick Buechner. It was the published version of the lectures he had given at Yale Divinity School not too many winters previous to that summer school course. The title of the lectures and the subsequent book was Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.  I knew I had fallen into the hands of the liberals there. The gospel as fairytale indeed!
Well, it is an evocative read, but not as unsettling as one might have expected. Still, in Buechner’s Presbyterian influenced theology he makes the point that the gospel, which literally means good news, is bad news before it’s good news–thus, the first word in his subtitle, “tragedy.”. That could be taken in a number of ways, and if I read knowing what I know about Buechner more broadly I’m not terribly put off with that though it could be traced back to the founders of such theological thought leaving us at a very untenable place.  I’m very concerned about those who believe there must have been a divinely mandated necessity for bad news, meaning the execution of Jesus, before there could be good news.
What I want to say today, and I think the most important thing I have to say today, is this. Progressive evangelism rests on the reality that there is no bad news
involving God or regarding God at any point–past, present, or future. One does not seek truth or seek out a connection to God in order to get a reward whether that is promised prosperity in the present world as dramatized by the TV evangelists or whether that is life after this life.  There’s no threat; there’s no condemnation; there’s no fear.  Similarly, there is no coercion.
The pastor at my home church who guided me through my early struggles to understand my leaning to a career in the preaching ministry took me into his confidence as a young friend–I would flatter myself to say protégée–as Paul did to Timothy.  He prepared me for lots of things in the world of church work, not everything, but all he wanted me to know.  He told me one day about when he had been a young pastor, I think somewhere in Kentucky, and he came upon a hitchhiker. Though few drivers allow this in our crazy time and place, I was forbidden to pick up a hitch hiker.  When I started driving I had a number rules given to me by my father. One had to do with curfews. Another had to do with driving and alcohol. Another do with not picking up hitch hikers, and he said if he ever heard of it I would never drive another mile as long as I lived under his roof. He meant business.
Anyway way back when it was perhaps not so dangerous, and my pastor picked up a hitch hiker.  Fairly quickly as conversation progressed Jerry Hayner’s career became known to the hitchhiker; turns out the hitchhiker didn’t feel that he owed his driver any special support just because he was getting transport. And he was clearly a theological skeptic.  He challenged Jerry saying, “You have no idea if there is a god. How could you invest your life and career in trying to represent a god that you can’t even prove exists?  What if you’ve wasted all of your time and you find out there’s no God or afterlife anyway?”
My pastor being the sharp guy that he was said, “Well, it is still thoroughly enriching in the present to have a connection to what I think of as God and to try to live by the teachings of Jesus so even if there’s nothing after this life nor a God it will still will have been worth it.”