And you all thought you’d gotten rid of me! Bazinga! It is a joy and honor to be here with you this morning. It is wonderful to serve with you again, Randy, and Tess and Dale to be sure. When Leah asked me to consider preaching today, I was humbled and honored.
I’ve got to tell you that a couple of weeks ago I awoke in the middle of the night to the fading images of a dream. I was back in Detroit Lakes with my former congregation and we were planning a special worship service. I was with the organist and the choir director and they were saying that I could do a good job of playing the drums for the communion liturgy—and my voice was pretty good too, so I should sing while I played the drum part! Now, I’ve never played the drums, and anyone who has heard my singing wouldn’t be thrilled to hear it again, but in my dream they were so excited about the service that I went along with it. It was to be a special service—unique. Sounded like fun. How unique I didn’t quite know yet. Then the whole congregation drove together out of town and into the woods until we came to a large tree. 35 feet up was a large platform treehouse. How we were all going to fit up there for the service I didn’t know. A long extension ladder was set up and up went the choir director and the organist with me to follow them. So many people were hanging on the ladder I wondered it if would hold. At the top of the ladder I looked to see that I then had to scale across another ladder, lying flat, without any hand railings to get to the platform. I was glad when the dream ended at that point.
I’m no Jungian analyst, but I’d say that what sounded like a fun idea--doing worship with a former congregation--had turned into something a little frightening as I climbed closer. After hearing a steady diet of excellent preaching these last two years from Leah and Randy, (remember, I hadn’t heard good sermons on a regular basis for 30 years!) it is a little intimidating climbing into this pulpit. My thanks and admiration to Leah and Randy for this opportunity—we are so fortunate to be served by such skilled, caring leaders. So here goes (minus drums and singing I promise you).
This last year Leah has led us through exploring the major themes of the Christian faith tradition by using Brian McLaren’s book, “We Make the Road by Walking.” On tap for this Sunday is the issue of God’s judgment, or God’s justice. Brian begins this topic by saying, “Jesus promised his followers three things. First, their lives would not be easy. Second, they would never be alone. Third, in the end, all will be well.”
Last week Leah framed the whole tragedy of Philando Castile’s death well when she spoke of fear corroding our vision, relationships, our lives. (Fear is the original sin). All might be well in the end, but all is not well now. We know that. Yet as Christians we believe that God is powerful and somehow involved in this world and will bring it to a right place—to justice. God will set things right.
In the early Old Testament, we see an understanding of God at the level that believed that God fixes things here and now. If you were a good person—good things would come your way; God would reward you with children, wealth, and a long healthy life. If you weren’t so good--strife, disease, disaster and death awaited not too distant for you.
Cracks started to show in this belief though with the reflections of the ancient Prophets, with Job’s experience, and then certainly Jesus’ words actually flip it 180 degrees. Instead of saying that those who are good are rewarded, Jesus talked about finding blessing in persecution, poverty, grief, brought about as the result of faithfulness. If you are faithful—chances are things are going to go badly for you. All we have to do is look at the instrument of torture that has become our religion’s symbol to see that. “Take up your cross” Jesus said. Embrace it. Your own suffering and death. Love it. No heavenly armies came to the rescue at Golgotha, and we shouldn’t expect it either. (Not exactly a promising marketing campaign). So where is God’s justice? And what are we to think about it? Do about it?
I think the answer, in some ways, is similar to our understanding of eternal life. On first take we think about eternal life as something that kicks in after we die, but Jesus’ sense of it is that it is more of a quality of life that begins here-and-now above the soil and continues after our address changes. Likewise, God’s judgment—God’s justice, is something that is being wrought in the here-and-now to be sure, but in mysterious ways, and will find its completion in the future beyond our imaginings.
And just as we often misunderstand the concept of eternal life, God’s judgment is also associated in our minds with punishment and condemnation--lightning bolts and all that. I saw a T-shirt on a family member recently that read, “Karma, I have a list of people you missed.” We’d like God and Karma to not miss anything and put things right—and right now.
Brian McLaren points out that the Biblical sense of judgment is different from, and much more than, punitive. Good judges in the Scriptures were ones who “worked to set things right, to restore balance, harmony, and well being.” God’s judgment, in other words, is restorative. “The final goal of judgment [is] to curtail or convert all that [is] evil so that good would be free to run wild.” Good parents judge and discipline their children—not to punish, but to curtail and convert the negative, so that the positive can flourish for their sakes.
God’s judgment—God’s justice means that evil will be addressed, but it also means that everything that can be restored to health and wholeness will be.
The Scriptures describe God’s judgement by fire—or with the image of fire, and immediately of course our minds go to hell-fire preachers, joyfully promising punishment by fire for misbehaving. But once again, we’ve gotten the core of the message wrong; authors in the Bible talked about the process of smelting precious metals, and how fire was used to separate out impurities from silver and gold. Purification is the process—not punishment.
Even from the windows of this sanctuary you can see places called wetlands or when I was a kid we called them sloughs. They didn’t seem to have much value unless you could drain it for farming or to go pheasant hunting in it. They don’t look like pleasant inviting places do they? It is not a place you’d like to take a walk with thick cattails, mud, bugs, slimy weeds and muck.
I have a water garden in my backyard. It is just a small pond with lilies, goldfish, one frog, and a large resident garter snake that makes be literally jump every time I see it. I don’t use chemicals to clean it or keep the water clear. I don’t have a filter to do it either. I have a slough. I created a small slough of pea rock, enzymes, and cattails above my pond and the water is circulated through the slough, coming out crystal clear and purified. The slough does a miraculous natural job of cleaning and clarifying the water, just as it does in the countryside. The newest public swimming pool in Minneapolis is chemical-free and uses this slough method to bring purified water into the pool.
Purification is the process—what is impure is removed. That’s what God’s judgment is about in us and in the world. God is at work removing that which is unworthy in our souls—hypocrisy, sin, selfishness, fear, resentments, hurts, prejudices and our ego’s petty self-importance. This can be painful. God is doing that work here and now… and the process will continue after what we call “the final buzzer” I believe. We can fight it or participate in it. We can deny it or we can be open to God’s judgment. C. S. Lewis hears Christ say to us about this:
“Make no mistake,' He says, 'if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect - until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”
In his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner, hit this topic of God’s justice and judgment. He believed that creation isn’t complete yet. He described how there are pockets of chaos here and there leftover that need to be completed, and until they are finished, unjust things will happen.
In that sense, he agreed with mystic, Catholic Priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He described creation evolving on a trajectory toward what he called the Omega Point--completion. Creation is evolving toward further diversity, growing complexity, and increasing consciousness. That’s what God has in mind. It is another picture of God’s restorative justice.
Knowing all this brings a tremendous freedom to our lives. We can participate in God’s judgment—and see our lives from a larger point of view; one that sees the struggles and difficulties of this journey not simply as evil or blessings, but as part of a larger mysterious process.
A Spiritual friend of mine has an amazing life story. He grew up Amish... a very fundamental, literalistic Christian movement. His family left the Amish tradition when he was a teenager and joined the Militant Fundamentalist Bible Church. When my friend began to question some inconsistencies in their theology they kicked him out. Still quite fundamental however, he wound up selling his home, and taking all his money to move to Iran in the 1970's--overtly to teach English in a school there--but really to convert Muslims (even though it was illegal and dangerous). He felt that if he kept his heart right, prayed, God would protect him— Ask…seek… knock and God will give, open, and provide “swift justice”(Luke 18:1-8).
A few months after moving his wife and children to Iran he came down with blood-poisoning and hepatitis. While in the hospital his roommate tried to convert him to Islam, while he tried to convert his roommate to Christianity! (That must have been a fun room to be in). He left the hospital because he couldn’t afford it any longer. He was quarantined for six weeks. He couldn’t teach, couldn’t leave his small apartment, and so with no income, his wife and children had to stay with someone else... He prayed for swift justice. He prayed that God would set things right. He had faith—he trusted in God. But there was no rescue. Forty-five days isolated all alone in a room. His faith hit a wall. Everything he believed in was crumbling. He felt that God was absent or non-existent.
Yet, it was the beginning of his true faith. That room and that time was a tomb and a womb for him... he realized that he needed to give up his fundamentalist, simplistic God-as-cosmic-vending-machine faith, and begin a relationship with God on a whole new level. After it was all over, he saw that indeed God did provide what he needed—not what he wanted to be sure, not what he thought was just, but what he needed to go deeper. Jesus said, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” His struggle and doubt led him to see prayer and God and faith on a whole new, richer, deeper and higher level. He returned to the United States where he went on to become an Episcopal Priest, author and retreat leader.
God’s judgment leads us toward wholeness and completeness. Knowing this, enables us to be present, even in the pain-filled moments that shape our souls and shape our world, believing that God is at work within it, and that in the end, God will be all in all, and all will be well.
A little over 600 years ago, a woman named Julian in a tiny village called Norwich, England, was near death with an illness when she received a series of visions or “showings” as she called them.
“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well… But Jesus…answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'
Perhaps that is the best answer to our search for how God’s judgement and justice work. In our simple binary minds, we’d just eliminate sin from the equation, thinking that would fix it. Take that snake out of the garden. But Julian found that the harsh density and sharp edges of this particular unique world—including sin—are necessary. And yet “all shall be well.”
She concludes: “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
May we always know that precious love amid ours and the world’s, fallings and risings. Amen.