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God Walk

Sermon – 1/30/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3"O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD."

6 "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

This morning I invite you to consider the nature of God.  It has been my experience that our image of the God who calls us into being, determines much else in our lives: the kind of people we are, the kind of church that we are, etc.  It affects how we interact with one another, how we use power and love, how we live and even how we die.  Therefore, I’d like to share with you an image of God that has guided me over the years and shapes much of my ministry.

A seven year-old budding artist was drawing a picture of God in Sunday school and drew a rather traditional picture of an old man with flowing beard sitting on a golden throne.  The Sunday school teacher said, “What if God is a woman?”  To which he replied, “Well that changes the whole picture!”  Indeed it does.

If our image of God is that of the Divine Warrior leading troops into battle, then we are apt to become conquering heroes, or at least seek to do such, crusaders seeking to annihilate infidels wherever they may be.

If our image of God is that of the Divine Judge who punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous, then we will seek to create that kind of world that rewards the good and punishes the bad according to our best understanding of what that is.

If our image of God is that of the old man in the flowing white who gives us things when we are good, then we desire to be like Santa Claus.

There is a Latin term that theologians use to describe what I am describing and that is imago dei, in the image of God, meaning it is our natural human tendency to try to emulate what we understand God to be.  Thus I am convinced that the critical question for us is not whether God is, or what God is but how God is.

The dominant image through out church history, the one with which I grew up here in the Willamette Valley, as I suspect have most of you, wherever you grew up, is that of a very male, controlling all-powerful figure who loves us and yet gives us the freedom to determine our own lives. This God can and does intercede in our lives from time to time to make God’s will known. 

And so my tradition has given me some rather conflicting messages about this God who loves the whole world and yet allows a large percentage of it to suffer and to die, while at the same time, for some unknown and unfathomable reason, intercedes in the lives of a select few to save them or to spare them from their fate. 

For instance, a church member in another city told me how in WWII he was a navigator aboard the aircraft carrier stationed in Pearl Harbor, which of course, was not present on that fateful day on December 7th.  Precisely on that particular day he and his pilot were assigned some R & R.  They were to take off to go to Hawaii for a little vacation.  The pilot was so eager to get back to his home base that he over-heated his engine. The flight had to be scrubbed and someone else was sent in their place. 

Of course after the planes took off they discovered the skies over Hawaii were already filled.  They engaged in battle and the particular plane that took their place was shot down, the pilot and navigator killed.  So this fine Christian told me how God spared him that fate.  God interceded in his life that he might live, which left me with the question, what had God done for those two who died in their place?

Stories such as that prompted a young woman with whom I became acquainted in Fresno to say, “If God is someone who cares for us and who has control over us, then I cannot believe in such a God.”  Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, currently under study by one of our adult Sunday morning classes, relates the story of the death of his son from progeria, the disease that makes you age prematurely. His son died of old age before he was 8.  Kushner concluded from his own experience, either God is all-powerful or God is good.  God cannot be both.

The story was told in Christian Century several years ago of a young Lutheran minister whose wife was killed in a hiking accident.  The paramedic that responded to the scene, upon learning the profession of the distraught husband, said, “Well I guess that you of all people must know that God has a purpose for everything.”  To which the minister replied, “If God has a purpose for this, then that purpose stinks.”

Forgive me if what I say shocks you, I realize it is rather crude language.  You have to understand that I grew up in Albany, a mile or two from the paper mill.  You know the one, when you are driving north you roll up all the windows, close the vents and hold your breath as long as you can.  When the wind blew a certain direction we would catch a certain aroma and we didn’t say, “O my, what an unusual odor.”  We knew what we were talking about.  I have come to the conclusion that a good deal, not all certainly, but much of what the church has taught us over the centuries has been produced in paper mills.  It is good for filling up a lot of books, and frankly, it stinks.

That is one of reasons why I think that 96% of the population of this country, according to the Gallup organization, believes in God and yet only 56% participate in any religious institution, church or synagogue.  In other words, 40% of our population believes in God but is not interested in what the church teaches and practices.  Undoubtedly there are many reasons for that but I am convinced that one of the major reasons is that the dominant image the church has portrayed of God is out of sync with the reality that most of us experience.  Therefore, we need a new image, an image that fits our experience of the way we encounter God.

The image that I am about to set forth portrays the way that I have experienced God.  It may or may not fit your experience but I hope it helps you to sharpen your own image as well as to understand where I am coming from.

In the movie Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder portrays the nephew of the famed Frankenstein and inherits his castle.  He comes to claim that inheritance at the beginning of the movie.  His uncle’s assistant, Igor, comes to pick him up at the train station.  Igor is a hunchback and walks with a limp.  He says to Wilder, “Come, walk this way.”  Wilder begins to follow him.  Igor says, “No, walk this way.”  And so Wilder does, walking the way Igor does.  Now, believe it or not, that is my image of God.  That may require some explanation.


The face of God?!

After going through a list of things that God does not expect of us, Micah says “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  Now I think most of us have some idea of what the first two mean, to do justice and to love kindness, but what does it mean to walk humbly with God?  The usual interpretation is that we must humble ourselves before God.  By right of extension, of course, that means we must humble ourselves before God’s personal representative on earth, which I am sure you all know and agree is your minister! I say that in jest, of course, but there are indeed many people who believe such, or at least many ministers who believe such.

I received a letter years ago from a church-related organization inviting volunteers to participate in their ministry to prisoners.  In it they outlined the job description which included that you must be willing to submit to the authority of God, the state, the institution in which they worked and the ministers of that particular organization.  You see the natural hierarchy.  Does anyone question that that should be the model for our ministry here?  Don’t answer that, you’ll shatter my illusions and delusions of power!

But you see if your theology, your conception of God, is one that demands submission, then it makes sense. 

People of Israel in Micah’s day had that kind of image of God.  They thought that they could win God’s favor by showing how submissive they could be in making their sacrifices to God.  Micah pushes that idea to the limit and asks rather sarcastically, “Shall I bow myself before God on high with burnt offerings, calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands rivers of oil?  Shall I give my first born for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  Each time upping the ante, so to speak.

After the first war with Iraq had begun I received a call from a rather distraught father whose son was in the Inactive Ready Reserve.  I had never heard of the Inactive Ready Reserve and had to be educated on it.  It is just like the regular military reserve except that they do not practice on weekends as reservists do.  Some 20,000 of them were called up on January 30, 1991, 14 years ago today, and here was one.  The father related to me how it took ten years to conceive his son.  His wife had had two miscarriages.  He was their only child and they feared that they would lose him.  It was not that the father was against military service.  He himself was a veteran of Korea.  But he said that his son did not believe in this particular war and the father did not believe his son should be forced to fight in a war that he did not believe in, much like the soldier who just made national news recently by refusing to return to Iraq.  It dismayed me to no end that the chaplain of his unit called the soldier a coward.  Frankly, I think standing up for your beliefs when it could cost you a court martial and ten years in prison takes a lot of courage.  But that’s another story.

I invited this father and son to come to my office to talk about the process of applying for conscientious objector status.  The young man had prepared a statement of his beliefs.  It was a purely political one, in that I mean that he only stated his reasons for why he was against this particular war.  There was nothing of his religious upbringing, nothing of his moral or ethical beliefs on when the use of force was justified and when it was not.  I began to ask him the hard questions:  How could he be so selective in determining which war he would fight and which he would not?  How could he serve in the military for four years and now all of a sudden decide that he no longer supported it?

The young man stumbled for the right words and could not quite express himself.  I could see his father sitting there in anguish as time slipped through his fingers.  He saw his son being taken away from him and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.  When he could take it no longer, he jumped into the conversation and said, “John, do you not remember the story of Isaac and Abraham and how God called Abraham to sacrifice his son.  But only God can do that John, only God!” Therein lies the crux of the problem in that we believe that God can and does make such demands on us.  I wonder, how long will we continue to sacrifice our children to show how submissive we are to our gods?

For the sake of survival, not only of humanity but of the earth, I believe we either learn to walk with God or we will not walk at all.  I propose that if we want to walk with God that we follow Gene Wilder’s example.  That is, walking humbly with God is not about submission to an all-powerful deity, rather as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman says, we walk humbly with God because God’s walk itself is humble.  God is Igor who invites us to walk God’s way, not arrogantly, not like someone who rules over powerless subjects like a tyrant, but gently, as in James Weldon Johnson’s creation poem, “as a mama bending over her baby.”

This week much of the world paused to observe the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  It wasn’t until I visited Auschwitz myself in the spring of 1980 that I found the seeds for my new image of God.  It was in the middle of my three-term in Berlin as a fraternal worker for our Division of Overseas Ministries.  I spent a week with 30 young German volunteers who were preparing to go to the nations that were the former enemies of Germany during WWII as a sign of atonement to the people there.  During our week in Auschwitz we read the archives of SS, we visited the various exhibits, we spoke with former inmates, we slept in the SS quarters.  It was in that experience of being surrounded with this foreboding sense of suffering and death that I first heard the story from the Jewish author Ellie Wiesel, one of those who helped to commemorate the 60th Anniversary.  As a young man Wiesel witnessed the hanging of four men in Auschwitz, four people who tried to escape the terror.  Three of them were older and the weight of their bodies caused them to fall quickly, break their necks and to strangle efficiently.  The fourth was a young boy, about 12 or 13, and he was not heavy enough.  He hung there, struggling in pain, gasping for breath.  As the thousands upon thousands of prisoners were forced to march by the gallows, Wiesel heard a voice cry out, “Where, oh where is God?”  Somewhere within Wiesel came the answer, “He is there, hanging from the gallows.”

It was then that I began to understand that God is not the one who rules over us, rather God is the one who suffers with us. Photojournalist and Methodist missionary Paul Jeffrey, our guest speaker for Week of Compassion in three weeks, said it so well in the Register Guard story on his work in Sri Lanka after the tsunami.  Trying to make sense of a natural disaster that can simply wash 200,000 people out to sea, Jeffrey said, “If you take the crucifixion seriously, you have to understand where God is in such a disaster.  God’s not on high somewhere.  God is present with the people who are suffering.  God’s under the rubble.  God is trapped, God is washed away.”

At the same time God is more than that.  God transcends the disaster, fights for the general well being of the people, for economic and social justice, land reform and human rights for all people.  But God is not the commander in chief who issues orders and commands and demands of us, rather God is the voice of dissent that says there must be another way.  God is the relief worker helping people to rebuild their lives. God is the doctor fighting for every life. God is the parent who never stops searching for his or her lost child. 

God is all of this and more, but God does not determine our future for us. Rather God offers to us new possibilities within the present reality, possibilities that enhance and build on that reality rather than contradict and circumvent it.  Thus my ministry has been and will continue to be one in which I seek to follow that One, to catch up with the One, who says to me, “Come, walk this way.”

 


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