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Love's Power

Sermon - 1/22/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 62

The text for today is the 62nd Psalm, and we just used it for our call to worship so I'll not read it again, but you can read it (below):

1For God alone my soul waits in silence;
   from him comes my salvation.
2He alone is my rock and my salvation,
   my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

3How long will you assail a person,
   will you batter your victim, all of you,
   as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
4Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence.
   They take pleasure in falsehood;
they bless with their mouths,
   but inwardly they curse.

5For God alone my soul waits in silence,
   for my hope is from him.
6He alone is my rock and my salvation,
   my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7On God rests my deliverance and my honour;
   my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

8Trust in him at all times, O people;
   pour out your heart before him;
   God is a refuge for us.

9Those of low estate are but a breath,
   those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
   they are together lighter than a breath.
10Put no confidence in extortion,
   and set no vain hopes on robbery;
   if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

11Once God has spoken;
   twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
12   and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
   according to their work.

Last Sunday, I was a little hard on the Reverend Pat Robertson.  Well, truth be known, I was very hard on the Reverend Pat Robertson, I confess.  For attributing to God things like Ariel Sharon's stroke, and the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, because I deeply believe that such claims are irresponsible, inexcusable, and they are contrary to the gospel that I know and proclaim.

But evidently, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin missed my sermon.  I don't know how he missed it, I mean that's why we put it up on the web site J.  I do know that there are people elsewhere out there in the world that read those things, because I hear from them every now and then from all over the place.  Recently I got an E-mail from a gentleman, I don't know where he was, but he was responding to one of my sermons posted on the web, happened to be the one on homosexuality, and was taking exception with my viewpoint.  He wanted to correct me and instruct me on the true biblical morality.  His E-mail address was "OhMyFoxyFeet@anytown.com".  And I thought, for some reason, I'm just not going to take moral direction from someone who goes by that E-mail address.  I'm sorry J.

But at any rate, if you missed it, this wanna-be T.V. preacher with a social conscience, Mayor Nagin, proclaimed at the Martin Luther King celebration in his city, New Orleans, on Monday:

"Surely God is mad at America.  He's sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane and its destroyed and put stress on this country".

Now if you think Mayor Nagin was merely echoing similar claims made by the Reverend and the like, think again.  Because the reasons cited by Mayor Nagin for God's anger were entirely different.  Sounds more like something you'd hear from the Reverend Jessie Jackson than a T.V. preacher.  He said:

"Surely God doesn't approve of us being in Iraq under false pretenses.  But surely he is upset at black America also.  We're not taking care of ourselves."    

And hence the reason for God's anger and evidently the destruction of New Orleans.

Now, the only thing worse than preachers messing with politics (as if I would ever do something like that J), is politicians messing with preaching!  It's like giving an 8 year-old a frog and a blender.  The outcome ain't gonna be pretty.

Because false attributions given to God seem to be rampant in the news these days, giving God and Christian faith a bad name, I want to spend a little time reflecting with you on God's power this morning, and then on God's character next Sunday.

So let me first of all articulate clearly why I categorically reject the notion that God sends hurricanes or earthquakes or tsunami's, whatever, to punish cities and nations as a manifestation of God's power.

First, in the case of New Orleans.  You'll recall that the area which suffered the greatest damage was the lower 9th ward.  Which is what?  It is the poorest area of New Orleans.  Meanwhile, one of the areas that suffered the least damage was the French Quarter, which is of course the home of the Mardi Gras, and that's where the affluent and everyone else goes when they visit the city.  So I ask you -- does that sound consistent with the God of whom Mary sang in the Magnificat (Luke's gospel, chapter 1):

52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

Or with the first proclamation of the good news by Jesus in Luke's gospel when he said the 'spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor'.  Or the prophet Amos, who says to the rich rulers of Israel:  'Because you trample on the poor and take away from them levees of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone but you shall not live in them.  You have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine'.

I don't know who's God sent Katrina, but I do know this -- it was not the God of Amos or the God of Mary or the God of Jesus.

Second, it astounds me that those who attribute to God such things as hurricanes, be it for so-called sense of morality (for the Reverend Robertson) or sense of social justice (for Mayor Nagin), that they give no recognition to the fact that it was people, not God, who built their neighborhoods below sea level.  It was people, not God, who built those levees that failed.  It was people, not God, who destroyed much of that delta that serves as the buffer zone between the gulf [of Mexico] and New Orleans.  It was people, not God, who are the cause of global warming which may very well be the reason why we are seeing the increase of hurricanes.

So call the destruction of New Orleans, if you must call it something, call it the consequence of sin.  The sin of playing Russian roulette with our environment.  But do not call it the punishment of God.

Third and last, another story from the news that illustrates why I believe blaming God for forces of nature is inexcusable.  On palm Sunday in 1994, a sudden and unexpected tornado hit the town of Piedmont, Alabama, striking the Goshen United Methodist Church in the middle of their morning worship service, killing 20 people, including 6 children.  Among those killed was the 4 year-old daughter of the Pastor, Hannah Clem.  Asked why this happened to them, the Reverend Kelly Clem responded:  "We do not know why.  I do not think 'why?' is the right question to ask right now.  We just have to help each other through it".

If you want to know where God is to be found in such times, it is not in the wind of tornados and hurricanes, but in the words of a grieving Pastor and mother.  She was there, helping us through it.  That is the God that I believe in.  That is the God this Psalm asks us to put our trust in.  It is this God that is there for us in the most difficult times of our lives, who is our rock and our salvation.  Or as Martin Luther wrote, 'A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.  Our present help amid the flood, of mortal ills prevailing'.

But 'why?' is precisely the question we should ask.  Not 'why does this bad thing or that bad thing happen?', but why can we place our trust in this God?  Especially in light of all those bad things that do happen from which God does not appear to protect us.  And the answer is given at the conclusion of the Psalm, when the Psalmist says 'there are two things we know about God:  first, that God is powerful, and second, that God is loving'.  And it is here in this juxtaposition of these two chief attributes of God that we get confused, causing us to falsely attribute to God that which is not God's doing.  And the whole problem is that we consider power to be the greater force of the two.  And therefore assume that is the way that God operates, and we have to explain God's working in the world in terms of power, so that when tragedy strikes and a 4 year-old is killed by a tornado, or a frail senior citizen drowns in the attic of their New Orleans home, we ask 'why?'.  And we question not is God all-powerful (as we should), but we question rather is God all-loving (as we should not).

Having made this assumption that power is the greater of the two forces, we are forced then to describe God's love in terms of power, sparing this person's life or not sparing that person's life.  And you see, that's backwards.  It results in a distorted image of God.  Because it is love, not power, that is the greater force.  Therefore we need to describe God's power in terms of love, rather than God's love in terms of power.

For God so loved the world, he gave his only son.  You see, that's not just an act of love, it's an act of power guided by love.  It is love with power.  Love without power is sentimentalism.  It accomplishes little.  But power without love is tyranny.  It might accomplish much, but rarely of any good.  God is the one who brings these two things together -- love and power -- two things that are often opposed to one another in the world, and God brings them into perfect harmony.  Not as an act of power, but as an act of love.  Love for the world and love for us.  And so I want to challenge us to think of God, first and foremost, as all-loving, rather than as all-powerful.

And I want to speak, then, of that love as the only way that makes sense.  And as the primary meaning of the life and death of Jesus.  It is love, and not power, that is the primary force that brings two people together, out of which often comes into the world a new life.  It is love for our children, not power over them, that creates a healthy environment in which they can grow and mature.  It is love for nature, not power over it, that protects the environment from human folly.  It is love for our enemies, not power against them, that will bring true peace to our world.  

One can rule the world with might and power, but we can only rule hearts with love.  I can force my children to do what I want (at least I used to be able to force them!), but what good is that for when they grow they will be on their own?  It's only through love so that what I want they also freely choose, that I can then hope to have the greatest impact throughout all of their lives.  

And from the life of Jesus we can clearly see that God's way of being in the world is expressed through calming storms, not causing them.  Healing illness, not spreading it.  Sharing food and wealth, not hoarding them.  Laying down his life for others, not taking the lives of others.  This is love's power.  It is the greatest force in the universe.  And it is only when we see God as all-loving, rather than as all-powerful, that we will ask the right questions about how God is present in this tragedy or that, rather than why God allows this or that to happen.

One final story to illustrate this power in very real and tangible terms, from the Mennonite tradition.  It comes from John Roth, who, like most Mennonites, is a pacifist.  He was attending a conference in Hamburg, Germany.  At the end of a long day, he boarded a commuter train.  It was late at night, he was the only passenger in the car when an elderly and apparently mentally disabled man got onto the car in tattered clothes, followed by four rough-looking teenagers with tattoos and chains and other foul instruments.  And they began to insult and ridicule this obviously mentally disabled man.  Shouting obscenities at him, and one of the teenagers had a can of beer and shook it up and sprayed the foam in his face.  From there things quickly escalated and they began to kick him and beat him about the face.  And John looked on in horror at the scene unfolding.  What could he do?  "I am not a big person", he wrote, which is an understatement.  He had no particular training in self-defense.  As a pacifist he certainly carried no weapons.  How could he stop this senseless violence and not become a victim himself?  As he felt the anger mounting he felt something even more powerful -- fear.  To intercede, he knew, would put his own life at risk.  John wrote about this experience after 9/11, in a little book entitled "Choosing Against War".  He equates his feelings of anger, fear, and sense of helplessness with those felt by all of us on that terrible day in September 2001.  "How", he asks, "in the grand sweep of God's actions in history, should we respond to our new sense of fear and vulnerability?"  What do we have to learn from Christ in response to such violence?  The one thing that kept coming back to John was a chorus from a song that came from the Iona community in Scotland:

Don't be afraid, my love is stronger
My love is stronger than your fear
Don't be afraid, my love is stronger
And I have promised, promised, to be always near

What would it mean, John wondered, if we took those words to heart as Christians?  If we really loved in a way that showed that love is stronger than our fears.  That it is stronger than hate.  That it is stronger than the power of violence and the violence of power.

On that night, speeding out of Hamburg, John whispered his prayer:  "God, calm my fear.  Show me the right thing to do".  And without really thinking of what would happen next, he got up out of his seat.  Calmly as he could, he walked purposefully toward the old man being pummeled by the teenagers and called out in his best German:  "Hans?  Is that you?  Hans, how are you?!"  [Which if you stop to think about it is kind of an absurd question in the situation, asking of a man who's being beaten].  But that caused a moment of confusion, provided an opening for John to intercede, and he said to the elderly man "It's been such a long time, will you come and sit with me, catch me up on your family?".  Well, he escorted Hans to the safety at his end of the car, as the four attackers stood dumbfounded.  What luck!  Only one other person on the train and he knew the old man!  [They weren't too smart].  And Hans was equally perplexed as he slowly responded to John's questions.  And before long, his would-be attackers lost interest and got off the train.  They continued on their way, Hans' stop came, and he mumbled a word of thanks and shuffled off to the quiet and peace of the night.

That is God's power.  The greatest force in the universe.  We have a name for it -- we call it love.  


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