I spent a lot of this week swearing at the radio. As the world news went from bad to worse, I flipped from Facebook articles to NPR to CNN to the Daily Show, trying to make sense of what I was hearing and seeing, and, I confess, muttering, and sometimes shouting, “Idiots! They are all just so stupid! Can’t they just stop?!”
It’s not even a matter of politics for me. It is just plain heartbreak. In Israel and Palestine, people are holding their ground and pointing the finger and using the lives of their citizens as talking points and propaganda. People on both sides of the conflict are saying, “they started it!” and Israel says they’ll stop bombing when Hamas stops bombing and Hamas says they’ll stop bombing when Israel stops bombing, and it appears that things are at a stalemate, and meanwhile, children are dying.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…
In the Ukraine, there are rebels and there are government officials and there are foreign officials, and everyone is blaming everyone else for that stupid stupid missile. Kiev claims the weapons came from Moscow; Moscow claims Kiev should divert commercial aircraft; and the rebels are hiding behind masks while they loot the crash site and remove evidence. Everyone is blaming someone else, and no one appears to be considering just stopping the violence, stopping the escalation, stopping the childish blame-game, and meanwhile, children are dying.
If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us…
On our own borders, tens of thousands of children are fleeing violence in their homelands. On our own borders, children are facing untold dangers to escape from far worse back home; mothers are sending their children across deserts and jungles to escape the horrors at home; and we are sending them back to almost certain death, and possibly worse. And I don’t care what your politics of immigration are, because the finger pointing and the politics are not getting us anywhere; the rhetoric about border security and asylum are not helping any one of these families; the lives of these people, these precious children of God, are not summed up by bickering between grown men and women who claim to honor the God of Israel, the God who commanded us to protect the widows and the orphans and the aliens, to remember that we once were aliens ourselves, but now we are turning back the widowed and orphaned and aliens among us, and meanwhile, make no mistake, children are dying.
If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
I am preaching to you the sermon that I needed to hear today. I am naming some hard truths today, because they have been rattling around in my head all week, and I don’t know what to do with them. Because I feel powerless in the face of so much violence and so much anger and so much bloody stupidity. And because I know that the sins of our borders are my sins, as well as anyone’s. Because I know that the sins of Israel and Hamas are my sins, just as much as they are those of Benjamin Netanyahu and Khaled Mashal. Because I know that the sins of Putin and Poroshenko are my sins as well. Because I belong to this world, and this world belongs to me, and we all belong to each other,but there is no way for me to fix it all. If I choose a side, people will die. If I don’t choose a side, people will die. Even if I study the situation, and put my energy and my time and my money and my gifts into doing the right thing, it won’t be enough, and the world will still be a broken place, and I will still be broken right along with it, and there is no way I can fix it all, and there is no way I can distance myself from it, and there is no way I can pretend like it doesn’t belong to me. And I’m stymied. Frozen. Afraid. Helpless. If we say we have no sin….
1 John was a real letter written to a real congregation of people living in the real world. They lived in a world where violence was a daily threat, where people had recent memory of the desolation of Jerusalem, of the final destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, of the deaths of almost 1000 rebels at Masada, who took their own lives rather than waiting for the Romans to kill or enslave them. Then, as now, there were those who sought to lead people away from the world, away from this brokenness, away from the pain and messiness of life in this fallen creation. What eventually became gnosticism in the 2nd century was, at the time of this letter, not yet a fully formed movement. But it was an attractive sort of idea. I talked about this last week, this strain of thought that pitted the tangible, created world against the spirit world. For the gnostics, the goal was to find some secret, some knowledge, some way of thinking or being or believing or praying that would allow them to ascend out of this world, into the world of the spirit, to escape the bonds of human existence. Many of them were beginning to lose sight of the embodied, incarnate Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. They were beginning to talk of him as a spiritual idea, a belief that would get them a ticket out of this life and into some other better spirit existence.
And this was a huge problem. As I said last week, the incarnation is really really important.
Without the incarnation, we can find ourselves becoming insensitive, hard-hearted. If this world is not important to God, or if this world is just plain bad, then we are justified in ignoring it. It doesn’t matter what we do, who we hurt, how we pillage and destroy, what we dump, pollute, or strip-mine. It’s not important, so we can do what we like. If God is only interested in what happens next, or in some other-worldly spirit existence, then the only thing that matters now is getting what we want, by any means necessary. In which case, as history has made abundantly clear, our god becomes power, violence, destruction, and horror. Indeed, I would argue that for many in this world, and this is a critique of many Christians, as well as others, the god they worship is not the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but some other god, made in a human image, formed to human desires of power and greed. It is a god of darkness. It is not the God of incarnation. The God of life. The creator. In this God, the God we meet in Jesus, there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with this God, while we are lifting up and proclaiming an uncaring, unfeeling, exploitative, violent god, we lie and do not do what is true. These are the words of John in this first letter, and they are true now as they were then.
We Americans like to see ourselves as self-made people, and we like to fancy ourselves rather lone wolves. We idolize the cowboy and the maverick and the archetype of the strong, silent individualist, standing alone against the world. Most of us don’t really mind the idea of a distant, spiritual reality, a God that stands back from the world, and keeps clean hands; a God that we can take or leave as it suits us; a God that we can see in the sunset or the stars. That’s a fairly comfortable sort of faith; it doesn’t much challenge me. But if God became human, in a real particular way, if there is a story about a real, live, flesh and blood guy, who died a real, live, flesh and blood death, and then rose again in a real, live, flesh and blood way, that is a particular kind of claim about a particular kind of God. That is embodied faith that gets lived out in embodied ways in embodied community. That is faith that challenges me to see God, not only in sunsets and stars, but in the face of the guy sitting next to me in church who kind of bugs me; that is faith that forces me to admit that God even loves the crying baby and the grumpy grandpa and the guy who sings off key; that is faith that will not rest until I understand that this particular Jesus came to die for all – that he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world! That this Jesus, this particular, flesh and blood Jesus, came to die for both Israel and for Palestine, That this Jesus can be seen in both Putin and Poroshenko, and in the faces of each and every widow and orphan and in every person who has fled their home out of fear. That this Jesus came to die even for those who are making widows and orphans and forcing people from their homes.
[And this was not in the original manuscript, but this is the thing that really makes me mad about our God. The biggest challenge of our faith. That God loves and would die even for those who are causing these problems, those who doing the hurting and perpetrating the violence. That really bugs me. But that is the story of this God in Jesus, who comes to forgive the sins of all the world. Everyone. It’s a really big tent.]
If we forget the incarnation, we lose sight of the story of a God who loves this world, a God who loves this world, and who is at work right now to redeem this world, to heal the brokenness and draw us into a new future that is of God’s making.
If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. Like it or not, we are a part of this broken world, and we are a part of the brokenness. We can no more undo the brokenness ourselves than we can decide to avoid sin. To live in the world is to sin. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” This is the paradox in which we live. And it can be petrifying. Literally. It can freeze us, so that we are too afraid to do anything, too afraid to try. So that we feel helpless. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate. Because in him there is no darkness at all – his light shines into our darkness and shows the truth of us. We discover that God knows exactly the truth about us, knows how bound up we are in this world, in the sin of this world, how we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, and knowing all that, having shined the light on all that, having seen the full truth about us, God came into the world, became incarnate, came to know us, came to die for us. To make us his own. This is the claim that God has on you – that you are free. What has happened in the past does not decide what happens next. The brokenness and violence of the world do not define you, and they do not define the future. In God’s light, even these things may be redeemed. In the fellowship of God, only God’s love has power over you. Not fear. Not hopelessness. Not nihilism. Only love. You can choose to act, you can choose to live out of the love of God, you can choose to proclaim the light, even when it would appear that darkness rules the day. God has seen you for everything that you are, has seen the world for everything that it is, and has seen how you are a part of this world and all that that means, and God has said, I want to love that one. I want to die for that one. God has named you and claimed you for love. You are free.