I call this sermon “God is not vengeful, and maybe we are not so smart either.” I preached a version of this talk 3 years ago, so it has some updates about current events, but a similar theme.
Jesus said in the Gospel today, “When two or three are gathered together in My name, I will be with them.” Well, we have two of us here today for this video recorded service, so God is definitely with us!
This talk might be a bit out there for some of you, but I hope it makes some points that need to be said about who God likely is and isn’t.
So, what did you think about these readings today? I heard a lot of singling out of some people as special and allowing judging of others as the official Christian process to handle conflict (straight from Jesus’ words in the Bible).
I’m going to begin first with the Gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus explained that first one should go to another who has “wronged them” one-on-one and explain the issue and try to get them to understand and apologize and make things right. If this somehow actually comes out well, then that person is still “in the community”. If not, get 2 or 3 others and confront that person as a group. If this doesn’t work, then put the offender in front of the whole community to be dealt with, and if the person does not “repent”, then they are “cast out” and treated like the tax collectors (today those might be the lawyers!).
In our Bible study a few years back, one person did not believe that Jesus actually said this, because it seems so crazy a process, and maybe not a good way to handle conflict. (Note, Paul had a similar message to one of his Christian communities when it was clear they were having conflicts among themselves.) My own view is that this process can be abused to allow purging out anyone not like the rest of the community (the “in group”), using the Bible as one’s authority to do so. And of course it assumes that the accusing person actually has something worth bringing up to the accused, rather than just whining about little things or just not liking the person. I will say, though, that having any process to work through seems way better than just fighting with each other over everything we disagree about like many in our country seem to be doing today.
Today in Exodus we get Moses and Aaron telling the people how to prepare for the coming of God’s vengeance on their Egyptian masters, because they have been told directly that it is coming by God. Our Bible study had an interesting discussion about what was to be called The Passover ritual, especially around what a lintel is, and how can someone eat food that has been roasted whole this way. Or that it is a lamb, and how can you eat a cuddly animal like this. And there is the re-creation in the epic 1956 movie The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses during this Passover time telling all the Jews to perform this rite, and they comply and stay inside their homes while the plague of God comes and outside there is somehow instantly crying and wailing over the first born Egyptians dying everywhere. Pretty dramatic!
God again clearly singled out the Jewish people, his chosen, over others, although he had supposedly watched as they were slaves for 400 years in Egypt. Somehow that does not seem right, but that is the story as it was verbally passed down and then written down about a thousand years later. One would think that their God would be more on top of things and not let them suffer so long. Anyway, they do get to leave Egypt and eventually get to Israel, as you will hear in the coming weeks.
With the increased hurricanes in recent years, other weather extremes of heat, rains and floods, awful fires in California and other Western states, and the recent Covid pandemic, it is easy to wonder what is going on, and what God’s roles in all of this is.
For many years (several decades even!) we have heard from various church leaders about how these events are signs of the “end times”, or are examples of God’s wrath on certain groups of people he has decided are not following his laws and are not worthy of living. Some people use this to carry out their own judgments on people (mainly scapegoating minorities of all kinds) based on their supposed mandate from God.
Let’s be real clear about all of this! These occurrences are not events sent by God to go after people wherever there are those who support minorities or because of their political leanings or class status or who act in “ungodly ways”, whatever that means.
The more likely thing happening here is that we have added on to what already are events that could happen by not using the brains that God gave us to take care of the earth and use its resources wisely, and to be prepared for health threats that may arise. Yes, this is somewhat about climate change and man’s role in making it worse. But it is also about how we ignore what we are being told by learned scientists who study this all the time and know way more than we ever could, and instead we just keep doing things to make all of this worse.
A great example of how we once actually did something wise as a nation is what happened after seeing all of the air and water pollution back in the 1960s and 1970s. The Great Lakes and major city harbors and rivers were choked with water pollution, there were awful sites like places like Love Canal in NY, choking air pollution in our major cities like NY, Los Angeles, and so on. Closer to home, Puget Sound and Lake Washington and Lake Union water pollution, Gas Works Park on Lake Union was a toxic waste site, the smelter industry pollution of the air in Tacoma. We cracked down on emissions standards for cars and industries and disposing of waste properly, totally changing the situation at that time. Far less air pollution in our major cities, no more burning rivers, way less pollution in our water areas and way less Superfund waste sites to deal with—for a while! God did not fix it for us—we did it as a nation.
Unfortunately, we are heading back to these same issues by massive de-regulation of industries that pollute, pulling back standards to control emissions, taking away plans and resources that could help with expected likely pandemic events, and so on.
I do have a point here around this singling out issue, and that is we need to stop allowing this to happen in our world and around us, and begin to work together to make things better everywhere for everyone. We do not get to use God as our excuse for allowing this singling out of others--no more scapegoating and blaming and shaming.
We should take to heart what several former presidents together have said: “We are all in this together!” So, let’s start acting like it!