Saturday, August 17, 2013
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
August 17, 2013
A few weeks ago, I watched the movie, The Mask of Zoro. My daughter assured me I would like it. It was swash buckling and romantic. It had a satisfying ending. I'd like it. So I settled down with my computer to watch. But in the first few minutes, I wondered if this time Bonnie had made a mistake. After a rollicking opening scene with Zorro riding to the rescue of some hapless peasants, the movie suddenly portrays a deep, heart-breaking, irremediable tragedy. Zorro is ambushed in his castle by the evil Governor Montero. Zorro's beautiful wife is killed and the despicable Governor Montero takes Zorro's daughter to raise as his own an ocean away. Zorro, himself, is consigned to a filthy dungeon.
I almost turned off the movie. Being sent to prison was dark and terrible, but I could imagine an escape, a parole, some kind of redemption. But Zorro's loss of love was unbearable. In the movie, Zorro and his wife were obviously deeply in love. Their affection for their daughter was naturally rich.
How could a man endure the loss of both his beloved wife and his precious daughter to the machinations of an evil man? What possible twists of plot could lift us above the soul-crushing ache of grief and loss? How could our sense of outrage at the horrific injustice be assuaged? I was tempted to turn the movie off, but Bonnie had assured me I would like it, so I kept watching.
The story sucked me in. It pulled me along. And sure enough, not only was justice done, but in the end, even Zorro's heart found a measure of rest. Finally, everything was all right.
The Bible tells a similar story. It's going to be all right. Goodness will triumph. God will triumph. No matter how chaotic, tragic, or cold the world seems to be, there is a story being written that will be so sweet, so grand and wonderful, that in the very core of our being we will find ourselves cheering.
This hope consoles us in the face of great loss. It fires our drive and determination as we work to ease suffering, to build a healthier, happier world. When we pour our lives into making things better we are cooperating with the grand goal of the cosmos. We are partnering with God.
One way the Bible tells this story of the triumph of God is to picture God as a lover pursuing his beloved. God is a great king seeking to win the affection of his beloved. Humanity—we, people like us—we are his beloved. Sometimes people respond to God's desire and God is happy. Other times people spurn him and God is grieved or gets angry. Then he rouses himself and again pursues his beloved. At times as you read the Bible story, you despair. There is no way this story can turn out right.
Then other times, it looks hopeful. We get caught up again in the promise of romance. Surely love will win. This is the central conviction of our church. It is the most precious claim of the Bible. In this view of the cosmos, there is a purpose, an intentionality permeating reality. Life and love are not accidents in a universe that could have gone many other directions. Rather they are expressions of God who ultimately shapes the universe.
In our scripture reading we heard the words from Revelation 19:
I heard what sounded like a vast crowd in heaven shouting, "Praise the LORD! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. His judgments are true and just. . . . the twenty-four elders and the four living beings fell down and worshiped God, who was sitting on the throne. They cried out, "Amen! Praise the LORD!" And from the throne came a voice that said, "Praise our God, all his servants, all who fear him, from the least to the greatest." Then I heard again what sounded like the shout of a vast crowd or the roar of mighty ocean waves or the crash of loud thunder: "Praise the LORD! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself. She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear."
Throughout the book of Revelation the language oscillates between pictures of doom and gloom and boisterous, ecstatic worship. The forces of evil harass and torment the people of God. The people themselves vacillate between loyalty and infidelity. But finally, here in chapter 19, we come to the grand turning point. The wedding is announced. The Great King has won the heart of his beloved. She is going to become his bride. It's going to happen. For sure. Sweetness engulfs us. Everybody is happy.
This vision of a happy ending is perhaps the most important difference between atheism and theism. Christianity, in particular, imagines a bright future. Not just the possibility of a bright future, but a definite, sure triumph of goodness and light. This glorious, triumphant future is not merely one of an infinity of possible futures. We claim that God guarantees the final cosmic celebration. We affirm a future that all creation will judge to be sweet, good and satisfying. The universe has a story that comes out “right.”
Atheism does not offer this kind of confidence. Certainly, a bright future is one of the infinite possibilities among the infinity of universes imagined by mathematicians. But its likelihood is vanishingly minuscule.
Atheism asks weighty questions. Those questions deserve our respect. Some of the questions atheism raises are the same questions we Adventists pose to conventional Christianity: How could a good God torture people, even really bad people, for billions of years? For an atheist, it's a rhetorical question. For Adventists, it's a good question and we answer it: A good God could not do such a thing. The notion of eternal hell fire is bad theology.
Atheists and Adventists together ask how God could have written the verse in Psalms that celebrates war time brutality against children (Psalm 137:9). Adventists answer the question: God did not write that verse. No such thought ever entered his mind.
Atheists ask difficult questions. We owe them a measure of respect for voicing out loud questions that occasionally haunt even the most devout among us. No matter how many different ways we try to explain the relationship between the goodness of God and the suffering of the world, in the end, our explanations fail to provide a rational map of the connection between a good God and a suffering world.
We run out of words. No formula works. We cannot answer the question using logic and rational analysis.
Still we are believers. We believe the story will come out right. We believe the troubles and pain, the injustice and tragedy of the human story will be more than matched by the glorious climax. We arrive at this conviction by paying attention to way our hearts respond to stories.
Some of us are more cerebral than others. But no one can live on reason alone. I have been reading Frans de Waal's book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. De Waal pokes gentle fun at philosopher Peter Singer who made great show of being ruthlessly logical in his ethical reasoning based on first principles. When Singer was challenged about the great inconsistency between his pompous claims about the rationality of his ethics and his emotionally-driven, exceptional care for his mother. Singer replied, “Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different with it's your mother” (de Waal, p.184).
To be human includes reason and rationality, of course. It also includes heart. And our truest response to stories comes from our hearts not through logical analysis.
One of the great stories in the Bible opens like the Zorro movie. The first scene is happy enough. There was a recession in Israel. Food became scarce. A Jewish man named Elimelech moved his family from Bethlehem to Moab.
It looked like a smart move. Elimelech found work. Things were going well. Then he got sick and died, leaving Naomi with their two sons to fend for themselves. Mom and boys did okay. They were making it. The boys, Mahlon and Kilion, got married. Naomi, loved her new daughters, Ruth and Orpah. She began hoping for grandkids. Then Mahlon and Kilion got sick. Real sick. It was scary. Then it wasn't scary. It was terrible. Both young men died, leaving the three women to fend for themselves.
Three women alone was not viable in that society. Naomi told her daughters-in-law that she was going back to her family in Bethlehem. She urged them to go back to their parents' homes. Maybe they could find husbands again. Both daughters-in-law insisted they would go with her. They loved her. She was a real mother to them.
Naomi insisted. “Look,” she said, “You are young and beautiful. You have your whole lives in front of you. And I can't help you. I cannot give you husbands. I have no money. I have nothing. God is against me. You better go.”
Orphah, finally, reluctantly, headed back to her parents' home. But Ruth was adamant.
"Don't ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!" Ruth 1:16-17
So the two of them traveled to Bethlehem.
They arrived about the time of the barley harvest. Custom was that poor people could glean in the grain fields. That meant that after a harvesting crew had moved through a field, the poor folk could go and pick up any stray grain that had been dropped. They could cut any stalks that had been overlooked by harvesters moving efficiently and fast.
Ruth told Naomi she was going to go glean and off she went.
That night when Ruth came home, Naomi was there to ask how her day had gone. Ruth was full of news. First, she had brought home a full basket of raw grain, plus some roasted grain that had been left over from the lunch the owner of the field had given her.
Then Ruth, full of giggles and amazement, told how the rich man who owned the field had talked to her and urged her to work only in his field because he thought she, as a single woman, might be harassed in other fields. Oh, and he told the men to be kind to her. And he said she could glean right among the sheaves. He said he knew about her, that he had heard about her sticking with Naomi after the death of their husbands. He had invited her to rest in the shelter with the work crew and to help herself to water the men had drawn from the well. And he was so good looking.
Naomi was listening and nodding and smiling. When Ruth slowed down enough so Naomi could get a word in edge-wise, Naomi said, “That man is a relative of ours. He, too, is single.”
So Ruth worked through the barley harvest. Then she spent the wheat harvest also working in fields owned by Boaz.
Some time near the end of the wheat harvest, Naomi had a mother-daughter talk with Ruth. “Look,” she said. “It's time you got married again. You're not getting any younger. Neither am I. Here's what you do. You know that nice man Boaz you've been telling me about all harvest? Well, tonight he's going to be winnowing late. So here is what you do.
Now do as I tell you—take a bath and put on perfume and dress in your nicest clothes. Then go to the threshing floor, but don't let Boaz see you until he has finished eating and drinking. Be sure to notice where he lies down; then go and uncover his feet and lie down there. He will tell you what to do. Ruth 3:3-4
Ruth did just what Naomi told her. She waited until Boaz had sacked out, exhausted and full of food and drink. Then she sneaked up, pulled up the bottom of his robe and lay down at his feet.
About midnight Boaz roused and discovered there was a woman lying at his feet.
"Who are you?" he asked. "I am your servant Ruth," she replied. "Spread the corner of your covering over me, for you are my family redeemer. "The LORD bless you, my daughter!" Boaz exclaimed. "You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor. Now don't worry about a thing, my daughter. I will do what is necessary, for everyone in town knows you are a virtuous woman. Ruth 3:10-11
Boaz told her to be sure and keep their secret. “Don't let anyone know you have been here with me at the threshing floor.” He gives us a large basket of grain as a present to Naomi and sends her off before daylight.
Boaz was obviously thrilled. But even though he was rich and single, there were still hurdles to be cleared related to the way that people and land were connected. But nothing was going to stop Boaz now. He worked out a deal. He bought Naomi's ancestral land and in the process gained legal right to marry Ruth.
So Boaz and Ruth got married. She became pregnant. The baby was born. Life was good.
Then the women of the town said to Naomi, "Praise the LORD, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!" Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. The neighbor women said, "Now at last Naomi has a son again!" And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. Ruth 4:14-17
If you had been there and watched Naomi cuddling her grandson, you would have smiled. You would have felt the story came out right. That sense of happy ending in no way would have trivialized the pain and grief both Naomi and Ruth had suffered. They had carried years of grief. And in their new lives, I'm sure they would still sometimes feel the ache of their losses. But, their story is not about loss and grief. It is about the happy ending. It is about the triumph of love.
I am reminded of the words of a country song, “God bless the broken road that led me straight to you.”
In a romantic story, there are always obstacles, hindrances, disappointments, apparent impossibilities. Then when the lovers are finally together, all of that becomes faded memories, hazy behind the glow of the joy of their union.
And our hearts declare that this is right. This is how it should be.
As believers we declare our confidence that the entire human story will come out right. God, the great lover, will triumph. Somehow history will come right. God and his bride will host a grand wedding celebration and the cosmos will be glad.
As we are approaching the beginning of another school year, I encourage you students to remember the ultimate romance, the romance of the triumph of goodness. As you take classes, prepare yourselves professionally and engage with other students, ask how you can help move God's story forward this coming school year.
Parents, God is dreaming with you of the sweet ending of the broken and crooked road that sometimes trips up our kids. Work to respond to your kids in the light of the triumph of goodness. Sure, some of them will break your heart. Some may even do stupid things. (Is that a surprise?) Keep loving. Try not to freak out over the detours and mistakes that seem to be an inescapable part of the story.
The triumph of goodness is sometimes unbelievable. Atheism seems to agree with what we see around us. It asks good questions. Still every time your heart thrills at a movie that comes out right, listen to your heart. It may know something wiser and truer than can ever be contained in formulas
Love wins. And when we train ourselves to be skillful in love, when we practice compassion and justice, we are cooperating with God. We are moving with God in the grand triumph flow of history toward triumphant goodness.