At Home in the Universe, II Corinthians 5:6-6:2

Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought, and perhaps wished, that you would die? The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. And homesickness is not merely a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all life interruptions that are ways of describing recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken, alienated and alone in a strange world where we often wonder what we’re doing here?
We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating friends and/or lovers who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? And for the most part it is all a huge waste of time and money. Because when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.
The sad part is that we all feel that lack of peace frequently. But we rarely let anyone know. The world is full of homesick, motherless and fatherless children, and Paul tells us in Corinthians that our job as ambassadors or instruments of peace is to comfort the homesick and assure them they can always come home again—to God, the only reliable true source of peace. The homesick need to hear that word of reconciliation now—to know that peace is not off in the distant future. It didn’t help to have some well-intentioned camp counselor tell me that my parents would pick me up at the end of summer camp on Saturday when it was only Tuesday. I wanted someone to comfort me and hold me right then. I wasn’t sure I would even live till Saturday! That’s why Paul says we are already new creatures in Christ. The day of deliverance has already come in the Prince of Peace from Nazareth.
That’s the good news we need we are to give one another. But as you well know, one homesick kid cannot cure another one. The disease will spread like an epidemic once the tears start to flow. So, if we are to be reconcilers, we need first to be reconciled to God. We need to be at peace ourselves if we have any hope of being peacemakers. We need to be made whole, cured of our own homesickness before we can help others who are lost and afraid.
We need to hear and know that there is only one cure for deep, ontological homesickness, and that cure is faith–faith that is deeper and distinguished from mere belief. Belief is holding certain ideas about something, or about life. Faith, on the other hand, is a more total and deeper response of inner peace and trust. For example, it is one thing to believe a parachute will open properly, to understand the physics of why and how parachutes work. But it is quite another thing to have enough faith or trust in a parachute to strap one on your back and jump out of a plane at 5000 feet.
Faith, according to theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, is “a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen.”
To be at peace means to “feel at home in the universe,” to know as the “Desiderata” says, that “You are a child of the universe, no less than the rocks the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be….and keep peace with your soul.” To be at peace at home in the universe is to be at peace with oneself and God.
I have cherished a very powerful and concrete image of what it means to be at home in the universe since shortly after the space shuttle Challenger explosion in early 1986. Part of being at peace is an ability to find meaning and truth in unexpected and even tragic circumstances. For me, the final words from Commander Dick Scobee before the explosion have become a mantra for me of peaceful living. About sixty seconds after blast off Mission Control informed the Challenger crew that they were going back to full power, and Commander Scobee’s confident reply was, “Roger, Go With Full Throttle Up.”
When we are at peace we dare to live life with full throttle up, knowing as those astronauts did that there are serious risks in living. We know also that there are far more serious risks in refusing to face life’s challenges honestly and courageously. Chuck Yeager, a test pilot famous for his description of those early space pioneers who had “All the Right Stuff,” said after the Challenger explosion that “every astronaut and test pilot knows that such a tragedy can happen anytime you go up. But you can’t dwell on the danger or you would not be able to do your job.” Then he added, “There’s not much you can do about it anyway.”
Life is like that. We are all travelers on spaceship Earth, and like the Challenger 7, we are all sitting on enough firepower to blow us all to kingdom come several times over. That’s enough in itself to make us a little queasy, a little homesick, isn’t it? Even if we didn’t have to cope with the routine hassles of living—the doubts, the fears, the guilt, and the disappointments. But we all do have to cope with those things every day. And we all need a faith that will help us feel more at home and at peace in the midst of our hectic and often chaotic lives.
When I was 6 or 7 years old I discovered one sneaky cure for homesickness. I remember coming home with my family from a visit to my grandparents’ farm or my aunt and uncle’s house late in the evening. I would often fall asleep in the back seat of the car after a hard day of playing with my cousins, but I would wake up when the car pulled into our driveway. Sometimes I would pretend I was still asleep because I knew that if I did, one of my parents would carry me into the house and tuck me into my bed. It felt so good to be held in those strong, l loving arms. I felt so secure, the direct opposite of homesick. Don’t’ we all long for that kind of security and closeness at every age?
Then we grow up. We lose that peace in our necessary attempts to establish our independence. We move away, physically and intellectually from the simple belief structures that once made sense of life for us. We become, for better or worse, independent, responsible adults. And with that independence often comes the feeling of homesickness.
How do we get in that situation? It’s like a conversation I overheard between my in-laws several years ago. They were talking about how my mother-in-law used to sit right next to Dad in the car before they were married. This was in the days before bucket seats, of course. My mother-in-law was asking why that changed after they got married. My father-in-law finally just smiled and said, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”
So it is with our human and heavenly parents. We are the ones who think we want distance and freedom. And that’s OK. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public, and we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK too. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We are very sure we can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK. We learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud or guilty to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.
It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians and us that just isn’t so in this passage from II Corinthians 5. “God does not hold our misdeeds against us.” We are forgiven and loved by the essence of Being itself. “The day of deliverance has already dawned.” Peace is here, now, for those who humbly accept it.
Jesus told a story once about a very homesick young man. You know the story from Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32), but you haven’t heard the letter I found recently from that young man to his father. Strangely enough, it was postmarked in Chicago. Listen:

Dear Dad,
I’m sorry it’s been so long. You’ve probably been worried sick about me, haven’t you? Well, I’ve been meaning to write, but I didn’t have any good news, and I didn’t want to worry you. I was in Florida for a year after I left home. I lost the money you gave me on some bad investments. I got mixed up in some drug dealing and spent some time in jail. Please don’t tell Mom. I’ve been bumming around the country doing odd jobs and stuff since I got out of the joint. I was living in a half-way house here in Chicago for several months till I got into a fight with one of the supervisors last week. They kicked me out.
Things are bad here, no jobs, no money. I’ve been living on the streets, eating at soup kitchens or anywhere I can find a meal. It’s a lousy way to live. But I guess I don’t deserve any better. I know now that you were right about staying in school. I’d sure do things different if I had it to do over.
I’m real sorry I hurt you and Mom. I’m embarrassed to ask this. I’ll understand if you don’t ever want to see me again. But I’m sick and cold and would appreciate it if I could come home, for just a little while. Just till I can find a job. I’ll pay you back for my room and board as soon as I can, I promise.
Your son, John

By overnight special delivery, John got a plane ticket and a letter from his father that simply said:

Dear John,
You can always come home, anytime.
I love you,

(This sermon is included in my book, “Building Peace from the Inside Out: Stories for Peacemakers and Peace Seekers,” chapter 12)

Fish Tale and Forgiveness, Jonah 3:1-10

Last week’s text from I Samuel raised a tough question: are some sins beyond forgiveness?  I hadn’t looked ahead in the lectionary then but was pleased to find that the Hebrew text from Jonah for this week offers a great response to that question.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response.  It’s a familiar story kids learn about and sing about in Sunday School, but it is more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se).  I’m not a fisherman, but I’ve always been attracted to Jonah and even chose it as the text for the first sermon I ever preached, way back in 1969.  At the time my wife asked me why that text.  She said, “What does that story mean for us today?”  My response, “Don’t go swimming with big fish.”

Of course, it means much more than that if we take time to ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish?  It’s a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes much more sense if read in its entirety. But here’s the abridged version:

  1.  God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
  2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
  3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard.
  4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
  5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message.
  6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, and are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them.
  7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to give the Ninevites hell, not mercy.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish.  It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s wishes are very plain.  Jonah’s call is not ambiguous as is sometimes the case. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more clear and direct: “Go at once to Nineveh” (1:1).    There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey.  And we all know how smart it is to say “no” to God; so why would Jonah even try?  To answer that question requires a little history lesson.  Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people.  Ironically, for our contemporary context, Nineveh sat about where modern day Baghdad is located today.  Given that context, we know what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath.

Jonah knew, as he says in 4:2, that Yahweh was a God of mercy and would forgive those hated enemies of his people.  Put yourself in Jonah’s place.  Fill in your own favorite enemies: liberals, conservatives, 9/11 terrorists, Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, Muslims, Evangelicals, bitter athletic rivals, business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive.  That’s who Johan is being asked to save and why he is a reluctant prophet who dares to defy a direct order from God.  As the story unfolds we see it is one of repentance – Jonah repents of his obedience after God gives him a three-day time out in the smelly innards of a fish.  The people of Nineveh repent after they hear Jonah’s message from God.  And even God gets in on the act and repents of his judgment against the people of Nineveh.

Which brings us, finally, back to last week’s question about unforgiveable sin.  And the answer is “no.”  If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into exile, what could be unforgiveable?

Jonah is a foreshadowing of the grace-filled Gospel of Jesus, which turns on its head the vengeful, don’t get mad, get even theology we often prefer in our Jonah-like assessment of who deserves forgiveness.  Jesus states that Gospel as clearly as God calls of Jonah.  “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  And, ‘You’ve heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:38-44).

That doesn’t sound like a God who would hold anything unforgiveable, does it?   That’s the Amazing Grace we sing about that “saves a wretch like me.”  So, then why does it say in last week’s text (I Sam. 3:14) that the sins of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for forever?  David Stackpole, one of the best students I ever had in preaching class, interpreted that I Samuel text in a way many years ago that made a lot of sense to me then and still does.  David pointed out a couple of key words in I Samuel 3:14 that are easy to read over when our attention is captured by the harshness of the other words in the verse.  He pointed out that the verse doesn’t say their sins cannot be atoned for; it says they cannot be atoned for “by sacrifice or offering.”

We sometimes fall into the trap of imposing our human limitations on God.  Someone once said, “God created us in God’s image, and we return the favor.”  In this case those limitations involve too narrow concepts of not only who and what God can forgive, but how.  The Hebrew theology of Samuel’s day saw sacrificial offerings as the default means of seeking God’s forgiveness.  Ironically, it was Eli’s son’s misuse of sacrificial offerings that got them in hot water.  (See last week’s post for details.)  Eli’s sons corrupted sacrifice as a means of grace with their own selfishness and deceit; so how could something they had no respect for and had broken trust with be a vehicle for finding their way back to God.

But because humans spoil one gift from God doesn’t mean God can’t come up with others.  To put those kind of limits on God would limit God’s power and render God unworthy of our trust.  Jonah tried putting parameters on God’s forgiveness, and we see how well that worked for him.

God’s forgiveness cannot be bought with sacrifice or offering.  But it can be accepted as a freely given gift by those who are humble enough to know we need it.  The Ninevites were forgiven because they repented and admitted their sin (Jonah 4:6-9).  There are multiple scriptures that attest to God’s merciful nature.  The prophet Isaiah (1:18) says, “Though your sins be as scarlet I will make them white as snow.”   Jesus says to his executioners from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).  I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Yes, I know, there are many counter texts that argue for the vengeful God Jonah wished upon his enemies (like we do).  Those texts were written by angry men who wanted their enemies to suffer, but be very careful of that two-edged sword.  Those who live by that unforgivable doctrine will stand under the same judgment.  See living in glass houses and throwing stones?

God’s grace is free.  It can’t be earned by bigger checks in the offering plate or making greater sacrifices of our time and effort.  It is simply poured out in an overflowing cup for those who repent and truly seek it.  What are you waiting for?  There is no need to carry that heavy burden of guilt and anger another day.  God who can show mercy on reluctant, disobedient Jonah and on his dreaded enemies in Nineveh can certainly forgive us too.

Unforgiveable? I Samuel 3:1-20

Are some sins so bad they are beyond forgiveness, even for God?  I sure hope not, but in

I Samuel 3:14 God says, “Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”  That’s the NRSV translation.  Since “expiated” is not a household word, the NIV translation of that verse clarifies things a bit.  The NIV says, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.”  At least that one leaves off the ominous “forever” of the NRSV.  But don’t celebrate that verbiage too soon because both translations agree in verse 13 that this judgment is forever.   No matter how it’s translated, this passage is bad news.  Eli’s family is guilty of some heinous sin that they can never ever make amends for.

Inquiring minds want to know what the sin of Eli’s family is–in part to be sure that particular big no no is not on our rap sheet, but even more we want to know what this Scripture means about the very nature of the God we worship and want to trust with how we will spend eternity.  Are some acts so evil that they are beyond the limits of an infinite God’s power to forgive?

We can all think of potential candidates for the unforgiveable list: genocide, child abuse, hate crimes, cruelty to animals, and murder might come to mind.  Many of us have painful memories of things done to us or by us that stay with us so long they feel unforgiveable.  But just because we mortals can’t forgive something doesn’t mean God can’t, does it?  “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for” has a ring of finality to it, and with God there’s no higher court of appeal to turn to.

So what is this unforgiveable offense?   I’ll summarize, but the details are found in I Samuel 2:11-17 if you want to read them for yourself.  First, you need to know that Eli and his sons are priests in the temple at Shiloh.  But we are told up front in 2:11 that Eli’s sons are “scoundrels” or “wicked men.”   Their offense is that they violate their sacred priestly duties by taking for themselves the very best portions of meat which are meant to be sacrificed on the altar to God.  Furthermore, they don’t even attempt to hide their wicked ways but boldly and openly demand the very choicest cuts of meat for themselves and even threaten to take those by force if anyone tries to stop them.  Verse 17 concludes this section by saying, “Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.”

Sadly, in contemporary times it is easy to draw parallels here to clergy embezzlement of funds entrusted to them for feeding staving orphans or betraying sacred trust through sexual misconduct.  It is a given that Christians and clergy in particular must not dodge those hard questions and constantly strive to understand and eliminate the suffering those unacceptable behaviors cause.  But a broader question raised by this text is: are those unforgiveable sins?  In our eyes?  In God’s?

And to muddy the waters even further, for those of us who believe in the priesthood of all believers, the question becomes what offerings of the Lord do you and I treat with contempt?  If all of creation is an offering of God to us and we are entrusted by God with all that we are and all we have, not as owners but as stewards, then how does our stewardship compare with that of Eli’s wicked unforgiveable sons?  When we betray God’s trust and desecrate God’s creation with toxic waste, or pollute our bodies with carcinogenic junk food, or disobey God’s laws against killing, or violate the sacred vows we made at our marriage or our baptism, does God then say to us, “I swear to you that your sins shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever?”

The God I know and love does not pass such harsh judgment, and in most sermons and blog posts I would attempt to show why I believe that and bring some resolution to such a difficult  question.  And I will do that in another post, but not yet.

Sometimes we need to wrestle with the questions of our faith so the answers we find can be claimed as our own.   So I’d like to ask you:  What evidence do you find in Scripture and in life that speak to you about the nature of God and God’s relationship to human sin?  If you were explaining this text to a new Christian or someone living in guilt and fear of an angry God, what would you say?   I invite you to explore this for yourself or with friends and if you like share your thoughts by posting a comment.

Let’s dialogue a bit and next week I’ll share my thoughts on what I think the key to understanding this text might be.