How many have you are familiar with the new(ish) Disney movie Moana? So I’m going to show you a clip from the movie. To set this up for you, know that Moana was the daughter of a chief and was meant to become chief over a village of people who functioned really well together. The people were super happy and understood their roles and everyone stayed on the island to ensure that everyone was safe and happy. But young Moana always felt a call to go out on the ocean, and had discovered by way of an ancient and hidden cave, that her people had actually once been voyagers and feels a call to also be a “wayfinder” or a voyager like her ancestors before her. Her father forbids it until they realize that the things that are going on in the world outside of their island are actually threatening the livelihood and the safety and security of their home. So after the death of her beloved grandmother, who we are about to encounter in this clip as a spirit, Moana sets out to restore the wrong that has been done. But she’s faced some serious challenges and she’s thinking about giving up. So let’s watch… feel free to sing along if you know the song… I better hear some of you kids.
Man, that song gets me every time. I challenge you to sing that song with all of your guts and not get choked up.
When I was growing up, I was taught that Christianity was extremely important because we had the market on truth. We were the people who believed the right things about Jesus and we were going to make it into heaven... and unfortunately, the rest of the world was not going to share in that joy. This early thinking became extremely problematic as I grew up and learned and studied and my mind and heart changed about the nature of God. I came to believe that maybe Christians didn’t corner the market. Maybe there wasn’t a truth monopoly that only Christians held. And maybe the Spirit of God that is made clear to us in our relationship to Jesus Christ actually dwells in all human beings.
So you don’t have to agree with me about any of that. But for me, this new theology, this new way of thinking about God, eventually created what a lot of Christians call a “crisis of faith.” I thought to myself, “If all people are loved by God and if I don’t KNOW for sure what is definitely true about God and Jesus and the bible and I’m not sure that believing the right things about Jesus is the ONLY POSSIBLE way to find a path to God, then why should I be a Christian at all? And I revisited that question so many times throughout my life.
Not unlike Moana, from a young age, I heard a call that said, “there’s more out there.” I couldn’t help but feel like my faith leaders and my teachers were limited by their fear, a fear that came from a good place that just wanted us to be happy and safe… a fear that I had learned to share despite the sea… or the new way of thinking about God… calling me. And one day I walked into this ancient cave that seemed to have been hidden and realized that my theological reality was not always how it had been. I had a richer and deeper history that I had previously known. And this made all of the difference.
I wonder if you’ve ever had a time, a season or a moment in your life when you’ve questioned everything. Have you ever found yourself wondering, “Why am I a Christian? Why do I come to church? What’s the point of all of this?” And the knee jerk easy answer says it’s because we believe certain things about Jesus and God and that theology links us together. But what about when our minds and hearts change about the things we believe about Jesus and God? What about when we question everything? Where is our place then? Are we still Christians? Is there still a place here for us? And I want to say clearly…. Yes. There is absolutely with all of the certainty a place for you within the body of Christ, within THIS community. Because our community is our launching and landing pad. It’s the safe space that lets us go out and explore to come back and celebrate or be consoled depending on what we’ve found. And this is biblical!
As Christians, we’ve got a shared history. We plug into this shared history within the context of community. And like Moana, who always felt a call in her to be someone, it wasn’t until she found the true history of her people and connected with that history that she felt energized enough to go out onto the sea. And it was the shared history that they held that allowed for her community to support her. And ultimately it was that shared history, that community story, that allowed her to realize that her call to the sea, to be a voyager, to be a seeker of truth and… a seeker of God… wasn’t a call that came from the outside. It was a call that was part of who she was. It was the divine spirit; it was the God that dwelled within her that was calling her. It was God within her calling out to God outside of her, linking her to her purpose in life. But it all happened within the context of community. And I think that’s our answer, too.
We are reading in Acts about the first manifestations of the Christian church--a people who are still meeting in the Temple! They’re still reveling in their shared history as Jews. And as the church and as God’s kingdom grows and as the people who come into this community of Jesus followers become more and more diverse, they will begin to draw their stories and their shared identities in Christ. And so in Acts we see our own history. We hear the stories of our people. It is a story that has unfolded since the creation of the world. And it is a story that continues to unfold, a story that includes you and me and this body of people. And it’s in that story, in our shared identity in Christ, that we are free to follow the call of God within us and without us.
So when you ask me why I am a Christian, my answer is because this is where my story has unfolded. This is where I have found community. This is where I experience God -- through the love and teachings of Jesus Christ and through the love of you all. I am a Christian because I am a disciple of Christ, a follower of “the way.” And this is where God has called me.
“My God, My God… why have you forsaken me?”
Before I was a pastor, I was a social worker. I had been a rape crisis advocate and responded to rape victims when they presented in emergency rooms or police stations. After that, I worked in child welfare and it was essentially my job to knock on someone’s door, explain to them that they were doing an unsatisfactory job at parenting their children, and spend three hours a week in their homes to supervise their parenting and support them in whatever ways that I could. During my social work career, I learned a lot about disparity and social injustices and powers and principalities of this world. I learned that the systems that we rely on to keep us safe and protect us are tragically flawed. And I saw a lot of seemingly hopeless situations.
There was family unit-- a mother, her teenaged son, and the mother’s boyfriend. At my first visit to the home, we had to call the police because the neighbors were outside with a gun and threatening to “shoot up” the house. The mom was mentally ill and the young teenaged boy was obviously troubled. He had gotten into some legal mess and regularly was being suspended from school. The mom begged us for help that we had no capacity to give her. I remember her begging me to keep her son safe from her boyfriend. And I remember her crying when she said she couldn’t handle her adolescent child anymore and crying even harder when the judge told her that he simply could not come home with her. There was a 26 year old woman who was pregnant with her 7th child. The mother seemed lazy, like she just didn’t care to get anything done or take care of her responsibilities as a parent. The house was a small three bedroom that regularly had food all over the floor, cockroaches crawled on all of the furniture, the kids were rarely bathed, and they were truant. Another mother, schizophrenic, had her children stay in push up positions or squats when they got into trouble at school or acted up at home. She told me about how her mother had hit her and made her kneel on rice and how she was proud that she didn’t resort to that kind of treatment for her children. I think sometimes of the 17 year old girl who was pregnant with her father’s child or of the woman who said no over and over again at a party until she finally gave in and now sat in the Emergency Department struggling over her decision about whether to take a morning after pill and file charges against a man she thought was her friend. And this is just a tiny sampling. And they aren’t examples from some far off land. These are things that are happening in your neighborhood, your communities. And in my work with these humans I often could not help but to wonder, “where is God in this?”
When I was younger I used to read this passion story, the story of Jesus’s crucifixion with awe and wonder and a little horror. I knew it was incredible. But I don’t think I had any idea why. You see, I had this idea of Jesus as God. I know we always say that Jesus was both human AND God. But in my dualistic and finite mind, I really could only identify him as one or the other. So he either had to be like me, which seemed far-fetched, or he had to be God. And so the whole idea of God needing to put all of the sins of the world on God and then God needing God to die a physical death after God turning God’s back on God because of the sin that God held in those last moments of God’s life just never really ever made any sense to me. I was taught, growing up, that God had to look away from Christ because Christ was carrying all of our sin and God had to turn God’s own face away from Jesus in those moments. I was taught that God had actually really truly abandoned Jesus while Jesus hung on that cross.
I don’t think that anymore.
I believe, along with some pretty excellent theologians, so please don’t think I’m committing a heresy all alone up here, that something else is going on. And without getting into the conjuncture of what Jesus was actually feeling as he hung on that cross or what he might have meant or what the author of the gospels might have been inferring, I have simply—divinely—magically come to grips with the fact that Jesus was human. And that he’s relatable.
Jesus was a man who devoted his entire life to championing the disenfranchised of his society. He cared deeply for the outcasts, for the Samaritans, for women (even when they were bleeding and they touched him), for lepers, for the tax collectors and the roman officials…the cogs in the systems of injustice that he was speaking and working against. He saw people for who they were, children of God, coheirs with himself. He looked past circumstances and illnesses and fractured family systems and unfair societal expectations and saw human beings and loved them because they existed in the world with him. He loved them as if they WERE himself. But he didn’t just love people, right? People don’t usually get killed for loving people (unless they’re gay maybe or transgender or interracial… )
Jesus did more than love people though. He challenged the status quo. He was a threat to the church and to the government. He was a threat to the broken systems that allowed for the oppression of the weak and the “less than” so that the folks who were “in” could maintain control and power and status and wealth. He did this through radical love, yes. But he also challenged the power directly in his words. And he wasn’t operating in a bubble or a vacuum, right? But he invited us to do it with him. As Christians we’re taking up our crosses, preparing ourselves for crucifixion because we are also loving radically and speaking truth to power.
So I said earlier that I knew that Jesus dying was really sort of incredible or maybe a better word for it is unbelievable or incomprehensible and I said that I don’t think that I knew why I felt this way when I was younger. I don’t know why I had a sense of awe or horror about Jesus’s death. And I think the older I get and the more I consider our call as followers of Christ, the more I realize that the tragedy […] is that we don’t get to win. Jesus didn’t get to win… not today. Not on good friday. Jesus did the right thing. He lived exactly the way that he should have lived, some say that he was “without sin.” But in spite of that, he was killed. And I wonder if he just simply felt forsaken. Because sometimes the powers and principalities of this world are just too big and we offer this descending voice of objection, a voice that champions the poor and the weak the disenfranchised and the powers kill us. And we feel like we have failed. And over and over and over again it feels like we are forsaken. Our enemies are too big and the bully always wins.
Where was God in the holocaust? Where was God in the Rwandan Genocide in 1994? Where is God in Syria when bombs drop on civilians? Where is God when a mother uses the rest of her money to put her nine-year-old daughter on a crowded boat that is set for a promised land to escape the war, devastation, and torture and rape that has become her home and that boat sinks and her daughter drowns? Or when a man flees oppression with his new infant and wife and years later that infant grows up to be an adult who gets pulled over while speeding one day while she is late for work and faces deportation from her home and her children to a country she’s never known. And how do we proceed when we feel like God is absent? And where the heck is God?
And I remember that Jesus wasn’t just human. Jesus was God. And so God must not be absent. God must be right here with us in the forsakenness and the suffering and the chaos that is this pre-easter life.
Will you join me in praying Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.[b]
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.[c]
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a woman,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “She trusts in God,” they say,
“let God rescue her.
Let God deliver her,
since she delights in God.”
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth[d] is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce[e] my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
19 But you, God, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the God, praise God!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor God!
Revere God, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For God has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
God has not hidden God’s face from her, from him, from us
but has listened to our cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you[f] I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek God will praise God--
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to God,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before God,
28 for dominion belongs to God
and God rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before God--
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve God;
future generations will be told about God.
31 They will proclaim God’s righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
God has done it!
I do not think, at any point, I allowed myself to actually process the fact that a hateful, misogynistic sexual predator could become the President of the United States. And so this morning (or rather, in the middle of the night) when I read that Donald Trump is now president-elect, I felt blindsided--as if a stranger had walked right up to me and punched me in the gut. Today we are in mourning. But what about tomorrow?
What will the church do in light of the fact that our country will be lead by a man as morally devoid as Donald Trump?
I hear a lot of calls for unity. I see my acquaintances on facebook saying that now that the election is over, we should come together and forget about who voted for who. There are Christian churches and communities who are not lamenting over this tragedy. There are folks who are encouraging us to go to Thanksgiving and love on our sexist cousins, call up our racist grandpa, keep going to our churches that do not fight injustice, that perpetuate the ideas that people of different races, genders and sexual orientations are somehow less than straight, white men. "Don't make waves." "Keep the peace." And it is times like this that the words of Matthew 10 speak to me, as a pacifist.
Jesus said to his disciples,
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
And here is what I say: that it is a time to forgive and let go of harbored grudges and resentment. But it is also a time for people of faith to unite, for people who are committed to social justice and human rights to unite. It is time for us to take up our cross and act as the body of Christ and for us to practice a radical and dangerous discipleship that will make us unpopular and might get us cast out or killed. It is time for progressive communities to embrace pluralism and make this an interfaith stand for justice, and for the privileged in America to use their power to stand up to oppressive forces and leaders in our society, and we must remember that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against rulers and authorities.*
Today we mourn. But tomorrow, brothers and sisters, we act. We follow Jesus in speaking against oppressive church and government systems. We feed the hungry, care for the sick, provide refuge for the refugee, visit the prisoners, clothe the naked, and we use our collective voices and bodies to stand against oppression remembering that God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, and of love, and of self discipline.**
And so today, join me and the author of Psalm 77 as we pray:
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God; and she hears me.
On the day of my distress I am seeking Adonai;
my hands are lifted up;
my tears flow all night without ceasing;
my heart refuses comfort.
When remembering God, I moan;
when I ponder, my spirit fails.
You hold my eyelids [and keep me from sleeping];
I am too troubled to speak.
I think about the days of old,
the years of long ago;
in the night I remember my song,
I commune with myself, my spirit inquires:
“Will Adonai reject forever?
will he never show his favor again?
Has her grace permanently disappeared?
Is his word to all generations done away?
Has God forgotten to be compassionate?
Has she in anger withheld her mercy?”
Then I add, “That’s my weakness --
[supposing] the Most High’s right hand could change.”
So I will remind myself of Yah’s doings;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on your work
and think about what you have done.
** 2 Timothy 1:7