Today I am an angry preacher and this begins as an angry sermon.
Where was God 'the Super Interventionist Being Out There' in last week's carnage at the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi that killed at least 67 innocent women, men and children in an act of immense and senseless brutality by religious extremists?
Where was God 'the Super Interventionist Being Out There' over this past weekend in the senseless slaughter of agricultural students as they slept in their beds in Northern Nigeria - perpetrated by religious extremists?
Where was God 'the Super Interventionist Being Out There' in the killing of Mali troops by religious fanatics just 24 hours ago - committed by religious extremists?
Where is God 'the Super Interventionist Being Out There' in Pakistan's ongoing bombing of innocent women, men and children as they go about their ordinary activities of life - senseless killings at the hands of religious extremists?
Where has God 'the Super Interventionist Being Out There' been during the Syrian civil war over the past 18 months in which over 100,000 have been killed and more than 2,000,000 refugees are now living across the borders of that country?
Where has God 'the Super Interventionist Being Out There' been over recent months with the slaughter of at least 60 innocent Christian worshippers in Peshawar, and more in Nigeria's Kaduna Province and others in Egypt's Coptic communities - all at the hands of religious extremists?
Where has God 'the Super Interventionist Being Out There' been during the unmanned drone strikes upon religious and political militants in the West's so called 'war on terror' - attacks that have killed thousands of innocent women, men and children in attempts to wipe out militant leaders in open war zones including Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but also in covert wars in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen?
And where has God 'the Super Interventionist Being Out There' been over these past 65 years amidst the killings and land confiscations in Israel Palestine? Israel has the right to exist and to defend itself. Palestine has the right to exist and to defend itself. But God is neither Jew nor Muslim. God has to be something very different to the 'Super Interventionist Being Out There' to make sense to thinking people living in the post-modern world.
If God is the Super Interventionist Being Out There - the one proclaimed by Christian, Jew and Muslim primarily as a God of love, compassion, forgiveness and mercy, and then, somewhere way down the list of attributes, as a god of vengeance - then such a God is a monster for allowing such atrocities to take place in his name and to his praise. I have no wish to be associated or want to follow such a god as this.
And the cop out statement that attempts to answer the age old question of "Where was God in all of this?" - "God has given us free will and weeps as humans use their free will in such barbaric ways" - this is a nonsensical statement of the lazy who do not wish to think through the implications of a god of love allowing people to act with such impunity and inhumanity. Free will is an opt out that allows the uncomfortable realities of life to be swept under the carpet or heads to be buried in the sand. Such free will theology makes me really angry.
However, in my experience, if the Christian faith is about anything, it is concerned with constant death and constant resurrection. But this statement is not to be interpreted as condoning senseless war and violence in the name of this god or that god. It is about a way of life for individuals and communities - even for nation states. It involves struggling with one's own darker side, one's own shadow person rather than scapegoating one's failures upon others who can then be discriminated against, attacked or even destroyed. It is about recognising and naming the problem within before owning it and taking responsibility for putting it right. It is concerned with an internal struggle written about by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:15-25:
"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." [NIV]
Although I am sure that the Apostle Paul rightly understood the reality of the internal struggle I am not convinced that he had the right diagnosis! By offloading his inability to follow the ways of God as he understood them onto 'sin' he was not taking responsibility for his own failures to do what he believed was right. Off loading one's responsibilities in this way onto an external 'evil' called 'sin and the devil' is a failure to own the problem and to take responsibility to deal with the matter.
But this internal struggle is also a similar experience and explanation of 'jihad' for peace loving followers of Islam. This Inner Jihad is not a holy war against the infidel or concerned with destroying and killing 'bad' Muslims and non-Muslims. This greater Inner Jihad is an internal struggle to overcome the evil within so that one's will is turned around to come into line with the will of God. Is this not also the Christian understanding of repentance, to recognise and name the internal problem, to own it and then to take responsibility for it, to turn around and to come into line with the will of God?
The Christian message of constant death and constant resurrection is concerned with more than the Easter message. It is primarily about a way of daily living. We put to death that part of the self every time we struggle and overcome an inner failure. And when we do this we experience a resurrection in that the 'evil' for which we have taken responsibility has been overcome and removed from our daily living. It is then that we experience new life and resurrection.
There is no better symbolism of constant death and constant resurrection at this time of harvest in the Northern Hemisphere. Harvest is the time when one crop is gathered and brought so that another crop can be planted. This will burst into new life in the continuous cycle and circle of life. Harvest symbolises the fact that new choices and opportunities will always emerge like the phoenix from the fires of our own failures or disappointments from what has ended or is about to come to an end.
It is so easy for us, especially when facing the uncertainties of the future, to lose sight and awareness of the Spirit of God within us and within those whom we meet day by day. The challenge is always to be aware of the presence of the Spirit of God within us and caring for others and Creation through us. This has nothing to do with the fictitious human creation of the ''the Super Interventionist Being Out There" but it has everything to do with living the sacredness of life within us and about us. In this way religion becomes our servant and not our master. In this way community becomes sacred because it is in community that we really experience the depth of humanity. The deeper that we travel into humanity the more we will experience the presence, or as Rex Hunt calls it, the 'presentness' of the sacred. It is indeed the truth that the more we live the height and breadth of humanity then the more we will experience divinity.
I am preaching this sermon at the last Harvest Festival service to be held in this church. It is a sad day before your closure at the beginning of Advent. But even that is a statement of faith - it is a commitment to know and to experience that in the closure, in the death of this church fellowship and community, resurrection will follow for each one of you. Just as sure as Spring will follow Winter so the sacredness and the presentness of your future is assured.
As we look at the news on television or in our newspapers there is so much of which we can despair. And yet, here we are, divinely human, filled with sacredness, sisters and brothers of one another in the Spirit of God. And in that same Spirit we are sisters and brothers of Jesus of Nazareth!
This surely is a great truth of harvest time - no matter what we are or how we feel day by day, the great cycle of life goes on and we are parts in the greater scheme of things. We care pilgrims and travellers together sharing one another's anxiety of future uncertainty as well as the joys and abundant blessings of today. This is the 'ubuntu' of the Bantu languages of southern Africa - we are all in this together, all of us are in community so that when one suffers we all suffer and when one rejoices we all rejoice. In both the world wide community and within the community here, living as ubuntu people would have us working without ceasing to ensure that sacred blessings are shared equally with all God's people no matter where they live or the colour of their skin or the name by which they profess and explain their experiences of God.
Harvest is a proper time to give thanks to God for the abundance of life - but it is also a time to take stock of how we live as individuals and within community. It is a time to reflect and to commit to doing more to give dignity to those who have lost their dignity; to give hope to those who are without hope; to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty; to welcome the stranger; to clothe the naked; to take care of the sick and not to abandon the prisoners.
The sacredness that I experience and worship I name by the shorthand three letter word 'God'. This God is a god of abundance and blessing, of compassion and forgiveness, but it is no good for me to ask for forgiveness for my self interest and comfort gained on the backs of and at the expense of 2/3rds of this world who will go to bed tonight lacking in adequate food, health care and education; or those who continue to suffer as a result of war, violence and famine. It is no good asking for anyone's forgiveness unless I am actively working for justice, equality and fair shares of abundance for all people in this world.
Harvest is indeed a time of dying and of sowing afresh so that new life emerges, constantly reminding us that the world is not ours but is loaned to us for the benefit of the world's community, not just for us and not just for today but for future generations. We who follow the Way of Jesus have daily responsibilities for ourselves, for our families, and for our neighbours across the street and our neighbours throughout the world wide community.
So where is that which I call 'god' in all of this? 'God' is life itself. 'God' is the air we breathe and the ground beneath our feet. 'God' is the compassion that we share together as human beings. 'God' is the highest aspirations of humankind - and then more again. 'God' is always more than any individual person or corporate religion can explain. 'God' is you and me taking responsibility for self, for the welfare of others, and for Creation itself. This is the sacred truth as I understand it: all faith and all religions are concerned with constant death and constant resurrection.
In conclusion I remind you of the words of the 19th century proverb of the Cree First Nations People of North America: it is the truth and it is our responsibility of this harvest season, "Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money."
Copyright ©: 2013, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.