Delivered at Ames UCC on September 1, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.
How much bigger than us will we allow God to be? In our imaginations, how much mystery will we allow for in our concept of the divine? What is our tolerance level for contradiction In how we conceive of the workings of a holiness apart and incarnate? Does our notion of God let everyone be a child of God no matter their behavior?
Let’s start our search for answers with two Biblical characters.
In the book of Judges we learn about a man called Jephthah, described as a Gildeadite son of a prostitute. Jephthah was a warrior who got kicked out of his homeland because of his maternity but was then brought back when his people were in danger. Jephthah then makes a vow to God that if he wins a coming battle he will sacrifice as a burnt offering the first person he meets on coming home.
Now, who is the first person you meet when you come home? Roommate, cat, dog, spouse, kid, parent? Do you know who first walked out of Jephthah’s door after winning the war? His daughter, his one and only child. Jephthah’s daughter comes out of their home singing and dancing only to be sentenced to the pyre. And, after a brief wilderness sojourn with other women, that is where she goes.
There are several possible lessons in the story, like don’t take vows lightly. That’s an extension of the teaching not to take God’s name in vain. Oaths made in God’s name must be kept so don’t toss them out there. It could also be about not assuming God is on your side: We have no indication that God acted in any way on Jephthah’s behalf at all or in response to this promised offering. And the storytellers could have easily added that comment over time and iterations. Lastly, it may also be a story to explain a preexisting cultural practice, a just-so story. Not human sacrifice, but the women’s wilderness retreat that Jephthah’s daughter took before her death.
Regardless of those interpretations, we are left with a man who kills his child. A beloved child of God. How can Jephthah still be in God’s circle of love when he made such a wanton, idiotic, thoughtless promise? Surely some people cease through their actions to be beloved of God.
In the Gospel of Mark, Judas is presented as one of the chosen male disciples. He is gifted by Jesus with the power to spread the good news of God’s present kin-dom and to cast out demons. Then, as all of the gospels describe, Judas betrays Jesus.
At first we don’t know why. In Mark’s gospel, the oldest of the four, Judas just turns Jesus in with no explanation. But with each successive gospel, we are given reasons. But in Matthew, he does it for financial reward. In Luke, Judas betrays Jesus for the money and because he is possessed by a ha-satan. In John, Judas is likewise possessed and has been stealing from the disciples’ common purse. The outcome for Judas is death by suicide in Matthew and bodily explosion in Luke.
Does Judas remain a child of God?
A lot of ink and air has been spent answering that one. The Gospel of Judas, for example, asserts that he is the most hallowed of all the disciples because he did God’s dirty deed. In other assessments, Judas did something so very wrong that God abandoned him for all time. And in others still, Judas did something very wrong and God stayed with him, both loving and mourning.
So that’s scripture, now let’s look at Texas.
ODESSA & MIDLAND
Is the newest in our obscenely long list of gunmen in mass shootings, this time in Odessa and Midland, a beloved child of God? When he turned a traffic stop into a mobile rampage, did he move himself beyond God’s care?
Our answer to that questions, as well as the question of Jephthah and Judas, likely reveals more about us than God. When we are confronted with base acts, these utterly human grotesqueries, how we locate bad actors and God in the midst usually demonstrates how hard we work to keep God near but put distance between us and those we want to believe are utterly unlike us.
Because when we keep Judas and gunmen demonic, we can ignore the demons we all wrestle with. We can also keep God exclusively on our side. Just like Jephthah. And that worked out for him, right?
See what love the Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children…
When our unknown author wrote these words, it was likely during a fight about the nature of Jesus’ body and the reason for his death. If you read the whole letter you will see that the author has no qualms about saying who is outside of God’s love.
But taken out of context, I think the author is making a jarring and genuine argument about a God for which there are no outsides. As much as our human religion and our own minds tell us those people out there are scum but we are saints, I pray that God is better and bigger than our squabbles and schisms and semi-automatics. I pray that the most evil-acting among us remain beloved children of God.
Now, don’t mistake me, I am NOT saying that there are fine people on both sides. A person can be a child of God and still be a violent perpetrator, a promoter of hate, a living nightmare. But if we are all—including Jephthah and Judas and gunmen—if we are all God’s children, all of the time, there is no one we can write off as evil apart. It is being siblings in God that informs our obligation to creation and our accountability to each other.
In our faith story we hear that we bear some of the likeness of God, not the other way around. Thank God. Because it is faith in that greater than, that more than, that immeasurably different-ness, that not-possible-to-discern-ness, that we can set aside a religion of self-soothing staleness and find the disquieting force for creative change that we need today.
The passage says, “God is greater than our hearts.” God is greater than our hearts angry, hearts numb, hearts dumb, and hearts broken. And that is why, on yet another bloody Sunday, I can still say thanks be to God.