Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sermon for May 26, 2013; Numbers 25

Rev. George Miller
Numbers 25
“Text of Terror pt 1”
May 26, 2013

Today we discuss one of the most difficult scriptures one can encounter, and we are doing so when people are celebrating the start of summer and our nation is honoring our fallen soldiers.

It would have been easier to do a reading that seemed more patriotic or a story that was filled with sunshine and smiles.

But it’s been said that it is the difficult situations that make us grow and that some people do their best work when backed into a corner.

Today I have no choice but to call upon the Lord to ask that this is one of those moments in which I, in which we get to grow, and that today’s message, though doubtfully will be considered my best, will be good enough.

After hearing Numbers 25 read you are probably wondering “Why? Why are we hearing about it?” I’d wager that many people have never heard it before.

The reason why stems from conversations I have had over the last few months. People have been talking a lot about Islam. It seems most people don’t know about the religion, so they can only go by what they see and hear on the news, read in the paper or over the internet.

What we are most often exposed to are the radical acts; the uber-conservative side that bring about their reign of terror.

Rarely do we hear about the common, peaceful people who go about their day, just as we do, trying to do the best they can.

Political pundits, talk show hosts and people who like to hit “forward” on their e-mail without performing a fact-check will cite texts in the Koran that incite violence, which speak of horrible actions and a call for destroying the enemy.

“See,” people will say, “This is proof that they are all out to kill us.”

Yet the truth, if we are to be totally honest, is that we have the same kind of stories in our scripture.

The Bible which we call the Good Book, the Good News, is filled with story after story about God being angry, nations being punished and people being wiped out because of who they are, how they live and what they believe.

As a pastor who has been called to be your teacher and preacher, I can only say it is my fault if people do not know these stories.

I know they exist. As a Bible nerd I’ve read them many times. I’ve encountered them in my seminary training.

But how can I expect people to know what is in the Bible if I don’t share with you, or I shield you from the truth or act as if they do not exist?

Because they do exist. And this is just one of those stories, and I have struggled with what to talk about today. How much to share. What to hold back.

I could so easily spend our time going over the history of when this story was written and when it was supposed to take place.

I could delve into the theology, take the scripture apart bit by bit and talk about the theological truths that exist here and how to apply it to our lives.

I could approach this story as a giant metaphor. About the danger of becoming complacent in pop culture and how we need to slay sin if we are to live healthy, holy lives.

Yes, I could do all those things. But none of it will change the fact that we have a story in which

1) God is not only jealous but so angry that God can kill
2) Phinehas brutally murdered an interracial, interfaith couple while they are in the act of love making
3) Not only does God approve of the act, but God rewards Phinehas and his family with an eternal covenant of peace
4) God tells Moses to harass and defeat the Midianites, which they do in chapter 26.

For some it is too perplexing, too upsetting that a scripture like this even exists. Or that we, as a UCC church should even speak of it, much less on a day like today.

Just last week we celebrated the event of Pentecost in which Peter gives a sermon that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all flesh.

We start each and every worship service saying “No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.”

And we just heard the choir sing about the raining down of God’s mercy and how God’s works are worthy of trust.

Yet here is scripture telling us that not all are welcome; in fact it could be used to advocate the murder of anyone of a different faith or who engages in an inter-racial or inter-faith relationship.

And best believe that there are people who have committed such hate crimes, justifying their actions with such a story as this.

How would we feel if someone took today’s scripture and used it as the basis to judge all Jews and all Christians?

How would we feel if all our actions, all our words, our entire value as a people was based on today’s story alone?

The Bible, dear friends, is a book filled with tension. It is a sacred text that attempts its best to capture creation’s experience with God our Creator, Jesus our Savior and the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, I believe, the Bible gets it right; sometimes I feel like it gets it all wrong.

But even when it says something I am not comfortable about or disagree with, I do not throw it away.

Instead, I believe that we are to wrestle. We wonder what it’s about, what it is trying to say. We seek a way to find God’s voice. To discover the meaning that is underneath.

The Bible is a book in which we extend grace.

We understand it was written by different people in different cultures living in different times who were trying to make sense of everything that was happening around them and just where God was and how God acts.

Sometimes they use images which portray God as a warlord who wants to wipe out others.

Sometimes they portray God as a compassionate soldier who is protecting the children.

Sometimes God is a shepherd who wants to lead us beside still waters and give us rest in green pastures.

Sometimes God is so angry and disappointed in us that it seems easier to wipe us out with one good flood or plague.

So we wrestle with these tensions. Instead of ignoring scriptures like Numbers 25 we ask what they mean and what we can learn.

We also ask what it is that we are accountable for. Are there things in our own faith that have lead to the harm of others? Are there times in history where what we professed held others down?

After all it was Christians during the crusades who killed anyone they deemed a heathen. It was Christians who saw fit to enslave the African and force Native Americans onto reservations.

It was Hitler, a baptized Catholic, who caused the annihilation of 6 million Jews not to mention gypsies and those deemed unworthy of life.

It has been Christian churches that have said women were unfit to preach and there are churches that will sever ties with the Boy Scouts because they have said that gay youth can belong.

Should we, as Christians, be judged for all the events that have taken place using our name?

Should we, as followers of God, be judged solely on a few biblical texts taken out of context?

As a pastor, as a preacher, as a theologian, I invite us to do something more. That we are to look at the big picture.

That we do not focus on just one text, nor do we focus on just one event, but the whole story. The story that is told in the Bible from the first verse of Genesis to the last verse of Revelation.

That story is one that says in the beginning before there was anything else there was God.

It says that over the waters of chaos God’s Spirit moved and God spoke and from God came forth life, and in all its diversity, life is good.

That story says that in the end, when all else is gone, there will still be God. Chaos will be no more, the Lord will be our light, and it will be good.

The story says that when we were in the garden God was there. When we were enslaved God was there.

When we were wanderers God was there. When we were home God was there.

When we were exiled and trying to remember who we were, God was there. When we had times of comfort and enough God was there.

And when the time was right, God came to us in the form Emmanuel, vulnerable, alive, and free.

In Emmanuel we experienced who God truly is.

In Jesus we saw someone who cared about the sick, who showed compassion to the poor, who forgave sins, who ate with and socialized with those who were different, those who had been deemed unworthy.

In Jesus we encounter a God who does not spear another because of their sin, but a God who is willing to be speared if that’s what it takes to show how much we are adored.

And in the story of Pentecost we witness how the Holy Spirit is a gift to all people, for all people, regardless of race, age, sex or status.

Today’s scripture is indeed an uncomfortable one. It is not easy to speak, hear, or to teach about in just a few minutes.

Fortunately it is not the lone story about God that we have; it is not the one instance of which to base our faith.

So I leave us with more questions.

What is Christ calling us to do? How is Christ calling us to live? Who is Christ calling us to love?

Is it just those who look like us? Those who live like us? Those who believe like us?

Are there those we deem worthy of grace and forgiveness? Are there those that we deem not worthy at all?

Who do we point our spears at? When do we pound our swords into plowshares?

I can’t answer those. But I can share what I know and ask the difficult questions.

I can also invite us as a congregation to continue calling upon God, to seek out the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to try every day to be a bit more like Jesus Christ: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our Lord and one another.

Amen and amen.

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