Sunday, October 12, 2014
Is it easier to hug another person or to avoid being involved with that other person? This is kind of tricky. Some folks are huggers: they just hug everybody. For others, it is less certain. Maybe they came from a family of hand-shakers. Maybe in their experience, there has not been much physical affection. It could be their culture is not as affectionate as other cultures. I went through a phase in my early 20’s where the only real contact I wanted with other people was of the violent kind that came in rugby matches; no hugging or affection! I walked around proudly showing off my bruises and blackened eyes. Then I went on a trip to Mexico. All the men hugged me and all the women kissed me. I had more affection in one week than two years. It was great.
But, be careful with this. In my life now, in the sexual climate of the United States, I have to be aware of how my actions could be perceived. It would be foolishly irresponsible for me to be oblivious to how someone might interpret what I do or how I do it. I hug female friends, but I also watch for cues or hints that someone might misunderstand my intentions.
Hugging comes with risks. Innuendo is one. Vulnerability is another, and here I mean literally the act of the embrace, and metaphorically, the posture of embrace. The best book out there on this is titled Exclusion and Embrace by theologian Miroslav Volf. To present yourself to another, arm open, face inviting, heart expectant is to let your defenses down. You have opened the gate in the wall that is safeguarding your heart. You are saying to the other, this is how close I want to be. I want to pull your body to me. This is not sexual. It is intimate. Intimacy scares us. Vulnerability scares us.
It is also risky. What if you decide the hug is worth it, the relationship is worth it and the other feels differently. You open, and the other closes. Now what? Are you embarrassed? I certainly am when that happens. It definitely does happen. I am left there, arms opened. More significantly, I have opened my heart, and the other’s closed posture is an unmistakable message. Stay back. Stay at a distance. I do not want you close to me – not in body, not in spirit.
Mistaken intentions, unwanted vulnerability, terrifying intimacy, needless risk – is the posture of embrace worth it? We could leave the gate in the wall locked up tight. We could protect ourselves by never opening ourselves to anyone. A lot of people live this way, emotions withheld, arms stiff, bodies rigid; it is a cold way to be.
To live rejecting embrace – this is so isolating. Those who live this way lose the art of living in relationship and God made us to live in relationship. To live in a perpetual defense mode keeping the world at bay is to say to the creator God, I know you made me to walk with others, but I cannot. We all go through seasons in which we shut others out. Sometimes solitude is necessary. But if rejection becomes our life, we in effect say to God, I know you created me for relationship, but it hurts too much. I have been beaten up by lovers, by friends, by family, and by strangers. I cannot do it. Then your experience becomes more powerful in defining your life than God’s wisdom.
Yes, embrace is confusing, exposing, intimate, and risky. It is all those things. If you choose to embrace others and relationships of love with other humans who sin as much you do, you will get bruised and burned. You will also be living in the way God created you to live – life in relationship. I intend to show that faith is comprised of a life in which we live by God’s designs even when our experience would suggests this is not always the best idea. No, it is not easier to hug than to not hug. But it is better. Embrace is the pathway to life lived as people who are made in the image of God.
Is it easier to worship God or to rely on the self? I know that I am asking it in the midst of a worship service. The answer might seem painfully obvious. But, let us look at it.
When we truly worship – worship in spirit and in truth as Jesus says (John 4) – certain realities are in play. First, we really believe there is a force, a personality, a being, a reality present – one we cannot necessarily see, feel, or hear. But this thing – God – is here. We set ourselves up for a diagnosis of some mental illness. We gather, study, sing to, pray to, and give our allegiance to this empty space that we claim is occupied by … what? God. What is God?
Moreover, we not only claim God is real. We also assert God is all powerful. Dina typed out the worship bulletin. Starlyn selected the songs – song that were written by people, humans and sung by the humans you see up on the stage. I wrote this sermon. Yet, we all conspire to say God is the one who is in control. Are we sure? Are you? If we are truly worshipping, we have to be pretty convinced that this whole idea of God is real.
Yet, we cannot be because doubt always has seat in our gatherings. Some Sundays, you are so in touch with God, you feel a light and see a heat in the sanctuary that normal human senses could not perceive. You don’t need convincing any more than you would need someone to prove water is wet. Some Sundays, you know God. But someone a few rows behind you isn’t so sure. He got himself here. He came. The effort to do that was all he could muster. He is right now hearing this sermon and thinking, oh, I don’t know. This whole thing might be a farce.
He leaves less convinced than when he came in. But then, over time, he sees God. Others don’t what he’s talking about, but he knows it is God. And in a month, he’s back in church and it is real. By then, things have happened in your life, and your faith is being hit by gale force winds and you are unsure. Is this house built on drifting sand or a firm foundation? You do not know. Then there is the Sunday where you are sure and your friend is sure and everyone here is absolutely sure of the reality and presence and love and power of God; everyone except the pastor. He or she has days of doubt too.
To worship is to acknowledge uncertainty. If we want a positive spin, we say it is mystery. That sounds nice. But often mystery is scarier than it is inviting because it is mysterious.
I mentioned the power of God. That’s another thing to acknowledge when we are trying to figure out if a life of worship is easier than a life in which we eschew worship. When we worship, we are bowing, whether we literally go to our knees or not. We say that God is the one in charge, the one with the power, not us. Do we want to say that? Do we want to name our weakness? Do we want to confess sins? Do we want to have to ask the unseen, unfelt, all powerful one for blessing? Is life easier like this?
No! No, if we put our hearts into worship, life is not easier. I say this not because getting up for church on Sundays is all that difficult. It is not. Thousands of people get up every Sunday, go church, and they do this without fail all their lives. Not all of them truly worship, truly pour their hearts before God. For many this is just part of the weekly routine. If we really believe God is here right now, there can be nothing routine about this moment. If we seriously think God is all-knowing, we cannot hold anything of ourselves back in this moment of worship. To hold back would be a pointless waste of the time, time in God’s presence.
I say a life of worship is not easy because it is a life in which we give up control. We pray, often very specifically, but God chooses when and how to answer. We seek, but it is God’s decision as to how God will reveal God’s self. God calls us by God’s initiative. Worship, in one sense, is an exercise in waiting. In hope and in faith, worship is a life of waiting to see what God will do in the world and how God will involve us in what God is doing. Of course that is not all worship is. Some might take great offense at this definition. Fine. Take offense. Or embrace the definition and get to waiting, but always waiting in faith, expectantly, and hopefully.
No, this life of worship will not feel easier than a life of ignoring God. It is though better than the godless life because God does act. God is involved in the world. God indeed does call us before we ever step toward Him in worship. Giving ourselves to a life of worship does not guarantee we’ll be in the starting lineup on God’s team. But it does orient us toward God – the God of infinite grace and infinite love, the God who calls us to be His sons and daughters. Living in worship is better than avoiding God. Living in worship points us to Him. However it plays out, to choose the opposite of worship is to choose to turn away from God’s love.
I have made the claim that embrace while not easier is better than a relationless life. It is better to choose embrace. I have made the claim that to live in worship while not easier is better than a godless life. It is better to live in worship.
What did Jesus name as the two greatest commandments? Love the Lord your God with all your, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. Obeying this by loving God begins in worship. The second of the commands Jesus names is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Neighbor-love begins when commit ourselves to embrace.
The prophet Ezekiel did his work about 600 years before Jesus came on the scene. But what Jesus said about God-love and neighbor-love was as true in Ezekiel’s days as in Jesus’. In God’s view of how the world ought to work, God-love and neighbor-love are absolute truths going back to the very beginning, Adam and Eve. Ezekiel’s prophecies come after God had determined that his people, the nation of Israel, had worshiped idols of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.
Idolatry is at the root of all sin. Idolatry is giving worship that belongs to God to someone or something other than God. It is a failure of Jesus’ first command – the command to love God. This failure always leads to a failure of the second command – the failure to love people.
Ezekiel was an Israelite priest, but he lived in Babylon. The Babylonians had overrun Jerusalem, defeated the Israelites in battle and enslaved the most powerful among the people. Are you one of the educate elite among the Israelites? Off to slavery in exile in Babylon you go! Are you an army officer? Off you go to exile. One of the religious leaders, a priest? Off you go!
The first 25 chapters of Ezekiel are comprised of prophetic allegories Ezekiel wrote and shared among the exiles in Babylon. He graphically tells of God’s punishment. Israel practiced idolatry, exploitation, and host of other sins and did so for many generations.
In Ezekiel 16, the prophet likens Israel to Sodom. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is found in Genesis 19. Abraham’s cousin Lot is lives in Sodom. Along with its sister city Gomorrah, Sodom is known for sexual excess and perversion. God is going to wipe out both cities, but first, Lot and his family must be rescued.
Angels come to extract Lot, but when the men of Sodom see the angels, they have other ideas. These angels appear as human men. The men of Sodom are going to spend the night raping them. Lot shelters the men in his home not knowing that it is they who will rescue him, not the other way around.
At daybreak, the angels hustle Lot out of town and then Sodom and Gomorrah are obliterated by fire from Heaven. Some interpreters believe this story is a condemnation of homosexuality. The men of Sodom intended to have relations with these angels whom they took to be men also. That would be rape, a crime of violence that is sexual in nature but not the same thing as consensual homoerotic relationships. The Sodom account definitely relates to sexual purity, but it would be wrong to hold this up as a cornerstone defense in arguing that homosexuality is sinful. It would be wrong because it would be missing the point of the story.
Other readers make the case that the real failure in Sodom was a failure of hospitality. There clearly is this failure by the men of town. They want to take something from the visitors instead of offering shelter and food to the visitors. Just as there was sexual sin involved in the story, there is the failure to care for travelers. But again to say the Sodom account is primarily about the sin of not showing hospitality is to focus on a detail instead of the overarching theme.
The overarching theme is faithfulness to God. This is seen in worship and neighbor-love. In Ezekiel 16, the prophet says to the people of God who now wallow as slaves in exile, “The people of Sodom … were never as sinful as you. … They had everything they needed [yet] they refused to help the poor and needy” (from Ez. 16:48-49, CEV). In the verses leading up to this, Ezekiel rails against the exiles for idolatry (see v. 36). Both idolatry (failure of God-love) and Sodom (failure of neighbor-love) enrage God.
In verse 60, God reminds the beleaguered exiles that he has not abandoned them. They have not stopped being God’s people. They are just under God’s heavy hand of discipline. God will one day fulfill all his promises to Israel. We Christians believe that day came in the life of Jesus, his death on the cross, his resurrection, and his sending of the Holy Spirit. He is God’s final answer to sin. He defines worship and embrace, God-love and neighbor-love for us.
We live awaiting the final consummation of the Kingdom – Jesus’ return, the resurrection of all the dead when those in Christ will enter the Kingdom and those not in Christ will be banished. That’s coming.
Until then, we bear witness to the goodness of God, and we do it in a posture of embrace as we love our neighbors. As we await Jesus’ return, we worship, loving God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
In the commentary on Ezekiel Franz Delitzsch and Carl Friedrich Keil translate the Biblical text into German. Later, James Martin, translated their work into English. His rendering of their translation of Ezekiel 16:48 sets for me a concept that is the essence of what it is to love in God-love and neighbor-love, worship and embrace.
“Behold this was the sin of Sodom, [your] sister, [Israel]; pride, super abdundance of food, and rest had she with her daughters, and the hand of the poor and needy she did not hold” (p.219). The hand of the poor and needy, she did not hold.
We can learn from Israel’s mistake by asking God to help us see the needy in our midst – the spiritually needy, those who suffer from poverty of relationships, and the emotionally needy. Whatever actions of love we show to help someone come from hearts that beat with love for God. We have embraced His Gospel when it is said of us they held the hand of those who needed to be held.
Open your arms in embrace. Bend your knee in worship. Live in God-love and neighbor-love. Bear witness to the Kingdom God and the Lordship of Jesus by holding someone’s hand.