Monday, January 23, 2012

Beautiful People in a Pickle

Sermon preached on January 22, 2012

Texts: Genesis 1:26-27, 31; Romans 3:9-18, 23

What went wrong? They were 15-1, having lost only one game all season. They have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, a man who has a good chance of being the league MVP. Their offense has been picking apart defenses all season long. But in their first playoff game this year, the Green Bay Packers looked out of sorts, played flat, and lost badly. What went wrong? Rabid Viking fans, who believe loyalty to the Vikings means disliking anything Green Bay should not gloat. At least the Packers made the playoffs.
It was the grandest ship of its time, the largest passenger steamship in the world – 882 feet long, designed to carry over 3,500 passengers and crew. J.P. Morgan was among the financiers of the project. Its construction began in 1909. It was designed by experienced engineers using the most advanced technologies and included extensive safety features. It was also designed for luxury. The Titanic was justly celebrated when it left Ireland on its maiden voyage April 10, 1912, but days later, April 15, it sunk, and over 1,500 people lost their lives. What went wrong? Our fascination with this doomed ship has been long-standing.
The reach of human into space has been among our most amazing accomplishments. In 1969 (July 20), we landed on the moon (Apollo 11). When our moon visits ended, we continued to explore space through space shuttles. What amazing technology. The Challenger was NASA’s second space shuttle, beginning flights in April 1983. By January 28, 1986 it had successfully completed nine flights into space. The Challenger had taken the first woman into space, and the first African-American. NASA had promoted the idea of taking a qualified civilian into space, and on its tenth flight, teacher Christa McAuliffe was part of the crew. January 28, 1986, the flight of Challenger lasted 73 seconds before it exploded before our incredulous eyes. What went wrong?
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”…. So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created, male and female…. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed it was very good.
What went wrong? Human beings, male and female, created in the in the image of God, in the words of the Psalmist made “a little lower than God” (8:5), human beings seem to have messed up some. We, who have been created in the image of God, have in turn created gulags to punish those with whom we disagree, re-education camps to stifle opposition, concentration camps to exterminate whole groups of people. We split the atom and then used the discovery to create weapons of mass destruction, or used the discovery to generate power, but not always safely – as at Chernobyl. We have enslaved each other. We have dehumanized each other. We see the image of God in those like us, but fail to see it in others who are different. We perpetuate not only large injustices, but engage in small cruelties. What went wrong?
Sometimes we are simply an enigma to ourselves. We are perplexed and baffled by our own actions. We are unsolvable puzzles, inscrutable mysteries, impenetrable riddles. And sometimes we feel trapped by life, caught in painful patterns, or feeling small and insignificant. What went wrong?
Sometimes what goes wrong is almost laughable. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is shared by different Christian traditions – Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox . On December 28, the annual cleaning of the church, one of Christianity's holiest, deteriorated into a brawl between rival clergy, as dozens of monks feuding over sacred space, battled each other with brooms until police intervened. The fight erupted between Greek and Armenian clergy, with both sides accusing each other of encroaching on parts of the church to which they lay claim.
Created as beautiful people, we often find ourselves in a pickle. Today I am beginning a sermon series on central themes in the Christian faith – questions people of God who follow Jesus ask, and am focusing on the Christian view of the human situation. I think “beautiful people in a pickle” is a good way to summarize the Christian view of the human situation. There is something essentially good and beautiful about us. We are created in the image of God. God calls us good. At the same time, there is this sense that we are hurting, ailing, in a predicament, in a pickle. From a Christian point of view something has gone wrong. Scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts it succinctly: “Human history and individual introspection both show that there is something awry with humanity” (Belief, 211). By the way, most religious traditions share this sense that something goes wrong in human life, but that’s another topic for another day.
There is a word in the Bible, a short word, but a heavy one, that tries to get at this reality in human existence. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Yes, that word – “sin.” It is not my favorite word, and in many ways we can get by without using it. Yet we need to understand this part of the Christian view of the human situation if we are to understand so much else about Christian faith – about God, Jesus, church and faith. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her thought-provoking book Speaking of Sin writes of the word “sin” and related biblical terms – “the realities they point to are still very much with us, and we need to know their names” (7).
The problem with the word “sin” is that it has been drained of its richer meaning. The full biblical meaning of sin is simply that we humans often find ourselves in a pickle. Something has gone wrong that gets in the way of our relationship with God, with others and with our own potential as creatures created a little lower than God. Sin has come to mean only that we have done wrong, that we have violated God’s commandments, that we deserve some kind of punishment, and that we need forgiveness. That’s too simplistic. It does not capture our human experience of what can go wrong in our lives and in our world that gets in the way of our relationship with God, others and our own potential.
To be sure, sometimes we do wrong and need forgiveness. That is part of our experience, and my guess is, part of everyone’s experience at some time or another. Here are some other problematic experiences. We feel trapped in a life that is painful, or in life patterns that are harmful to self and others (addictions are a good example). We may have done some things that contribute to this pattern, but we also feel trapped beyond our own ability to act. We are bound and need freedom.
We don’t see very well. We cannot seem to see the world beyond our own limited experience of it and so are blinded to some of the world’s pain and some of its beauty. We can contribute to our own short-sightedness, but sometimes we may not even see our lack of sight. We are blind and need to see.
We lack connection to others, to God, and maybe even to important parts of our own lives. Alienation is the word that gets used here – emotional isolation, withdrawal, hostility. Relationships are broken, sometimes by things we have done, and sometimes because of wider social and cultural trends – racism is a form of alienation. Relationships are broken and require reconciliation.
We are wounded. Life has hurt us, left scars. Sometimes our wounds are self-inflicted. We are wounded and in need of healing.
Life, even our own lives have left us feeling perplexed, baffled, lost. We are complex creatures. One of the most insightful books I have ever read about being human is Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Becker notes that as human beings we have incredible capacities to think and create and imagine, and yet one of the things we know about ourselves is that we will die (48). We are perplexed by this, and don’t manage this knowledge well. Or we may not feel at home in our own skins or our own circumstances. Sometimes we have done things that have gotten us even more lost. We are lost and need to find a way home.
I have spoken of these realities in mostly individual terms, but there are social dimensions to many of them. Doing wrong often affects the wider world, especially when the wrong-doer is powerful. Forces that trap us may be socially created. Our blindnesses may have cultural roots, as can those things which alienate us from others. Some of the wounds we suffer are socially created. I have read some articles in recent months on the emotional effects of unemployment, particularly on men.
So if this is the human predicament, beautiful people in a pickle, we need something – meaningful forgiveness, a power that can frees us from that which traps us, a patient presence that can open our eyes and the eyes of our hearts, a love that reconciles, a touch that heals, perspective for our perplexity, a light that shines so that we can find our way home, the warmth of a home. We need someone who sees our genuine beauty and helps us see the beauty in ourselves and in the world.
Christians have a name for what we need as beautiful people in a pickle. We trust there is a Presence who offers meaningful forgiveness, a freeing power, a healing touch, a light that shines, a centering perspective, the warmth of home – One who sees our beauty and desires that we see it too, One who wants to work with us to make the world more beautiful.
Christians call this Presence God and we say, that above all else, God is love, and that love embraces each of us. Stay tuned. Amen.

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