Return To Sender

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 10 I Corinthians 10:11-13 and Isaiah 43:1-7.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

In 1962 Elvis Presley made a fairly forgettable movie entitled Girls, Girls, Girls in which he sang one of his best-selling songs, Return to Sender. I bet that many of you have heard this little ditty, which presupposes a reality wherein one party attempts to give another a message or letter, but the second party refuses, saying that she wants nothing to do with either the message or the one who sent it.

That song and phrase came to my mind as I was considering the theme of this week’s message. I don’t know about the stuff that you have to worry about when you go into work. I suppose that it’s an occupational hazard for construction workers to have debris fall on them, or for a fisherman to fall overboard, or for a nurse to get accidentally stuck by a needle. One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that you have to smile blandly through all kinds of terrible theology.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking with someone through a situation that is simply horrible – a devastating medical diagnosis, the sudden death of one who was greatly loved, the loss of a job… and some well-meaning person comes alongside and says, “Well, just remember… God won’t give you more than you can handle…”

And maybe it’s because it’s September and football season is upon us, but when I hear that I want to get out my little yellow bandanna and yell, “Flag on the play! That right there is a theology foul. You’re not allowed to say anything else for fifteen minutes!” Have you heard that one before? In keeping with our September theme of “Half Truths”, there is something that is vaguely spiritual and maybe even true-ish about this, but really, there are just so many reasons why this phrase is wrong…

Before we get to the theological foul, though, let’s consider where it might come from. Why do people say it, and how might they think that it’s connected to the Bible?

Romans During the Decadence, Thomas Couture (1847)

When God called the Apostle Paul to share the good news of Christ’s love in Europe, one of the places that Paul went was the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was an important center of shipping and commerce, and a real “melting pot” of the Roman Empire. There were all sorts of people with all kinds of ideas from all over the world who had gathered there. In many ways, Corinth was a “Navy Town” – a lot of sailors in and out, many of them looking to have a good time while they were ashore. In fact, in 50 AD if you were to say that someone was “living like a Corinthian”, you meant to imply that they were drunk and promiscuous.

In this context, Paul tries to launch a little church. He writes to those who had come to believe that they are to live lives centered in the holiness of God and the love of Christ. They respond, apparently, by saying, “Um, Paul, do you remember what it’s like here? How in the world can we stay faithful in a place like this? There’s no way we can be the kinds of people God wants us to be when we are surrounded by this kind of decadence and decay.”

Paul reminds them that it is possible to say “no”, and that, in fact, “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength…” In other words, the Apostle is saying, when you are going about your daily business, you can always do what is right. God will not place you in a position where it is impossible for you to be a disciple.

And somehow, “God won’t send you to a place where it is impossible to be faithful” has shifted to “Anything that happens to you is from God and he will pull you through it.” That is, essentially, what we are saying when we say “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, right? If you wake up one morning and you have this huge ball of ugliness staring you in the face, this is the “truth” to which many would have you turn: You have to get through this… after all, God won’t give you more than you can handle, right?

Just think about that for a moment, and then think about this week’s news, or your life. That hurricane that just wiped out your town… That unspeakable event that occurred when you were nine…and eleven…and thirteen… Those cancer cells that are tearing apart your loved one’s brain… Are they “gifts” from God? Did God send them to people? Did God give them?

If we say that “God won’t give me more than I can handle”, then we’re saying that any and all pain and struggle and dis-ease I might experience is, in fact, a gift from God.

And if hurricanes, abuse, and cancer are sent… do we have the option of simply refusing delivery and saying, “Return to sender….”? Can we say, “That is not acceptable. I want a different life, please…”

I suspect that some of you have tried that strategy. In the words of the famous theologian, Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?”

Here’s the truth: I often turn to I Corinthians 10 when I am faced with a moral choice, or when I want to give up in the face of adversity. These verses are really helpful to me – as they were intended to be to the original recipients – when I am trying to chart a course of moral behavior in the midst of confusing times. This message from Paul is a great reminder that you and I have the power to choose how we might respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.

But when I need to make sense of a situation in which some part of my world is apparently going to hell in a handbasket, I find that Isaiah 43 is more useful. Here, the prophet is speaking to a group who have witnessed and lived through the unspeakable. They are returning from an exile in a foreign land, and they see the devastation of their homes. They have to be asking themselves and each other, “What’s going on here? Is YHWH really in charge? Or are the gods of Babylon and Assyria more powerful? What has happened? What are we going to do?”

Isaiah begins by anchoring his message in who God is – God is sovereign and mighty. God is the force behind all that is – God is the creator. More than that, YHWH is a God of power. He calls us by name – we do not have to invent ourselves, God tells us who we are. And then, after we understand who God is and who we are, the prophet tells us where God is. God is with us, it says in verse 3. Do you remember the phrase that Isaiah used earlier to describe the presence of God? Immanuel. God with us.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and our God – is not a deity who sits on a lofty throne, scoffing at the creation, occasionally tossing lightning bolts at people when they get out of line. Far from it.

In fact, Isaiah names the fears that these vulnerable people have: the rising flood waters, the burning flames – elements that will consume us in a heartbeat – and says, “When (not IF) these things happen, I am with you.

Why? Why would YHWH, why would our God, act this way? The answer to that comes at the very center of today’s reading, verse 4: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

I want to show you a graphic that I made up while I was studying this passage. I know that it’s a lot of words, and it’s a little nerdy, but remember that I was an English Major in college, and that you love me. I want to show you how the shape of Isaiah 43 reinforces the meaning.

This passage appears to be written in the form of a chiasm – that is, a literary style where there is a key point that is surrounded by a series of mirrored phrases or themes. If I’m right about this, then the core message of Isaiah 43:1-7 is that you are loved and cared for by God – the God who promises to be with you, who calls to you, and who has in fact created you. This passage starts and ends with the power of God in creation, but is centered on the notion that wherever you are, God is right there with you.

If that’s true, then, the promise is not that “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, but rather “Whatever mess you find yourself in right now, you can get through, because you are not alone.” You can have strength for the battles you fight every day; you can have endurance and stamina for the daily grind; and you can have hope for the days and situations that you cannot yet see.

I began this message by citing Elvis Presley, and suggesting that there might be times where we wish we could take some portion of our life and mark it “return to sender – no such number…” Perhaps the message of this morning needs to be a reminder that it is, in fact, we who are being “returned to sender”. Could that be what is being said in the last few verses of our reading from Isaiah? That God will call all that he has made, everything that bears his name, and that he will give an ultimate place, context, and home to the creation?

Hear me, people of God – I do not want to get all “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye” on you. I do not want to say, “Oh, come on, you can make it – I mean, it won’t matter that you’re suffering now because heaven is going to be so great.” That is not what I’m saying here.

However, we must realize that there is always more to our lives, the workings of the world, and the movement of the creation, than we can see. We confess that our perspective is limited and finite, but that God’s is neither. I think that means that we come to worship trusting in the ultimate and eternal intentions of our creator even as we do our best to face the challenges of any particular day.

So to those of you who are feeling as though you are stuck in a place of unspeakability right now – those of you who find that it is difficult to see much of anything in terms of God’s eternal purpose and design… let me simply encourage you to hold God to his promise. Here’s a prayer you can use: “God, you said that you love me. You said that you’d be with me. How are you with me? Where is your love?” Ask God those questions.

And to those of you are are not stuck right now, but live in a world that is filled with horrible places, let me encourage you to ask God how you might be an answer to the prayers that his children are calling into the darkness. If you have the presence and love of God, you can share that love and presence. And when you’re in the grip of terror or pain, sometimes just being with someone who can bear witness to the presence and love is enough. So please, beloved, ask God where you need to show up in the days to come.

God doesn’t “give” hurricanes, or drunk drivers, or abuse. And yet our lives are interrupted by those things in ways that seem horrible. Thanks be to God that God does give us each other. And thanks be to God that God does promise his love and his presence. May we share those things in abundance as we encounter the trials of this day, this week, and this year. Amen.

Who’s In Charge Here?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 28, we from that work (Job 2:1-7) and thought about the ultimate source of power in the universe.   We also considered wisdom from The 46th Psalm.

If you were planning a trip to Los Angeles and Googled “Things to do in Hollywood”, you’d come across a slew of advertisements for a “behind the scenes” tour. My sense is that you’d know what this is, right? Whether we’re talking about making movies or automobiles or factory farming, if I offer you a “behind the scenes” look into something, you’d expect what? A glimpse into the reality that underlies the finished product. Instead of seeing only the feature film or the 1965 Mustang or chicken breasts at 3.98/pound, you’d see what has to happen to make those things possible in our world, right?

Our reading from the Book of Job is one of the places that presents a “behind the scenes” glance into the Divine realm. What does God do all day, we wonder? How does eternal wisdom work?

Satan Before the Throne Of God (William Blake, 1825)

Satan Before the Throne Of God (William Blake, 1825)

Job 1 and Job 2 both contain narratives describing a “heavenly council” – a gathering of Divine or celestial beings at which the affairs of creation are discussed. As we consider these passages this morning, let me remind you that we’re approaching the book of Job as an important story that tells us something that is ultimately true. The point of this story is not so much in the specific details, but rather its attempt to describe for us the underlying reality on which our lives are based.

And having said that, before I consider the story as we hear it in Job, I’d like to mention at least two other stories that point to what happens behind the scenes of the intersection of the unseen eternal reality and our day-to-day lives.

In the world in which Job was written, the ancient Near East, most religions held to the notion that all of the various gods got together once a year – often on New Year’s Day – and determined the fate of individual humans for the year to come. In Mesopotamia, this meant that dozens and dozens of gods would gather in some heavenly location. Each of these gods was associated with a particular city or region, and each of them also had a particular area of expertise or dominance.

The gods of Mesopotamia

The gods of Mesopotamia

For instance, Enlil was the god of air, wind, and storms, and was associated primarily with a city called Nippur. Inanna, who was tied to the region of Urik, was thought to be the goddess of love and war (I wonder why, in ancient religions, these two jobs often fall to the same diety?). Nergal was the god of the underworld who brought famine and destruction into human reality, and was from Kuthu. And perhaps the best known of the lot was a fellow named Marduk, who is often associated with natural disaster and vegetation. Since Marduk was thought of as being the god of Babylon, when that city rose to the status of an Empire, you won’t be surprised to learn that people came to think of Marduk as the most powerful god.

This pantheon, or assembly of gods, reflects a view of reality wherein religion is based in our image, and we create a divinity who is like us – or like we want him or her to be. It also presents us with a “behind the scenes look” at a divine council that is a cacophony of competing voices and claims and counterclaims; a spitting contest full of braggadocio and accusations and conniving – a scene not unlike some sessions of congress or some presidential debates, in fact. In this view of reality, if you were to ask the question, “Who is in charge here?”, the answer you’d wind up with is, “Well, nobody is actually or always in control, really. You just can’t tell with these guys.”

Who's in Charge? I am!!!

Who’s in Charge? I am!!!

So that’s the ancient Near East, or at least part of it. Now fast-forward in history through till today, and let me offer a contemporary American understanding of the divine council. For many of the people in our world, the meeting of the gods looks like those old comics where a person is seeking to make a decision and there’s a little angel on one shoulder and a little demon on the other, each whispering into an ear, urging a specific course of action. Both the tempter and the encourager provide input, but at the end of the day, who is in charge? I am. Because in America, the individual is the ultimate authority.

In Job 1 and Job 2, however, we see a different depiction – one that is at odds with both the ancient Mesopotamian and contemporary American views of divine reality. Each chapter contains the claim that “the angels came to present themselves before the Lord.” That is, heavenly beings come into the presence of One who is clearly supreme and offer who and what they are to that One. This is not a debate; it is not a congress; YHWH is clearly receiving reports from those who, while powerful, are less powerful than he. The very first question that is asked in both chapters 1 and 2 is from God himself: “Where have you come from?” In other words, “Are you doing your job? Tell me about how you have been exercising the authority that I gave to you.

Although this might look really cool painted on a black velvet hanging above your sofa in the man-cave, it never happened.

Although this might look really cool painted on a black velvet hanging above your sofa in the man-cave, it never happened.

There is a huge truth contained in this account of the Divine Council, and one that we oft en forget in our own lives: Satan is not the opposite of God. We do not live in a universe where competing deities vie for power, attention, and ultimate control of the cosmos. Satan is clearly described as a creature who is accountable to God and subject to boundaries that God establishes. If this is true – and I think that it is – that means that good is more powerful than evil; that love is stronger than hate; that hope is superior to memory. Always.

But if we claim that to be true, that presents us with some uncomfortable realities, doesn’t it. We haven’t yet talked about all of the horrible things that happened to Job, but I don’t think that I’m ruining the story for you to tell you that just about everything that Job loves and values is taken away, destroyed, or killed. And in the readings we’ve had this week and last week, YHWH clearly owns the responsibility for this. When Satan presents his report, God holds up Job as an exceptional human being. Satan fires back and says, “Of course he’s good – you treat him like he’s your favorite.” And twice, God gives Satan permission to afflict Job. In our reading for today, after the first round of calamity afflicts Job and his family, God says, “You incited me against him to ruin him for no reason.”

Did you hear that, beloved? God says, “Satan, it was your idea, but the ultimate power at work was mine.” Job is incited against YHWH because Job understands that there is only one ultimate power and authority in all of creation, and it is God. And here in chapter two, as Satan wants to push his theory a little further, he asks God to cause more trouble for Job. In effect, we have a picture of Satan praying to the Lord for horrible things to happen in Job’s life. And in verse 6, we see that God delivers Job into Satan’s hands, although he does set limits – Satan is not allowed to kill Job.

The next logical question, at least to me, is, “Holy smokes? Is YHWH some kind of a jerk?”

If we see the divine only from our experience and only with the facts that we can undeniably “prove” in some fashion, then I’d have to say that it’s entirely possible to conclude that the Almighty is an inconsiderate power-monger who more closely resembles some of our current political figures than the One from Galilee who gave us the Sermon on the Mount.

And yet, precisely because of this man of Nazareth named Jesus, we can see clearly that God’s perspective is not ours, and that our experience of life, of death, of love, of God – of anything, really, is not ultimate. Our experience is limited and therefore faulty. Both Job and Jesus point to a God whose experience and Being and presence is faultless and ultimate and perfect.

The Good News from today’s reading is that there is no such thing as “karma”. While we often use that word as a shorthand to say that “what goes around, comes around”, when we talk about karma in religious language we are referring to the notion that the things that we do and the reason that we do them determine our ultimate fate. To put it one way, karma holds that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. While there may be lots and lots of times where we nod our heads and say, “of course, that’s true”, take a look at the lives of Adolf Hitler or six million Jews or the 2,996 people who were killed on 9/11 or whichever selfish and arrogant celebrity or athlete comes to mind… Take a look at Job, in fact. Everything that we’ve read about Job tells us that if karma were true, then he’d experience nothing but good. And yet this man, who is described by everyone who knows him as unfailingly pious and good and generous and kind, experiences tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. What’s up with that? We’ll talk about that question next week.

My second huge truth for today is that humanity is not doomed to some sort of transactional faith wherein “we get what we deserve”. Instead, the Book of Job presents a reality – seen and unseen – in which humanity experiences evil and trouble and calamity and yet somehow, with God’s help, gets through it.

This affirmation is made plainly and boldly in our reading from the 46th Psalm this morning. God is our refuge and strength. God is for us. No matter what our experience of yesterday, today, or tomorrow is, we can hold to the unchanging reality that “The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

As we walk through our own worlds this Lent, let me remind you that Job is filled with creational language – that is to say, there are echoes of Genesis that pervade this book. I believe that they are there to remind us that we do not exist in a static universe that is filled with robots or irrefutable forces, and we do not live in a world that is ruled by the selfish whims of competing deities. God invested the creation with a series of relationships and some level of freedom. That leads to some level of cause and effect that is not necessarily tied to our own specific actions, yet is subject to the eternal and ultimate will of the Creator – one whom we believe to be ultimately good, supremely loving, and all-powerful. We do not have the power to know how all of that fits together in our world or in our lives, but the fundamentally Good News that ought to ring forth from every page of the scripture is that God is in control, and that God is with us at all times – even in the midst of tragedy and pain – and that God will bring reconciliation and healing and re-creation that is in line with his eternal intentions and ultimate goodness and beauty.

So know this, beloved: the notion of God’s ultimate power and authority as described here in Job mean that you will never, ever find yourself in a situation of pain or tragedy or distress or dis-ease wherein you call out to God for help or assistance, only to look over and see the Creator shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Jeez, I’m just not sure. I mean, wow – that’s really horrible. I wonder what will happen? I’ll do what I can, but…” The fact that God is in control means that God’s original act of creation – bringing order out of chaos – continues to this day. To your life, and to mine. You are not now, and never will be, powerless or alone. God is with you. God is for you. Thanks be to God!