Sermon: Ashamed of God?

07 October 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
October 7, 2007

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
World Communion Sunday

Ashamed of God?

Psalm 37:1-9
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:4-14

Prayer: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.”

These words of Second Timothy are a little surprising: “Do not be ashamed… of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join me in suffering for the gospel… not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” Don’t be ashamed of the gospel? Don’t be ashamed of the Good News of God’s love for the world? Why should anyone be ashamed of that? Why would anyone be ashamed of God?

Used to be, up until the end of the 20th century at least, just about everyone you met was a Christian, or perhaps a Jew. Today, however, North America is more of a melting pot than ever – and we all are likely to know someone who is a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or perhaps even a neo-pagan or New Age spiritualist. Nearly everyone knows someone who is a secular humanist – people who have faith in the goodness of humanity, or in the power of science to make the world a better place. There are several books now on best-seller lists that make a very good case for atheism.

So people of my age and younger who dare to call ourselves “Christian” are likely to have at least once become an object of ridicule for being unimaginative enough to still practice an old-fashioned and backwards-thinking faith like Christianity. I realize, of course, that to call mild disdain from non-Christians “persecution” is to exaggerate our situation today. It trivializes the very real torment of early Christian martyrs and the pain of those more recent Christians jailed or persecuted in pockets of intolerance around the world today. It also lacks the humility that it takes to admit that so-called Christians have often been among the world’s most vicious persecutors of other peoples and other faiths, including the Native Americans who once lived in these very Connecticut woods.

Maybe because of that bad record, I suspect most of us here today have at least once apologized for the Christian faith. We likely have found ourselves explaining that we’re “not like other Christians” – meaning the ones who preach white supremacy, or homophobia, or some other form of right-wing extremism. We may not be ashamed of God exactly, but we don’t necessarily let our faith become the first thing a new friend learns about us. Too many people have been wounded by Christianity. When I was in college back in the late ‘70s, Graham Nash had a song, “Cathedral,” with the line, “Too many people have died in the name of Christ for anyone to heed the call.” For many of my fellow Baby Boomers, thinking like that led to a mass exodus from church. So we tend to step lightly when it comes to talking about our faith with our peers.

I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes otherwise very tolerant, well-meaning people won’t hesitate to start gunning for me when they find out I’m a Christian. One time, out for dinner with a group of other reporters when I worked for a newspaper, I felt so much under attack for my Christian faith – which they all agreed was dogmatic, hypocritical, and unscientifically ignorant – that I finally screamed at them all to just “Shut up!” I was especially annoyed because one of the guys in the group was Jewish, and I knew that no one in a million years would dare utter a single anti-Semitic remark in his presence. But Christianity was perceived to be the dominant faith, even though not a one of them besides me was a Christian. What I finally said to them, fed up, was “Believe me, I don’t believe in the God that you don’t believe in!”

Who was that God? You know him, I’m sure. He’s painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He has to be a “he” always, of course, because he’s really just a clone of Zeus, or the Canaanite Ba’al. He’s basically a bad-tempered storm god – a stern old man with a long white beard, who sits on his throne up in the clouds, tossing down thunderbolts of bad luck on pathetic humans when he’s annoyed, or maybe just a little bit bored. He’s all-powerful, but not very nice. If he’s tenderized through a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” into a benevolent “Heavenly Father,” he can actually appear more of a senile grandpa than a loving father – a wonderfully good being but one who is powerless to make a difference in the real world.

This is the apparently passive God that the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk gets good and angry at as he sees Israel surrounded by enemy nations and under siege by the Babylonians about 600 years before Christ. My journalist friends shared Habakkuk’s anger at God, as any of us do if we bother to watch the world news on TV. Who among us hasn’t wanted to switch channels and start yelling at the Lord Almighty, master of heaven and earth, when we see scenes of children sick and starving, bombs exploding, greedy white-collar criminals getting acquitted, and hurricanes raging? We can hardly help but stand up and shout to the empty sky with Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me…the law is slack and justice never prevails.” It’s easy to be ashamed of that do-nothing God, because apparently He is either deaf, disabled, or on one long vacation.

Don’t be mistaken, though. Don’t call him the “Old Testament” God and try to dump him on the Jews, claiming a kinder, gentler God for us Christians. The Heavenly Father of Jesus was the God of the Hebrew Scriptures – he was not Zeus and not Ba’al, but a mighty and invisible God for whom no image and no name existed. This loving, liberating God blew through the desert and led slaves through the Red Sea to freedom. This was the God of hope who spoke with a still small voice to the hearts of prophets like Samuel, Elijah, and even Habakkuk when he finished venting to God and began listening. This was the God who blessed Jesus at his baptism and who spoke to him when he prayed in the wilderness – this is the “still speaking God” of our United Church of Christ.

Today’s text from Habakkuk ends with him standing on the watchtower late at night. He finishes his rant and finally hears God’s answer: “Wait.” God’s justice takes time. From our perspective down on the ground, we can’t always see anything worth hoping for – but our faith may be able lift us up just enough to see a glimmer of early morning light over the horizon. God’s day “will surely come,” Habakkuk says, so we must remember God’s promises and “live by faith” until then, as our ancestors did.

This is the advice the apostle Paul gives to his disciple Timothy in his letter, to “guard the good treasure” entrusted to him, which was the faith passed down to him from his grandmother and his mother. He was called to “hold to the standard of sound teaching” that he had heard and to “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus,” with “the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” In these terrible times we live in, as in Timothy’s, faith requires courage – “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” We follow a Lord who lived that kind of courageous love – who died instead of taking up a sword, who forgave people who mocked him, who tortured him, who denied him. And we are still called to proclaim the love of our Prince of Peace in a world at war, even today.

When we come to the Lord’s Table on this World Communion Sunday, are we able to follow his example and love our enemies, or do we still cry out for vengeance? Jesus broke the bread with Judas, on the night he was betrayed and deserted. In Timothy’s day the martyrs were being burned alive in the Coliseum – the first “Roman candles” were the Christians Emperor Nero dipped in hot wax and then set aflame on crosses for the people’s entertainment. And yet the Christian faith grew and prospered during those years – the courageous and loving witness of those martyrs inspired those who watched and led to many conversions. Could you sit at table with people who once cheered while your family and friends were burned alive? Those early Christians did. We have a much harder time today, I think, putting our faith into practice and living in Christ’s way of peace.

Our sometimes half-hearted or lukewarm faith today is not going to make us many enemies, but neither is it likely to make much of a difference in the world – a world that needs the light of Christian hope more than ever before. We would do well to heed the words of Second Timothy: “Rekindle the gift of God that is within,” the faith of our parents and grandparents. We are so fortunate today that we can worship openly, without fear. We need to share our vision – Habakkuk’s vision, Jesus’s vision, Paul’s vision – of a God of power and love, and infinite patience. The Holy Spirit has done great things in the past and is living and moving in this broken world even today. Christ still calls us to wholeness in his body, where at his table of grace we may be knit together again into one world family and live in peace.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.



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