Monday, July 26, 2010

If God's mind can change, why can't ours?

Scripture for July 25th, 2010

Genesis 18:20-33
Luke 11:1-13


These two texts raise a myriad of issues. Both set out to describe an interaction between a particular human and God. In the first, Abraham inquires as to whether God will truly destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if righteous people can be found. The second has the disciples asking Jesus how to pray to God. Jesus does provide a model prayer, but after goes deeper by describing just how God responds to prayer.

These texts bring up such questions as “Is there a right way to pray?” Others may raise the issue of unanswered prayers. Some may be troubled by the violence that follows the Genesis passage. And, of course, why are Sodom and Gomorrah being threatened anyway? These two villages tend to be brought up in hot button topics regarding sexuality these days. What’s true here?

All of these are vital questions that many of us have and continue to wrestle with. As you know, in the first few weeks of August, we’ll have a time to come together in small groups and discuss our hopes and dreams. I’d like to hear if some of the questions I raised are burning in your hearts. We can discuss them in those smaller settings, or talk about how we can explore them further.

But, there is a more fundamental issue that I think we have to get to first. In the first passage, Abraham is showed to negotiate with God. In the second, Jesus describes that just as an annoyed neighbor will respond to you if you knock persistently, God will respond if you pray fervently. Do you see what is in common here? Its really a radical idea- in both instances- God reacts, God responds, God…. changes.

Now, maybe that doesn’t strike you as a particularly radical concept. But for much of the history of the church, one of the central theological ideas about God is that God is unchanging. The idea went like this- God is perfect. We as God’s creation are imperfect. Thus, if we affect God or cause God to change in anyway, God would then be imperfect. The assumption was that humanity, no matter how fervently we prayed, could never affect God’s chosen course of action. In fact, every single Sunday, we make that declaration here. Take a look back at the words to the “Praise Response” in our bulletin. When we sing something regularly, sometimes we stop paying attention to the message that is there. So, lets say it together one more time- “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Amen.”

Did you catch it? Who sees what I’m referring to? “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” One way of reading that is to say that God or God’s plan was set out in the beginning, continues now, and goes into the future unchanged. Our first hymn, Great is Our Faithfulness, said this even more explicitly. At the end of the first verse, it says - “Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, as thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.”

So, do you see the dilemma here? On the one hand, we have two passages of scripture that seem to strongly imply that God’s mind can be changed. But, we have other theology, which is backed up with other scriptures, saying that God never changes? Which one are we supposed to believe? Gee, I was hoping one of you might come up with the answer.

When it gets into things like the exact nature of the character of God, we have to admit we are getting into murky territory. We are finite individuals who can barely remember what we ate for lunch yesterday while God is responsible for the whole universe- how exactly are we supposed to say what God is like from our perspective?

Well, as Christians, we hold the Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God. Thus, if we are trying to solve a problem like this, Jesus is almost always the best place to start. So, real quick, lets analyze a couple of the best-known stories of Jesus and see whether it falls on the side of “unchanging” or “affected by humanity.”

Can someone throw out a story about Jesus? And let’s make it actually about Jesus, and not one of the parables.

(The first story the congregation shared was that of the birth of Jesus on Christmas. Given that Jesus had been born as a child and grew into an adult, he obviously demonstrated change. Furthermore, any baby and child will respond to those around him or her, and thus we put this story in the camp of “affected by humanity.”)

(The second story the congregation shared was that of Jesus welcoming the children. When the children approached Jesus, he did not ignore the children and go about his business, but instead took time to bless and care for the young ones. Again, we put this story in the camp of “affected by humanity.”)

So, we can see that Jesus did not stand stoically when people were in need, Jesus responded.

Well, we could go much deeper with this, but Jesus certainly responded to the needs of those around him. If Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, we would have to speculate the Creator does indeed respond at some level to the needs of creation- to our needs.

Does this mean the idea of an unchanging God has no value? No, I would say that one could draw out some characteristics of God that never change. Jesus’ love for those around him never wavered- even when they disappointed him. So I think we could affirm that at the very least, God’s love for creation remains never changing. But, I think we could say that how God expresses that love is determined in part by the expressed and felt needs of the object of God’s love- mainly us.

So, if we can affirm that God is capable of changing, or perhaps more precisely, responding, the passages make more sense. Abraham is concerned about the loss of innocent life and fervently expresses this. God’s love of Abraham and all of humanity is such that God agrees to alter the course per the new agreement. It shows that God’s love remains the same- but God’s mind is open to change.

The openness to change; the willingness to alter course based on new events; the ability to go in new directions- I think I know now why proplr prefer to talk about God as never changing. Because if God can change, it might mean we have to also.

If there is one thing that I think is a universal feeling amongst humans, its that we tend to get set in our ways and get upset if things start changing. Now, some of us may adapt more readily then others, but I would be surprised if there is anyone who hasn’t had the experience of reacting negatively to an unexpected change. We’ve had our fair share of that in this country- whether it comes to issues of race, gender, religion or any other type of divide, it takes generations to work through the issues that have divided us. However, this last week has shown us that despite its difficulties, change is at times possible.

You may have heard in the news about Shirley Sheppard, an African-American woman who up until Monday worked for the US Department of Agriculture. Shirley grew up on a farm in the deep South and suffered through the sins of segregation and racism. While still a teenager, she had to live through the brutal murder of her father by a white man. Even though there were several witnesses to the crime and the identity of the killer was well known in the community, justice would never come for her family. Devastated by the experience, Shirley made a commitment to stay in the south and work to help poor black farmers like herself overcome the barriers of racism. Let’s hear in her own words about that experience:

(For the sake of time purposes, I had to take excerpts from a 45 minute speech.  Because taking excerpts is exactly what caused this contraversy, I've also included the video of the entire speech at the end so you might judge for yourself the context of the remarks)

Understandably, Shirley’s experience of deep hatred of racism had scared her. Given her traumatic experiences, who could blame her for feeling some bitterness toward white people. And yet, when she sent this white couple to a white lawyer, she found that injustice still reigned as the poor farmers were taken advantage of by the lawyer. Discovering this, she worked to find a lawyer who would help to save their farm. The story continues:

Shirley Sheppard grew. She discovered that the hatred that she had experienced had scarred her vision. She set out with the goal of only helping black people. But, in her own words, by remaining open to God, she discovered she had been put on this earth to help all poor people who were being taken advantage of. This is a courageous story of being open to the radical will of God; being open to the changing of one’s heart and mind.

However, if you have been watching the news on this story, you will know that the revelation of her growth was not received with praise. Earlier this week, Shirley Sheppard was fired from the USDA when a blogger released a highly edited version of Sheppard’s telling of this story that left the impression that she actively discriminated against white people while working for the USDA. It cut out all reference to her growth and her new understanding. As the edited tape went round the media, she was forced to resign.

The person who edited that tape was engaging in what is now a commonplace game of “gotcha.” As more and more people put their thoughts and experiences online in public forums, they are finding that mistakes made years ago can catch up with them. One way to react to that would be to try and seal off all information about yourself as best is possible in this digital age- its an understandable reaction in a way. But it implies a belief that who we were in the beginning is who we are now and who we forever shalt be. It implies that growth is irrelevant. It implies that someone must forever be perfect if they are to be a good person.

We as Christians need to bear witness to something else. We don’t live as people who believe that God created us perfect- we believe instead in a God whose grace allows us to overcome our imperfections. We believe in a God who measures us not by our weaknesses, but by our willingness to be open to the new experiences so that we might discover God’s will. Rather than bunkering down and trying to hide our imperfections, rather then trying to imply that we have been and forever shall be in the right, what a witness it would be if we could expose our weaknesses to the world and demonstrate how God is helping us to overcome them. But that involves something difficult- it means admitting that at some point, you might have been wrong.

Now, I may hate admitting I’m wrong more than anyone else here, but I recognize the power in it. It can be humiliating at times; it opens one up for scorn. But it does provide a witness. The second part of the Shirley Sheppard saga is evidence of this. Though Sheppard was quickly condemned and fired early in the week, by the end of the week the full story had emerged. When people realized that Sheppard’s story was one of admitting failure rather than persisting in ignorance, they quickly and surprisingly did an about face. People from the left and right of the political spectrum admitted their errors and demanded that Sheppard be given her job back. Everyone from the president on down apologized for their error and sought to make it right. Now, let’s not kid ourselves, not everyone was so open to admitting their error, and even those that did quickly went back to casting blame on either side for the incident, but for one brief moment, elements of the right and left were united in contrition and changed their minds based on new information.

What about us? Where do we stand? Do we tend to cling on to our rightness, or are we open to the ways in which God’s grace is working in our own lives to help us to grow? Personally, I’ve been in enough arguments to know that the desire to prove one’s rightness is strong, and I would argue, nearly universal. Find the slip of paper in your bulletin. If you’ve lost it, raise your hand and an usher will bring you one. I’d like you to think for a moment if there is something you are holding onto. It might be an argument that you had with a loved one in which you insisted on being right. It might be an incident where you treated someone poorly because they were different. Or it might be the anger you are holding onto because you were mistreated. Take a second to write down a word or two about that experience you are still holding on to.

When you are ready, we’ll have a time where we can let that go. Where we can give the incident up to God, admit our failings, and thank God for the ways in which the experience provided us an opportunity to grow.

Full Shirley Sheppard speech:

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