New sermon: “Systems Failure”

Systems Failure                                                             6/16/11


Dear Friends,


There are two things I’m certain of: There is a God, and I am not Him. Every day that I pastor here brings me new awareness of my limitations. I do not wear a cape. There’s no super on my outfit. If I had a super power I know just what I’d want it to be. I’d want people to use their brains to their God given potential. By sheer force of will I’d look them in the eye, reason sense into them, and then cause them to forever change their way of thinking. The trouble is, I’m sure my wife could tell you she wishes she had that same kind of power over me! No matter how hard she tries, she can’t force me to pick up my clothes on my side of the bed, or desire to do the dishes instead of leaving them for her today.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if maybe just a few people had all the answers and all the power to heal addictions, grant work and housing to the poor, and make our society truly righteous? And what about God? Didn’t God create something perfect at first? How did He let things get so bad? God the creator of all things is very unlike us. He does not create things without a will of their own. His design involved the possibility that the people he loved could choose to reject Him and the very order for which they were designed. And this is exactly what happened. We humans are stubborn people. That can be a good thing, but it’s very often a bad thing. The strength behind stubbornness can be seen in love and loyalty, or it can be turned to fear and self destruction.

In the beginning God gave the first humans a very important task. Genesis says,

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Gen. 1:28-30 NRSV)

Now, anyone who has ever been to the Grand Canyon, or the source of the Nile, orYellowstoneNational Park, or has ever opened a National Geographic magazine knows that the earth is a vast place. Scientists are still cataloging species and mapping the ocean’s depths. So how were these two humans supposed to accomplish this task? We’ll never know. Because we know from the Bible that things took a bad turn two chapters later.

The earth was meant to be a place of harmony. A place wherein God dwelled with his creation, humans and animals and all plant life, and together in innocence they had everything they needed. It’s clear that in such a paradise humans had everything they needed. They had more work than they could accomplish, but they didn’t have to worry about it. Their rule over creation was given and sustained by a loving creator. They had no need to kill thousands of fish for a meal, or club dozens of baby seals to stay warm. Such thoughts, no doubt, would have never had to enter their minds.

Then came sin and punishment, and with it WORK as we know it.

“And to the man he said ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” (Gen. 3:17-21 NRSV)

So, right here along with the Fall and the Curse, comes the possibility of a better future. Man names his wife and God offers covering. Because of this curse the very things that are meant to complete us as humans, namely the ability to provide food and shelter for ourselves, to be industrious and enjoy the fruit of our labor, can never really satisfy. We were meant for more. We were meant to rule with God, but instead our ways are full of thorns and thistles. We wrestle with the knowledge that no matter how hard we work, this world will still be a mess when we leave it. Perhaps we fear that each of us will have left it a little bigger mess than when we came.

Scientists and other theorists have been saying for years that the earth’s population will soon outgrown it’s “carrying capacity.” They say that the earth’s ability to grow enough food for billions of people is vastly insufficient and in a matter of decades our misuse of lands will lead to devastating consequences with many millions dying off. Some hope that technology will allow us to miraculously feed, water, and shelter everyone before we completely destroy the earth with our use of it. Technology has made us more acutely aware of the world’s needs and our lack of supply.

After the Garden of Eden was placed off limits, the Scriptures recount that Adam and Eve and their children did a lot of fruitful multiplying. They lived far longer than we can imagine humans living today and they had far more children than we think possible. So many children in fact that the Scriptures are rather vague about how and where all the people were coming from. Nevertheless, these children drifted further and further from God in their thinking. It got so bad that we might say it was a “system failure.” God decided, in computer language, to do a clean REBOOT. He was ready to wipe the whole earth clean and “reinstall” as it were. “The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (Gen. 6:7-8 NRSV)

So he gathers a community of righteous persons and a few of every kind of animal and then judgment falls the likes of which we have never seen. Everything died in this massive flood. Then he reinstalls with a promise never to do that again. It’s going to be right this time. He sets a rainbow as the sign of his covenant that regardless of what happens, he will not judge like this again. Noah and his sons are given a similar mandate to Adam and Eve. And then they go about repopulating the earth. Nations develop from these few people and everyone is still speaking the same language. And we see one of the first experiments in technology. A group settles in a plain and makes begins forming a city. The planning committee decides, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) This is an odd little story. They built their tower and then God confuses their language and scatters them all over the face of the earth. It’s an odd story because it seems like the city was meant to unify them and be a monument to their power. And yet it happens at a time when their purpose is to spread out all over. Some read what God does here to be an angry reaction, a punishment out of fear that humans will threaten His power. He confuses their language and then they spread out further and abandon the city and tower. Rather than an angry reaction, I look at the birth of different languages as a means for new civilizations. God likes diversity. Homogeneity stifles true creativity, and God appreciates our differences. The story of what happened here atBabelfurther illustrates the frustration of our collective creative intent since the Fall. No matter how well we work together as humans, we still don’t know what’s best for us apart from God’s will. Building great edifices doesn’t make us better humans. It just reminds of us of our yearning to reign with God, and the fact that until Christ returns, everything we do is temporary and partially effective.

Rev. Ray Redlich recently brought to our attention the similarities between theTowerofBabeland the birth of the Church in Acts 2 in our men’s morning bible study.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” (Acts 2:1-13)

Whereas in Genesis God confused the people’s speech to fulfill His purpose, here God gives the disciples of Jesus the ability to speak in order to be understood by different peoples from all over the vast reach of theRoman empire. And their speech had real content. They were witnesses of God’s deeds of power. The result of this sign was that 3000 people from all over the known world became the first recipients of the kind of life God intended for all people.

This new life lived by the Spirit of God caused the first believers to worship differently, live in proximity differently, consider their time differently, and use their money differently. The Fear of the Lord was on everyone and gratitude marked everything they did. Work was apparently losing its curse because it was not full of fear and selfishness. Believers held all things in common. They sold their possessions and gave as any had need. And day by day God was adding to their numbers.

This vision for work has been called “a new society in the shell of the old.” In Christ God is changing us humans first and then reordering the systems we inhabit accordingly. William James once said, “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.” God chooses to use the least likely sinners, men and women who can’t succeed at doing right though their lives depend upon it to make all the difference in this world.

One such example is the Apostle Paul. Saul of Tarsus was a renowned hit-man for the ruling opposition. Word traveled fast among Christians when Saul was heading to town. “If you mean to stay alive, be somewhere else!”, they probably said. And yet God chose this man of wicked reputation, this man few Christians could believe, to suffer for Christ and spread the gospel to the Gentiles.

In his Epistle to the Colossians he shared this insight for reversing the work curse: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17 NRSV) You have to understand this wording “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” In these days all action with authority was done on behalf of Lord Caesar. Caesar was the highest authority in the Roman empire. The Roman household was set up in honor of authority. Slaves and servants acted under the authority of the head of their household. If you came as a herald for a particular household you would speak your message and act under that name’s authority. And Jesus Christ is the name of the Lord under whose authority we all do everything. In doing this we are saying that the household we are apart of does not belong to any one of us. We don’t act under our own authority. We are all humble servants of Jesus Christ.

Paul proclaims aloud our freedom from human systems fraught with failure. We live not to pay bills, and not to buy things we don’t need, but in order to serve one another in love.

13”For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Gal. 5:13-15 NRSV) In theUSA we love that word freedom. But it doesn’t ring well next to the words “slaves to one another.” How can you be free and a slave at the same time? The key is in that word love.

The only thing that can break that cursed thinking that says, “I am valuable in so far as I work hard and provide for myself and owe nothing to anyone” is a willingness to acknowledge that everything you have is a free gift because of Jesus Christ. I know so many men who walk around feeling half their size because they don’t have cash in their pocket at the moment. They’ve been taught that buying power is true freedom. I know many others who have learned and are learning that true freedom is not in cash but is in being loved and loving in return. I’m privileged to know some men who have renovated room and after of this building in voluntary service, and the love and work they put into those rooms makes them feel responsible for this place and the people in it. That, brothers and sisters, is true freedom. The freedom to give of yourself willingly, and allow others to care for you in return.

I wish I could say that everyone we serve is ready for that kind of freedom. Many others, its true, find this church’s hospitality stifling. They don’t want to be part of any environment where they have to change. I learned of a mother who came here with her kids and after getting all checked in announced that there was no way she could make it through the whole night without a cigarette. She got her kids and shuffled back out into the rain. Another woman could not bear to be without her cat and so tried to sneak it into her suitcase hoping it would not be checked. And many others have to choose between thirty or more boxes in storage and living next to other people. There are a thousand little things that make serving the poor uncomfortable. For this reason, many people try it out for a little while and then get away as soon as possible. We can accept that. But at the same time, someone has to learn a different way of life, you know?

Too many people are getting theirs and not giving back.

I love Paul’s simple admonition: “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” (Eph. 4:28) I love it because, compared to the way our great grandparents lived we all take much more than we give back. We have much more of everything, but we don’t work for it like they did and so it means a lot less to us. Their lives were simpler, you know? They had far less to distract them.

St. Francis De Sales once said, “Every moment comes to us pregnant with a command from God, only to pass on and plunge into eternity, there to remain forever what we have made of it.” With hearts that wait and lean on God’s commands we can live life to its full. Without God every moment propels us back at the curse of doing without meaning.

Would to God that we could learn with St. Therese of Lisieux that all is gift, and all is grace:

“Everything is a grace. . . everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love- difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs- everything, because through them she learns humility, realizes her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events — to the heart that loves, all is well.”


Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice


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Filed under Bible, Community, homelessness, humanity, NLEC, Pastoral Ministry

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