“Sermon 09/05/10: Hearts and Bones”

Hearts and Bones
a sermon on Psalm 34 preached by the Rev. Abigail Henderson at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC, on Sep. 5, 2010

"Psalm 34" courtesy of Stushie's Art

Today is the second in the series of grab-bag sermons, where you the congregation submitted ideas and we, the ministers, drew from them randomly for our preaching topics. And when I say “we,” I really mean, “I,” that is—just me. Due to our preaching schedule, Jane has been spared this particular challenge. Next time, Jane, you cannot escape…

Last week, I called to preached on Psalm 46, verse 10. This week, the topic drawn was a question. A very specific question:

What would God’s response be to people who use violence against innocent people or embezzle for their own financial gain?

Well. Gosh. Uh…

Sometimes my friends joke that, because I’m an ordained minister, I have a “direct line to God.” This is amusing to me, considering that I wrote my Master’s thesis on the experience of divine absence. But no matter: at these moments, I do wish I had that direct line. I would pick up the phone and call God and ask that question posed by one of our congregants.

And while I’m at it, I’d add a few others that have bothered me for a long time: what happens after we die? Are you really watching over all of us? Isn’t it ironic, I would ask God, that the worship of a higher power has driven so many people do commit heinous acts of interreligious violence? And really, God, here’s the bottom line:

Why do bad things happen to good people?

That’s the basic question that people have been asking forever, from Job to Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote an excellent self-help book on the subject in 1981. That, perhaps, is one of the most basic questions of human existence. Theologians have a term for explanations for the existence of evil in a God-created world: it’s called theodicy. And today’s sermon topic adds an extra troubling layer: why do people hurt other people for their own advancement? Why does God allow this to happen?

What would God say to the exploiters, the oppressors, the corruptors, the enslavers, the rapists, the murderers?

If you page through the Bible, you gather pretty quickly what ancient Israelites thought God would say to evildoers. As Psalm 34 declares, the unrighteous will be condemned.

And that’s a very mild way of putting it; the Bible is full of vivid descriptions of the terrible, terrible things that happen to so-called “bad” people. So. If we are to take the Bible literally, as so many do, our issue is resolved.

What would God do to people who use violence against innocents and embezzle for their own financial gain? Why, God would smite them! Amen. I’m done.

But of course, we’re not done. We are so not done.

For one thing, as far as I know, God doesn’t really smite anybody. (If you’ve experienced otherwise, please let me know.) And for another, in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that knee-jerk revenge fantasies give us what we need.

I get why our minds go there—to that place of swift retribution. We are approaching the ninth anniversary of September 11, and of course my mind drifts back to my experience of that day. I was a junior in college. My alarm went off that Tuesday morning, and I turned on the computer as I got ready for class. My inbox was full of messages about a plane accident in New York. I had this little TV in my dorm room, and I turned it on.

By then, they knew it was terrorism. And I sat there, watching the horror unfold live. And I remember thinking—so distinctly—that I was relieved that President Bush would track down Osama Bin Laden and kill him and keep us safe, and then everything would be OK.

Yes. I thought that. For a brief moment, I abandoned my progressive upbringing, my religious beliefs, my social values, my political commitments, my self—for the promise that vengeance could save us.

Back in 2001, I saw what fear was doing to me, and it chilled me. I think back to that day as I read, with great sadness, about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy and recent hate crimes against Muslims in this country.
I feel under-qualified, to say the least, to speak to God’s response to human evil. All I can say is that it surely isn’t fear-based, like ours—because such fear is so human.
In the words of Psalm 34: “I sought the LORD, and God answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

God delivered me from all my fears. To me, this is the heart of the matter, right here. We can imagine God’s response to evil all we want; if we’re feeling particularly bold, we can start putting words into God’s mouth. To me, the more urgent question must be directed at us. What is our response to evil through the lens of our faith in God?

Or, to put it another way: how do we cope with the knowledge of profound evil in the world? How does being in relationship with God influence the way we understand the world?

These are questions for a lifetime. Perhaps that’s why Psalm 34 seems to take the long view:

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.
God keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.

“God keeps all their bones.” What a contrast to the earlier assertion that God will cut off the remembrance of evildoers from the earth!

In this image of bones, I hear an acknowledgement of pain and death; I hear a recognition that people are scattered and broken in body and soul. But along with all that, I hear hope; I hear hope that somehow, broken bodies and cultures will be knit back together.

This is sort of what Communion is all about, in my mind. Evil is a corruptive force; it disfigures and dismembers people, families, entire cultures. In the act of Communion, we commit ourselves to re-membering—that is, imagining the world put back together, healed along its fault lines, made whole and good. Communion isn’t magic—it doesn’t accomplish this vision in an instant. But it invites us to participate with God; to be fellow keepers of the bones of those who have been hurt and victimized—including even ourselves. The bones wait for divine justice, which, we pray, is deeper and more merciful than human justice.

In the meantime, we do the best we can do in the face of terrible things:

“Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”