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“God of Wisdom, Wrath, and Compassion”– Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, Luke 15:1-10–Sept. 11, 2016

“God is everywhere, within me and around me.” Who is this God who is everywhere, within us and around us? What is the character of this God? Who is this God whose child we’ve affirmed young William is, whose children we all are? “God is everywhere, within me and around me.”

It matters who or what we think and say God is. Not what statement or creed we might recite about God, though statements of faith and creeds are all snapshots of what people have thought about God at a given time. In the United Church of Christ, we do not require agreement to any particular statement or doctrine to join our church. The closest thing we come to that is affirming that Jesus, the One in whom we see God most fully alive in a human being, Jesus is “Lord” of our lives, which even now is language that isn’t always helpful. It comes from a hierarchical, feudal culture, where lords literally, forcefully, controlled those living “beneath” them. For those in slavery, like our African-American brothers and sisters, calling Jesus “Lord” was an act of defiance and liberation – Jesus is my Lord, not you, massah.

Here’s how I understand Jesus to be Lord of my life–the Way that Jesus taught and lived is the guiding principle of my life. It’s how I judge my actions and thoughts, where I need to make adjustments, make amends; it’s a Way of life that I seek to follow and learn about and discern anew every day.

“God is everywhere, within me and around me.” Who is this God who is everywhere, within us and around us? Some people say that the God of the “Old Testament,” the God of Hebrew Scripture, is the God of wrath and judgment, while the God of the “New Testament,” the Christian testament, is the God of love. That is a conclusion you can draw by cherry-picking verses or passages from each testament, but way too simplistic and sweeping a statement to make. Read the love poem that is Song of Songs in the Old Testament, or take a look at the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament.

Take, for example, the reading from Jeremiah which Ted read for us. It sure sounds like a God of wrath– “At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse–a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.” That, just a few verses after this warning to clean up their act, “or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your doings.” Lightning bolts at the ready!

It was said by some “Christian” preachers at the time of the 9-11 attacks that they were God’s punishment of the United States for our feminists, abortionists, and gays. God’s wrath had been kindled, they said. That is blasphemy against the God I trust in.

The wrath of the God of Jeremiah against the people of Israel was the anger of a parent toward a child engaged in hurtful, self-destructive behavior, worshipping hollow idols, polluting the earth, exploiting the poor, forswearing justice. If you discover that your daughter has been driving while texting, or your son has been bullying someone, or that your babysitter has been allowing your toddler to chase a ball out into the street, anger is an appropriate response–not anger that lashes out in violence – but anger that they have played so dangerously with precious life. You want to impress upon them that that behavior can’t go on. God’s wrath is not random, narcissistic, or petty, but grows out of a profound love for God’s people and a longing for their well-being.

“For my people are foolish,” God says– Notice it’s not, “My people are bad”– “My people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” We can certainly go ahead and pollute the earth, starve millions by our own greed, humiliate those whom we perceive are different from ourselves–different in skin color, religion, custom, or culture–we can put all our money into weapons of destruction or tax breaks for the wealthy while our schools fall apart, along with our roads and bridges. We are free to do all that, but the consequences – especially the long-term consequences– are also certain. They are beginning to emerge all around us. You can call it God’s wrath, but it’s not because of what God is doing from some distant heaven. It’s because of our own foolishness and refusal to follow the way of God’s wisdom.

“God is everywhere, within me and around me.” Who is this God who is everywhere, within us and around us?” We can’t contain this God in a word or name, we can only point to a quality, or an experience, in which we experience something of this God. That’s why Jesus told parables or stories, to draw his listeners into a story that wasn’t neat and tidy and wrapped up in a moral or meaning, though the gospel writers often added on those “meanings” when they told Jesus’ story.

When “sinners and tax collectors” were being drawn to Jesus, the Pharisees, who were inclined to think that you could predict and guarantee God’s favor by fastidiously following “the Law,” the Pharisees grumbled, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In other words, that’s not what God would do.

So Jesus tells a story, drawing even the Pharisees in–“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until finds it?” You would do that, wouldn’t you? Um,…yeah? “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders to bring it home and calls together his friends to rejoice with him, that he has found his lost sheep.”

Or what woman [you mean, we have to imagine what it would be like to be a woman?!] having 10 silver coins–maybe from her dowery–if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp [with whatever precious little oil she has remaining] , sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the lost coin.” “Just so,” Jesus said, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

[A little digression here from research in positive psychology– it has been found that when a partner in a relationship takes the time to listen to and to rejoice over the good news that their partner shares, that has even a longer-lasting benefit to the relationship than only sympathizing over bad news. So, don’t overlook the celebrations and triumphs, however small.]

“God is everywhere, within me and around me.” This God is not only a God whose ways are wise and who loves us so deeply that we project onto God the human emotions of anger and grief when we, God’s children, stray far from that wisdom–this is also the God of compassion who is always seeking us out, like a shepherd with one lost sheep or a housewife with one lost coin. That is what this God is like, Jesus said.

Our God is like the man working in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, who, when the plane hit, ran down the stairs with hundreds of others to safety, but then, realizing that his co-workers and others were still in the building, went back in to help others get out, and continued to go back in, until the Tower collapsed on top of him. Our God is like the firefighters and first-responders who carried people on their backs, who searched through the rubble for any trace of those who had been lost. Our God is like the mother whose son was killed in the attacks using her grief to set up schools for girls in Afghanistan, knowing that education is the way out of poverty and despair.

“God is everywhere, within me and around me.” Our God seeks us out when we are the ones who are lost–lost in depression or discouragement, lost in self-loathing or humiliation, lost in a relationship that is destructive or deadening or unraveling, lost in ignorance or addiction or abuse. And remember what God looked like in those other stories? Like a shepherd or a housewife, like a co-worker or first-responder, like a grieving mother, like you or like me. “God is everywhere, within me and around me.” You just never know when God will swoop you up on His shoulders to carry you, will gather you up in Her lap to embrace and comfort you. You just never know, because “God is everywhere, within me and around me.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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