April 19, 2009

The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen


I have been wrestling with the idea of testimony and counter testimony for months now. This is an idea that theologian Walter Brueggemann has put forward, primarily in his book Theology of the Old Testament. It's a fascinating book. So far. I have read about a fourth of it. While I am sure I will get more out of finishing it, Brueggemann gave me some insights into the Old Testament that really have helped me to understand my Christian faith better. He argues that there is not one, consistent theology in the Old Testament, that it is better to understand the Old Testament as a description of the ongoing relationship between God and Israel. The relationship is dynamic because both God and Israel are changing.

I worked to find passages from the Old Testament that would help me illustrate this point. One Tuesday we looked at the Call of Moses, one of my favorite stories from the Old Testament. In that story, God appears to Moses in the flames of the burning bush and says that God has heard the cries of the Hebrews, that God is acquainted with their suffering, so God is calling Moses to lead the people to freedom. This is good news, great news. But the Hebrews have been enslaved for 430 years, the Hebrews have been slaves in Egypt for more than 20 generations! Of course it is good news to hear that God is going to act to free them, but c'mon, God, what took you so long?

Testimony-God acts in history to free slaves.
Counter-testimony-Many, many people lived and died in slavery before God acted to free the Hebrews.

I knew a man who stopped going to church a few years ago. After the tsunami in the Indian Ocean hit in December 2004, he simply could not believe in a god who permitted that kind of catastrophe. For this man, the reports that came from Thailand, Indonesia, Sir Lanka and other Asian coastal areas proved that God simply did not care about people. He never went to church again.

You may remember the outpouring of aid that followed quickly after the tsunami. It was the largest humanitarian effort in history. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and a lot of other famous, powerful people went to work to raise money and coordinate relief efforts. We took a special offering here to send to people whose homes were washed away. Money that we had raised earlier that year through One Great Hour of Sharing was forwarded within hours of the tsunami to respond to immediate needs. American military troops were mobilized for relief work. In some villages today the word "American" is practically synonymous with "helicopter," because our military machines could travel to places that would otherwise have waited days or weeks for food and medicine.

Which is testimony and which counter testimony? Is God present in the relief efforts and absent in the catastrophe itself? We are often tempted to think that way. What I said to the man who lost his faith thanks to CNN is that God's heart was broken by the tsunami. God's heart was broken at the loss of life, at the grief and sadness that the survivors were feeling. I do not think the idea of a god whose heart could be broken was any more comfort to this man than a god who could have prevented this catastrophe and chose not to.

We're in the season of Easter, I cannot let you forget that! Even on a day when we're focusing on Old Testament passages, we are in the season of Easter, the season when we say "Christ is risen!" We will sing Easter hymns for the next six weeks. But I want to call your attention to a hymn we sang last week,

Not throned afar, remotely high
Untouched, unmoved by human pains
But daily, in the midst of life
Our Savior in the Godhead reigns.

See we don't believe that God is remote, aloof, above our everyday life. We believe in a god who is empassioned, a god who loves us. And sometimes loving hurts. Think back to Good Friday, when the sky turned dark, when the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom, when the earth shook. When God, Jesus, the Son of God, died and His body was hurriedly put into a tomb. Was not God's heart broken? I could not serve and represent a god who was indifferent to me and my suffering. One of my favorite hymns, "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy" has this line, "There is no place where earth's sorrows are more felt than up in heaven." That's the God I want to serve, God who understands how difficult, painful and confusing life can be. Notice, when God called Moses, God said, "I will be with you." God didn't change Moses, God didn't make Moses charismatic or articulate, God promised to be with Moses.

My friend JoAnn is a hospice chaplain in a cancer ward. She works with families of all faith traditions who are facing the deaths of loved ones. Her patients and their families know that death is near and that knowledge makes them ask deep, difficult and painful questions. Questions about the nature of pain, and why God permits suffering. And JoAnn has learned to ask people who are in hospice care, people who are facing death, to look for a gift in the midst of their illnesses. Now she does not ask that on her first visit, but after she has built a relationship with families, she knows when they are ready to reflect on what a terminal diagnosis has brought them. Some of her patients are finally able to put into words their deep love, gratitude and appreciation for their families and friends. They recognize perhaps for the first time how richly their lives have been blessed. For some families the process of death is a gift. Perhaps cancer is the testimony and our recognition of God's gracious presence in it is counter testimony.

I used to serve Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago as an on-call chaplain. I never, ever want to wear a pager again after that experience. When the chaplain is called at a children's hospital it's always an emergency and usually it's a tragedy. I would go to families whose children had been in car accidents or had suddenly stopped breathing for no apparent reason. I represented God to these families and I did not have any answers when they questioned why their child was suffering so. I didn't know then and I don't know now. But I believe that God was with them, feeling what they were feeling, present and real if not tangible. Present perhaps in the touch of a caring hug or a teary eye or the skill of a surgeon. I shared my confidence that God was not unmoved by their pain, that God suffered with them. And sometimes I would see them again in the hospital after the original emergency had passed. And these parents often said that they were more aware of God's presence when they were most afraid. Perhaps we could say that strong testimony produces strong counter testimony.

As you might guess, Lamentations is not an especially cheery book. Four and a half of its five chapters are like the second lesson that Faith read this morning. "I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God's wrath." Or "[God] has made my teeth grind on gravel...." But in the very middle of the third chapter, you can think of Lamentations as an archery target, and the bull's eye is this morning's first reading, "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness." Jeremiah goes from reciting his lengthy list of afflictions to singing, "Great is thy faithfulness!" Well, which is it? It's both, testimony and counter-testimony.

We hear both testimony and counter testimony in the first two hymns we sang this morning. "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and "All Things Dull and Ugly." I tested this second text with the Bible Exploration group a few weeks ago. I asked, "Do you think people will be offended by this?" The answer was "If you're gonna offend; offend big!" Remember, today you get to complete a survey following the sermon, so here's your chance to let me know if you're offended.

I want to close by asking you to consider this glass of water. Some of you, of course, would say it's half full, other would say it's half empty. I'm not taking a survey to see whether optimists outnumber pessimists here. I remember seeing a cartoon years ago, I'm pretty sure it was The Far Side, where four different people reacted to a glass like this. One said, "It's half full." Another said, "It's half empty." A third said, "It's half full, no half empty, no half full, no half empty." The fourth person looked at it and said, "Where's my cheeseburger and fries?" I think a lot of us are in that last mode. Especially when we are afraid or discouraged. It's easy to forget that God has not promised an easy or pain free life. It's easy to forget how richly we are blessed. It's easy to forget that everything, everything, everything, ultimately is a gift from God. The glass itself. The water. Our eyes that see it, our minds that contemplate the philosophical nuances of emptiness and fullness. Everything, everything everything, testifies to God's providing for creation. Even things that we cannot see offering anything positive, like cancerous tumors and the AIDS virus. Everything, everything, everything, even our ability to reject God's gifts is a gift from a loving, merciful and completely indescribable God.