Trigger Warning: I want to begin this sermon differently than I have in the past when I’ve told these stories. Rather than tell you a crazy story in hopes of jostling your emotions, then wrapping a bow at the end of the sermon like a 30min family sitcom, I’d rather give you a trigger warning. I’m going to talk some about suicide and that might draw up some strange and uncomfortable memories and feelings. Please feel free to get up and move around, the walk out and take a breather, or to openly cry with us all. Either way this is a safe space, you will not be judged and you are welcome, loved, and graced by God no matter who or what you’ve done and matter what you do in the future: God is love and Love always has your back.
From my previous sermons and from our times together, many of you know that when I was growing up my sister Carolyn took her own life in a desperate attempt to escape the pain of being queer, poor, and young, unable to see the possibilities of escape before her.
It was devastating. It changed my family life and it changed the way I thought about God, religion, and spirituality – as crisis events tend to do.
The crisis of suicide hits home for me. It has been entry point into spirituality in my faith journey.
Over the past few weeks I have been processing the many teen suicides here in Palo Alto, what triggered my concern was the 14-year-old girl who just last month jumped in front of the Caltrain to take her life. When my sister took her life, I was looking for counseling and help outside of my family. I need help working through the crisis, with the help of a family friend I ended up in a small Southern Baptist church.
In my formative years at First Baptist Lutz, I was told that God was in total and absolute control every everything, that God had a plan to work everything out in my favor, and that God sent my sister to Hell for killing herself and for being queer.
I must say, I don’t blame the small church – they didn’t come up with these ideas, they were simply told that these ideas were exactly how God worked and that the Bible agreed with these ideas and all Christians should too!
When I was in my crisis, I was pleased to receive solid answers.
I remember freaking out in Seminary after finding out that much of the “answers” I had for life’s mysteries were less than 450 years old. That might sound old, but the Christian tradition is much older, over 1, 5000 years older.
In studying the history of the church, we learned to pluralize the word Christian when talking about our Christian history – there have always been a plurality of Christianities and people groups who have practiced the tradition in a multiplicity of expressions.
The God I was being taught to know was a mix between the reformation-era theologian, John Calvin (and his devout followers). Whether they knew it or not, they were teaching me a strict five-point Calvinism that preached a holy, separate, and angry God of fire and brimstone.
This was a god in total and absolutely control. Calvin’s God who had all the power in the world, but rarely seemed to use it when it made most sense to us human folk. Like why didn’t God ever stop the suicides, or stop fascists from rising to power, or to end climate change? If God has all the power one could ever imagine and doesn’t use this power for good, this God is a sick God!
When people tell me they don’t believe in God it’s usually because this is the kind of God they are referring to. My response: I don’t believe in that God either.
The reason I came to California was for my Seminary degree, I had discovered Process Theology through Tripp Fuller’s podcast. He was wrestling with the toughest questions of faith and the answers evoked were far different than what I was used to – even in my more progressive church participation.
Process Theology didn’t understand God to be a vengeful and all powerful deity who could put an end to climate change calamity, the rise of Hitler, or Nuclear weapons, but chose not to – becoming a new source of evil and suffering. Rather God was deeply related to the world, God was in the processes of becoming, the process of evolution, in a dynamic and relational interweaving with the Universe. God was no longer the all-powerful, or omnipotent being, rather God’s power came in different ways. God’s power was persuasive rather than coercive. God’s power wasn’t forceful, hierarchical, and domineering but was invitational, hospitable, and always already in process. This wasn’t a distant being off in space or in some other realm tinkering with our world – Process Theology offers a vision of God that is so intimately woven with the world God feels and experiences all of reality.
This is where our text comes into play. Often the right has tried to argue that we leftist don’t like or use the Bible, we create our own picking and choosing of scriptural messages.
Funny enough this idea of God changing is more Biblical than any 450-year-old Calvinist theology. Here in today’s Exodus text we read about how Moses convinces God to change God’s mind.
9The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve seen how stiff-necked these people are so leave me alone! Let my wrath burn hot against them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11But Moses begged the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?
Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Here we find God having a tempter tantrum, and through God’s relational co-creation of the world with people, Moses has the ability to convince God to change God’s ways! The invitation to prayer is not an invitation to get something from a cosmic slot machine but rather is the relational connection we have with God, one with the power to influence the very person of God.
In this historical metaphor, the Hebrew scriptures portray a God that is not separate and all-too-holy but a God who is intimately interconnected with the ongoings of our world. We see a God who is in dialogue with God’s people, listening and responding to our thoughts, actions, and prayers. Does prayer work? Yes, and not only does it work, it has the possibility of changing God’s mind.
The idea that God changes scares a lot of people. It’s often thought that if God is the one constant in our lives, the never changing, then we have something to hold onto in the wildness of life.
But for me, it’s deeply comforting to read that God changes. With change being possible, God is no longer a distant monolithic uber-being, but something I experience and who experiences my experiences of pain and suffering, a God who knows the worst of this world’s suffering and oppression, and a God who doesn’t have the power to coerce the world into perfection but lures, draws, and calls the world in greater truth, beauty, and goodness. May we respond faithfully to God’s call.
I invite you to think about God, to think about the ways you might experience the sacred and name it God. I am by no means trying to tell you how to think about God, but am trying to open new avenues for expressing our Christian faith in the 21st century. In seeking something new we find ourselves admire the ancient. In today’s 3,000 year old narrative we read of a God who changes, and is in co-creative partnership with the peoples of the world.
When I was a seminary student at Claremont I was invited to lunch by some students form Fuller, an evangelical seminary in Pasadena, which is just a few miles away from CST. We ended up chatting for a while over our curry bowls. They were telling me about the debates in the dorms, classes, and in student groups: they were telling me about the split on campus between Armenians and Calvinists. I was shocked. Both of those theologies are almost 500 years old, they’ve had 500 years to develop and transform into something new and better.
It’s the 21st century, let’s engage 21st century thinking, theology, science and philosophy, for a robust Christian faith that finds its core in the relational nature of reality and God’s co-creative process of developing the ever-evolving world.
I was ready to share about my favorite theologians: John Cobb, Catherine Keller, Jack Caputo, Leonardo Boff and Miguel A. de la Torre, I wanted to bring up modern day, living theologians. I wanted to develop a theology that is continua in process and in relationality with the developing world, both mental and physical deeds.
I invite you to join me in engaging modern day theologies, like Process Theology to find more Biblical, faithful, and action-oriented Christianities that are open-ended, fluid, and in dynamic relationality with the world.
As we find new ways of speaking about the divine, may we also see these suicides and know that God feels the pain of the young people suffering. God feels and experiences their suffering, offering a way to respond faithfully for all of us. May we listen, may we answer the call, may we faithfully live into our mission to bring about the Beloved Community. Amen.