I don’t manuscript sermons, but this final sermon in the series, “Everything you ever wanted to know about the Bible but were afraid to ask,” at First Christian Church of Oakland, was on one of the toughest questions out there: “If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there suffering?” So I’m doing my best to re-create my sermon based on the outline I used in my sermon this past Sunday, June 16, 2013, my second-to-last sermon as pastor of FCCO.
When I was in seminary, I worked as a chaplain at a respite care center for homeless people. The people I worked with had been to hell and back, or not quite back yet. I remember one man who had gone through deep grief—a physical setback, the loss of a family member, and real constant pain due to an infection in his leg. I was in the midst of a brief love affair with process theology at the time, and I had the textbook pastoral response for him: “I want you to know God is suffering with you.”
He patted my hand kindly, said, “I know you care about me and you’re trying to help, but the God I worship doesn’t suffer.” He was letting me know that my words of comfort weren’t comforting.
There are elements that those of us raised in the church take for granted when we think about God: God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.
Process theology, a theology Tai Amri spoke about last week, basically says, “you can’t have it all.” And that theology isn’t the first. Epicurus challenged this idea back in 300 BCE.
He was saying the math doesn’t add up.
There are people in this congregation who could define process theology better than I—Tai Amri, Jeffrey, Rita is one of the foremost process theologians in the country if not the world. But here’s my best stab at it: Process theology says, “If God were really all knowing and all loving AND all powerful, there would be a lot less suffering in the world. Since we really believe in evidence of God being all loving, maybe God’s actually in process. What if we’re co-creating with God? What if God’s in nature and creation and is that voice that whispers in our ear—that voice we sometimes call the angel on our shoulder—and when we respond rightly, we add to God and God’s power in the world?”
Now, I judge a movement by who shows up, and the lack of effort to make sure poor people and people of color shape that theology has made me wary of process theology (although there are some great womanist theologians engaged in the conversation these days—process theology could potentially become a more liberationist theology at some point). However, in this congregation, we have come to recognize scripture as a narrative of us learning who God is. We see ourselves changing the way we understand God as we evolve, and we even see our own understanding of right and wrong shaping the way we describe God. A great example is God destroying almost all of humanity in the flood story, and then giving us a rainbow to promise he’ll never do it again, almost as if he’s saying, “Oops—I might have overreacted.” If we see the bible narrative shifting the way we describe God, what if we’re actually co-creating WITH God?
As I understand it, Process Theology was shaped strongly by the Shoah, or the Holocaust. I was in a Jewish service on Friday, and during the Kaddish, where they remember the dead, they lift up those lost in the Holocaust—that experience still shapes their religious community. And I find myself thinking about Elie Wiesel, at the end of his book Night, clear on the fact that God was not there with them. And in his later years, how Wiesel believed God was present insofar as we interacted with each other with dignity and justice and compassion.
Elie Wiesel and process theology both wrestle with the idea of theodicy: the question of how a just and loving God can allow suffering. This question of theodicy, about an all-powerful and all-loving God, is an ancient one—Jesus cried from the very cross, Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? If our faith lies in an all knowing, all powerful, all loving God, this is a terrifying question to ask. Because it begs the question: Is God Withholding?
In this congregation, we believe in prayer. We believe in God’s power.
And we suffer. While bad people prosper. And in our most honest moments, we ask WHY. But sometimes we’re afraid to ask it too loudly.
Job was not afraid to ask. He went from a sense of entitlement about all of the gifts in his life–“I earned this”–to a sense of God’s arbitrariness. And it drove him to reexamine how other people are treated. Let us read together Job’s proclamation of injustice, from Job 24:1-12, recognizing he is proclaiming it to God on OUR behalf:
“But if Judgment Day isn’t hidden from the Almighty,
why are we kept in the dark?
There are people out there getting by with murder—
stealing and lying and cheating.
They rip off the poor
and exploit the unfortunate,
Push the helpless into the ditch,
bully the weak so that they fear for their lives.
The poor, like stray dogs and cats,
scavenge for food in back alleys.
They sort through the garbage of the rich,
eke out survival on handouts.
Homeless, they shiver through cold nights on the street;
they’ve no place to lay their heads.
Exposed to the weather, wet and frozen,
they huddle in makeshift shelters.
Nursing mothers have their babies snatched from them;
the infants of the poor are kidnapped and sold.
They go about patched and threadbare;
even the hard workers go hungry.
No matter how backbreaking their labor,
they can never make ends meet.
People are dying right and left, groaning in torment.
The wretched cry out for help
and God does nothing, acts like nothing’s wrong!”
What does this have to do with Process Theology? It offers us a loophole—we still get to believe in an all-loving God. God is the voice within us demanding justice for all. The voice calling us to shape a better world than what we have now. And when we act, God reaches greater fullness and greater power in the world. It is much like the famous poem of Theresa of Avila back in the 1500s: Christ has no hands on earth but yours, yours are the eyes through which he sees the world with compassion.
I will confess my greatest fear for FCCO in the coming days. It is not about finances. It is not about attendance. It is not about faith. Every single member of this church serves as God’s hands and feet in the world in different ways—through work with children, through praying for people in our networks, through immigration work, through volunteering, through work with seniors, through community projects. And we come here to be loved and embraced and renewed. On a good Sunday, it’s our spiritual filling station.
But while we love and care about each other, I worry that we have not fully figured out how to care FOR each other, especially lifting up volunteer leaders and those on the fringes of the church—and often the former becomes the latter and drifts off. And I was never enough to meet all of those spiritual needs. And when we brought on a co-pastor dedicated specifically to pastoral care, both of us together weren’t enough.
My deep prayer is that this congregation will actively practice coming together outside of Sunday worship to support and encourage and invest in each other, investing in 50-year-members and week-long members alike, that you will be Christ’s hands and eyes and feet to one another. Because you are too good to deserve less, and you are too gifted to offer less. And because the need for replenishment you feel is felt by those around you. You can replenish them and they can replenish you.
While I have not yet fully embraced process theology, I have learned this much from it. This is the demand process theology places on us: when suffering happens, we can’t turn to God, dump it there and walk away. We can’t even just pray. We must bodily respond. That is HOW God has power in the world.
And this is the good news: we in this community have experienced God’s presence. We have experienced it in prayer triads. We have experienced it in decorating the Christmas tree along with GLBTQ foster youth. We have experienced it eating Christmas eve dinner under the underpass with Shon’s family. We have experienced it in so many ways. God needs us to be in a faithful community. God is all-powerful in the world insofar as we participate in that power and that love.
So let us close by giving one another this message, knowing that we are powerful enough for this truth to change the world:
[For my benediction, I said, “I want to let you in on the theological fight between process theologians and liberation theologians. The liberation theologians say, ‘Do not take away our God who has the power to liberate us from situations of real, dire oppression.’ (Several heads in the congregation nod.) And the process theologians say, ‘Yeah—that all-loving, all powerful God: How’s that working out with your situation of oppression?’ Let us go forth claiming something that most of us in this room already know—that the all-powerful and liberating God we worship is all around and amongst us but also within us. Let us go forth claiming the divine liberating force that is IN us and IS us, to go forth and set the captives free, like our brother Jesus did before us.”]
The image below was our “moment of zen.” (The slide we put on after the benediction, meant to be light-hearted but refering to the content of the sermon in a different way.)