“A Holy God”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
February 24, 2019
Psalm 99 NRSV
1The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
2The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.
3Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!
4Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity;
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
5Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!
6Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called on his name.
They cried to the Lord, and he answered them.
7He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.
8O Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
9Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.
It has been a busy three weeks for me. So what I think I would like to do this morning is give you a “travelogue” of my past few weeks to give you a window into what I have been doing and to share with you some of what I learned and what inspired me during this time as I reflect on my topic this morning, “A Holy God.”
Let me begin by giving a little reflection on the words of our Scripture reading, Psalm 99. “The Lord is King, let the peoples tremble,” declares the writer, reminding us that God is great, a Mighty King, a lover of justice. This God has established equity – meaning justice for all people. This God answered when people cried out to him and he spoke to them. God was a “forgiving God to them,” and this God is a holy God, the writer declares: “for the Lord our God is holy.” What does it mean to say God is “holy?” It conjures many meanings, and for some those meanings include that God is perfect, sinless, and separate, untouchable by sinful mortals. This writer reminds us that a significant part of this God’s holiness is that God loves justice, has established justice and answers when those who suffer injustice call out. All this is backdrop to a lot of what I have been doing these past few weeks.
First, I spent a week at the DART Clergy Conference. This is training for the justice ministry we do with the other interfaith congregations that are part of ICARE. We studied Scripture, learning the way Scriptures speak about what God considers justice. At the beginning of the Conference Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop over all the Episcopal Churches in the United States gave the opening sermon. You might remember Bishop Curry was the preacher at the royal wedding last spring for Prince Harry and his bride Meghan Markle. His sermon that day was heard by literally billions of people and it was a remarkable message on love, not just for two people being married to one another, but to everyone – reminding us that God’s holy love is for all people. It was a powerful message and if you are interested I urge you to go watch and listen to it on YouTube. It is well worth your time.
For those of us at the Clergy Conference Bishop Curry also talked about love. He talked most particularly about love of neighbor. His text was the story of the Good Samaritan, which of course, Jesus told in response to the question by the good and faithful young man who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Bishop Curry said that today we face a grave challenge to loving our neighbor because of the fear of hordes of brown skinned immigrants pouring across our borders intending to rape, murder, sell drugs to all our children, to take all our jobs and at the same time waste our tax dollars receiving welfare because they are too lazy to work. This narrative, of course, is far too simple. Statistics show that the majority who come are not any of those things, they are simply people facing violence and oppression at the hands of their governments. They come seeking asylum, which is a legal request for anyone who comes to our borders. Once they do that they must be processed to see if they qualify. So, As the Bishop point out, at the very least we ought to abide by our own laws of immigration if we want them to obey our laws for legal immigration. But instead we are arresting them, not processing them, and in many cases separating parents from children without any plan for, or keeping any records, for making it possible to reunite them later. The Bishop reminded us that if we fear our neighbor without knowing our neighbor we can never love our neighbor.
Bishop Curry said all this reminded him of the Biblical verse from Habbakuk, which reminds us that “without a vision the people perish.” And he proclaimed, “we need an alternative vision” to the one we are living by now. He proclaimed that God’s love is our alternative vision. It is God’s love that reminds us “perfect love casts out fear.” He reminded us that Christ quoted the greatest commandment, that we are to “love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength,” and that the second is like it, that we are to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” The challenge is whether we will live by God’s vision, the vision of a Holy God, who is just, or the much more near-sighted vision of fear and hatred and anxiety that is the narrative of our current cultural definition of neighbor as unholy and unworthy of our love, or of God’s justice. It was a challenging word to start a week of study and of learning what the Bible says about working for God’s justice and in so doing, sharing God’s love for all people. Good words to help us understand what the Psalm means when it says God is a holy God.
Of course the next part of my last few weeks was a lot more fun but not without its challenges. Tammy and I took a five day cruise out of Tampa with two of our friends from that area. The fun was getting to spend time with them, all the food, getting to experience a “dolphin encounter,” and all the food, and having time to rest and renew our spirits, and, did I mention, all the food? The challenging part was that both the sea day out to Grand Cayman and the sea day back from Cozumel to Tampa were days of 50 to 60 mph winds and rain and what a Navy veteran aboard said was called “a confused sea.” Thankfully that meant it wasn’t rolling in waves causing the boat to roll, it just made the ship jerk and shudder a bit as it sailed along. Still, better than a day teaching language arts to 6th graders no matter what, I venture to say.
This past week I attended the Academy of Parish Clergy Annual Retreat, a time when we heard speakers and learned a lot of powerful information. I was also received, as I am sure you have heard plenty of times, “Parish Pastor of the Year” award for 2019. I was deeply honored by the words written in the material that was submitted nominating me. I want to publically thank the many of our members who were asked to contribute. Our Conference Minister and Regional Minister also wrote in support of my nomination. The Executive Director of DART, the organization that helps train and organize the work we do through ICARE, also contributed to the nomination. It is quite humbling to have so many take time to do that and also to take time as ten of you did to come down Tuesday night for the dinner and the presenting of the award. Thank you to each of you and for your love and support. I am truly humbled. I joked with the clergy gathered there that I was also appreciative but having to prepare and present both a sermon and an hour-long seminar tempered my appreciation just a bit!
But I do want to share a bit of what I learned from the other speakers there. They were quite informative and also relate quite well to the words of our Psalm which remind us that our God is a Holy God. The first speaker was Rev. Traci Blackmon who is both a local church pastor in Missouri and also serves the United Church of Christ as our Executive Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries. Frankly I don’t have time to describe the scope of her duties in those roles, just the thought of doing all that and serving a church full-time makes my head spin. But her words were quite instructive. Rev. Blackmon did an historical analysis of the way in which race became part of our national narrative. She pointed out that race is neither a biological, theological, or genetic construct. In fact, prior to 18th Century, references to race as they appear in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries do not exist in literature of the time or records. The original settlers in America brought in indentured servants but they were mostly poor Europeans and criminals using their servanthood as a way to get away from prison in England and Europe. In fact, the Irish were considered the worst, called “savages” because of their violent behavior and the inability of their masters to control them and keep them from plotting and attempting to escape repeatedly.
It wasn’t until the end of the 1600’s that the decision was made to seek to enslave and use Africans. Their physical endurance and their knowledge of crops, farming techniques and ability to learn skills most fitted to the southern colonies of America, and they were generally easier to control through whips and chains and other violences. From 1690 on hundreds of laws were passed in Virginia as the first example of restrictions on the many free blacks that had been living in the colonies for years before that time. They were prohibited from voting, and for the first time the term “white” was used in a law, forbidding “blacks” from marrying “whites.” Her point is that race was a construct created by humans to dehumanize other humans. This is completely antithetical to the will of our Holy God, of course. Its purpose was for the economic benefit of some at the expense of the lives of another. It was justified by false science and philosophies that denied the full humanity of those who, although their blood was the same color as those who enslaved them, their skin was not. This was the excuse used to deem them inferior, and not due the same liberties, rights, and justice as those who were called white, but whose skin color was and is not white by any stretch or measure of the color. Our continued racism, the current uptick in the public acts of racism and racial hatred should offend and outrage anyone who believes in or professes to believe in a holy God, and everyone from private citizens to the highest public offices should unequivocally condemn the voices and actions of the few who act and speak in racist, hateful ways. There is no other option if we truly believe in a Holy God.
The other seminar at the Academy of Parish Clergy was on human trafficking and the sex trafficking industry. This has blown up in the news the past few days with the charges filed against the owner of the New England Patriots NFL football team, Robert Kraft. The presenter at the seminar spoke passionately about the way this crime has been wrongly understood by many of us. She reminded us that no child wants to be a prostitute or grow up to be one. The label child prostitute is just wrong. It is child abuse. The charging of prostitutes with felonies overlooks that most of them are captives to others who keep them imprisoned in that work by violence, addicting them to drugs to control them, and keeping them from having the money to escape. The good news is that the Spirit is moving, our Holy God is starting to work to help those in law enforcement to understand who the real victims are and who the real offenders are and are changing their tactics to get at the people who commit these crimes. The only good thing that can come of the arrests and the arrests yet to come in the case of Robert Kraft is it will continue to shine a spotlight on this issue and hopefully bring justice to these people – many of whom are illegal immigrants brought here under the pretense of getting good jobs and then enslaved like indentured servants of the 1600’s that we referred to earlier. So we have perhaps come full circle. The God of the Psalms, the Holy God, our God and father of Jesus Christ our Lord calls out for justice to be done.
We are the ones God calls to do that justice. We are the ones who must speak up against racism and act to end it in our economic, political and religious systems. We are the ones God has called to do what is holy and right for our neighbors, who sometimes are immigrants, and sometimes are just like us in every other way. We are the ones God calls to stand up for the powerless victim of sex trafficking. The only question is if we will do what we can. Our God, a Holy God, has a vision for the world where no one is treated unjustly, where the political, economic, and religious systems work for all people, not just the few.
Our God is a Holy, awesome God. God assures us this vision will come. The new heaven and new earth are already present, we only have to participate in it now to see it. Do you believe in a Holy God enough to participate in that vision now? AMEN.