Saturday, July 21, 2012

Making sense of the senseless . . .

     A few weeks ago, when we looked at the book of Job and read a few more passages on the reality and consequences of sin, I remarked in one of my sermons that you and I need to be equipped to answer the question of evil in light of a righteous, holy, and just God.  I shared with a couple groups that Mr. Gallup had spent some time reminding us that that particular question was the one asked by most people, but especially non Christians.  I had no idea, of course, that we would be dealing with a regional and national tragedy so quickly, but I remarked that it was only a matter of time before we dealt with tragedies in our lives in in the lives of those whom we love.  No doubt each of us have been asked to reconcile our faith with the events in Cedar Rapids and the massacre in Aurora, Colorado.  I know a few of you have struggled, and that is ok.  Those of us who accept, a priori, the fact that the human condition is entirely marred by sin and that we need a Savior can have a difficult time explaining to people who believe that humanity is caught in that upward spiral of improving understanding and abilities and morality that their assertions are wrong.  So many things seem so much better that when they are confronted by tragic actions such as this week, they are often shaken to their core.  To be sure, not all seek us seeking understanding.  Some of those questions have been thrown at us with accompanying sneers.  And others have equated God’s seeming unwillingness to save everyone as an indictment of His character.  But, by and large, I think many people are trying to come to grips with what has happened.  They have been shaken to their core.  And they are seeking answers.
     No doubt some of you are, too.  And that is ok.  We have had a lot thrown at us these past couple of weeks.  Although much of our focus as a region and a country will be focused upon these two big events, there is a slow death in our midst in the form of a drought.  As a farming community, we are particularly attuned to the weather.  But, truthfully, we would have to be blind and have no sense of feeling to miss what is going on around us.  And the effects of the drought are not yet fully known.  I have been asked more than once what I thought this would do to food prices.  In a country where unemployment is high, questions of food are important to the neediest among us.  Truthfully, I don’t know what the full effects of this drought will be.  I have heard that every 50 cents that corn goes up, foods downstream go up 10%.  Is that accurate?  I’m not sure.  I am afraid we will find out later this year.  Add to the increases to those of us not directly in the agriculture business the fears of the farmers around us.  If corn spikes too high, farmers may have to slaughter animals.  Too many cattle get killed and guess what happens to milk or beef?  And, oh, by the way, when they are slaughtering in the beginning, supply far outweighs demand.  What happens to those prices?  And then, many of us work for companies dependent upon the farming community.  If farmers cannot afford tractors and other machinery, John Deere, Sears Manufacturing, and others suffer.  What happens when they suffer?
     Fast forward to earlier this week and the disappearance of the two girls.  When their bodies were not quickly discovered, I thought back to a number of Angel Food conversations I had had with families over the last five years.  Several times I have been thanked by men and women for teaching them that their moms were not crazy.  Those of you who heard the stories know the relief that they felt.  Those of you who didn’t might be surprised to know that there were whispers and “stories” that children playing in the front yards of farm houses would disappear, never to be heard of again.  Probably 10-12 adults have thanked me for our work in Human Trafficking because it explained what was going on in their parents’ heads.  Their parents were crazy; they were trying to keep the kids (these adults) safe.  As soon as the story broke, I thought of those.  When the press showed a map showing it was a straight shot from the place where their bikes were found to I - 380, and I assumed this was a case of Human Trafficking.  Although it was buried in the coverage of the events in Colorado, the fact that one of the men has a strong tie to the drug culture, does nothing to remove from play the idea that the girls have been abducted or sold to cover a debt.
     But where was God, if He truly cares about little ones if they were being killed or abducted?  If you serve a God who frees people, why does He let little girls be captured by such bad guys?  Or, if children really are a gift from God, why would He ever give a child to someone who would choose to murder their own child?  Difficult questions to ponder, to be sure.
     And what happened in Colorado is simply unspeakable.  I know tragedies happen everywhere all the time, but has not Colorado had enough for this generation with Columbine?  The press did little to help the pain and suffering with their efforts to assign blame on Friday morning.  Before 10am, I heard that the Tea Party was to blame, Republican supporters like Rush Limbaugh for their insistence on gun access, that the President was to blame, that the “dark aspect” of this retelling was to blame, that the accused personal or academic failures were to blame.  We were not sure how many people had been killed or wounded, what families had been devastated earlier that morning, and pundits were trying to “score points” and promote their pet views.  If that wasn’t a sign of how fallen were are as humanity, the details of the massacre certainly were.
     Although, as I write this, much of the details have not been released (not even the victims’ names), it seems clear that the accused suited up in body armor like a villain character, tossed a couple of smoke or tear gas canisters to sow confusion, and then he stalked the packed theater shooting as many as 7 or 8 dozen people with as many as four weapons.  And, as sick icing on this sick cake, the accused booby-trapped his apartment, hoping, I guess, to kill the police or detectives sent to gather evidence about him.  Place yourself in the mind of someone directly impacted by this event.  Maybe you are the husband or wife of a first responder.  What if you are the relative of one of those who went to see the movie?  What if you are the director or one of the actors in the movie and have heard, thanks to pundits, that your film is to blame?  Where do you think God was during this incomprehensible act of violence?  What if you were one of the victims?  A survivor?  Where do you think you would say God was during those events?
     No doubt, as witnesses share their stories, there will tales of heroism.  I fully expect that we will hear stories of how some people helped others out, how some people distracted the gunman to save the lives of others, how some other victims helped to calm the terrors of those in the midst of these events.  Who knows, we may even hear a story of how one or two people displayed that ultimate love of others, in imitation of our Lord, and sacrificed themselves to save others!  There may even be tales that seem inexplainable.  Why was that person targeted and not that one?  How did a cushion or arm rest or something else deflect a bullet?  How did a bullet not severely injure or kill the intended victim?  Yes, there will be tales of miracles in this story.
     Eventually, the pundits will figure out that their causes pale by comparison to the loss of human life and they will quiet down.  The secular world will offer all kinds of coping suggestions like “spend time with your loved ones to make your body remember things are normal and lessen the effects of any PTSD you might be suffering,” but the press will bore quickly and move on.  No doubt politicians will decide that they have earned enough votes by expressing public statements of sympathy and the need to protect us, the voters, and they will move on to the next big event.  But the bigger questions will remain.  And who is truly equipped to answer them?  The truth of the matter is that you and I, and all His children, are equipped to answer those questions.  You and I speak from experience.  Not the kind of experience that we have read about, though there will be some who have experienced those kinds of tragedies and will all the more prepared to handle the questions winsomely and empathetically and with the hope that others need to hear.  No, the job will fall to normal people like ourselves, wanderers on this earth whose citizenship is of the kingdom to come to explain why things like these happen.
     The narrative of our faith, brothers and sisters, is one of deep and abiding grief but even more powerful and more determined love.  Our Father in heaven gave us a choice.  He wanted nothing more than for us to choose to love and follow Him, but He would not force us.  Love, true love, can never be forced.  It can only be given, surrendered.  He gave each one of us incredible freedom, and that freedom can cause nearly immeasurable pain.  That man in Colorado chose to inflict pain and suffering on others.  We don’t know why.  Similarly, someone chose to harm those two little girls and inflict incredible guilt in the lives of their family.  But, although none of us here gathered have ever inflicted pain on that scale, we have on many levels.  Each one of us had an awareness of sin, an awareness of how we had chose to hurt others and ignore the calls of God on our lives.  Maybe we treated another individual poorly?  Maybe we used another person as a means to our ends?  Each of us knows how easy it was for us to rationalize our behavior, but each one of us heard the whisper of our Father and knows, knows the incredible harm we inflicted.  Better still, each one of us knows the freedom, the release of knowing that our Lord die to atone for those actions.  Such was His love for us that He bore the consequences of our sins on that cross two thousand years ago and bridged the chasm that existed between God and us.  While we were yet sinners and enemies of Him, He came down and died to save us.  And to remind us that He has the power to redeem all things, He raised our Lord that Easter morning so long ago.  And ever since that day, it has been our job to go and proclaim to world His death and Resurrection and our freedom.
     Brothers and sisters, our Lord intended no evil.  He did not sit up in heaven and say to Himself, “Today, I will cause an idiot to kill or kidnap little girls in Iowa.”  He did not say, “Today, I will cause an idiot to fire 8-10 dozen bullets into a crowded theater and see what kind of havoc he can cause.”  There will be people claiming to be representatives of our faith who will stand in front of microphones and tell all who will hear that this was part of God’s plan.  They will speak how God intended this to glorify Himself.  Nothing can be further from the truth, and it may fall to your or to me to remind those in our midst, our families, our coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, that God does not intend evil--He redeems it.  These acts of violence are the evil choices of those who made them.  They, like us, had the freedom to choose the path of love or a path that rejected love.  They chose poorly.
     Fortunately for us, brothers and sisters, our Lord is more powerful than their evil, His ability to overcome death gives us all an opportunity to sing our Alleluias even as we mourn with those who have suffered.  But His story is not yet over!  He has not finished.  And it may be that the conversations you and I will have about these tragedies with others in our lives will be part of that redemptive plan.  He did not intend it, but He can certainly overcome it!  Who knows, perhaps you or me may answer the questions of others in a way that finally illumines His love in their hearts.  Just as God used the death of Wanda in our midst to reach into the lives of our neighborhood for the benefit of all those ladies and children in our midst suffering at the hand of a batterer, God may well use our trust in Him and our faithful witness to all that He is doing to draw one or more people to Himself.  Did He intend it?  No.  But He will redeem it!  The empty cross testifies to that, as does the life of each one of us who believes!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Where is He calling you to go?

     I know that there are a couple obvious recommended themes for preachers to discuss this weekend.  Clearly, there is a warning in our readings this week about the consequences of ignoring God and His prophet.  The king and high priest of Israel certainly learn that lesson the hard way in their dealings with Amos, as does Herod, whose suffering and death was legendary among extent literature as God’s punishment for, among other things, his willingness to kill John the Baptizer.  And, while I intended to focus on Amos this week, as evidenced by the cover on your orders of worship, I found myself pushed elsewhere during the course of my discussions this week.  Now, let me say first off that I understand the danger.  I was focused primarily on one sermon, so much of my preparation centered around that reading.  Even a bit more dangerous, none of the conversations which prompted my decision were with any of you.  Primarily, the discussions which pushed me afield were with people not a member of this congregation.  All of them, however, have a relationship or two with members of this church.  It dawned on me that I had better prepare you to think about these questions as you head back to work, head into ministry, or simply run into people who are not with us today.

     I also want you to understand I did not do this unreservedly.  It is always a dangerous thing to talk about things outside our parish life -- dangerous in the sense that I might be preaching on a question about which none of you care.  But, I was swayed on Thursday morning as I looked forward with the ladies on Thursday morning to the collect that I just prayed.  Just to keep it fresh in your mind and to prepare you for this adventure, I want you to hear the words one more time.  O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.  It is interesting, is it not, that on a day when we look at Amos and his battle with the authorities of the Northern kingdom and at Herod and his ultimate act of rebellion against God (as if the murder of the Innocents in an attempt to kill the rightful King pales), we pray that we might discern our calls and be given the grace and power to accomplish those calls.  Makes you wonder, perhaps, if you or I can end up like the villains in our readings.  But we are here to focus on the possibilities of our inheritance as sons and daughters of the Lord.

     To that end, I want to take a look at Ephesus.  I don’t want to look so much at the passage today as I do the whole ministerial effort at Ephesus.  I think sometimes, as you and I and those on vacation from among us share the ins and outs of some of our ministries, we tend to find ourselves defending what we are doing to outsiders.  I am not talking in the sense of whether our ministries are important, but whether we are nuts in the eyes of others for trying to do those things which we believe God has called us to do.  If we are, we are certainly in good company. God often gives seemingly impossible challenges to His sons and daughters, and then He works incredible salvation through their faithful responses.

     How much do you know about the effort to plant a church in Ephesus?  I am expecting not much.  I am almost fearful to ask, but I hope everyone is familiar with the church in Ephesus being named by John in the book of Revelations.  John commends them for their ability to test apostles and to remain steadfast in the faith, though God notes that the Christians there have forgotten how to love.  Believe it or not, there was a big effort on the part of God getting Ephesus from where it was to where it ends up in the book of Revelations.  Ephesus was located in what is modern day Turkey.  It was famous in the world of antiquity for being the city of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World.  It had a bustling port, was thoroughly Hellenized, and was, by ANE standards, a very good place to live.  In fact, some archeologists estimate that as many as 250,000 people lived there by the time of St. Paul.  It was considered by the Romans to be the most important city in Asia Minor and was made the capital city by Augustus, yes, that Augustus.  It is no wonder that Paul wanted to go there and proclaim the Gospel.  Can you imagine the glory and prestige associated with such a conversion?  A large city that is comfortable by most standards and a bastion of idolatry.  Who would not want to convert such a city for God!  And, let's be fair, how much easier would it be to convert lesser cities if one of the gems converted?

     Did you know that Paul was twice prevented by God from going to Ephesus and beginning his efforts to convert the citizens and grow God’s kingdom?  After Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul spent some three years processing what the Resurrection of Jesus meant to his understanding of God and God’s plan of salvation.  Once Paul had figured out that all Scripture pointed to the work and person of the One whose followers he once persecuted, Paul was turned loose to work for the growth of the kingdom of God.  Near the beginning of his labors, Paul wanted to go to Asia (Ephesus), but he was prevented by the Holy Spirit from entering there.  Instead, he seems to have gone on over to Corinth.  On his way back, he seems to have wanted to stay, but God wanted him in Syria.  Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos, instead, were given the charge of Ephesus.  Why?  Did God not know what He was doing?  I mean, how many times do we hear from secular critics that what we follow is “Pauline” Christianity?  Whatever Jesus of Nazareth preached and taught, if in fact He was real, is not what spread throughout the Mediterranean.  Paul, most critics agree, was the impetus for the spread of the religion you and I follow today.  Yet God prevented him from entering Ephesus not once, but twice!  Why?

     Clearly much had to change.  On the one hand, Ephesus was not prepared to hear from a newly converted and inspired Paul.  Ephesus was comfortable in its life.  Except for the health problems posed by the growing swamps, it had little to fear from anyone or anything.  It was a destination city in the ANE.  Who did not want to see the Temple of Artemis?  The hotel and restaurant industry did well.  Apparently, the silversmiths who made souvenirs made a comfortable living for themselves; otherwise, why would they rebel so hard against Paul when he finally arrived and began to preach?  And, if businesses are doing well, so is the tax man.  No, Ephesus was a great city by ancient standards, a place where people would have no reason to need to hear the Gospel.

     On the other hand, Paul had to change as well.  I know we as Christians sometimes cringe when we read Paul’s words.  Sometimes, we forget that his words were inspired and wish that Paul spoke a bit more euphemistically, a bit more softly.  I think those of us who are embarrassed sometimes by Paul’s passion and Paul’s stubborn refusal to allow himself to be distracted by anything which might hinder his proclamation of the Gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected forget his mindset.  Paul was a persecutor of the early Church.  When Paul calls himself the least of the apostles, he is not speaking from false modesty.  Paul recognizes rightly that he of all those engaged in the early Church has no right to have been given the commission given him by God.  He was actively hunting them down, ferreting them out, trying to ruin their lives.  Now, only through the grace of God and through an encounter with the Risen Lord, Paul is given an opportunity to serve God rightly.  He has an opportunity to thank God for the gracious love shown him.  And he is not about to blow it!  Add to that his fervent belief that Jesus could return any moment, and you and I might remember the urgency and thankfulness which impelled him to be plain spoken.  And we might understand why he wants so hard to be the one to go to Ephesus . . . 

     Yet that honor goes to others.  Specifically, we remember that Apollos was given the task of preparing the soil for Paul.  Apollos found himself directed to Ephesus and laying the groundwork for what would come later.  Was Apollos the evangelistic equal of Paul?  No.  In fact, Luke records that he did not teach the Gospel in its entirety.  Paul criticizes his brother for teaching the baptism of John, of repentance, and not the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  From my perspective, I am certain God knew what He was doing.  What gift did the people of Ephesusneed?  From their perspective, they had few lacks.  They would have understood, however, the nagging of a conscience.  Apollos could stroll into the city, preach about repentance, and people might well be intrigued, much as the people in Jerusalem were intrigued by John’s message.  Once the soil was prepared, however, Paul could pick up where Apollos began.  He could take the story begun by Apollos and complete it.  And, simply put, that is what happened.  Paul arrived in the second half of 52 AD, stayed some two and a half years, and look what was wrought!  Through the labors of Apollos, Priscilla, Aquila and maybe others, through the evangelistic efforts of Paul and those who worked closely with him, and finally through the pastoral efforts of those left in charge when Paul finally departed Asia, Ephesus grew into a church worthy of praise!  Looking back where it was when the ministry started, did such an outcome seem possible?

     You and I, however, find ourselves in situations not unlike the ministry at Ephesus.  When people hear about some of our work, they sometimes wonder what we are thinking.  Truthfully, I expect such disbelief from non-Christians, but I am amazed at how often Christians cannot seem to accept nor believe in the saving power of God.  Human Trafficking is a ministry which illustrates this pointedly.  How many of us have encountered people who scoff at the idea of the problem, tell us that if there is a problem there is nothing that can be done by us, or face otherwise generally unsupportive comments?  Heck, how many of us actively engaged in the ministry have felt them?  Said them?  Believed them?  I won’t go into all the details because some of this should be for our private consumption, but look at what is going on out there now.  I am sure that if you or I or anyone had asked Robin, or Sue, or Rick, or me, for that matter, what we hoped to accomplish when we began our Ministries of Presence, we had grand ideas.  None of that has happened.  I am sure that all of us have a bit of disappointment at that.  Yet think of the recent reconciliation which enabled me to return out there without the threat of arrest.  What made that possible?  The truckers themselves specifically mentioned the quiet witness of people like Robin and Sue and Rick and so on, not just at our location, but at stops around the country.  In a quick ten minute story we learned that others are doing the exact same thing as we and that one of our target segments of the population have noticed!  Now, they demand a response!  Was it our focus?  Does it seem a waste of our resources of time and money?  If the reconciliation is true, though, what is the response in heaven?  In light of that celebration, does our labor seem a waste?  Have we thrown away good money for no result?  Not at all.  God has simply used our faithfulness to accomplish things other than we considered important.  Who knows best?  God.  Whom should we trust?  God.  Maybe the bishop is right and we deserve a bigger pat on our collective backs than we think.  And by the way, this story of faithful obedience is shared with other churches in our midst.  It is not a story confined only to our walls.

     This week being trivia, I was naturally drawn to some of the outcomes there.  A few years ago George & Annette and Robin asked if I was in favor of or against trivia in principle.  Once they explained it, it sounded no worse than Bingo in other churches.  George, probably in an effort to sell me on the idea, promised to have a Bible category each time.  What motivated them?  Our lack of money, particularly in the summer.  Were their concerns real?  You bet!  But they were committed to running it a particular way.  Each summer we make a couple thousand dollars or so for the church.  I have to say, I have enjoyed it, too.  Last night is the first night that Karen & I have not been at the winning table.  Being a bit generous (but not too much), Karen & I have usually split our winnings with the church.  We have used our half to treat ourselves to Steak N Shake or Subway or some other restaurant we don’t make it to during the course of the month.  It’s not Lunardi’s, but it still blesses us.

     But the trivia has been a blessing to a number of others as well.  Over the course of the few years that we have had trivia night, three families have reconnected with their church.  Now, I admit that I wish they would have joined us, but three families have called me or visited me to explain that what we are doing (when I say we, I really mean George, Annette, Robin, and all those who help organize and who help come up with questions) made a difference in their lives.  Invariably, it has been the Bible category which caused the household heads to return to church.  I knew I should have known the answer to those questions, but I had been away too long.  I just wanted to thank you and let you know that, thanks to your gentle prodding, we started going to church again.  What started as a creative way to help pay the bills has turned into a mission and a ministry.  George and Annette, as most of us know, were raised as clergy kids.  They know from experience that God wastes nothing.  But ask them if they ever expected to help people reconnect with God through their four Saturday nights a year.  I doubt seriously that George ever thought his questions were prodding people to think about their relationship with God.  Maybe he was and was afraid to say it aloud for fear of the naysayers.  My guess is that their hopes and dreams for the Trivia night were not about helping three families find God again.  Yet, God had other plans.

     Brothers and sisters, I could go on and on about a number of the ministries here.  Our support for Winnie’s Place and Winnie’s Wishes has reminded a troubled soul that God cares and that God redeems, even a death at the hand of a batterer.  Our battle against hunger that began some 45 years ago is now the focus of almost 160 churches in our community.  Yes, there is always hunger in our midst, but there are always cooks and servers in our midst as well!  God has seen to that.  Yes, the problem of sin and evil is enormous.  But God is bigger and more powerful.  Best of all, He cares and pays attention to the individual details!  I had to laugh this week as another prayer was answered.  I had been praying to God for a woman or women from AA to come alongside us and help us offer sobriety and support to those victims we encounter.  My first volunteer, after weeks of asking and praying, approached me and asked me if her history disqualified her.  She had turned to alcohol in her teen years to cover the pain from the sex abuse she experienced at the hand of those whom she most trusted.  As I prayed with her and apologized for what she had experienced, I reminded her that she was uniquely qualified to minister to the ladies we encounter.  All of them have been abused as well.  She, better than anyone I know, except those already rescued and redeemed, can testify to the healing power of Christ and the redemption of personal lives.  What better person to minister to them in His name!  We have redeemed ex-cons who are willing to share their stories with women released from prison.  Our list of opportunities, gifts and talents goes on and on.  Yes, the challenge is daunting.  Yes, the work is intense and hard.  But, brothers and sisters, the reward is without parallel!

     You and I have been adopted into our Father’s family, and you and I have been given a role to play in salvation history.  The world may see the problem too big or the human effort too weak, but you and I know better.  We serve a God who redeems all things to His glory.  We serve a God who knows precisely what is required.  And we know a God who loves us and knows us better than we know ourselves.  And it that God, our loving Father, who commissions us in His name and send us out to do His work, one lost soul, one lost city, at a time.  Will the world know or care about who did what when in His name a decade from now?  A century?  A millennium?  No, but He will never forget.  And just as you and I remember the work of Paul and Apollos and Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus some two thousand years ago, He will remember ours.

     What is He placing on your heart?  What evil has God called you to confront?  Brothers and sisters, if He has called you, you cannot fail.  By simply accepting that call, you are helping to prepare the way for another amazing story of redemption.  Let us pray.  O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thorns that remind us of His grace . . .

     Why won’t God take away this temptation?  Why must I still be tempted by this? – I used to be surprised by how often I am asked this question by faithful people.  I say surprised because, prior to accepting a call to ministry, I was convinced I was the only one who worried about such things.  Naturally, my time at my last church quickly disabused me of such notions.  Questions like this are part and parcel of the struggle of many brothers and sisters in the walk and wrestling match with God.  For whatever reason, we seem to think of spiritual growth in linear terms.  We seem to equate longevity and maturity in Christ with the process of sanctification.  The problem, of course, is that we want to be sanctified where we want to be sanctified.  More often than not, we miss what God is doing in our lives because of an obvious struggle that we think is of primary importance.

     The good news is that we are not alone in our struggles!  When people come in to complain about their seeming failure and ask me what is wrong with their faith or their discipling, I get to remind them that we are all in great company.  When we find ourselves in that position, of wondering why God has not taken away a particular temptation or weakness in us, we should all be reminded of these words of St. Paul.  Three times I appealed the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  When we recognize our faults and temptations as continuing stumbling blocks, we ought not to despair.  Rather, we should be comforted that, like St. Paul, we are being reminded of His grace in our lives.

     Put another way, I was reminded by our brothers and sisters in AA of the truth of this perspective.  About a year ago, I noticed that the stories of newcomers were pretty much the same.  From my untrained eye, the stories of the newcomers seemed almost scripted.  Those more established in the program, though, seemed to be captivated by each repeated story.  So I asked them how they could avoid the cynicism, or at least showing it in their faces, as each newcomer went through the predictable pattern.

     Simply put, they reminded me that their perspective was the same that we should have as Christians.  While they recognized that each newcomer who arrived was likely to go through predictable patterns and experiences and have predictable responses, they recognized the importance of each one of those experiences and patterns as important in the newcomer’s eventual path to sobriety.  Put differently, each individual’s struggles and responses, helped them down the path of recovery to sobriety.  We, watching and hearing them, might see patterns; but for those seeking help, they were the foundation of a future life.  Their struggles would remind them of their need for God in their life, and their struggles would give them the empathy to help others along the same path.

     Our walk with God is much like what they described.  Each of us gathered here has a particular sin or temptation (or more than one!) which plagues us.  If those thorns did not exist in our flesh or our consciences, how effective guides would we be to helping others meet the Risen Christ?  How empathetic would we be to the struggles of others?  How committed would we be to praying for them?  To exhorting them?  To cheering them on and through life?  Simply put, brothers and sisters, our struggles keep us humble before God and our fellow human beings.  Our thorns remind us of our need for His grace, the only grace that saves, and the only grace that heals--grace desperately needed in the world around us.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why . . .

            It became clearer to me as the week went along that I had done us a bit of disservice last week, not really focusing my sermon on Job.  By the time Tuesday had rolled around, I realized that I had been guilty of forgetting the warnings of George Gallup to us in seminary.  As some of you know, but probably most of you don’t, Mr. Gallup was a member of my seminary’s Board of Directors.  He was one of those individuals charged with the responsibility of maintaining the founders’ vision and seeing it implemented even as the world around changes.  During one of his discussions with seminarians, Mr. Gallup reminded us that the number one question afflicting people in our pews and people not yet a member of the Church is the question of innocent suffering.

            Mr. Gallup shared how he and other pollsters were amazed at the consistent data.  No matter how many statements they offered in their polls about Christianity, the question of evil and the existence of a good, holy, righteous, just God was sure to get the best result.  No matter how the question was phrased, it was a problem that plagued a great number of non Christians and Christians alike.  A great example of such a question would be “If you could ask one question of God and demand an answer, would it be:  ?”  And the pollsters filled in a number of possible answers.  To their surprise, fewer people consistently wanted to know when the world would end, when they were going to die, what life after death was like, the eternal fate of a loved one, and a host of other answers over the years than why evil was allowed to exist.  Promptly ignoring his advice this past weekend, I did not address that question with you this past week.

            But God is always quick to show mercy.  Rather than moving on entirely to a new topic in this week’s readings, we are still left to contend with the existence of evil in our midst.  The author of Lamentations has just witnessed the destruction of Israel.  A hemorrhaging woman has been denied her community of worship for nearly a dozen years!  Jairus has been forced to face the despair of having lost a child.  Coming on the heals of Job’s encounter with his friends and with God and with the disciples’ panic in the midst of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, we have a nice cross-section of the effects of sin and our often hopelessness in the face of those consequences.

            What do I mean by that statement?  Take the reading from Lamentations this week.  By the way, I often suggest this book in the Old Testament for those who are struggling.  It is amazingly crafted.  And while I would love to talk about some of the literary devices with the English majors among us, such is not our purpose today.  The author, presumed to be Jeremiah, has witnessed the utter destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  We might think we are unable to relate, but I doubt that we are truly not able to relate to the author’s despair.  While it is true that culturally, the world around us no longer accepts that what happens here on earth is a reflection of the battles among the gods in the spiritual world, we can still relate to this national catastrophe.  The people who have survived the battle and who have avoided being killed or captured and transported throughout the ANE as slaves now face a stark reality: their good luck charm is gone.  Culturally, it was believed that because the Temple was inJerusalemJerusalem really had nothing to fear about the enemies of God.  After all, what god would allow his temple to be torn down, if he could do something about it? And clearly, Yahweh could do whatever He wanted whenever He wanted.

            Truthfully, it is not unlike those among us who like to claim that God’s favor is with us.  Throughout our country’s history people have claimed the mantle of the newIsrael.  We were founded, in part, to give people the freedom to worship God however they saw fit.  It was our destiny, we claimed, to own all the land between the two great oceans.  In various wars against evil, our might was compared by politicians and preachers alike as the hand of God.  This belief that we were protected and used by God gave us a unique optimism.  No matter what happened, no matter what befell us, we knew we would win, conquer or whatever, in the end.

            Then a couple events hit us.  One was the attacks of 9-11.  An outside enemy, an enemy of Christianity, successfully attacked us.  Where was God then?  The more recent event has been the economic crisis of the past three or four years.  For generations Americans considered it part of their legacy to leave their families in a better position for success.  As a society, we were not unlike those described in the book of Job.  Want proof of God’s favor towards us?  Look at our wealth.  Look at what we had to pass on to those who come after.  How many of us gathered here remember that goal of our grandparents?  Our parents?  How many of us here gathered are certain that we will be able to give that gift to our children?  Our grandchildren?  Our great grandchildren?  For the first time in many decades Americans wonder whether we will exist as a country in a generation or two.  Yes, we can begin to empathize with Jeremiah’s despair.

            So, too, can we feel the hemorrhaging woman’s pain.  All of us here gathered know what it is like to be excluded.  As I have heard your stories these past six years, I know we have lots of black sheeps of the family gathered together in worship.  I know we have victims of bullying.  I know we have people who have been ridiculed for who they are.  Heck, how many of us now are excluded simply because we are perceived to be religious?  Four or five decades ago it was assumed that everyone went to church.  If you missed church, the whispers were about you.  Nowadays, the whispers are about those who faithfully go.  “She goes to church every week, be careful how you act around her.”  “He goes to Bible Study, like he can’t find a better use for his time.”  “Those two believe that nonsense that there is a God and He can do miracles.” Yes, we can all relate somewhat to the isolation and exclusion felt by the hemorrhaging woman.

            And death.  All of us gathered here have been touched by death.  A few of us have walked closely with death.  We have fought for our very lives at death’s door.  And for what?  To continue to experience the isolation, the hurt, the pain, and the scorn that this world offers?  All of us have had to deal with the death of a loved one.  All of us here gathered at a grave or more to proclaim our Alleluia, when the world is so quick to laugh at us for thinking that life is not ended, but changed.  Yes, as a group we understand the consequences of sin.

            But that understanding is what makes us perfect tools for His use!  Were the stories that we read the past couple of weeks to end without the view of God’s redemption, we would have every reason to despair.  Like Job, we might feel frustrated and betrayed.  Like Jeremiah, we sometimes have every reason to wonder if God is truly still aware of our suffering and if He truly cares about us.  And like the lady or Jairus, when left to fix those problems on our own, we are often impotent to do anything about them.  We can spin our wheels and see no real impact from all our effort.

            But you and I live on this side of the work and person of Christ.  You and I live on this side of the lens which serves as the focus for all that God is doing in the world and in our lives.  Yes, as we read this week, Jeremiah reminds himself of the hesed, the steadfast love of God.  And he reminds himself and us that he must hope in the Lord.  Hope or faith in anything else, including our fellow human beings or even ourselves, will disappoint.  But, at some time in the future, Jeremiah trusts that God will act and show His favor towards His people.  He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love.  Brothers and sisters, you and I live in the shadow and hope of that ultimate display of His love for us and His compassion towards us!

            You and I are called to live our lives in light of the cross and of the empty tomb.  Unlike Job and Jeremiah and the woman and Jairus, who trusted that God would one day act; you and I live knowing His act has been completed.  How can we face economic uncertainty?  Because we know that the God who died for us, was raised to life for us, and who promised that we would be with Him one day has promised He will provide for our needs.  How can we hope in the face of isolation or pain or hurt?  Because we know, we absolutely know, He knows what we are feeling and that He has promised to redeem those evils in our lives just as He did in that of His Son.  How can we face the threat of physical security and even death, content and secure that life is not ended but changed?  Because we know the tomb was empty that Easter morning!  And let’s face it, if He can conquer death, if He can bring the dead to life, is there anything else in our life more hopeless?  Anything which seems to be a greater threat than our death?  Conquering a lack, providing a need, healing a disease seems like a peace of cake when compared to the seeming permanence of death.

            So, back to our beginning question: Why is there innocent suffering?  Hopefully, as you have reflected this morning, you have come to the realization that there is no such thing.  As we looked at last week, none of us are truly innocent and none of us can isolate ourselves from the consequences of sin.  All of us have sinned and fallen short.  Only one man in history ever was truly innocent and suffered.  Yet His example serves for us a reminder of our calling.  Jeremiah reminded us this morning that God never willingly afflicts or grieves anyone.  He always intends good for everyone.  Still, we live in a world full of the consequences of our sins and the sins of those around us.  Sometimes, God acts immediately to ease the consequences of those sins.  Sometimes, however, our suffering can be redeemed in a way that brings glory to Him and testifies to those around us about His healing power.  Sometimes, he uses our suffering to remind us that we need a Savior, that we cannot save ourselves.  And just as Job life did for his friends, just as the hemorrhaging lady did for those who knew her and her story, just as God did with the exile of His people, and just as Jairus did with those in his life, the redemption of our particular circumstances becomes a testimony to the power and love of God.  When the circumstances of God’s people are redeemed in inexplicable ways, the world is left to wonder.  Why should Job trust Yahweh?  What causes a king to return a people to their land and to rebuild a temple?  What heals such a lady?  How can death be overcome?  Brothers and sisters, it is those redemptions in our lives which become the most powerful testimony of our Father’s love and power to those in the world around us.  It is those amazing restorations and redemptions which give us the opportunity to share the hope that is within us, to share His Gospel narrative, and so give hope where exists despair and promise joy where there is only sadness.