Sunday, June 28, 2015

Intended for Evil, God intends for Good

Commerce Presbyterian Church
Sunday June 28, 2015

A selection of Scripture for this morning:

At the end of the book of Genesis chapter 50, We find the story of Joseph and his brothers. His brother had sold him into slavery.  In an ironic twist, they find themselves at his mercy later in life and here is what Joseph said to them in verse 19 and 20:

‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.

In the gospel of Matthew we find Jesus’ sermon on the mount in which he said...
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

And from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:

“...Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

The word of the Lord.

People of faith who make particular claims about God have a fundamental problem that cannot be resolved--it is the problem of theodicy--the reality of evil in the world.  

How can God be all good and all powerful and there be evil in the world?
If God is all good and not able to do anything about it, then god is not all powerful.  
Or, If God is all powerful and does not do anything about evil in the world, then how can we say God is all Good?

We try to make sense of it:  
-- it is because of the free-will of humans that evil exists..
-- or it is some third agent, Satan, the devil, who is responsible for evil.
-- Or that evil is part of God’s plan -  

but even in these scenarios an All powerful and All Good God doesn’t fit with the reality of evil. Evil exists…and as people of faith we are called to live and be present in that reality, and work toward resist evil by doing good.

This is the road of discipleship.

Friday, June 26, 2015

imitators of God

“ imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:1-2

Jesus never promised the road of discipleship of Jesus would be easy or smooth. Christians can easily fall under the delusion that once we are “saved” or have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior life will go well for us, be quite straightforward, and we can pretty much continue to live as we had before. This is not what Jesus taught. It seems that once we are “saved” or commit our lives to Jesus the real challenge begins. If we are truly walking in his steps, or being “imitators,” this suggests a pretty radical shift from the way we had been living has taken place; instead of nothing really changing, almost everything changes because, if we’re honest, most of our living focused on fulfilling personal interest and self-preservation. Time and again, Jesus shows the path of discipleship at its core leads to sacrifice after sacrifice for the benefit of others, to the point of losing one’s life.
When we imitate Christ:
- we are living a life of sacrifice, which means living in obedience to God--not my will but thy will;
- we are living in faith not fear. I am told “do not be afraid” appears in some form 365 times in the Bible!
- we are living to be ambassadors of reconciliation; meaning working to tear down walls of division and hatred.
Does this suggest that life in Christ puts one on “easy street” or that everything remains as it was?

I have been deeply challenged by the Emanuel AME Church massacre of nine people studying the Bible in church, and what has come as a result. Major issues that have emerged since the event revolving around such as:
  • guns. Should there be tougher laws restricting possession of guns? Should we be armed in church?
  • systemic and structural racism.  Does it exist? Should there be such separation in communities?  How might these issues be overcome?
  • Symbols--particularly the Confederate battle flag, but also names of Confederate leaders marking places and streets. How should we remember history? Whose history is to being told and commemorated and to what end?

As we approach these conversations, it is important to attempt to distinguish between what we might want to do or what we think is right, and what Jesus would do and our own call to be imitators of God.  WWJD doesn’t get old!  So often we want to hear easy answers, answers that confirm our own opinions, and answers the justify our actions--but does that positioning reflect the nature of discipleship?  
I had lunch with the Rev. Cheryl Barnes of Sardis Presbyterian, a black Presbyterian church in Jackson County. We considered the way the Rev. Pinckney was gunned down in his own church, as was Archbishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr’s mother, the list goes on. Were we to be in that type of situation, Rev. Barnes and I both felt our calling to follow Christ compelled us to a preference of a death while praying rather than a death while trying to defend ourselves, in our own church or anywhere. We took solace in remembering we are witnesses to the resurrection. The path of discipleship is not an easy one.  
It is so powerful to hear and see the way church members have responded to the gunman with words of forgiveness.  Rev. Barnes reflected, had Mr. Roof chosen to carry out his crime in a setting outside the church his intention to incite a race war might have been more successful as there most likely would have been retaliation. But, he went into a church and chose to do battle with Christians who, in obedience, are reacting by taking the steps toward forgiveness and loving their enemy. The path of discipleship is not an easy one.
Seeing the community of Charleston come together to pray and work out differences is inspiring.  There is significant transformation underway there and elsewhere.  My cousin, who lives in Charleston, wrote to me, “It has been a crazy week here as you can imagine. Our community is solid and has responded beautifully..with as much grace and poise as can be expected during a confusing and sad time. I'm proud of my community, and my state.”
During our church service Sunday, June 21, we took time to reflect on our experiences of how we have been made aware of racial differences in our lives, and how we might be ambassadors sent out to do the active work of reconciliation.  For the offertory Jennie Snare played, “Proud to be an American,” which I heard in a different light given the context. May we all emulate the Christlike response my cousin describes of his city, “coming together with grace and poise” by “proudly stand[ing] up next to” brothers and sisters of every race and creed because we are called to live in love. The path of discipleship truly is rewarding.    

God’s Grace and Peace be with you all, each and every day,
Pastor C. Craig Topple