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.

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. Being imitators of Christ suggests instead of nothing really changing, almost everything changes.

Because we once lived a life in pursuit of personal fulfillment and self-preservation.
But, time and again, Jesus shows the path of discipleship at its core leads to self-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.

I have been deeply challenged by the Emanuel AME Church massacre of nine people who were in their church - studying the Bible in church.

Major issues that have emerged since the event revolving around such as:
  • guns. Should there be tougher laws restricting possession of guns? Should we encourage more people to bear arms?

The session - the ruling body of this church- just in the past 12 months passed a gun policy stating no guns would be allowed on the premises. But we do gather here to pray and read the bible. Do we need to reconsider that policy?
Do we need the safety consultant who spoke at a Wednesday night supper to return and hire him to train some of our people?

- What about systemic and structural racism-- Does it exist?
Should there be such separation and divisions primarily based on race and skin color in our communities?  How might these issues be overcome?

How do our symbols such as the confederate battle flag or the names of our places and streets shape our communities? Are they reminders of times of glory or times of oppression? Do they lead to unity in community?

How to we deal with the reality of difference?

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! And there is always a potential to make sacrifices...

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. We considered the way the Rev. Pinckney was gunned down in his own church, as was Archbishop Oscar Romero while celebrating Communion in his church, as was Martin Luther King, Jr’s mother, Alberta King, while playing the organ in her church, 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 outside. We took solace in remembering we are witnesses to the resurrection. Discipleship is not about self-preservation, but about witness.

It is so powerful to hear and see the way church members of Emanuel AME and others in the charleston community have responded to the gunman with words of forgiveness and acts of reconciliation.  Jacob affirmed before his brothers who has sold him into slavery--what you intended for evil, God has intended for good.  
Is this unfolding before us?

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 retaliating with words of love and forgiveness.
The victims’ loved ones spoke to Mr Roof words of forgiveness, calling him to repent and accept Jesus, I don’t even know how they were able to face him, much less speak to him the way they did.

Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you. - Jesus commanded

Is that what the people of Mother Emanuel AME church have been doing since the inception of that church living through times of slavery, persecution, and segregation and discrimination?

The granddaughter of the fallen Ethel Lance said: We don’t have no hate for nobody, because our power of love is stronger than ever. - (as recorded by Democracy Now!)

It’s amazing.  And what about the community of Charleston itself coming together to pray and work out differences.  Significant and necessary transformation seems to be underway there and elsewhere, one I think most of us have been ready for for a long time.

My cousin has lived in Charleston for over a decade working for the county so out in the community a lot.  He is a graduate of Virginia Tech, where one of his professors who survived the holocaust and cancer was gunned down in that shooting.  
He has been directly and deeply impacted by both events. He wrote to me:
“Charleston is known as a friendly city.  We've even been named the "friendliest city in America" a few times.  It’s a distinction we are proud of here.  In the past week, I saw a lot of this face-value friendly 'politeness' get replaced by genuine and true kindness.
Everywhere I went I noticed small things that people were doing.  
“For example, the day after the shootings, an african american clerk at my grocery store simply acknowledged that she sees me in the store often and I’m always so nice to people who work there.  She "just wanted to tell me that", and she took my hand and said "god bless you".   That floored me! my cousin said.

He continues: “On Sunday [June 21] there was a joint-faith public service in Marion Square, near the shooting site.  There was little talk of hatred, or division or race..there was a lot of talk about our community, how much love and pride there is here.  Just lots of genuine kindness everywhere.

“All over this community there were thousands of people before, during and after the shooting working passionately to better our community, its youth and future generations, and the land that supports us.  This unstable and sick young man came and in one action impacted thousands of people, but he came and went.  This takes a long time to recover from but he is gone and we are still here.  All those people working all those days and touching all those lives..they are still here, working on this.  
They are far greater and more powerful and lasting force than one act of evil can ever be.  

What was intended for evil, God has intended for good…

Let us pray.  

Good and merciful God,
So many times in our lives we are challenged to lean on you, examine our faith, rise up to resist evildoers, and fulfill our calling to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation.
May the sacrifices of the nine who were killed in the shootings, not be in vain…

May the sacrifices each of us makes--
which may include the sacrifice or letting go of any creeds and ideologies which support and condone division and prejudice-- not be in vain
Forgive us for time when when we have not lived up to our calling.
And from this day forward we ask you to give us courage to follow that path Jesus calls us along to do our part in the powerful lasting force of good in this community and in the world, that no single act of evil can overcome.
In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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