“Don't Waste Terrible Times!”" , 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, 6/6/21
As I’ve shared with you many times, my thinking about the presence of evil in the world and how we deal with it as God’s people. I’ve shared the teachings in this sermon with you at least every year since 911 and today’s Bible lessons raise the question of evil once again. In the Old Testament lesson (Genesis 3: 1-15) we heard how sin (disobedience to God) started in the first place. As you heard this ancient Bible story- I’ll bet you could find yourself in this story! Then in the gospel (Mark 3: 20-35), we heard Jesus teach about evil and give us needed insights if we are going to overcome, especially in difficult, painful times.
Guess what- difficult, painful times are present right now! Two or our pandemics- racism resulting in police brutality and community violence are directly related to sin. Our Covid pandemic is not caused by sin, but it has shown us how selfish and self-centered we are as a country. Saginaw’s murder rate is embarrassingly terrible, and it’s not summer yet. We have people with grieving problems, money problems, health problems, court and jail problems, moving problems, life problems, relationship problems, etc. In other words- join the human race. This kind of pain is part of the human condition. As I reminded you last year, St. Paul has advice for us when we face situations like these. In Romans 12: 21 he says, “Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.” I know how devoted you are to your Lord, so I’m sure that this is how you intend to live your life. Me too! The problem is, in frustrating, confusing times like these- how do you know how to defeat evil with good? We’d be glad to do as God wants, but how do we know what that is? For me, one of the blessings of having lived through pain and suffering (as well as wonderful times) is the chance to think through and refine my own personal theology of evil based on scripture, and especially on Gospel. I’d like to share it with you again this morning. As I hope you remember, I see five basic principles in our dealing with evil.
FIRST PRINCIPLE: We mustn’t delude ourselves about the power of the enemy. Some years ago, I asked our Sunday school youngsters to tell me what Satan looked like. You know what they said: a little white man in a red jump suit with a tail, a pitchfork, fire coming out of his fingernails (too many video games!), and horns- either red or black- couldn’t decide which. Wouldn’t that be nice- if we could always recognize him and his greatest desire was to get us to swear or tell a lie- don’t we all wish it were that simple. The devil (or Satan) is just the name we give “the evil powers of this world that seek to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”- i.e. US! (“Book of Common Prayer”- Service of Holy Baptism, p. 302) Satan’s purpose is to close our open minds; turn our loving hearts into cold, hateful hearts of stone; make us suspicious of everyone and everything; divide us; enslave us by fear; and diminish our spirit.
SECOND PRINCIPLE: Evil is highly contagious- look how evil spreads, worse than smallpox or tuberculosis. At the checkout line, a lady said, “I just can’t see why they (the terrorists) hate us so!” I know. Among other reasons, one of them goes back to the Jewish holocaust in World War II. When the war was over, our side- the winning side- officially established a homeland for the Jews in Palestine and empowered them to become a nation. I have to be suspicious that one of the reasons this happened was plain and simple anti-Semitism....they didn’t want all those Jewish people in their land. I remember, as a little girl growing up in Detroit, seeing ad after ad in the classified section of the Detroit News: “Apartment for rent- no pets, no children, no Jews.” The problem of giving them a homeland in Palestine was that someone else already lived there- the Palestinians. The Jews said God promised the land to them through their ancestor Abraham (God did, but the Palestinians are also Abraham’s descendants.) The Palestinians said it was their land; hatred festered; and Satan sowed the seed for the poisonous harvest that after all these years we are now reaping. Unfortunately, it’s not just God’s Kingdom that can start with a mustard seed and grow into a mighty tree- if we water and inflame the hatred, Satan’s can also. Unless we take preventative measures, what we sow is what we get.
THIRD PRINCIPLE: Jesus’ teachings, especially those in the Sermon on the Mount, are the vaccination against being destroyed when evil is thrown at us. I was talking to a Bible teacher- definitely someone who should know better, who said he thought we should just go in and bomb the “you-know-what” out of any nation that allows terrorists to live within their borders. He justified his opinion by saying that the Bible is full of war- just look at the Old Testament. True, but Jesus came to fulfill the old covenant. The Old Testament was written for the people of God when they were just beginning their journey. “An eye for an eye” was a necessity to limit violence- so a whole family couldn’t be wiped out for the sin of one member. You don’t give a toddler and a fifty-five-year-old grandmother or grandfather the same rules. Jesus said he had come to fulfill the law. In fact, he said, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you- love (i.e. want what is best for) your enemy.” Remember, he’s not talking about love- a feeling, but love- an action, a choice. St. Paul reminds us that God says: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” One question I have for you- actually, how committed are you to obeying Jesus? Period, exclamation mark- or only when it’s not too hard?
FOURTH PRINCIPLE: Looked at through God’s eyes, the power for who wins this round- God or Satan, is not in the hands of the evil person or group, even though they think and act as if they are in charge. Power is in the hands of the VICTIM. It is the victim who allows God to take charge of the encounter. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that. Why? Because it is the victim who determines the response to the evil. Satan can do nothing if the victim responds as a Christian and refuses to spread anger and hate, but instead works to solve the initial problem that the devil used to start the whole evil mess. Look how this principle works. Since Satan counts on being able to spread his evil by using one evil person (or a group of evil people) to get something going, he must pick his person carefully. The more negatives emotionally and physically this person or group can cause the better. The first incident only gets the ball going. The power for good or evil is in the hands of the victim. Look- if an evil person throws a ball of nasty garbage at me, I have a choice. If I can’t dodge it, the instinctual human choice is to catch it and start throwing it back, letting it splatter at everyone within range. In fact, I might even miss and get a whole lot of innocent people. What happens next? Those on the other side do the same. Before long, following our natural tendencies, we are all a filthy stinking mess. However, we are not called to follow our natural tendencies- we are much more than the highest biological entity on this planet. We are called to be children of God, and there is a better way. Instead, we might catch the nasty ball and hold it until we figure out how to dispose of it with a minimum of damage- I might even use it to fertilize our church garden. thus taking care of the problem, but not spreading the filth. If we are strong enough, courageous enough, have enough Spirit power, the contamination stops before it corrupts us or spreads to anybody else.
Bringing it down to the nitty-gritty of life, how do we do this? Do we let evil people walk all over us? Of course not. As Christians, our motivation for an action is what is most important. If a crazed gunman started shooting children at our neighborhood school, what should law-enforcement do? They should stop him- using as much force as necessary, even if it meant killing him. Why? To get revenge? No- to stop the violence, the killing of innocent children. Christians have no business getting revenge- only stopping evil and bringing the guilty to justice. If we try to get revenge, we will participate with Satan in destroying our own spirit. The Rt. Rev. Nathan Baxter, former dean of the National Cathedral in Washington DC and bishop of Central Pennsylvania, expresses this idea well when he stated, “As we act, we must not become the evil we deplore.”
FIFTH PRINCIPLE: Don’t waste terrible times! When someone does something terrible to you, or when encountering a ghastly life tragedy- don’t waste it! What do I mean? Think about it. Think about the huge negative energy generated by evil experience. That energy can be redirected, by your skill and obedience to our Lord, as positive power for God and for good. You don’t believe me? The best example of this is the cross. What worse catastrophe could Satan throw at us than having people execute God’s son naked on a garbage heap? And yet, through Jesus’ obedience- came the glorious resurrection, eternal life, salvation, fullness-of-living for all who would accept it. The Chinese character for calamity is a combination of characters- crisis and opportunity- same idea. So my challenge to us today is, since we’ve already lived through the crisis (I hope), find the opportunity. What opportunities can we ferret out of the messes of our lives? Terrible times encourage us to reexamine our priorities. In 9-11, do you remember the three passengers who became heroes (Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett, and Mark Bingham) on United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside? They prevented the terrorists from using the plane as a bomb against a heavily-populated target by trying to take back the plane. What did they do as their crisis became apparent? They used their cell phones to call family and friends, they asked their listeners to say the Lord’s Prayer with them, and they made the decision to make their lives count- they knew they could make a difference. At that point, talking on their cell phones- all the little disagreements, irritations didn’t matter at all. What are your priorities? When is the last time you told your family and friends that you love them? If you don’t do it today, how do you know you’ll get another chance? Are you making your life count- making a difference? Are you really spending your time and money on your true priorities? Are you using all your energy and problem-solving talent to work for God? At the beginning of this sermon, I said that we’d be glad to do what God wants- I hope that’s true! Actually, in real life, how committed are you to Jesus? What about when the chips are down and you are mad as H---?!! Will you obey him then? Saginaw’s future depends on your answer as well as the answer of other Christians. Will you:
Snitch? (To every mother or father, grandmother or grandfather, aunt or uncle, Godparent, wife or significant other, pastor or friend- how about stepping up to the plate and turning them in (anonymously if necessary) when they do violence?)
Talk with beloved children, grand/Godchildren, other relatives, friends about the evils of violence and remove their support- food, housing, sex, money, transportation, etc. if they continue in their destructive, terrorist ways?
Bring EVERYONE YOU CAN to church to be saved, and then help us disciple them to erase Satan’s values from their lives and replace them with Jesus’ values?
In other words, will you pray and PUT YOUR PRAYERS IN ACTION
I’m going to close with a very familiar story- almost a parable- that I use at just about every funeral- it’s worth repeating. This story illustrates using crises and mistakes for positives. Before I retired from teaching, Mr. Spencer Porter was often the art teacher assigned to work with my fifth or sixth grade students. He was one of the best art teachers I have ever seen. If the youngsters were doing art on paper, he would start passing out the supplies, and you could bet that by the time the last student got a paper, some of the first students were already waving their hands. “Mr. Porter,” they would say- “Mr. Porter, I messed up my paper. I need a new one.” Mr. Porter would answer, “Turn it over and use the back.” Within a few minutes, the hands would start to wave again. “Mr. Porter, Mr. Porter, I messed up the back too!” they would lament. Spencer Porter’s answer- “I’m not giving you another paper. Now is your chance to become an artist and really do art. Look at your paper on the front, and look at your paper on the back, and figure out what you can turn your mistakes into.” My friends, some of the most amazing artwork came from those students, because their “mistakes” forced them to think outside the box, be creative, and try new solutions to what they thought were impossible problems. I only hope they are continuing to apply that kind of thinking to their lives today, and I hope we learn from their example. The crises we face in our world today, plus those we face every day in the normal demands of living, require fresh, Godly, Gospel solutions and the sure knowledge that with God as our guide, mistakes are simply lessons- lessons to be learned and used for the Kingdom.