I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Since Thanksgiving, I have been at a lot of tables with a lot of people and talked about a lot of things. That’s what the holidays are often about, and frankly what we remember the most; we might forget the first present we opened, or who was the first person to arrive, but we can almost always recall those table side discussions.
A lot of things happened in 2016 that warranted conversation at those particular tables. The deaths of celebrities, cultural icons, and transformative leaders; the rise in popularity of strange things like Pokemon Go, the Netflix hit Stranger Things, and Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic; the never-ending saga of suffering in Syria, the increase in terrorist related events throughout the world, and the ever thinning ice like situation in the middle east; the incredible Rogue One, the magical Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, and vibrant color palette of Trolls.
But do you know what was talked about more than anything else?
Politics. Politics. Politics.
And then when you throw a pastor into the fray at the tables, you start mixing together the real forbidden topics of conversations.
So I have learned, over the years, to keep my mouth shut. Whether I agree with a political policy or not, I nod my head along with the speaker regardless of their position and then reign myself to sit in silence.
In the last few months I have been at tables where people bashed the political rhetoric of the Republican Party, I listened to people re-imagine a new Democratic platform with notes hastily written on cocktail napkins, I watched people force index fingers at others while berating the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, I’ve heard people place bets over how long it will take Donald Trump to build a fence at the border with Mexico, and I’ve seen people cry with tears of pain, and people cry with tears of joy, while talking about the political future of the United States of America.
But I heard something the other day that I can’t get out of my head, one theologically politicized statement that has rattled through my brain ever since.
It went like this:
“Did you hear what Franklin Graham said?”
“You mean the son of Billy Graham?”
“No, what did he say?”
“He said that it wasn’t the Russians who intervened in the presidential election, it was God.”
Now, before we really get into this, I want to be clear. Donald Trump is going to be the president of the United States. That’s a fact. Even though we now live in the so-called time of “post-truth,” the truth is that Donald Trump will be president.
But how Donald Trump became the president elect is something we should talk about. Particularly when one of the leading Christian evangelists in this country can say something like “God made Donald Trump president.”
Everything happens for a reason. This is true, of course, in the sense that actions have consequences. If I step down from this pulpit and walk to the back and flip the switch in the breaker box, all of the lights in the sanctuary will turn off. If plants do not receive enough moisture and sunlight they will not grow. If I give my wife a mop for Christmas, I’m going to get in trouble.
In our scripture from Deuteronomy, Moses offers the Israelites a similar reflection: if you choose life and love the Lord you may live in the land the Lord promised. Actions have consequences. However, the problem with “everything happens for a reason” is that we almost always imply that God is the reason that everything happens.
So, to take the recent election as our example, if it was God who intervened to make sure that Donald Trump became president, why wasn’t the victory more lopsided? Or, does it mean that everyone who voted for Clinton is a sinner for doing so because they went against God’s will? Did God choose not to “show up” for the Obama elections in 2008 or 2012? If everything happens for a reason, then why did God choose to have Donald Trump elected as president while all sorts of other things (like the situation in Syria, Police shootings, etc.) are still happening?
And this logic can also be applied to a number of things: If everything happens for a reason, then why did one of my best friends die in a car accident when she was a teenager? What is the reason for men who beat their wives, or women who abuse their children, or children who assault their parents?
When we throw out a trite and cliché sentence like “everything happens for a reason” it removes all responsibility from us and puts it all on God. And yet, we do believe that God is in control, that God is the author of our salvation, and that God continues to move and act in this world of ours.
This is fundamentally at the heart of the strange mystery of what it means to be a disciple. On one side we affirm that God rules, and on the other side we affirm that God has given us perfect freedom to live and act in this place that God rules.
God has given us the freedom to make choices, for better or worse. From the Garden of Eden to the sanctuary of St. John’s on this first day of 2017 we are free. When we do something right or wrong, we can’t blame it on God. It is our freedom to choose who we are to be, that allows this world to be as strangely beautiful as it is, but it makes it strangely broken and flawed as well.
We are not marionettes being strung along by a divine puppeteer. God gives each of us, his creatures, a brain, a heart, a soul, to make choices and act in this world. We use things like prayer and the reading of scripture to help us determine how our choices can coincide with God’s will, but the choices are fundamentally ours to make.
All of us know that terrible things happen that cannot be explained. They are a part of life. But we also know that those terrible things do not have the final word. We know that God is working through us, helping us to see and to know who we are to be in order to transform this world into his kingdom. And we know that God is the one who has the final Word, thats what Jesus’s birth and resurrection changed. God came into the world in order to free us from the last vestige that had a hold on us, death. God broke the chains of death’s dark shadow in order to guide us into the light of resurrection. We know that even though terrible things happen, and will continue to happen, God’s love in Jesus Christ is the final Word.
Living in this tension of God’s perfect sovereignty and our perfect freedom is one of the things that makes being a Christian so challenging. For when we encounter those terrible things that happen in the world we often vacillate between “everything happens for a reason” or “life is meaningless.” Whereas Christians, people like us, are called to live somewhere in the middle.
In the early hours of April 15th 1912, more than a hundred years ago, the infamous ship named the Titanic sank in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. 1,500 people were lost at sea when the ship ran into an iceberg and it is still one of the worst maritime disasters to have ever happened.
Much like other events that grab the attention of the world, many pastors felt called to speak about the disaster the following Sunday in order to make sense of the tragedy. In a small sleepy Swiss village was a young pastor named Karl Barth who regularly bored his congregation with long theologically dense sermons, but the Sunday after the sinking of the Titanic called for something a little more meaningful.
He used the beginning part of the sermon to outline the power of the almighty from creating the cosmos to bringing life to all creatures. He referenced heavily from the book of Genesis and went on and on. But at the end he said something that grabbed their attention.
It went like this: God most certainly put the iceberg in the water, but God did not make the captain feel pressured to beat the record time across the Atlantic and thereby neglect to pass slowly and safely through a region filled with large icebergs.
Barth’s simple reflection is by no means perfect, but it points toward a better way of thinking about, “Everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes there are reasons things happen, people feel tempted to go faster than they should and it means they run through red lights, they neglect to check their blind spots, or they run into icebergs. Sometimes people feel disaffected and forgotten by their government and they come out in droves and subvert the majority of polls and elect a political outsider to the most powerful position in our earthly world.
But that doesn’t mean that God made a car accident happen, or that God willed the sinking of the Titanic, or that God had a reason for making Donald Trump the next president of the United States.
And sometimes things happen for no reason at all. Fathers in perfect health and in the prime of their lives die of sudden heart attacks. Natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes come out of nowhere and devastate entire communities. Marriages fall apart for no particular reason other than the build up of tiny disagreements that never get settled.
And still there is hope. There is hope because God can work through people like you and me to bring about the kingdom on earth. God still speaks through the ancient scriptures to remind us of the importance of ministering to the last, the least, and the lost. God places opportunities in our lives that we can choose to respond to, and in so doing, we can become the reason good things happen.
God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses. We have the choice to choose life so that our families and friends may live to love the Lord and obey what he has taught. If we choose the good we may all live in the peace that God promised to God’s people from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to David, to Isaiah, to Jesus, to Peter, to Paul.
So it is good and right for us to start this New Year in this place, where God makes all things new. At this table we receive the spiritual food necessary for the journey of life. We break bread knowing that strange things are afoot in this world, but that God moves in and through people like us to shine as a light in the darkness. We surround the cup together knowing that Jesus’ sacrifice opens up the glory of the resurrection and gives us the strength to do incredible things here and now.
Not everything happens for a reason. But sometimes God calls us to be the reason something good happens to someone else. Amen.