Everything Happens For A Reason

Deuteronomy 30.19-20

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. 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?”

            “Yes, him.”

            “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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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On Creation vs. Evolution

Genesis 1.1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with Creation vs. Evolution.

 

“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.

“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google the answer and the young man rolled his eyes and opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.

I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, almost as if a whisper, “That can’t be right.”

“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”

            And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old.”

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In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Perhaps no words in all of scripture have been more analyzed, prayed over, and interpreted throughout the centuries. Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.

And it stands on the battlefield of the fight between Creation and Evolution.

Here’s the controversy: Centuries ago a man named James Ussher set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. However, with the advent of modern science and the likes of evolutionary biology and carbon dating, scientists have determined that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

There is a big difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.

For a very long time, we humans considered the earth a relatively recent phenomenon. The Christian church established itself as the predominant leader of information distribution, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.

This has manifested itself throughout the centuries in a number of ways including the fight between the Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.

“How old is the earth?” It may seem like a pretty simple question without too many ramifications, but it is a big one, and the way we answer it has a lot of consequences.

A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.

It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.

I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.

I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?

But at the same time, some of my Christian friends stopped going to youth group and they stopped going to church. In learning about evolution their faith in church diminished. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned that the earth was older than what they heard in church, their faith was crushed. I, however, was fortunate to have pastors and older Christians who helped me to see the similarities between science and faith. But my friends only saw the battle.

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The title of this sermon is Creation vs. Evolution for a reason. I titled it this way precisely because that is the way that many of us see the relationship between the two; Faith and Science represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One is archaic and illogical; the other is scientific and intellectual. One represents backward thinking; the other is forward thinking. One should be left to sanctuaries; the other is for the classroom.

The conflict between science and faith exists because of us; Christians who became defensive when scientists learned more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s creative majesty. Christians who were quick to jump ship when we discovered there was more to the world than just what we can read about in the bible; Christians who saw scientific discovery as a work of the devil and retreated further away from the world.

But are science and faith really at odds with one another?

Young-Earth Creationists are those who believe (like Ussher) that God created the earth over 6 24 hours days 6,000 years ago. They dismiss scientific discoveries like the Dinosaurs and carbon dating as a way for God to test our faith.

However, there are other ways of looking at the biblical account of creation from Genesis 1 that harmonizes with, rather than battles against, science.

First, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.

We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.

Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to master the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us who and why God created.

Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the zenith of God’s creation, was human life.

            Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.

The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.

And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.

But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

           The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and who we aren’t. It is God Word for us. Amen.