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.”

dumb-things-christians-say-sermon-series-idea

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.

everything-happens-for-a-reason

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.

1101620420_400

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.

 

Advertisements

Yes!

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 3.19.17 PM

 

Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to start serving at his first appointment. He had taken all of the right classes, learned from gifted professors, and even volunteered in the local community. After he finished packing his bags, he loaded up the car and made his way to John Wesley UMC. The novice pastor was anxious and excited about what the church would be like, so before he unpacked any of his belongings he drove out to the church property.

He found the location on the map, went to the listed address, but there was no church to be found. So he turned around and drove to the spot once again only to discover that the church was blocked by the oldest and most decrepit looking tree he had ever seen. The roots were stretching all over the property and the leaves blocked the building and the marquee from being visible on the road.

He couldn’t believe it! No wonder he had heard that church attendance had decreased over the last few years! The young pastor was convinced that if only people could see the church from the road, it would grow and grow and grow.

So, before unpacking any of his important belongings, before even working on his first sermon, the young pastor unpacked his chainsaw and went back to the church. It took him most of the afternoon, but by the time he was finished the tree was gone, the sign and church were visible from the road, and he just knew that the church pews would be filled to the brim on Sunday.

A few days later, as he sat in the study of his parsonage crafting the words for his first message, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you being reappointed.”

You see, the church was called John Wesley UMC for a reason: nearly two hundred years earlier a man named John Wesley had planted that tree while he was in the community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who planted the seeds that started our church, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

Apart

I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” says the Psalmist. What kind of faith would we have to have to be able to faithfully affirm these words? “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places… You show me the path of life.” Who do you imagine speaking when you hear these words? Perhaps you picture one the great prophets from the Old Testament like Elijah, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah speaking about their faith, or maybe you immediately connect these words with a saint from your life, or perhaps you recall one of the wonderful pastors who served this church in the past.

I want to be able to faithfully proclaim these words, I want my life to reflect the kind of trust and assurance present in the psalm, I want to say “yes” to God over and over, but the problem is, I usually say “no.”

That, in a sense, is the great story of scripture. God offers us a path, he offers us a way, he offers us a “yes” and we respond by saying “no.” I have given you everything you will ever need here in the Garden of Eden; your lives will be perfect forever so long as you don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. “No thanks God, we know what we’re doing and we’d rather try the fruit.”

I will deliver you out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and bring you to the Promised Land. Follow my servant Moses, adhere to my commands, and everything will be wonderful. “No thanks God, we’d rather go back to Egypt, at least we had food there.”

I will make of you a great nation, you will grow in prosperity, but you must not worship any other gods instead of me. Listen to the prophets, give heed to my Word, and you will have life. “No thanks God, it’s easier to worship a golden calf and ask for prosperity than it is to live a life according to your law.”

Take up your cross and follow me, give of yourself to those who are suffering, pray for your enemies, worship the Lord, believe in the Good News. “No thanks Jesus, we’d rather hang you on a cross than start living our lives for other people.”

In scripture, whenever people stubbornly say “no” to the will of God, God declares, “Yes.” Like a parent with a child, it happens over and over. And this paradoxical relationship between God and God’s people bleeds out from scripture into our lives even today. God starts calling us to live a new kind of life through the words of a friend, through a profound experience, and maybe even through a sermon and we think “No thanks Lord, I know better.”

God calls us to sacrifice our time and money, to gather regularly for worship and be transformed, to believe in the power of grace and mercy, and we say, “No thanks God. I’ve got better things to do.”

God says to a young pastor, “I am calling you to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Preach the Good News. Serve the last, least, and lost. Plant seeds of faith. Remember the tradition that brought you here.” And he says, “No thanks God. I know what I’m doing, and I’m gonna chop down that tree.”

The truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, are words that we pray every week in church: “Thy will be done.” Those words are at the very heart of what it means to be Christian: submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord. And even though they are the truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, and even though we say them every week, they are the hardest to live by.

9a3fe6cd2bab9347a651e8f1ed86951c

Today marks the beginning of our 4th year together in ministry. And, I have to admit, I didn’t want to come here. I was utterly convinced that I needed to be an associate pastor at a different church right after seminary. I even contacted all the churches in Virginia hiring associates that year and had scheduled interviews. But then the Lord decided this is where I was supposed to be. I knew what I wanted, I knew where I thought I should be, and I was pretty nervous about coming here. Even though I continued to pray, “thy will be done,” I was really saying “my will be done.”

And, I’ve come to find out, that some of you didn’t want me to come here. Members of the staff-parish relations committee wanted a younger pastor to come to St. John’s, but one with experience. They wanted some new and fresh energy, but definitely not someone right out of seminary. And one of you told me that they first time I walked into the church, all you could think was, “he’s a baby.” But God sent me to you. You knew what you wanted, you knew what kind of pastor the church needed, and then I showed up. Even though many of you were praying, “thy will be done,” you were really saying, “my will be done.”

It happens with pastors being appointed to churches, it happens when we start wrestling with a call to a different career, it happens when children enter the picture and new priorities erupt, it happens when someone proposes a new way forward. My will be done versus thy will be done.

In the great battle of “No” and “Yes” in scripture, the final movement came in the cross and the tomb. God’s people continually rebelled against God’s love time and time again, even to the point of delivering God’s son to the cross. But after the three days of silence that followed the crucifixion, God declared the final and triumphant “Yes” in the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Because of the good news of the resurrection, the final “Yes” to every “No” we’ve ever offered, we are reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness in every circumstance. Even when we push back against the will of God, the Lord’s love remains. We say that in baptism we have died with Christ and therefore we have already seen the worst. Since we have also been raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, we can live in confidence that God has already saved us from all that might destroy us, even death. Because of the resurrection, because of Easter, we can be people who actually pray those hard and beautiful words, “thy will be done,” and mean it.

Last week I gathered with thousands of other United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference for the Service of Ordering Ministry. For the last three years I have worked on demonstrating my effectiveness in ministry, which culminated in being ordained as a full elder. I made my way up to the front of the arena with my two pastoral mentors and Lindsey with Elijah, I knelt before the bishop and the conference, and I was ordained. While each ordinand knelt they were invited to choose a particular section of scripture to be displayed on the screens for everyone to see. I chose Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Those words were the first we ever shared together in worship 3 years ago, and they have come to define the ministry to which all of us are called. And as I felt the bishop’s hands upon my head, I thought about those words from Romans and I was overwhelmed by the Spirit’s persistent reminder, through YOUR faithfulness, I have seen the path of life. I felt convicted by the deep and profound truth that this is not a one-way relationship whereby I teach you, or I pray for you, or that I share God with you. Thanks be to God that we are in this beautiful and messy thing called church together.

Every week WE gather in this place to be transformed by the renewing of OUR minds. Through OUR worship we have worked to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

            We are becoming the kind of people who can faithfully say, “the Lord is our chosen portion and our cup.” The communal Christian experiencing here, is about choosing Jesus again and again and again. It is about coming back to the Lord knowing that he will welcome us. It is about hearing God’s triumphant “Yes!” even when we want to say “No!”

And right now, the world wants us to believe that we have every reason to say “No.” Annual Conference is a reminder of the death that is possible in the church, we hear about all the churches closing this year, we learn about the lack of new and younger generations attending church, and we are reminded of the most frightening statistic of all: The average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years.

But that doesn’t have to be our story. Desiring our will to be done is what got the church to this point in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually lived by the words “thy will be done”?

The time has come for us to declare “yes!” to the will of God. “Yes Lord, we know that through you all things are possible.” “Yes Lord, crucify our hearts so that they might be resurrected to your glory.” “Yes Lord, convict our souls to invite someone we know to experience your love here at St. John’s!” “Yes Lord, remind of our baptisms and of who we really are.” “Yes Lord, fill us with your Spirit till all shall see Christ living in us.” “Yes Lord, give us the grace and strength to take up our crosses and follow you.” “Yes Lord, let thy will be done!” Amen.

Devotional – Mark 14.36

Devotional:

Mark 14.36

He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 

Weekly Devotional Image

“Let us now pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: Our Father, who art in heaven…” The familiar introduction to the Lord’s Prayer is a regular occurrence in most churches. At some point during worship there is an opportunity to pray the same words that countless Christians have prayed together since the days of Jesus’ ministry. Through a simple, yet profound, prayer we are connected with the church universal as we pray according to the way that Christ taught his disciples to pray.

At St. John’s we print all the words to the prayer in the bulletin for anyone who might not be familiar with it. Most of the time, however, the gathered body prays without having to look down; whether they were here the week before, or it had been years since they entered a church, the Lord’s Prayer is something that most people remember forever.

The familiarity of the prayer is a blessing and a curse. For centuries it has brought Christians closer to the Lord, though sometimes the more familiar we are with the prayer, the less we think about the actual words we are praying. To sit amidst the body of Christ and pray “thy will be done” is one of the most profound acts in a discipled life.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, the gifted essayist and writer, makes a similar point in his incredible novel Jayber Crow: “This, I thought, is what is meant by ‘thy will be done’ in the Lord’s Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God’s will may not be the same. It means there’s a good possibility that you won’t get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.”

On Jesus’ final night, after he shared an incredible meal with his closest friends, he prayed alone in the garden of Gethsemane. In many ways one of his last prayers to the Lord was simply “thy will be done.”

The season of lent is an incredible reminder that life does not become perfect and easy for us the moment we become Christians. With the current abundance of Prosperity Preachers/Churches it is important to remember, as Berry puts it, praying the Lord’s Prayer means that our will and God’s will might not be the same thing.

As we come closer and closer to Holy Week, let us take time to be with God in prayer. If you find yourself at a loss for words during your time with the Lord, follow the example of Jesus and offer up one of the most profound statements you can ever utter: “thy will be done.”