Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Roll Down Justice - How Long: Renouncing Evil" 3/12/17

Sermon 3-12-17  “How Long: Renouncing Evil” by Rev. Jay Anderson
(The third in our series "Roll Down Justice!")

    “Are we there yet?” we asked as children, usually barely into a journey. As a child, time seems to be interminable. The time to reach a destination, regardless of the distance, is unfathomable. The school day will NEVER end. The school year goes on FOREVER! 
Next Christmas, the next birthday, might as well be in the next century, it’s so far away. “How much longer?” children lament about, well, just about everything. 

   As an adult, on the other hand, it becomes more and more clear that, from our perspective, time is fleeting. Each year, each birthday, each Christmas, comes at us at breakneck speed. And as we get older the idea that “time flies” is proven out every day of our lives as the measure of our time lived greatly outpaces our time left. 
The question, “how long,” takes on a completely different meaning.

   A large number of the songs and poems that make up the Book of Psalms are writings of lament or complaint. The writers lay out their complaints to and against God in the form of song and verse. Our scripture today, Psalm 13, is a short and simple prayer for help and presents a textbook example of an individual lament. The complaint appears in vs 1-2, the petition in vs 3-4, and the expression of trust and praise in vs 5-6. Simple as that.

The complaint: 
How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits,
    agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

The petition:
Look at me!
    Answer me, Lord my God!
Restore sight to my eyes!
    Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
        and my enemy will say, “I won!”
        My foes will rejoice over my downfall.

And the expression of trust or faith:
But I have trusted in your faithful love.
    My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
    because the Lord has been good to me.

   As people of faith, we will always find it necessary to pray, “how long, O Lord?” even as we simultaneously profess our praise mantra - God is good…All the time…All the time…God is good!
   All the time, God is good! Even when we don’t get our way. Even when our prayers aren’t answered as we want them to be. God is good, even when we aren’t. Even in those times when, if being a Christian was a crime there wouldn’t be enough evidence to convict us…even then, God is still good.

   But if God is good, we ask, why is there so much bad in the world, why is there so much evil in the world today? Why doesn’t God do something about all of the sin and evil that seems to be everywhere? How long, O Lord, must we put up with this? That’s our modern day lament.

   And that lament is heard from all corners of the globe: 
   How long, O Lord, will people die of starvation when there’s more than enough food to feed everyone many times over? How long?
   How long, O Lord, will children in poorer countries die of preventable diseases like malaria, HIV/Aids and others, when the medicines are plentiful in first world countries?
   How long, O Lord, will people be killed over natural resources so that a few profit from the lives of the many?
   How long, O Lord, will African American citizens have to keep fighting for equal rights legislated decades ago?
   How long, O Lord, in this week in which we celebrated the International Day of the Woman, will women continue to do equal work for lower pay than their male counterparts?
   How long, O Lord, will access to affordable healthcare be a benefit given only to those people who, by worldly standards, are among the wealthiest?

   And our laments could go on and on. These are the same kinds of lament raised from biblical times, throughout the psalms, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. There’s a story in the Book of Numbers where Moses takes his complaint directly to God. Moses and the people of God were on a journey, both physically and spiritually, just like we are today. They were challenged with crisis. They struggled with transition and change. We know what that’s like; we're right there with Moses and the people. And the passage reads:

Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? And why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, for you have placed the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give birth to them, that you would say to me, ‘Carry them at the breast, as a nurse carries an unweaned child,’ to the fertile land that you promised their ancestors? Where am I to get meat for all these people? They are crying before me and saying, ‘Give us meat, so we can eat.’ I can’t bear this people on my own. They’re too heavy for me. 
If you’re going to treat me like this, please kill me. If I’ve found favor in your eyes, then don’t let me endure this wretched situation.” (Num 11:11-15, CEB)

   “How long,” Moses asks God, “How long must I endure these people, this situation?” If that sounds familiar, it’s because Jesus asked the same question in Luke 9. 
It was the day after his Transfiguration on the mountain, when the passage says, 
A man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to take a look at my son, my only child. Look, a spirit seizes him and, without any warning, he screams. It shakes him and causes him to foam at the mouth. It tortures him and rarely leaves him alone. I begged your disciples to throw it out, but they couldn’t.”  Jesus answered, “You faithless and crooked generation, how long will I be with you and put up with you? (Lk 9:38-41a, CEB)

   Maybe you’ve had a conversation with God, like Moses had; “Just kill me now, Lord! This is too much!” Or like Jesus, born out of frustration with both this people and with his disciples. Maybe you’ve found yourself lamenting a life circumstance. You’re on the edge. From your perspective, God is not solving the problem. You feel like you’re on the verge of a meltdown, or that the world is on the verge of breakdown.
   Whatever the source of your distress, whether it be fear or frustration, sadness and sorrow, or complete life exhaustion, it’s important to identify it. Often, our frustration mounts when we focus too much on our, or worse, what we perceive as the sins (plural) of others, and don’t pay enough attention to the presence of sin (singular) in the world. What’s the difference? It’s huge.

   Our sins are those things that we do - and we all do them - that go against the will of God. The acts for which we bear total responsibility and for which we’re personally called to repent. Our sins are our own, and it’s not our place to judge others’ sins because, as Jesus said, don’t try to remove the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you have a plank in your own. Amen?
   Sin, on the other hand, is different. Sin, in the singular, is that in the world which brings harm. 
It includes what you’ve heard me refer to in many instances as the “isms:” racism, sexism, consumerism, militarism, as well as greed, exploitation of people and resources. All of these are sin. These are things present in our society that have even become systemic or institutionalized. For example, Jim Wallis, evangelical pastor and writer calls racism America’s original sin. Racism is the great sin, he suggests, that has tainted so much of American culture for its entire history. I shared last week the study that was done on racism in rental housing through Airbnb. That we, as a society, discriminate in that way is systemic or institutional sin. That people of color are imprisoned at a higher rate for the same crimes committed by white people, is an example of systemic, institutionalized sin. 
And while racism is institutionalized sin, our individual racist acts or thoughts, are our personal sins. 
   The fact that people in other countries die of starvation while people in developed countries waste over 40% of our food, is sin. The fact that first world nations would rather export weapons and ammunition to third world countries than food and medicine, is sin. Do you see the difference here? Yes, it’s important that we honor our mother and father and don’t take the Lord’s name in vein, but the spiritual forces of sin and evil are much bigger, more insidious issues in the world than how we often think of or portray them. 

   So, our lament might be rooted in something personal, or maybe it’s source is something larger, like the recognition of institutional sin in the world that up until now we’ve been blind to. Whatever the source of the pain that brings our lament, it’s important that we take that lament to God. Only after we’re honest with ourselves about our own complicity can we begin to have the honest conversation with God that leads to conversion in our souls. 
   We see how Moses did that and we can learn from him. Moses expressed his emotions unhindered. He told God what was going on, exactly how he felt about that, and he did what for many would be unthinkable: He questioned God’s motivation and power.
  And you know what? God can “take it.” 
God’s Spirit can shoulder our burdens and our questions. God’s feelings won’t be hurt by our anger. But, we have to name them. Bottling up our doubts and hurts accomplishes nothing. God wants to hear our hearts and to heal our hearts and our world. God may not “fix things” the way we think they should be fixed (as the story of Moses shows), but God will act out of God’s infinite wisdom, love and power. We can trust God, because God is good…all the time…all the time…God is good.
   So to return to the question I asked earlier, why doesn’t God do something about all of the sin and evil that seems to be everywhere? I would suggest to you that God did do something? God named you! And all the saints before you. And here’s what I mean. 

   When you were baptized, or when you witnessed a baptism, or when you professed your faith, you were asked three simple questions - each and every time - and I would bet that you answered them in the affirmative, each and every time. What were those questions?

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
 Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? To which you answered, I do.
 Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? To which you said, I do.
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
 To which you responded, yet a third time, I do.
   And later in the liturgy, the pastor asks:
Do you, as Christ's body, the Church, reaffirm both your rejection of sin and your commitment to Christ?
To which we all answered, We do.
And then you were asked:
   Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?
And you replied, and you can read it along with me:

With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.
We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness,
that they may grow in their trust of God,
and be found faithful in their service to others.
 We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.

   I hope we take these questions, these vows, very seriously. Some though, take them for granted, treating them like those User Agreements or Terms and Conditions pages we encounter when we go to a new website or download a new app on our phone - we just click “I Agree” without reading them. In this case, do we just say “I do,” without really thinking about it? Because these questions are hard. What they ask of us is hard stuff. We’re confronted with this stuff every day, and most of us, maybe even all of us, fail miserably at it - every day!

   And we fail by accepting the presence of this institutional sin in our society when we vowed to renounce it. We fail when we look the other way, or say nothing when we witness sin in action in business, in government, in education, in healthcare, anywhere. 
That’s how we fail, or refuse, to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, or reject the evil powers of this world. We’re all too busy trying to place the blame for the evil in the word on some scapegoat caricature we call “the devil,” -
when in fact the evil in the world resides within us and our institutions and it thrives and flourishes only because we allow it to.
   For over a hundred generations, Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, have said these words, have claimed this responsibility, have taken these vows before God, in front of each other, and in the name of Jesus Christ. 
Did we do that with a wink, wink, nod, nod?

   By the 4th century, some three hundred years after Christ’s baptism, the church had instituted a powerful symbolic act of the transformation of candidates for baptism, away from evil and toward good. I invite you to stand as you’re able, and join in this symbolic action. 

   Before going into the water, the candidates for baptism would face the direction of the West (the direction of the setting sun) and renounce evil. So turn to the west, and hear and respond to these words:
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
 Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? If so, answer I do.
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? If so, answer I do.
   Then they would turn away from that direction to face the East (the direction of the rising sun) as a sign that they were leaving behind or turning their backs on the forces of evil and facing the rising Light of God in their lives. 

   So I invite you to turn and face the East, and hear these words:
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
 If so, answer I do.
I pray that you were sincere. You may be seated.
   The language of the renunciation of evil has come to us through the ages as our rites of baptism invite us to renounce evil in all its forms - the ones that rise up within us and the systemic oppression inherent in our societies. We affirm that we have both the freedom and the power to do so and that it is God in whom we put our trust.

   The Rev. Dr. Carol Miller, a retired clergy and writer, suggests that this renunciation of sin and profession of faith found in our baptismal liturgy is “rich in meaning and calls [all of us..] to a new way of living.”
   And she goes on, “The first question strips [us] of power; the second replaces that power with new power, and the third throws [us] totally on the power of Christ and makes [us] members of the power-filled community.
   “Every six year old,” she writes, “knows how to wield ‘the evil powers of this world.’ What are they? They’re the things that made us tell our mothers when we were six that we never wanted to go to school again. The evil powers of this world, the spiritual forces of wickedness are the powers of prejudice, exclusion, gossip, mockery, hate, violence, extortion, [self-centeredness,] and the like. Even though children may not know these words, they know the power of these things and how to use them. They’re the powers we use to tear down others.
   As adults, we become more subtle, but no less dependent on these powers. They give us a leg up in competition with others. We feel the power of gossip, the satisfaction of being able to exclude someone, the usefulness of “me first.” But when we get to the church, ready to be included by way of baptism, we’re told that we can’t come in until we “renounce” those ugly and evil powers that had served us, we thought, so well. The liturgy demands that we renounce those powers, drop them, refuse to use them. A-N-D, we must repent of all the times in the past when we did use them.

   So, the first thing the Church does when we come for baptism is strip us of our power. The world may continue to hate and reject, and pre-judge others; but we cannot.”
   “By the second question, Miller says, “things are looking up. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you…” Having been stripped of the “evil powers of this world” we’re invited to accept a new kind of power, given to us by God. This, in fact, is the only kind of true power, power that lasts. All power belongs to God. 
If it’s in our hands,” she offers, “we’re to give it to God. At the same time, in baptism we not only agree, we commit to accept the power God gives. 
Never again can we as individuals, or as Christ’s Church say, “I can’t do it. I don’t have time; I don’t have enough money; I don’t have the abilities.” 
Those kinds of answers didn’t work for Moses and they don’t work for us either. To suggest that we or the church don’t have the power to do what God calls us to do denies the presence of the Holy Spirit. Our answer to the second question in our liturgy is our admission that we do have the power from God. The Church is specific about how we’re to use that power: “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” That is, we promise to work against, to resist, those people-crushing things we first fell in love with on the playground as children. 
“Resist” doesn’t mean simply “dislike;” it means to “push back.” It’s not passive, it’s active.”
   “And finally,” she concludes, “if we’re still standing [after all this,] there’s question 3. “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…” 
It’s Christ who saves us from idolizing the evil powers—bowing down to them, using them to make us powerful and important. We can’t save ourselves by a powerful personality, good looks, money, or racial or gender superiority or anything else we think gives us power.” We’re saved by God’s grace. Period.”

   So, to answer the psalmist’s lament, how long, O Lord, must we endure the evil in the world? 
Only as long as we accept it. 
Only as long as we embrace it rather than reject it. Only as long as it takes for us to live into the vow that we’ve made over and over again, to renounce and reject evil and wickedness in all of its forms - even when we see it in the mirror. Because you see, in these vows, God completes a bold and powerful transfer of power, from God’s hands into ours. 
God gave us dominion over this world, God gave us free will, to make choices, to live our lives, either by embracing God’s desire for us or by rejecting it - either by embracing evil and injustice, or by renouncing it. Evil exists in the world, not because God allows it but because we do. The choice is ours, and ours alone. So our complaint to God must be turned back on us: How long? Because in the end we know that despite all other things we may find in the world, all the sin and evil and injustice we allow to persist in this world, that God is good…all the time…all the time…God is good. Amen. 

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