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Sermon 9/10

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Theological Vexations

Romans 8:28   Sept. 10 2017

I’ve called this message “Theological Vexations.”  By that I mean what some people believe God is and what God does vexes me.  Drives me nuts.

Here’s a posting on Facebook earlier this week.

“Those of you that have turned your back better pay attention!! Tornadoes this summer, hurricane headed up the east coast and a 5.9 earthquake in Virginia felt all the way to NYC and Boston along with one in Colorado! Texas with record flooding! Los Angeles wildfires! Not to mention the North Korea mess !!! And people are fighting to take God out of everything, seems to me God is sending an awfully loud message!!!!!! If you agree copy & re-post PUT GOD BACK WHERE HE BELONGS!”

As Hurricane Harvey has just left its wake of devastation in Texas and Hurricane Irma sweeps through Florida even now, that Facebook posting becomes even more diabolically interesting.   If you parse it out, what it’s saying is that God is punishing the world with hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires because we have ignored God and taken God out of life.

When you are convinced that everything that happens in this world is the will of God, then there’s a lot of bad stuff you have to explain.

If we can say anything about the recent climate disasters, they are divine punishment for scientific denialism.

To help us with our theological vexations I want to lift up one of the most arresting  verses in the Bible.  It’s Romans 8:28:

JB Phillips: 28-30 “Moreover we know that to those who love God, who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.”

Look  carefully at the wording of this verse.  “We know that to those who love God those who are called according to his plan, everything that happens fits into a pattern for good.”

And notice what this verse does not say, It does not say, as the KJV wrongly translates it that “All things work together for good.”   The original Greek is a little confusing here, but it doesn’t say that everything that happens works for good.  We  don’t need to be a Bible scholar or theologian to know that a lot of things that happen to us and happen in the world aren’t good, aren’t working for good, will never, ever turn out good.

Over the years I have stood with many, many family members who have lost loved ones.  Sometimes, and those were the easy cases, sometimes the death came for someone advanced in years, as was my mother, and in those cases when a friend says to us, “It was a blessing, we respond, “Yes, it was.”

But I’ve heard other responses, some of which are stupid and downright cruel: “God needed her more than you did.”  “God gives his hardest battles to his bravest soldiers.”   Clever, but not good.

“We don’t always understand God’s ways.”  That’s for sure.

Maybe the best thing we can do when suffering and hardship strikes a friend is to say nothing, absolutely nothing, and respond with a hug or tear.

In 1971 I moved to Philadelphia and became pastor of a church just north of the city limits.  Our Clerk of Session there was a man by the name of Al Maul.  He was a man old enough to be my father.  We were polar opposites.  When he would say stop, I would say go; when he would say yes, I would say no.  I was young, impetuous, and aggressive. Al was older, careful, and conservative. I was determined to come in and shape and shake that church up.  I’m sure Al Maul, who had seen a succession of young ministers come and go over the years must have said to himself, “This, too, shall pass.”

Yet, in all of this I respected Al Maul, for he was a good man, and he loved the church and loved our Lord.

In January, 1975, my father had a massive coronary and died before he could get help. He was 53 years old, and up until the last day of his life, had been in good health.  On the Sunday I returned to Philadelphia after the funeral service, I stood in line shaking hands with the people.   When Al Maul came through he gripped my hand with both of his hands.  He looked at me.  There were tears streaming down his cheeks.  He said nothing.  He didn’t have to.

And over the months that followed, the care and the concern of those people at the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church helped thin out my sorrow, and helped me recover from grief.  Now the Melrose Carmel Presbyterian Church will never be counted as a great congregation in our denomination.  It was too small in membership and budget, and too isolated in location.  But it will always be great to me, and I think it will always be great in God’s eyes because it was a church that ministered to its minister in the worst thing that every happened to me.

Have you ever found yourself, in the midst of unimaginable grief, pain, heartache or despair, wondering how you are going to make it through another day? Wondering where your next breath is going to come from? Your world has crumbled beneath you and you are left feeling shattered, empty and hopeless.

And then a well meaning friend or family member comes along and drops the infamous “Everything happens for a reason” bomb. You smile kindly and nod—that’s all you can do to keep yourself from punching them in the face.

You can’t possibly imagine a reason for what just happened.

The more you stew about a possible reason for your pain, the angrier you become. You try desperately to make sense of a situation that won’t ever make sense. You reach for answers but none come.

You can spend years searching for answers, “Why did this happen?  You think if you can find a logical reason for this awful event, it will end your pain.  If you can find the cause, you can treat the condition.  But I want to tell you through years of experience that sometimes there are no answers.  Sometimes bad things happen for no reason other than we are human beings living in a fallen world.

“How could this possibly be God’s will?” a woman asked me when her daughter was killed by a drunk driver.  I told her this isn’t the time for a theological lesson.  But I will come back in a few weeks and we can talk about your question.  But for today let’s just read a few passages of scripture together and pray.

When I came back I told her something like this: “

I don’t believe that everything that happens, particularly bad things, are God’s will.  A lot of stuff happens that goes against God’s will.

God’s will is not the path we walk, but rather how we walk the path.

God’s plan is never for someone to have cancer. God’s will is not for an innocent child to be brutally murdered. God’s will is not for a teenage girl to be raped. God’s will is not chronic pain, illness, disability or death.

God’s will for us is to walk with Him through the cancer. Through the abuse. Through the death. Through the illness. God’s will is for us to draw close to him in the midst of pain. God’s will is for us to use our painful life events to carry his message of hope, grace, forgiveness and mercy.

Not everything happens for a reason. But in everything that happens, there can be a reason to bring help and healing to others. God can use our pain for a greater good if we choose to let Him in.  I love this wonderful quote from the end of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”: “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”

The heart of our faith is this verse from II Corinthians 5.  “God was in Christ.”  That means that Jesus is the human face of God.  What Jesus is like, God is like: compassionate, vulnerable, responsive.  .  What vexes me is the  incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And to demonstrate that Jesus spent a significant part of his ministry delivering people from paralysis, , leprosy, and mental illness.

The one thing that we should say when tragedy strikes someone is:  It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that my father died far too young.  When he pulled his car over to the side of the road that January night in 1973 and took his last breath,  God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

We went to see the movie  “Wind River” last week.  It’s main character is a man named Cory Lambert who is a Fish and Game Warden in Landek, Wyoming.  He has a lot of Native American friends, and one of his best friends is a man named Martin.  Both Cory Lambert and Martin have lost teenaged daughters.  Murder victims.

“I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself, I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just, It hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor come up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, “I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. You’re daughter’s gone. Now the good news, as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, You’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?” He said, “that’s what not accepting this will rob from you”. If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain, Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

Let me tell you what I have learned over a life-time of ministry, found from people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.   Even when our pain is deep God is nevertheless good.  I realize that when our pain is most dreadful, God seems far, far away.  “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Yes, but at least, “My God, my God”; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn’t end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in those Biblical passages begin to break through to us:

“Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee”;

“Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning”;

“Lord, THOU Hast been our dwelling place in all generations.” “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

“For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling”;

“In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world”;

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So let us all seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Sermon 9/3

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Psalm 90 (Swicegood paraphrase)

Lord, you have been our protector through all generations!

Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were God from all eternity and forever.

You create us, but then we return to the dust,

Yes, in your eyes a thousand years are like yesterday that quickly passes, or like one of the passing hours of the night.

Our lives are like the poppies of the desert

In the morning they open with  the rising sun,

By evening they wither and dry up

The years of our lives pass quickly, like a sigh.

They last seventy years, or maybe eighty if we are lucky.

So teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely and well.

Luke 12:13-21 (The Message)

15 Speaking to the people, Jesus went on:  “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”

16-19 Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Hey Man, you have done well.   You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

20 “Just then God showed up and said, “You are an utter fool because tonight you will die.  And your barn full of goods?  What happens to it then”

21 Jesus went on: “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.

This sermon was inspired by my visit to N C last weekend.  I went back–to see my two grand girls (of course), but the other reason I flew back was to attend my 55th high school reunion.  There were 104 in our class of 1962; there were forty of us at the reunion, some of whom were spouses.

I was asked to give the blessing at the reunion dinner.  I said, “Before I give thanks for this meal I would like to read the names of our classmates who have passed, and then ..a prayer of remembrance for them.

I read each name slowly in order of the date of their deaths.  21 in all including my cousin Judy Swicegood Bedsaul who died earlier this summer.  And then I told my classmates, “The prayer I am about to offer was written by Marianne Moore, a great American poet, a life-long Presbyterian and passionate New York Yankee fan.  It was a prayer she wrote upon the death of her mother:”

One by one,

Thou dost gather us out of earthly light,

Into heavenly glory.

From the distractions of time

To the peace of eternity.

We thank thee for the labors and joys of these mortal years.

We thank Thee for our deepening sense of the mysteries that lie behind life’s dust.

And for the eye of faith which Thou hast opened for

all who believe in thy son,

to behold through the darkness

the shining future.  Amen.

And then I offered grace.


The fact that 21 of my classmates are no longer walking on this earth shook me to the core.  Perhaps it shouldn’t have.   The actuarial tables would have told me the same thing.   My class mates mused that a lot of us won’t be around in five years for our sixtieth, and that this was probably our last official reunion.   It wasn’t a morbid admission.  Just the facts.

So today my theme is mortality.  Mine and yours.  The brevity and preciousness of life.

To guide our thoughts I’ve selected two scripture passages, Psalm 90 and Luke 12.  The thrust  of  Psalm 90 the Eternal Nature of God, the Ephemeral Nature of Man.”  In my paraphrase of

this Psalm I changed the words of verse 7 to read:

Our lives are like the poppies of the desert

In the morning they open with  the rising sun,

By evening they wither and dry up

This past spring the wild flowers in the desert were the most spectacular I have seen since moving here in 2001.  The brittlebush and the Mexican poppies adorned the hillsides.  One fine April morning Barbara and I along with two friends we have known since our Portland years took a short hike on the RB Valley trail in the Estrellas.  As far as we could see up and down the hillsides, before us and behind us the Mexican poppies competed for our attention.  We posted some pictures from that hike  on Facebook; the poppies in the background make us old folks in the foreground look a little better.

One week later I was back hiking the same trail.  Only a few poppies had survived.  Most had withered during an unusually hot April week.

Maybe Mexican poppies are so appealing to me because they last so briefly.  Never more than, say, two weeks.  They close up when the sun goes down, and open to the face to the sun when it rises over the hills.  But then the desert heats up day by day.  And the poppies? Here today, gone tomorrow.

The Psalmist sees this–the ephemerality of the flowers of the desert, and understands this is a parable of his own life.  And he writes:

The years of our lives pass quickly, like a sigh.  (Like a sigh, Huff!)

They last seventy years, or maybe eighty if we are lucky.

And then he concludes :

So teach us to consider our mortality,

so that we might live wisely and well.

Samuel Johnson once quipped: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Nothing concentrates our attention better than to know that sooner than we think, sooner than we want, our days will come to an end.

And now our second reading, a parable of Jesus, commonly known as the parable of the rich fool.

It s a parable about a farmer who has had stunning harvest.   He is  already rich but he is about to become filthy rich.  He has a bumper crop, a crop so extraordinarily large that he barns he owned weren’t big enough big enough to hold this terrific harvest.  So what does he do?  Notice, how handles this situation.  He talks to himself.  When  you are rich and successful you don’t need to consult anyone but your own inflated ego.  He consults with himself and says “Now should what I do?    I got it.  I’ll tear down my old barns and build new barns twice as big.  And then he leans back in his rocking chair on the front porch of his 7 bedroom home, with granite tile in his kitchen counters, and gold plated faucets in his bathroom, he leans back, puts his hands in his  suspenders and says, “Man you’ve got it made.  You can now retire and take it easy.”

This parable of the rich farmer reminds me of a poem published in the “New Yorker” magazine way back in 1929.

Elizabeth Bates

Elizabeth Bates has been to Rome

And looked at the statues there

Elizabeth Bates has scaled the Alps

And sniffed the mountain  air

Elizabeth Bates has winced at Nice

And quibbled at gay Paree

And lifted her delicate eyebrows at

Indelicate Barbary

Elizabeth Bates has been to Spain

and sampled her ego there

And viewed the face of the thoughtful Sphinx

And paused to arrange here hair.

Elizabeth Bates has “done the globe

From Panama back to the States

But all she saw on the way around

Was Miss Elizabeth Bates.

Milo Ray Phelps The New Yorker 1929.

But there’s just one itsy bittsy matter that he does not calculate as he congratulates himself on his well-deserved success.  He does not calculate an untimely and unwelcome visit e visit from the Lord God.  If I read his personality correctly, he hasn’t ever considered that there is a God at all, a God who gives us our lives, a God who hold us accountable for the stewardship of our lives,  and a God who ultimately  takes our lives away.  

And so he is rocking away happily on his front porch , surveying his domain, acres and acres of crops, God comes upon him and says, “You are an utter fool, for tonight you will die.”

The Bible uses the word “fool” judiciously.  It is always used to describe those who do not understand that THERE IS A is a God.  Proverbs 14:1 encapsulates it “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.”

And Jesus wraps this parable up with an explosive  question to his listeners: “What will happen to those who are full of self but empty of God?”  What will happen to all those earthly goodies we have striven so mightily to attain– when we dead and gone.

Regina Bret w as a columnist forThe Cleveland Plain Dealer for 17 years.  When she was 90 years old she wrote down the most important lessons life had taught her.  Here they are:

1. Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.

2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.

3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

4. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick.

Your friends and parents will. Stay in touch.

6. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

7. Cry with someone. It’s more healing than crying alone.

8. It’s OK to get angry with God. He can take it.

10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11. Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.

12. It’s OK to let your children see you cry.

13. Don’t compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn’t be in it.

15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.

17. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.

19. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

But the second one is up to you and no one else.

20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don’t take no for an answer.

22. Over prepare, then go with the flow.

23. Be eccentric now. Don’t wait for old age to wear purple.

25 No one is in charge of your happiness but you.

26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words ‘In five years, will this matter?’

28. Forgive everyone everything.

29. What other people think of you is none of your business.

30. Time heals almost everything. Give time.

32. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

33. Believe in miracles.

34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn’t do.

35. Don’t audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.

36. Growing old beats the alternative — dying young.

37. Your children get only one childhood.

38. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.

39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.

40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.

41. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

43. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.

44. Yield.

45. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.

A woman in my Portland church was in her late 60 s when I first met her.  She was an alcoholic.  In our many visits she freely talked about the demons and struggles of addiction.  She was a faithful attender at AA meetings, the last, best hope of alcoholics.  She had fallen off the wagon so many times that she stopped counting.  She would sometimes call me at 11 o clock at night, really snookered, wanting to talk.

After more than a few of these unpleasant  phone calls I had to draw the line.  I told her I would only talk to her between 8 and 5 every day, and only then, if she were sober.

In one of our  talks she laid out her life story.  She had been a social drinker until her son committed suicide.  To mask the pain, she began to drink more and more.  She hated her self for

behavior.  Her sense of shame and failure were palpable.  And she told me, “Terry, I don’t want to die a drunk.”

She was still alive when I left PDX in 1988.  I lost touch with her and don’t know what happened to her.  Was she able to maintain sobriety or did she die a druunk?

I don’t want to die a drunk.  By that, I mean that I don’t want to die with regreets about some action I have taken, some behavior that is damaging to me and those around me.  I want to die with a clear conscience, that I have lived each day reaching for my highest and best living each day in such a manner that just as I fall asleep each night I can hear the voice of God commending me: “Well done, good anbd faithful servant.”

Elizabeth Bates

Elizabeth Bates has been to Rome

And looked at the statues there

Elizabeth Bates has scaled the Alps

And sniffed the mountain  air

Elizabeth Bates has winced at Nice

And quibbled at gay Paree

And lifted her delicate eyebrows at

Indelicate Barbary

Elizabeth Bates has been to Spain

and sampled her ego there

And viewed the face of the thoughtful Sphinx

And paused to arrange here hair.

Elizabeth Bates has “done the globe

From Panama back to the States

But all she saw on the way around

Was Miss Elizabeth Bates.

Milo Ray Phelps The New Yorker 1929.

Categories: Weekly Sermon