Oct. 8, 2017 Ephesians 4: 1-3, 21 - 5:2
Prayer: O Lord, we ask your blessing on the words spoken here today. We ask that they be your words, and that they be clear and true. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
A familiar nightmare
Nation plunges into familiar nightmare. That was the headline in Tuesday morning’s USA Today.
I guess that’s the worst thing that can happen to a nightmare – it becomes familiar. And so when we learned of a shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas that killed 59 and wounded 500 more, we remembered Orlando last summer:
49 killed and 58 wounded in a nightclub there.
And we remembered San Bernardino the year before that: 14 dead and 22 wounded in a health training event.
We remembered Charleston the same summer: 9 dead at Emmanuel AME Church during Bible study.
We remembered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012: 26 killed, many of them first graders, during a routine school day.
The roll call goes on and on and on. Mass shootings have their own category in law enforcement records, separate from bombings and poisonous gas releases and arson and all the other ways we have of hurting each other.
What are we to do with that? How are we to live in a world where such violence is … familiar?
I applaud those of you who are advocating for commonsense policy change such as universal background checks for guns. Outlawing automatic weapons.
I attended a dinner at My Neighbor’s Voice the week before we had our dinners here. That’s a meal where people of intentionally different political persuasion gather and listen to each other in a guided format.
A man at my table was a farmer in Slater Marietta, and he identified as a conservative. One of the questions he got was about gun control.
He answered that he was a hunter and certainly supported the right to carry guns for that. But he didn’t see a reason for any civilian to have an automatic weapon of war. And he thought everyone should have to wait for a background check to buy a gun – no matter if it took 60 days or 90 days or however long it took.
He didn’t say one thing I disagreed with – though we “labeled” ourselves on the issue quite differently. I imagine that most of us who have become familiar with America’s recurring nightmare would agree more than we disagree.
But policy concerns aside, what are we to make of a civilization that walks to the drumbeat of mass shootings? Or for that matter, bombings, poisonous gas releases, arsons and other heinous acts?
I don’t think our faith provides a way of understanding it.
But I think our faith does provide a way to live in the face of it.
A way of living in service, in love of neighbor, that quietly and consistently – and insistently -- defies the chaos. A way of living that says, We will not be bullied or cowed or frightened into caving in to hatred and revenge.
For while we are not always faced with the scope of last Sunday’s massacre, we will always be faced with evil acts, both great and small.
One such act I wrote about for The Greenville News has stayed with me for 20 years. I have mentioned it in here before. Patrick was 15. David was 14. And their little freckle-faced sister, Lynette, was 11. They lived in a trailer park in Tucson, Arizona.
In 1997, their mother became ill with an aggressive brain and lung cancer. The children and their father, Jim, nursed her, but she died that summer.
Reeling from the loss of their mother, the children nonetheless pitched in to help their dad run the household.
Patrick did the cooking, David did the laundry, and Lynette the housecleaning.
They struggled along as best they could until one night in late September of 1998. They sat down to eat the dinner Patrick had cooked. Then their dad went out to buy groceries.
Returning from the grocery store in his Honda Accord, Jim noticed a Chevy tailgating him. He tapped his brakes to warn the driver to back off, but instead, the driver pulled up beside him and forced him into a convenience store parking lot.
As Jim tried to get out of his car, the other driver was on him in a flash, slamming the car door on him and stunning him. The man then dragged Jim from the car, and punched him in the face, breaking his jaw and other facial bones. Jim fell to the ground, and the man kicked him in the chest and head, leaving him all but unconscious.
When Sheriff’s deputies arrived, three witnesses verified Jim’s account of what happened.
Jim was taken to the local emergency room. He stayed in the hospital two days, but he was eager to get back to the children. They became his caregivers, just as they’d done for their mom the year before, making him Jell-O and broth until his facial swelling went down.
Each night, Jim talked to his older sister, who happened to be a nurse in Fountain Inn. He complained to her about pain in his upper abdomen, but he assumed it was because of all the bruising.
By the end of the week, he was in so much pain that he put the children to bed and called an ambulance. Doctors discovered he had a ruptured spleen and rushed him into surgery.
Jim died the next morning from internal bleeding.
Back in Fountain Inn, Jim’s sister received the call that the two nephews and niece that she saw only once a year were orphaned. She hopped on a plane to Arizona.
She moved into the family’s trailer, and she and other family members helped care for the children. While she was there, deputies arrested a 29-year-old man and charged him with second-degree murder in Jim’s death.
“It was kind of like God answered our prayers,” she told me, “because Patrick and I were ready to find him ourselves.”
Jim’s sister and her husband brought the children home to Fountain Inn to live. And so because of one case of road rage, the lives of three children had been forever shattered. And the lives of this nice couple who had already raised their own children were suddenly disrupted by the addition of a whole new family and all the expenses that meant.
Patrick and David and Lynette and their aunt and uncle had every reason on earth to want revenge, to want to get even with the man who had wreaked such havoc on their lives.
Every reason on earth. (PAUSE)
But the thing about being a Christian is this: We do not look to this earth for our direction. We look to our God. Please turn with me in your Bibles to Ephesians 4: 1-3, 21 – 5: 2 to see what a difference Paul thinks that should make.
4I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…. (jump to verse 21)
21For surely you have heard about (Jesus) and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.
28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.
29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
51Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Paul, who was in prison when he wrote this letter, would tell you that following Jesus is not easy. Following Jesus is difficult and risky and excruciatingly hard. Following Jesus is taking up one’s cross, which is a means of one’s death, of one’s execution. Following Jesus is dying to selfishness, dying to oneself.
All this in the face of a world that thinks and behaves very differently, whether they say they are followers of Jesus or not.
In the verses that we didn’t read, Paul talks about non-believers who are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart.” And then he says, “That is not the way you learned Christ!”
That is not the way you learned Christ.
The fact is Jesus himself lived during a time and place of unspeakable violence. The difference is that in his time, the violence came at the hands of the governing empire rather than random individuals. But violence is a feature of human nature, the human experience. And it takes something to change that.
That something is belief in Jesus Christ. That something is new life as Christians.
In Ephesians, Paul gives us rules for the new life we are to live as Christians. The old rules do not apply any longer for the new people we have become.
The problem is, no one told our human nature it was being displaced. So while we want revenge on the man who stole the father from Patrick, David and Lynette, while we want revenge on the dead shooter in Las Vegas, we cannot have that and follow Christ at the same time.
“Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil,” says Paul. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is useful for building up….”
Could following Christ be any harder than this?
If so, I can’t imagine how.
Paul writes, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
There is no fairness in this. We have talked in the past few weeks how grace is unfair. Well, so is forgiveness. So is attempting to keep bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander and malice at bay.
But it is what being born again as new people in Christ demands.
Still, Paul is not finished. “Therefore be imitators of God....”
Goodness, not “be imitators of Jesus” who at least walked on earth as a human and understood our anger and bitterness and need for revenge. But “be imitators of God.”
Be imitators of a God who came to earth to die for sins he didn’t commit.
Because finally, Paul writes, “Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us….”
The action of Jesus on the cross was not rational, was not human nature, was not fair in any sense of the word. And yet, we are asked to behave in a similar way if we are to follow Christ.
“You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourself with the new self….”
The old ways, the human ways, simply won’t do anymore. Not if we are to sincerely follow Christ.
People often ask me what it is like to preach at Triune. How do you preach where such a diversity of races and education and mental health and socioeconomics are gathered in one place?
I always say, over time, I step on everybody’s toes.
And so in today’s passage, Paul leads us across the socioeconomic spectrum: “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands….”
You might think that goes without saying. But I don’t think a day goes by here – not a single day – that we don’t hear about a backpack, a wallet, a prescription, a pair of shoes, a bag of groceries -- stolen. Let’s be clear: Christian behavior does not allow for stealing.
Behavior follows conviction. Paul – and God – expect to see certain behaviors follow the creation of a new person in Christ. That is simply part of the Christian gospel.
Following Christ is not easy. Because following Christ means fighting against our human nature at every turn.
Is it natural to want revenge on a man who erupted into road rage and left three young teens without the only parent they had? Is it natural to hate the perpetrators of the familiar nightmare that is mass shooting in this country?
Yes, it’s natural. It’s humanly natural.
But following Christ means we’re going to try to overcome what is natural, and reach for what is supernatural.
And it will be hard. Because truly following Christ in the face of the chaos of the modern world IS hard.
We do it with service, with a love of neighbor that quietly and consistently – and insistently -- defies the chaos. We do by living in a way that says, We will not be bullied or cowed or frightened into caving in to hatred and revenge.