Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, November 18, 2013

Why do the wicked prosper? 11.17.13

Psalm 73:1-18
1Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
2But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
3For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
5They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
6Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
7Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
8They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
9They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
10Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.
11And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
13All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
14For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.

15If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,”
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
16But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.
18Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.

John 12:23-33
23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 16:1-10, 33
”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned… 33I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” 
            I think we’ve all been in the psalmist’s situation. He describes looking at other people, especially selfish, arrogant people, and seeing that they have it easy. Sometimes it seems like everyone has it better than we do. Sometimes it seems like doing things the right way is a disadvantage because people who cut corners seem to have more time free and less stress in their lives. Sometimes it seems like the rules of the game aren’t fair and the only ones who get ahead are cheaters.

            We see corrupt Wall Street folks making millions on questionable deals. Even when they get caught, the penalty doesn’t seem very high. We’ve had coworkers who somehow skate by doing a shoddy job and letting others pick up their slack. We see sleek and strong professional athletes only getting more famous as they pile up episodes of bad behavior.

            In a world like ours it sometimes feels like you need to cheat just to keep up. It’s tempting to fall into a take what you can mentality, to envy those folks who are visibly successful and strive for success like theirs.

            Jesus is honest about the challenges that face us. He warns his disciples that they won’t only face trouble like everyone does; they are going to be persecuted because of their faith. It’s not just our perception: the world is actually out of whack. Greed is rewarded and compassion has an uphill battle.

            Jesus even suggests that evil is in charge in the world as we know it. We see the same idea when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. Satan tells Jesus he will give him all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus worships him. Satan says all the world’s power is his to give away as he chooses, and Jesus doesn’t contradict him. There’s no doubt about it, evil is powerful in the world.

            That makes it harder to be good, harder to make the right choice. The more twisted things get, the easier it is to fit in and the more we adjust ourselves to an unjust reality. For instance, our politicians may have gone to Washington or Albany to work for justice, to improve our political life. But once they are there the power of the polarized environment makes it almost impossible to treat opponents like humans. The constant deceit of the campaign rhetoric makes any kind of compromise sound like weakness.

            That attitude filters down to regular voters too. We hear so much venom on the airwaves that it shapes the way we think about politics and people deeply. Words like “bigot” or “illegal” start rolling off our tongue and before long we start thinking of people who disagree with us as enemies instead of fellow children of God.

            When Jesus talks about the persecution his disciples are going to face, he is much fairer than we usually are. He says things are going to get so bad that people who kill Christians will think they are serving God. We know that’s how Jesus’ opponents thought about him too. Many of the religious leaders who worried about Jesus were afraid he was leading people away from the traditions given to them by God. They weren’t trying to be evil; they were just trying to protect their faith in a situation where the stakes were so high that disagreement seemed threatening.

            Our world, like theirs, feels threatening. The economy is fragile, so we think of human beings crossing a border to escape poverty as a threat to us. Relationships are challenging, so we close ourselves off from others. Faith and politics are full of important, difficult questions, so people with different opinions make us feel threatened. Money is tight, so we pursue it with hard work and clutch it tightly when it comes in. The world is tough and we become hard to protect ourselves.

            Jesus calls us to a better way. Thinking about his approaching death and the coming of the Holy Spirit, he claims that the ruler of this world is cast out. In other words, in Jesus’ ultimate love on the cross and his triumphant resurrection, God’s love conquers Satan’s power. Even though it doesn’t look like it, even though it still often seems like Satan rules the world, he does not. Even though love looks weak against the hard “facts” and callous actions we see every day, love will have the last word.

            The psalmist has a similar revelation when he goes into God’s temple. I’m sure it wasn’t the first or last time he went into the sanctuary, but for whatever reason, one day he saw things differently. Maybe today will be the day we see things differently; maybe today will be the way we see things from God’s perspective like the psalmist.

            Even though it looks like wicked people have it all; even though success seems so assured for them; the truth is quite different. He says he sees that God has set their feet in slippery places. When people put their trust in money or success or popularity or power, their feet are in a slippery place. In a second all of those things can disappear because they are things. A stock market crash can make a huge fortune disappear in a day. An illness can take away looks and popularity overnight. One picture on a website can bring power crashing down. Nothing we have is going to last.

            That means people who have built their lives around pursuing things have no real foundation. When things go wrong, they will fall, and since their focus has been on things and on themselves, they will not have the relationships and faith to sustain them through hardship.

            Is money a bad thing? Not unless it becomes our god. Likewise with all the other “good things” in life. It’s fine to enjoy good food, a comfortable home, and a rewarding career. But those things are not ultimate; they are not what life is about.

            The psalmist doesn’t say what it was in the sanctuary that revealed the truth to him, but I wonder if it was the community at prayer. There’s something amazing, transformative and sacred about a community of faith. When we really open ourselves up and pay attention to each other it’s hard to stay trapped in the world’s oppressive definition. When I sat with Sue Dargavel on Thursday I couldn’t help but think how fragile life is, how easy it is to let time slip away without visiting, how quickly someone can go from being independent to the border of life.

            When we spend time eating and talking and praying with people whose whole financial life is different from ours we see both how important and how unimportant money is. Everyone feels stress about money sometimes, but that means different things to different people. When folks who are fairly comfortable financially become close with those for whom a tank of gas can make or break the month, they are reminded of how much they really have and invited to clutch it less tightly and fearfully. When those who worry about how they are going to pay the heating bill spend time with folks who drive a newer car they see that more money doesn’t solve all their problems. It doesn’t create more time, it doesn’t solve family stress, it doesn’t eliminate fear.

            When we commit to life in a diverse community of faith we have brothers who never touch a drink and others who can’t put the bottle down. We have sisters who long for a husband and those who have escaped unimaginable abuse. We have family who have been here all their lives and those who grew up somewhere very different. We know people who can’t imagine life without a computer and others who remember life before TV.

When we really get deeply involved in a community we see life from so many different perspectives that we see the limits of our experience and the breadth of God’s grace. We learn from each other and realize that we have a lot in common despite our differences. We know that we all suffer; we share many fears and joys. We are all human, all God’s children and we all have something to share. That breaks us free from the rat race of measuring ourselves and each other by outward things and being captive to the powers of this world.

When going into the sanctuary changes us, when being with our brothers and sisters and hearing the word of God transforms our hearts, we see suffering and prosperity differently. We not only see that the wicked are not really secure, we also see that they aren’t really happy. And when we’ve practice loving a wide range of people through the community of faith, we can have compassion for those we used to envy.

Being part of God’s amazing community doesn’t give us a better job, or help us afford a bigger house. It won’t cure our physical diseases either. Christians suffer like everyone else. Jesus says it as clearly as possible: he tells the disciples that the faithful path will be hard. He also says that if they follow him, they’ll find a deeper peace, a deeper satisfaction that comes from trusting God, not things or situations. “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

In suffering and in joy, in celebration and sorrow we have peace in Christ. We offer and receive that peace from others through a caring community of faith. Suffering is real; evil is powerful, but love has the last word.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 11, 2013

suffering and free will, 11.10.13

Deuteronomy 31:15-20
15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.

17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I 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, 20loving 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.

Romans 7:14-25
14For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
            Theology is the study of God, and for people who like philosophy and Bible study it is a great area of study to really immerse oneself in. It’s important too, because without theology we don’t really know what we believe about God, but those unconscious beliefs have a big impact on how we live our faith. So it’s important to be thoughtful about what we believe.

            It’s also been important historically in the church. Last week was Reformation Sunday, a day to reflect on our history as a church founded on bringing the church back to God’s calling. The reformers saw problems within the institutional church, ways that the teaching and structure of the church were actually getting in the way of people’s faith. Their close attention to scripture made the whole church stronger and more faithful.

            The trouble is that anytime we think or talk or write about God, we’re trying to capture something that is beyond our ability to understand. We can approach truth about God, but we can’t capture it all. We can’t grasp the height and depth and breadth of God’s love and holiness and power. God is limitless and we are limited. So our attempts to express the truth of God will always be imperfect and incomplete.

            Classic reformed theology teaches that God knows and determines the way things are going to happen; that’s where the idea of predestination comes from. Predestination expresses an important truth: God is really in charge of the world and we aren’t, and salvation is a gift, not something we earn through our actions or choices.

            Like everything else, too much of a good thing isn’t good. While a lot of power in the Protestant tradition comes from knowing we’re saved by grace instead of by works, we have sometimes let that truth take over so much that we forget how important individual choice is. So today, I’m talking about choice, human free choice.

            This is the most intellectual of the sermons on suffering because I’m taking my best shot at explaining why God allows suffering. It’s in the middle of the series, because I don’t think, “why “is the most important question to ask about suffering. I think the more important questions about suffering are the ones we’ve talked about over the last few weeks: How can we stay faithful when the world is a mess? How can we be good friends to those who suffer? What are we doing that contributes to other people’s suffering? What do we need to change in our life? How can we help those who suffer. Those are the most important questions. And the best response to the problem of suffering is the one Sally’s going to work through on November 24th. God responds to suffering by joining human suffering in the life and death of Jesus. God is not distant from our suffering.

But it’s impossible to avoid the “why” question. So I need to take a shot with my best answer, even though it’s incomplete. When we see the enormous suffering in the world our first reaction is to ask why God allows it. That leads many people to doubt either God’s existence or God’s love, because we feel like a loving and powerful God should do something to prevent the terrible suffering we see.

            When God created people God decided to give us free will. It would have been simpler to just program us to do the right thing all the time, but God chose instead to let us make our own decisions. I guess that’s part of what it means for God to love us. God wants us to have the freedom to choose how we will live. A lot of our suffering comes from human choice, and God loves and respects us too much to take away our freedom.

Our first passage is Moses’ farewell sermon to the people of Israel. He’s been God’s appointed guide and leader to bring the people out of slavery into freedom. Along the way God has tried to teach the people how to create a just, loving, holy society through rules that structure community life. Moses knows he’s not going to be with them as they build that society in their land. God has given them great laws, but the crucial question is: will the people follow the law? Will they chose the way of God or not?

            We each face that question every day. When we get up in the morning are we going to choose love or chose defensiveness? Are we going to treat our coworkers with respect and care or suspicion and contempt? Are we going to respond to negativity with hostility or forgiveness? Are we going to build community despite our differences and the difficulties created by everyone’s issues or are we going to retreat into the isolation of only letting the “worthy” into our lives? Are we going to choose caring for those in need or caring only for our family? What will we choose?

            Paul gets at the difficulty of that choice as he thinks about the law of God. He says he wants to do what’s right; his soul, his best self delights in the ways of God. He loves the grace and peace that comes from loving others. He feels joy at the contentment that comes from controlling our urges through reason and restraint. In his depths he wants to follow God’s will.

            But it’s not as simple as that. The word he uses is flesh, but that’s not really it; a better word for our time might be temptation. The power of temptation is strong. It’s so tempting to respond to a cruel comment from a neighbor with biting sarcasm. It’s tempting to put aside our resources for what we need and want instead of sharing with others. It’s tempting to simply check out and turn away when a coworker is acting in a way that is hurtful to the team instead of confronting them with love and honesty. It’s tempting to look out for ourselves and let others do the same.

            That’s why God gave the law, because our good intentions aren’t always strong enough to overrule the temptation we face. The law, the rules remind us of the obligations our best self wants to fulfill. They put a fence between us and our temptation so it’s harder to make the wrong choice and easier to make the right choice.

            The crazy thing is that temptation is so strong, the power of evil is so strong in our world and in us that even those laws can be used in the wrong way. If the law says we have to care for the poor, we can take that law, do the bare minimum and feel justified carrying on with our own selfishness. We can hear the law against murder and see only that killing a person is off limits without also seeing that it’s our duty to protect those in danger. And, like any system of rules, clever, unethical people can use that system to take power over other people.

            We see the suffering that comes from free will in the devastation of the Congo where violence, pillage and rape are rampant. We see it in the rule of warlords in Afghanistan and central Africa. And we see it in the hesitation of the rest of the world to find a way to address that suffering.

            God calls us to love, to work for peace, to take care of others. Temptation pushes us the other way. When temptation overrules our best nature we make others suffer and we suffer ourselves. So what will we choose, and how will we give strength to our choices for good?

            A lot of our suffering comes from free will, but human free will doesn’t do much to explain the natural disasters: the typhoon that just killed a thousand people in the Philippines, the earthquake that devastated Turkey last year, the hurricanes that flooded New Orleans and destroyed villages throughout Haiti. And free will doesn’t do anything to explain the enormous suffering of someone dying of cancer or Alzheimer’s or HIV. It doesn’t explain the suffering of a wife or husband or child watching someone they love suffer either.

            Part of me wonders if God’s gift of free will extends to the turning of the earth and the out of control growth of cancer cells. Maybe God’s decision to give us free will includes setting the physical and natural processes of the world free to create and destroy. Maybe the balance of water and minerals and a molten planetary core that enables life to flourish on this globe goes hand in hand with earthquakes and devastating storms.

            Maybe the freedom for us to make bad choices and pursue our interests and desires instead of the flourishing of others is the same freedom at work in the renegade cell that divides until it is a metastatic tumor. Maybe the freedom for humans to pile up wealth instead of distributing it is the freedom of a virus to seek out new cells to take over as it expands its empire. Maybe the thoughtless greed of bacteria killing its host and thus itself is the same as the freedom for us to destroy the environment we count on for survival.

Maybe all free will is the same. I don’t know; there are things about the universe I will never understand. We can’t change the laws of climate that lead to hurricanes; maybe if we could it would mess up something even bigger. But we can reach out to those who suffer. We can try to comfort those who mourn. We can pray for those in need, and feed those who are hungry. And we can work together to make this community a home for some who are lonely.

Like the people of Israel standing at the border of the promised land, each day, each week, each moment brings us a possibility and a challenge. Are we going to choose life, community, love, nurture, faithfulness, welcome and gospel life? Are we going to do the good we see before us or allow the temptations surrounding and inside us keep us down? We are free to choose, free to love, free to risk and dare and act. So choose love and stick fight for that choice no matter what.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

suffering: a call to repentance and action, 11.3.13

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

John 9:1-7
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Luke 3:1-11
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
            We spent the last two weeks talking about Job’s story. We talked about Job’s courage in suffering holding faith and honesty together. We also talked about being a good friend for people who are suffering. Today’s sermon builds on that as we look at suffering as a call to repentance and a call to action. Our reading from John reminds us that repentance has to lead to action, so the call to action and the call to repentance are tied together.

In the first passage Jesus is told about Pontius Pilate murdering worshipers at the temple in Jerusalem. It’s a shocking story and we might expect Jesus to offer some explanation, but he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus uses this event and an even more random news item: a tower collapsing and killing 18 people, as examples of how unpredictable life is. He rejects the idea that the people Pilate killed or the folks who died in the tower collapse were killed because they were particularly sinful. Jesus says that everyone is sinful, and we all need to repent. We all need to change our lives. And we need to do it now, because today could be our last.

            There are lots of times we don’t understand suffering and death. In this passage Jesus doesn’t even bother to speculate about the cause of suffering. He just reminds the crowd that life is uncertain, so we should change our lives for the better now. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so now is the time to repent.

Any time we delay getting our life right with God we are rolling the dice. The same is true with leaving love unspoken or conflict with friends and family unresolved. If you die before the day is over, what would you truly regret? What crucial words have you not said? What is your conscience uneasy about? Do something to change that situation before the sun goes down today.
            Our passage from John takes things in a different direction. The disciples ask Jesus how sin is related to suffering. They assume that suffering is a result of sin, but they’re not sure if it was the man or his parents’ sin that lead to his blindness.

            Jesus says sin has nothing to do with it. The man isn’t suffering because of his sin; instead, his suffering is an opportunity to show God’s power. People don’t necessarily suffer because of sin, and it’s not really our role to try to assign blame for suffering anyway. Instead, suffering is a chance to show God’s love.

Again, Jesus mentions that the time available to us might be short; it certainly was for him. That means now is the time to do good. We often don’t know the reason for suffering, but we can figure out some ways to help. If someone is hungry, we can share a meal with them. If someone is lonely, we can spend time with them. If someone is afraid, we can show them they are not alone.

            Why did Superstorm Sandy devastate the New Jersey and New York coasts? We could say something about it from a meterological perspective: something about low pressure system hitting a high pressure region in just the right way to cause a particular storm. Some people might say something about climate change. We can talk about building codes and suburban sprawl and urban crowding.

            But more than that, more than answers or speculation, God calls us to respond to suffering by putting our love in action. Our calling isn’t to assign blame; it’s to roll up our sleeves and help. That’s what our wider church is doing through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and that’s what members of our church and our presbytery did through a recent mission trip to New Jersey.

            We’ve seen a few pictures and there will be more to come. We’ve heard some stories, and I’ll bet members of our team would love to share more at coffee hour. When people are hurting, it means the world to know that someone cares. It means so much for homeowners to see regular Christians showing up at their house to help. It reminds them that they are not alone. It reminds them that even though the world dissolved into chaos for them last year, God hasn’t forgotten them.

            We never know what God is going to do with our help. There are times we feel helpless because our efforts seem so small against the enormous suffering of the world. We can sweep debris and hang new drywall, but there are other houses still in ruins. We can tutor a child, but there are still hundreds more who are falling further behind each day.

There is always more to do, but God can do amazing things even with our smallest efforts. Maybe the neighbor of your homeowner in New Jersey had a bad experience in church that left her bitter about Christianity. Maybe now she has a new image of what Christians are like. Maybe next year she will wander into a church and hear a message that will move her to faith.

Maybe the spouse of one of the people on the mission trip felt stifled in his faith because he has never seen a connection between the Bible and his work. Maybe his wife’s story of transformation through the trip will lead him to ask deeper questions about his career. Maybe that will lead him to change his focus in a way that opens up a new world of faith and vocation.

Maybe Jesus’ death and resurrection never made sense to you before. Maybe you thought it was a bloody tragedy you wanted nothing to do with or a fairy tale ending made up by people two thousand years ago. Maybe one of the pictures of devastation and recovery catches your eye in a way that troubles your heart. Maybe you’ll be stuck with that image this afternoon in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. Maybe you’ll have your mind on something else entirely Tuesday morning when a voice inside you whispers that death has to come before resurrection and that new life can appear where you least expect it.

Friends of mine gave me a toolbox for my 21st birthday. That toolbox is in my closet at home like it’s been in the closet of each of the eight places I’ve lived since college. When they gave me the box they put a poem in it that is still there now. It was written by R.L. Sharpe in 1890 and it’s a great fit today:
Each is given a bag of tools, A shapeless mass, A book of rules;
And each must make, Ere life is flown, A stumbling block Or a stepping stone.

Suffering can be a huge stumbling block for our faith. We wonder why such terrible things happen. We can’t figure out how a loving God allows such tragedy. That question can stall our faith. It can trip us up and keep us from reaching out to God. Or it can be an opportunity for us to reach out to our suffering neighbor with love, remembering that Jesus reached out to those who were suffering.

Suffering reminds us that life is uncertain and that the material things we collect in this world will not last. It invites us to examine our lives, and turn to God. John’s forceful preaching reminds us that repentance isn’t just a spiritual exercise; it’s got to bear fruit our lives visibly. The main way we change our lives is by reaching out to someone else to make their suffering more bearable.

We aren’t going to have all the answers we want, but we have the tools we need for our first step. So please, don’t wait. Make peace. Reach out to your neighbor. Tell your sister you love her. Feed someone who is hungry. Repent and believe the good news that God is love. Make that love your mission in the world. Now is the time.

Thanks be to God.