June 7, 2020
On the first night of the protests and rioting over the killing of George Floyd, I found myself wondering, “How can this be?” The death of yet another black man killed by a police officer brought to my mind the era of lynching; yet that should have been left far in our past. Also the civil rights battle, while not completely solved, is better. The age of enlightenment is here, supposedly. There is no reason for an incident like that to happen. And yet it did.
I want to share a few words from an article in last week’s Christian Century. Keep in mind this article was written and submitted long before the world heard of George Floyd. Dorothy Wells begins, “Few people know the name Michael Donald. I know that name; he was lynched in my hometown, Mobile, Alabama in 1981.” Take a second to consider that; 1981! That’s well within the lifetime of most of us.
Now you will get an insight into how my mind works. As I lay in bed that night contemplating the events of the day, I found myself wondering what it would have been like for Joseph as the father of Jesus 2000 years ago. Did he lay in bed wondering how it could be that another citizen of Nazareth was killed for no reason by a Roman soldier? Did he worry that the protests by citizens would bring more violence on the villages? And on top of that, did he wonder about an unknown disease that was killing the elderly in villages all through Galilee and beyond?
As I contemplated the murder and the riots and the COVID-19 pandemic, I turned to God in prayer. A natural response for all of us, I hope. But I wondered again about Joseph. Did Joseph fall on his knees and pray to God in heaven… or go into the bedroom Jesus shared with his brothers and kneel by his bedside and pray to Jesus even as he slept? Joseph knew who Jesus was; but today is Trinity Sunday and we celebrate the three in one God; Father who creates, Son who saves and intercedes for us, Holy Spirit who comforts us in our loss and confusion. I wrote another whole sermon about the Trinity, but today, I want us to consider how our triune God fits in this world when we witness the things of the past two weeks.
Since the beginning of time, innumerable prayers have been sent heavenward when bad things happen. We pray for understanding as we wonder about the evil that is done in our midst; for justice and peace and wisdom, for good to triumph. But evil has been with us since Adam and Eve decided they knew better than God did; or wanted to. Cain and Abel fought over who God loved best. David felt he could kill a man impunity because he wanted his wife for his own. Pilate thought he could have Jesus killed and wash his hands of the matter. Caligula killed the Christians just because he could. The inquisitioners killed the non-Christians who dared to stand up for their own beliefs. We could go on and on; Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein.
And disease and death have been with us since that sin in the garden. The Covid-19 is new but it isn’t, dare I say the current fashionable word, unprecedented. The Black plague, Smallpox, the Spanish flu, Cholera Pandemics, Asian Flu, AIDs all killed millions of people. Mark Twain notably said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Going back several thousand years farther for a quote, Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1: 9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” The struggle against disease and death isn’t new. Human beings have lived with death, disease and personal violence forever. Well, since the fall. If we look at our reading in Genesis, everything God created was good. And when God created human beings, it says it was “very good.” What happened? And that’s a question that has had millions of words written trying to answer. As simply as I can, I’d answer, sin happened. And it is more than the serpent in the tree. The tempting of the serpent doesn’t explain Adam and Eve trading in perfection for the fruit of the tree. But it was the premise in their hearts that with the knowledge, there came the possibility that they could be a god on their own; the power of independence. And that’s not to say knowledge and power are bad. But the story of the fall shows what happens when knowledge and power are separated from God’s Spirit of light.And Jesus in our reading today says,” go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” We’ve misused this and said, “Go and make church members…” Disciple means a student of a certain teacher. We are to make students who learn the way of Jesus and obey what Jesus commended And that command is love.
We look around and see the evil and the violence and the riots and the anger. That is not what God is about and not what Jesus came to teach us. In his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drew on the story of the bible to address the violence he witnessed in the search for justice. “The deep rumbling of discontent that we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses, rising from dungeons of oppression to the bright hills of freedom,… Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go.’ This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story. But before we reach the majestic shores of the Promised Land, there is a frustrating and bewildering wilderness ahead.” We are still wandering in a wilderness as a nation, seeking a balance of cooperation and opportunity and grace. The frustrations are showing from all sides.
But as we gather to worship the God who led Israel to freedom, let’s not focus purely on the negative. Julie and I actually took a forty eight hour fast from news broadcasts and I quit reading facebook posts that were not personal messages; no canned posts. Our reading from 2 Corinthians says, “Be joyful. Grow to maturity. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you.” Words for living in harmony with each other. But how do we make sense of the disharmony we’ve been witnessing? Is the God of peace and love powerless to prevent evil from happening? And we’ve hit a bit of a circle, this is kind of where I started. But perhaps we are looking at this wrong if that’s our question. Not is God powerless, but what does God’s demonstration of power in Jesus Christ look like? According to Thomas Long in What Shall We Say, “God came in tremendous power, but power consistent with the power of God made known in Jesus Christ, power in the form of loving weakness. God’s power was not a sword dividing good from evil; God’s power was a small dash of yeast poured into an an overwhelming volume of flour from the hand of an unnoticed woman… seemingly weak, insignificant and hidden, and yet this power of love works to vanquish all evil.”
What does this love look like? It looks like messages of hope, actions of love, demonstrations of mercy, acts of compassion. We see nurses and doctors working long, dangerous shifts to care for others. It is the church in North Minneapolis giving away free groceries because the stores have been closed by looters. It is the families who bring brooms, soap and elbow grease to clean up the streets and graffiti left behind from the protesters. Its the police officers who take a knee in solidarity with the mourners of George Floyd and all senseless killings. And it is the middle class, white person struggling to understand the fears and challenges people of color still face today; even when it is easier to sit at our computers and judge them.
As I tried to understand the thoughts and actions of Joseph, may we seek to understand the thoughts and feelings and actions of those whose lives don’t look like ours. May we take the words of Paul to heart, “Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you.” Amen.
Hymn: Come Thou Almighty King