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August 7, 2016, 3:31 PM

Heaven on Earth

Revelation 21:1-7, The Message, revised
I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making God’s home with men and women! They’re God’s people, God is their God. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.” Then the Enthroned said, “It’s happened. I’m A to Z. I’m the Beginning, I’m the Conclusion. From Water-of-Life Well I give freely to the thirsty. Conquerors inherit all this. I’ll be God to them, they’ll be sons and daughters to me.
John 14:1-7, NRSV
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Heaven on Earth
The 1991 motion picture, Black Robe, is a compelling story of a French Jesuit priest’s journey across the frontiers of Canada in 1634. Father LaForgue travels to a remote mission among the Huron Indian nation together with his non-Jesuit assistant, Daniel, and a group of Algonquin Indians, who serve as the guides for the priest. In the course of their travels, Daniel falls in love with a young Algonquin woman and begins to learn more about her people and her beliefs.  There is a wonderful scene in the movie where Daniel seeks to help his Jesuit mentor understand the differences between French Christian beliefs and Algonquin and Huron beliefs. Daniel carefully broaches the subject, pointing out that their fellow travelers also have an understanding of an afterlife. The Father’s responses in this conversation are abrupt and dismissive. To Daniel’s comment he replies, “They have no concept.” Daniel gently explains the forest and hunting grounds his new love has shared with him. The Father responds, “Is that what she told you? It is childish, Daniel.” To which Daniel replies, “Is it harder to believe in than Paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?”
If we really stop to think about it, we have some really strange images of what heaven is like. When we hear ‘heaven’ we begin picturing pearly gates, big billowy white clouds, people in white robes, harp playing, and golden streets. One little boy asked his pastor what people do in heaven, to which the pastor replied that people spend all eternity in worship. The little boy looked horrified. Is it any wonder that the Native Americans, in the early years of European settlement, had no interest in clouds and harps and St. Peter as the bouncer for the pearly gates, when they could look forward to the beautiful hunting forests of their own beliefs? For the Algonquin, these hunting forests were actually right among the current forests they inhabited. They saw their departed family as hunting alongside them, out of sight, but still very present.
In our sermon series this summer, we are addressing these “Churchy words” and difficult topics to examine popular beliefs and to explore what scripture has to share on the topic. So today we look at scripture’s understanding of ‘heaven.’ Both of our readings today are read very, very frequently at funerals and memorial services—Revelation 21 and John 14. These are read specifically because they speak more directly than most scripture about life after our bodies have perished. When we hear these scripture passages, we think of heaven.
Revelation is responsible for much of the popular imagery of heaven in our culture today. The book of Revelation is a letter written by a man named John, not the disciple who has been dead for many years before this letter is written. John is exiled to the Greek island of Patmos because of his faith. John’s letter is written in a very specific style that is modeled after some of the passages in the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures. This style uses picturesque language to try to capture thoughts that are beyond words—like a series of paintings used to help the reader experience the emotion and grandeur of that which is beyond words. These images of John have given rise to popular images of heaven—throne of God, descriptions of a heavenly city, angels and saints in white robes forever singing in the presence of God. John’s picturesque language has colored our thoughts.
The passage from Revelation we heard today is the closest we will get to an image of ‘heaven.’ John’s series of ‘paintings’ have culminated in an ultimate metaphor of where God’s activity is moving us and all creation—a culmination of all things. John paints the picture of the perfect Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God in Hebrew belief, leaving the heavens to come to earth so that God can move into the neighborhood, quite literally. John proclaims that when all things are accomplished, and God’s will is indeed done on earth as it is in heaven, God’s realm will quite literally come to earth and we will dwell in the city (and garden if we read on into chapter 22) of God. The people of God do not escape into some otherworldly dwelling place. God’s perfection comes to earth, to be with us, right here. The earth is the location of God’s salvation.
Throughout scripture, from Genesis through to Revelation, heaven is not a term to refer to some alternate place that the dead travel to when they die, unless they have earned eternal punishment. The term heaven is used to refer to that which is above our head, the heavens, or to refer to being in God’s presence in some way. Heaven is a term used to substitute for God’s name, which is too holy to be uttered casually, or in vain. And heaven is used to refer to the realm where God’s will is done all the time, and God’s will alone. In the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah or Amos, and in the teachings of Jesus and Paul, this heavenly realm is something we are hoping for in what scripture calls ‘the age to come,’ and it is something that we are trying to live into right now in the present age. The ancient prophets, and the message and person of Jesus, seeks to call God’s people into a life that reflects the coming of the beloved community, the heavenly kingdom, in the current world in which they live. Heaven is when that new age arrives, that new creation, and God comes to dwell quite literally among us right here on earth—earth as God has always intended it to be.
In this ‘age to come,’ in this heaven on earth, we are active participants, partners with God, journeying together into deeper and deeper relationship. The prophet Isaiah speaks eloquently of this age to come using language of homes and villages, feasts and plenty, our world restored and perfect, in which we live and move and have our being. In some African Christian groups, this age to come is literally called the Village, much like Daniel from the Black Robe film referred to heaven as Paradise. The beloved community, heavenly kingdom, is life as God envisions and plans and moves us toward—real life lived in the full presence of God.
So what about ‘in the meantime?’ What happens in this between time, to those who die in this present age…where do they go? And what about our gospel passage from John that we hear read at funerals so often? What about the habitation with many rooms prepared for us?
This passage from John’s gospel is part of a longer piece, chapters 13 through 17, often called the Farewell Discourses. This reading is part of a long conversation Jesus is having with his closest followers around the table of the last supper, preparing them for all that is to come. These words are specifically geared toward faithful followers in the community of Christ—words of comfort, words of hope and promise, words that look beyond the crucifixion to the resurrection and the life of the disciples that will follow. In this beginning of chapter 14, Jesus is preparing them to face hardship and persecution, to stand firm in the face of fear, for they have experienced God in a very profound way in Jesus Christ. They have seen God’s way of living, for Jesus embodied that way, that truth, that life. They have literally seen God for they have seen God revealed in Jesus. When Jesus invokes the beloved and comforting words about a habitation prepared for them, he uses a very specific metaphor from first century Israel, the image of a journey.
Jesus refers to the place prepared using the Greek word, monai. A monai is a very special type of abode in ancient Israel. It is the way station prepared for caravans on their journey.  As a caravan set out on a long journey across vast areas, a prep crew was sent out ahead. This crew traveled before the caravan to prepare the stops along the way. They would arrive at the designated stops for the night and prepare the rooms (tents) for the travelers to stay in. They would make sure water was ready, meals were prepared, and all was laid in welcome for the weary travelers so they could resume their journey refreshed in the morning.
Jesus is our crew. Jesus is going ahead of us travelers on the journey of faith to prepare our place of welcome. That is as specific as Jesus gets. There is a place for us in the between time, a place in God’s presence where we will be welcomed and refreshed. There is a place for us to rest, to eat and drink, to be in the company of fellow travelers, before we are called to resume our journey into the age to come, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. If picturing clouds makes you happy, picture clouds. If you are really fond of harp music, then let that image fill you and surround you. If you find comfort in a mighty household, with rooms that hint of home, hold tight to that image. And if you just love to travel, imagine that wonderful oasis, ready and waiting. The point is, there is a place for us with God, with Jesus, in the meantime, where we are fully ourselves and where we anticipate the coming of heaven on earth.
C.S. Lewis, a wonderful theologian who also authored the Chronicles of Narnia, addressed this image of the heavenly kingdom and the faith journey with God in the final book of his Chronicles—The Last Battle. The Chronicles of Narnia are rich with deep theology and beautiful images of God, Jesus, and the community of Christ. This is what Lewis described as he speaks of arrival in the age to come:
“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”
            Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.
            “I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”
            “Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”
            … “Why!” exclaimed Peter. “It’s England. And that’s the house itself—Professor Kirk’s old home in the country where all our adventures began!”
            “I thought that house had been destroyed,” said Edmund.
            “So it was,” said the Faun. “But you are  now looking at the England within England, the real England just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed.”
            … “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
            And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Thanks be to God! Amen!

July 31, 2016, 1:40 PM


2 Corinthians 5:16-21
16 So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to God’s self through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to God’s self through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. God has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.
Matthew 18:21-35
21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
It has been 10 years this coming October since the shooting at West Nickel Mines Amish School, October 2nd to be exact. Ten years ago a milk delivery truck driver, deeply troubled after the loss of his own daughter, entered the Amish school and shot the 10 girl students, killing 5 of them. Such a horrendous tragedy made national news within hours of the shooting. Reporters from around the world flocked to the small community outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the first members of the Amish Community the media interviewed was a grandfather of one of the deceased girls. He began his interview by astounding the reporters as he boldly and firmly offered forgiveness to Charles Roberts, the gunman, who took his own life after shooting the girls. Just a few hours later, the Amish community gathered at Roberts’ house to offer comfort and compassion to his wife and children. The world was stunned.
Later that week the family of Charles Roberts was invited to the funerals of the Amish girls, and the number of members of the Amish community outnumbered the non-Amish at Roberts’ own funeral. Such a display of forgiveness had not been witnessed so globally before, it held the world mesmerized. It was beautiful and heart wrenching to behold. What a powerful witness to the Christian understanding of radical love and forgiveness! And yet, because of the nature of the media coverage, this story left many with major misconceptions about forgiveness, instead of a deeper understanding of it.
The news coverage asked all those misconceived questions: “How could the community forgive and forget? How could they get over the deaths of their daughters so quickly? If Roberts had survived, would they really have let him get away with it? What if he didn’t repent? What if he wasn’t sorry for what he did? How were they able to make such heartbreak go away so quickly?” These are some of the stumbling blocks to forgiveness, a deep lack of understanding for what forgiveness is all about. It is what makes Jesus’ command to Peter, in our Matthew reading, and the subsequent parable so difficult.
Forgiveness is about relationship. Forgiveness is about our relationship with God, our relationship with our own self, and our relationship with the sinful situation that led to pain, hurt, and injury. In working through forgiveness, we do not promise to forget. On the contrary, God is a God of remembrance as well as forgiveness. God demands that we remember; remember the situation or event that led to the wounding so that we do not repeat them. And God demands we remember the experience of forgiveness so that we will recognize it when it comes again. Forgiveness allows us to remember without reliving, to remember without being overwhelmed again by our emotions. In forgiveness we lessen the hold that the sin and situation has on us, so that we are not controlled by it, bound by it, shackled to it.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime of South Africa. In a press conference following his release, and the fall of apartheid, he issued this statement, he said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Mandela chose to move into a life of forgiveness—to not remain imprisoned by anger and pain, or a need for retribution and vengeance. He didn’t know if the perpetrators of apartheid and his imprisonment would be repentant. He did know he would never forget all he experienced in prison. He also knew that the perpetrators would have to face some severe consequences for their actions, but he hoped his forgiveness had the potential to create a new reality for his beloved nation of South Africa. And it did. Mandela and other key leaders led their nation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a time of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. I invite you to google this and read some of the powerful stories. Nelson Mandela chose life abundant in the radical love and forgiveness he experienced in and through Jesus Christ.
Jesus came among us, as God made flesh, as an embodiment of the radical love and forgiveness of God. In our gospel reading today, Peter lifts up our human wrestling with forgiveness. He offers a rather generous understanding of forgiveness. Peter was willing to forgive someone’s repeated sins against him as many as 7 times—the number of completeness in scriptures. Let’s face it, in the way forgiveness operates in the world, forgiving someone of the same sin 7 times in a row is rather magnanimous. After all, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” right? How mind blowing is Jesus’ response? Not 7 times, but 77 times, or 70 times 7. It is a confusing sentence to translate. But Jesus still gets his point across—stop counting. Forgiveness is a way of living, and not a series of individual actions. We don’t keep score of how many times we forgive someone. That is a human concept, not a divine one. Paul assures us in his first letter to the Corinthians, in that famous love chapter which is describing God’s love and our call to embody that love, that God’s love keeps no record of wrongdoings. Stop counting.
Then, Jesus tells a parable to highlight the nature of Forgiveness—that the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we offer are inextricably linked. We cannot have one without the other. We can debate the severity of the parable another time, but the reality it points to is that the forgiven servant did not truly experience the forgiveness of the debt—he registered that he was ‘off the hook’ but he did not truly understand the radical gift he was given, for he did not embody it in his own life and relationships. He was still trapped in the system of debt and repayment, even when offered a life of forgiveness and abundance.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray about forgiveness—every single time we pray it. “Forgive us our trespasses (sins, debts), as we forgive those who trespass (sin, debtors) against us.” In other words, we forgive as we have experienced the forgiveness of God. And if we are unable to offer forgiveness, we have not experienced the forgiveness of God. This is a truly horrible place to be. The other problem we run into here is that we often take our misconceptions of forgiveness and project them onto the forgiveness of God.
Let’s take a moment to look closely at the most visible example of God’s radical love and forgiveness that we have as Christians—the crucifixion, the cross. Scriptures say in many places that Jesus died for our sins. Those of you flinching in your seats, or wincing, are reacting not to scripture, but to the projections we humans have cast upon that statement in order to make God’s forgiveness look more like our own.  That statement has been connected to the human understanding that God could not forgive us our sins unless someone paid for it. I just heard a hymn recently that even talked about God’s wrath toward us, and Jesus appeasing that wrath on our behalf. Usually though, we hear more about Jesus paying the debt for us with his blood. This is called substitutionary atonement, a rather new concept in the history of God’s people. If something is forgiven, there is no repayment. The debt is wiped clean. Repayment is a settling of accounts. It is not forgiveness.
Let’s look again at our parable from Matthew. A servant owes the king a debt, but look at the debt. The Common English translation calls it a bag of gold or silver, but the measure of payment is called a talent. One talent equaled about 130 pounds of silver—130 pounds of silver!! That is equal to 15 years of a laborer’s annual wages. This servant owes the king 10,000 talents, 10,000 130lb. bags of silver or gold. 10,000 units of 15 years wages! That is 150,000 years of work. How can anyone speak of repaying that debt? It is not possible. As the servant kneels before the king and begs for more time to repay, the king is fully aware that a repayment by this servant is impossible. The king forgives the debt. The king doesn’t make someone repay it on the servant’s behalf. He sees the plight of the servant and wipes the debt clean. It is the servant’s behaviors that follow that radical forgiveness that leave the servant in a deeply broken relationship with the king. But in the beginning, forgiveness is offered without repayment, without contingencies. It is just simple forgiveness. That is the essence of forgiveness. Or consider the father of the prodigal son from Luke’s gospel—running to meet the prodigal son before a word is uttered.
Jesus died for our sin. Sin, as we explored last week, is anything that is not God’s way. It is a broken relationship with God, which is reflected in our relationships with one another and with all creation. We find ourselves developing patterns that are unhealthy-spiritually, physically, emotionally. Those patterns create cycles or circles of sin that are self-perpetuating. How can we get out?
Living into the mystery of the cross is a lifelong part of our faith journey. However, I did encounter one example of speaking of the cross in relation to the cycles of sin and the need for forgiveness. It came from the story of missionaries who traveled to a remote area in the jungles of Eastern Ecuador to evangelize a group of tribes with very, very limited contact with the outside world. The white missionaries—men with their wives and children—journeyed there to bring Jesus, and to end a cycle of violence that was devastating the remote tribes of that area. Their story is told in a really excellent movie entitled, “The End of the Spear.” To make a long story short, the tribes believed absolutely in retaliation and retribution—vengeance. If someone from the other tribe spears a member of my tribe, I must spear them back ten-fold. That was the law of the jungle and it was devastating the tribe.  After a tragic event, the women and children establish a home on the edge of the jungle and begin a wary and careful relationship with the wives of the tribes. The wives explain to the tribal wives that this man named Jesus came to change the understanding of spearing—Jesus was speared, but Jesus didn’t spear back. Jesus was speared, but he didn’t spear back. Jesus broke the cycle of violence. This message spread throughout the tribes and changed their interaction—New Creation! Forgiveness—Radical Love.
This is the ministry Paul calls Corinth to in our first reading today, the ministry of reconciliation. It is the ministry that Paul calls us to today. We can break these cycles of sin and violence and brokenness.  We can embrace a new pattern—a new creation! We can emulate Jesus as we encounter him on the cross—Jesus was speared, but Jesus didn’t spear back. Instead Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.” Forgiveness is a way of being, practiced in community. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes that practice and the community to practice with. C.S. Lewis wrote in this ‘Letters to Malcolm’ that he prayed to forgive someone for 30 years before he could finally say that he had. But he didn’t give up, he didn’t stop praying.  He continued in his community to practice. May we too join together in a life of forgiveness, in the ministry of reconciliation. May we model for the world the gift of radical love and forgiveness. Hear this blessing from Jan Richardson, The Hardest Blessing, Let us pray:
If we cannot
lay aside the wound
then let us say
it will not always
bind us.
Let us say
the damage
will not eternally
determine our path.
Let us say
the line of our life
will not forever follow
the tearing, the rending
we have borne.
Let us say
that forgiveness
can take some practice,
can take some patience,
can take a long
and struggling time.
Let us say
that to offer
the hardest blessing
we will need
the deepest grace,
that to forgive
the sharpest pain
we will need
the fiercest love,
that to release
the ancient ach
we will need
new strength
for every day.
Let us say
the wound
will not be
our final home;
that through it
runs a road,
a way we would not
have chosen
but on which
we will finally see
so long practiced,
coming toward us
shining with the joy
so well deserved.

July 26, 2016, 9:27 AM

Let's Talk About Sin

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 Look here! Today I’ve set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. 16 If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in God’s ways, and by keeping God’s commandments, God’s regulations, and God’s case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them, 18 I’m telling you right now that you will definitely die. You will not prolong your life on the fertile land that you are crossing the Jordan River to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live— 20 by loving the Lord your God, by obeying God’s voice, and by clinging to God. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
1 John 3:1-6
See what love Abba God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children! Yet that in fact is what we are. The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized God. My dear friends, now we are God’s children, but it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future. We know that when it comes to light we will be like God, for we will see God as God really is. All who keep this hope keep themselves pure, just as Christ is pure. Anyone who sins at all breaks the Law, because sin is to break the Law. Now, you know that Christ, who is sinless, appeared to abolish sin. So everyone who lives in union with Christ does not continue to sin, but whoever continues to sin has never seen or known Christ.
Matthew 22:35-40
35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,[a] and with all your mind. 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself40  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
“Let’s Talk About Sin”
 “Sin.” It seems like such a tiny little word, so short, so small, just three little letters. It takes up very little room in our liturgy. But that teeny weeny little word carries so much weight. It is heavy and burdensome and uncomfortable and awkward. Perhaps when we say it we should draw it out in a parody of that southern stereotype—Seeeee-iiiiinnnn. Or, perhaps we would just prefer to not talk about it at all. Because, if you start talking about sin than you have to talk about sinners, and then somehow we end up with conversations about judgment and punishment and the whole thing goes to hell—sometimes literally. That is what we do when something is painful or uncomfortable, (right?) we don’t talk about it, we avoid it like it were the plague.
But, if we are honest, we have seen what happens when you avoid important topics and refuse to talk about them—important issues and needs and situations never get resolved, and in fact, can become worse. I remember the first time I went to a mandatory white privilege workshop when we were part of Wyoming Conference. It is interesting to note we haven’t had one since we became Upper New York Conference seven years ago. The workshop was tense and intense. Many clergy were only there because it was required. The whole day was a struggle, to come face to face with something we didn’t want to talk about—racism, white privilege, our own complicity in the system. But at the end of the day, we were better for it. We had a deeper understanding of how the world is stacked against minorities. We had a glimpse of how those of us who are white have been completely oblivious to our own privilege. Because we were willing to talk about the issues of racism and white privilege, we were able to live more aware of how our actions impacted our culture and full equality.  We needed to talk about it. Our culture today is screaming to talk about it. Our people are dying, quite literally, because of our failure to truly talk about racism and privilege and broken systems. We need to talk about it.
We need to talk about sin. I know that over the generations that tiny, little word has taken on some heavy meaning, especially as it has been used as a stick with which to beat people into submission. However, in reclaiming the word and its meaning, according to our scriptures, we can address the sin in our lives and live into a new relationship with God. So let’s talk about sin.
Sin, over the generations, has come to be something we invoke when we want to put someone down—you committed a sin. You are a sinner. You are dirty and wrong and you need to be cleansed, corrected, or fixed in some way. Many in our church have been the victims of those boldly proclaiming, “hate the sin and love the sinner,” which is just another way to offer condemnation and to make oneself feel superior. Sin is loaded down with those medieval images of purgatory, confessionals, and acts of penance. Sin is something we throw at someone else—we condemn their behavior and label it sin. But that is not how scripture speaks of sin.
Our three readings today all address this troublesome word—sin—and highlight its meaning in our life with God. Deuteronomy… Deuteronomy is a series of sermons given by Moses to the people of Israel as they stand on the border of the Promised Land, about to enter in and be a settled people for the first time in 40 years.  Moses will not be going with them, and he takes this moment to impress upon them how life with God should be in this new life in the land flowing with milk and honey. In many of his sermons, Moses points out all the times in the past when the people have turned away from God and things have gone poorly. The book of Deuteronomy was finally written generations after the Exodus and the settlement of Israel. Its words were put to parchment and scroll while the people of Israel were living in exile in Babylon, having lost everything—land, temple, identity. Moses’ words echo down to them centuries later—choose life or choose death.
These words from Deuteronomy 30 are the essence of a definition of sin—sin is the choice that takes us away from God and from God’s way of living in the world. Holiness is the opposite of sin—to choose God’s way of living in the world. Deuteronomy waxes poetic to speak of this choice: love God; walk in God’s ways, keep God’s commandments, love God, obey God’s voice, cling to God. This is the essence of discipleship, the essence of holiness, the opposite of sin. Deuteronomy 30 is pointing back to the beginning of the book, the heart of God’s Law, the heart of the Torah—chapters 5 through 7, and the heartbeat of Law found in Deuteronomy 6:4 and following, the Shema.
            Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!
            Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.
            These words that I am commanding you today must always be on our minds.
            Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house
            and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up.
            Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol.
            Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city gates.
When Jesus is challenged in our Matthew reading today to sum up the whole of the Law, he turns immediately to the Shema—but he expands it. We are to love God with all our heart, all our being, and all our MIND. And, we are love our neighbor as ourselves—from Leviticus 19. This is what it means to be a child of God, to be a follower of Jesus. It is a whole life commitment to God’s way of living as we see in the life of Jesus. In the first letter from John, the author calls us to live as adopted children of God—we take on a whole new identity and live as new people, part of a new family. Anything that is not God’s way, Jesus’ way, is sin. That seems like such a simple definition, but if we stop to think about it, this is a heavy, different king of heavy but still heavy. It is a hard definition to live with.
Holiness and sin are not just about the big, momentous choices in life. They are about our daily practices, the moment-to-moment choices we make throughout our day. Will we choose to hear God’s voice, to cling to God, to follow Jesus…holiness? Or will we choose the world’s way, our culture’s demands…sin?
  • Will I get myself moving in the morning and take care of those few household needs, or will I veg in front of the iPad and play my games?
  • Will I give extra time to a person looking for assistance or will I quickly send them on to Caring Connections and let their volunteers handle the need?
  • Will I take time to write some notes to family members who love to get mail, or will I put it off once again for another day?
  • Will I put down my smart phone in the checkout line at the grocery store to engage with those standing around me?
  • Will I make sure that I have quality time each day in prayer and devotion or will I let the pressures of my calendar, to-do list, and obligations drive that time away?
Perhaps at first glance we wouldn’t consider these things choices between holiness or sin, but when you start to pile all the choices together, a pattern begins to emerge—a pattern of life holiness or not. Giving myself permission once in a while to linger over my games, or acknowledging that I cannot make time at that particular moment for someone because of another important obligation, those as rare instances are not in themselves sinful. But if they become a regular pattern, am I still living in the light of Christ? How will a pattern that leans toward games and busy-ness and excuses sabotage the bigger choices that have a deeper impact on my life and identity with Jesus? How will it affect me when I have to choose to speak out in courage or to remain silent? How will it affect me when I am called to choose between the comfort of what I know and the terror of the unknowable? How quickly will I begin to get lost in self-reliance and worldly pressures if I let busy-ness interfere with time with God and my faith community? What happens if we avoid conversations about sin?
God knows we get distracted easily by the world’s ways. God knows that the pressures of life, as we perceive them, can lure us down other paths than Jesus’ way. God’s instructions in the Shema are not just metaphors for devotion, God calls us to put reminders before us of holiness, to steer us away from sin. Bind those reminders to your hands, set them on your forehead, place them on the entrance to your home—remember the importance of your choices! Choose life! Choose God! Choose holiness! And be ever mindful of sin. Yes, we need to talk about sin. We need to talk about specific sins and seek to change into patterns of holiness in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Let us not avoid the difficult topics. Let us stand in courage and in the light of Christ.  Amen.

July 18, 2016, 7:45 AM

The Question of Suffering

2 Corinthians 1:3-7, CEB, revised
May the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! God is the compassionate Parent and God of all comfort. God is the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God. That is because we receive so much comfort through Christ in the same way that we share so many of Christ’s sufferings. So if we have trouble, it is to bring you comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is to bring you comfort from the experience of endurance while you go through the same sufferings that we also suffer. Our hope for you is certain, because we know that as you are partners in suffering, so also you are partners in comfort.
Luke 13:1-8, CEB
Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.  What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”
Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none.  He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’  The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.
The Question of Suffering
One of the best movies of the 1980s came out in 1987 and took the world by storm. Even today it continues to be popular and its quotes have made it to meme status. (A meme is a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users. It is a way to express yourself, often humorously). Let me name some of the famous characters in the movie and see if you can guess it. You might guess it with just one: Inigo Montoya…Princess Buttercup…Westley…Fezzik.  Yes, The Princess Bride. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it—a beautiful fantasy story that is full of humor and a wonderful understanding of love. The Princess Bride has hundreds of wonderfully quotable lines and scenes, but one in particular came to my mind when contemplating the question, and the nature, of suffering—and it doesn’t involve the Pit of Despair.
In an early scene, the world famous swordsman, Inigo Montoya, is helping to kidnap Princess Buttercup and to frame a neighboring kingdom to start a war. The kidnappers are being pursued by a mysterious man in black. Montoya is commanded to kill the man in black with his superb sword skills.  A battle ensues between Montoya and the Man in Black, with tons of witty banter, but in the end the mysterious Man in Black defeats Inigo Montoya. As Montoya kneels in the dirt, ready to meet his fate, a final dialogue ensues—Montoya asks, “Who are you?” The man responds, “No one of consequence.” Montoya, “I must know…” The Man responds point blank, “Get used to disappointment.” Montoya shrugs, “okay.” And then the Man in Black knocks him out. “Get used to disappointment.”
We humans want suffering and evil to be an answerable question. “Why do people suffer?” “Why horrendous acts of violence like in Nice?” “Why do the innocent suffer?” “If God is loving and all powerful, why doesn’t God stop the suffering?” There are other variations but the question is essentially the same—where does suffering come from and why doesn’t God stop it? Somewhere in the 66 books of our bible there must be some answer, right? What does the bible say? Essentially…I’m very sorry…the bible says that we cannot know, get used to disappointment. Okay? There…an easy sermon after all.
All kidding aside, let us take a moment to look at what we can know from our scripture. Jesus addresses suffering and sin twice in the gospels, directly. Once in the Gospel of John, chapter 9, when encountering a man born blind, and in today’s reading from Luke, when addressing the two violent events in Jerusalem—the massacre by Pilate and the falling of the Tower of Siloam. Jesus comes right out and addresses a common held belief in his culture and time, that when bad things happened, when suffering occurred, it was punishment for wrongdoing. If you are suffering, you must have sinned. Jesus confronts this belief system directly—“Do you think those massacred by Pilate while they were worshiping were worst sinners?” “Do you think those crushed by the crumbling tower were worse wrong doers?” “No!” One would think this would be the opportune moment for Jesus to explain the mysteries of suffering. It isn’t punishment for sin, it’s because… But he doesn’t. Instead he uses this moment to challenge his listeners to examine their own lives and to give the gift of hope in the quirky fig tree parable.
Though Jesus doesn’t give us a succinct answer on suffering, this exchange between Jesus and the crowd does give us some insight. Jesus clearly states that suffering is not a punishment. He doesn’t say it is disconnected from sin, it is just not a punishment for sin. Sin is certainly involved in the first tragedy, Pilate ordered the slaughter of Galilean worshipers. Jesus makes it clear in his conversation with the crowd that God does not cause suffering, nor does God wish for suffering. But Jesus doesn’t give any further explanation.
This should not be totally new information to Jesus’ Jewish listeners. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is an entire book dedicated to suffering, evil, and God—the book of Job. In this book long parable, God and Satan make a bet—Satan believes that humans only respond to reward and punishment, and wants to prove this point. God knows otherwise and so accepts the bet. Job, a righteous and devout wealthy man, with tons of materials goods, a large family and many friends, becomes the object of this bet. Satan believes that if all Job’s “blessings” are removed, Job will turn away from God. So, Satan takes everything away—all Job’s children die, all his property is lost, even his health and well-being are robbed from him. He ends up sitting on a garbage heap in rags, covered in sores, with dogs licking his open wounds. Yuck. Most of this long parable is then taken up with Job’s “friends” trying to convince Job that his suffering is punishment for his sin, and Job’s insistence that he did nothing wrong. The parable ends with Job demanding that God account for his suffering, that God give Job an explanation and clear his name, so to speak, with his friends.
God’s response is to point out how beyond Job’s understanding the nature of the universe and the nature of God really is. God spends a few chapters pointing out the wonders of creation, the mysteries and unfathomableness of the universe. God gives Job a glimpse of how vast God is, how large the wonders of God’s creation are, and how small Job is.  Job responds, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42).” Job cannot wrap his head around God’s purpose and design in creation. And God was right, Job never turns away from God.
That is the crux of the problem of understanding suffering and evil, God’s wondrous purpose and design in creation and the created order. God created humankind as a unique creature in all creation. From the dust of the earth, from the stuff of the universe—atoms and molecules and star dust—God called into being these creatures with free will and free thought. God formed us in God’s own image, breathed into us the breath of God, and placed us on this little planet as God’s partner people. God didn’t create automatons, puppets that do exactly what they are programmed to do. God wanted relationship, an exchange of love and devotion. God wanted uniqueness, to watch the lives of these earth creatures, adama in Hebrew, unfold and grow and develop and hopefully, prayerfully choose relationship with God. But free will comes with risk. These lovely humans can live into their divine potential, live and grow and evolve and choose to live in communion with God, with one another and with all creation. But, these humans can also choose not to live that way. We are free to choose. We are free, with all the delights and all the consequences that brings. In the midst of our choices, God does move and nudge and seek to guide. God’s will is for all creation to live into the fullness of creation’s potential, for us to fully live into our God’ given image. God therefore operates within the creation God called into being in any way that will encourage us and all creation to live toward that potential.
Free will and free thought means a universe that provides challenges for growth and development. Can we even begin to fathom the consequences if God were to do as we pray and take away freedom for some? We can glimpse at the ripple effects of actions in the world, yet we should be able to admit readily that we cannot know all the ripples from each action. It is just beyond us. We never know all of the effects of what we do in the world. Nor can we know what the universal effects would be if God intervened in the ways we wish—if God ended cancer, what would the consequences be? What would have to vanish from creation? If God ended violence, would we still be free? Would God have to make us puppets? We cannot fathom the ripples and effects of these actions. We cannot begin to understand. We are all Job, seeking to know the mind of God.
This is a hard disappointment to ‘get used to.’ We feel so very lost in the face of such suffering as in Nice, France. We are cut to the core when a loved one hears that horrible word, ‘cancer.’ Or when we see the suffering in the eyes of a child. It is perfectly natural to be Job-like in those moments as well and raise our hands heavenward and demand a reason for such pain and loss.
Here is where Paul’s words to the Corinthians come in. Though Paul is speaking to them about the specific form of suffering that Christians were enduring at hands of the Roman Empire for being Christian, his assurances to the Corinthians are universal to all those who suffer. Paul reminds and promises that God is the God of all comfort, comforting us in the midst of trouble. But God doesn’t stop there. God pours God’s comfort upon us through the Spirit so that we too may be a comfort to one another and to a world filled with suffering. And our Compassionate and Comforting God seeks to work goodness in and through those situations of suffering, so many times through the hands of those who respond to suffering with actions of comfort and care.  Let us not respond to the disappointment of no simple and ready answer to the question of suffering, but let us respond by embodying the example given to us in the Great Comforter, sent as God among us. Let us be peacemakers. Let us be justice-seekers. Let us offer comfort to those who suffer. Let us shine with the light of Christ. Amen.
Personal Reflection:
The College of Bishops for the Northeastern Jurisdiction (Maryland/West Virginia up through Main) of the United Methodist Church challenged all of us in this region to ask ourselves these questions in response to the acts of violence in our world in these recent days.
  1. How will you be a peacemaker in the midst of the storms of violence and destruction?
  2. How can you be a peacemaker and at the same time work for justice?
  3. What can you do to help develop a sense of well-being and harmony in your life, in the lives of neighbors, strangers, friends, and communities?
  4. What social problems move you to want to make a difference by building bridges, making connections, valuing people? 

July 10, 2016, 1:01 PM

The Problem of Evil

Romans 8:35-38, CEB
35 Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
We are being put to death all day long for your sake.
    We are treated like sheep for slaughter.
37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.
Matthew 6:7-13, RSV
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask. Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
    On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread;
12 And forgive us our debts,
    As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    But deliver us from evil.                         
The Problem of Evil
I confess. I really enjoy a good horror movie once in a while—a good one, not just a slasher flick—one with good figments of evil rising up and scaring the pants off of everyone. I confess. I often get sucked in by a good apocalyptic story—one where a great evil plague sweeps across the world—like Stephen King’s The Stand. I confess. I love science fiction. I am a huge Star Wars fan—“May the force be with you!” (and also with you). I have read The Lord of the Rings over 20 times, and that doesn’t include how many times I’ve watched the trilogy—extended versions. I am not alone. Hollywood has made some serious money off of depictions of evil, serious money. Whether it is Freddy Kruegger, Darth Vader, Michael from Halloween, or Sauron down in Mordor, people pay to see it. We humans are fascinated by the dark, and what might be lurking within it. We flock to movies where evil is personified, wreaks havoc, and then is defeated heroically with great special effects. All of this media attention—movies, television series, novels, etc.—has significantly colored our understanding of evil when it comes to our faith. So, what is evil?
As we seek to explore this question today, I just want to take a second to point out that next Sunday we will be addressing the topic of suffering, which sometimes is caused by evil. The following Sunday we will be exploring the topic of sin, which sometimes contributes to evil. So these three Sundays we will see some overlapping between the problem of evil, the questions of suffering, and the exploration of the meaning of the term sin.
So, what is evil, according to scripture? Do we believe in evil as a force unto itself? Do we have to believe in the devil? In demons? What does the Bible have to say about evil? Let’s begin by what evil is not, according to scripture. Evil is not ‘the dark side of the force.’ Sorry fellow Star Wars fans. Evil is not balanced with good. It does not have equal power or equal status with good. God is good. There is no force in heaven or earth that is on equal footing with God. Nothing is even close.  Scripture is clear, from Genesis to Revelation, nothing compares with our God. Nothing. This whole idea of a balance between good and evil, between forces of dark and light, comes from Asian philosophies…and from Star Wars. Scripture proclaims that God is the ultimate power in the universe and God’s goodness wins out always, even when things seem dark and without hope. God’s love always overcomes evil. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1).”
Evil is not something separate from humanity. I am not seeking to get into a debate about Satan or the Devil, but throughout scripture evil is intimately tied to humanity, and human behaviors and responses in the world. We cannot take all the evil in the world and throw it on Satan and declare, “the Devil made me do it!” Throughout scripture, evil goes hand-in-hand with human activity. It is a corruption of our purpose, made in God’s holy image. In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11, Jesus calls us evil—“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God, who is good, give to you?” In some fashion, evil is tied to human activity, even when the Tempter is involved.
Evil is not God’s will. A first response to that statement may be, “well, obviously!” But how many times have we heard people say, “It is all part of God’s plan.” or “God must have had a reason.” God desires goodness for God’s people. God weeps when evil creates great harm and pain. God does not plan for evil to sweep through and devastate a community, or a family, or an individual. As we explore the question of suffering next week, we will talk more about free will and God’s will, about providence and liberty. Suffice it to say, God didn’t want bombs in Baghdad to kill almost 200 people. God didn’t plan for Omar Mateen to massacre 49 people in a club in Orlando. Evil is not God’s will. Jesus, God made flesh, embodied this for us throughout his life, ministry, death and resurrection.
Finally, in our “what evil is not” list, I’m going to push a more controversial statement. You are welcome to come Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm to the Embury Room to argue with me about it in our sermon discussion group. Evil is not simply a flaw in human character. One school of thought, when wrestling with the problem of evil, is to basically say that all evil is caused by human behavior, and therefore evil itself doesn’t really exist. It is a flaw in the human condition—original sin, human fallibility, however you want to phrase it.  This belief may be partly a reaction to images of Satan and demon possession. However, scripture speaks repeatedly of evil as a force—tied in with human activity as I said a moment ago—but in some way a force beyond just human behavior.  Both Psalm 23 that we heard as our call to worship and the gift of the Lord’s Prayer in our reading from Matthew, speak of deliverance from evil, not from human brokenness or human fallibility. We pray, either in the psalm or the Lord’s Prayer, for deliverance from forces of evil.
Certainly, human sin—human behavior—plays a strong role in the evil of the world. We can lift up many, many examples of humans perpetrating great evil—Hitler, ISIS, Omar Mateen. But it is important to acknowledge that acts of evil many times grow beyond the actions of a few humans. Evil, at times, is a force that seems to sweep through human communities, even nations, and pull people into evil activities that leave terrible devastation. The violence we have seen this week that has sparked more division along racial and police force lines is just such a force in the world. It is hard to walk into this violent, escalating situation and point to just a handful of individuals and proclaim, “Evil!” But there is a force working, in the system of racism, in the criminal justice system, in our media, that is dark, evil, and is causing great devastation and division. In our baptismal covenant, we are asked to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, for they are very real in our world.
So, what is evil? That is a much harder question. Perhaps we could define evil as that which corrupts the true purpose for which we were created; life in communion with God, with one another, and with all creation. But that isn’t quite right for other things get in the way at times, but aren’t necessarily evil—like being busy or overscheduling yourself or having a stomach bug. Perhaps we have to confess that evil is a bit beyond a solid definition or even our complete understanding. We know evil when we see it. But we cannot always know from whence it came. Hitler and the Holocaust were evil, but all of the factors that led to such an evil in the world are beyond our understanding.  The death of so many black men, the gunning down of police officers in Dallas is evil—but rooting out the force of darkness is complicated. But we can see it. The book of Job spends chapter after chapter sharing Job and Job’s friends’ arguments regarding the cause of Job’s suffering. In the conclusion of the book, Job rails against God for an accounting of all he has suffered. The response, Job is put in his place, finally realizing that he tried to understand something that was far beyond him. How could Job know the ways of God, the One who laid the foundations of creation itself?
So, if we can’t really define evil completely, and we can’t understand it fully, what do we do with evil? This should, for the church, be a no brainer. We name it and we stand up against it! We are the Church, the body of Christ at work in the world. The power to deliver us from evil is already in our midst, the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. Standing firm in this assurance, we work against the forces of wickedness in this world and share the good news of freedom and life abundant in Jesus. We live the assurance of Paul’s proclamation, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We pray the prayer Jesus gifted to us, knowing that we are delivered from evil. We trust in the signs of God’s presence among us, God’s rod and staff—symbols of the shepherd’s presence—provide comfort and we fear no evil.  Strengthened in this way, we work together to thwart evil—whether it is seen in the behaviors of an individual, a group, a system, or is some force at work for destruction. We are not silent! We are not passive! We are agents of change, agents who reveal God’s commonwealth breaking in among us!
Jesus promised Peter after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ—You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. We have been called, as descendants of Peter and the other apostles, to be that force in the world for good—for good will always triumph over evil. World headlines broadcast how vast the need is for the church to stand firm against those forces of evil. Those suffering at evil’s hands need us to name the evil persecuting them and to fight against its forces. We need to let go of our discomfort with language about Satan and demons, and get to work combating evil in whatever form it presents itself (more baptismal promises).  We have witnessed evil at work. We have witnessed good. We can make a different!
Where have you seen evil recently? (allow time for answers) How has it affected you? What might we do to combat it? What do we need to get started?
Hollywood has played with ‘evil’ for so long that when the word is used, images of devils and demons and monsters and such spring into our heads.  But evil is real, very real, painfully real, devastatingly real. We are the Church of Jesus Christ. The world needs us to name the evil as evil and seek to take it down! Amen.
Questions for Personal Reflection:
1. How do you define evil?
2. How do you differentiate between suffering and evil?
3. What explanations have you heard for the existence of evil in the world? How persuasive do you find them?
4. What is the most evil thing that has ever happened to you or to a loved one? Can you understand anything about why it happened? How did you fell about God in the midst of trouble? Do you feel the same way now?
5. How does God response to evil? How do you?

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