"WORTHY" - Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Ephesians 4:1-6
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, February 25, 2018
Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Ephesians 4:1-6
“Everything happens for a reason.”
We have all heard THAT before. We have all probably said it too, and maybe more than a few times: “everything happens for a reason.”
But is that true? . . . Is that Biblical and faithful?
“Everything happens for a reason” is the title of a new book by Duke Divinity School Professor, Kate Bowler. Except that the title goes beyond that familiar line: “Everything Happens for A Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” Yes. Lies. Lies she has loved. She is being facetious.
OK. . . . So maybe it is not true, . . . .or Biblical, . . . or faithful.
Kate Bowler is 35 years old, married at 22 to her best friend, Toban, and they have a two year old son, named Zach. And Kate Bowler – in the early season of a promising teaching career at her alma mater – has been diagnosed with stage 4-colon cancer.
Here is what she says – “one moment I was a regular person with regular problems. And the next, I was someone with cancer.”
She writes about how there was “before,” . . .and then there was after – “after” meaning the only thing she could think about was the nasty cancer growing in her, taking up space not just in her body but every space in her imagination – a new and unwanted reality.
Why was this happening? Where was God? What does this mean?
But then those questions were drowned out by what she says she heard, “a thousand times: Everything happens for a reason,” or “God is writing a better story,” or God is going around closing doors and opening windows; and she wondered: WOW, . . . really? . . . NO!
There are certainly scientific reasons involved with getting cancer. Our bodies are made up of cells. Cells are always growing and changing. And as cells grow and change in our bodies, cancer cells can emerge too. For Kate, cancer cells were growing fast and with complexity in her colon and spreading rapidly into other areas. So there is a scientific reason.
But Professor Kate Bowler – as she shares so much of her difficult journey of dealing with devastating cancer – pushes back on the familiar and theological idea that “everything happens for a reason.” What could be the reason? Because of sin? Because of some unfaithfulness? Because God is unfair? Because she “never liked Brussels sprouts?” (see p. 170)
As Kate says, “when someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.” (see p. 179)
“Everything happens for a reason” may be a line that flows nicely off our lips, but it is NOT very Biblical, NOT very caring, NOT very faithful.
Certainly the people in Parkland, FL with deep heartache and unimaginable grief would NOT be helped by hearing “Everything happens for a reason.” Those dear people add their horrific experiences to so many in this country who have been traumatized by unnecessary, shameful gun violence. What reason is there beyond the evil and anger of a kid with an AR-15?!
Certainly the families of those 50 girls kidnapped and missing this week in Nigeria – more horrific victims of Boko Haram – would NOT be helped by hearing “Everything happens for a reason.” What reason is there beyond the EVIL of Boko Haram?
And certainly you – or your loved ones – or church members who hear some terrible diagnosis, or confront some other life threatening situation, would NOT be comforted by those words: “everything happens for a reason.”
That phrase is NOT helpful, . . .or caring, . . . or faithful.
Here is what we do say:
Whether we live, or whether we die, we belong to God.
Here is what we say – neither death, nor life, nor principalities nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is the wonderful context in which life is lived – as God’s own, beloved. This is foundation and hope of our faith. But those affirmations do not answer WHY the cancer appears, or WHY some students were shot and others were not, or WHY evil can be so prevalent and so destructive. As long as we live we will keep looking for and keep working on answers to those questions. The answer is NOT “Everything happens for a reason.”
We can say and we should say God is certainly present and God is working through ALL things for good – that is foundational to our faith. But that is different than saying “everything happens for a reason.” The hope, the focus remains on God who is always working and never lets us go.
We can say and we should say “the Lord is our Shepherd; . . . the Lord watches over our coming and going; . . . the Lord is our rock and our foundation; . . . and indeed nothing can separate us from God’s love.
But that is very different from saying “everything happens for a reason.” Some things just happen, because of cells and growth and cancer – they are part of life and the way our bodies work.
Some things happen because of weather patterns and winds and rising tides and that is the way the world works.
Some things happen because some people are intent on doing evil and they can – like going into a school with an automatic rifle, or like flying a plane into a building, or using nerve gas on innocent civilians, or other horrific acts of violence.
None of that should be attributed to God.
Our society has a long way to go – and we are called to be God’s agents - working on better ways to deal with the failings, the horrific moments, the violence and tragedy that rock our world. We have much to do – and God asks and expects that we put forth our best efforts to find cures to cancer and other diseases, to make the world safer, to make our society less violent and more wholesome. Our work – our calling – is to partner with God in the healing and the world. So we keep supporting research, keep advocating for better laws, keep participating in rallies and marches - that is what God’s people do - keep speaking up and speaking out for a world that looks more like the Kingdom of Heaven, not the horrors that have become so commonplace.
We have already heard some inspiring words from Deuteronomy today, reminding us to love God and serve God with heart, soul, mind and strength. Just as God executes justice, and advocates for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, so too we must love and serve.
Then, let us hear with fresh ears these words from Ephesians:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Just as now, there were a lot of crazy and dangerous things happening in the world when Paul wrote these words. The city of Ephesus was a center for travel and commerce. There was a large seaport in Ephesus; the roads in and out Ephesus – because it was a major thoroughfare - led to the other major cities of that era. Ephesus was a cosmopolitan place with lots of competing ideas and morals and priorities. So Paul writes to the people there – from prison – hoping that what people know about God – the One to Whom we belong, to One from Whom nothing can separate us, the One who is the foundation and hope of our lives – will line up with what the people DO for God. He urges the Christians – he urges us - to LEAD A LIFE WORTHY of the calling to which we have been called.
And Paul shares what that looks like – with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, especially working for peace. God is above all, and through all, and in all. Our lives are to be agents for God in God’s world.
This week, we note the death of Billy Graham. His permanent home was in Montreat, NC, on the same road as my family home – Mississippi Rd – where my grandparents built a house in the late 1950’s. Ginger’s grandfather – Kerr Taylor - officiated at the wedding of Ruth Bell and Billy Graham. That was 1943. The Bell and Taylor knew each other from the Presbyterian mission field in China. We all know about Billy Graham’s crusades – and his fame as a preacher.
This week, on the day after he died, I came upon these words from Billy Graham in an email:
Only God can give us a selfless love for others, as the Holy Spirit changes us from within. This is one reason we must receive Christ, for apart from His Spirit we can never be freed from the chains of selfishness, jealousy, and indifference. Will others see Christ's love in your life today? (from the email, Daily Dig, and Hope for Each Day)
The needs of the world, the cancer and heartache around us, the violence and fear in our society, keep calling us to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called – with selfless love, with humility and commitment, working for wholeness.
Will others see Christ’s love in your life today? Will others see God’s purposes for the Kingdom in our life today?
“Lead a life WORTHY of the calling. . . . “
The word, WORTHY, jumps out at me from this passage. God has confidence in us. God calls forth our best efforts. God asks us to step up, to serve, to strive to make the world better. We are called – all of us – to partner with God to bring about God’s healing and wholeness in the world. It is always in what we do, and what we say, and what we do not say. We are WORTHY as we stay focused and faithful in God’s work. We are WORTHY as we carry on in humility and gentleness, bearing and serving in love toward the bond of peace.
We definitely should NOT say, “Everything happens for a reason.”
We definitely should NOT say, “God needed an angel.” High school kids murdered at school? Cancer snatching the life of vibrant people? That makes God looks sadistic and needy. Angels, according to Christian tradition, are created from scratch – not from dead people.
We definitely should NOT say, “when my aunt had cancer, . . . or when life got tragic for me.” We may be trying to relate but that takes the focus away from care and compassion of the one who suffers, and puts it on us, and our journey.
So bothered and beat up with the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” Kate Bowler says: “give this a go, see how this works.” Instead of saying “everything happens for a reason,” try this.
“I would love to bring you a meal this week; can I email you about that?” Food helps. But maybe it’s not food, and in the email, we can learn what would be helpful. Maybe it’s chocolate. Maybe it’s an offer to go to the movies. Maybe it’s a bunch of You-Tube links that will help her laugh and pass the time during chemo visits. Maybe it’s some other gift that really helps and conveys love and care.
Or say this: “You are beautiful and we are on your team.” Everyone needs to hear they are beautiful. And it is always nice to be spared the request for the long explanation of what is going on most recently. It gets tiresome and difficult to explain to everyone the latest details and feelings. Maybe we should not ask – just convey our love and support.
Here’s another suggestion: don’t say anything; just be present. Here is what Kate writes: “the truth is that no one knows what to say. It’s awkward. Pain is awkward. Tragedy is awkward. People’s weird, suffering bodies are awkward. But take the advice of one man who wrote to me with his policy: show up . . . and shut up.” (see p. 175)
Paul says, lead a life WORTHY of the calling – with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. We do not have to have the answers, but we are called and we can convey love. We cannot understand all things, but we can keep working for God’s purposes of love and wholeness in the world. We can seek to be God’s agents, God’s partners for healing and help, even the coming reign of Christ our Lord. May it be so. AMEN.
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, your light shines, even in the darkness, even overcoming the darkness. Shape us, O Lord, as your ever faithful instruments of healing and light, following Jesus. Amen.
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on February 25, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.