Following God in an Unstable World: Sermon #1
Following God in an Unstable World – Sermon #1
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Jan 10, 2016 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
Good morning and welcome to the Vineyard!
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th, we are honored that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or because you already knew the way, we are grateful for your presence. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience peace, welcome, and acceptance. We also pray that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!
This morning I’m launching our sermon series on Following God in an Unstable World. Nigel Berry, our youth director will join me in this sermon series.
As I mentioned last week during our New Year’s sermon, 2015 was tough. And it was tough for me personally, I was leading our church through our leadership transition and I was confronting my picture of God–my expectations for his faithfulness, which mean I had to confront my fears. As I look back on 2015, I see struggles, disappointment, pain, and sorrow, none more striking to me than the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.
An Unstable World - The Charleston Tragedy
I was in Starbucks at State and Liberty working on my sermon when I learned about the massacre that happened in June at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.
On the evening of June 17, during a prayer service and Bible study, nine people were killed by a lone gunman. This gunman, though a stranger, was welcomed by those who would later become his victims, including the senior pastor, the Rev. Clemente Pinckney. The gunman later confessed that he committed the shooting in hopes to ignite a race war.
I know that the world is a very dangerous place, but at the same time it also feels very safe. I was reflecting on this recently as my daughter Mikaela and I were driving back from a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the afternoon. As we headed home driving along Seventh Street, here in Ann Arbor, we saw two very young girls walking by themselves. Surprised that these two young girls were out alone, I asked Mikaela, “How old do you think those two girls are?” We couldn’t agree maybe they were seven, maybe they were 10. As dangerous as the world is, it can feel very safe at the same time. Which makes evil so difficult to deal with when we encounter it.
As the details of the Charleston massacre trickled down my Twitter feed, the more impacted and overwhelmed I became by the news.
I felt lost. I couldn’t make sense of what happened. I was overwhelmed. I was probably struck by grief, but that doesn’t feel like the right word.
This was deeper.
This was different.
As the details of Charleston unfolded, I realized how much I had in common with the Rev. Clemente Pinckney.
He was 41.
I was turning 40.
He was married with two kids.
I was married with three kids.
He was murdered in his church.
I’m almost always here at the church.
It just hit home in a way that was previously unimaginable.
I realized that I wasn’t safe.
I realized that it could have been me.
Many of us live our lives and will never directly confront evil like this.
How is God at Work in an Unstable World?
But all of us are affected when tragedies occur. We grieve for the victims, we beg for justice for the perpetrators. Or we pray for, what we might call, a more active and involved God – a God who prevents tragedies like this from happening in the first place.
As the details of the tragedies unfold, we may become gripped by fear and uncertainty. We may experience anger and confusion. We may have an overwhelming sense of helplessness. And many of us may want to just compartmentalize it, and assume it won’t ever happen to us.
Yet as we sit with our pain, disappointment, and confusion, we may have questions, I know I did. I asked God a lot of questions that week. Some, I’m still asking.
What questions do you ask when tragedies occur?
This morning, I want to wrestle with a few of these questions. The one that comes up the most, the one that came up for me was, “Where are you God?” “Where are you, God, when tragedies like this occur?” This question also has a companion, if you will, it’s, “What am I supposed to do when the world in which I inhabit seems to be falling apart all around me?”
These are big questions and no single sermon series will ever be able to answer them, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start a conversation by asking our questions and try to seek a response, especially since we may not get an answer.
God Hears the Cries of Injustice.
As I entered into the tragedy of Charleston, initially I felt abandon and alone. It felt like God was missing in action. And if you have been in our church community for any length of time, you know that I have consistently preached that God is good and can be trusted. I believe this. I’ve also noted that God is faithful and therefore cannot be trusted to give us exactly what we want, when we demand it. He’s not a genie.
“This gets to the central paradox of our faith. One, evil exists and may even touch us personally. Two, God can be trusted to overcome evil. These two beliefs connect at the end of the line of faith, not at the beginning. In Christianity, we call this eschatology, the reconciliation of all of things. The existence of evil is not difficult to accept, it’s all around us – and we can see it at work. The fact that God is at work and can be trusted is more difficult.”
When our world becomes unstable, it’s hard to see God at work. Our fears, uncertainty, and doubt take over and cloud our vision. When we are trapped in fear, overwhelmed by grief, our ability to see clearly is distorted. It’s hard to make our way.
But we are not alone.
God grieves with us.
God experiences the same pain we experience.
God knows what it means to suffer and to suffer loss.
God hears the cries of injustice.
God does hear the cries of injustice. The more and more I reflected on this, something woke up within me. God’s people throughout time have had to live in a world that isn’t as it should be. In the face of evil, tragedy, and uncertainty, they have developed a testimony of prayer, fasting, and worship. All of this in an unstable world.
So what I want to do now is turn to scripture and let it give witness to the fact that God does care. That God is active. That God does hear the the cries of injustice. And as much as God hears, he also acts. And he invites us to act with him.
Last week, I noted that I want us to be a community that trusts God more. A community that is alive with hope in the midst of uncertainty.
9The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble ... He does not ignore the cries of the afflicted. (Psalm 9:9,12)
God heard the cries of Ishmael when he was abandoned by his mother Hagar because she could not bear to watch him die from thirst.
‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.’ (Genesis 21:17)
God heard the cry of Abel’s blood, after his brother, jealous and in a rage, killed him.
10The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10)
When the people of Israel were captive in slavery in Egypt, God heard their cries.
7The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7–8)
This is who God is. God, who has a stake in humanity, is beside himself and his heart is filled with pain! God's personal, involved, passionate concern is for justice!
We may want God to act differently than he does. We might prefer that God would prevent injustice in the first place, not just hear its cry. We may want God to respond sooner, not patiently and with long-suffering as seems to be the case. We may long for God to do justice to those who harm or hurt us, instead of having compassion on them and thus, us.
Here we wrestle with what we want and how God chooses to act. We may never be able to reconcile our desire and God’s action. However, we cannot say that God is absent, that he is silent, that he treats us with indifference. Scripture testifies, and many of our lives echo, that God, the God who has a stake in humanity, is at work. Many of us will have to surrender something as we make our way, whether it is our fear, doubt, or indifference or we won’t see God at work.
God Calls Us to Join Him At Work
This is why I believe God calls on his prophets to remind us of who we are. To remind us that he is. To remind us that he is at work in his creation. Like Jesus in Luke 4 they raised their voice, calling the people of God to do justice in the earth.
Micah, the prophet, puts it this way,
6With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
No, Micah answers,
8He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)
God doesn’t want our worship, our sacrifice, nor our first born. He wants us to live as if we belong to him. The thing that’s clear in scripture is God rejects a faith that attempts to separate what we believe (orthodoxy) from what we do (orthopraxy).
Practical Tip: Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk in Peace & Humility
This can feel intimating. We may feel ill-equipped. And in one sense that’s the right response. We can’t do this on our own. We need God and we need each other to make our way forward.
Let’s me take some time to unpack how I see this unfolding. Next week, Nigel will share with us about Paul’s encouragement in Romans 12:18 for us to live in peace with each other as much as it depends on us. I’ll follow Nigel and share more specifically on the biblical call to justice and offer suggestions for our call to do justice. Then I’ll wrap up the series by focusing on our call to love compassion and mercy.
In each of the following sermons, we want to break all of this down using a Jesus-informed spirituality.
Nigel is launching our membership class, Belong on Sunday, January 31st, you should sign-up and participate whether you are new or have been with us for decades. Belong is our attempt to help us understand what it means to be on active spiritual journey with Jesus. The class is structured around four spiritual dimensions: Active (Do), Contemplative (Be), Biblical (Learn), and Communitarian (Join). These spiritual dimensions help inform and shape our response as we work out and walk out our faith. So in the sermon series, we will try to offer our practical tips that hit each of these dimensions.
ACTIVE (Do): You can think of it as a set of concentric circles of responsibility and concern. The most immediate, is the active dimension. What are you willing to do, personally? For each of us this is personal and has to be balanced against our risk tolerance. For some of us this means being faithful in prayer, even as nothing around us seems change. For others this may be confronting “evil” as we encounter it. For example, I have a friend who has decided to confront sexism and racism in his presence. He describes it this way, if he is in meeting or conversation and someone makes a racist or sexist comment, he just doesn’t let it go. He confronts it. He calls it out as it is. This is an act of justice for him. He recognizes that this is costly and risky. It may cause him to lose his equity in the relationship, but he is committed to confronting it when it happens. This is an active response.
CONTEMPLATIVE (Be): The next circle out is the contemplative. In this circle, we want to create space to be in God’s presence. When tragedies occur, we may be tempted to disengage. The contemplative pulls us back and creates space for God to speak to us. By being still in God's presence, we find space to ask God our questions, including “How should I feel?” The contemplative creates space for God to stir our heart, we wake up us to his pain and suffering. In this space, we discover the places of injustice we are called to join God in addressing and confronting.
BIBLICAL (Learn): Learn from God’s heart in God’s book, the Bible. This is the place where we create space to study the prophets to learn more about God’s heart for justice. We call on prophets Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Habakkuk and learn from them. We study the actions of Jesus in the New Testament. We learn from the brother of Jesus, James, who speaks in Jesus' prophetic voice. We are working with our interns to see if a study group might form around some of the topics of evil and the justice of God. We also have 14 Life Groups that you can join to learn about God’s heart for justice.
COMMUNITARIAN (Join): In this circle, we join in with the work of others. This could be participating in our weekly Homeless ministry for example. Not just helping pack bags or serve coffee, but committing yourself to meet someone, creating space to hear their story, and joining your story to theirs. This could be us as a church pooling our resources and partnering with two to three other churches to help a Syrian family resettle here in Michigan.
Earlier this week, I met with a friend of mine who runs a resettlement organization and I asked him to let me know if we could help resettle a family. Here’s my basic idea: What if we joined three other churches to secure housing for a family? My friend’s agency would handle with the details, so we could meet, get to know, and love the family. How would we be transformed and changed? How could we grow in our faith? How could we surrender our fears?
Or maybe, we could help our elementary students reach reading proficiency by third grade. Did you know that where you live can adversely affect your future success? Washtenaw County has a 45 point achievement gap between poorer students in the county and those who have more resources. Research studies shows that virtually all subject areas depend on reading proficiency. If students fail to reach basic literacy skills, it jeopardizes all aspects of their future. http://www.opportunitywashtenaw.org
Can I dream with you for a moment? I want us to be good donkeys carrying the Gospel of Jesus into our city and I think God has lots of creative, innovative ways for us to do this. I’m heading to California for a conference tomorrow (I need a ride to the airport, by the way), but when I get back, I would love to gather with any of you who are interested to start to pray consistently for our city. Our city needs our church, and we need our city!