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Sermon for April 29, 2007

Where is God When Evil Abounds?
Matthew 5:1-11 / Mark 15:33-37

I hear the same question all the time. “Where was God?” Sometimes people ask the question because they felt abandoned by God when they needed God the most. People come to me and want to know WHY God didn’t protect them from the abusive father, the molesting uncle, the bullying mother, the merciless teacher. They want to know WHY God would allow such things to go on -- The woman who was beaten as a child for something as senseless as spilling her milk; the little boy who was scared to death of his alcohol-crazed father, the family who lost a loved one to suicide, or cancer, or a fatal accident.

“How could any God let this happen?” The more we think about it, the more we question God’s influence in the world. I look into eyes that are overflowing with pain and confusion and grief and rage - and they demand an answer. Why a holocaust, God? Why do few get to eat while many more go hungry? Why do you allow people to suffer, God? Why September 11? Why were thousands of innocent men, women, and children were destroyed in senseless acts of violence? God, how could you allow dozens of people to randomly hunted and gunned won by a homicidal maniac this week?

The new face of terrorism gradually emerged for us on Monday as we heard about the massacre at Virginia Tech. Tuesday and Wednesday we heard about human cost of the killings in stark detail. We began to put faces with the numbers, and we wept at the senseless and brutal loss of life. We have now all seen the pictures and learned some of the stories of the beautiful, talented, motivated and hopeful people whose lives are now over.
We heard about Ryan Clark, the fun-loving, 4.0 triple-major, whose greatest joy in life was leading music at a conference for mentally handicapped children and adults. Prof. Kevin Granata had established himself as a leader in the field of reflex response especially as it related to the problems faced by those with cerebral palsy.

We mourn those who had established careers and were leaders in their fields, but our mourning is intensified when we realize that almost all the others who died in the bud of their promise. They were supposed to be living the college life that we, who are older, glorify as we look back -- they are the ones who would learn to paint broadly on the canvas of their lives as they loved, lost, laughed and listened to life. But Austin Clark will not be able to do that; nor will Caitlin Hammaren, or Emily Jane Hilscher, or Peruvian exchange student Daniel Cueva or Brian Bluhm.
The voices of pain and anguish echo across the centuries back to the days of Jesus and before...back to the dawn of time. And they always ask the same question...WHY? It’s probably the hardest question that has ever been asked. Jesus tells us that we’re in for rough times...that in the end there will be wars and earthquakes and famines and plagues and dreadful omens and great signs from heaven. Sometimes it seems as though those times are here. Just pick up the evening newspaper and its all there -- terrorism, wars, starvation, population-killing diseases, and on it goes. So why won’t a loving God do something about all of this mess? Didn’t God become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth to make things better ...to redeem us from our sin and restore us to the loving arms of the God?

Try to imagine the scene that Mark depicts in today’s gospel lesson. We read about the Lord’s final frightening moments on the cross. The land is covered with darkness–a symbol of the darkness that is invading the world. Deserted and betrayed by his disciples, rejected and condemned by the nation’s leaders, taunted by the crowds, Jesus now experiences utter despair. At this moment, Jesus is fully one with us. At this moment, Jesus faces evil, pain, and death, and shares our human despair to the fullest. It’s as if Jesus is crying out with us, “God, WHY? Where are you when I need you?” And with a final cry of anguish, Jesus dies. Then something amazing happens. A Roman centurion–one of the executioners looks at the dead man and says, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” In Mark’s Gospel, no human being utters these words until this point. Now, a Roman soldier who was used as an instrument of evil, sees the truth, and acknowledges Jesus as God’s Son.

Here’s the point. Jesus knows all about suffering from evil and pain. He tells us that we will face violence. But he also tells us that we won’t be alone when evil abounds. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel abandoned by God. Jesus won’t be standing idly by when our hearts are breaking. Where is God when evil abounds? God is with us, reminding us that he sent his Son to fill our suffering with his presence.

In the days ahead, you will hear the news pundits shift their talk from empathy to action. Politicians will start calling for tough gun control laws. Security will tighten once more. Presidential candidates will try to exploit our fear for votes. In times of darkness, we are tempted to pull back from others and move into self-chosen exile. When we pull away from one another, evil festers. Any time we are torn apart from each other, evil has an opportunity to abound. But there is another way. Facing evil can lead us to become peacemakers. Peacemakers are people who heal by pulling close instead of tearing apart. Peacemakers are people who an get in touch with their own pain and disappointment with God and reach out to others who suffer. Peacemakers are those who have suffered with Christ, just like Christ as suffered with us. Because of their connection with the suffering of Christ, they have compassion, humility, and the desire to root out the weeds of evil.

Let me tell you about some peacemakers. Think back to the last school shooting in October, 2006. A deep sadness stretched across the rural landscape of Pennsylvania as the news spread that five Amish school girls were attacked by a neighbor in their one-room school. A 32-year-old milk truck driver shattered the innocence of Lancaster County’s Amish country when he attacked that schoolhouse. The sadness snaked along the backcountry roads with the parade of black buggies, as Amish families followed plain wooden caskets to church cemeteries. In the aftermath came a renewed call for better school security and gun control laws. But the greater story surrounding the Amish tragedy was the quiet grace of a deeply faithful and forgiving community. The Amish community really wanted the world to know that they forgive the shooter. They grieved for him and his family along with their own fallen daughters. In a day and age when civility seems lost and grace is in short supply, the Amish showed us what is meant to be peacemakers. One newspaper reporter write, “If only the grace that followed -- the faith that overrides pain, the generosity of spirit that inspires forgiveness, the goodwill that binds a community -- would also spill over, the world would be a much better place.”

Peacemakers are spiritual activists. They turn the world upside down by radically living out the Good News that God has not abandoned us. They do crazy things like forgive others. They allow themselves to mourn. They stand up for justice, and compassion and equality. They do it with humility, and sacrifice, and grace.

Listen to the story of another peacemaker. Liviu Librescu, was born in Romania only to be interned in a labor camp when Romania joined forces with Nazi Germany in the Second World War. He was then sent to a ghetto, and somehow avoided the fate of hundreds of thousands of other Romanian Jews killed by the collaborationist regime. He later found work at a Romanian aerospace company but his career was stymied in the 1970s because he refused to swear allegiance to Romania’s Communist dictator. On April 16, 2007, Liviu Librescu found himself pressed against the door of the classroom at Virginia Tech while shots were fired in the corridor and surrounding rooms. He stood firm, attempting to barricade the door, while his students clambered out of the windows. The professor e-mailed his wife to say that he had prevented the gunman getting into the classroom. However, the next e-mails received by the family were from students in the class informing them that Dr. Librescu had not survived the shootings.

Hard to imagine isn’t it – you live through a Nazi concentration camp only to be gunned down at random in a place that is supposed to be safe. But Dr. Librescu new pain. He knew suffering and sacrifice. He knew what it was like to be the victim of violence. So he stood between his students and a gunman and took a heroic stand – the stand of a peacemaker.

There are many peacemakers around us today. Can you be one of them?
Peacemakers learn to love those with whom we are in conflict. This is a challenge for most of us. First, we need to love, forgive and accept ourselves before we feel good enough to love our neighbors and our enemies. I really believe that a mind full of love cannot hold fear and anger at the same time. Perform a small, loving act toward an adversary. Act with compassion even if you feel rejected or offended.

Peacemakers see the image of God in everyone.

Peacemakers pray. We pray for ourselves for strength, patience and intelligence. We pray for guidance and wisdom to say and do the right thing as we walk on this path. We pray for each other, our leaders, our nation, all life, and the planet. We pray for our adversaries. Holding negative thoughts about others is counterproductive. It leads to polarization and alienation. Pray for their well-being, guidance and a positive resolution of any differences between us.

Peacemakers are alert for fearful or angry images that others want us to focus on. We can transform our consciousness by lifting our thoughts out of fear, anger and negativity by affirming the highest God-given qualities and virtues for ourselves and others.

Peacemakers let go of the obsession to dominate and always be right. They focus on the issues rather than attacking the opposition.

Peacemakers are not isolated from the pain and suffering of the world. As we let the pain in, we become transformed, compassionate and motivated to action.

Peacemakers commit to non-violent direct action as an appropriate way to demonstrate our protest to harmful and unjust practices. When evil abounds, we stand and say that God has not abandoned us and that God can be found among those who establish for the values of God’s Kingdom – love, peace, kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness.

Where is God when evil abounds? God is with us because God has faced the darkness has shown us the way to the light. And God is with the peacemakers, for they are the children of God. Our hearts go out to those who have lost much, and we pray the comfort that friends and a suffering Christ can provide.

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