Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
The real issue is: How much are we willing to trust God? When we resort to the death penalty, we're saying that God can't be trusted, that things are out of control and we've got to take matters into our own hands. There may very well come a day when murderers will be punished. But if that is to happen, it's God's business to make it happen, not ours. After all, the Bible declares, "`Vengeance is mine,' says the Lord. `I will repay.'."
I can well remember shouting those words once when at a Christian Camp in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. I remember that like most groups of 11 and 12 years we were always teasing and playing tricks on one another. I remember once jumping out from behind a bush in a huge game of hide and seek and shouting these words. But I said only Vengeance is Mine, I will repay. I seem to have totally left God out of the equation. I must have listened only to part of the scripture and not gotten the whole point. Like most children I picked what I wanted to hear and was deaf to the rest. Most of us treat scripture in that way.
God has chosen to love us from the beginning of time, and nothing we can do is able to stop God from loving us. God never gives us up on us. When it comes to other people, let's not give up on them either. We too easily leave God out of the equation.
We need to often trust God to make the choses. We too often want to take charge and get in God’s way or even leave God totally out of our thinking. We need to put God back in the equation and we will find more easily second chances, U-turns and forgiveness once again filling the world.
In an age of biblical illiteracy, as exists in many congregations across the land, a passage such as this presents a genuine challenge for the preacher. The New Revised Standard Version translates the passage with such theologically dense words as "grace, ""redemption, ""forgiveness, "and "salvation." When worshipers hear those words, what meaning do they attach to them? Do those who gather for worship appreciate the extravagant and awesome claims that the epistle writer makes concerning the vastness of God's mercy?
In the book of Ephesians, we are invited to explore what it means that God "chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world...." (v. 4) Likewise, a passage like this encourages us to consider what it means that God "destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ...." (v. 5) Basically those words declare God's unwavering love for us. They remind us that God resolved to love us before we ever did a thing—good or bad. They assure us that no matter how badly we might mess up our lives, that won't keep God from loving us. Nothing we can ever do will make God change that decision to love us. In other words, there is nothing we can ever do that can cause God to give up on us. God's final word for us is forgiveness and life, not condemnation and death.
That then raises the question: If God never gives up on people, why do we? This, of course, leads to a hot-button topic—the death penalty. When someone is executed, is that not what we're saying? Are we not saying to the condemned person, "We give up on you? There is no hope for you." Yet if that is something that God is not willing to say, why are we saying it?
Many people, of course, will be quick to point out that when we execute people, we are simply obeying what the Bible tells us to do. After all, the Scriptures say that those who kill shall be killed. Yes, there are places in he Old Testament where it does say that those who kill should be put to death. But at the same time, the Old Testament also says that those executions may only be carried out if there are at least two eyewitnesses to the murder. In death penalty cases that come up today, rarely are there two eyewitnesses.
For instance, across the United States, there have been at least 100 people who were on death row but who were later set free. Those prisoners were all set to be executed, but then the courts discovered evidence that indicated that they didn't do it. In other words, there were juries that didn't have eyewitnesses to rely on, but the juries still felt they had enough circumstantial evidence to send people to their deaths, only later to find out that the circumstantial evidence had led them to the wrong verdict.
Another issue is: Why are we only concerned about executing murderers? In addition to demanding death for murderers, the Old Testament also provides that adulterers be put to death. If we're ready to toss some murderers into the gas chamber, are we also prepared to toss former President Clinton in with them? Or what about former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich? Both are known to have engaged in extramarital sexual relations. Most of us probably couldn't envision doing such a thing to them for their indiscretions. Yet the Old Testament doesn't draw a distinction between the punishment for murder and the punishment for adultery.
Still another offense that is punishable by death in the Old Testament is breaking the sabbath. In the book of Numbers, there is a fellow who is caught gathering firewood on the sabbath. The people proceed to ask Moses what to do about him. Moses replies by telling them to stone the man to death. So, if we want to execute murderers because it's the biblical thing to do, to be consistent, if we see a fellow church member cutting his lawn on a Sunday afternoon, we'd be obliged to go over and beat the life out of him. After all, wouldn't that be the biblical thing to do?
The good news is that God wills our life, not our death. Think of all the times in the Bible when God had every right to execute people, yet God chose not to do it. Right on the very first pages of the Bible, there were Adam and Eve. God had said to them, "Don't eat the fruit from this tree, or I'm going to kill you!" But what happened? Adam and Eve ate the fruit. But instead of instantly killing them, God allowed them to live. Yes, God made them suffer some consequences for what they did, but God still allowed them to live, even though God had every right to take their lives from them.
Or think of David. When that cute, little shepherd boy grew up, he could be quite a scoundrel at times. To cover up his affair with Bathsheba, he conspired to have her husband killed in battle. Basically, David was deserving of two death penalties—one for adultery and one for conspiracy to murder. But what did God do about all that? God didn't kill David. God allowed David to live.
It was the same in the New Testament. In the Gospel of John, there was that woman who was caught in the act of adultery, a death-penalty offense. But instead of giving his permission to kill her, Jesus allowed her to live. Time and time again there were situations where God had every right to bring about a person's death, but God showed that what God desires most is our life, not our death.
No second chances in social media but be a new saying. No matter how quickly anyone apologizes or tries to make things better they are immediately the villain. However, God never works that way. God has a better memory even better then the internet, and God is always willing to give us a second chance. The fact that God is so very little present in our social media and our day to day discourse we are failing to allow one another a second chance, a u turn or even a bit of slack in our modern-day world. The point of the sermon is to hold up the possibility of making a U turn in our lives.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
However only 22% felt British businesses had made more of an effort to 'go the extra mile' for their customers during the recession, and 24% said they thought companies were making less of an effort!
What's also interesting is, that they are becoming more 'choosy' and less forgiving! The financial squeeze makes consumers ever more selective with their purchases, and businesses are given on average one chance to make amends for a disappointing experience. Crucially, for 30% of consumers there are no second chances when a company falls short the first time around.
Apparently, there are regional differences across the country with customers in East Anglia being the least tolerant of a disappointing customer experience - only 36% saying they would give a company just one chance to impress. However, 75% of Londoners are apparently the most willing to put up with a disappointing customer experience and would give a company at least a second chance.
Younger customers are more forgiving - 74% of 18 to 25-year old would be prepared to give one more chance to a company that delivered a one-off. disappointing experience. Older customers are far less tolerant, with 41% of respondents in the over 55s age-group saying they would abandon a company entirely after just one underwhelming experience.
Apparently, men are more likely to prioritize speed and efficiency when judging customer experience, while women are more likely to favor companies that took the time to get to know them and understand their wants and needs. (https://www.socialmediatoday.com/content/there-are-no-second-chances-well-not-many)
At some point during the last 10 or 20 years our culture shifted from accountability and forgiveness to intolerance and overreaction. One reason for this is the prevalence of social justice monitors eager to enforce their own vision of political correctness, aided and abetted by instantaneous punishment meted out on social media.
Everyone is now just one stupid Facebook post, one poorly thought out Tweet, one racist, sexist, ageist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ remark away from potential ruin.
Popular Denver Post sports writer Terry Frei learned this the hard way last weekend when, on his way to Fort Logan National Cemetery to visit his father’s grave on Memorial Day, he saw that Japanese driver Takuma Sato had won the Indianapolis 500. Frei tweeted, "Nothing specifically personal, but I am very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend."
The reaction of Frei’s employer was quick and all-too-typical; the Denver Post declared, "We apologize for the disrespectful and unacceptable tweet that was sent by one of our reporters. Terry Frei is no longer an employee of The Denver Post . . . The tweet doesn’t represent what we believe nor what we stand for. We hope you will accept our profound apologies."
Frei posted an apology too, "I fouled up. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I said when I said it. I should have known better and I regret it."
But it’s all too little, too late. Was Frei’s tweet stupid and inappropriate? Absolutely. That’s why he deleted it and posted an apology. But in our age of instant digital justice and political correctness, people are no longer allowed to make these kinds of mistakes. No one any longer can say, "That’s stupid, but understandable."
And being good at your job doesn’t inoculate you from this trend, either. Frei isn’t just sports writer; he’s an American history book author and novelist too, with titles including "Third Down and a War to Go, Olympic Affair: Hitler’s Siren and America’s Hero," and "March 1939: Before the Madness."
Frei isn’t the first employee the Denver Post has fired over a social media gaffe; in 2014 the paper fired hockey writer Adrian Dater for tweeting crude remarks to a Detroit Red Wings fan.
Should we accept hate speech under the argument that it’s just a dumb, insensitive statement? Not at all. But we all learn from our mistakes, not just our successes, and when we create a culture that’s focused on only being right, an unforgiving one strike and you’re out mentality, then no one has a chance to learn and grow. We’ll end up with a bland sameness (since everyone will be too fearful of offending to state their real opinion) thanks to self-censorship.
In his book "So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed," author Jon Ronson describes the problem well, "With social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain." And for Terry Frei, apparently one tweet was enough for him to become that sickening villain — until the next transgressor comes along, that is. (https://www.newsmax.com/davetaylor/denver-post-political-correctness-social-media/2017/06/02/id/793884/ America No Longer the Land of Second Chances)
The Christmas season is often a time when people are more inclined to be charitable and forgiving. That's bad news for prosecutors. During this past holiday season, the district attorney of Bexar County in Texas ordered a halt to all major criminal trials until after Christmas was over. The district attorney indicated that she was concerned that jurors might carry their holiday spirit with them into the courtroom and be less likely to bring back guilty verdicts. According to the district attorney, the best time of year to bring cases to trial and get a guilty verdict is around April 15, the tax filing deadline.
There is a bumper sticker that says, "God always allows U-turns." An 80-year-old woman from McLean, Virginia, went out on a shopping trip last year that should have totaled about 10 miles. Because she made one wrong turn, though, she got herself headed in the wrong direction and she never availed herself of the opportunity to turn around until she ended up north of Pittsburgh, about 250 miles from home.
It is sometimes difficult to see that God is paying even the slightest attention when our lives are a mess. I mean, where is He, exactly, when you really need Him? The "God is great," "God is good," and all the other "God is terrific" stuff is hard to find during times of turmoil and tragedy.
I know I did not think God was so "great" when my now ex-husband was dragging me up a flight of stairs by my hair. No way was God "good" when my bones ached from punches and kicks, and my eyes burned from hot tears of despair and fear. God did not seem so "terrific" when I stared into the hate-filled eyes of my husband as he held a knife to my throat or a gun to my head and sneered, "If you scream one more time I will kill you."
My parents divorced when I was young, leaving an emptiness in my heart I could never understand. As a teenager, I felt apart from girls my own age, and I rebelled strongly against all authority. I had given up on God long before I ran away at the age of fifteen to marry the eighteen-year-old man who in one year went from being the love of my life to my abuser, jailer, kidnapper, rapist, and attempted murderer. By the time I was "sweet sixteen" there was no doubt in my mind–if God existed it was certainly not in my world.
After the birth of my son and my divorce, both at the age of sixteen, there was no room in my life for anything but the here and now. Practical things consumed me, like going back to school, working, child care, housekeeping, paying bills, and learning how to be a mother. I was so very lost.
I filled my days with busy take-charge tasks. I filled my nights with alcohol, drugs, parties, and self-destruction. I filled my soul with empty promises and emptier pursuits. Over the years, another marriage and divorce, several broken engagements, more than one abortion, and frequent extreme weight gains and losses left me even more emotionally crippled.
Why couldn't I find happiness? Why did it appear nothing I did worked out? Why did I feel so worthless? The feelings of utter helplessness and hopelessness, the unrealized dreams, broken promises, and dead-end streets overwhelmed me.
One summer evening I was taking a walk in my neighborhood when I noticed people going into the neighborhood church. Suddenly my legs developed a mind of their own, virtually propelling me up the steps and through the doors.
Alone in the church balcony, I looked toward the pulpit and saw the statue of Jesus with outstretched hands, looking right at me. Hot tears fell down my cheeks as emotions I could not explain filled my heart and soul.
What was wrong? What was happening to me? Why was I sitting in a strange church crying like a baby? When the Pastor began to speak, it was a message of being lost, without direction, without hope, without faith–and how it did not have to be like that. He talked of how we needed only to listen to the Holy Spirit and ask the Lord Jesus Christ to come into our hearts and He would be there–just like that.
My walk with the Lord started that day, a day that forever changed the course of my life. Suddenly I wanted to know more about this relationship with Jesus of which the Pastor spoke. (https://www.crossway.org/tracts/god-allows-u-turns-2854/)
Over the next decade the world opened to me in ways I could never have imagined. Opportunities, experiences, and spiritual illumination did not make my life perfect, but it was a life of healing and hope, a life of promise where before there had been empty desolation. Psalm 71:20 says, "Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up."
And bring me up He did. Jesus Christ took my broken spirit and my lost soul, filled with guilt and pain, and turned me around, setting me on a new course. He filled that empty place in my soul I was trying so desperately to fill with drugs, alcohol, relationships, material goods, work, and empty pursuits. He forgave me the sins that weighed heavy on my heart, showing me I no longer had to carry the burden alone. He can do the same for you.
I did not "get religion." I "got a relationship"– a relationship with Jesus Christ. Second Corinthians 5:17 says it all: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" Are you ready for a new relationship and a new life? No matter what we have done, no matter where we have been, it is never too late to change direction, because GOD ALLOWS U-TURNS! (https://www.crossway.org/tracts/god-allows-u-turns-2854/)
In The Good Life, Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes offers a provocative theory as to why white Southerners so often resorted to lynching black people. Gomes, who himself is black, suggests that after the Civil War, the whites in the South realized the sin they had committed through the practice of slavery. As a result, deep down in their hearts, Gomes believes they knew they were deserving of punishment for their deeds. But for fear that the blacks might rise and inflict that retribution, the whites took the initiative and launched violent acts against the blacks to prevent that from happening. Gomes observes: "In the discussions about the history of lynching, it becomes increasingly clear that the white South behaved as it did not out of hatred, primarily, but out of fear that led to its expression in hatred. Hate is the fruit of fear." (Peter J. Gomes, The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need ((New York: Harper Collins, 2002) p. 318)
The Great Wall of China is an apt symbol of one way to deal with those who trouble us. In fact, northern China is the site of many different walls. In modern times, though, they have come to be known collectively as a single Great Wall. During the Tang dynasty, which extended from 618-907 A.D., no walls were built. Instead, the rulers of that period successfully interacted with the neighboring Central Asian tribes. Centuries later, however, the Ming dynasty refused to deal with the various peoples around them. But since they were too weak to drive out their opponents by force, and since they couldn't bring themselves to trade with those whom they considered to be barbarians, they erected walls to create a somewhat permanent divide between themselves.
Not only is forgiveness a good thing for you spiritually, it has also been shown to be a good thing for you physically. Research is now showing that those who are forgiving tend to have improved relationships and fewer health problems. In the past, psychologists have generally emphasized a nonjudgmental approach to therapy. Some contend that such an approach has caused people to look at themselves as being victims. Dr. Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project encourages therapists to help their clients not to view themselves as victims, but to take control of their circumstances. He advises the use of questions such as, "Life has thrown you a curve you weren't prepared to hand; now what?" He asserts, "Forgiveness is a quality inside ourselves we all can access, and we are responsible for our own emotional condition."
Governor George Ryan of Illinois reignited debate concerning the death penalty because of a bold action he took during his last days in office this past January. Ryan issued pardons for four death row inmates, and then proceeded to commute the sentences for the 167 other inmates from death to life in prison without parole. At least ten states have recently ordered studies to consider the fairness of the death penalty. In taking the action, Ryan definitely went against the tide of popular opinion—somewhere around 70% of all Americans still support the death penalty. The Republican governor of Illinois originally took office as a supporter of the death penalty. Three years ago, however, he declared a moratorium on executions in his state after 13 death-row inmates were exonerated—one of them just two days before his scheduled execution.
The countries that are the world leaders in carrying out executions are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. According to Amnesty International, during 2000, China put at least 1000 of its citizens to death. Saudi Arabia is known to have executed 123 during that year. Iran executed 75 people. And 85 people were put to death in the United States. Currently there are more than 3700 prisoners sitting on death row in American prisons.
International human rights treaties prohibit the execution of anyone who was under 18 years of age at the time of his crime from being sentenced to death. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child all forbid the execution of children. Since 1990, seven countries are known to have executed prisoners who were under 18 at the time of their offense—Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States. Of those, the United States has executed the most juvenile offenders—15 since 1990, which amounts to more than half of all the child executions in the world. Yemen has now outlawed the practice, as did China in 1997.
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." (Friedrich Nietzsche)
"As we begin to acknowledge our own inner shadow, we become more tolerant of the shadow in others." (Walter Wink)
Paul's words spring from his rock-ribbed faith that Christians have a destiny to be with God. In the film Simon Birch, the narrator tells the story of his dwarflike friend who had led him to believe in God (in John Irving's novel, on which the film is based, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator is more specific about his faith, saying that he is a Christian because of his little friend) Simon believed all through his life that God had made him for a special mission, although he did not know what it would be. Lots of things happen, including Simon's foul ball during a Little League game killing the narrator's mother. But no mission arises to challenge the boy. Indeed, he becomes such a thorn in the side of the pastor of their church that he is at times persona non-gratis there. Finally, after many years have passed and the two friends, reunited when Simon seeks his friend's forgiveness after the death of the mother, Simon does discover his mission. It is one in which he will lose his own life but save the lives of many others. He is accompanying a group of children on a school bus when it skids and plunges into deep water. Panic starts to overcome the terrified children, but Simon is able to calm the children and get them to a window exit where they can escape to safety. His small size, always before seen as a handicap, actually enables him to speak to them as one of them. By the time all of the children have crawled out of the sinking bus, it is too late, but he dies knowing that he has fulfilled his God-sent destiny.
In reflecting on the life-giving quality of God's grace and forgiveness, the scholar Paul Lehmann once told his students that our response to that grace required us to seize the new life we were given. "Your sins are forgiven, "he said, "now get with the program."
The indoctrination of Gerrit Wolfaardt is complete: his family traditions, history, culture- even his church-have taught him that black South Africans are a cancer in the land. Under the eye of prominent members of the government and military, Gerrit develops a diabolical plan to rid South Africa of its “black danger.” Before his plans can be carried out, he meets two people who will put him on a collision course with his future: Celeste, an open-minded University student, and Peter Lekota, a pastor who challenges Gerrit’s prejudice.
There is the story of Gerrit Wolfaardt who an anti-apartheid activist who has a sudden moment of forgiveness and repentance. He learned that his target is the Rev. Peter Lekota, he accepts the mission. Only when he has the pastor sighted in the scope of his rifle does his conscience finally win the struggle raging within him, and he relaxes his tense trigger finger and puts aside the rifle. All this we see in flashbacks, Gerrit and his wife telling their story to a group of angry blacks bent on lynching a white member of a death squad whom they have chased into Peter Lekota's church. The pastor and the two whites hope to convince the vengeance-bent listeners that if Gerrit should change, then so might the fugitive, if given the opportunity. We never quite want to see God having real and lasting power in others’ lives.
Fred Kaan's hymn "Help Us Accept Each Other, "written in 1975, would be a good hymn to sing or for the preacher to quote on this Sunday. The hymn is a prayer asking that worshippers accept each other "as Christ has accepted us." Then Christ is evoked as teacher so that we can learn in our daily lives lessons of hope, faith, and caring. The third verse is a prayer that we will be changed inwardly so that in each situation we will "know by heart." what we should do. In the last stanza we pray for "new eyes for seeing." those in need, and for renewal by Christ's Spirit that will bring freedom and unity.
When people immigrate to this country intending to stay, they receive a card that is commonly called a "green card." which allows them to work, get a social security card, etc. The actual name of this card that appears on the front is the "Alien Registration Card." The use of "alien." here clearly does not refer to extraterrestrials, and yet the common usage of the term defines an alien as a potentially threatening, unwelcome presence. Paul notes that in Christ we are not to be to one another as aliens or strangers, and his attitude is much more in line with Emma Goldman's poem on the Statue of Liberty where those who come to our country are celebrated as those "yearning to breathe free."
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: The earth, and everything in it, belongs to God!
People: The Lord is the Creator! It is God who fashioned the stars, the planets, and all that exists!
Leader: Lift up your heads and behold our God! For the day is approaching when our God will come!
People: The Lord is the God of glory! The Lord is King over all the earth!
Forgiving God, Your mercy toward us is without limit. Yet we are not so generous in our mercy toward others. When others offend us, we hold on to grudges. When others harm us in some way, we plot our revenge. When we see others violate some rule, we demand quick and harsh punishment. But when it comes to our own sins, we are much more lenient. When it comes to our own transgressions, we are much more tolerant. When it comes to our own failings, we do not hesitate to believe that You are a God who will forgive us. Loving God forgive us for the times when we have tried to limit Your mercy. Create in us the ability to grow in grace, so that we may not only be recipients, but also bestowers, of Your forgiveness. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.
God of goodness, You give to us without ever counting the cost. Teach us to be likewise generous in our giving. Receive our gifts, and work through them to bring reconciliation to a bitter and divided world. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
God of compassion, we are a world that is often trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of revenge. We are a world that loves to cling to those Old Testament words, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life." Help us, O God, to understand that You sent Jesus into the world not to proclaim a message of condemnation and punishment, but a message of mercy and redemption. You sent Jesus into the world not to repay us according to what we deserve for our deeds. You sent Jesus into the world to set aside our guilt, so that we might have the opportunity to live as new people, forgiven and freed from our sins.
Guide us, O Lord, to create a world that is governed by that same sense of mercy and salvation. Although it rarely is easy to do, grant us the fervent desire to work for reconciliation. Help us to build bridges and to restore relationships between those who have become estranged. Empower us to model that amazing grace You have shown to us, so that as the world looks at us, "grace" will not just be a word they hear from our lips, but it will be a word that is demonstrated in our daily lives. We know that what we ask, heavenly Father, is impossible apart from Your blessing. So be with us and help us to live as your grace-filled people. In the name of Christ Jesus, we pray. Amen.