Unlearning Evil, or, Learning to Be Good

My Daughter Lily Wearing Her Mom's Apron

My Daughter Lily Wearing Her Mom’s Apron

This sermon was preached at Kansas City Trinity Church of the Nazarene on Sunday, December 16, 2012.  I hope these words will be helpful to you in some small way.  As is always the case, but especially with this sermon, the sermon is only the beginning.  Afterwards, we begin a time of response including offering, confession, passing the peace, and communal prayer.  This time of response finds culmination when we gather together at the Eucharistic table and then are sent out into the world.   This sermon, then, is incomplete without the words that I shared at the table, and then, of course, with the experience of receiving the elements.  I will post that culminating reflection tomorrow for those interested.  Thanks for reading.

By the way, given recent events, I figured a picture of my child, whom I love dearly, made a pretty good cover image (blurry though this one is) for this post.

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Today we were to look at the life of John the Baptist.  Quickly at least, we were going to examine his life and teachings.  We were going to consider how he prepared the way for Jesus, what that looked like, etc…

Even a quick glance at our passage for today from Luke reveals that much of this involved embracing the role of the prophet.  John spoke hard words, words of admonishment and rebuke to his own people, in hopes that they would heed God’s call for repentance.

We were going to look at all of this…..  That is, though, until children were senselessly and brutally slaughtered at an elementary school in Connecticut.  What happened on Friday is unthinkable.  It is made all the worse by the fact that this shooting is only the most recent in a long and growing number of school shootings and public massacres.  Such things are not meant to be.  They are not in “God’s plan.”  God certainly did not will for this shooting to happen.

It’s times like this that I’m reminded so strongly why I am an Arminian and a Wesleyan in my theological outlook, and not Reformed. Don’t get me wrong, I have many very good friends who are Reformed in their theological convictions.  I just do not agree with them, at the end of the day, on a few things.  (More about this later.)

God did not cause, call for, or condone the shooting of these innocent children, or their teachers and administrators.

With this tragic event, we have all been plunged into despair – an appropriate Advent theme – a place we were going to go to next week.  Next week we get to talk about God’s answer for this despair.  But since we find ourselves in despair a bit earlier than expected, I thought we would ask “why?”  “Why are we in despair?  What is wrong?”  And, in light of John the Baptist’s teachings, I thought we’d also ask, “what is, or can be, our role in this?”  How do we prepare a way for the Lord, when we have absolutely no idea where to begin or what to do?

The question of what can our role be, here, is crucial, for as I said, God did not cause, call for, or condone what transpired in CT – but God will work through this situation to somehow bring about God’s goodness.  The Kingdom will outshine this utter darkness.  But to do so, God needs our help.  We are how God acts in the world.  We are the those who are called to follow after John the Baptist, we are those who are called to prepare the way.

To do that, we’re going to have to learn how to be good, which means we will have to unlearn or forget the ways of evil.

Hopefully this doesn’t come as news to you, but humans are sick, we have an illness, a disease.  It has affected all of us, throughout time.  It’s inherited and learned, and it goes all the way down.  As Christians we call this disease sin.  We have various ways of thinking about it’s core – pride, lust, greed, hubris, the will-to-power.

This is not how we were created, but it is how we have fashioned ourselves.

Unnaturally, then, this is the human condition: we are sick with the disease that is sin.

I’ve always been drawn to literary and cinematic depictions of this unnatural and yet very real state that characterizes humanity.  It annoys Lauren sometimes, because such movies and books are typically pretty depressing!  I think one of the reasons for this interest is my concern that we Wesleyans tend to have a very weak doctrine of Sin, that is, if we talk about it at all.  We’re so ready to get to holiness that we gloss over and sometimes forget all about the reason that there is a need to pursue holiness in the first place.

We pursue holiness – the perfect love of God and neighbor – because God has called us to it, i.e., it is NOT natural to us.  It is a calling, it is the result of God’s grace, and it is only possible by God’s grace.  Pursuing holiness is an antidote, if you will, for our sickness.

That’s why I like books like Crime and Punishment and The Heart of Darkness, and movies like Mystic River and There Will be Blood (Lauren really hates this one!).

These all give us a glimpse of the darkness and sickness of sin that grips humanity.  In There Will be Blood, for example, there is a scene where the main character, Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day Lewis, confesses to his brother that he hates other people, that he has slowly built up his hatred over the years, and that he despises all other people, that he just wants to be rid of all other people.

I take this scene to be a confession of sorts on behalf of all of sinful humanity.  I think the director intended it that way.  This scene is raw powerful, and it makes me, at least, want to despair.

We are sinners.  Wesleyans affirm this, we even affirm the doctrine of Total Depravity – along with John Wesley and Jacob Arminius.  This means that we believe that we are sinners through and through, and that we are unable to do good on our own.  Grace is necessary, for us to do good.  What makes us different from, say, Calvinists, is that we believe that God has indeed offered us all that grace, and continues to offer this grace, preveniently, to all humanity.  In short, as much as we hate to say it, we believe that we are bad people, but, according to God’s grace, it is possible for us to be good.  (This is a fundamental tenet of being a Wesleyan and an Arminian.)  That pursuit, is known as holiness.  And it is indeed a pursuit, for unlearning evil and learning good takes time.  It feels unnatural, and it can be a very lonely process.  If we are going to follow God, though, this is something that we will have to do.

The good news is, that as difficult as this process might seem, we were made for goodness, we were made to be in harmony with God and others.  With every step, the growing pains grow lighter, and the ways of goodness become more and more natural.

There are a few examples I can think of that highlight this process of unlearning evil and learning goodness: Crime and Punishment (as I listed already), Les Miserables (by the way if you have never read this book, or seen the play/movie, please go see the new version when it comes out at Christmas…), Pulp Fiction, and 3:10 to Yuma.  This last film, 3:10 to Yuma provides a wonderful glimpse into the life of a bad man (Ben Wade, played by Russell Crow’s) that is trying to learn to be good.  I think maybe we’ll watch this movie soon, in “Reel Spirituality” and talk about the difficult process of learning to become good.

Well, we have more than great books and films to guide us in this process, thankfully.  Let us turn back to our Gospel passage for today, and hear John the Baptist’s words to the people of Israel, to God’s people, to us, even, about how to pursue good.

Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

  • Slowly walk through the passage providing commentary
  • God can raise up the stones, but God obviously doesn’t want to!  Jesus says something similar.  It is clear, in both instances, that this is a rhetorical statement, for God does not want rock followers – he wants His people, God wants us!

John presents the people with simple and yet hard challenges about how to truly follow and be obedient to God.

John the Baptist taught difficult things to people who did not necessarily want to listen.  He lived out the truth of God’s kingdom in a way that seemed crazy to those around him.  He did so because he was pursuing God’s goodness with the entirety of his being.  John the Baptist’s entire life was lived in service to someone else.  He was entirely devoted to making sure that the people of Israel were as ready as they could possibly be to hear and receive Jesus.

The question that always comes to my mind, is “why? Why would John the Baptist devote his whole entire life to this, even to the point of martyrdom?”  Why?

The answer: because God’s people, humanity as a whole, had gone astray.  Evil and sin ruled the day, and John knew that preparing the way for Jesus meant teaching people how to shake off the shackles of sin, and to pursue the good instead.

John looked around him and saw despair, hopelessness, evil, and he knew, that God was ready to turn this story around.  In the midst of hopelessness and despair, though, John knew that redemption was drawing near.  Moreover, he knew that if God was going to conquer this evil, he would have to help prepare the way by pursuing goodness himself, and by helping others to do the same.

John lived and breathed the words of the prophet Zephaniah.  He felt in his bones the need for redemption.  In light of this, he willingly gave his all to God, so that God might be made all in all, so that the world would know and love Jesus.

Today, unfortunately, I think that we also live and breathe words of Zephaniah.  We experience the need for redemption.  I want to re-read those words as we close.  I want you to hear these words as both a blessing and a calling.

Zephaniah 3:14-20 (NRSV)

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

We suffer from an illness that we have created, and it is one that we cannot cure.  (Please do NOT read me as placing personal blame for what happened in CT on the generic “we.”)  That disease is slowly and deliberately – and quite literally – destroying us.  Violence and disaster seems like it is all around.  Natural disasters seem to only be increasing.  We are afraid, and we are in despair.

But, Church, God will heal us.  God will deliver us from this calamity and despair.  God will turn our shame into praise.  Our fortunes will be restored to us – by the way, I can’t help but think that this does not mean fiscal fortune – but real fortune – our children, their innocence, our happiness and future….

Church, even when it seems impossible, The Kingdom will outshine this utter darkness.  But to do so, God needs our help.  We are how God acts in the world.  We are the those who are called to follow after John the Baptist, we are those who are called to prepare the way.

There are many ways that we can do this.  Today, in light of what has happened, I can’t help but think that one of the most important things that we can do, as followers of Christ, for our sakes, and for the sake of the world, is to commit ourselves to unlearning evil, and to learning the ways of good  – the ways of God – the ways we were created for.

With God’s help, may we commit ourselves to this: small, simple acts of kindness and goodness, love for others, and care for the poor.  May we follow after John the Baptist, even amidst despair, and may we take comfort in the knowledge and the hope that redemption has drawn near.

Let us pray.

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