Saturday, April 21, 2007

God's Goodness

God’s Goodness
Text: Acts 9:32-43
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
April 22, 2007

I’ve been ruminating about this sermon a great deal. I had chosen my text and named the sermon last month. Preaching about God’s goodness two weeks after Easter is such a great concept. The problem is that the events of this past week have made many of us feel greatly separated from God’s goodness.

At the point in Acts of the Apostles that we are looking at today it immediately follows Luke telling us that the church was growing and thriving and St. Paul was just getting started with his preaching. The scene changes and we have Peter perform two miracles; he heals a paralyzed person and raises a woman named Tabitha from the dead. It is an amazing demonstration of the power God has given people in the early Christian church and it is a magnificent demonstration of God’s goodness.

God’s goodness.

Years ago when I was a very young, very new minister one of my colleagues in town was having a far better life than I have ever had. Every time you would ask him how he was doing, how things were going, he’d say, “I am wonderful. This is the day that the Lord has made. How can we by anything but wonderful?”

My problem was I could think of some ways to be anything but wonderful. It’s not that my life was bad, but not every day was a very good day and some days I felt wonderful and other days a lot less than wonderful.

God’s goodness.

If we read the Gospels we read many stories of Jesus performing miracles and sharing God’s goodness with people. We read about miracles performed by the apostles in Jesus’s name and we encounter God’s goodness. The problem is, at some point, if we are reasonably honest with ourselves and others, we sometimes miss or get mystified by God’s goodness.

Of late the news has not been filled with stories of God’s goodness.

This weekend we had dinner with some friends from our old church in Ohio. Their son’s college baseball team was playing at Hanover College and we decided to meet up and spend some time together. Their son attends Bluffton University and was on the bus in Atlanta that was in the accident that killed seven people. In remembering that accident and in talking to them my heart was again broken by the tragedy.

Many people reeled when they heard Don Imus’ comments of a few weeks ago. What he said was blatantly racist and, almost overlooked, blatantly sexist . Part of people’s outrage was that he exposed the nasty fact of life that racism and sexism still impact our society. Whether you like Don Imus or not, or whether you agree with the price Don Imus has had to pay or not, he revealed to us that the subjects of racism and sexism are not dead but very much alive and people are still having a very difficult having rational and civil discussions about them.

But the news of this week was far, far worse.

Like so many people I have tried to make some sort of sense out of what happened. Janet graduated from Virginia Tech took classes in the building where the massacre took place and lived in the dorm where the first two murders were committed. In our home what took place at Virginia Tech has struck hard and deeply.

One of the police officers said that it all became too much when he was in a classroom, filled with slaughtered students, with their cell phones ringing and going unanswered. The students were being called by frightened and desperate parents hoping their child was okay. The police officer knew that there would be tremendous grief and hard break for those on the other end of the phone.

And then the pictures and the video of the killer. Maybe the less said, the better.

It was a horrible tragedy that reminds us that life is often filled with tragedy.

Perhaps the most eloquent words were spoken by the professor Nikki Giovanni when she put things into some sort of a perspective:

We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.

How can such a things happen? How can a good and loving God allow such things to happen?

It is a timeless and eternal question.

Job asked it. All sorts of terrible things had befallen him and he greatly lamented and wanted God to tell him why.

And God thundered back. Literally. And the answer was that if Job was God, Job would know the answer; and since Job wasn’t God, there was no answer.

The Book of Job is one of my favorite books of the Bible and it is a book that very much reveals the awesomeness of God, but it is also frustrating because the one answer people really want goes unanswered.

Which brings us back to God’s goodness.

People have always grappled with God’s goodness and the presence of evil in the world.

Luke, in this passage from Acts speaks of two miracles. The first is when Peter heals a man Aeneas who had been paralyzed and was bedridden for eight years. It was a horrible fate to be paralyzed and, I’m sure, as Aeneas laid in his bed day after day he had to question God’s goodness.

And then there was Tabitha who died. Tabitha, was a good woman. She helped the poor and was always doing good. Her death was a tragedy and a loss for those who knew her. How could God take such a good person from their midst?

And Peter raises her back to life.

Sometimes when we read the Bible it is easy to get the impression that somehow God was more involved in people’s lives, that more amazing things were taking place. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that they may have had it better than we do.

Please take note that the richest person in all of Jerusalem at that time would have gladly changed lives with anyone sitting here today. Our lives in our day and age are significantly easier, significantly more comfortable, significantly better in so many ways than life was back then. The stories of God’s goodness through the signs performed by Jesus and the apostles brought glimpses of hope to people whose lives often seemed hopeless.

That is, in so many ways, how God reminds us that God’s goodness is around us. We see the goodness of God in little things. But we often have to be looking because those little things often come in odd packages.

A Dutch woman named Corrie Ten Boom’s family hid a Jewish family in a hiding place in their home. They were betrayed by an informant and the family was taken to a concentration camp. Ironically, the Nazis never found the hiding place and the people they had been hiding were able to escape.

Corrie Ten Boom said that one of the greatest blessings in life was an infestation of fleas. The barracks room where she was imprisoned was infested, badly, with fleas. But she said those fleas were a magnificent gift from God because none of the guards would enter into their barracks room so they were left alone.

It’s sometimes little things.

But it’s also God’s presence.

We often, when there is horror around us, wonder where God is. The answer is that God is always present. And, in my heart, I believe that God’s heart is the first to break in the midst of tragedy.

William Sloane Coffin, when he as the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City lost his son. His son had too much to drink and was driving on a dark and rainy night with a broken windshield wiper when he drove off a bridge into a river and drowned. It was a tragic, needless death.

Coffin said that he was upset when people put their arms around him and said that it was God’s will.

Coffin said that it was not God’s will that his son drank too many beers. It was not God’s will that his son never bothered to have his windshield wiper replaced. It was not God’s will that his son got into the driver’s seat while he was drunk. Coffin said that his great solace and comfort came in believing that when God saw Coffin’s son drown in the river, God’s heart was the first heart to break.

God did not design roads in Atlanta that are confusing. God did not tell the driver to be in the wrong lane. But God’s heart was the first heart to break when the bus plunged down onto the highway.

God did not make us racist. God did not make us sexist. God has never taught anyone to hate. We do that all by ourselves. And when we share hatred, God’s heart is the first heart to break.

God did not tell the young man to purchase the guns. God did not tell the young man how to kill. God did not compel the young man to kill. He did it himself. And God’s heart was the first to break as he watched an innocent slaughter.

God’s goodness is present. God’s goodness often shows up in little things. But mostly God’s goodness shows up quietly, by being with us, loving us, and suffering with us through the most difficult of times.

In my office I have a sign which reads, Bidden or not bidden, God is still present. I actually have it in English and Latin. Often we see it and recognize it as recognizing that no matter what we say or what we do, God is with us. Sometimes we don’t like this because, well, when we are doing something we ought not be doing and we aren’t thrilled that God is present.

But, bidden or not bidden, God is present. This means that no matter what, good or bad, wonderful or dreadful, God is present. And where God is present, goodness is present, and where goodness is present, ultimately there is always hope, even in the midst of great despair.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Horror of Horrors

What happened at Virginia Tech yesterday was a horror of horrors. Campus security is going to be scorned in public for not locking down the campus after the first shooting. Gun rights activists from both perspectives are doing to be screaming at one another trying to spin their perspective. The very openness of college campuses is going to be questioned.

The sad fact of life is that no one could have predicted this. No matter how much people try to analyze it, the murder of a man and a woman in a dorm does not ordinarily turn into a monumental spree killing. No one could have anticipated what was to happen. I suspect hindsight will impact many decisions made on many campuses. It's just so sad.

What is chilling to me was the efficiency of the killer. Being Italian and being from New Jersey I am a major fan of The Sopranos. Part of what I like about that show is that it is painfully real. The bad people truly are bad people. The thing is, when they kill someone, they do so with ruthless efficiency. It is not simply spraying a bunch of bullets around. In real life killers shoot the victim down and then go and finish them off. Killing is not a by-product of the violence, it is the reason for the violence.

The young man who did these shootings did this. He literally executed these students.

I only can hope and pray for the families of victims and everyone associated with Virginia Tech. What has transpired is horrible. I also hope that we are able to learn something that will enable us to prevent such things from happening again.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Problem with Al

In watching the whole Don Imus debacle I found myself, as usual, scoffing at the wasteland that is talk radio.

Rush, of course, has had his share of racist and sexist moments. His ability to pick out portions of news stories and weave them into a liberal plot against the universe is legendary. ESPN had the good sense to quickly fire him a few years back when he demonstrated his racist side as well as football ignorance. As a Giants fan who has seen Donovan McNabb surgically skewer the Giants’ secondary to claim that McNabb was not very good was obviously someone who didn’t watch much football.

Howard Stern, of course, has pushed the boundaries of indecency for a long time. He has moved to satellite radio where he can pursue his adolescent fantasies and use bad language to his heart’s content.

Then there is Don Imus. What Don Imus said was and is indefensible. It was racist, it was insensitive, it was crude and cruel. Imus has been around for a long time. I used to listen to him driving to work in New Jersey in the early 1980's when he did the morning show on WNBC radio in New York City. Something Imus was then, that he no longer is now, is funny. He’s gotten older and meaner. His remarks to the Rutgers’s University Women’s Basketball Team demonstrate that he seems to have realized that his life and style might not be all that cool.

The thing that bothers me more, however, is that once again Al Sharpton has placed himself on the center stage.

Al Sharpton.

He goes by Rev. Al Sharpton. His “Reverend” title is a demonstration of religious freedom in the United States. Attorneys have to pass a bar exam to be able to practice law; Physicians have to pass medical school and take boards in order to practice medicine. In most denominations there is a requirement of four years of college and three years of seminary---studying theology on a graduate school level, before ordination. To get the title “Reverend” requires a lot of time and study.

However, religious freedom means that virtually anyone can use the title “Reverend.” You can get the title via mail order and legally be a minister. Many of the mega-churches in existence have pastors who have been called and ordained and given the title “Reverend” by churches and these folks never did attend seminary. Al Sharpton was ordained at the Washington Temple Church of God in Christ by Bishop F.D. Washington at the age of 10. He had not attended college, he had not attended seminary and he was not formally trained or educated to be a member of the clergy. Sharpton would later go to college for a short time and dropped out.

Sharpton’s big push to the limelight took place in 1987 in Wappingers Falls, New York, a small town close to 80 miles north of New York City, when a 15-year-old girl named Tawana Brawley was found in covered with feces and racial slurs written in charcoal. Brawley, who is black, claimed to have been abducted and raped by six white law enforcement officers. Sharpton jumped to her defense and claimed that Ms. Brawley was a victim of racism and police brutality, etc., etc., etc.

The story dominated the news in the New York metropolitan area. Sharpton appeared almost nightly on the news demanding that justice take place. The little town of Wappingers Falls was seen as a horrible, dreadful place and the police officers were eviscerated by virtually everyone.

And it all turned out to be a hoax. The hospital could find no physical evidence of a rape. Brawley, who claimed that she had been tied up for several days, bore no evidence of this and was well fed and, despite claiming that she was tied up outdoors, had no symptoms or signs of exposure. Furthermore, the writing on her was upside down----an indication that she, herself had written the racial slurs.

For whatever reason Tawana Brawley did this is sad and unknowable. The thing is, as it was becoming increasingly obvious that the story was a hoax it was also becoming increasingly obvious that facts meant little to Al Sharpton. He still railed about this racist attack and has never apologize for his role in this and for the slanderous comments he made towards the police officers.

We recently saw Sharpton concerning the Duke University Lacrosse team and the results were not unlike the results at Wappingers Falls. And Sharpton has yet to apologize about this.

What makes me truly angry with Don Imus is that what he did is what empowers fools like Al Sharpton. Then appearing on Al Sharpton’s radio show, giving Sharpton the higher ground and more ammunition was not only foolish for him, but, frankly, further subjected the nation to Al Sharpton’s theatrics.

Racism and sexism are serious issue. What has become increasingly obvious is that we still have many racial issue and gender issues to overcome. Crass, crude comments still pervade our culture and that is intolerable. But nothing of note is ever solved by fools and charlatans and, frankly, Al Sharpton is both a fool and a charlatan.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Blinded by Doubt----Easter Sermon

Blinded by ...Doubt
Text: John 20:1-18
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
Easter Sunday, 2007

There’s a marvelous story about a Rabbi in New York who wanted to attend an Easter Service to see what it was like. The Rabbi had a Christian friend who he called and his friend invited the Rabbi to come to church with him on Easter.

When the preacher got up to give the sermon the preacher said, “The story of the tomb being empty is not important.”

Then he said, “The story of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene is not important.”

He went on, “The story of Jesus appearing to the apostles is not important.”

At this point the Rabbi leaned over to his friend and asked, “So, what is important?”

The first impulse, if we are really honest when it comes to Easter, is doubt.

Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves. They doubted.

Mary Magdalene was crying, blinded by tears, because she doubted.
Like the apostles and like her we are blinded....mostly by doubt.

And doubt is often easy to come by.

The recent documentary by James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, despite many of their words, was a cynical attempt to cast doubt on Jesus and Easter.

In the early Christian Church there were rival “Gospels” written, books that never made it into our Bible, which attempted to discredit Jesus and the events of his death and resurrection.

Throughout history, Easter and doubt have walked hand in hand.

And, to be honest, Jesus didn’t make it easy.

He performed miracles only for those who already believe in him. Jesus would never perform a miracle to prove who he was.

And Jesus, when he was raised from the dead, only appeared to people who already believed in him. If it had been me, I’d have come back and tweaked the noses of Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin and said to them those immortal words, ‘I’m back!’

But Jesus was much more mature than I am.

Easter may best be seen by seeing life without Easter. Sometimes a good thing is best seen through the lens of something negative.

The famous Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life portrayed life without the main character. He learned how beloved and needed he was by seeing what life would have been like had he not lived.

When we have pain it feels bad; but pain helps us appreciate good health.

The rain enables us to celebrate the sunshine.

If there had been no Easter every funeral sermon I have ever preached is a lie. Any sense of hope I share with people who grieve and any sense of hope I have from losing people I love, comes from Easter. It comes from the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead and that there is hope when we die. If no Easter, I have been lying to others and to myself.

If there had been no Easter 2000 years of Christianity has been invalidated. People have more than remembered or honored Jesus, people have staked their lives on Jesus. Martyrs deaths would be in vain. Missionaries who have brought so much comfort have done so ultimately based on a farce.

Actually my entire life would be a life of giving false hope to people and perpetuating a lie.

If there was no Easter Jesus was just some great teacher like so many from the ancient world. He’d join the ranks of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates and be studied by some, but he would not have been worth committing one’s life to.

If there was no Easter. If all we lived with was doubt.

But, the tomb was empty.

But Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene.

Jesus appeared to the apostles.

And we, 2000 years later, embrace Easter with faith, and celebrate Easter with joy because it is the day that ultimately gives us the greatest hope of all.

Random Thoughts

So interesting. I make serious posts and no one comments. I do an April Fool's joke and I have several comments. Actually, it was fun. Actually, it was quite interesting to read USANudists post. I do believe that churches ought to welcome everyone----but my preference is that they be dressed when they come to Worship.... I know this for sure, I'm going to be dressed at Worship sparing a lot of people a lot of horror.

Howard Stern, radio host, is well-noted for grotesque sexual comments on the radio. Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh are building quite a portfolio of racist comments. Makes me wonder about these radio folks. Does the radio attract such personalities or does sitting in front of a microphone do it to people?

My Mets are 4-0!!!! They have a pitching staff that is a mixture of a geriatric unit and a boy scout troop. Thus far they look good. We'll's a long season.

We did combined Maundy Thursday Service and Good Friday Service with the pastors and people of Central Christian Church. It was a great experience and I greatly enjoyed working with the two pastors from that church. I think that both Lori and I had an excellent experience with them. Thing makes me sad to realize that Christian unity does have a way to go. We commemorated Jesus' final supper and Jesus' death together....but we will be apart for Jesus' resurrection.

Happy Easter! And go to church on Sunday!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Christianity and Nudism

I've come to the conclusion that the only true way to be a Christian in today's world is to become a nudist. People who come to church wearing clothing are allowing their clothing to come between them and God.

Many people say that they don't come to church because many of the people in the church are dressed better than they are. If everyone was naked, then no one could say that.

Sometimes people don't come to church because it's too warm. If everyone was naked, the chances of it being too warm would be diminished.

Imagine if our Sunday best was our birthday suit? Some people might object, but think about this.

If God had meant for us to be naked than we would have been born......

We aren't really 'naked' we're just not wearing any clothing!

According to modern success advice, "Clothes makes the man (or woman)". But according to the bible, God made the man and woman, and he made them without clothes.

Too often Christians just stand around with their hands in their pockets. If they were naked...

So, Christianity and nudism. An idea whose time has come. Please read below for a further statement:

April Fools!