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Sunday, July 19, 2015

little karma BIG GRACE
by Mike Powers

Sermon delivered July 19, 2015 at Scottish Rite Park in Des Moines, Iowa

Scripture Reading
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2: 1-10)


I would venture to say the category of videos found on the Internet most likely to bring a smile to anyone’s face (with the possible exception of course of those featuring cats playing the piano, pestering frustrated dogs, snuggling up against awe-struck babies or really doing almost anything for that matter) would have to be those in which the tables are suddenly turned on scoundrels who are in the midst of attempting to victimize their fellow humans.  Recent examples that I have seen include:

·       A man caught trying to rob a farmer makes his escape across a pasture field only to be chased by a bull causing him to run into a barbed wire fence.
·       A man driving an expensive sports car on the shoulder in order to bypass a long line of people who were stopped and waiting patiently due to road construction becomes stuck and damages his car when he drives into a deep hole that had been dug in that same shoulder just beyond the crest of a hill.
·       A thief grabs the purse of an older lady and while trying to get away he runs into a light pole and knocks himself out which leads to his arrest. 

In each of those instances we could with much justification feel that the perpetrator got what was coming to him.  We could say “What goes around comes around.”  Some would call it karma.

Karma is a concept that is referenced by many people.  Some deeply believe in the concept as a universal law and others just relish it when it exhibits itself in examples such as the ones I just cited.  So what is karma and should we hope that it is in fact bringing fundamental order to the universe? 

Karma is a cornerstone belief in certain religions and is essentially a law of moral causation.  Karma explains the inequality that exists in mankind as either a reward or punishment for previous actions taken by each individual—possibly in an earlier life. Such good or bad fortune can manifest itself in varying levels of wealth, health, intelligence, physical strength, talent, looks, power or other factors.

A trust in karma would lead one to believe that every person gets what he or she deserves—good or bad—based upon their prior actions. This concept of life being an orderly process of cause and effect where good deeds are always ultimately rewarded and misdeeds ultimately punished is one that can be on the surface quite appealing. 

Karma does seem to be an equitable and rational way of organizing the world.  It provides a logical explanation as to why some people are blessed with an abundance of good fortune while others have quite the opposite experience.  It has the very alluring advantage of allowing us to avoid the difficult question as to “Why bad things happen to good people?”  Karma would say that if something bad happens it is for a good reason.

Let’s think about that one.  Can that be true in every case? 

The nine people in Charleston that were attending a bible study and murdered in cold blood.  They had that coming?  In the case of a small child who contracts a deadly disease--is the child being punished for a misdeed in a prior life with no opportunity to redeem herself in this one or are the parents being punished and if so why does the child have to suffer?  In World War II, it is estimated that 60 million people or more were killed including 45 million civilians.  They all deserved that?  And what about the various dictators and despots throughout history--did they obtain their level of power as a reward for good deeds in a prior life?  And if that is the case how did they change course so dramatically and disastrously for mankind? 

Don’t get me wrong.  No sensible person will argue that the actions that we take don’t carry with them consequences.  If you don’t take the medicine prescribed by your doctor you may get sick.  If you exercise and eat the right foods you are likely to have better health.  If you work with diligence and intelligence you have a better chance of achieving the goals that you set before yourself than if you slack off.  If you treat people fairly you will likely have kindness returned to you.  So I would say that karma does exist to the extent that our actions can strongly affect but not absolutely determine outcomes here on earth.  Let’s call it “little karma”. 

If karma is not the universal truth, then back to the question as to why do bad things do happen to good people.  Why would a God who loves us allow such a system to exist?

A partial answer may be that God gave each of us a free will which means that inevitably we are all at times going to make bad choices and hurt someone—sometimes deliberately but often times without even realizing it.  Man’s inhumanity to man is one of the unfortunate side effects of God allowing us to make our own decisions and can explain many of the bad things that happen but not all.  Free will choices can explain wars, crime, bullying, emotional abuse, insults and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment but there are still illnesses, natural disasters, accidents and other misfortunes which defy explanation.

Some would say that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, along with that knowledge came a lot of collateral damage in the form of suffering and death which we continue to experience today. 

As someone who endured much suffering himself, the Apostle Paul saw a purpose to earthly suffering when he wrote in Chapter 5 in his letter to the Romans, “…we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5: 3b-4)

So perhaps suffering is a fire which we can use to test and sharpen our faith.  To further quote scripture in 1 Peter chapter 2 (verses 19-21) “19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
To be fair, Jesus in his ministry never promised that things would be easy for us.  He was much more concerned with preparing us for the everlasting life to come rather than making things more comfortable for us here on earth.    In John 16:33, shortly before facing his own gruesome human death on the cross, Jesus warned his disciples of the challenges that they would soon face saying,” I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
So let’s accept the fact that at least from our vantage point, life may not always be fair in how the breaks both good and bad are doled out. Similar to the story of Job in the Bible, bad breaks may happen to us not necessarily in retribution for our prior sins but may just be part of an overall plan that we do not have the ability to discern. 

Jesus came to earth, assumed a human form and suffered greatly for our salvation.  We should view the challenges that are thrown our way as a means to live more like Christ and use our faith to face these obstacles without fear knowing that in the scheme of all things, our life here on earth is but a flash in the pan when compared to the infinite life to come.  Any pain or suffering endured here is nothing compared to the ultimate glory of the kingdom of heaven. 

So let’s talk about our eternal life. If good deeds are not necessarily rewarded here on earth, do they at least get us into heaven? 

You are familiar with the popular imagery of St. Peter sitting up in heaven with a log book that contains a record of all of the actions—good and bad—that we have taken during our time here on earth.  On that day when we arrive at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter totals up our score and if we have performed a sufficient number of good deeds in excess of the bad he will let us in.  Otherwise, he will point to the elevator that goes to a lower floor where the air conditioning doesn’t work so well.

My guess is that is probably not the way it works.  The truth is that because the glory of heaven is so magnificent, so much so that it outstrips our ability to adequately describe or comprehend it, no amount of good works performed here on earth can be said to fairly pay for our admittance.  We can’t earn our way into heaven—it is a priceless treasure.

That is what I believe the author of the epistle in our scripture reading meant in writing, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

So what does this mean?  Is it totally random as to whom God selects to let in?  To whom does He give this tremendous gift?  If good works do not gain us admittance to Heaven, what does?  Is it a waste of time to do good works if there is no payoff in the end? 

Jesus did provide us with an answer as to how to gain everlasting life. In John 5:24, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” A little later in John 14:23, Jesus expanded on this saying, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist denomination, throughout the early part of his life passionately pursued the performance of good deeds as a means of proving his worth in the eyes of God.  He visited the sick, the imprisoned, prayed constantly and frequently fasted all with the goal of proving himself worthy to God.  In spite of this remarkable record of performing good deeds, he felt an emptiness in so doing, even going so far as to say that he did not feel that he was a Christian during this time period of his life. 

He left his native England and sailed to Georgia to ostensibly bring Christianity to Native Americans but in reality he later admitted that he was trying to “convert” himself.  He had adopted a “karma-like” mode of thinking along the lines of “If I do something good, God will love me.” 

When he was forced to leave America and return to England due to a situation where he refused to serve communion to a woman for whom he had a fondness but who had chosen to marry another man, he realized that he had reached a low point in his spiritual life.

Then, one evening while attending a prayer meeting at a house on Aldersgate Street in London, a realization came to him that “strangely warmed his heart”.  And that realization was that he did not have to prove his worth to God but he just needed to accept the love that God already had for him. 

Wesley marked that realization as the point at which he truly became a Christian.  While he continued to perform the many good deeds as he had previously, from then on it was not to earn God’s love but rather it was because God loved him and he loved God. 

You could say there was a sort of “karma-like” cause and effect at work here but not in the way we may have initially expected.  Prior to Aldersgate, Wesley hoped that his good works would cause God to love him.  Following his experience at Aldersgate, God’s love caused Wesley to want to express his love by doing good works.

The lesson for us is that God’s gift of grace is freely available to us right now—today.  It is a gift with a value beyond measure.  We just need to accept God’s love and if that acceptance of His love is sincere and real, our own hearts can be “strangely warmed” and we will be moved to live by His Word by showing our love to both God and our neighbors in our daily lives. 

We must not fool ourselves into thinking that merely saying the words that we love God means that we really do.  God knows what is in our hearts.  If we are sincere we can’t help but express that love  in the way we live our lives and treat our fellow humans—helping those in need, comforting those in despair and extending kindness to all.
Life as we all know can be messy and some injustices defy explanation.  Bad things happen to good people.  However, by embracing God’s love we can help each other out through the tough times and celebrate the good times together while here on earth as we look forward to the everlasting glory to come. 

Everyone loves a little karma but it does not compare to the bigness that is GRACE.