Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman
My message this morning is on deliverance, on God’s faithfulness, and on our natural ability to deceive ourselves. I want to connect some dots between these themes and the power of the bluegrass music that surrounds us this morning. I have some ideas, and we’ll see how it goes.
I want to start by thinking about one significant line from the Lord’s Prayer. You know, we say this prayer so often, for some of us every day, sometimes several times a day, especially when we hit a rocky spot in our lives. Like anything that we do a lot it can lose some of its impact simply because it is so familiar. We recite it by rote, sometimes skimming over the words like a flat rock we toss across a smooth lake. We don’t mean to do this, it’s simply a function of our being human, our being fallible. So, I want to extract one line and lift it up for our consideration. I want to look at it from different angles. The next time you hear and speak the line will be in a few minutes. See if it feels any different. The line is simply: “Deliver us from evil.” What does that mean to you when you ask God to deliver us from evil? I don’t want to be a Danny Downer this morning but evil exists. I admit that I’m the first one to put on the rose colored glasses as I choose to ignore evil, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it go away. When I say this line in the prayer I think I am acknowledging evil but it’s out there some place. It’s an unknown entity that I am asking God to protect me from. It’s not personal. It doesn’t have a name or a face because that’s the way I’m comfortable. But being an ostrich doesn’t help. There are two kinds of evil I want to look at today and both are in the scripture passages we heard.
In the Exodus reading we have the famous parting of the Red Sea as the Israelites evade the Egyptians. Who among us does not think of Charlton Heston portraying Moses in the Ten Commandments? He holds out his hand as we witness what was then state of the art cinematography. There is suddenly a road on the ocean floor with huge walls of water on either side. Those were breathtaking effects at the time even though today it looks pretty dated. By the way, there is a line in verse 21 that I never noticed before. “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land. It had never occurred to me that this was anything but an instant miracle, but apparently not. I guess the movie was plenty long enough without adding that little detail. What it did make me mindful of, though, is the awesome power of the force of nature: awesome power that we have unfortunately witnessed all too much in the past few weeks with Harvey and Irma. It makes me wonder if there may have been some sort of natural disaster in play with this story as well. But back to evil…(sorry). What was it that the Israelites were trying to get away from? What was God delivering them from? It was the evil of oppression. Pharaoh ruled with an iron fist. There was no tolerance for dissent. I doubt there was any effort to start a movement called Hebrew Lives Matter. If you disagreed or disobeyed you were simply exterminated. There was no such thing as the value of human life. I think it’s pretty fair to call this evil. I think it’s pretty fair to call oppression evil. And, we have plenty of that to go around in our world today. Any time we have disrespect for the value of human life we have evil. We see it in religious extremism. We see it in totalitarian governments. We see it in intolerance. And, this can be just as frightening to us today as it was to the Hebrews over 3500 years ago. I call this kind of evil external evil. It is evil that occurs outside of our control. It can happen to us. It can happen to people we care about. It does happen to innocent people way, way too often. This is evil we can give a name to. It is evil with flesh and bones, and it is evil that we can pray to God to deliver us from.
The other kind of evil I want to lift up is what I call internal evil. This is what we see in our Gospel passage today. The parable of the unforgiving servant is one of those stories that we can so easily say to ourselves: “Oh that would never be me!” Jesus tells us a story about a king who sees that one of his slaves owes him money. The slave can’t pay it so the king orders him and his possessions and his family all to be sold in order to settle the debt. The slave pleads his case. The king relents, and releases the slave and forgives him the debt. Is the slave grateful? Of course. Does he learn from this kindness? Not so much. He runs into another slave who owes him money. He demands payment and since the other slave didn’t have it he has him thrown in jail. The king hears about it and it’s curtains for the unforgiving slave. This obviously is a story about forgiveness, and Jesus gives us a mandate to be forgiving (or else), but there’s something else going on here. It’s the part of us that chooses not to listen. It’s the part of us that thinks (with some smugness) “that would never be me.” We all too often tend to think we are better than we are. I was reminded of this the other day when I was reading something by Mary Luti. She was talking about something she calls “presentism.” She describes it as the concept of how superior we feel over those who are in the past. We tend to think we are smarter simply because society and technology has advanced to such a degree that people from before are somehow deficient; that we are somehow smarter. We have iPhones! They had rotary phones (whatever they are), or telegraphs, or smoke signals. How quaint! But, even more sinister than our thinking we are smarter is our thinking that we are somehow morally superior. She mentions those who collaborated with the Nazis in France. She poses the question: “Why should we think we are any different or any better?” How would we react in those same circumstances? And, I am reminded of the crowd in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago, worked up into a frenzy, and screaming for the release of Barabbas. Are we any different or any better than them on September 17, 2017? I wonder. We are human. We are fallible. And, that is the way we were intended to be. How else would we able to choose God? God wants us to choose God. If we don’t have the choice we are nothing more than robots. We have the ability to discern right from wrong, evil from good. The whole story about Adam and Eve is just about this. Choice is a gift but it’s also a curse. Wouldn’t it be easier if we didn’t have to think about it? But we do don’t we. And we know in our hearts the difference between evil and good. And, even worse, we dwell on those times when we know we have made the wrong moral choice. So, this is the other deliverance that we ask for when we pray, “Deliver us from evil.” It’s the evil in ourselves: the internal evil. It’s the giving in to the temptation of the easy way out or the “what’s in it for me?” Jesus knew this, too. Why else would we have the line in the Lord’s Prayer that precedes “deliver us from evil?” It’s, of course, “lead us not into temptation.” These lines are just as relevant today as they were then. They are just as personal today as they were then.
So how do we deal with these external and internal evils that are such a part of our time here on earth? What helps us to get through those times when life seems to overwhelm us? For some of us, and I would include myself in that, it is music. Music speaks to me like nothing else. Music brings me closer to God as much as anything else. Gospel music was born out of the evil oppression of slavery. There is not anything much more evil than slavery. And yet, within that music there is hope. There is hope in God’s promise of deliverance. It may not be today. It may not even be until we die, but the promise is there, and the promise is real. Bluegrass music is born out of the indomitable spirit of the Scots-Irish who settled on the east coast of this country to find a better life for their families. I know that Charley did a sermon series on The Hillbilly Elegy, and if you haven’t read the book, I would strongly recommend it. It paints a realistic picture of this struggling culture today, but within it there is still power in their faithfulness to family, to tradition, and, to many, their God. That is where we have Bluegrass gospel music. Yes, times can certainly be hard, but implicit in this music is hope, and there is joy in God’s promise to ultimately deliver us from evil. Listen to the lyrics again of the song we just heard. It was made famous by the classic team of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs:
Take me in your lifeboat, oh Take me in your lifeboat
It will stand the raging storm
Take me in your lifeboat, oh
Take me in your lifeboat
It will bear my spirit home.
This is music that speaks of hardship and adversity but it is music that speaks of deliverance, and hope, and the promise of God. And, implicit in the rhythm and harmonies of this music there is joy. Joy in the unconditional and everlasting, grace of God. Yes, times can sure be hard as a result of both external and internal evil but evil can never conquer the hope, and the light, and the love that is God.
Let us pray.
Holy and loving God, deliver us from the evil that is around us and within us. Help us to be mindful of your promise and your grace. Help us to reach out beyond ourselves in order that we might help others who are struggling with life hardships, with oppression, and with guilt. Help us to be your instruments to make this world a better place. And, thank you for music that lifts our souls and brings us closer to you. In the precious name of Jesus we pray, Amen.