Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
I want to say how much I love you. I wanted to say that even more so on Monday Oct. 1st. I wanted to sweep you all up in my arms and look you in the eyes and say, “Remember, there is a God. And that God made you. And that God loves you. And God will always love you. And ALWAYS means FOREVER!”
God never puts an end to anything that God loves, and so, as the Apostle Paul so famously says in his letter to the Romans, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else can separate us from the love of God.” (Rom 8:37-38) God loves you. That is real.
Now what happened by the hand of a man named Steven Paddock in Las Vegas on Oct. 1st should be less confusing to us that it seems to be for the pundits and prognosticators of our time. Paddock seems an enigma to them: a man who left no clues; who gave no signals; who had no motives. Illness, whether mental or physical, was not his issue as far as anyone can tell. He seemed to have a good life by so many of our culture’s standards. He was independent. He could do whatever he wanted, the way he wanted, whenever he wanted to. He answered to no one. He was rich. He made a lot of money whenever he needed it; he would just walk into a casino as if it were an ATM machine. The world served him, and more than that it catered to him. He was really smart, too; smart like Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay. He seemed smart enough to just figure things out; like slot machines and roulette tables.
And yet, with all that money and all those smarts, he commits the most atrocious crime (mass murder) in modern American history. Is that confusing? I am not sure why it should be. As I reflect on Paddock, I can’t help thinking back to my college days when we read the heady works of Sartre and Camus and Nietzsche. These existentialist philosophers might well have set a man like Paddock in one of their novels.
Sartre would say that: “An existentialist is a person who is defined by how they act, and are responsible for their actions.” So, for example (and I’m quoting Sartre here) someone who acts cruelly towards people, by that act, is defined as a cruel person. Furthermore, by their cruelty, such a person is themselves responsible for their new identity, which is that of a cruel person.” (Wikipedia/ existentialism)
But what if that person doesn’t care? Or what if that person is kind to one person and cruel to another? Are they cruel, or are they kind, or are they both? And does one off set the other?
Within existential philosophy there is this concept of the Absurd which holds the idea that there is no meaning in the world beyond the meaning an individual gives it. “One person may think another cruel, but if that is not the identity ‘said cruel person’ ascribes to themselves, then they actually aren’t cruel.” (Wikipedia/ existentialism) Hitler would never have described himself as cruel, Paddock probably wouldn’t either.
What if it was just a random collection of cosmic particles bumping into each other that led to you and me sitting in this room today? What if it was just a random collection of cosmic particles bumping into each other that made Steve Paddock a rich, smart guy playing the slots in Vegas?
That is the atheism of existentialism, and the outcome of this philosophy when lived to its perfect conclusion is that “bad things don’t happen to good people;” because there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person. It is all randomness ending with death. What happens happens, and it may just as well happen to a “good” person as to a “bad” person. After all who is to say which is which?
Freedom and atheism lived out in their fullest, purest sense could lead a smart, thinking person who is bored with the requirements of life in a meaningless, random world, to, not out of despair, but out of a realization that it was all Absurd anyway, do something, one last time, that coursed adrenaline through his veins. No manifesto needed. No suicide note required. Of course not, if it is all pointless, ending with death anyway.
That is what I image to have been the case with Steven Paddock. His actions, whether cruel or not, don’t matter, because there is no God, and there are no consequences, and death was coming anyway.
There are many, many, many, many atheists out there, of course, who aren’t Paddock. They are good people who do good things. And if you asked them why they do good things they may say: it makes me feel good; or it makes things run better; or it leaves the world a better place for my children. And all of that makes sense to me within the context of Christianity, because good matters fundamentally to the Christian. We believe good comes from God and good goes to God. We believe God expects us to be good because God made us good, very good, all of us.
Now some of us may know atheists who are “better people” than Christians we know. And if you told me that I’d believe you. But for the Christian, whether they are good at being good or not, good matters inherently because there is a God. While to the atheist good matters to the extent to which good fits into their feeling or their thought or their philosophies or even their habits.
And so, the crappy Christian and the good atheist can live together, because one believes in good and one does good. And that works particularly well in a world that still sits on a Christian foundation. Christianity’s long tail acts as a safety net for why we act for the good and fight against the bad; all of us, atheist and Christian alike.
But what if the scale tipped towards a world that believed truly, deeply, and fundamentally that all of this is really random, and it all ends in death anyway…what kind of world could that be?
The reality of God matters a ton, whether you believe in God or not. What we believe as Christians, even if our execution is weak, matters. But imagine, as Christians, if not only we believed that good matters, but if we lived it out, truly, deeply, and fundamentally. What would that world look like? What could that world become? There is a God, and that is the reality.
You are beloved to God. And I am excited for your life and that includes your eternal life, because I believe you were made intentionally, not accidentally. I believe God has been thinking about you forever; and that your forever life is exciting and vital and connected and really matters to your neighbor, to creation, and to God.
Paul calls you beloved as well. And we hear today how this belovedness acts. I’ll quote: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8-10) And if you do, that cosmic peace woven inextricably into the fabric of creation by God is yours.
And that is Good News. And it spreads. How? By Christians speaking the truth; and acting honorably; and proclaiming justice; and living purely; and talking pleasingly; and acting commendably. By calling out a person’s excellence when you see it. By singing their praise as often as you can. Do you do this? Yes you do! Do you do this? Yes you do!
But do you tell people that you know this Good News because you come here to church? Do you tell them that you are Christian? Do you tell them that they are beloved? I hope you do, and I pray you do more and more. In the face of a world that seems hell bent on denying the reality of God, more and more, it is up to us, more and more, to share the reality of God. It matters.
And if you need a little reinforcement, come to church. Worship is an exercise that has been finely tuned over time to put before your mind the reality of God. And what we put before our mind matters.
My dad gave me a book by Carl Hiaasen the other day called Skinny Dipping. It is the kind of book that cracks my 18-year-old self up. And occasionally I’ll find myself chuckling from a memory of that goofy book.
That is how the mind works. What we put before our minds sticks because our minds are sticky. And the more we put something into our mind the more likely it will stick permanently upon our memory.
Worship was designed to populate our memories with the reality of God. I implore you Friends to praise God. I implore you Friends to be a Christian. To own it. To seek to understand it. To fill your mind with the goodness of God. And invite others to join you; because more and more in our world today, we need to be weaving and reweaving and mending the net of divine love in the minds of all people.
Do this because you are beloved. You are intentional, not accidental. God knows you by name, and has marked you for eternity. And God owns the good, so go find the good in the other and invite them to give that good back to God. Meaninglessness will dissipate when our belovedness calls out the belovedness in the other. Never ever forget that God is real, and you are beloved to God.