September 16, 2018, Pastor Galen Zook
I grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I suppose you could call Harrisburg a large town or a small city. There were about 50,000 people in the inner city, and about a quarter of a million people in the metropolitan area. Harrisburg is much smaller than Baltimore, but in many ways it had the feel of a neighborhood or community not too different from Hampden. We could walk to the dentist office, the barber, the shoe store, and the farmer’s market.
Growing up we really didn’t throw a lot of things away. My parents weren’t really big spenders. They were pretty conservative in how they dressed, and we bought most of our clothes from the thrift store or got hand-me-downs from other families who had kids older than us.
But I also didn’t really think about a lot about recycling or caring for the environment. My school had recycling for aluminum cans, but at home we would just throw away whatever we didn’t need. We didn’t even have recycling for glass or paper that I was aware of. Generally, I just kind of lived my life with very little thought or concern for how my actions were affecting the environment.
The Harrisburg Incinerator
Now, although Harrisburg was a small city, it had big aspirations. The mayor when I was growing up was mayor Stephen R. Reed. Steve Reed became the mayor 2 years after I was born, and served for 7 terms, for a total of 28 years! Steve Reed was a big dreamer who loved the city of Harrisburg and was always looking for opportunities to get Harrisburg on the map. Steve Reed did a lot to improve the city, including reinvigorating Harrisburg’s downtown business district, establishing a minor league basement team, and founding the National Civil War Museum (yes, believe it or not the National Civil War Museum is in Harrisburg, PA even though no battles of the Civil War took place in Harrisburg!). Steve Reed even began to accumulate memorabilia to start a Wild West Museum in Harrisburg, PA, even though Pennsylvania is most definitely located on the East Coast, nowhere near the Wild West.
Now, when Steve Reed became the mayor he inherited a problem – namely the city was carrying a massive debt due to an incinerator that constantly required costly maintenance and repairs. The incinerator had been purchased in the early ‘70’s for $15 million, but the debt had eventually grown to $94 million.
But, not to be deterred, Steve Reed saw an opportunity. Rather than getting rid of the incinerator and buying a new one, Steve Reed and the city council decided to “double down” and go into even more debt to drastically expand it. The argument was that with the newly expanded incinerator the city could charge the surrounding counties to dispose of their trash, which would allow the city to pay off the now humongous debt, and eventually become a steady source of income revenue for the city.
Unfortunately, at some point along the way it was discovered that the Harrisburg incinerator was spewing toxic chemical pollutants into the air. So, the federal government came in and shut the incinerator down. Not only did this effectively cut off any sort of cash flow for the city, but it left the city with a tremendous amount of debt, so much so that the city eventually had to file for bankruptcy and is still recovering to this day.
Now, lest you think that this is just one more example of big government coming in to squash the little guy for some petty reason, I do want to let you know that the pollutants being spewed into the environment were incredibly harmful to people. And not only did they affect the people in Harrisburg and the surrounding areas, but it was discovered that the particular chemical toxin that was being released in the air was actually making its way all the way to Northern Canada! Dioxin was discovered in the breast milk of native Canadian women and traced all the way back to the Harrisburg, PA incinerator.
This means that the mayor and city council, in their attempt to help their city, had inadvertently poisoned women and children over 1,000 miles away. And I, as I was happily-go-luckily skipping along on my merry little journey as a child, throwing away aluminum cans with no thought for tomorrow, was obliviously negatively impacting children that I would never even meet.
Now I want to emphasize that neither myself nor the city leaders had any intention to hurt other people. This was not some sort of insidious plot to poison Canadian women and children. This was not the evil brainchild of some sort of criminal mastermind in an abandoned warehouse who came up with this brilliantly insidious scheme to wipe out half of the world’s population. This was simply small city leaders dreaming big, planning for the prosperity of their own city, with no idea of how it would negatively hurt those around them or indeed their own city down the road.
Not Everything Is Good
This month we’re talking about Creation. We talked a few weeks ago about how God’s good creation displays the majesty and the wonder of our Creator God. We talked about how as followers of Christ we should want to preserve God’s beautiful creation so that all people can be led into awe and worship of our creative and gracious God. Last week we talked about how mountains in particular can teach us particular characteristics of God as well as teach us life lessons about ourselves.
But this week we’re talking a very different aspect of creation. We’re talking about the reality that this world that we live in is not perfect. That although God created the world and called it “very good,” we live in a world where bad things happen. There are incinerators that spew out toxic chemicals. The water in our beautiful inner harbor is not safe enough to swim in, let alone drink. Hurricanes destroy people and property, there are floods, tornadoes, landslides, and all sorts of natural disasters.
And we can’t just blame nature either. People do a lot of damage too! People hurt and kill each other. Sometimes intentionally, other times by accident. And sometimes, even when we’re trying to do good, we end up inadvertently hurting people a thousand miles away.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
In the first chapter of Genesis, God commanded the first humans to “…fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 NRSV).
Subduing the earth and having dominion over every living creatures on earth is a lot of power! But “with great power comes great responsibility.” Now, having “dominion” over something simply means to rule over. This does not give us license to destroy the environment or to ravage the earth for our own purposes. Instead we are called to be stewards of God’s resources, using them wisely, and taking care of the earth as if it were our own.
But we are by nature selfish people. We do things that we think are in our best interest, that end up hurting ourselves and others. So often we naively make decisions that negative impact other people and future generations. And so often, even when we do have good intentions, we inadvertently hurt other people.
And I’m not just speaking about throwing away aluminum cans or purchasing municipal incinerators. Every day, at work, at school, in our relationships with our friends and family members, we do things that we think will help us or our family or our church or our business, but in retrospect we realize that our decision caused hurt or pain to someone else.
What do we do when we find out that the actions that we’ve been doing have hurt other people? How do we move forward when we find that we’ve made a mistake or caused someone pain? Do we stop doing it? Do we sweep it under the rug? Do we cover it up, hoping no one notices?
This is the situation I think all of us find ourselves in at some point or another, whether it’s at work or school, at home or in church. The question is, how do we move forward when we’ve caused someone pain, when we’ve made a decision that negatively impacted others?
Moving Forward in Grace
My friends, this is where grace comes into play. This is when we need God’s forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. We need to ask for God’s grace and mercy to wash over us like a flood, to cleanse us, to help us make things right and to start over if necessary. You see, so often we think that God’s grace and forgiveness is only needed when we’ve been caught doing something really bad, or when we’ve done something to intentionally hurt someone else. But often it’s those times that we mess up, when our good intentions inadvertently cause pain, or when we naively make mistakes that we most need God’s forgiveness so that we can forgive ourselves and move on.
You see, one of the temptations when we’ve made a mistake is to double down, to sink our teeth in further. We don’t want to admit that we’ve made a mistake, so we go above and beyond to defend our actions, we lie to cover it up, and we end up in a much direr situation than when we started.
You see, mayor Reed and the Harrisburg city council knew that their incinerator was in danger of being shut down by the EPA when they decided to enlarge and expand it. Although they may not have known the full environmental impact of their incinerator, their decision to double down and expand the incinerator was in part a denial of how bad things really were.
In Psalm 19, the psalmist says, “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. (Psalm 19:12,13).
We need God’s help in order to acknowledge our mistakes, to bring them out in the open, to make things right, and to move on and not let it take hold of us. The psalmist recognized that we need God’s mercy not just when we intentionally sin, but even when we mess up. In fact, we need God’s help to even reveal to us when we’ve made a mistake because so often it’s difficult for us to even recognize our own errors.
But the psalmist also goes on to ask God to keep him from “willful sins.” The Hebrew here has this connotation of pride – it’s this sense that our pride can lead us to go in deeper. Rather than humbly admitting our mistakes and moving on, we double down, we sink our teeth in, and in the end our pride begins to rule over us! Rather than us having dominion over the earth, our pride begins to have dominion over us. If we’re not careful, we fall into cycles of negative behavior that sometimes we even pass down to the next generation. And even if no one ever finds out, in the end it hurts us and others even more than if we admitted our mistakes when we first discovered them.
We need God’s help reveal to us our errors and show us how to move forward. We need God’s grace and mercy to wipe the slate clean so that we don’t let our past mistakes take hold of us. We need God’s help not only to keep us from falling back into the same trap again, but to help us not be “ruled” by our pride.
Responding to the Word
Friends, this morning I want you to know that God’s grace and mercy are available to each one of us. Whether you’re carrying a load of guilt for past mistakes, whether you’re living in fear of how your actions might impact others, or whether you just want to remain open and sensitive and humble to God’s spirit, I want you to know that God is ready and waiting to forgive you, to shower you with grace and mercy, and to make you over anew.
We live in a world that’s broken. Things are not the way they were meant to be, and we’re to blame for a lot of that. We shoulder a large burden of responsibility and sometimes we steward that responsibility unwisely. So often we mess up. But we can move forward with God’s help, in the knowledge that God’s grace will be there to pick us up again when we fall, and God’s mercy and compassion can free us to walk in newness of life.
This morning we’re going to respond to the word by singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” I want to invite you to let the words of this song wash over you and to receive God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.
I’d like to read just a few lines of this song as we prepare to sing it together this morning:
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, they compassions, they fail not, as thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mind, with ten thousand beside! Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed they hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!