When I arrived in my very first church as a pastor, I was right out of college and six months away from beginning day one of seminary. At the time, that little congregation in Eastern North Carolina was consumed by the murder of one of our deacon’s daughters.
As I recall, the murder itself had happened over a year prior to my arrival, but, the trial was about to begin which simply brought the whole thing back up in everyone’s minds.
Our deacon’s daughter had worked at a local convenience store. One evening, a customer came into the store, paid in cash and then accused her of giving the wrong change which she denied. The customer left in a huff and then unbeknownst to her waited until she closed the store for the night, kidnapped her as she exited the store and ultimately took her life.
Needless to say it was a gruesome story. Her family decided that it merited the death penalty and that was the outcome they sought as the trail began. I still have vivid memories of sitting in the court and of being present on the day that the young man was both found guilty and then later at sentencing was given the death penalty. As far as I know, he remains on death row in North Carolina until this very day.
I share that story for one reason. That singular event of one young man taking the life of one young lady had ripple effects all over that little community and surrounding area. It was far bigger and far more complex than just the two people at the heart of the story. It devastated the victim’s mother who was such a pillar of and leader in our church and with whom Ann Marie and I would become very close in our years there. It altered the life of her brother and only sibling who struggled with his sister’s death and his role now as his mom’s only child and as the only other living family member as their father was also deceased. It was an event constantly talked about and on the minds of their extended family who were all very present in those days too. And, beyond that, our church, our town and even people and friends in the next town over from us where a friend of mine was pastor were all caught up in this story. We were concerned for the family. We all thought regularly about what had happened. We wondered how we would have reacted had it been our daughter. And, we reflected how we individually felt about seeking the death penalty. It changed us in big ways and it changed us in small ways. And, I suspect there are people there who still think about that moment today.
Again, it was a strong example that drove home the point that what we do affects others in major ways just as what others do equally affects us sometimes with life altering consequences. To paraphrase the poet John Donne, lest we think otherwise, none of us are “islands”…we are all part of something much larger than ourselves despite how we often think and act.
This same point is made in our passage for today from Zephaniah Chapter 1. In many ways, Zephaniah feels a lot like virtually every other Minor Prophet that we have met already or that we will get reacquainted with at a later time this summer. Zephaniah, who likely offered his words just before the reforms of the Israelite King Josiah or just after Josiah’s reforms when the people were settling back into a life of ignoring God and God’s ways, sings the same song and marches to the beat of the same tune as the other Minor Prophets. Israel had forgotten the ways of God. Israel had developed the wrong priorities. A day of reckoning and judgement were coming for Israel. In the midst of these similarities with the other Minor Prophets, Zephaniah adds his own unique way of saying the same thing. That is how he contributes, adds to the other minor prophets and expands our understanding. This unique contribution and expansion comes at least in part, I think, in verses two and three of chapter one where we find God saying these words through the prophet, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away humans and animals, I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord”.
Do you hear it? Every person, every animal and even the land itself would be affected. Was it that every single person had sinned equally and failed God to the same degree? It is hard to believe that this could have been the case. Yet, everyone and everything would affected by those who had ignored the ways of God and squandered their role in God’s work.
Is Zephaniah an exaggeration? Are we really going to say that even the land and the animals get caught up in the bad decisions of human beings? We of all people should realize how true this is shouldn’t we? What we do when we abuse God’s creation, abuse God’s people and ignore God’s laws affects everything and everyone. In fact, sometimes the effects are felt for generations to come. Zephaniah isn’t exaggerating. Instead, he is offering a hard truth that most of us would rather ignore.
This idea of our interconnectedness has even made its way into modern pop culture in the phrase “the six degrees of Kevin Bacon”. For some of you this will go right over your head while for others of you, you immediately understand the phrase. Explained simply, Kevin Bacon is a very prolific Hollywood actor and has been so for years. He has starred in several films but he has been a supporting co-star in even more films with countless actors and actresses who are the greats of Hollywood. The phrase six degrees of Kevin Bacon actually started as a game in which people tried to connect Kevin Bacon to other actors and actresses through the people he had and they had both worked with. An example works like this, Elvis and Ed Asner were both in the film Change of Habit in 1969. Ed Asner was in the film JFK with Kevin Bacon in 1991. Therefore, Elvis and Kevin Bacon are connected to each other through Ed Asner. (“Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, wikipedia.com)
Yes, it is a silly game! But, the idea of the game again gets at the fact that our lives and thus what we do is far more and much more closely related to the lives of others than we think. Interestingly, in a recent interview, Kevin Bacon, admitted that when he first heard about the game he didn’t like it. He felt like it was a way of trivializing his career and making fun of him because of all of his bit parts were he supported even more famous people. Yet, over time, he bought into this idea that his life was indeed an example of the woven fabric of all of our lives. Today, Bacon has a charitable organization that is called, you guessed it, Six Degrees. Now, through his charitable work he passes on the idea that our connectedness should compel us to make a difference in others lives for we matter not just to ourselves but to others too.
This too, I think, is a big idea that Zephaniah calls to our attention – you see, it is not only the negative impact that we have on our world due to our interconnectedness. No, it is also the potential, positive and powerfully good impact we can have when we do good things, right things and Godly things. Yes, our mistakes have a ripple affect that we may want to ignore but our good decisions and faithful following of Jesus have a positive affect that we must not ignore either.
There is a real example of this between our sanctuary and our offices. Right outside of the church offices, you can view two beautiful signs thanking our congregation for our impact on the 60 children and their families at Laurens Elementary who were a part of our backpack ministry there this past school year. Singular acts of giving money, buying and picking up food items, packing the bags and delivering them to the schools have literally impacted countless people. It has helped the children, their families, school administrators who worked with the program and it has inspired other groups and organizations to also join in. Today, every elementary school in our District has a partner. These individual acts that we have made are not isolated or random. Instead they have had a ripple affect and have changed the lives of more people than we know or understand in a positive way.
No, it is not just the possible harm that bad decisions bring because of our interconnectedness that should give us pause, it is also the good things that our right, ethical Godly decisions create because of our interconnectedness that should also give us inspiration.
I want to end today with pushing this idea just one step further. This whole conversation this morning has focused on the result on others of our activity – be those actions good or bad. Yet, our inactivity has the same potential to impact countless other people. You know this idea through the concepts of sins of commission and sins of omission which is to say sin as the result of action or lack of action.
The same is at play when it comes to our potential impact on others. What we do matters far more than we know. And, what we resist doing, particular when it could mean so much to another matters too.
Today, I want to give you a moment for reflection. What is it, in your life right now that you need to stop doing because of its ripple effect not just on you but also on the world around you? Today, what is it that you need to keep doing that you may want to stop because you know how it has a ripple effect in many places?
Today, what do you need to quite resisting the chance to do? What opportunity are you passing up that is not just about you but that is also potentially and positively about the world around you? Speak to us Holy Spirit we pray. Amen.