Remember Jesus’s parable of the father with two sons? It’s a practically perfect picture of Paul’s teaching in Romans 8 – a father, who embodies this life in the Spirit Paul describes, and two sons, both living according to the flesh: the younger one training at life in the flesh like it’s an Olympic sport; the older one pacing himself more. But make no mistake: he is just as much living in the flesh as his little brother, but with none of the fun. He is bitter as a too-green persimmon, biting his tongue to the very end, when he walks up onto that party the day his brother came home and all that seething resentment comes pouring out of him.
At the end is when the younger son wakes up to the fact that he’s already dead. Dead a son as he is, the younger one knows his father, or thinks he does. I am dead to him as a son, but I can still go back as a slave, he tells himself, while his brother never thought himself anything other than a slave – muscle and breath born to do the master’s bidding.
People living in the spirit don’t know a difference between slaves and sons. There are only children, as Paul says in verse 16, children of God. Paul says the same in his letter to Philemon, which Sarah read and which I’ll preach after I return from my trip this fall. Romans will end someday.
Children of God know who we are and we know whose we are. We know, as Richard Rohr writes, that we are not punished for our sins. We are punished by our sins. To live in the Spirit is to live inside the reality of a certain kinship, a connection between ourselves and the creator of all that lives and breathes and has being. In speaking of the Human-God relationship, Child-Parent is both the best and still far too small a metaphor for describing it – which makes it not useful for everyone, and for some too horrifying to consider. For some, brother-sister or friend-friend or student-teacher works better, because their in-the-flesh experience with a parent-child relationship is just too damaged, too frightening a metaphor to use in imagining how God loves us.
To live in the flesh is, simply, to live outside the reality of that kinship; to choose, by default or design, to trust only that which the eyes and ears can see and hear, what the physical senses can touch and confirm. Which is actually very little when you think about it, isn’t it? We order our days on a great deal more than what we confirm with our senses moment by moment, don’t we? I don’t inspect my car for safety every time I jump in to drive somewhere. I don’t test the sturdiness of every chair I sit in, the sanitation of every spoon that goes in my mouth. We trust lots and lots of things, day in and out.
How do we confirm the truth of the Spirit of God? the truth of our preciousness to God? the truth about how very, very loved we are? the truth about the persistence of that love, regardless of our resistance to it? Simply, friends, by living as if it is true. The same way we sit on chairs and drive cars we don’t test first. Just moving into the reality and discovering that in fact it does hold us up. To live in the flesh is to believe anything other than that we are precious to God – and then behave that way. To mistreat this life, this body, other people, this creation, is to disbelieve in our own preciousness, to believe it possible for anything to interrupt or disrupt or muck up that preciousness.
Because we can’t. We cannot ruin the preciousness. Nothing we have done, nothing we might ever do, can change it. It is not ours to change, the truth of our belovedness, the truth of our value. It is a God-made truth, cosmic truth, not of this world. Human beings have too much self-interest ever to think up such an idea. Doesn’t keep us – both human beings and the church – from trying to remake this preciousness, this belovedness, in our own image – the image of our need to feel worthy. So we make divine belovedness something to be earned, rather than assumed.
I remember when I had my first baby, and we got all these sweet baby onesies and sleepers for her. They were so soft and cozy, and I wondered Why can’t grown-up clothes be as soft and comfortable as baby clothes? Everything has to be a little bit tight, a little bit scratchy, and also pinch our toes, or we aren’t dressed appropriately. Have we done the same with faith? Created an environment in which if we aren’t slightly tormented we aren’t sure God loves us? What if – just imagine this for a moment with me – what if what God wants most for each of us, and for all creation, is that we be happy, safe and loved?
Or even better, imagine this: what if what God wants most for each of us sentient beings is that we know we are to be happy, safe and loved? what if we need not feel guilty or ashamed for wanting it, because in wanting it for ourselves we agree with God that the very best life for us is one in which we are happy, safe and loved? It’s God’s prerogative, don’t you think, Susanne P. said this week in Bible study, to decide what God wants for God’s children? One of those questions that answers itself.
If God wants to regard us as children instead of slaves, isn’t that God’s prerogative? If God should choose to love us without even the threat of punishment for our sorry ways, toward ourselves, toward each other, toward the planet, and toward God’s own self too, who are we to say God can’t or shouldn’t? God does not love us because we are good. God loves us – why, friends? – God loves us because God is good. And insofar as we can take that in, the God-given happiness already saturating nature will seep and soak and transform our grief and fear as well.
There is no straight or easy path between life according to the flesh and life in the Spirit. Rather, it’s an invitation we accept, or not, in the everydayness of being human. Life in the flesh is exactly that: faith in human flesh to save itself. Which, stated that way, we know, is absurd. Flesh is forever dying and cannot save itself. And yet, and yet, the trickery never stops, does it? The compulsion to believe what is before our eyes in the moments when we are hurting or afraid? The anxiety and the want for immediate relief, combined with brain and body chemistry like dopamine and adrenaline, how are we not going to be drawn away from the Spirit?
But the Spirit doesn’t beg; she only waits, like the father on his front porch in Jesus’s parable, waiting for his kids to come home to him. She doesn’t scold or fuss or harass us out of bed. She waits, and she waits, and she waits. There’s no amount of time she will not wait, for us to realize we’ve been in her lap all along. And when we do, friends, when we do, the kind of life we’ll have – I expect we cannot even imagine the kind of life together we shall have, my goodness!
For the last, some lyrics from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song, an old one but still my most favorite of hers, called “Jubilee.” What she names “jubilee” I think of as this Spirit of God always here among us, around us, and within us.
I can tell by the way you're walking You don't want company
I'll let you alone and I'll let you walk on And in your own good time you'll be
Back where the sun can find you Under the wise wishing tree
And with all of them made we'll lie under the shade And call it a jubilee.
And I can tell by the way you're talking That the past isn't letting you go
But there's only so long you can take it all on And then the wrong's gotta be on its own
And when you're ready to leave it behind you You'll look back and all that you'll see
Is the wreckage and rust that you left in the dust On your way to the jubilee
And I can tell by the way you're listening That you're still expecting to hear
Your name being called like a summons to all
Who have failed to account for their doubts and their fears
They can't add up to much without you And so if it were up to me,
I'd take hold of your hand Saying come hear the band Play your song at the jubilee
And I can tell by the way you're searching For something you can't even name
That you haven't been able to come to the table Simply glad that you came
When you feel like this try to imagine That we're all like frail boats on the sea
Just scanning the night for that great guiding light Announcing the jubilee
And I can tell by the way you're standing With your eyes filling with tears
That it's habit alone that keeps you turning for home Even though your home is right here
Where the people who love you are gathered Under the wise wishing tree
May we all be considered then straight on delivered Down to the jubilee
She calls it “jubilee.” Paul calls it “life in the Spirit.” Call it whatever you like. Just call it, friends, call it. Would you pray with me?
Father Richard Rohr says that bad theology is a lot like pornography. It has all the fantasy of a real relationship without any of the risk.* [*from The Divine Dance]
What is the fantasy – that is, the bad theology – at work in Romans, chapter 7? It is that the Law is necessary for righteousness. That’s the Bible talk version. The everyday talk version is that the better we behave – the more we conform to the rules – the more pleased God is with us; that it is possible to be good enough.
What is the risk? Finding out the truth once and for all that we are pathetic failures at being good – not because we are weak, not because we are bad, but because we are human. Real relationship with God is grounded in the truth: the truth that God never has loved and God never will love anyone anywhere because they were good. God loves everyone everywhere because God is good.
Let’s pray: For the truth upon whatever tongue you’ve laid it, O God, may we listen. For a glimpse of your Spirit in the most unlikely places, may we watch. So that our faith might find deeper breath – for this we pray, O God. Amen.
In Romans chapter 7 the Apostle Paul is still making his case against the fantasy – as he says it, the insufficiency of the Law to accomplish righteousness with God.
Everyone to whom he writes is a Christ follower, many of them from the same rule-loving religion as Paul, who have spread themselves some Jesus over the top of the rule-loving religion they’d always had.
“No,” Paul says, “no.” The Law must be removed, not because it is useful for its own purposes but, rather, simply because it is no longer necessary now that we have risen with Christ. Paul’s first example is marriage. Note: this is not a text on biblical gender roles in marriage. It is an analogy of those early believers’ relationship to Jewish law, with some use for the church’s understanding of the difference between doctrine and faith.
You are no more bound to the Law, Paul says, than a widowed woman is bound to her dead husband. The Law by its own design says that dead husband has no legal hold on her. The Law is no more use to you as a follower of the Christ than her dead husband is to her. Can he provide for her? Can he protect her? Can he give her any affection, any comfort? He cannot. Neither can the Law, Paul says. Only the risen Christ can do that for us.
New Testament Professor Luke Johnson’s illustration of Paul’s illustration goes like this: The Law is like a prescription from the doctor. Sick people who go to the doctor and get a prescription generally don’t carry the scrip around believing the slip of paper will cure them.* [*from Reading Romans]
The Law and the prescription are good for what they were meant for: putting a name to our trouble. But neither has any power to cure us or keep us well. Are you with me? The Law is dead as a widow’s husband, Paul said – this week and last – and we are dead to it. Which isn’t to say the church hasn’t been propping our own version of the Torah up in a pew and treating it like royalty for the last many hundred years – “Nobody’s perfect” – and quoting Paul in the teaching of it (verses 14-20): I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate.
The church affirmed that nobody is perfect while at the same time emphasizing that the closer we get to that perfection, the more pleased God is with us – until we didn’t know the difference between bad theology and good, what the Bible teaches and what it absolutely does not.
At five years old I could have told you, specifically, what sorts of children please God most: children who share; children who are kind; children who obey; children who don’t talk back; children who are helpful. My brother said he heard a bad word and said it. My mother asked, “Do you think Jesus likes it when he hears you say words like that?”
That is such bad, and it can be dangerous, theology. For all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is the conflation of the legal with the good; the result being – even church people struggle to know what the word “sin” really means. When I enter the phrase “remember their sin no more,” Grammarly always wants to make it “sins” – plural. Sin is not singular or plural. It is ontological, a state of being, a form of existence. Again, friends, God doesn’t love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. Our ontological condition, if you will, is beloved. We are loved.
“Faithful” is the state of living in conformity to our belovedness; “sin” the state of living in resistance to our belovedness. Sin is related to Law coincidentally. This is a point Paul makes strongly in verse seven, teasing apart the Law from sin. What makes something legal? Powerful people get it written down, codified. Generally, what is legal is what serves the interests of the powerful. What makes something right or good? It serves the interests of the whole creation; it conforms to the very the nature of God.
To be legal does not make something right or good. Our country legally has children in prison camps, remember. Does anyone believe that reflects the nature of God? Slavery was legal in our country for a long, long time. Forms of it are still legal around the world. It has never been right. Discrimination has never been right. It was legal for a long, long time and, again, still is in many places. My colleague Reverend Dr. William Barber, who leads the Moral Monday movement, says that voter suppression laws currently on the books are THE greatest moral threat to American democracy. Wrong – and perfectly legal. Sin is related to Law only coincidentally.
It’s possible to sin by obeying the law and to be good by breaking it. Sin is not calculated by our failure to keep our lives legal. Sin is calculated by our decision to resist our God-given status as beloved; to act, to live, in harmony with, at peace with, God’s goodness in all of creation; to swim in that river, to breathe that air. Are you with me?
That we might conceive of redeeming ourselves by so cumbersome and unwieldy an instrument as the Law is a fantasy we’ve held on to for too long, especially given the alternative. If I let go of this useless thing that never worked anyway, Paul asks – to no one in particular, it seems to me, or maybe in a prayer – then who will rescue me? And it is as if he suddenly remembers, “Oh yeah!” – verse 25 – “Thank God! Jesus Christ will rescue me.”
And that is what he goes on and on and on about in chapter eight. We will follow him there next week. Would you pray with me?
My daughter and son-in-law had two ladies at their front door yesterday, sharing their faith. They showed them the article in the newspaper about the man who killed himself so horribly, right in front of the police, and they asked, Do you know why there is so much suffering? My son-in-law asked me what to say to answer that. I said “It’s not a mystery, Jeremy. There’s so much suffering because people are . . . jerks. (I might possibly have used a different word.) And people are jerks because they are afraid.”
And people are afraid, because they still don’t believe that there is nothing in this world to fear. Whether we live or we die, whether we are saints or jerks, the kindness of God has final say in this universe. And if we only believed that, heart, mind, soul, and strength, there’d never be anything to defend; nothing worth hurting another human being to have; no payoff in being a jerk. Suffering wouldn’t end, but the rates would plummet, and most of what was left wouldn’t feel like suffering.
If the book of Romans is starting to sound a little repetitive, as if Paul says the same thing over and over, it could be because Paul is saying pretty much the same thing over and over. Which is what teachers do when they are teaching to mastery – instead of grade level, if you will. Repetition and reinforcement. Paul is repeating and reinforcing. If the church doesn’t master this new reality that God in Jesus Christ has re-created reality so that the kindness of God, that is the grace of God, has the final say in all that happens – if we don’t master that, heart, mind, soul, and strength – we, the church, will never function as the body of Christ in the world.
To date, the church has been something of a slow learner. Great pockets of Christendom still function as if Jesus lived, died, and rose from the grave so that we would know to be nice to each other and help the poor and have something to do on Sunday mornings. All the while, Paul has preached his heart out to anyone who will listen that there is more: Jesus lived and died and rose from the grave so we wouldn’t be afraid, so that we would live like people who have no cause for fear and therefore no cause, no motivation, to be such terrible jerks.
Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead, because God decided not to leave humanity to ourselves, to act our inevitable drama of self-destruction. We are a basketful of wretched sinfulness whom, against all reason, God chose to deal with kindly, mercifully, gracefully. Every word, you know, is a metaphor. And every metaphor limps, even the best ones. Sin and grace are Paul’s metaphors as he attempts to describe the human-God relationship.
Sin refers to the way of life before baptism, before one’s realization of the re-creation of the world in Jesus Christ or, as we commonly say it, sin is the way of life before faith in Christ. Grace is the wide-open reality of God’s love that permeates every nook and cranny of every cell of every creature, plant, and rock of creation – every shimmer of light, every wisp of air, every drop of water, every breath drawn by whatever draws breath.
Sin and grace for Paul in Romans 6 is a kind of before-and-after in one’s life, divided by the realization of faith. The dividing moment for Paul was on the road in Damascus. His life before was a project of genocide, executing Jews who believed in Christ. After, the project of Paul’s life, as he described it, was to be poured out as a sacrifice in imitation of what Christ has done for us – that the world might have a living, breathing presence of Christ in the world: the church.
Paul says we must live always in the after in this new creation of the world in Christ Jesus. We cannot practice faith in Jesus while standing in the grave of the past. Of all we might find useful in this text today, I hope to find some encouragement for anyone who has ever had trouble believing the past no longer has any power over you. Because the word of the Lord on that subject today is, simply, “Nope.”
Would you pray with me? Upon every heart still haunted by hurts from the past, O God, may your word be a healing touch. We all struggle sometimes to believe news this good, that we live inside the territory of grace, a land utterly without borders, where the past is a grave – a grave with no hold on us, where we are welcomed exactly as we are. Amen.
Do you suppose Paul’s past haunted him? He was no victim, after all. He was a predator. Like a modern day ICE agent going from synagogue to synagogue, notebook in hand, talking to rabbis, wanting to know who in your congregation professes to believe in this Jesus fellow? Then taking that list to Jewish authorities and trading them for arrest warrants, which he then used to track down those people, arrest them, throw them in the jail, and have them executed. So yes, I suspect the memory haunted him.
And yet, he still wrote and believed this: 3 Don’t you know that all who share in Christ Jesus by being baptized also share in his death? 4 When we were baptized, we died and were buried with Christ. We were baptized, so that we would live a new life, as Christ was raised to life by the glory of God the Father.
And this: When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. 11 In the same way, you must think of yourselves as dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God.
Bushi Yamato Damashii calls himself a Buddhist monk and a friend of Jesus. If he was not a Baptist preacher at some point in his past I will eat … well … asparagus. Because he has the voice. In that voice that I could listen to all day, he says that the hurtful moments of our past no longer exist anywhere in the universe, except when we reconstitute them in our minds – something always done by choice, by the choice not to train our minds to stay here.
Choose other, Paul says. In a moment in which you are tempted to go to that place of sin and death – a place dead and buried not because Dr. Phil said or your therapist said so, but because the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe made it so – think of yourselves as dead to the power of all that hurt, all that sin. Be here. Be now. Be alive in this life God has made for you.
Don’t hear me hating on therapy – it’s good for what it’s good for. But there is no substitute for the spiritual discovery that God loves you and you are worthy of being loved, that you deserve the ground you occupy and the air you breathe, because God said so.
Friends, please see how the pain of something, however overwhelming in its memory, can never render the truth untrue. Grief and sadness don’t have that power. Neither do guilt or shame or disappointment. They are feelings. Feelings are real. But the only power they have, we give them. And when, rather than believe the truth is the truth, we believe our feelings and the thoughts those feelings get us to thinking, we have returned to a grave to pray and plead for God’s help to get through life in a place God went to great length to get us out of.
Remember those Hebrew slaves begging to go back to Egypt? Freedom sounded like a good idea, until they realized how much trust was involved, how little control over their own situation was allowed. For all our wishing to be healed of the past, and our frustration with the pain, some- thing about it draws us back, like peeling the scab off a wound. It hurts like the dickens but feels strangely satisfying too.
Maybe it’s the comfort of being perpetually wounded. It’s unpleasant and inconvenient, but it’s also familiar, predictable, dependable. But is it? Or is that familiarity and dependability some- thing else we tell ourselves rather than believe the God who chose to look at humanity when we looked pretty much the same as we do right now – a mess on the verge of self-destruction – and said, “Nope, I love them too much for that.”
Why, friends, why is it so hard to believe God loves you that much? Is it because to believe that you’d finally have to give up on changing the past? As if you could. Lisa occasionally shares my favorite quote: “I have given up all hope of having a better past.”
Do you know the book 11/22/63? It is a novel by Stephen King in which a man named Jake goes into a diner owned by a man named Al who sells hamburgers for $1 because he is able to buy his meat at 1958 prices. Eventually Jake learns that Al’s basement door is a portal into 1958, and they conspire for Jake to go back to 1958 and thus change the course of history by thwarting the assassination of President Kennedy and thus preventing the Vietnam War along with the entire course of American history up to 2011. As with every King novel, the story isn’t over until the very last word on the very last page, where one is both deeply satisfied by the brilliant storytelling and sadly surprised to realize you knew the truth all along.
Even in a fantasy, we cannot rewrite or redo the past. All we can do with the past is lay it to rest as gently and lovingly as possible. Release it, completely, knowing it has no power over us. None. Zero. Zilch. We live here, now, in a borderless land. “The territory of grace” one writer called it, also called the universe ruled by God’s kindness, populated by folks like you and me, all dressed up in these lives of ours – lives made new.
Would you pray with me?
My family has been together for the holiday. My household. My sisters. My nieces. My nieces' husbands and eight of their ten kids. Four of the kids and their parents stayed at my house. Kids played and played; they got in and out of the water; they ate their weight in sugar – which is to say that every night by bath time, they were soaked in that wonder- ful summertime sticky, sweaty, dirty stink that all kids get. A smell that I happen to love.
I first loved it in 1984 when I was a 20-year-old Baptist summer missionary in inner-city Chicago. It's the smell of happy, healthy, well-cared-for kids. Kids who play hard and who get baths on more days than they don't. 1984 was also the summer I first learned that kids – and grown-ups – who aren’t so healthy and well-cared-for smell dirty in a different, sadder way. I can’t stop thinking about those kids in the camps – 11,000 of them, give or take. Twice the number enrolled in Monroe County public schools. That we even have such a sentence as those kids in our prison camps is appalling. You know they aren’t getting baths and clean pajamas every night.
And no doubt there is a stench – not from the kids, of course. The stench is rising from a nation that claims God’s favor while doing the devil’s bidding. Where a few profit from the torture of children and the rest of us simply stomach it. An abomination, to get biblical about it, no less than the nation described by the prophet Amos in chapter 5. An abomination: whatever is vile, shameful, detestable; putrid, even. That which God hates for its opposition to God’s purposes, which are: justice, of course, and love.
Abomination is the $5 word, while sin goes for a dime a dozen. Sin is the “gift of Adam,” Paul calls it, compared to the gift of God in Christ Jesus – kindness, undeserved kindness, un-earnable kindness – for which the only faithful response is acceptance. Acceptance that, if we are willing to imagine it and then exercise the faith to do it, shall have us Living. Like. Kings.
Shall we pray: We may fantasize about being powerful, O God, even as we decline the power we have in the moments faith is required, in the situations courage is called for. The beginning is to accept our helplessness, our need of you; to receive you as creator, savior, sustainer, of our lives, of our life together, and to let that be enough. Amen.
Can the gospel really be this simple, friends? That the kindness of God has undone death. And not by accident, nor by the force of our wishing it so, but rather by design. By the design of the divine creator in the reality where we live and move and have our being. The kindness of God – also called grace – is more powerful than sin, more powerful than death, more powerful than the fear of death.
Not only that, according to the Apostle Paul: this kindness of God enables folks who don’t especially like each other to be church together. Folks who ordinarily don’t get along so well ought to be able to go to church together. He is trying to make a church out of Jews and Gentiles, folks who believed themselves to be so fundamentally different from the other that shared worship and service seem impossible. We are just too different. “Two churches will be better.”
Lots of folks are okay with that. Not Paul, who naturally assumed also to be speaking for God. Much of Romans is his philosophical argument with their reasons for resisting his theology of the One Church. They don’t know the Law, apparently one of the Jewish reasons they could not be expected to keep close faith with Gentiles. How would anyone know when Gentiles are breaking the Law if they never learned the Law itself? Paul manipulates their question a bit, it seems to me, to make his argument. But not so much that the text misses its mark.
Sin came a long time before the Law, Paul says, going back not to Moses, or back to Abraham this time, but ALL the way back to Adam. Do you know what the name Adam means? In rudimentary Hebrew, “earth.” Ground. Dust. Creature made of dust. A highly embellished meaning is first of his kind, which makes me think of Game of Thrones. Nevertheless, at its most literal Adam means dust.
Do you also know that Adam isn’t spoken of in the Torah as an individual person? He’s not a person, a character like Noah or Abraham or Moses. In writings outside the Bible, Adam is treated as a representative of humanity – that first of his kind usage again.* (*Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans, Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys, 2001, p.92)
Paul, on the other hand, treats Adam very much as a person in order to compare him to Christ, who for Paul was as much the first man as Adam. This stretch of comparison and contrast between Adam and Jesus can be a little maddening. Paul uses a rhetorical device that is frowned upon in preaching, using a negative example to teach a positive truth – Jesus did good in exactly the same way Adam did bad – the way coaches and choir directors show players and singers how NOT to shoot or sing. Paul says, All people have inherited both men’s bequests: from Adam, sin and death; from Christ, life and grace. Both of which are done deals.
By the kindness of the creating God, dust drew breath and lived: Adam and Eve, born into a sinless, perfect world. Out of the kindness of the same God, they were given everything necessary; destined to live without toil; invited to trust the creator to feed them, rather than feed themselves. They chose toil, rather than trust. Toil unto death. Their children followed suit – unto death. In perpetuity, as it turned out.
Jesus was born and drew first breath in a world polluted with corruption and stained with grief. He reissued the invitation to trust the one who created and had always loved them wholly, completely. Sticky. Sweaty. Dirty. Smelly. Christ – as much the first of his kind as Adam ever was – put to death and risen from dust, so we will live and rule like kings (my second favorite phrase of the CEV translation of Romans 5, verse 17).
Other translations use the word dominion, not nearly as fun as live and rule like kings. Who doesn’t, in their own way, want to be a king? or queen? It is the fundamental plot of our favorite stories: lords and ladies; chosen ones; wizards good and evil; poor boys and princesses; even modern American politics. All of them are the same story – a set of characters vying for the one throne to rule them all.
And where our own wishing to be king falls away, we are wishing for the perfect king or queen to take care of us. Candidate season is coming around – something like a hundred and fifty people are running for president – not one of them may suit our fancy, but some part of us, of almost all of us, is ever holding out hope in the idea of the perfect one, that secret confidence that there is a person, somewhere, about to go public with the exact skill set and personality and spotless record, to fix everything that's broken.
Or maybe it isn’t a person we secretly are hoping for, but the safe and stable and prosperous world we think that person is going to create. We may not own that fantasy daily, but it’s there. For me it’s there. Anybody, amen?
How’d we get so far from where we said we’d started, friends? If where we start is faith in Jesus worked out in our life together? worked out in our study of the scripture? worked out in our everyday communion with the Holy Spirit?
Who’s been telling us this story, this fantasy, in such a way that we believe it? That some poor weak and broken fellow or woman, one just as screwed up, overwhelmed, and exhausted as you and me, is going to get us out of a mess we’ve spent generations working to build?
Because there is the sad reality of kings. Kings and queens are people, down to the very last one. They get hungry, angry, lonely, and tired on their good days. On their bad, they take children from their mothers and put them into cages. But kingship has a certain beauty too – in its mythical sense, at least. The mythical king or queen cannot ever be overruled. So he – or she – is never overwhelmed.
Imagine such a power as that, friends. A mythical sense of being king is Paul’s suggestion to us for how to think of grace, of what it means that God has been so very kind to us – so very kind to us in Jesus Christ. God’s kindness toward us cannot ever be overruled. Not by anything or anyone in this world. Meaning, by faith we’ve no cause for being overwhelmed!
What if we believed that? believed it heart, mind, soul and strength? Believed that, since God has been so kind to us in Jesus Christ, life is something brand new, where we can do anything on behalf of or in imitation of that kindness and never, ever be afraid? For we’ve nothing in all the world to lose. Nothing worth keeping, anyway.
To believe such a thing, it seems to me, is going to take lots of prayer. The kind of prayer in which what we ask for is to see and hear and feel and smell God everywhere. In the joyful and the broken. Paul’s language may be mythical – calling ourselves kings, for heaven's sake! But Jesus is real, friends, isn’t he? Death has been defeated and our destiny has been set down – hasn't it?
The last word on this present reality has been spoken, whatever we choose to do. If to our shame we choose to live only unto ourselves, God’s kindness holds. Abomination upon abomination notwithstanding, God’s goodness to us holds. God’s will shall be done, with us or without us.
Still, I think, kindness is the better course to take, kindness that stays on the move, grace ever shifting between and among us, rushing to the most broken places like all those healing blood cells to a wound. Only, only, only ever, friends, you sweet friends of Jesus, only once we are ready to believe that Jesus loves each of us here and now, without a single thing about us changed or different, will our hearts finally, rightly break for all the hate and the hurt in this land of ours.
Only then will we truly lose our stomach for the hatefulness done to our brothers and our sisters in the name of God. Only then will we rightly raise our voice and find our feet and do as Jesus told us and made us able to do. Suffer the children to come unto me. Let us pray the day comes quickly.
My first sermon title for today was “Gracefully Wrong.” Then I came up with sermon #2 with the title “Fantastically Kind.” The CEV uses “undeserved kindness” to translate charis. We have been given the fantastic, undeserved kindness of God. What shall we do with it? That is for sermon #3.
You may have grown up in a house like mine, where work came before play; homework and chores before TV; kids old enough to drive are old enough to get a job. I’m an oldest child. If you know much about birth order, you know I took to these notions like a fish to water. I had a paper route from the time I was 12 until I was 15 – The Louisville Courier Journal. Before high school was over I had a résumé that included full-time babysitter, fast-food taco maker, and grocery checker.
Until well into adulthood, the best hourly money I ever made was at the hardest work I’d ever done: detasseling seed corn in the Mississippi Delta. Farm work. I got sunburned and mosquito bitten. I learned to watch for snakes curled and sunning on cornstalks. I wanted to quit after the third day. My dad wouldn’t let me.
He’d say things like, “So you think you are too good to do farm work? Work is the price we pay for the kind of life we want, and being prepared to work hard is what keeps a person safe and fed and healthy.” Are those things true? Sometimes. Not for everyone, everywhere.
And he was altogether right in the ways he meant to be. But I overlearned. I let his good lesson on temporal things infect my understanding of all things, including faith. The lesson that we must earn everything we have isn’t useful in matters of faith. When it comes to faith, it’s worse than un-useful. It can be sinister, actually.
There is such a thing as sinister theology. We know Paul is trying to lay a new foundation of loving, full inclusiveness in the church. But before he can do that, he had to rip up an old one that is already deeply rooted, that was religious for some (Jews) and is culture today for others (Americans).
And the one footer of that foundation of deeply-rooted segregation and prejudice is this notion that the undeserved kindness of God, delivered to us in Jesus Christ, is something we deserve, something we can earn.
Once upon a time I coveted having my own Le Creuset cookware. Purple Le Creuset. Every now and then I’d see it at Goods for Cooks and just sigh. It’s obscenely expensive, so I never got any. Then, one day in 2010 a woman I didn’t know e-mailed me and asked me to call her. I thought it must be a scam, but I did anyway. She told me a story. Her company was trying to clear old claims and she’d tracked down my e-mail. Because in 1953 my grandmother had bought a $1000 life insurance policy on my mother who was 18 years old. And single. And pregnant. My grandmother made herself the beneficiary.
My grandmother is a story in herself. I’m sure she never told my mother this. 57 years later, I got a check that I cut into four. My siblings and I received an undeserved kind- ness from my grandmother and the Slovene National Benefits company of $460 – with which I bought two pieces of purple Le Creuset. My son uses the dutch-oven nearly every time he cooks. Amazing story, right?
Now, suppose instead of using it, I put that cookware in my garage, unopened? That I read about it every day and sang songs about it once a week? That I prayed God would see me fit to use it someday? You’d probably call me crazy, eh?
But bring that crazy to church, and we call it – what? Faith. Discipleship. Are you with me, friends? I cannot tell you how many blocks I’ve been around trying to figure out what to preach. This is all I have. Paul says we have already been made acceptable to God, and now, because of Jesus Christ, we live at peace with God.
Until we get that, friends, about ourselves, no wonder we cannot open our hearts and lives to others. Either we live our life as this world describes – something to be pursued and earned – or we live the lives God has given us, fully, down to our toes, accepted, and at peace with God forever.
My new favorite song this week is called “Too Good.” It says, It may be too good to be understood, But it’s not too good to be true. It’s not too good to be true.
Would you pray with me?
I had imagined bringing you some impressions from the CBF meetings in Birmingham, but I am going to hold them for our church council meeting next weekend, add some video to show you, and hopefully include Jodi and Laura Beth. For now, thanks for your generosity in helping Jodi and Laura Beth to travel as well. We enjoyed the trip and met some really lovely Baptist friends. For now, I want to take just a few minutes’ reflection on Paul’s conversation with the Romans on the nature of faith.
Would you pray with me? We’d rather be good than be patient, O God. We’d rather prove ourselves than believe you love us in our unworthiness. Give us the courage to ease up and let go, and simply trust you when you say you love us as we are. In your name, we pray.
If always and consistently keeping the law of God were a real possibility for the lovers of God, there would be no need for faith, Paul says. God might have passed out the homework at Mt. Sinai and then just walked away, trusting Moses and his wagon train of refugees with the whole future of humanity. But God didn’t. God is not naïve, any more than humanity is trustworthy.
In Eden humans had just one rule. They broke it. Moses was given ten. They failed at all those too. The Jewish scholars added 613, a hedge around the law to help them not break the bigger ones. Do you know why Jesus was sentenced to 39 lashes? It was because the law calls for 40 lashes and the hedge helps us not break the law. But if you are going to break it, it is better to break the law by doing less (39 lashes) than by doing more than the law calls for (41 or more).
When Jesus summed up the 624 rules (Eden’s one plus Moses’ ten plus the 613 in “the hedge”) into just two rules – the ones he told us to remember – Do you remember? Love God with all your heart . . . – we still come up short more often than not. Amen?
Interestingly though, in his discussion of the law, Paul doesn’t speak of Moses. Why, do you suppose, Moses is not ever presented in the text as the father of us all? That title is Abraham’s. Father of us all, a blessing, a light to all the nations back in Genesis chapters 12 and 17. Abraham had neither law nor Torah. All he had was – what? A promise. A promise of another homeland. He had a perfectly good homeland already, the land of Ur sitting on oil reserves to last a thousand years. The land of Ur in Abraham’s time is modern day Iraq.
God promised and by faith Abraham obeyed. Picked up and moved everything he owned to the only scrap of land in all the Middle East with not a drop of oil below the dirt. Can you imagine how modern history would be different, if the Jewish promised land had been the land of Ur? Another rabbit for another day.
The promise to Abraham was two-part: a homeland for his people, and people to become his people. As many as there are stars in the sky, God told Abraham. Children? Yes. And nations too. Remember nations – ethnee? Ethnicities, races, foreigners, gentiles. At the time the promise was given – here we come round again to Paul – Abraham himself was a gentile, uncircumcised. His name wasn’t even Abraham. Just Abram.
Why all this explanation of Abraham, the one the early church called a friend of God (we know that from the apostle James)? Because the best rule followers among us can’t keep all the rules. We just can’t. And Paul knows the church needs to take this in, that faith always, always comes before law. Just as Abraham comes before Moses.
Those of us who love the rules for the order and the structure and clarity we believe the rules convey not only cannot keep the rules; we can’t make rules fast enough to keep up with the chaos humanity is constantly conceiving.
And yet, for some of us, our love of the rules is not swayed. Their presence comforts us: on paper; on stone in courthouse lawns; in the voices preaching their necessity and promising their enforcement. Amen? Paul does not say, Amen. Paul says, Faith.
Whatever comfort and security, whatever hope and peace this world allows, whatever justice (also called righteousness) is available to God’s people is gained not by our success at keeping or enforcing rules, but by our acceptance of the same faith he offered Abram. Accepted not as wages paid to a worker, but as a gift given to the one who God has decided deserves it, whom God has called righteous. For no other reason than God wanted to.
And see, there is the reason against which there is no argument. God wanted to. God can’t give us faith and walk away, of course. Faith is to our believing as air is to our breathing. Faith comes daily from God, if not every hour or moment. And faith has no other source, much as we might wish it so. We can’t earn it. We can’t buy it ahead, like groceries every Saturday. Faith comes new each day and only ever to the ones who show up to receive it, of course, willing to treat whatever is given as if it is enough. Because it is enough. It is enough, because God has deemed it enough.
Actually, on their first date, it wasn’t Abram who showed up, but God. Dressed up like angels, just to emphasize the point that Abram truly did nothing to earn this gift of God. He was just home, watching Netflix, or whatever one did in the land of Ur 4000 years ago.
I personally still like my plan better. Do you remember green stamps? My mother collected them, when she bought groceries and gas and things. She let me lick and stick them in those little books. We’d get about 100 filled and then go get a free toaster.
It would be awesome to fill up little books of faith stickers to turn in for something useful – a healing maybe. Or some extra courage. Then we’d always know how much faith we had in the bank.
But there is no faith bank. That’s not how God wants it, apparently. Not with Abraham, the friend of God. Or Jacob. Or Moses. Or Naomi or David or Daniel. Or all those prophets. Or Mary or John or Jesus or Paul. Or any of the thousands of other friends of God, who discovered what is always true between good friends: the very friendship itself is made of the faith God gives and the friends gratefully receive, day by day by day.
Would you pray with me?
Let’s pray . . . that our own little lives and our life together will be conformed to your law, O God. May this be our highest hope. For each of us to love you with our whole heart, with all our mind, all our strength and all our soul, to love each and every neighbor as we ourselves are loved by you. Amen.
Since there is only one God, he accepts Gentiles as well as Jews, simply because of their faith, says the Apostle Paul.
Gentiles plus Jews equal the whole world. We divide the world differently – into Gentiles we like and Gentiles we don’t. God is God of Gentiles we don’t like and loves them like God loves us. They are our brothers and sisters, since God is one.
We’ve agreed we’re monotheists, the Trinity notwithstanding. Maybe we aren’t as committed to all being included as we are to monotheism, as committed to one body as to one God – as if they are different.
That God is one is not the problem, is it? It’s the “God is the same God of us all” part, the “God is the same God TO us all” part that has Paul’s readers up in arms, then and since. Now included.
In March it was the Methodists getting all the press, remember? In June, Baptists take our turn. I expect you’ve seen the news this week that the SBC voted not to recognize the term gay Christian in reference to persons or groups – lest they fail to call a sin a sin. They’d have gotten better coverage were it not for a Baptist preacher in Tennessee. His shenanigans don’t bear repeating here.
Honestly, friends, I’m with you in the horror and frustration. But when I can generate a sliver of compassion, my best guess is that he was terribly mistreated once upon a time. Such hate generally comes from deeply wounded souls, such venom from a soul begging not to be hurt again, a soul that may believe he is protecting others. Here’s the thing: God does not protect us by attacking us nor abandoning us, but by loving us and joining us where we are in this life. Including us in God’s oneness. Besides – unto what could God abandon us, if all that is, was made by God? is sustained by God?
To whom or where can anyone be banished ever, if God is everywhere, if God is all that is? We’ve already agreed on that, remember? I will never leave you orphaned, Jesus said. Did he mean it is impossible? Around and around I go with these thoughts. They are my lens upon scriptures. Then we come to Romans – and Paul. Telling Jews they will not escape this brotherhood of theirs. This sisterhood.
If there is only God and God is all there is, they are ALL my brothers and my sisters. We are made of the same stuff; your life, my life, our lives – atoms of the same living universe, just housed in different skins. Life made from the breath of God, conformed to God’s own image somehow. LeBron James and me: same stuff (go figure) which is the life which is God.
The heart is a poor sermon writer, where sentences run on and statements read like questions when they are not. Truth is what I’m casting for – and catching very little. Yet gospel truth will not be grasped by my brain or yours. Nor faith. Faith doesn’t come to us intellectually. Faith lives on the ground in our hands and feet and mouths, in what we do, what we say, with these bodies – these lives – of ours.
Paul preached to congregations not unlike us gathered here. Folks who worked and raised kids and fretted about the bills. Who believed in Jesus and wanted to be faithful – but had no small bit to learn about how. The gospel of Jesus Christ is how, Paul said. This is the entire syllabus. What measure of the gospel comes to life in and through the church is the measure of your faithfulness. The salvation of the whole world in the death and resurrection of Jesus – those are the words.
The resurrected Jesus in the world today – that’s you. And you. And us together as we live it, those same gospel words now brought to life, measured in our unity – our conformity – to the love he’s given us, doled out to one another and our neighbors. Not in the flash and awe of programs, but in our contact with other human beings, however subtle and small the appearance. Popsicles and peanut butter sandwiches, for example; a whole building that smells like sweaty kids.
Paul’s first reading congregation struggled to believe he meant them to love each other like family. Business partners, maybe. Acquaintances, okay. But family? Yes, family. Since God is one, there are no other parents. God is all any of us have, making us all kin, whatever else feels true, however much we don’t like it.
Here we are, Rainbow Baptists sitting down with the ones from Tennessee, and we’ll do as we’ve been told or not. But the measure of our obedience will be the gospel serving that the world receives from us. Paul – crazy Paul – got saved, rescued like a swimmer drowning in devotion to a truth he did not understand. One God could have just one people, he was told. That part he got right. Your people are that people was the part his people mistook, the part he got saved from, then told to go save others.
Since God is One and God only has one people, all people are God’s, Paul said, about a million times – a good lot of them in a letter to the Romans. In chapter 3, verse 21, he gets down to business, the Jesus part of his story. He’ll really pull it apart starting in chapter 9. For now, he simply says again: does God belong to you folks on the right? oh yes? How about you over on the left? Yep, you too.
Does that mean everything you learned before about kindness, justice, and humility doesn’t mean a thing? For heaven’s sakes, no. Now it means more than ever.
Would you pray with me, friends?