We’re about to start another remodeling project at our house, which reminds me of the book I once owned called Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels and Replacements: Without Murder, Madness, Suicide or Divorce. As soon as our kitchen was done I got rid of the book, because it was too creepy-realistic. The central premise of the book was this: Retrofitting anything is always much harder and far more complicated than starting from scratch; so unless you really, really, really love your house, don’t do it – just move.
The Apostle Paul really, really, really loved his house. The Temple, the synagogue, Judaism. And he worked for thirty years trying to retrofit it to include Christ-followers – both Jews and non-Jews worshipping Christ and serving the gospel together within the larger house, if you will, of Judaism.
Different sects (as in sections) of Judaism already existed in Paul’s time: Zealots and Pharisees and Samaritans. The same is true today. If you are ever in Jerusalem, you’ll see all flavors of Judaism – some religious, some not. Even the most religious Jews, the Orthodox, have sorted themselves out into different sects. There are Orthodox Jews whose socks and pant legs are indicative of the sect they are part of: black socks, white socks, short socks, high socks, pant legs outside of socks, pant legs tucked into the socks. So Paul’s idea of another new sect wasn’t that far out, except for the part about including Gentiles. In the end, that was the deal breaker.
Nearly a hundred years after Paul preached and wrote, along came the suggestion of describing the Christian church as non-Jewish altogether. In effect, it mostly was already. No doubt there were anti-Semitic intentions therein. But had he lived to see it, Paul would have protested. He preached and worked his heart out and he didn’t get his way – obviously. But imagine if he had.
Obviously we can’t account for lots of other maybes, but we’re just pretending anyway – so let’s try. If Paul had gotten his way, we wouldn’t be here, but we might be next door. On any given weekend next door at Beth Shalom, just like now, the Reformed Congregation meets for worship on Friday evenings. They are the liberal Jews who are cool with having a woman rabbi. The Conservative congregation worships on Saturday mornings. And the Orthodox congregation has their own place near campus. If Paul had had his way, we’d be worship-ping over there on Sunday mornings with the other Gentiles and the Christ-following Jews – just one big happy Jewish religion.
Think of the real estate that would be available – just in this town! Just imagine. Had Paul gotten his way: no Catholics and Protestants; no Baptists, Presbyterians or Methodists; no Episcopalians, Pentecostals or Lutherans.
What else? Of course there would be other stories to tell. But think of all the blank pages in our history books. No Crusades! What would Billy Graham revivals have been called without the Christian crusades to annihilate the Muslims? No Roman Inquisition. No Portuguese Inquisition. No Spanish Inquisition. Would there have been an Enlightenment? A Renais-sance? Think of the books and the movies we’d have missed, if Paul had gotten his way. We owe him everything; and still, Paul didn’t get his way.
Only in glimpses and glances does the church reflect the Oneness of Christ for which Paul gave everything. So here we are – next-door neighbors and friends, mostly. I say “mostly,” because New Testament texts like Romans 11 are divisive between us and must be handled respectfully. For his part, I’m not sure Paul would be so much disappointed as glad it isn’t his problem anymore. He did the best that he knew, in the time that he lived, with the information he had. It wasn’t his fault folks didn’t follow his lead. After all, not even Jesus gets his way in our lives all the time, amen?
Are you – am I? – the people we would be if Jesus were getting Jesus’s way in our lives? Probably not. So we gather: to tell ourselves the truth before God; to be encouraged by the word; to enjoy the taste of the grace that makes us hunger and thirst for more; and, hopefully, to leave here week after week a little bit braver and a little more ready for Jesus to have his way in our lives and in our life together. I’d like us to pray together and then take just a few minutes’ consideration of Paul’s address in chapter 11, which I am calling “Grace Is Grace.”
We are yours, we say, O God. Give us a glimpse of what a life that might be, we pray. Amen.
Chapter 11 is Paul’s mic drop. In speaking to the Jews, he speaks to every dominant group in every human society everywhere: “You can share your privilege, and I promise you won’t die.” In speaking to Gentiles, he speaks to every marginalized, disinherited people made to feel less than – not for anything they’ve done but by virtue of their birth. “Knowing you are equally loved by God does not entitle you to lord over anyone, including those who oppress you.”
If that doesn’t sound like you, you are in Group One. Jews were the first privileged Christians. Somebody had to go first. With the privilege comes the responsibility – amen? – the responsibility in this case to go tell, which those first Jews were assigned by Jesus himself. Go where? to the ends of the earth. And do what? and make disciples of whom? all nations. And what do you remember from sermon after sermon, about the word for “all nations”? Ethne. Gentiles.
That’s us, friends. Welcome to the ends of the earth. I remember being a kid and learning all about the ends of the earth. That’s where our missionaries went, carrying Jesus from here to there. Always east: to Europe, the Middle East; to Africa, the Far East; to China. The heroes – like Adoniram Judson and Lottie Moon. Somebody tell me who Lottie Moon was.
I went to Baptist Sunday School from bed babies to the college class, twenty-two years of Sunday School class. But it was not in Sunday School but a history class at Arkansas State University that my understanding of the ends of the earth came completely undone.
The gospel was not first dispensed in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania or in Richmond, Virginia. In fact, it was first dispensed in the East and it traveled west. We were literally almost the LAST to know. And somehow we ended up thinking we were first and that it was our job to get the gospel shipped overseas before the whole world went to hell for our neglect. We are the ends of the earth and would do well to remember it – to remember Paul was talking to us in Ephesians 2, where he wrote:
So then, remember . . . you Gentiles by birth . . . remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
as well as in Romans 11. For, not only are we the Jews so prone to use our power to exclude, we are also these Gentiles so prone to lord over others as if we were the first, rather than the very last guests to arrive at this party, skidding through the doors of the banquet hall as they are closing once and for all. My favorite preaching teacher, Fred Craddock, was fond of saying, “Wherever and whenever and for whatever reason anyone is not welcome to sit at table with you, to eat with you, then you do not have church.”
How easily, friends, how easily do we equate sharing with having less? Because we have not yet caught the vision and the scent of our Oneness in Christ, that only when our siblings are welcome do we have any grasp of the gospel, of God’s welcome of our sorry selves. Either everyone eats or everyone starves. Unless we are one, we are alone, clinging to a fantasy.
Apart from Christ, what do we have worth clinging to? Joined with Christ, there is no end to grace.
So why do we cling to what we cannot keep? And why do we fear losing what we know, in our heart of hearts, can never be taken from us? We cling, because living by faith is really, really hard. Trusting in the truth, acting on the truth we cannot see and hear, is never, ever the easier, simpler life choice. The world doesn’t reward us for it – sometimes quite the opposite – because we are few in number too, which can make faith in the unseen sometimes feel all the crazier.
Paul uses the example of Elijah, who was so discouraged and sick of faith he told God he was the last living prophet on earth. God told Elijah to stop being so dramatic (that is in the “extended edition” of Romans), because in fact there were still 7000 faithful prophets left in Israel. But it can feel that way sometimes, can’t it? Like the world is going to hell this very day, and it literally does not matter if you try to be faithful or not.
Paul goes on relating his theory of how the Jews’ rejection of the Christ opened the doors for the Gentiles’ inclusion. And if such an awesome outcome could come from their lack of faith, just imagine what might happen if they were to turn that ship around and start doing as they ought. But in the question he answers I can hear a hint of that same fear that is so constant in our socio-political lives now.
Radicalism and even violence is an everyday occurrence now, sparked in no small part by a culture’s fear of losing our place in the world. “Identitarianism” is one word for it, white supremacy retrofitted for an extremely sensitive culture. It’s easy for us to brush aside such thinking as ignorant – low-class, even. Though we wouldn’t say that. Think it maybe, but not say it. However, the Christian question is “Are they welcome?” and “will we be church?”
Grace is grace is grace, Paul says, or we are not church. Let us be church, friends, today and in all the days God gives us. Shall we pray?
I am a follower of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is a witness to my conscience. So I tell the truth and I am not lying when I say 2 my heart is broken and I am in great sorrow. 3 I would gladly be placed under God’s curse and be separated from Christ for the good of my own people. 4 They are the descendants of Israel, and they are also God’s chosen people. God showed them his glory. He made agreements with them and gave them his Law. The temple is theirs and so are the promises that God made to them. 5 They have those famous ancestors, who were also the ancestors of Jesus Christ. I pray that God, who rules over all, will be praised forever! Amen. [Romans 9:1-5, CEV]
You know, anytime someone says, I promise I’m not lying, folks are going to assume, Yeah, he’s probably lying. Here we have the Apostle Paul swearing by Jesus and the Holy Spirit that he ISN’T lying, when he says he’d rather be cut off from Christ than offend his Jewish kinfolks.
A couple of hints that he might be lying or, as my mama used to call it, storying (“Now Annie, I think you’re storying to me) – for one, in this very text he uses “they” instead of “we,” when speaking of Jewish history. We know from the fifteenth chapter of Acts and the book of Galatians, along with other texts, Paul was perfectly willing to offend his Jewish brothers ALL the time. So why would he say it here? Hyperbole. Exaggeration. The Bible is stuffed with it – storytelling liberty. It’s what storytellers, Jesus included, did, using over-the-top language to make a point.
No doubt Paul knows they know he’s storying in that self-deprecating way in order to deprecate them too – which is exactly what he does, starting about verse six and carrying on for most of three chapters, much of which is a line-by-line recitation of Jewish religious failure: failure to be faithful; failure to understand their own religious history; failure to understand the Christ event in light of that religious history.
Summed up, in my own words, like this: Either everything Judaism has taught us so far brings us to the conclusion that the Christ event applies to every person equally OR the point of our own religion is to paint some divine, spiritual justification over our own pride and prejudice. We are either one in Christ or none in Christ. As he says it in I Corinthians, chapter 1: either the cross is for everyone or the cross itself is powerless.
Paul has many ways to say it, but he has nothing else to say – at least, nothing else that matters until the church has nailed this down. Because until we have this nailed down – that the salvation we claim belongs to everyone equally, you and me and you and you, and every human being on the planet – we’ve nothing else to do that can truly be called church. Any-thing else makes us a service organization, nothing new, nothing different from what far-better-organized service organizations in this world are doing. Undeserved and unconditional kindness is all we have that humanity can get nowhere else.
And if we don’t have it, friends, we can’t give it. Everything else we do with the name Christian church on it is a cover for our own self-delusion, our own attempts at being good rather than our acceptance of God’s goodness toward all of humanity – and us therein. Anything we try will be contaminated by that human pride and prejudice we learn in the world, and the world cultivates in us. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. And while we benefit from that enormously, don’t we also push back against it?
Paul is pushing back against that – pushing back in Romans, chapter 9. They are having trouble with the “F” word again. What’s the “F” word of church? FAIR, of course. His Jewish congregants apparently think it unfair that gentiles get to join the church without having to follow all the Jewish laws they themselves must follow, particularly circumcision (understandable) and food laws. If we can’t have cheeseburgers, neither should they.
Isn’t it funny how things change and how they don’t? And how Paul’s argument holds. It’s the gospel that holds, of course. We can only guess what his congregants have said, but it sounds like they’ve attempted to make the case that “the promises of God belong to us because we belong to Abraham.” Paul’s retort is that plenty of people belonged to Abraham that weren’t included in the promise.
He’s already made the argument in Romans that far more people than they were ever willing to even acknowledge were included in the original promises to Abraham. Here he points out that plenty of people belonged to Abraham that were NOT included in the promise. Ishmael and Esau are his examples. AND, occasionally God would go out of God’s way to use someone totally beyond the pale – the Pharaoh for example – to accomplish the promise. The point being: your argument is lame.
And then, Paul asks the superlative question of the text. Who do you think you are to ask that question? Who do you think you are to even use the word “fair” in reference to God? Don’t you think that the God who excludes whomever God wants can also INCLUDE whomever that God wants? God can do what God wants, and it is none of your business.
Consider for a moment that God has included you? What have you done lately to deserve inclusion, my friend? What have you done, ever, to include such undeserved kindness? Would you call it fair that you have the gift of God in Christ Jesus? And yet you propose to tell God who is or is not equally deserving, to add conditions for others, when God has put no such conditions on you?
Paul will go on and on this way for a bit, calling his church folks “lumps of clay,” which is truly awesome. You know that moment when you realize you’ve lost an argument and you are no longer trying to win – you are just trying to save face? How icky it is to me depends on how invested I am in my reputation, versus my desire to live in the truth – because losing can be life-changing, when it brings us into conversion, when some sliver of truth opens itself up to us. And there comes this wave of nausea and grief at how wrong we were in some idea or belief or way of being. But it isn’t embarrassing, because swirling in that same wave is a new kind of joy and energy that is released upon the realization of truth we did not see before.
Friends, I did not always believe as I do now about the full inclusion of all people, uncon-ditionally, in church life and leadership. I didn’t not believe in it either. I was just sometimes itchy and uncomfortable around some people, and so I let other people’s stridency speak for me. But then I had friendships with people from groups around whom I’d been previously uncomfortable. Then I got uncomfortable with the stridency. It felt mean to me. I decided I couldn’t be part of Mean Church.
So I studied the Bible. A lot. And while it's not a preacher-y, Bible-y way to say it, I decided the whole exclusion theology of my church experience was built on the dominant group’s anxiety and fear. (Remember my discomfort?) And while Jesus doesn’t talk specifically about gay people or trans people, Jesus constantly talks to fearful people, saying over and over and over again, Do not be afraid. And even though he drives me crazy sometimes, Paul really is the most fearless disciple in the entire New Testament. He is the living epitome of Jesus’s suggestion that we do what he did and expect him to deal with the fallout.
I don’t do that. I’m a total coward. But I am convinced of God’s faithfulness despite my chicken-hearted ways. Paul has won the argument long before he ever quits writing. He makes and proves his theological case. The problem, of course, is that theological proof wasn’t Paul’s project. In spite of many thousands of dissertations since, Paul’s purpose was not systematic theology – because he wasn’t a theologian; he was a pastor. His purpose was ekklesia – community; church; life together. A life together in which followers of Jesus reflect the gospel of Jesus: that in Christ the undeserved, unconditional, salvific love of God has been woven into the make-up of human be-ing. It is part of us, part of creation.
What chlorophyll is to leaves, the love of God is to human be-ing. What warmth is to sunlight, the love of God is to human be-ing. What sweetness is to a summer peach, the love of God is to human be-ing. Who do you think you are to question that? Paul asks the church. We shall question it until we know, friends – until we know that love, the way we know our own breath. And only then, only then, will we detect it and celebrate it in the faces and the being of all seven billion of our seven billion brothers, sisters, and gender fluid siblings on this planet.
Would you pray with me? To know your love for us, O God, to recognize ourselves as your darling, darling ones, without need of improvement or change – for this we pray, that we might discover it in one another too. Amen.
Reading Number Nineteen from The Tao of Healing: If all the scientists, analysts, and theorists disappeared today, not one part of truth would be lost. If all the judges, lawyers, priests and prosecutors disappeared, not one part of morality would be lost. If all the investors, speculators, and brokers disappeared, not one part of wealth would be lost. On the contrary, truth, love and abundance would be more easily received. Center yourself first in the Wholeness and all the parts will be yours.
The truth cannot be separated like the yolk from the white. Every shred of truth holds all of it. In every human being there is the fullness of Christ. And what we conceive as difference is the conjecture of our own fear – our pride acting in reverse – bearing no resemblance to the faith we claim.
And yet we never stop, do we? We never stop de-centering ourselves. Moving ourselves around inside the expanse of the creation. Re-arranging our environments for the reasons people do. For convenience. Efficiency. Productivity. Those are the reasons we say out loud. Safety, as much as anything. We all want to live in the safest neighborhood we can afford. We'll sacrifice to get there. When we bought our first house, the realtor told us we'd be happier if we bought a bit more than we could afford. Salaries go up, she said; your house will stay the same size.
We separate ourselves. It’s what we do – put as much space as possible between ourselves and whatever makes us feel unsafe. We organize and categorize and classify and grade our lives and the lives of those around us, based on our respective fears. There aren't many people I actively avoid – fewer than a handful – but loads I don't go out of my way to see. It's better for my mental health, I say to myself. Maybe. Or maybe I’m just making up excuses to cover up some fear.
It’s this reconciliation that is on Paul’s heart and mind as chapter eight winds down – the reconciliation between what we claim to believe of God and the kind of people, the kind of believers, and the kind of church we choose to be.
Let’s pray together: Put us in the eyes-wide-open presence of our fears, O God. Set them side by side with your love for us so that we know we have a choice, each and every day, to live like your beloved children and your church. Amen.
“The most stunning rhetoric of the New Testament” is Professor Luke Johnson’s assessment of the last third of our text for today, Romans chapter eight. Johnson frames it as the opening argument by a defense attorney out to prove to a jury – the Roman church/ us – that, believing as they so obviously do in the righteousness of God (also called justice, remember), they by definition also believe in the full inclusion of the Gentiles in church. Either Jews AND Gentiles have ALL been reconciled by God in Christ Jesus or the righteousness of God itself doesn’t stand. The full case is made in chapters 9-11. The opening statement is here, framed in eight questions.
These eight questions are what I want to consider – more quickly than it sounds like – considering. Number one is the most rhetorical: What shall we say about all this? Like when a parent says, what am I going to do with you? The kid is about to find out. The next seven questions, plus three chapters, are what he has to say about this.
Numbers two and four are the same question, twice stated: If God is on our side, can anyone else be against us? If God says his chosen ones are acceptable to him, can anyone else bring charges against them? Anyone who’s been in Sunday School a minute knows the Sunday School answer is supposed to be “No.” Anyone who’s lived in this world fifteen years or so knows the answer so often turns out to be “Yes.” I’ve lived the better part of my life among people who said without hesitation that God loves everyone the same, but who live as if we don’t take that idea seriously at all.
Full inclusion of all people is part and parcel of our faith. And yet, look around the room. How diverse are we, really? In experiences – yes. How about all the other qualifications of diverse? In race and all the connections therein, we’re aren’t more than four white paint chips apart. Socially, politically, economically, educationally, we end up pretty much in the same neighborhood, the best neighborhood we can afford – for the school district and the property values, but for the unspoken as well: safety.
My husband grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas. If you know anything about East Chicago or East St. Louis you know everything you need to know about West Memphis. He was six when the police came to interview his family about yet another murder on their street. “What do you suppose was the motive, robbery?” asked the detective. And in his tiny six-year-old voice, my husband piped up, “Robbery? In this neighborhood?”
We don't call it segregation, for heaven’s sakes, or privilege. We call it the same thing all parents everywhere call what they do: the best we can with what we have for our kids – never recognizing how we might have conflated the gospel of the world with that of the Christ. The gospel preached by the world is one of irresistible self-interest, one that anesthetizes our fears and blesses our stereotypes. And somehow, we missed the moment in which we chose that gospel instead of the gospel of Jesus.
Friends, we have no permission – biblical or otherwise – to play or defend this mad, mad game of human segregation, of separation, of irreconcilability and at the same time lay claim to the righteousness of God.
The third question is in verse 32. In King James it reads: He that spareth not his own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? I chose King Jimmy for saying best what we know deepest: that, having Christ Jesus, we already have everything. That, having Him, we have nothing else to ask for. We have a million other explanations, but at the end of the day, what if it is our fear of scarcity that drives our faith into segregation, separation and exclusion? Our confidence that if there is enough for everyone, there won’t be enough for me?
Over and over in human history, the fear of scarcity has turned to policy and theology, to no good end. People always get hurt. As you know, I’ve made quite a mess of things in my grand plans to be at Pridefest this year. I didn’t do my homework. I drove some of you crazy. I am considering it my chance to practice humility and your chance to practice kindness.
Another piece of that pie that I didn’t know was a piece of it is this. In just a few weeks I’m leaving for a big vacation. I’ll be gone a month. I had this great idea to invite some of my oldest Baptist clergy colleagues to supply preach for me while I’m gone. They are a married couple, recently retired from campus ministry. They excitedly agreed – for a week. Then they read our website. The same website that another group said isn’t bold enough in support of LGBTQ+ people. My friends apologetically had to go back on their word. I want to take the high road. Outwardly I have. Inwardly – sigh. It is not easy for me – mostly because I still think I am right.
I am still pretty mad at the idea that gospel preachers have declined to preach the gospel to people they believe most need to hear the gospel. That would be you, by the way. They don’t want to appear to agree with you by attending church with you. I’m wise to the lack of humility I am currently projecting. I am searching for the line between arrogance and Righteous Indignation.
At the same time – decline to preach the gospel, really? After what he’s given us, who are we to withhold anything in our pockets from anyone else, the gospel most of all??? Do we own the air we breathe? Do we own the stars and moon? Do we own the gospel? The antidote to scarcity is radical generosity. Give yourself away and see how much self you still have left. Find out there is no end to what the Lord can do with a person or a church that has given up fear as a way of life.
Question five: If God says his chosen are acceptable, who can bring charges against them? Really, the same as questions #2 and #4 but pressing the point that God who created and initiated this way of being called righteousness, called justice, called grace – translated, remember, as undeserved kindness – God does not give it for us to hoard like candy, to use as bait for catching others. Do we understand, friends, this acceptance we have received from God is the only thing we have to pass on in God’s name? Like Mattie says in True Grit, “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.”
So much else we have, we treat like something God means us to have, never acknowledging how hard we’ve squinted at the scriptures to come up believing that. Can you condemn them? goes Question Number Six. No, indeed, comes back the answer. No indeed, knowing what you know of Christ. No, indeed is in fact the answer to questions two and three and four and five and six and seven. Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Nope. For added drama, there is a list. Can trouble? No. Suffering? No. Hard times? No. Hunger? No. Poverty? No. Danger? No. Death? No. For many, poverty is harder to imagine than death. Still the answer is no.
It’s hardly a complete list, but the point is still made: nothing human-made or inflicted can separate us from the love of Christ. Because the love of Christ is not an additive. It does not exist somewhere apart from our existence. It is here, now, within and among us, again as close and real as breath. Paul says, look at us; we are constantly about to be wiped out like sheep in a butcher’s pen. Which sounds terrible, but only to people too attached to life as a sheep, people with no idea of the peace that follows the tiny peace available in a world that is not that different from a sheep pen some days.
The climax of the rhetoric Professor Johnson describes is here in verses 37-39. Those seven man-made dangers already listed are matched by seven cosmic ones – cosmic threats as useless as the first to separate us from the love of Christ. Not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing. No thing. Not one thing – on earth or in heaven.
Aren’t you the slightest bit tempted to imagine it? To believe it? That in Christ we have all we need. And so does everyone else. That no one we meet ever needs us. They may need us to share what we have. But they don’t need US. Any more than we need them. Because in us all the fullness of Christ already dwelleth. (I’m going to start speaking in King James.)
But together – only together – shall the great oneness of Christ be plain to us. And only when it is plain to us shall we ever be through with the fear-driven, soul-sucking, heartbreaking myth of human separateness. We just won’t need it anymore.
If all the scientists, analysts, and theorists disappeared today, not one part of truth would be lost. If all the judges, lawyers, priests and prosecutors disappeared, not one part of morality would be lost. If all the investors, speculators, and brokers disappeared, not one part of wealth would be lost. On the contrary, truth, love and abundance would be more easily received.
Let us center ourselves first in the Wholeness of Christ and we shall surely, here and now, have a taste of heaven. Would you pray with me?
Outside the poetry, hardly ever is King James my favorite translation of the Bible. But I do love Romans 8:18: For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. I love it for those first three words and how they remind me of my mother and all my mother’s people talking their everyday talk: I reckon I oughta get supper started. I reckon it will work out one way or another. If I asked to go over to my friend Sharon’s house, she’d say, “Well I reckon. But you all play outside and don’t pester Eileen.” Eileen was Sharon’s mom and my mom’s good friend.
Reckon is a word from the dialect of my people, and it’s in the stories I love most, like Forrest Gump and Huck Finn. Simply, it means to have figured something out, to have worked it out in one’s thoughts, experience, heart. I thought I would read you a bit of Huck working out some theology from chapter three. He still lives with Miss Watson and the spinster widow in this part.
… Miss Watson told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way. I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it. I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to myself, there ain’t nothing in it.
I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant – I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself. This was including Miss Watson, as I took it. I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it – except for the other people; so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go.
Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s if he wanted me, though I couldn’t make out how he was a-going to be any better off then than what he was before, seeing I was so ignorant, and so kind of low-down and ornery.
The image of Huck turning the nature of God over and over in his mind is as good an image as any of the Apostle Paul trying to tell heads from tails – to tell life in the flesh from life in the Spirit. He’s rewriting not just his theology, but his own life’s meaning and purpose, in light of the Christ event and reckons Jesus changes everything: That the sufferings of this present existence – the big ones and the small ones – are not even worth comparing to the glory to be revealed.
Let’s pray, friends, and then take a look at the middle part of Romans 8.
How we walk and talk and think and live every moment of our lives; how we treat each other and understand the world; what we feel, what we want, what we need; whom we love, how we love; the meaning of death, the purpose of life – O God, you’ve got us living in the upside down now, where everything is different, even when nothing we can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste has changed a bit. Help us find our way. Amen.
When I chose this sermon title, I knew exactly what bulletin cover I wanted. Don’t you love her?
Reinhold Niebuhr is where I got the term sublime madness. He uses it in the context of religious people’s involvement in political and social change, saying that it takes a kind of sublime madness to imagine a world in which perfect justice is possible, because such imagination, he writes, does not count as evidence for what is possible. Only that which can be seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted counts.
I love the picture for the way my hen seems to imagine herself as so much more than a mere backyard chicken. Sublime madness is, simply, what Paul calls hope. Hope – the confidence that what we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste is not all there is to count on in this life. Hope – food and drink for our soul, more than enough to live on, should we choose to take and eat.
Paul gives three gifts in this middle section of Romans 8: his masterful metaphor for the meaning of suffering, a very useful word about prayer, and three verses Protestantism might happily have done without. Just to get it off the board, I’ll take $400 under Protestant Reformation: another word for the “L” of 5-Point Calvinism. Answer: What is Predestination? Do you know the “L” I am referring to? Limited atonement. The idea that God has already sorted us out; the heavenly banquet has a divinely-fixed guest list; only God knows for sure who’s on it. Never has one word causes so much ruckus.
You can read up later if you want. I’ve a tiny contribution, which is this. Far more people act like they believe in predestination than profess to – meaning, we all have folks we are sure God is going to send to hell, or should. We categorize people and passively assume God agrees with us. Not because we are terrible people necessarily; but, rather, how could we function otherwise? How could we function if we truly, truly thought that those brown children in cages at the border were as precious as the little ones who sleep in our houses. Is that harsh? Of course. And humbling, hopefully. A breaking up of the resistance to justice that takes courage and to the sort of kindness that takes effort. I reckon that’s all I have to say about predestination.
About prayer, Romans 8:21-23 has maybe the wisest prayer advice ever: when you don’t know what to pray, you don’t have to. And maybe you shouldn’t, because some prayers have no words and some don’t need to be prayed. I’m guessing most of you have never attended a quarterly Southern Baptist Associational meeting. In my previous job, attendance was required. A quarterly associational meeting is a local denominational business meeting that feels compelled to be a worship service too. So there are boring reports and loud preaching.
Of the four years I attended them, I remember only one with any clarity: the time a preacher prayed a train wreck of a prayer from the pulpit. For nearly fifteen minutes in his prayer – remember, every head bowed, every eye closed, with us standing up – he recounted a conversation between himself and the beautiful young woman who had recently cut and styled his hair (I kid you not; he said “cut and styled” in the prayer).
Line by line, he told the Lord – and allowed all of us to listen in – how the beautiful young woman confided in him about her troubled marriage and how he encouraged her, and how she longed for a husband so wise and so godly. I had to sit down and put my head down on the pew – not because I was overcome with the Spirit, when actually I was just sweaty and anxious and needing to laugh. Not because it was so funny, but because it was so awful and I was so nervous. I was praying – praying that he would stop.
At first glance, of course it’s a prayer that should never be prayed. But what if it’s actually a prayer that had no words? I suppose God heard what he couldn’t say: maybe that he felt unimportant; that there in that room full of preachers, where he had again been skipped over when they were looking for someone to preach, he felt again like his work, his ministry, his life even, didn’t measure up so much. Maybe that’s what God heard, while I was in pew judging him.
There are prayers we shouldn’t pray: prayers that insult God, by asking God to do what God has already done. God save me from this or that situation, when God has already saved us from every situation. Or asking God to do what God has equipped and called us to do. God be with the poor; God take care of the refugee. The only prayers worth praying are the ones that pulse with hope, and these are the prayers where language is most likely to fail – the ones for which we are least likely to find the right words, maybe even least likely to find the voice to say what is on our hearts – be it suffering or joy or something more nameless yet.
The third gift is Paul’s metaphor for the meaning of our suffering. I have this image of him in his cell, tapping his feather on his desk – writer’s block, don’t you know – getting up to refill his wineglass, and seeing a hugely pregnant woman walk by, carrying her toddler and shopping bag. He has his image. We are her, he says – humanity, in fact, this whole creation – we are her, bearing ourselves and creation itself toward our own rebirth in Christ. And this bearing – it is heavy. It is heavy and we are weak. But we will come out of it remade, a new humanity, a new creation.
I love how in Paul’s image we are both mama and baby. I’ve been the mama in labor three times. About a dozen times I had the privilege of being nearby. One of my sweet congregants – who shall remain nameless – was in transition, as the doulas say, for so long and the baby had their chin tucked so far into their neck, their head was shaped like a hammerhead shark.
Another UBC kid had a head like an upside-down ice cream cone – only not a sugar cone. A cake cone, perfectly flattened on top, the whole thing tilted to one side. It wasn’t jaunty either. It was more alien-ish. My first baby came out scratched and bruised, like she’d already been in a fight. They laid my second, my son, on my belly – huge, bright red, and screaming with hunger. My second thought was, he’s perfect, I love him. But my first thought was, no way was this enormous thing inside me. This cannot possibly be my baby.
The point is, it’s hard to be the mama – but it is also hard to be the baby. One is tired and heavy-burdened. The other is squished, folded up in darkness and then . . . the only way out is head first through a tiny little opening. It’s painful and traumatic when it goes well! Don’t you wish you could remember how delicious it must have felt to stretch for the very first time? My husband says that when babies stretch, they don’t go back to the size they were before. They grow the tiniest little bit.
I love thinking that is also what dying is like – only, it’s our hearts and souls that are all squished up in this present darkness, this flesh-bound reality. That when we die, our souls stretch into their true shape and size, shed of all those identities we thought we needed to breathe, to be. Is that crazy talk? If so, I don’t mind.
This sublime madness, Reinhold Niebuhr said, is a madness the secular imagination isn’t capable of achieving, as it requires that one disregard how things look and sound to the world. This sublime madness – also called hope – is turned toward ultimate and, for the moment, unseen realities. Paul started with law and grace and he’s moved to flesh and spirit. He’s got lots and lots of words left before he’s done – done persuading us that we have a choice, the choice, between despair and hope.
Jesus has done all that’s needed, friends, all that’s needed for us to endure – and not just endure but to thrive with joy – in a world that offers little cause for hope. This world need not overwhelm us. Not if we choose hope. Not if we, once and for all, but also every morning and sometimes ten times a day, lean away from the world and lean into the Spirit. Lean in with all our breath, with all our feeling, all our thinking, all our expecting. So much so we feel a little crazy, a little bit mad, if you will.
A sublime madness, that one guy called it. I reckon he might be right. Let’s pray.
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?