Sermon on the Best Verse of the Bible

Romans8:26-39; Matthew13:31-33,44-52

A couple weeks ago as we gathered for staff meeting, Jen was consterned and consternated (both!) about what seemed to her a trite lyric from a kids’ song that said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?!” I instantly blurted, “That’s from Romans 8! The best chapter in the Bible!” At which point, the staff sort of stared at me, maybe generally surprised that there is a best chapter in the Bible, or that I thought everybody should know which that is.

It should go without saying that not all Bible passages are created equal. Nobody would argue that Leviticus 18 is as vital as Psalm 23. You’d be silly to the point of offensive if you claimed the “wives be subject to your husbands” of Ephesians 5 was at all comparable to Easter resurrection of Jesus in Matthew 28. As folks who are reading through the Bible this year are all-too-regularly reminded, plenty in there is hardly worth reading. But other stuff is so important—the best of news!—that we want to keep re-reading it or hearing it again and again.

With that, I’d say that Romans 8 is the top of the heap. If we were left on a desert island with only one chapter of the Bible (it’s a frequently raised puzzle), this would be the one to pick. And this passage today especially. In fact, the last verse of the reading, I would call the culmination of the Bible’s whole message: nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This verse could itself be construed as the mustard seed, the yeast that gives rise to everything else, the pearl of great value. I really hope it sounds almost unfathomably good to you, and gives you a little shiver it feels so wonderfully surprising to discover.

But if not, well, that’s where some of my challenge lies. If this is the best Bible passage and the most important for you to hear, then I’d wish this would be my best sermon. (In that regard, I’m not off to a very good start.) More, we’ve been listening to Romans 8 for three straight weeks now, but rather than a sense of you saying “wow” or “ooh, ahh,” I’ve instead had numerous conversations about the confusion. Even though I haven’t gotten to unpack any of it in preaching, I’ve tried to make it closer to a zero-entry wade-in kiddy pool instead of the roaring ocean depths. To help you appreciate what you’re hearing today, last week we did the section as a paraphrase and dialogue, so your own voice could capture and hold onto the persevering hope and you could acknowledge in your very being that you have been adopted as children of God. The week before, instead of the usual New Revised Standard Version, we used a different translation that I further adapted, trying to help this in your ears.

Before that, this is actually the seventh straight week proceeding through Romans. It’s hard to hold onto that continuity when it’s separated by a week inbetween worship services, harder still with summer schedules that pull us elsewhere. This chunk today is the crest of an eight-chapter-long wave in Paul’s deliberation, an enormous moment of resolution to a conundrum.

Which points to another hard part of this: it isn’t a story. It’s not a nice narrative. This is thick theological pondering. Paul has been working through huge questions like: who are insiders and who are outsiders and what does the story of the Old Testament tell us about that? What can get us into trouble with God and what can rescue us from that? How well do we need to behave, what is supposed to help us behave, and why does it remain so hard to behave? Why do we suffer, why is there suffering in the world? All of that is finally and in some way entirely addressed by this: nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you’re having trouble wrapping your mind around that vast arc of Romans, here’s one specific example of this sweep through the book, from that start up to today’s final verse:  chapter 1 portrays sin and falling away from God and, in that, Paul happens to use a term that gets interpreted related to homosexuality. That place in chapter 1 has then been used in arguments to say that sex can separate you from the love of God, even though the reason Paul raises it way back there at the start of the letter is so that at this point in chapter 8 he can say “No!” there’s NOTHING that can separate you from the love of God. You’d think we could have that core message sink in and people could shut up about how evil this or that is and how it must condemn a person to hell. But the good news is continually interrupted and so desperately in need of reinforcement.

An obvious personal place to begin is in thinking of what’s been problematic in your relationships lately, where you know what your faults are or where somebody thinks they are: your stubbornness and impatience, that you work too much or too little, that you’re not quite trustworthy, a little dishonest, where you got angry or you just didn’t care. Amid any of those problems, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Less hypothetically, I’ll confess I picture faces with that. This past week I’ve been living alongside relationships breaking down and the fracturing of our human commitments and promises because of fights, and because of neglect, and because of dementia, and because of death. All those are wrong, and even as those dearest relationships and places you most wanted love to be true may fail, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Or if you’re not relating to individual brokenness and accusations of falling short and can’t see those in yourself, then think about us as a larger group and the hungry people we didn’t feed, the sick we haven’t been visiting with compassion, those we left locked up in something, those people or creatures from whom we took away life instead of helping and the way we worsen creation’s groaning. Yet, even when we recognize ourselves as too wealthy, too consumeristly-driven by comfort or convenience, too violent, too privileged and white, too mainstream, and could not be labeled as authentically Christian, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Again, from the theoretical to very direct examples, we have people among us—in our very congregation, you must hear me say—who need housing and are amid the crisis of homelessness when they should not be. Farther away, but still near to my heart, my dear friend Ali in Jerusalem reports worry for his fellow Palestinians during the standoff that kept Muslims out of the Dome of the Rock complex, and I have to realize that conflict should have no reason to have lasted so long, last month marking 50 years since the Six-Day War. Or, again, I’m haunted by images of the squirrel that died in my yard last week, and haunted by the terror of my farmer Tony of Scotch Hill Farm belaboring that the destructive rains are climactic change that we’ve brought on ourselves. Yet still, here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God won’t be stopped by any alleged impossibilities.

But if that seems almost incomprehensibly huge, then think about what’s just not right in life. This is a big deal, because Paul is talking about what makes us right with God. So if things aren’t going right, that would ultimately concern our relationship with God. Think about illnesses, your uncertainties about how to live, what your purpose is, the doubts and struggles, the sadness, being too busy, when life doesn’t feel very special, when you’re bored or unimpressed, everywhere things just don’t quite go as they ought. Those aren’t indications you’ve been forsaken or that you’re fatally on the wrong path. If anything, these may become sacramental moments to serve as reminders, mementos, and more deeply reassure you that—here it comes—nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. No matter how wrong you tell me I am, still my core identity cannot be changed: I am loved by God.

For those of you whose brains are built around storytelling, it might be that if I said more about any one of the specific examples I’ve listed, then you’d feel like you’d better appropriated and retained the message of love, that you were holding it more clearly. But Paul isn’t working in individual specifics. He’s not spinning a yarn or dabbling in metaphor or unfolding a narrative constructed for specific examples. He doesn’t want you to come away saying, “well, of course nothing about their gender identity separates them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Neither should you to say it about somebody’s race or health or productivity or church attendance or nationality or marriage status or income or criminal record or job or political persuasion or attitude just because you heard a story about them that addressed an isolated instance. So much more, Paul wants you to hear it for you, and to live into this framework that’s bigger than  your story or any story, a framework with all of creation groaning, yearning, hoping, being born into a new reality. That is why Paul arrives at this point and proclaims the most abundant good news, and here it comes once more: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

With that, if you’re thinking this conditionless love means none of those wrongs matter, that it absolves your opponents of all they’ve done to harm you and is forgetful about your own lackluster history, if that’s how this love seems…then you’ve got it exactly right.

But you still probably haven’t really appreciated it yet. If you become skeptical that this just whitewashes over the difficulty, then you’re not giving due credit to what love means and does in our lives. That complexity is exactly what Paul has been trying to help you comprehend, the ins and outs of how this love is unstoppably functioning in your life and across this world. And so—with him—I’m hoping we can continue to discover how we live into this love.

 

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Repentance for Tragedy?

sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent (Luke13:1-9; Isaiah55:1-9; 1Corinthians10:1-13)
Among great philosophers, the ancient Greek Heraclitus said the only thing constant is change, while modern day mind Dan McGown reminds us that the only certainties are death and taxes.
With that, we’d have to expand the list to note that tragedies also seem all too regular and catastrophes much too common. The exact crises and numbers of victims may vary, but we’re never far removed from some sort of disaster. Unfortunately, it’s always been that way and likely will remain ever thus.

So also, today Jesus is discussing current events, two topics that would’ve been at the top of newspaper headlines or trending on Twitter in his day, though by all accounts, these persecutions and accidents are small potatoes. Other than this passage in Luke, there’s no record of these people killed by Pilate nor even of where the tower of Siloam was, much less the calamity of it collapsing. One is human-perpetrated evil, violence from a brutal despot. The other natural evil, an unintentional mishap, nevertheless causing devastating destruction.

By the fact that Jesus needed to address them, we might suspect these events were evidently a big deal at the moment, but soon faded from memory, supplanted by another horror, some new tragedy in the endless funeral procession. As I was reading past commentaries on these lectionary texts, looking back over three year increments the calamity du jour had been bombings in Madrid and federal government budget sequestration and an earthquake in Haiti and another in Chile and terrorist attacks and an immigration border conflict and after the “Titanic” movie won Academy Awards, which is a twist for not letting the wreckage disappear but resurfacing it for other purposes. Some of these moments you may recall, others are recessed farther back in memory.

I could similarly ask for three examples: what has been the worst news this week? In spite of still being able to name problems, we may say it’s a relief that today we don’t have to address the pressure of the hugest and hardest enduring questions confronting us with shorthand titles like “Paris” or “9/11” or “Katrina” or “Bangladesh” or “Exxon Valdez” or “Hiroshima” or any other days of infamy (a phrase itself that inescapably makes us continue to tremble from Pearl Harbor).

Large scale and small, passing or persistent, we’re continually prompted toward theological conundrum: Does God cause these events to happen? Are they punishment? Is God randomly cruel? Is God inattentive to suffering or impotent to repair it, or actually nonexistent? In official terminology of trying to discern issues of God, evil, and suffering, it’s the question of theodicy. Less officially phrased in protest, it’s “C’mon, God! What gives?!”
As we engage this topic, we might first do well to note that the deaths Jesus is talking about are remote. He isn’t dealing with the families of the victims or those who have been terrorized and traumatized by bloodshed and abuse. The question is more detached and speculative.

Yet we might also note that such distance has become more difficult for us. The pace of tragedy is increased by our 24-second news cycle that so continuously leads with what bleeds and updates us uninterruptedly with the latest shooting or senseless oppression or tower collapsing. The distance is decreased, as threats on the other side of the globe make us worry. Plus that somehow either is used to or unintentionally manages to keep us immobilized in fear. We stress at airports and for food supplies and in schools and over viruses and we attempt to barricade ourselves inside locked houses and big vehicles and with castle laws and even by conversing with those of like mind. This means we don’t do as well at assessing our fears and the problems and crises around us. All of it hits too close to home, so we aren’t able to remove ourselves to ask the larger questions. Even the answers of faith, instead of a firm foundation, become doses of a fleeting antidote, tiny disclaimers of responsibility rather than reservoirs of relief.

We would be well-served by more speculative examination. I always say that at a funeral or in a hospital room is the wrong time to try changing somebody’s theology. We need to be working on this and asking the hard questions so that we’re ready and well-prepared for when we need it, not as we’re grasping at the edge and gasping for breaths in the midst of trauma.

A starting point is exemplified in a phrase from 1st Corinthians, about past deaths being for our sake. Paul recounts stories of Exodus and Deuteronomy about those who died in the wilderness. He writes, “these occurred as examples for us.” This perhaps parallels the concept “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Yet we need to use it cautiously. If a past event may be employed to make things better for us, we are using it well. But we should not and cannot say that the crimes and disasters of history were caused for our sake, as mere learning opportunities. To say from the Holocaust “never again” is a lesson we must continue striving after not just in genocides but in our broad patterns of prejudice, exclusion, and hatred. But to claim that any death any suffering is worth it in order for us to know better or try harder is more than we ought to claim.

There’s another problematic phrase in this 1st Corinthians reading. (For how full of grace Paul can be, this reading instead seems densely packed in obscuring good news.) Besides the stuff on making examples and whether former difficulties were for your benefit, another questionable concept comes in a phrase that gets used at all the wrong times and becomes itself abusive. Though it tends to be offered with kind intentions, I’d almost like to eliminate this idea from our theological grab bag. The phrase is that “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength,” with a corrupted paraphrase as “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

First of all with this, we should clarify that nowhere in Paul’s understanding do the temptations come from God. It is not God who is putting you to the test or trying to see how much you can endure. It’s a despicable direction to say that you just need to put up with it because God won’t give you more than you can bear, so whatever you’re suffering must not be yet to your threshold. That leaves God as the bad guy and is essentially a message for you to buck up.

That distinction may not prove to be much resolution in the face of oppression or natural disasters, but it is critical amid crisis to be ready to declare that God is not causing those harms, or arbitrarily inflicting hardship on you. Instead, as Paul uses this concept, it is we who are testing or tempting ourselves. We are liable to lead ourselves astray and forget about or turn away from the good news of Jesus we share in community. That direction of turning is fundamental to this season of Lent, when we again focus specially on gathering together and being renewed by baptismal blessing from the God who promises to care for us. We re-turn to God.

This also at last returns us to our Gospel reading, which could have a difficult or misleading notion with Jesus talking about repentance. Again, it’s a critical trajectory to trace. Some of Jesus’ neighbors were killed by the vindictive Pontius Pilate. Did God cause it or allow it because they were worse sinners? Our hopeful answer is resoundingly reinforced by Jesus: By no means! How about those smushed when the tower toppled? Was it because they were worse offenders? No, I tell you! Are some lives worth less, because of location or religion or morality? No. Because of gender or age or how much or little good they accomplish? No. Because of some indeterminate quality, an attribute known only to and judged solely by a hidden God, and of which we nevertheless need to be extraordinarily cautious lest we too perish?

Here, for our typical understanding, is where the rub lies. Jesus says, “repent, or you’ll perish like them.” Having been assured that God is not vengeful, capricious, or malicious—much less simply careless—these words cannot stand as threat. Since God is not testing you and since the misfortune of others cannot stand as a warning of divine displeasure, the issue of repentance is not a question of shaping up or reforming your status as a bad sinner or worse offender.

The better solution is to notice what Jesus means when he invites you to repent. Contrary to a sense that repentance is acknowledging how shameful or miserable you are and just how awful your existence must be and turning from the error of your ways, this repentance is turning toward a gracious and loving God who invites you to abundantly shared life. Even in the worst moments, you have hope.

The repentance here is precisely turning away from the distorted image of a God who is out to get you, who is lurking with punishments, standing in the way of your wellbeing. That is the worst of oppressive inventions and the opposite of who God strives to be in your life and for the life of this world. This is not a God who surprises you by dropping towers on you but who surprises you with love, constantly and unconditionally. This is a God of patience. Like when a fig tree refuses to bear fruit and is unable to bring about any good, God is a gardener begging for more time, getting God’s fingers dirty to dump manure around you. This God is like Ann Ward walking into the office in the middle of a cold winter afternoon with a bag of bright green flavorful spinach from the hoop house, bringing good from unexpected places.

“My ways are not your ways,” God proclaims in our 1st reading, “my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” When we expect retribution, God in Christ is ready rather with abundant forgiveness, and continues begging your pardon, with hope for the despairing, who won’t abandon you in the time of trial, won’t give up on you even when you’ve given up.

Repentance isn’t earning that from God, but turning to see God is already and always there

 

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