Herman

Grafted In – Sermon on Romans 11

This week, as events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, I was struck by the difference on social media between the responses of my white friends and my black friends to the death of Michael Brown. Here in New Ulm, where pretty much everyone is white, you may not have paid much attention to the news from Ferguson. It may not have seemed relevant to our mostly German community. But as I read today’s scriptures over and over, they kept pointing me back to the news, and particularly to the pain and frustration my black friends were expressing as the week wore on. Not just the tensions in Ferguson, but the tensions in Gaza and other parts of the world all seem to come back to the fact that we, as human beings, don’t do a very good job of living together peacefully.

In our Old Testament reading today, Joseph’s revelation to his brothers might seem like a happy ending, but we know the rest of the story. Joseph brings his whole family to Egypt, and 400 years later, their descendants will struggle under Egyptian oppression. The Gospel Lesson tells us of a Canaanite woman who convinces Jesus to help her daughter, but she has to overcome Jewish prejudice against Israel’s earliest enemies in order to do it. And in our reading from Romans today, we will hear the Apostle Paul wrap up his own argument in the Gentile/Jew debate. No matter where we turn, it seems, the Bible keeps playing the race card.

When scripture collides with current events like this, we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t see it. Maybe you think the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has little or nothing to do with you, and the aftermath of his death may seem like a mess you’re glad is happening there, instead of here. Maybe you think we’re a long way away from that St. Louis suburb. On the other hand, our readings today might just be telling us, to paraphrase one of my Facebook friends, that Ferguson is nearer to New Ulm than we think.
Here’s the word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.

 

If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. … 

…  for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (Romans 11:1-2, 16-21, 29-32)

“Has God rejected his people?” Paul has to ask this question because, apparently, some of the Gentile Christians in Rome thought God had disowned Israel, and Gentile Christians had become God’s chosen people in Israel’s place. But this isn’t true, Paul tells us. Salvation is for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

Paul defends his point by reminding his readers that he, himself, is a Jew. If God had completely rejected his people, Paul wouldn’t have had a chance. Yet, here he is, a Jew and a follower of Jesus. Just because the nation of Israel had rejected God, it didn’t mean that God would break his promise. Jesus had told the woman at the well “salvation is from the Jews,” after all (John 4:22). If not for the Jews, Paul tells us, there would be no gospel story. There would be no good news. God has not rejected his people.

Paul goes on to describe salvation history using an olive tree as an example. It was common practice to prune out branches of an old tree that had borne well for many years, then graft in younger branches from an uncultivated tree to get the old tree to bear again. The strong root of the old tree would support the new branches as they fused with the established tree. “You Gentiles are like those new branches,” Paul says, “but don’t get cocky. You depend on the strong root of Jewish history, not the other way around.”

And this is where scripture collides with the events of this past week, as hateful words flew, and violence escalated in Ferguson, MO. You see, Emperor Claudius had kicked the Jews out of Rome, but Nero had repealed that edict when he came into power a few years later. While the Jews were absent, Gentile Christians in Rome had continued to grow in numbers and influence. To some extent, when the Jewish Christians were allowed to return to Rome, they came back to a church in which Gentile Christians had taken over, and had begun to see themselves as more privileged than the Jews. There may have even been evidence of a particularly troubling heresy that rejected the Old Testament and Judaism completely. It’s no wonder that Paul’s words are strong here, as he warns against arrogance. When addressing people of privilege, it sometimes takes strong language to expose that assumption of privilege for what it is: oppression.

The thing is, people who live privileged lives don’t usually see that we have freedoms others can only dream about. We take for granted that others will assume we are clean, honest, and dependable. We might even look down our noses a bit at people who don’t appear to be any of these things. When I stroll down the aisles at Walmart, I don’t have to worry about keeping my hands out of my pockets. I don’t have to” watch my step or practice what to say when – not if – the police pull me over.” But I know people who do. And I can tell you that my life of privilege makes their lives harder. Not because they have to work harder or be smarter or do more to get the same recognition I get, but because when I blithely go about my business without a care in the world, I’m creating a world that doesn’t care. And that is not what Jesus calls me to do.

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” Paul writes. God has called all his people to himself, no matter what ethnic tribe they claim, no matter what social standing they have, no matter how rich or poor they are. And since we are all called as disciples of Jesus Christ, it follows that I may be rubbing elbows with another disciple who doesn’t look like me or smell like me or think like me or act like me, but we are in this thing called faith together, as brothers and sisters, united in our love for God and for one another.

None of us is any better or worse than any of us. We each have our part in the story. Paul writes, “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (vv30-32)

If the Jews had not rejected Jesus, there would have been no reason for Paul to reach out to the Gentiles with the good news of God’s saving love. If the Gentiles had not responded to that good news, there would have been no way for the Jews to see that God’s love and mercy is available to everyone. In Greek, “mercy” is the last word in verse 32. What would it look like for mercy to be the last word, the ultimate gift we might offer to one another, regardless of our differences?

As the governor sent in the State Highway Patrol to take charge of security in Ferguson, tensions relaxed a bit, but were raised again when the governor announced a curfew “until further notice.” Video footage released by the police identifies Michael Brown as a suspect in a robbery that took place earlier on the day he was killed. But the police officer who shot Michael Brown was not aware of the robbery. The details are muddy, and a grand jury will start sorting them out in the next few days. No matter who did what, or where the blame lies for protests that turned into riots, complete with military-style response from police, the last word needs to be mercy. Mercy is all we can ask, and all we can offer.

It’s unfortunate that the final verses of chapter 11 are not included in today’s lectionary reading, because Paul offers us a song of praise to conclude this section of his letter. He’s said everything that needs to be said about Jews and Gentiles having the same access to God’s grace and forgiveness. The only thing left to do is give God thanks for his goodness, to praise him for being God. Next week, we will move on to Paul’s instructions for recognizing and using our spiritual gifts. If you’ve ever wondered what spiritual gifts you possess, you’ll want to be here! But in the meantime, let us join with the Apostle Paul in giving glory to God. Hear the last four verses of chapter 11:

 

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

 

2014-07-05 11.42.33

Beautiful Feet – Sermon on Romans 10:5-15 

August 10, 2014

5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or “Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”  – Romans 10:5-15

 

How do people come to know Jesus is Lord? Paul has been struggling with this question throughout his letter to the Romans. He has explained how the Law was established to unite us with God, but the Law can’t save, because no one can obey it completely. The purpose of the Law, Paul tells us, is not to tell us what to do. The purpose of the Law is to refer us to Christ, who has arrived and is present with us now. Jesus completes the work of the Law, by making us right with God.

Paul has carefully explained how Gentiles have been included in the promise God made to Abraham, allowing them to become children of God. And Paul has lamented that his own people, the nation of Israel, have failed to see that Jesus is the very Messiah they had been waiting for. It isn’t the Law that saves, but faith in Jesus the Christ.

Now Paul draws on his extensive knowledge of the very Law Christ fulfills to remind his readers that God’s good news is very near – it is in their hearts and on their lips. Paul loosely interprets several verses from Deuteronomy 30:

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the depths, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” …. 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it…. 19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.

Paul is saying that this promise from Moses, given at the end of his life, to the Israelites just before they were to enter the promised land, is for all, and what Moses is promising is Christ. The Word that is in your mouth and heart is the good news that Jesus is Lord, and God raised him from the dead. We are saved through faith in this good news.

“Jesus is Lord” was one of the earliest confessions of faith in the Christian church. It not only negated Caesar as “Lord” but affirmed that Jesus was God incarnate. It’s a radical confession for us today, as well. Asking Christ to rule over us goes against every cultural norm to take charge of our own lives, to focus our energy on satisfying our own desires.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” Paul writes. There is no distinction between Gentile and Jew – all must believe and confess to be saved. The Law has been completed, and all who have faith are welcome in the Kingdom. God has done the work, and brought the good news near to us.

What does it mean that it’s near to us? It’s right under our noses! On the tip of our tongues! It’s the word we share when we tell others about what God has done in our lives to change us. It’s that “E” word that most mainline Christians don’t like to use: evangelism.

Maybe evangelism makes us uncomfortable because we take too much responsibility for the salvation of others. But it is not up to us to save the world. God has already done that. It is up to us to believe that this is true and live as though we believe it. So, if God has already done the heavy lifting through the work of Jesus Christ, what is our part? What does it mean to ‘confess with our lips’ and ‘believe in our hearts’?” Our part is certainly more than private holiness, and delivering soap box sermons on the street corner isn’t what Paul has in mind here, either. What the apostle is urging is a life of inward and outward integrity, a life based on faith.

Kyle Fedler writes, “The Christian faith creates an entirely new geometry. The circle of believers that was once defined by its boundaries, the law, is now defined by its center, Christ. The attention to who is in and who is out is no longer the focus. Rather, the focus is on the One who calls and claims, redeems and loves. We are called to start in the center and live as though the circle is infinite – which of course, it is.”[1]

Yesterday, a couple of us attended a training workshop for leading an Alpha course here at First. Alpha has often been described as “Christianity 101” or a way to invite others into conversations about faith. It’s an evangelism tool that has changed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world, and it starts with the question, “If you could ask God anything at all, what would you ask?” As we listened to the story of Alpha unfold, I was reminded that evangelism is about introducing others to Jesus. We are not responsible for the outcome of the introductions; that work belongs to God.

So, how do people come to know Jesus is Lord? It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You can’t call on the name of the Lord unless you believe Jesus is Lord. You can’t believe unless you’ve heard the good news that Jesus is Lord. You can’t hear the good news unless someone tells you how Jesus is Lord. You can’t tell someone how Jesus is Lord unless you go to them. In other words, evangelism is discipleship, and discipleship is evangelism. Sharing Jesus is following Jesus, and following Jesus is sharing him.

In her early book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lemott confessed to a prayer life that consisted mainly of “Help! Help! Help!” and “Thanks! Thanks! Thanks!” Several years later, another book showed how her faith had grown. The title offered a third prayer that Anne had added to her repertoire. That book was called Help Thanks Wow. This week, Anne Lamott posted a story on her Facebook page that reflects an even deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. She calls it her “fourth great prayer” and again, it’s a single word: Okay.

Following Jesus means saying Okay, Lord, I will make you be the center of my life. Okay, Lord, I will go where you send me. Okay, Lord, I will look for ways to tell others about the ways you have changed me into a new person by loving me beyond my comprehension. Okay, Lord. I’m yours. And when we say “Okay,” we open the door for God to use us to bring in his Kingdom.

If you believe in your heart … the early Methodists would always begin their “classes” or small group sessions with this important question: “How is it with your soul?” Early Pietists, who met in similar groups called conventicles, asked a similar question, “How goes your walk with the Lord?” Believing in your heart describes a personal and deep relationship with God that only comes through consistent prayer and Bible study. But it is not something we do in isolation. “How is it with your soul?” and “How goes your walk with the Lord?” can only be asked by others in the community of faith, who walk with us as faith develops in the very core of our being.

If you confess with your lips … we tell others how God has changed our lives, and invite them to consider how God might change their lives. Do you think that’s too hard? Let me tell you how you are already doing it.

This week at the Brown County Fair, more than 70 families took advantage of our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station. We showed those families that God loves them by providing something they needed.

This week, the task force formed to establish an emergency shelter for displaced single mothers and their children gave the project a name. It will be called NUMAS Haus. Community partners have joined the task force, including the superintendent of New Ulm Public Schools, and the director of Brown County Family Services. If funding comes through, we could begin renovation on our vacant house in January, with services beginning as early as March. You made this possible by stepping forward in faith. Can you even imagine the message this sends to our community? By our very presence and participation in this project, we are telling New Ulm that we care about the needs of homeless families, that we love them as Christ loves them.

Next week, children will gather for two evenings of learning about Jesus in Vacation Bible School. In a couple of weeks, we will once again serve a meal through Food for Friends. Our youth recently served as the hands and feet of Christ in Sioux Falls. All of these activities are ways we tell the people around us that we belong to Christ, that we have said, “Okay, Lord.”

Last week, I received this letter:

“Dear Members of First United Methodist Church
I have been a member of a Methodist Church for 64 years – But have never experienced such a feeling of being welcomed as I did Sunday July 27th. My great granddaughter 4 years old, was given the children’s bag – right off – she really used it. Thank you. We were helped to a pew with plenty of room for the three of us – lots of space …. to move about and not distract anyone. At least 4 people came and greeted us before the service began. Then at least 4 people invited us to join them for fellowship time – Bill insisted. Thank you so much, and God bless you all.”

That’s a powerful affirmation that God is moving among us, changing us, so that others lives might be changed through us.

You will hear much more about a new initiative in September, but you should be aware that the Minnesota Conference of the UMC is refocusing its efforts to start new churches and revitalize existing congregations through the Reach, Renew, Rejoice campaign. We can be part of this movement. We already are part of this movement.

As we confess our faith in Christ Jesus as Lord, by telling our own stories of God at work, and living out lives of faithfulness, we are changed. And as we are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ calls us to share that good news. It’s part of being a follower of Jesus. Evangelism is discipleship and discipleship is evangelism. Whether we share that good news by telling others what God has done for and in us, or by showing God’s love in action, we are the messengers Christ sends to a hurting world.

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?
As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Amen.

[1] Kyle D. Fedler, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 328.

2014-06-30 15.05.07

Children of the Promise – Sermon on Romans 9:1-8

Bruce and I traveled to Boone, Iowa this week, to ride the scenic railway. We splurged an extra five bucks to ride in the two-level, air-conditioned first class car, and it was worth five dollars to sit above the trees we passed, as we looked out over the Des Moines River valley. The Iowa Railroad Historical Society only owns about 12 miles of track, so we had a 10-minute layover at the end of the line, while the engine disengaged from one end of the train, passed us on a siding, and re-engaged at the other end of the train to take us back to the station. During this break, we were encouraged to change sides and reposition the seats so we could see what we’d missed during the first half of the ride. As we headed back over the Des Moines River, I was suddenly reminded of this passage from Romans we are about to read. One side of the train faced a beautiful river valley, with lush cornfields tucked between high hills covered in dark green forests. The other side of the train faced piles of dead trees that had been uprooted during the spring floods, and other evidence of the devastation those floods had caused. One side of the train looked out on a fruitful valley teeming with life. The other looked out on destruction and death. What you saw depended, in large part, on which side of the train you found yourself.

Last week, we heard one of the most beautiful and uplifting passages in all of scripture, Paul’s declaration that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Today, we look out the other side of the train. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter nine, the first eight verses.

am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For  could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

The letter to the Romans has often been used to promote the erroneous idea that Paul thought God had rejected the Jews, because they had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Nothing could have been further from Paul’s intention. Paul’s lament here in chapter nine opens a new train of thought that will continue through chapter 11, and Paul’s focus turns from the inclusion of Gentiles in the family of God to the more troubling question, “What will God do with the Jews, his chosen people, who have rejected his promised Messiah, Jesus?” These three chapters really serve to clarify that the promises of God to all God’s people will be kept. God is faithful. One commentator[1] says the key to this passage is in verse six: God’s word has not failed.

This isn’t about tearing the promise away from one ethnic group and handing it over to another. It isn’t about paying the Jews back for killing Jesus – remember that in every single gospel account of Christ’s crucifixion, it is the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Jesus. “Just because you have been included in God’s family as children of the promise,” Paul tells his Gentile readers in Rome, “don’t look down on your Jewish cousins.” God will be faithful to honor his promises to the people he set apart. God’s Word is sure, even for those who don’t want to hear it. But the fact that his own people have chosen not to hear the good news is very troubling to Paul.

Paul expresses his deep anguish by repeating himself in stronger and stronger language. Since Paul was well trained in scripture, it’s not surprising that his lament follows the poetic structure of many psalms crying out to the Lord. That Hebrew poetic structure, called parallelism, repeats an idea to give it emphasis. Just look at the first two verses: “I am telling the truth, I am not lying, my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit.” Paul isn’t defending his own integrity by affirming his honesty three times; he’s “swearing on a stack of Bibles” to make a point. Piling “great sorrow” on top of “unceasing anguish” adds to the poetic despair Paul feels for the people of Israel, his own flesh and blood.

Anglican theologian N. T. Wright explains Paul’s grief like this: “He was like someone driving in convoy who takes a particular turn in the road and then watches in horror as most of the other cars take the other fork. They think he’s wrong; he thinks they’re wrong. What is worse, he really does believe that the road he has taken is the only road to the fulfillment of God’s great promises. What will happen to them? Why did they go that way, ignoring the signs that made him take the other fork?”[2]

To put it another way, Paul has been desperately trying to get his own people, the descendants of Abraham, to stop looking at the dead debris left behind on the riverbank after the floods have receded, and turn to see the broad vista of a fruitful valley that beckons from the window on the other side of the train. But they won’t stop looking at the dead trees piled in the dry mud. And it grieves Paul’s heart.

It grieves Paul’s heart because he knows that they got it wrong. They thought God’s promise was for a people, a select ethnic group, but God’s promise was for the whole world, to be fulfilled through the nation of Israel in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul weeps over this mistake, and would go so far as to give up his own salvation, if it would make any difference at all.

The point is not that the Jews should be rejected because they rejected Jesus. The point is this: “Who means so much to you that you’d be willing to give up your own salvation so they could come to know Christ?” In other words, whose distance from God breaks our hearts, and what are we willing to do about it? Is your heart burdened for someone, maybe in your family or your circle of friends, who needs Jesus? Does it bother you enough that you would, like Paul, offer yourself in their place?

And if they are worth that kind of sacrifice, aren’t they at least worth telling about Jesus? If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “But I don’t know how to do that. I’m not comfortable talking about faith with people. I don’t want to offend them.” Would you rather see them spend eternity separated from the God who loved them enough to send his own Son to die for them?

To be a good witness, you don’t have to sit people down with a Four Spiritual Laws booklet and force them to pray the sinner’s prayer. You only need to invite them, just as you would invite them to dinner, to join you in following Christ with all the rest of us.

Remember a few weeks ago, when we heard the Great Commission? Jesus commands us, as his disciples, to make disciples. “Go, baptize, teach,” Jesus says. Making disciples is a process that involves reaching out to others, including them in the fellowship of believers we call the church, and then spending the rest of our lives on earth together, learning how to be more and more like Jesus. It isn’t the same thing as mentoring. You aren’t sharing your own wisdom and expertise with someone who knows less than you do about following Jesus. It’s walking together, encouraging one another as we seek to follow our Lord. It doesn’t take a theological degree or years of Bible study to make disciples – the original twelve had no theological training at all – it just takes the deep desire to follow and obey Jesus, and the willingness to help someone else do the same.

This week we will have an opportunity to share God’s love at the Brown County Fair, through our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station. If you haven’t already signed up to serve as a host, welcoming parents and making sure the station stays well stocked and inviting, there is room for you to put your name on the sign up sheet in the narthex. We particularly need hosts to help on Friday, since it’s “Kid’s Day” at the Fair. Or maybe you’d like to help with Vacation Bible School next week, introducing children to Bible stories, or helping them with craft projects or music. Chris B. would love to talk with you if you can be a disciple by making disciples. There are other ways you can follow Jesus by inviting others to follow Jesus. Pray for God to point you toward a person who needs to draw closer to Christ, and invite that person for coffee or a walk. Be present. Ask God to let your mundane conversations become holy ones, as you seek to share Christ’s love with others. Paul writes, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [who] are counted as descendants.” We are those children of the promise. Let’s help others turn from looking at death and destruction, so they can see what lies on the other side of the train, and become children of the promise, too. Amen.

[1] Kyle D. Fedler, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 306.

[2] NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 2, 3.

2014-06-30 20.43.58

Nothing Between – Sermon on Romans 8:26-39

July 27, 2014

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans begins in the middle of a thought that began in last week’s reading. Like a good teacher, Paul has been circling back around his main point, adding layers of understanding with each repetition. Now we find ourselves at the conclusion of chapter eight, a chapter so chock full of meaning, it takes three Sundays to get through it all. Here we are, on the third of those Sundays, about to read the climax of this chapter, which is itself the climax of the whole letter. When we left off last week, we were groaning with all creation in anticipation of “the glory about to be revealed to us” as joint-heirs with Christ. It’s a glory that far outshines any memory of suffering, a glory that completely overwhelms our brokenness. Hear the word of the Lord, as given to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter eight, beginning at verse 26.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are at least three sermons in this passage. First, we could focus on the kind of prayer that surpasses human language, and the way this prayer connects us to God in life-changing ways. As “God, who searches the heart” looks into our souls, we could consider what God might find there, and how to recognize that probing, and respond to it from our inmost being. The groaning of creation, combined with our own and the Spirit’s groaning, is more than the groaning of grief, as we so often think of it. This is the groaning of expectation, of anticipation for all things to be restored to rightness in the fulfilled Kingdom of God. That could be a good sermon, and maybe I’ll preach it some day.

We could also spend a good deal of time considering the middle of this passage, that begins with the much-loved and often quoted verse 28:
“All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The problem with this lovely verse is that translators can’t seem to agree on the best way to interpret Paul’s Greek, and the various versions have led to some questionable explanations. We often quote this verse when we run up against the unpleasant in our lives. Bad stuff happens, and we try to brush it off with, “Oh well, all things work together for good, …” as if God had made bad things happen to us just so he could make something good out of the mess. It has also been offered as a trite phrase meant to comfort those who are in the midst of suffering, but this use sometimes backfires when the person hearing it thinks we are saying, “If you really loved God, if you were really called according to his purpose, you wouldn’t be having this trouble.” But Paul isn’t talking about a transaction here. Grace is a free gift. Paul doesn’t say, “IF you love God and are called.” He says, “those who love God and are called.” This verse introduces a growing awareness that our ultimate goal is to be glorified with Christ. The good that God is working in us is aimed toward this goal of glorification. It’s less about making silk purses out of sows’ ears, or shaming us into loving God more, than it is about progressing from infant believer to a fully formed disciple of Jesus. That could also be a good sermon, and maybe I’ll preach it some day.

Of course, we could also argue about that testy word “predestination” until the cows come home, without coming to any satisfactory understanding of what Paul had in mind when he used it. The word translated here as “predestined” only occurs four times in the New Testament: Acts 4:28, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1: 5 & 11, and here in Romans. In Acts and 1 Corinthians, the word refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the foundation for God’s plan of salvation. In Ephesians and here in Romans, Paul is referring to the inclusion of Gentiles in that plan, reminding his Jewish readers that God had in mind all along to offer salvation to the whole world.

We could talk about how, over the course of Christian history, this word was applied more specifically to an individual’s “predestination” and how Calvin developed an intricate doctrine of predestination that became an important element in Reformed theology. As Methodists, we might do well to review John Wesley’s sermons on this topic. In Sermon #58, he preached,

“What is it, then, that we learn from this whole account? It is this, and no more: — (1) God knows all believers;; (2) wills that they should be saved from sin;; (3) to that end, justifies them, (4) sanctifies and (5) takes them to glory.
O that men would praise the Lord for this his goodness;; and that they would be content with this plain account of it, and not endeavour to wade into those mysteries which are too deep for angels to fathom!”

So maybe today is not the day to tackle the doctrine of predestination. That might make for good discussion in a small group study sometime.

What does that leave us? Paul comes to his main point through four rhetorical questions:
Who can be against us, if God is for us?
Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?
Who can condemn us if Christ died for us, rose again, and stands on our behalf before God?
Who can separate us from the love of God?

And the answer is always the same. No one can come between God and us.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love. No one can be against us if God is for us. God will give us everything, since he already gave his only Son for our sakes.
No one will bring any charge against God’s elect, because God himself justifies us. He finds us “in the right,” and if the supreme judge of all the universe finds us in the right, no one can appeal or argue that finding.
No one can condemn us, because Christ has already died and been raised to a place at the right hand of God where he intercedes, along with the Spirit who groans on our behalf. Condemnation has been condemned.

No one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Even when it seems God has abandoned you, Paul writes, you cannot escape his love. Paul quotes Psalm 44, a psalm of lament, to make his point. At a time when Israel felt that God had turned away forever, even then, God’s love for his people could not be destroyed. And now, even more than then, we have evidence of God’s deep love for us in the person of his own Son, Jesus. No, Paul says, we aren’t forsaken. In fact, we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

What does “more than conquerors” mean here? What are we conquering, exactly? Through Christ Jesus, we can claim complete victory over the suffering caused by our sin. And what is the source of this victory? God’s great love for us, shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing.

Paul’s final answer to the question, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” is one of the most beautiful assurances we can find in scripture. “I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s a pretty exhaustive list, but what if Paul were writing this promise today? What would make the list of things that cannot separate us from God’s love?

During our meeting this week, I asked the Church Council to take a moment to think of the things that break our hearts. We listed children who are vulnerable, families who are displaced by war or natural disaster, the violence and unrest throughout the world, but particularly in the Middle East and Ukraine. We listed places and people who might be feeling separated from God’s love right now. But Paul says, “Nothing can separate us.” Nothing can come between us and the God who loves us. Nothing.

Shel Silverstein once wrote a children’s poem called “Whatif,” that lists all the things a young child might fear, such as failure, disappointment, embarrassment, rejection, even death. “What if, what if, what if?” the poem asks. Adults often play the “What if” game, too. What if I had done this differently, or said that, or made a different decision? What if things go wrong and I can’t fix them? What if?

Paul says, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Stop “what if”-ing, and rest in this assurance: We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Rob Bell, former pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, put out a series of discussion starter videos several years ago. In one of these “Nooma” videos, he makes this profound claim: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.” And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. No matter what we do to try to make God stop loving us, it won’t work. He will not love us any less than he ever did. And no matter how hard we try to make God love us more, it won’t work, because he already loves us beyond anything we can imagine. He cannot love you less, and he cannot love you more.

Know that God loves you no matter what, no matter when, no matter where, no matter who, no matter why, no matter how.

So, live like God loves you. Live like a conquering hero, because that’s who you are. We are all completely victorious over sin and death, through the one who loved us, who loves us now, and will always love us. Live into the assurance that you are God’s own beloved child, and share that good news with the people you see every day who are hurting, disappointed, worried, convinced that they have no worth in the world. Remind them, as you remind yourself, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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A Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Lord, we don’t ask much, just enough.
This text we are about to read is so rich, so full, it’s a feast of words.
We can’t consume it all –
if we tried, it would go straight to our hips as fat stored for a leaner time.
So give us just enough, Lord.
Help us to hear your Word with hungry ears,
and nourish us with what you want us to gain from it now,
so that when we return to these words again and again,
our spirits may be satisfied, as with the richest of foods.
We ask this in the name of your Son Jesus, Amen.

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Learning Each Other’s Songs

Yes, friends, it’s true. I didn’t preach a sermon this week. We had a “hymn sing” at First UMC New Ulm, and it was not like any hymn sing I’ve ever experienced, I can tell you. For one thing, it was hard to hear the congregation actually singing.  For another, we discovered that we don’t really know each other’s songs very well. What is near and dear to the heart of one may be totally new to someone else. It makes us a little nervous to sing songs we don’t know – which may be one reason why the volume level was pretty low as we bravely muddled through the unfamiliar.

We had plenty of opportunities to share. In fact, there were more songs and hymns listed on the chart paper at the front of the sanctuary than we had time to sing. As you might expect, most of the favorites came from the Methodist Hymnal.  As you might also expect, a number of selections from our own “Songbook” of collected worship songs made it to the list. What surprised me was the relatively few number of songs chosen from one of the denomination’s “more contemporary” songbooks, The Faith We Sing. But what really surprised me was the number of songs that were noted on the list, but no one seemed to actually know. When I asked for a show of hands on one of these, only one person claimed familiarity – presumably the person who wrote it on the list before worship began.

What does this tell us about the songs we sing together in worship, and what we value about those songs? Sadly, it means we don’t know each other’s music, and after years of worshiping together, we haven’t bothered to learn what our fellow worshipers find … worshipful. It isn’t a matter of having different musical tastes, or even different theological approaches to singing our praise. It’s a matter of failing to listen to each other with our hearts wide open. And if we aren’t listening to one another’s heart songs, how can we expect to hear God’s voice, singing into and over our lives?

We’re doing this again on August 31st. May God open our throats to sing with gusto, and may God open our hearts to hear one another’s songs with delight instead of fear, so we can sing along with each other as brothers and sisters who worship a living God, a God who sings, who delights in singing.

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The Spirit Is Life – Sermon on Romans 8:1-11 July 13, 2014

When I was growing up in southeast Kansas, I was certain that our state was at the center of the United States. Whenever I looked at a map, there it was, right in the middle. Then I moved to Missouri. It’s right next door to Kansas, so I didn’t move very far. As I taught fourth grade music classes, I ran up against something called Missouri State History month every year, and that meant setting aside the music curriculum for a few weeks, while students learned “The Missouri Waltz,” “Fifty Nifty United States,” and a poem that begins like this…

“I’m from Missouri, the Show Me State,
Right in the middle of the forty-eight…”

Now, which is it? Is Kansas in the middle, or Missouri? Well, the answer kind of depends on where you come from. As we move deeper into Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find ourselves approaching the very center of his theology, the heart of his argument. In this case, it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is where Paul is leading us, as his careful writing brings us to the main point he wants to make.

Here’s what we know so far, from the first seven chapters:
God’s righteousness has been revealedin the midst of human sin. Whether Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23). Paul’s point is that righteousness does not come through the Hebrew Law, but through faith alone. Even Abraham came to God’s righteousness by faith (4:3). In fact, the Law does not have the power to make us righteous, because its purpose was always to show us our sin. Sin has been our problem ever since Adam, and we are all condemned to death because of it. But there is hope. In chapter six, Paul says we are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, and we are raised to new life in Christ. Last week’s reading told of a battle between the law of God and the law of sin. As human beings, we are bound by the law of sin, and we cannot obey God’s law even when we want to. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul writes. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:22-23). ”

This brings us to chapter eight, which opens with the strong word, “Therefore.” Paul has reached the point in his letter where we find the real meat of his message. Because of everything that has gone before, we are about to learn what Paul thinks is most important as we move forward into our life as Christians. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11

In mathematics, there are a couple of little symbols that Paul could have easily borrowed for this passage. They both consist of three dots, in the form of a triangle. The triangle with a broad base at the bottom and the small tip at the top stands for the word “therefore.” If you flip it upside down, the same triangle of three dots means “because.” As Paul sets out his central idea, and then explains how he has come to this conclusion, his explanation is filled with ‘becauses’ to support his ‘therefore.’ And what is the central idea? It’s the heart of the gospel message: you are not condemned if you are in Christ Jesus.

Paul has spent seven chapters explaining why we should be condemned, under the Law. Sin condemns us. We aren’t just talking about our little individual sins, the ones we ask forgiveness for before we fall asleep at night, if we remember. Paul means Sin with a capital S. The Law was given to God’s people because of Sin, but the Law could never save us from Sin. In fact, Paul tells us, the Law condemns us to death by making us aware of our sinfulness.

Yet Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It’s as if we have been found guilty in a court of law, and we know that the punishment for our crime is the death penalty, but when the judge pronounces our sentence, we hear, “You are free to go.”

It’s more than a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It’s more than having all the charges dropped, or having our sentence commuted to time served plus parole. We are not condemned, after all. We have been found to be in the right, instead. How can this be?

Paul says, it is because we are in Christ Jesus. So, what does it mean to be in Christ? It means that the law of sin and death no longer rules us, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free. How did this happen? Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us. God has condemned the sin that condemns us. Paul has been making this point in nearly every chapter. God sent his own Son – which means God came in person (he didn’t send a substitute) – “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (v. 3) to deal with sin once and for all by condemning sin in the flesh.

Flesh is a word we need to understand clearly, for all this to make sense. The contrast Paul gives us here is not between body and spirit, but between flesh and Spirit. Paul is not talking about our bodies, but what we choose to do with them. The Common English Bible translates the word for ‘flesh’ as ‘selfishness,’ and this might be a better way to think of it – when we are focused on ourselves, our attention turns away from God, where it should be. We become our own idols. We serve our own desires, and this is sin, which leads to death. Listen to verses 4 – 8 from the CEB, and see if this helps Paul’s argument become clearer.

Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit.The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t.  People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.

People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God, Paul writes, and if that were the end of the message, we would be doomed. “But that’s not you!” he goes on. Thanks be to God, that’s not who you are!

You are in Christ, because Christ’s spirit lives in you. Christ’s spirit lives in you because you are in Christ. Back in chapter 4, Paul reminds us that Abraham had faith, and God credited it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3). That word righteousness is a big word. It means acceptable to God, found to be ‘in the right.’ It’s the very opposite of ‘condemned.’ Being in Christ Jesus is more than agreeing with ideas about Jesus, it’s more than being loyal to Christ or even trying our best to follow Jesus. Being in Christ is a new way of being, an entirely new system of living that is centered on Christ and surrounded by Christ. Instead of self-focused lives doomed to death, we have been changed, and are continually being changed, into what theologian Karl Barth calls, the “impossible possibility.” Barth writes, “The negation of sin is not a possibility among other possibilities, but the possibility beyond all other possibilities … and we possess [this], the impossible possibility of walking after the Spirit.” (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 282) Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s! (v 11).

Therefore, you are no longer condemned. You are in Christ. You are changed.

On Thursday, I attended a district gathering, led by our District Superintendent. As he spoke, he reminded us of our purpose as Christ’s church. Everything we do, he said, needs to be grounded in this goal: that lives will be changed. That’s what Paul is writing about here. Being in Christ means being changed, being transformed into a “little Christ,” to borrow a term from C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, 171). When we wipe off a table after a Wednesday night meal, or hand out a bulletin on Sunday, or pick up a bit of trash that blew into our parking lot, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we move our youth ministry into the main building of our church campus, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we serve a meal at the Salvation Army in Mankato, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we set up a place for parents to change a baby’s diaper at the County Fair, we do it so that lives will be changed. And as we do these things, with this goal in mind, we bear witness to the Spirit that is alive in us, the very Spirit of Christ Jesus.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free.”

If you haven’t stepped into that freedom yet, I invite you to do so today. If you are still struggling under the weight of your own sin, know that Christ died so that your sins could be wiped out – not just forgiven, but completely destroyed. It’s time to step out of the old life and into the new one, a life of joy and peace. Then you can join us in saying to others who long for something more, “Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, home of the uncondemned, home of those who are in Christ, because Christ is in us. Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, where lives are changed.”  Amen.