Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Together for Good

Together for Good

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 27, 2008

Romans 8:26-39

Here is a big claim, which could make us wonder if Paul’s hat band was a bit too tight when he wrote it: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Paul begins in this, one of the most well-loved passages from his letter to the Roman church, speaking of the way or ways in which our own faltering and insufficient prayers are nevertheless made sufficient by the Spirit who “helps us in our weakness,” interceding for us “with sighs too deep for words.”

I once read an interesting account1 of something that happened to J.B. Phillips, acclaimed author in the tradition of C.S. Lewis and considered a protégé of Lewis. In the last book he wrote before his death2 he recounted something that had happened to him at the pinnacle of his career in ministry. He was, at that younger age, a highly acclaimed author, sought-after speaker and teacher. Then, without understanding what was happening to him he began to feel a sudden distance from God, his self-confidence evaporated, his abilities at writing and speaking vanished, and his sense of God’s presence seemed totally absent. It was a dark night of the soul for him. He knew “at the top of his mind” that God was present, but at “the bottom of his heart” he couldn’t feel it any more.

One day, as he sat in his study pondering it all, he had a vision of his mentor, C.S. Lewis, who had been dead for many years. Phillips was speechless, and at last Lewis broke the silence, saying “It’s difficult to smash the image, isn’t it, J.B.” and he vanished.

What was the meaning of this visitation? Earlier in his career, Phillips had written a book many of us probably have read and may still have on our bookshelves, titled Your God Is Too Small. In the book Phillips described the caricatures of God to which we often fall victim, and the utter emptiness of heart which follows from it, and now he was living out this very reality.

What’s important to take away from this is that while we all may experience dry periods of doubt when our prayers seem to bounce back at us from the ceiling, perhaps feeling we have lost touch with the God and Father of Jesus Christ, this God — Abba as Jesus called him — this God has never lost touch with us. While we may stop being on speaking terms with God, God never fails to be on speaking terms with us.

It’s important to remember that prayer is first of all God’s movement toward us much more than our own movement toward God. Any distancing we may feel, any restless yearning, these are evidence of God’s activity in our hearts.

Perhaps thinking on these very sorts of matters, immediately following his encouraging words on the sufficiency of our insufficient prayers, Paul exclaims in our text for today: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose!” It is an amazing declaration when you parse it out.

So many traumas come immediately into our homes by way of our newspapers and TV screens — our grandparents and great grandparents never had to put up with so much of it cascading down on them in great undifferentiated quantities: earthquake here, outbreak of famine there, political turmoil in Serbia or Kosovo, crime and brutality right here in Las Vegas, they come at us one right after another — disaster here, insoluble problem there — no wonder we so often feel ourselves to be at loose ends, pulled this way and that until we find that nothing much touches us deeply anymore, whether it is in the realm of joy or of sorrow doesn’t really make much difference. Our senses become dulled by the sensational that clamors for our attention. No one could be blamed for feeling that it takes quite a leap of faith to believe that God is God of all the world, that his purposes are working themselves out despite all appearances to the contrary.

If all the good we do can be undone by the acts of people with evil intentions, or the acts of a madman, why do any good at all?

The signs and wonders which Paul reports led him to believe that sooner or later, one way or another (but most likely another), those things that are out of line, that in our day are crooked and misshapen, the good in the world which is now hidden, will all be made right. It is a rather staggering conclusion to come to when you think about it. In light of the shipwrecked lives and nations and hopes and dreams that lie scattered all around the world, what on earth led him to such a crazy deduction? Being a cynic is easy, no challenge for a person of even middling intellect, since the world offers so many signs of its own self-destructive potential. Many may not believe in God, but even a freshman course in World History will convince any thinking person of the sinfulness of humanity, believing in sin is a cinch. So what would cause someone like Paul to find reason for such groundedness, such solid hope in the face of a world so filled with trouble and woe? Paul believed in a gracious God, one who would go to any lengths to set things right, especially when our own resources for doing that fall short. But why?

There’s no use saying Paul was simply daffy, a gadfly, just a cock-eyed optimist. Anyone who knows his story of suffering for the gospel knows that as he recalled Psalm 42 in this Roman letter he wrote from his own experience as much as from scripture:

For your sake we are being killed all the day long,
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

Paul knew what it was to suffer, and he knew it personally, and he knew it often. It’s so amazing to me that the very item that people often throw up in our faces as a reason they choose not to be believers is the very thing that Paul embraces as a sign of God’s faithfulness! So many folks will say they cannot believe in a God who permits suffering in the world. Paul takes his suffering as the very scene of Christ’s victory. After all, Jesus didn’t die in bed, he was crucified. And it was in his cross, in his suffering, that his greatest victory was achieved. Paul senses that in his own suffering, the victory of Christ is already coming to pass. He offers it not as a prescription — go out and find some suffering for yourself that you may know Christ — but as another sign that even in this Christ is Lord and we may rest confidently in his lordship, that even in suffering, all things will begin “working together for good.” It is a brave affirmation; either brave or daffy! Anyone can follow a lord who seems in charge in rosy circumstances. Paul declares that not only rosy circumstances, but even tragic, awful, terrifying circumstances are so filled with the presence of Christ that they cannot be all there is, that even the worst that can happen to us cannot set us outside his presence and his purposes for us.

What shall we do with our suffering? I don’t have some list of complete answers to such profound questions. I confess to you that I am as often bewildered and angry and lost in the midst of human suffering as you may be. But I do know this. When the disciples were on the lake when the storm blew in, when Peter lost confidence and began to sink, when people came to hear Jesus and were prepared to go hungry in order to do it but he fed them somehow anyway, when people’s children were healed, when things were about to fall apart and people knew that their own resources just could not take them any further, that is when Jesus could be counted on in the gospels to reach out a hand and take hold and not let go. The saving grace of God does save.

We cannot be separated. That’s what Paul says, and you have to admit that it is a pretty amazing claim to make. What couple, after years of marriage, has not been assaulted in the night by thoughts of what it might be like when he is gone, how will I cope when her familiar voice has been silenced, when separation becomes that unavoidable reality of mortal human life? How will it go, how can we face it? I don’t honestly know. But I do know that Paul discovered a gift which he gives to us, a gift of presence, a gift and a promise that no matter how else it might look, Jesus will not leave us. Do we believe it? Sometimes we do. Sometimes we just can’t see how it can be so. It doesn’t matter either way. Our seeing how it can or cannot be so is, after all, much less important than the fact that God has declared that it is so. The truth of the everlasting presence of Christ is not dependent on our believing or not believing it. It is a gift, and that’s how it is with gifts. Whether we believe, understand, accept them or not does not change a true gift in any way.

Perhaps even more so when we cannot believe that it is so, when our prayers seem to bounce back at us from the ceiling, when our own energy can no longer sustain our believing, perhaps that is when the gift of the presence of Christ is most obviously the unexpected, unearned gift that it is and will always be. We don’t require suffering and separation to know that it is so, but we can know even in those desperate times, perhaps especially in those desperate times, that Christ does not leave us, no matter the height, the depth, the things to come, the threat of war or death, the petty gods that our world offers, in all these things it is Christ who makes us conquerors just when we thought we were finally defeated. The Christ who died and was raised raises us just when we thought we were sunk.

Are you feeling a hunger which you find you cannot satisfy? You don’t have to leave the presence of Jesus to satisfy it. Now that is what the church has to say to the world, and it is a risky thing to say, but that is what we have to say. Actually, when you think about it, it’s about all we have to say. But it’s enough. Are you seeking something in life but can’t find it? Are you angry at God? Have you just about heard all the trivialization of Jesus on gospel TV shows that you can stand and want to hear no more? No matter how lost, how lonely, how very confused, how set apart from any human comfort we may feel, we need not go away. Jesus’ presence does not depart from us, even if we curse God and die, as Job was once counseled to do. If nothing can separate us from that source of life and love, as Paul discovered, then Jesus’ presence and promise can survive even the worst we can muster up against him. His presence will be stronger than our absence, we can count on it.

In the Lord’s Supper, it is not bread we eat, it is the presence of Christ. It is not wine we drink it is the symbol of the very blood of Christ, showing to what lengths he is willing to go to be with us and for us. If Christ is for us, who can be against us? He is as near and as humanly necessary to us as the sustenance of our very next meal. He is as willing to go the limit for us, even to die for us as we are willing to pour water from a pitcher to quench our daily thirst. Christ’s presence. How much more plain can Paul make it? He wants to stay with us. The world, even the disciples, would send us packing, but no, Jesus wants to be with us longer, never to let us go, never to leave us, finally, to our own devices, to our own meager resources.

As we sit in our pews this morning, he is as near as the hymnal, as close as the breathing of a friend sitting near by, as intimate as the food digesting in our stomachs, as filled with promise and hope as the morsels that come from his table. He is so close. Who can separate us from such love?

© copyright 2008 by Robert J. Elder all rights reserved

1 “What If Prayer Becomes a Burden?”, a sermon by Dr. Elam Davies, preached at 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, 2/2/88.
2 Letters to Young Churches, by J.B. Phillips, (MacMillan, 1953).

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain

copyright 2008 © Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 20, 2008
Romans 8:12-30

All this flesh and spirit stuff that Paul writes about, what does it amount to for us really? “We’re not debtors to the flesh, we should not live according to the flesh, we should live by the Spirit...” what does it all mean? If we are being advised to live by the Spirit, how do we go about doing that? Starting at breakfast tomorrow morning, how will my life look different if I choose to live by the Spirit instead of by the flesh? Will I choose Cheerios over Raisin Bran? A bagel over eggs and bacon? Will I walk to work instead of driving?

What are the decisions lying before me that are the more spiritual choices about my life, and how have I been failing to see them so that I could find myself trapped into a life lived, as Paul says, “according to the flesh”? I am struck by the observation in my own life that decisions appear more ambiguous than that, and I don’t think I am alone. Every life choice does not appear to boil down to “flesh or spirit.” We eat, we bathe, we sleep, we awaken, we love our families and friends, we play, we work. Is there hidden in all these daily activities the secret of choosing Spirit over flesh? How many times per day? A dozen? A hundred? A thousand?

I read once that a man who committed suicide in New York left behind a note which said, “I’m not really needed, nobody gives a hang for me. I’m just a peanut at Yankee Stadium. I’ll step on myself once and for all.”1 Is this the comment of a person who lived life according to the flesh? Is the question of our personal value a spiritual question which this man saw only in the flesh?

If we dare to ask who we are and what our life’s value is, we will find some brightly lit markers in the New Testament. To the Roman believers Paul says, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” To the congregation of Thessalonians he said, “You are all children of light.”2 Writing to Galatian Christians he declared, “because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.”3 Of the Corinthians he inquired, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple?”4 Peanuts on the ground at Yankee Stadium? Hardly. Indeed, we are, if Paul is to be believed, children of God, children of light, heirs of God, the very temple where God dwells.

Some say they have a difficult time believing in God. How much more difficult must it be to believe the New Testament’s estimate of us! Acknowledging the dark side of human nature is a cinch. We see its evidence all the time, just watch a single evening of news.

Playwright Tennessee Williams once said of the human condition, “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call, no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” Albert Einstein declared, “It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.” Oscar Wilde’s take on human nature was this: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Karl Kraus, critic of early 20th century German culture as it moved toward World War I, wrote, “The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people meaner.”

Clearly, Paul disagrees with these dour statements, claiming for humanity a God-granted nobility which is not always readily apparent. While Paul calls us by elevated names, there is no shortage of witnesses to the dark side of human nature. One writer said it’s as if we are three-storied kinds of creatures. We live on the first floor, but there is a higher floor that beckons us to be more than we are, to be, as the psalmist said, “a little lower than the angels.”5 That is the side, perhaps, for which Paul makes his appeal. But there is also a basement level where we can actually stoop below ourselves, find ourselves in sin, rebellion, disobedience, estrangement, like the man who thought he was as low as a peanut in Yankee Stadium.

So Paul writes of living according to the flesh — I take that to be the basement level — and living according to the Spirit — which I take to be life on the upper floor. Most of us find ourselves living most of the time here on the first floor, with the doorway to the basement standing open, its musty odors finding their way up the steps into our living room. The stairway to the upper floor beckons us to a higher place that we know is there because we have been there from time to time. Yet here we are, stuck on the first floor, neither fully spiritual, nor fully demonic, just living life as best we can in between pure Spirit and pure flesh. How can we find our way to the spiritually fuller life that Paul describes?

Unfortunately for those of us who were hoping that access to that upper floor would be pain free, Paul describes the spiritual life in terms that include the possibility for the sort of worldly suffering which Christ knew. Not that we all will be crucified or persecuted for our faith, but that some things we have believed to be of overriding importance will have to be set aside if we are to attain and remain on the upper floor; and setting them aside is painful not only for us, but often for those around us who do not or will not see the sense in it.

We are not the first generation of believers to wonder these things about Paul’s words concerning flesh and Spirit. One of the wisest of the early church leaders, a man named Origen, wrote,

“Putting to death the deeds of the body works like this: Love is a fruit of the Spirit, but hate is an act of the flesh. Therefore hate is put to death and extinguished by love. Likewise, joy is a fruit of the Spirit, but sadness is of this world, and because it brings death it is a work of the flesh. Therefore it is extinguished if the joy of the Spirit dwells in us. Peace is a fruit of the Spirit, but dissension or discord is an act of the flesh; however, it is certain that discord can be eliminated by peace. Likewise the patience of the Spirit overcomes the impatience of the flesh, goodness wipes out evil, meekness does away with ferocity, continence with intemperance, chastity with license and so on.”6

Yes we all find ourselves living mainly on the first floor, with occasional trips to the basement as well as the upper story. But, unlike the cynics whose words were quoted early in this sermon, Jesus knew that the basement was not all there is to us, knew we were not all to be remembered by the worst moments of our lives but by the best. He knew what it was to be spat upon, to be crushed with the burden of his own cross, to see his meager garments divided up among his tormentors, all because of betrayal and denial and the reptilian actions of people responding according to the work of the flesh. But he also knew that within each person — even among his tormentors for whom he prayed forgiveness — there was something which could be related to God, that within the heart of every human being there is a place for an angel to be made. Wordsworth once wrote in his own elevated way,

There’s not a man
That lives, who hath not known
his godlike hours.

There was something in the prodigal son, something in the Christ-denying Peter, in the tax collecting Zachaeus, something in them which attracted Jesus to them. Within each, where the world might have seen only sin and shortcoming, Jesus saw potential for a love-driven relationship with God.

Paul wants nothing much more than to remind the Romans — and us — who we really are: people who can let the flesh follow rather than lead our lives, people who are so precious in the sight of God that the apostle can call us God’s children, even God’s heirs, as though we are placed on an equal footing with Jesus himself by his own gracious action. And we are. And we are.

copyright 2008 © Robert J. Elder, Pastor

1 Myron J. Taylor in Pulpit Digest, May/June 1995, p. 49 ff.
2 I Thessalonians 5:5.
3 Galatians 4:6.
4 I Corinthians 3:16.
5 Psalm 8:5.
6 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Gerald Bray, ed., Vol. 6, InterVarsity Press, p. 214-215.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What I Want and What I Do

What I Want and What I Do

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder

Romans 7:15-25a
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 6, 2008

Remember the famous quotation of one of our country’s most taciturn presidents, Calvin Coolidge, who often attended church by himself, and, when asked by Mrs. Coolidge what the sermon had been about one Sunday said, “Sin.” When she persisted, asking how the minister had addressed the subject, the president replied, “He’s against it.” 17th century French playwright, Molière could have been writing for modern celebrities and political aspirants when he wrote a line for one of his characters, saying, “It is public scandal that constitutes offense, and to sin in secret is not to sin at all.” Simone Weil said, “All sins are attempts to fill voids,” and poet W.H. Auden said, “All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.”

Paul wrote about sin in the passage we share today. There it is, we have said it, a word that is enormously unpopular in today’s culture, because no one wants to speak of themselves and of sin in the same breath, much less the same circumstance. But, inescapably, the passage is about sin, and even worse, it is about our inability in the face of sin to will ourselves into doing what is right. This may offend our sense of independence, but we can easily see in our own world the truth of what Paul says.

Perhaps it crosses your mind, as it does mine, that it is an especially unhappy thing for our world – not to mention our witness – that nominally Christian people can be observed behaving in such unchristian ways. You know exactly what I mean, I suspect. The Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were at each other’s throats off and on for centuries; in the 1990s our attention was drawn to the Balkan region, where Orthodox Christian Serbians and Roman Catholic Christian Croatians sought an advantage over one another in a struggle begun over 1000 years ago when the Roman pope colonized the Balkans with Catholics in hopes of overrunning the Orthodox. Meantime, Muslim Bosnians and ethnic-Albanian Kosovars – first converted to Islam by the Turks around the 6th century – apparently felt the contempt of both Christian groups, and the feeling appears by all outward measures to have been mutual.

Paul believed evil is far more than bad things we “do” or fail to do. Paul addressed the frightening reality that humanity may be deceived into thinking we are serving God when in fact we are serving evil. We are called to remember this sad truth in our own time, and sadly, illustrations of its truth come readily to mind: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Milosovec, Mugabe all thought themselves to be serving the good when in reality they were used by evil to slaughter thousands, even millions of people.

On Independence Day weekend, it is perhaps good to remember that our nation is de-pendent upon the workability of our cultural diversity. It has been that way from the beginning, we have simply had to get along with people not like ourselves in order to cohere as a nation, there has never been enough of a majority in one single ethnic or religious group to completely dominate the rest. A friend of mine recently reminded me of a line written by an 19th century pundit named Dr. Charles F. Browne, who was better known by his pen name Artemus Ward. He wrote, “The Puritans nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedom, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but could prevent everybody else from enjoying his!” While it is not as prominently recognized in American life as religious liberty, religious intolerance has never been effectively erased, it just lies beneath the surface of the liberties we do enjoy. A healthy goal for our commonweal in this 21st century would be an enhanced effort to end intolerance of all sorts, but especially religious intolerance on the right, left, and in the middle.

Appreciation for diversity is the good that we would do, to think of it in Paul’s terms from Romans. Yet, of course, we have failed miserably at times throughout our own history, as we all know. We need only remember a laundry list of things that people do to each other out of hate for those who are unlike themselves in color or lifestyle. For all our diversity as a nation, we have our own problems with intolerance, despite the fading guidance of a Judeo-Christian moral code in the general culture.

Now, within the culture of any of these groups, we could ask whether they understood Paul’s words:

I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

If we were to ask if these words were understood, we might hear some say yes, some say no, but chances are good that few would have the capacity for self-examination to recognize their own behavior in regard to their religious or cultural “enemies” as in any way violating the very faith they claim and claim to cherish. This, even though Jesus declared quite plainly and unequivocally that we are to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. Some might want to do this, might even commit themselves to doing this, but in so many tragic circumstances, the very people Christ has called to be his disciples fail miserably in obeying his direct instruction to love enemies. They might even will to do what is right in this regard, but in the end they cannot do it; it is not the good that they want but the evil they do; in the end, it turns out that our wills and our good intentions rarely have the wherewithal to be in control of our behavior. This is what Paul was getting at. The sin we do is part and parcel of something in the universe that will not have things God’s way. The only champion capable of addressing this overpowering enemy – which is sin – is God himself, and he has done so through the blood of Jesus.

This is the place to which Christian people come, in the end, as did Paul. We know we are saved from sin, and yet we are not perfect, we continue to sin. So we find ourselves again and again at the table of the Lord, considering the death of One whose sinlessness has overcome evil ultimately, though the battle is far from finished. It is at this table where we recall the body broken, the blood shed for us, where we remember the power of sin that was overcome not by any herculean human effort, but by the very gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved