Sunday, September 25, 2011

Low Carb Faith

Low Carb Faith

Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Romans 14:1-12

Some believe in eating anything,

while the weak eat only vegetables.

I guess they had different things to argue about in churches in Paul’s day than we do in ours, such as what was on the after-church supper menu: “The weak eat only vegetables...”[1]? Come again? How is it that vegetarianism was singled out as a sign of weakness? Was Paul an Atkins diet guy, a three-meal-a-day meat eater, a man of low-carb faith? This is one of those times when it’s important to know the story behind the story.

Paul’s words refer to folks in the first century church who would eat only vegetables because they had religious scruples involving the consumption of meat, most likely meat that was first offered to idols in temples to various gods, then sold in the open-air markets afterward. It was a common practice by which temple priests raised money in the the ancient world. The problem for some Christian believers with the consumption of meat from the markets was that you could never be sure that the meat you had purchased hadn’t first been offered up as a sacrifice to some deity. So apparently, there were folks who just decided to forego meat altogether. We know that Paul wasn’t one of them, in fact he seemed to see it as a sign of weak faith: since he didn’t believe pagan gods existed, he had no problem eating meat, whatever its source.

The issue seems distant from our frame of reference now, doesn’t it? As with many church controversies over time, this one eventually faded into virtual irrelevance.

Church people across the centuries are famous for our ability to major in minors. If it was decided that meat-eating was inferior to vegetable eating, what do you suppose would come next? Vegetable comparison, that’s what: broccoli’s superiority to celery, maybe, or green beans over summer squash.

A low carb carnivore himself, Paul nevertheless saw the need to change the subject.

I love the way our passage begins, the first word of Paul’s instruction to them is one of my favorite New Testament words: “Welcome.” Now, we all want to think of ours as a welcoming church, though it strikes some people – I know it does – as a side issue, not the main thing. But it is not a side issue in the New Testament. Just check the forms of the word “welcome” in any Bible concordance and see how busy it keeps you looking up all the references. My concordance lists 59 places in The New Testament where it is used. It is used more frequently than the word “praise” in the New Testament, more than “compassion,” more than “healing,” and more than “comfort.”

This is good news, really. Few of us think of ourselves as healers, probably, few claim to be world-class praisers or are recognized for the vast comfort and compassion we hand out to others. But what does it take to be a welcomer? Well, not all that much, just about anyone can do it, all it requires is an extended hand, a heart that is opened just a crack wider, and perhaps saying the word out loud to others every now and then: “Welcome!” Not a difficult task, yet it receives very high praise as an act of pure gospel in the New Testament.

Undervalued, that’s what I think it is. So, Paul says, “Welcome...” But welcome whom? If we are supposed to throw the door open, roll out the red carpet, get the guest room ready, whom is it for? Well, that’s the difficult part in the church, isn’t it? Church is like family, you don’t get to choose your family, your family chooses you, at least sort-of. First our family chooses us, then they are stuck with us. In the church, we are the collection of people who have decided to throw our lot in together in this place to be a church. Maybe we have an idea of the way our fellow church members ought to look, how they ought to act, what sort of clothes they should wear, the kind of manners they should have when they are here, whether or not they should have bacon and eggs or granola for breakfast, and maybe sometimes we look around ourselves here in this sanctuary and mutter under our breath, “Well, whatever I had in mind for the way a church family should look, this sure isn’t it!”

Paul reminds us with that opening word that welcome comes before everything else. We don’t get to choose the way our church family looks because welcome is the first word, not some qualifying test. You are welcome here. Whoever you are, whatever baggage – literal or figurative – that you carry in here, you are welcome. Maybe you favor a different hairstyle, maybe you like to say your prayers in Portuguese, or Gaelic, maybe you wear the same tie every Sunday, maybe you don’t own a tie, maybe your blouse could stand ironing, maybe you have just a tad too much starch in your blouse, maybe you find gospel hymns objectionable, maybe gospel hymns are your favorites, maybe you prefer a church filled with stained glass windows, maybe you prefer a church with no windows, maybe you think the organ music is too loud, maybe you think the organ music can’t be loud enough, maybe you wish that ministers would do away with their black robes, maybe its the robes that make you feel you are in church, maybe you think a hundred other things and others think a hundred things that are just the opposite.

No matter, the first word to us, as it was to those Romans in this 14th chapter, is “welcome.” If we were to wonder about our main task in the church, we wouldn’t have to go a lot further than that one word.

Now, what was Paul adding to that word? Well, just the sort of thing I have been describing. The Roman church was filled with Presbyterians, that is, people who were entirely willing to disagree about anything and everything! Some in the church had been Jews, some had been pagans, some may have been a mixture of the two. Some members might have had scruples about eating meat because most of the meat you could buy had first been offered to the gods at one of the hundreds of pagan shrines. So some would just rather not eat meat than chance to eat something which had been made an offering to a god they didn’t believe existed.

Of course, being Presbyterians, others disagreed, saying that meat offered to gods they didn’t believe existed anyway would do no harm, so they ate meat. Paul called the vegetarians the ones who were “weak in faith.” Sounds pretty critical on first glance, but there is another way to look at it. Paul wrote to the Corinthians also and he used this word “weak” this way: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world...”[2]

Hmmm, sounds as though weakness comes with higher recommendations than we might first have thought. There’s more: Paul also wrote, “For [Christ] was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.”[3] Paul also wrote, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”[4]

So when he counsels us to welcome those who are weak in faith, it could just be that their weak faith has eclipsed what we thought was the strongest part of our own. The lesson in that is that we are not worth much to the kingdom on our own, we are meant to be a sociable church, an hospitable community of saints, a gathering of the faithful, not a collection of lone rangers who pay each other little heed, and reserve contempt for those we judge to be weaker or lesser in some way.

Here is the rub: Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Wow, how lucky for them, the Lord will come along and make them stand, unlike those of us who are able to stand on our own, that wouldn’t be it, would it? No, standing on our own strength is definitely not the main subject of the gospel, not even encouraged in its dark little side chapels. No, before God we all are the weak ones, is that not true?

Anyone who thinks they are strong enough to stand before God will one day learn their error. How wonderful that Paul encouraged the building of a fellowship that recognized this from the outset, and set about creating the church as an hospitable place where the welcome did not wait until we became strong, the seat in the pews is not reserved for those who already know their Bible, the singing of the songs is not the personal and private domain of those who know the songs of faith already. If you are today in a church for the very first time ever, you cannot be any less welcome than the person who has occupied a pew here every single Sunday for the past fifty years.

Paul said, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” Exactly. If we did, who would need a church? Who would need welcome, who would need to gather? Faith would be a matter of thinking good thoughts, or obeying certain rules, but it would be something we would accomplish on our own. No, Paul says we do not live to ourselves, and it is a lesson that no people on earth have a harder time learning than Americans, who like to think of ourselves as up-by-our-bootstraps people, self-made, rugged individualists. In the face of this sort of thinking, Paul simply holds up a mirror of ourselves in our death masks. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

The only hope for us is that we live and we die to the Lord. We throw ourselves on the mercy of God in our living and in our dying, and we join in humility with others in the fellowship, whether their hair is parted the way we like it or not, like a beleaguered ship full of sailors for whom the only hope is the Lord who calms the sea for them and leads them safely home.

Why is welcome such an important word? Why do we do this thing, why do we say hello to each other and offer blessings in the beginning moments of our worship, why are we called so forcefully to be a fellowship of welcome and hospitality? It is because we have been welcomed. Carrying a load of trouble? We are welcome in this place where we may set our troubles down. Burdened by a backlog of bad things in our lives which we regret? We are welcome here, regrets and all. This is our home because we have nothing to prove here, only our humble prayer for the love of God and our extension of that love to each other is needed here. That is why we do what we do, for the love of God.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Romans 14:2

[2] I Corinthians 1:26-29

[3] II Corinthians 13:4

[4] II Corinthians 11:30

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Many Gifts

Many Gifts

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Romans 12:1-8

We have gifts that differ

according to the grace given to us.

Once, a couple of years ago, I decided to drive up to Seattle to visit my daughter and her family. I left our house in Salem around 4:15 and called as I left to tell them I’d be there by about 9 PM. Somewhere south of Wilsonville, traffic slowed to a crawl. It was stop and go in all three northbound lanes, for no particular reason except the same reason that you can’t put two feet into a single shoe. There were just too many cars on the road to fit. So I sat back into the now-you-move, now-you-don’t traffic jam driving for the next several hours. I had my first of many regrets of the day that I hadn’t driven a car with an automatic transmission, as I shifted up and down repeatedly through the gears, mainly the lower ones. It was stop-and-go, with go never reaching more than a few brief 30 mile per hour spurts, until we were well north of Vancouver, Washington. I realized I was going to be at least a half hour later getting to Seattle than I had thought. Maybe the trip would be OK after all. I settled back to cruise along at the posted speed limit...

... until I was just south of Olympia, when we returned to the previous stop-and-go, now 5, now 20, now 10, now 2 miles per hour, seldom reaching speeds over 30, with some complete stops lasting minutes on end, until we were well north of Federal Way. I kept praying for the wisdom to remember to buy a train ticket next time, not because it gets there any faster, which it sometimes doesn’t, but because at least you can snooze or read through the delays. I arrived at my daughter’s house a full hour and twenty minutes late, just in time to say goodnight as we all got in our PJs and went to bed.

I don’t know how you respond in these overstuffed traffic situations. My method is usually to spend the stop and go periods in the passing lane, and just stay there, paying no attention to the fact that the other lanes sometimes move faster, sometimes more slowly. I don’t see much purpose in jumping lanes to try to gain a few car lengths when no one in any lane is moving faster than 10 MPH, and you can see cars bumper-to-bumper all the way to the horizon. But I have observed that patience in traffic is not widespread. There are so many lane jumpers. They wear me out. ZOOM! they jump in front of the car to the left, barely squeezing in, as that lane moves ahead a few hundred feet. Then they notice the lane they had been in begins to move, so ZOOM! they jam back in. The result over a half hour of stop-and-go driving is that they gain maybe a few hundred yards – along with muttered death threats from folks who are trying just to move along in an orderly way. I have to say, I quietly smile with guilty satisfaction when someone, who has jumped in front of me in my lane for a few hundred feet, then shifted over to another lane, only to be stopped abruptly, that moving past them when my lane begins to move again brings a brief, bitter sort of satisfaction.

I’d like to think that most of these lane jammers would not think of shoving their way to the front of the line at a movie ticket booth, or during a wait for a ride at the fair, so what makes it OK to do it in a car?

Apparently they are not all that reticent about pushing themselves to the front in lines where others wait patiently. A friend of mine recently wrote about similar behavior by unruly people in the informal lines that form at Starbucks coffee shops during peak hours. There are always those who think that no matter how many folks are in line ahead of them, their order will be placed at the head of the queue, and they sometimes try to grab each coffee out-of-turn as it comes from the baristas, forcing other customers to claim their orders from their grip, all the while complaining bitterly about the indignity they are suffering at having to wait their turn, earning the enduring enmity of those who have come to know the informal rules of play at Starbucks.

These folks could all be poster children for the “everything revolves around me” generation. Advertising picks up on this, focusing the majority of ads toward strictly personal preference, without regard to the effect on others. One person has suggested that a better description of our current third millennium would simply be to call it the “ME-lennium,” a time when the individual and individualism are valued above all else.

Of course, while we’d like to think this sort of ultra-individualism might have bypassed the church, which was founded by One who said, “Where two or three are gathered, I am there,” but we’d be wrong. My own numerous generation, now that we are approaching or are already into our retirement years, are still known with the increasingly ridiculous-sounding name “Baby Boomers.” And we are particluarly skilled at the business of privatizing religion and faith, and setting that example for our children and grandchildren. The online humor newspaper, The Onion, has even spotted this trend, running a tongue-in-cheek satirical piece not long ago about a new fashion in religious upbringing with a headline reading, “More Kids Being Home-Churched.”[1] Many folks of my generation – as well as others – follow private religious quests, or seek some source within themselves to find a private connection to a higher power that will bring a satisfying spiritual life.

While this may be the way chosen by some, it is certainly not the Christian path. The Christian faith has always found its natural home in community, where, while we may have a very personal relationship to God through Christ, we do not have a private one. We are not alone. We are in this together. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” said Jesus, “I am there among them ...”[2]

Even after two thousand years of knowing this to be true of our communitarian faith, there are still plenty of us who just don’t get it. Often, over my years in ministry, I have heard departures from this line of thinking from members and visitors alike. Visitors sometimes arrive at the church with a checklist of things they want to get out of their church affiliation, and being a selfless member of a community that takes notice of the needs of others doesn’t often make the list. To be fair, oftentimes even long-time church members carry a similar list around in our heads, and if we don’t find that this church gives us the payoff we want, well we believe we can just drop out of this community and keep on shopping until we find a place where the ministry of the church caters to us personally – unaware, like the frustrated speed-demons I encounter in traffic, that sharing this road less traveled with others along the way is among the most basic of requirements of answering the call of Christ.

Of course, we should receive ministry through the community of faith, we should be able to turn to our church family and find support in crisis, guidance in difficult times, a sense of extended family when we need one, comfort when we are hurting. But we need, in equal or greater measure, each to find our own way in the community to offer the same things we need to others when they need them. We cannot always be recipients, we must also be practitioners of the ministry of Christ. Our place is as one among many in the community.

And, similarly, one of the marvelous things about being in this community of faith is that it is but a portion of a much larger community. The ministries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) extend around the world, on every continent. One example: one seminary intern I worked with a few years ago, preceded her seminary education by giving her time as a mission volunteer for an extended assignment in South America, just as our own Kristi Van Nostran has been doing in Central America on our behalf. I think of this every time I hear someone speaking in a superior way about belonging to a “non-denominational” church, as though denominational organizations and affiliations were signs of some sort of weak or inadequate witness, somehow less representative of the real gospel. The reverse is really closer to the truth, in my opinion. Back when Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi, within a few hours I found messages in my e-mail from our denomination, informing me of the emergency management personnel of our Presbyterian Church (USA), already in place to receive funds, and organize volunteers.

In church as well as in life itself, we cannot extend ourselves very far without being firmly grounded in some community. We cannot find our place or fulfill our spiritual longing without realizing that we are a part, not the full essence, of the body of Christ. Though we each make the body more complete, none of us has the capacity to know God fully or follow in complete faithfulness. For this, we need each other.

Paul was on target as he made the analogy between the church and the human body. We are not meant only to enjoy the diversity of gifts we find in the church, we are to depend on them, we need each other. Only by sharing the gifts we bring to the community – teaching, singing, praying, supporting, advocating, caring, welcoming, showing hospitality, giving, leading humbly, following faithfully – can we experience God in our midst. Each of us has something of value, something essential to add.

In the last two words in today’s reading Paul says, “in cheerfulness.” Cheerfulness isn’t half as enjoyable if there is no one to share it with. Here at First Church, in our community of faith, we grow and learn and serve and mourn and dance for joy and play together. It’s the way we come to discover the joy of knowing God.

So smile at someone today. It’s a gift everyone has to share.

And, oh, when you do decide to change lanes, please use your turn signal!

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] “More Kids Being Home-Churched,” The Onion, September 14, 2005 | Issue 41-37

[2] Matthew 18:20.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Search and Rescue

Search and Rescue

Luke 15:1-10

Robert J. Elder

September 11, 2011

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,

does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?

Writing sermon titles for preaching every Sunday is sometimes a challenge, maybe even harder than writing sermons themselves. I was looking over the scripture for today some time back, and seeing the words about going after the one sheep that was lost brought to mind a thought for a title: “Search and Rescue.” And then it struck me what the words “Search and Rescue” would call to mind for us this morning, on the 10th anniversary of that awful day. I remember that week very well, I recall that every day our televisions greeted us with the video footage of rescue workers meticulously piecing through rubble. Hundreds of men and women working 24 hours a day, regardless of cost, in hopes of finding one more survivor amid the wreckage of what was the World Trade Center.

Survivor. That word calls to my mind a sort of entertainment that I once hoped would soon fade from the public fascination. No luck. In fact, I have heard that a special 90 minute Survivor is scheduled to air this coming week on CBS – check local listings. It strikes me now as the antithesis of what we saw 10 years ago in New York and Washington D.C. The television show, Survivor – I’m sure you have all heard of it even if you may not have watched it – brings together a hand-selected group of people. Their task is to outwit, outlast, out maneuver all the others in the group until they are the last one standing. This has been our modern idea of entertainment for many seasons now: Survivor, The Weakest Link, Lost, so-called “reality” shows.The programs work on the premise that it is entertaining to watch people deceive, manipulate, and outwit others, make group decisions to throw others out, all within a philosophy declaring, in the end, it is every man or woman for him/herself. I think it represents a sort of anti-gospel destruction of community, the pitting of one against another, with the ultimate goal focused on the individual, the final winner.

I would have wished that one good outcome of our national tragedy 10 years ago might have been that we think in a new way about such things. Perhaps there is still hope, perhaps there yet could be a new television show or two, called Everyone Survives!, or, perhaps, Community.

In our new show, a person would find themselves alone on a deserted island. They might have some resources with them, a bit of food, or perhaps a special skill or tool. But their skill, tool, resources would be practically useless to them unless they can find others with complimentary abilities, tools, or resources which they lack. Let’s say the first person we see has some matches and access to kindling and wood. They build a fire. Their task then would be to look for others, and, on finding them, to welcome them to their campfire and begin building a social bond. Every member would count in this TV program, and the loss of even one would be unacceptable, would, in fact, threaten the survival of the group as a whole.

Difficulties which would carry interest in the program along would include the well-known fact that where two or three are gathered together, there is almost always a disagreement about something. The challenge would not be how to dissolve community and win all alone, but how to maintain community in spite of the difficulties that any of the members would bring with them when they were found. It would be great if some of the people to be found on the island did not speak the same language, had different racial and social backgrounds, or the usefulness of their ability, tool or resource might not, at first, be readily understood. How to bind up the sick, how to make sure everyone has enough to eat, is warm and dry, how to deal with the one who complains all the time, how to limit the power of the one who wants to control everything, these would be among the interesting challenges for the participants on the show.

Perhaps several groups could be underway at the same time, and the unknown quality to judge the success of one group over another would be measured by the willingness to welcome group members who happen to bring no apparent ability, tool, or resource with them. This could be a secret compassion test, to see how these communities go about seeking the highest goal of including rather than excluding, even when it is not always apparent that including everyone is useful.

I might watch such a show, rooting for the success of community in the face of threats to its existence.

A friend of mine wrote that we would do well, as we think on the stories of the lost sheep and coin, to recall Abraham’s conversations with God (Genesis 18:16 ff.). Sheep and coins can’t really be blamed for being lost, they just go around doing things that sheep and coins do when their human overseers fail to pay enough attention. But lost people, that’s another matter. Remember Abraham bartering with God, pleading with him to spare the sin-filled city for the sake of the handful of righteous ones who might be there, expanding the odds of Sodom’s survival, first bargaining God down from 50 righteous to 45, then 40, 30, 20, 10. God agrees to spare the city if only 10 righteous people are found there. Oh, if Osama Bin Laden had only undertaken the same search in the World Trade Center towers.

But Jesus’ parables take us beyond even that standard. It turns out, in his teaching, for the sake of just one righteous – Jesus – God spares the whole earth. The mathematics of mercy strain our comprehension, our belief in bottom lines, of acceptable levels of loss. My friend asked, “If God is holy, how can God stand the likes of us? If God is so merciful, how can God be holy?”[1]

“You have heard it said,” Jesus appears to say, “that one bad apple spoils the barrel, but I say to you, one good apple saves the barrel.” We have in these stories from Jesus the affirmation that the renewing power of good exceeds the corrupting power of evil. This is the only way we can live in community, by recognizing that we can come together for good, even in the face of horrendous, overwhelming evil. We spend lots of resources separating ourselves from evil, we build prisons, we establish and maintain armies, police departments, security forces. We want not to have to associate with those whose claim to righteousness is less than ours, we, like the fussy leaders of Jesus’ day, are concerned about the company we keep. They saw that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. Others may see us at the same task and wonder if Christians have all their marbles.

Leaving aside for the moment all the Sunday school artwork about this story depicting Jesus in a sparkling white robe, carrying a sweet little freshly-bathed white lamb on his shoulders, and remembering instead that adult sheep in the wilderness are not only stupid but big, heavy, and smelly, not to mention that they represent dollars on the hoof to their owners, I had to re-ask myself Jesus’ initial question: “Which of you does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?” I realized that if Jesus were telling me this story, I would have to raise my hand. Which of you would not leave ninety-nine valuable sheep at risk in the wilderness in order to go after one stray? Me! I wouldn’t do it!

Why did Jesus tell these little stories? To whom was he telling them? Jesus told these stories to the grumbling religious leaders of his day who were put off by his willingness to eat with villainous traitors and pagans. Those leaders were like we are. Some people you just can’t help. Some people are just goners. Some religious people, then and now, were willing to cut their losses, make utilitarian decisions about people. There are just some folk who are destined for the old lost-and-found box. Lost, for sure, but chances are good they will never be found again.

There are lots of souls in the lost and found, bleeding in Libya, suffering desperate oppression under the Taliban, but especially they are right here with us in Vancover if we learn to look the right way. And Jesus spins for us a little story about a lost sheep and a lost coin and the kind of kingdom of heaven thinking that, like firefighters in New York, never fails – never fails – to make a mad rush to save what is lost without remembering to stop and count costs. 99 out of a hundred may be a good percentage on an exam, but it still leaves out one, and God desires the salvation of every single one. It may not be our arithmetic, but it is God’s new math. For in God’s sight, people are not sheep, and certainly more precious than coins, and there is literally no extent to which God will not go to find what is lost.

Once the President of Southern Methodist University was stopped by one of those religious zealots on the streets of Dallas, Texas.

“Are you saved?” she demanded to know.

“I think so,” replied the president.

“That’s not good enough!” she announced, “you have to know so!”

A little undone, the president pulled himself to his full height and declared, “Madam, I am the president of Southern Methodist University, and therefore president of Perkins Methodist Theological Seminary as well.”

“That’s OK,” she allowed, “you can still be saved!”

One of my favorite authors over the years has been Annie Dillard, and in her first – and most famous – book, she wrote,

“When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason, I always ‘hid’ the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.”[2]

In the end, Jesus’ parables are stories about the way God seeks out the lost, not the way we would go about doing it. And in the end, the joy which characterizes the heart of these simple stories of finding is the key to knowing the joy which fills God’s heart when any person turns to Christ in faith.

Where are we to draw the line between righteousness and sinfulness? We look at Jesus, and suddenly we see. The line is drawn, not between ourselves and others, but between Jesus and us. He is righteous, we are not. That is all. We are the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the good news is that, like those brave fire fighters in New York ten years ago, the one who is left standing will come looking to save us.

[1] Bill Leety, in an unpublished paper presented to the January 2001 meeting of the Homiletical Feast.

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Bantam, 1974), pp. 15-16.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Those Who Have Never Been Told

Those Who Have Never Been Told

Romans 15:14-33

copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder

September 4, 2011

Those who have never been told of him shall see,

and those who have never heard of him shall understand.

Many things may crowd into our consciousness this morning, with the onset of Fall just around the corner. They crowd into mine anyway, maybe they do into yours too. Some among us will be having to deal with children returning to schoolrooms and fall activities, jump-starting lives from the doldrums of August into the frantic pace of fall. Soon will come the first fruits of planning by our education and music program people for the months to come – so much riding on this coming week in our homes and in our church!

Then, before we get entirely carried away by our own little family and church program concerns, our world in microcosm, the memory of September 11, 2001 invades our collective consciousness this coming week, and we are reminded that next Sunday, 10 years will have come and gone since that horrible day, and that so many things that we were as a people and as individuals have changed in countless ways large and small because of that day. Life often does that, throwing our careful plans and preparations out the window like so much confetti.

Then there are these word from Paul, which, taking into account the swirl of events around us, seem to me almost as fresh as if they had been written last night.

In most ways, Paul strikes me in this chapter, near the end of his letter to the Christians in Rome, as a man who believes he knows the nature of his calling, and who has a fairly clear sense of his future. Doesn’t it seem that way to you? He knows the shape of his own calling in ministry, his gifts for the task, when he says, “I have written to you rather boldly...because of the grace given to me by God to be a minister of Christ to the Gentiles...” and “Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named...Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.” Paul was confident that he was called to take the gospel to those who had not heard the name of Jesus before.

Paul seemed to have a fix on the shape of his future when he wrote, “But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.”

Paul reflected that there was only one thing remaining to be done before he set out for Rome, tossing it off almost as an afterthought, as if he rechecked his shopping list and said “Oh yes, and before I come I have this one remaining little task to do...” He wrote “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia (pronounced a – KEE’ – ya) have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.”

As was the case for us after September 11th, it turned out for Paul that the present task invaded all his future plans and rearranged his dead certainty about the nature of his calling.

Paul knew his calling. He knew he was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, to take the message of salvation through Christ to people who not only had never heard of Jesus, but in many cases were totally unfamiliar with the God of Israel. He is absolutely clear about that, he knew his gifts, and he felt sure about the way God intended him to put them to use.

Still, when Paul said that he was ready to move westward in the Mediterranean world because there was “no further place for me in these regions,” his statement strikes us as incredible. By the time Paul was declaring there to be no further place for his ground breaking ministry in “these regions” (think of the modern countries of Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, the former Yugoslavia – when he mentions Illyricum, we should think of modern Kosovo), there couldn’t possibly have been more than a few thousand Christian believers at most in the entire area! In the cities to which he had gone, the number of believers was tiny in comparison to the population in general. Yet as a church planter, Paul believed the churches had to develop their own continuing evangelism efforts. He was a planter, not a cultivator. He knew his calling.

Paul had a fix on his future. Paul looked right past the present task of carrying the offerings of the Gentile churches to Jerusalem and had firmly fixed his sights on his next mission, on Rome as a staging area to take the gospel to Spain. Here was a man with a plan!

But it turned out that the present task, his journey to drop off the offerings of the Gentile churches in Jerusalem, turned into the vocation that defined the rest of his ministry, not his certainty about the nature of his calling, nor his carefully laid plans for the future. The present rearranged the remainder of his ministry.

If you remember the story of Paul from his letters in the New Testament and from the account of his work in the Book of Acts, you will recall that while this letter we read this morning was filled with his immediate future plans to visit Rome and then Spain, what actually happened after he put this letter in the mail was that he went to Jerusalem, was promptly arrested by the authorities there, was very nearly killed, and then languished in jail for two full years before he was finally sent to Rome under guard to stand trial in the imperial court. That’s the last we see of him in Acts, sitting in jail, ministering to his captors. As far as we know, he never met the folks in the Roman church, and it is very unlikely that his dream of going to Spain was ever fulfilled.

So was his ministry a failure? Hardly! One scholar wrote,

“Proverbs 19:21 says that human minds devise many plans, but it is God’s purpose that will be established. Paul would have heartily agreed ... But this should not lead to shoulder-shrugging fatalism. On the contrary, one of the most important lessons of Romans 15 might be put thus: God allowed Paul to dream of Spain in order that he might write Romans. No matter that Paul probably never reached Spain. What mattered was that he wrote this letter, which has been far more powerful and influential than any missionary visit, even by Paul himself, could ever have been. Perhaps ... half our great plans, the dreams we dream for our churches and our world, and even for ourselves, are dreams God allows us to dream in order that, on the way there, we may accomplish, almost without realizing it, the crucial thing God intends us to do.”[1]

Life has a way of taking place without regard to our arrangements. It is often said that life is what happens to us when we have made other plans. Henri Nouwen once said, “Interruptions don’t interrupt my work, interruptions are my work.”

Paul was interrupted. He was thrown off the course he had set for himself. Just the way our nation was cruising along before September 11, 2001, filled with plans for anything but war, but then the vagaries of life happened to us, the unexpected came our way, and all the tragedy and seeds of blessings that we have come to know in the years that have passed since – how can it have been ten years!?

Ann Ulanov, professor of psychiatry and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was interviewed on the Public Broadcasting program Frontline the winter following 9/11, and had some very helpful and useful things to say about the task that invaded our plans and preparations[2]:

“One of the hardest things about the Sept. 11 attacks is that people were just shoved into a place of spiritual crisis. They’re suddenly at the head of the line: Do you believe in anything? Do you care about anything? Where does meaning come from? Is the abyss of love stronger than the abyss of death? Is there any resurrection? How can I bear even to imagine being trapped in that building? I cannot go down. Will I be burned up? Will I be hurled out the window? Will I jump out the window? How can the person I love – who was incinerated, jumped out a window, thrown out a window, crashed in a plane – how can their last minutes be redeemed? How can I bear what they’ve suffered? Was God with them? Was God not with them?”

Professor Ulanov went on to say,

“...Christian tradition has an answer, and I’m sure other religions do too...

“Namely, in prayer time, it’s not the same as ordinary time, ego time, which has a past and a present and a future. Prayer time does not ... maintain that there is a past and a present and a future ... In prayer time, you can pray backwards. You can pray for Augustine. You can pray for Jesus on the cross. And you can pray for the man you loved or the woman you loved or the mother you loved in the office or in the plane.

You can pray that, at the moment of terror, blinding terror, that they had a sense that something was with them; that something was standing there ready to receive them; that at the same time they had terror and panic and regret and rage that their life was being stolen from them, they might also have felt a presence, something receiving them in the hour of their death, something comforting them in abysmal fear they must have suffered.”

Here is a thought that might get our Fall season started and interrupt our customary thoughts about what the church ought to be. It’s not an original thought with me, but it seems to me to be a large part of Paul’s motivation in his ministry in the first century: To a large degree, the church exists for those who are outside of it! How shocking! Perhaps our calling and our future is not to look to the church for ministry, but to look outside the church for the people in the world that need the ministering hand of Jesus Christ.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon, Volume X, pp. 758-759.