Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, June 14

Romans 8:18-24. Val Jenks reads Scripture.

This passage has become one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible in the last few years. I’m not sure it’s one that’s real familiar to most modern readers of the Bible, though; if there is any verse in this passage that is famous, it is verse 18, the first verse which was read this morning: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
It’s a nice image, isn’t it? Often in our lives we can feel that we are on a raging sea, just sort of tossed about from one thing to another. We can see that in many ways in our lives right now—this always seems like a busy time of year, for one thing. Kids are finishing up with school, so families need to make plans for how to handle that reality for the summer; there are concerts and graduations and little league playoffs and this and that and that and this.
And that’s just the innocuous things, the little things that are nuisances but don’t really impact us. There are far more serious things that impact the way we think and feel and make us feel like we are tossed on the waves of a raging sea. My grandmother had breast cancer surgery this past Wednesday. I love my nanna but nothing makes you feel quite so much like you’re tossed on a wave and completely out of control like when you or someone you love has cancer. A friend goes through divorce proceedings, another friend has uncontrollable nausea and doesn’t know what’s causing it, another friend struggles with an eating disorder—this is the stuff of life but it overwhelms you. What do I say to my friend who’s going through the divorce? Do it? Don’t do it? I don’t know what he should do, he doesn’t know what he should do—that’s the waves of life, man, and we just feel so small sometimes.
And in the midst of that verse 18 throws us a lifeboat and offers us salvation. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” And the message is such a relief—we welcome it with open arms—because it says to us that the sufferings of this present time, which seem like an uncontrollable raging sea, are really just a drop in a bucket compared with the glory God is going to reveal to us. And I love the way Paul uses the word “about” here—that any minute now we might just see it, that the glory might just come to us.
Most Christians assume this passage is talking about heaven. We struggle on earth, but we put up with the struggles because one day, one sweet day, we’re going to be in heaven and we won’t have to struggle any more. God’s gonna feed us at his table, take care of us for ever, and we’ll be able to enjoy him and each other without end, Amen. And Amen—this is true! It is exciting to think about a world like that because our world today is just not this way.
This is true. But is it OK to say that some people’s Christianity gets a little bit stuck here? In the old days it was said that people could be too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good. In the old days the argument went that people were so focused on going to heaven and what heaven was going to be like that they failed to make any impact here on earth, and failed to live up to the gospel. This is sort of what I mean by people’s Christianity getting a little bit stuck here—so focused on how God is one day going to make all of our problems fade away. And you might think, well, that’s not what I mean, I’m a good modern open-minded Christian. But even modern Christians get stuck on this when we only focus on how God helps us with our problems. Many prayer meetings get stuck in a rut when people start sharing their problems, and it’s one problem on top of another, and people cluck their tongues a little bit when we hear about so-and-so with cancer and so-and-so who’s drinking again, and before you know it, we’re thinking about how terrible the world is and how only God can provide relief, but even he doesn’t seem much inclined. Any sort of Christianity which looks at the problems of the world and is overwhelmed by them and looks to God only for a way out, is what I mean by getting stuck here.
There’s more to this passage. I want to stretch your thinking on this text a little bit today, because the context in which Paul is speaking is very different from this. Paul doesn’t talk about this in a vacuum—talking about our present sufferings and the glory to come is not something that Paul said as one sentence somewhere. It is part of a carefully constructed argument that Paul is making. Look at the next sentence: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Let’s unpack that sentence, and let’s start with the very first word, “for.” “For” shows us that what Paul is saying is connected to what he has just said. We might say, “Because.” I consider that the sufferings we currently experience cannot compare with the glory we are about to receive—because. Because why? Well, we might expect Paul to say that our current sufferings are not so bad because God’s got a really great heaven waiting for us. But that’s not what he says. It’s true, but it’s not what he says. Instead, he says that our current sufferings are not so bad because we are nearing a pivotal point in history, when the children of God will be revealed. We are nearing a time, says Paul, when the children of God will be revealed. What does this mean? Well, as Paul explains it, the whole creation is subject to futility. All of creation, essentially, cannot get out of its own way. All of creation lives with patterns and lifestyles and attitudes and actions which bring death. We know this is true simply by looking around us. What is the richest nation in the world? Our nation. What nation has the most access to information about the health effects of eating poorly. Our nation. And yet what nation is consistently the most overweight nation in the world? our nation. We have access to the information about what are good food choices, and we have access to healthy food, and yet we eat ourselves to death. The creation is subjected to futility, we can’t get out of our own way.
Or take something so simple as our prayer lives. Prayer works, people. And I don’t mean just for medical conditions. Prayer is a reliable spiritual discipline to change our hearts. When I am troubled about a problem in my life, I find that regular prayer—and not just praying about that problem but simply the act of regular praying—changes my heart and prepares me to deal with whatever that problem is in a much healthier way. And yet when I face a problem, my first inclination is to work like a chicken with my head cut off to try to solve the problem. Even though I know I will handle everything far better if I commit myself to regular prayer, in the heat of the moment prayer seems to take too much time or distract me from my work solving the problem. Even though my brain knows one thing, that prayer is valuable, it’s very difficult to recall that and practice it when push comes to shove. Why? Because the creation is subject to futility—we just can’t get out of our own way.
And Paul argues that this futility is part of God’s plan. Because eventually, we’re going to get frustrated with it and seek a better way. This is what Paul is saying about the children of God. This whole creation, stuck in these unhealthy systems, stuck in these patterns of living that breed death, seeing no alternatives—this creation wants a way out. They are desperately seeking the children of God. All creation longs to see a people who are not stuck in the same old lies as the rest of the world, a people who live different. Paul says that the world is stuck in bondage to decay and desperately seeks free people, people who see the world’s lies for what they are and say, “You know what? Those lies have no power over me, because lies don’t have power.”
Now here’s the rub—that’s us! How awesome—and how scary—is this? The image of the passage is that all of creation, people, animals, stars, planets, all of it, is futile and decaying. And it is just waiting for God to reveal to the world a people who will demonstrate to all of creation what a victorious life in Jesus looks like. It is waiting for a people through whom God will show hope and new life, a people who are not in bondage to decay but demonstrate new life in their every step and their every action. It is waiting for a people who will demonstrate that we are not enslaved to the broken system of these world but that their authority is an empty illusion and any power they have is simply because we choose to give them power. And that’s us! not just us here in Exton, but that’s us, Christians, the people of God around the world throughout time.
When Paul says, “I consider that our current sufferings are small compared to the glory we’re about to receive,” to be honest, he’s not talking about heaven. He’s talking about the glory we receive when we realize that’s who we are! The sufferings that we go through are of little consequence when we realize that we are playing a part in liberating creation from decay; the difficulties we face fade away when we realize that from the very beginning, creation has hinged on this moment, the people of God, taking on the awesome privilege and responsibility of being the people of God in the world, and allowing the world to see what free people look like and live like. He goes on and says that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, until this moment, when finally the church is born, the pinnacle of creation. And our difficulties seem pretty small when we realize that we are part of the pinnacle of creation and that God has made us capable of demonstrating freedom in the midst of slavery, and resurrection in the midst of decay.
This is so different than what we often understand that first verse to say. So often we feel overwhelmed at life’s difficulties, and we feel like we are tossed about on a raging sea. But the point of this passage is not that life is really hard for us poor people and one day we’ll get to heaven and God won’t let anything bad happen to us anymore. The point is that life is hard but because we have seen God in Jesus Christ we are part of liberating people from that life and introducing them to new life in Christ. All of creation has been waiting for a people to be raised up who live with the kind of freedom that only comes from knowing the truth—and they still wait for us with baited breath.
If there is one thing that I burn with as a minister and as a Christian, if there is one message which burns a fire in my bones and I cannot keep inside, it is this: you don’t know who you are. Go to any church and see what they have on their promotional materials. In our bulletin, it says “Welcome to Exton Community Baptist Church! We seek to be a serving, caring loving…(read the rest).” Other churches would say other things, like “We’re a friendly church.” Or “we’re a biblical church.” Or “we’re a conservative church.” Or “we’re a socially active church.” Every church seems to find its niche, and take pride in what they feel sets them apart from other churches. But so little of Christianity seems to get what Paul is saying here. A church is not just a gathering of like-minded people. A church is not a place where we go to hear our preferred kind of music or our preferred kind of preaching. A church is not a place we go to meet people who feel sorry for us, as if Christians were nothing but bottomless wells of sympathy. A church is not a niche to be defined and marketed against other churches.
A church is an outpost of the revolution. A church takes space, makes it sacred as a sanctuary and says, “Within these four walls, the world is as it should be. Within these four walls, we recognize that the systems of this world are broken and within these four walls we begin to live out the Kingdom of God. Within these four walls, we sing songs of the Kingdom of God, we speak the words of the Kingdom of God, we live out the relationships Kingdom people conduct, we exhibit the generosity of the Kingdom of God because creation is longing to see free people living Kingdom freedom. Creation groans in their futility right now and so we must show them what life can be like when you are free from that futility and that decay.”
You don’t know who you are. My daughter Grace is the apple of my eye. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a pretty girl save for her mommy. These days, if you call her cute, she says, “Babies are cute. I’m pwetty.” And she is, she’s pwetty, she’s beautiful. I sometimes can’t quite bear the thought of her growing up in this world which plays such havoc with women’s self-images. I love how she’s proud of her tummy and admires it in a mirror, and I can barely stand the thought of it when she’s 13 and thinks she’s ugly because of something some stupid boy said. Woe to those boys. (Hopefully it’s not her brother.) I keep hoping that somehow she’ll be spared that fate and be one of those rare girls with complete self-confidence, but I know that more than likely she’ll come home some day crushed and sure she is not beautiful.
But she will be and on that day, I will tell her what I have told you today—you don’t know who you are. You think you are what others tell you but you’re not. You’re so much more. You’re so much more beautiful than the world can understand or deserve. You don’t know that you are beautiful, not because anyone says it, but because the one who made you sees beauty in you and sees potential you cannot see now.
Oh church, you don’t know who you are. (not just ECBC, but the Church) You pretty yourself up so that somebody who doesn’t care about you or understand you will say nice things about you. But you don’t know who you are. You make sure everything on Sunday morning is polished up nice, and you say things so you don’t offend people and turn them off, but you don’t know who you are. If you knew who you were, you would know that people will see Jesus in you not when you spit and polish everything just right, not when you plan just the right outreach and avoid whatever might seem offensive, but when you show a desperate world that change is possible, that new life is within reach. If you knew who you were, you would be bold, unafraid, like a young woman who knows that she is loved and so can reach for the sky because if she falls someone will catch her. If you knew who you were, you wouldn’t seek to blend in in a boring world but you’d embrace your inner difference, you’d embrace that prophet Daniel who prayed when it was illegal, you’d embrace that apostle Peter who stood up and spoke in tongues til the world thought he was drunk, you’d embrace that John the Baptist who ate locusts, you’d embrace that Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet when there were more important things to do, you’d even embrace that Jesus who said that the way to save the world was to be cramped into a womb, become a homeless teacher and die like a criminal. Then you would be part of a revolution, then you would be the people the world desperately needs even though they don’t know they need you.
Let me close with a story about my dad. My dad doesn’t know how to run the dishwasher. In the house I grew up in, there was not a dishwasher, but when we moved there was one and he never learned to use it. He has lived in that house for more than 20 years! He claims he’s not smart enough. Of course this is not true—he is a lawyer! Now this is a big family joke, and he does actually run the dishwasher on occasion. Why does he say he’s not smart enough to run the dishwasher? Because he doesn’t want to run the dishwasher! He’s perfectly fine with my mother doing it and having a convenient excuse for not doing it!
Many times in our lives it is easier to pretend we are less than we are so we don’t have to risk failure. Too many smart kids have said, “I’m just not cut out for school” because they don’t want to risk academic failure. Too many people with athletic gifts have said, “I’m just not cut out for sports,” because they either don’t want the physical discipline of sports or they don’t want to risk failing at them and feeling embarrassed. When I went to college, there were so many beautiful girls and beautiful boys for that matter, who were lonely because they were afraid of risking a romantic relationship because it might fail.
Too many Christians hear this message in the Bible, that they are part of the children of God, charged with giving the world this gift that is this free life in Christ, and don’t want to be a part of it, because it is simply easier not to. Too many Christians reject being part of a revolution because it is simply easier to live one’s life as a consumer than a revolutionary. It’s easier just to watch Fox News or CNN and parrot what they say than to constantly stand at a critical distance from the world and insist that you have something to offer it that it does not know.
But to those of us who have embraced being revolutionaries, let me tell you, there is no life like it. To you who graduate today, I remind you of this and charge you before God to never be anything less, even when it’s easier. To baby Sophie and her family, I remind you of this and beg you never to settle for less, even when it’s easier. To all of us who dare to wear the name of Christ, I beg you, do not settle for a life less than his, because even though his life led to death, it led also to resurrection. We are the children of God, and the world is waiting.