July 19, 2020
Today outside in the heat and humidity, we have a passage from Romans to explore. So as we hear Paul talk about the sufferings of this present time… maybe we can relate. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from Romans 8.
READ Romans 8:12-25
Hope and potential. Those are the two words that immediately jump to my mind with this passage. Because being the church… trying to figure out what faith looks like as we try to live it out in the ever changing, but somehow always consistent world around us… so much of what we as Christians do is fueled with pure hope from a faith based on something we can’t see. Just yesterday I heard someone say that very same thing but in a way that was supposed to be a barbed comedic insult about religion. Having faith… having hope in something we can’t see. Surely a sign of how dumb we are. Cue the laugh track.
Still… as a congregation and as individuals … through our faith we try to help people in small ways… we send our bread crumbs out there on the waters… in the hope that something might make a difference. We hope that an act of kindness is enough of a seed… or provides just enough of a crack in what passes for normalcy for some… to give the Spirit just enough of an opening to make a difference. We hope that grace… that little bit of awareness will change a heart. I mean, that’s the thing I always try to keep in mind… that it’s not what we do that makes the difference… it’s that God is able to do something with that small thing we can do. And Saints, when we are looking daily at something so large and so deep as something like systemic racism… something like that which is not only woven into our social systems and the normal way our world works… but is also perhaps woven deeper into the human heart… or at the many ways we have rigged the economic systems in our world to favor some at the expense of others… our small acts of kindness can look that much smaller. But it is hope… hope… and that long patient wait for God… that God’s will will be done… that’s that weird engine that keeps driving us forward in our faith. Keeps us trying to do what we can… where we can… with whomever we can… with what we’ve been given. Our own hearts being a part of God’s work in redeeming creation.
We all know how this pandemic has so thrown everything out of whack… a small virus that is just lethal enough… just devastating enough. As awful as all this has been… and I don’t want to give the impression of downplaying the awfulness… Covid has, I think, thrown us so out of whack that it is giving us the opportunity to reflect on our hope… where we place our hope… or if our hope is as strong as it ought to be. What I mean is this… what is the first prayer that comes along with Covid? Take it away. Right? O Lord, remove the virus from among us. Use your great and awesome power to rid us of this pandemic. It’s a first response to the very real suffering. Take it away.
But Paul… Paul would say those are words from the flesh. We are afraid… and rightly so… only a fool wouldn’t have a healthy respect for what is going on… we are afraid of what might happen if this virus were to find its way into someone we love or into our own body… which I know you all share the same inclination as I do that we would gladly step forward to be sick or die if it meant saving the ones we loved. Still… because it is so unpredictable… will the virus have little affect… will it create lifelong damage to our health… will it take another life… that’s what makes this virus so terrifying. There’s still so much we don’t know... or that we can predict with any real accuracy. So much that is out of our control. I think that’s what’s behind so much of the foolishness and bravado we’re witnessing… beyond just being a result of our broken politics… the fear that comes with being reminded of how much is out of our control. So from our flesh we cry out to God for control. When Paul speaks about the metaphorical flesh’s love for and reliance upon the law… isn’t that what he’s alluding to… our desire for control. Through the law I can control what is happening around me. I can define what is good and what is wrong. I can say what and who God will bless and what and who God will condemn. Accuracy isn’t as important as that feeling of assuredness. As false as it may be… that feeling becomes our foundation. So Lord, take this virus away from us… those who believe and are gathered here as your children of our belief… reward our faith and our special place in your heart. Do you not see all that we have done according to our law to prove ourselves worthy of your favor? Or better yet… O Lord give us special healing powers… or an amazing immunity… so that the world can see how your children are favored… so that out of fear for what might lie in wait for them… others will become children of our belief so that they too can receive the blessings reserved for those who are favored and escape the torments for those who are on the outside.
Saints… I still can’t comprehend those messages from churches who said that God’s special immunity would keep them safe from this virus as they gathered for worship as they had always done. If we can’t believe that God has made us special and greater than others… then what is the real purpose of faith? Seems like that’s an underlying question with those messages.
The spirit of fear. If my faith doesn’t set me apart and make me special in God’s eyes… maybe what I fear is what this faith is actually calling me to do and to be. With our online services this month, instead of doing a Confession of Sin like we’ve been having, I’ve been using pieces of the Confession of 1967 for different Affirmations of Faith. This week’s section says this… “God instructs the church and equips it for mission through preaching and teaching. By these, when they are carried on in fidelity to the Scriptures and dependence on the Holy Spirit, the people hear the word of God and accept and follow Christ. Therefore, effective preaching, teaching, and personal witness require disciplined study of both the Bible and the contemporary world. All acts of public worship should be conducive to people’s hearing of the gospel in a particular time and place and responding with fitting obedience. God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of human life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. The church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world.” If we’re talking about control… where’s the control if we are living with a dependence on the Holy Spirit which the gospel of John describes as the wind blowing where it chooses… something ethereal that inspires our hopes but is not under our bidding. As Paul could and did attest… filling our sails with the Holy Spirit does not lift us out of the world around us… but puts us perhaps deeper into the world than we would like to go so that all aspects of our lives are affected by this gift of faith that we have been given. A gift that we, perhaps, wouldn’t have bought for ourselves. But that’s the freedom we’re given… not freedom from the trials of life, but the freedom to face those trials with faith… as those who have been given the Spirit of adoption. The cross as our symbol always reminds us how what the world might use to keep us bound to a spirit of fear… the power of that fear is futile… the children of God are what creation longs for… the children of God through the Spirit working properly through them release the potential of God’s good creation. A better world.
Potential though is an empty word if it is never activated by our hope in this idea of God’s good creation. And that hope isn’t just some ungrounded utopia. The potential of God’s good creation can be a part of the natural world. A natural world where there is still viruses and disease and death. All the things we fear. But there is potential in our intelligence, imagination, and ability to seek and see things afresh. It’s the “what if” of looking at the world through the eyes of God’s Spirit rather than looking at the world through the fearful eyes that grab hold of sin to allay its fears instead of the hope of God. It’s the ‘what if” and the “how can”… how can we lift the world away from sin through these gifts of God that we have been given… as small as though gifts may seem to us when faced with such big challenges? How can we… in thinking first about the least of us… lift us all up to a more just world around us? There is the gift of perseverance of vision where we can work for and do our small part in helping the world work toward a time where the systems don’t always have to be so that some must suffer so that others can live a life of prosperity and health. Our hope is grounded upon the abundance of life God gives rather than the fear of scarcity that sin whispers constantly into our ears. Too many of our solutions today are still built upon a grounding of suffering… in order for some to prosper… others must suffer. To use the words of the Confession… that isn’t a solution that illustrates fitting obedience. That is a solution that we must always be uncomfortable with and always fight against… reform and reshape in God’s image.
For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. It is possible… and I believe we are witnessing it… it is possible to survive a pandemic and still not live. That’s what’s being revealed to us… that our hope and the reality around us are disconnected. Saints, as Paul tells us so must we believe… that it is time to cast off this bondage to decay and to be truly the first fruits of the adoption that weaves real hope into the world around us through the whole of our human life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. Amen.