Sunday, September 21, 2014

As It Is Written

As It Is Written
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 21, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Lamentations 3: 22-31
Romans 8: 31-39

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [1]

Now that is what I call a mixed bag. There are two major lists here both asking about what can separate us from the love of Christ, and the lists are intense: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword: that makes up the first list. And then death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, anything else. . . nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. Nothing can separate us from the Love of Jesus Christ. . . and that is a good thing, a comforting thing, a thing that can really fill us with strength and hope, and fulfill our very being. It is truly awesome, but it isn't a rosy path. It is a path taken by one who is truly loved, but it is not an easy path, basically because all those things, all those things that will not separate us from God's love, all of them. . . They all exist, and they exist for Christians just like they exist for non Christians, they exist for believers and non believers, they exist for everyone. I'm full of old songs running through my head this morning. . . the first is Lynn Anderson. . . "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden, along with the sunshine, there's gotta be a little rain sometime." And it would appear for the Christian it is often more than just a little rain: Hardship, distress, persecution -- for your sake we are being killed all day long, we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." Like I said a mixed bag.
Too often we think that God's favor comes with an easy road. Preachers like Joel Osteen have been made famous on such promises. They have followers by the thousands, promising a Gospel of prosperity, a Gospel of richness, a Gospel of sunny days, rainbows and lollipops, but we know from our own experience, we know from history,  and we know from the Biblical record that such promises are not God's promises and they just aren't so, and I find them to be quite dangerous and harmful, harmful not only to the hearers and believers, but also it is harmful to the truth. That is the shame of lies, even permasmile covered happy lies, it makes people less able to discern the actual truth. And it sets God up for failure within peoples' eyes, not that God actually fails, just that God doesn't work the way that is promised, again God never promised us that Rose Garden.
Our Old Testament reading is from Lamentations. The prophet Jeremiah had warned and warned, had begged and pleaded, had repeatedly tried to get the people of Jerusalem to turn back to God, to avoid the calamity that would beset them, but they did not, and this Lamentations reading is his response to the after. The people have been exiled, the city was rubble, even the temple lay in ruins, but the "steadfast love of the Lord does not cease." Erick read it for us, but I want to recap a few of the highlights:
I have seen the affliction, I am under the rod, he has driven me, brought me, into darkness, without any light, against me he has turned his hand, again and again. My skin, my flesh they waste away, my bones are broken, I am besieged enveloped, with bitterness and tribulation. . . I sit in darkness, I am walled in, I cannot escape, I have heavy chains, I call for help, I cry, he shuts me out, my paths are crooked, and blocked, he is a bear lying in wait, a lion, about to pounce, I am led astray, torn to pieces, desolate, with a bow aimed at me, shot into my vitals, I a laughingstock, an object of taunting, bitterness, wormwood, my teeth grinding on gravel, I am bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is, Gone is my glory, all that I hoped for. . . . and to this I say the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. . . . to this I say his mercies have no end. . .
What do you think? If that was the description of your life, would you be able to say that last line, would you be able to believe that last line? Can we understand steadfast love? Can we understand a love that cannot be separated from us? Can we understand grace? It is a radical idea. It was then and it is now. It's radical because we have the notion ingrained into us, and I'm not sure if it is innate or taught, but it's there that we earn our fate. We earn what happens to us. We earn good results. But I'm not so sure, this passage, what is being described here in Romans 8 seems to put to challenge all these notions about how God works. . . because "nothing can separate us from the love of God. . . nothing we do. . . nothing done to us. . . and the love of God seems to include persecution, pain, desolation. . . etc.
Have you ever heard anything like this. . . I've often played golf in my life, and if you hit the ball hard and erratic like I do, many things can happen on the golf course. I remember some shots that I hit way right, but then it would hit a tree bounce back into the fairway, looking really good, like I had meant to hit it like that, and everytime, someone in the group would say. . . man you must be living right. As if I had made my luck. . . as if something that I had done along the way made that ball bounce that perfectly. I can think of my favorite song in "The Sound of Music" I told you I was thinking about old songs today. . . "I must have done something good."
Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

For me to deserve a love like this I must have done something good, something right along the way. And the flipside is true too. It's a Biblical issue throughout many different books, perhaps the entire book of Job has it. Job is in the midst of struggle, adversity, tribulation, and calamity, and his friends are all sure that he has done something to deserve such punishment. . . surely God has come to hate him for his fate to be so bleak, but none of those friends are correct. Why do we think that those who have good lives are so blessed and loved by God, and those who have to struggle are cursed? Why would we be so presumptuous to think so? .. . . I wrote a poem once called, "Can We Ever Understand Grace?"
If you don’t eat your broccoli
You won’t get dessert,
But believe in the graceful
Power of salvation.

If your report card is perfect
We’ll buy you a car
You have done nothing to merit
The unconditional love of God.

Work hard all your life
And earn for your retirement
To the criminal he said,
“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Maybe I could add a stanza today. .

Go to church, do what is right, God will fill your life
and your pockets with your every desire,
If you are ever being persecuted, in distress, hardship,
God still has not and will never leave you.

Can we ever understand such things? They don't make sense to us. They don't fit our world. But we look back and it is true, much more true than the false promises. I had said that false promises make the truth harder to see, of course they do.
One of my favorite examples from history is the plagues that hit Florence in the late middle ages. Florence was the perfect Catholic City, the paragon of Christendom. Flourishing in arts and literature, the very height of Christian promise and Christian virtue. But then the plague came. . . how could it? The priests in the town had promised that everything would be ok if they just believed, if they just confessed, if they just tithed, if they just gave to the church. When things started to go bad, they promised that it was due to a decline in faith. . . so people prayed more, tried to stop the tides, but of course to no avail. It was not that they had done anything, it was simply a time of trial, but since the promises were to the contrary, people lost faith in the hard times. . . and if you read the opening of Boccacchio's Decameron, where he describes the plague and the resulting behavior of the people, there was no love for neighbor, there was every man, woman, and child for themselves. . . people abandoned their faith, not to cause the plague, but in the middle of it because false promises had been made in the name of God. . . and it isn't God who failed, but people.
We have the notion that we will not struggle if we believe, that our lives will be perfect, that if we live right, everything will turn out alright. Though it is a nice notion, it just isn't true and believing such things will leave you out in the cold when the pain and the struggle does come. You will not have the strength survive because you will turn your back on faith, not because God has forsaken you, he hasn't, remember not anything can separate us. God doesn't promise us a rose garden, instead God promises to love us, that nothing on earth, nothing outside of earth, not rulers, not powers, not circumstances, not our lack of faith, not anything in the world can separate us from the Love of God. And that means that we may suffer, we may be persecuted, our lives may not turn out the way that we want. If we look to the Biblical characters, those stories of those God has favored, we don't see the rose garden, instead we see life, life like any other, with the pain and struggle, and hardship of life. . . bondage, and slavery, and betrayal, and hard hearted pharaohs, and Philistines, Babylonians, Assyrians, Lion's Dens, gladiator pits, crosses, wolves in sheep's clothing, terrorists, secularization, marginalization, persecution. . . all of these things have happened, and will happen again, but through them all nothing has separated us from the love of God. I ask again, in the middle of that struggle would we still believe, or have we been blinded by the truth by other notions than the promises of God. Many people have already decided and rejected what they think Christianity is because the promises made have been found wanting, and without faith, when the struggles come, what then dictates our behavior if not faith? It is a scary thought to say the least. May we be strengthened by the realistic truth rather than be weakened in the trial by the comfortable, happy lies. In the face of it all, let us say thanks be to the love of God. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 8:31-39). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.