Sunday, September 28, 2014

Action, Intention, or Lost?

Action, Intention, or Lost?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 28, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 3: 1-7
1 Peter 1: 13-25

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.
Amen.

13 Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. 14 Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15 Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16 for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. 18 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20 He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21 Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
22 Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. 23 You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
25     but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
That word is the good news that was announced to you. [1]

This has been a big week for me, lots of writing and inspiration, and on Thursday I got to speak at chapel at Blue Ridge, and also do my yearly guest appearance in the American Humanities Class to talk about Calvinism there with the students. They are studying early American History and Literature, and so they are looking to understand the New England Puritans better. I show up to try to make the idea of a Provident Sovereign God make sense to them, to make them understand just a little bit better where the Puritans are coming from. It is never easy because it is as if it is a foreign language to them. I've done it for at least 4 years now, and always to mixed results. It's hard in such a short period of time, I mean where do you start? This year I tried to put Calvin in some historical context, beginning with notions of what Classical Paganism was, connect that idea to the Medieval Catholic Church, through the idea that many of the so called Roman and Royal converts like Constantine and Clovis, saw Jesus and the Triune God as a new more powerful Zeus rather than the sovereign all powerful creator of the universe. And then having set that idea in their heads sought to go through the Genesis creation and fall story, asking them some of the key questions that give shape to this sovereign God notion that Calvin holds up as central to his theology. Asking them questions like, "is the expulsion from the garden punishment or is it consequences?" Consequences being something set in stone before hand. . . that's what happens. . . and punishment being reactive. Asking them, if God is reacting there, "what does that say about God's omniscience and omnipotence?" Those kinds of questions always get them thinking just a little bit.
But then the other question I asked them was, what constitutes the Sin, original sin, the cause of the Fall? And it is that question I want to focus on this morning. Does sin occur when the serpent speaks the lie, and doubt creeps into a perfectly created world, for the serpent basically calls God a liar. . . problematic for a God who speaks things into existence, the very definition of truth occurs from God's speaking . . . is that where sin occurs? Or does it occur when Eve decides she wants to eat the fruit. . . i.e. in our minds, our intentions? Or finally is it the act itself? So, basically my question is: is sin an action? is sin an intention? or is sin a state of being, where we are so lost we can't even recognize truth anymore?
Have you ever thought about that? You may think that it is a pretty small thing, one of those philosophical or theological concerns that may mean something in the classroom, but really don't mean a whole lot anywhere else. You may be right in thinking that, but I really think it is one of the central questions to our existence. Even if we don't realize it, this question is at the center of many of our assumptions about life. It is at the center of how and why our laws are written and understood. It is at the center of how we are broken, and then it would also be central into the way we would go about getting ourselves fixed. . . if that fix were possible.
Western Culture is infused with this idea of a Fall, and it is almost completely nonexistent in the East. Most Eastern Religions and Philosophies, stuff like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and others are more about human beings finding their place within the natural order of the world, but in the west we have this idea of a Fall. It isn't just in the Bible either. The Greeks had their Pandora's box, where through human curiosity, out of spite towards the creator of humanity (not Zeus), Zeus creates a box that contains all of the evils in the world. It get's opened and then humans have to struggle. The Greek poet Hesiod and his Roman counterpart, saw the fall as related to the creation of the seasons. They saw the world as a perpetual spring, where all was in plenty, and people never had to plant or build shelters, we could just be and all our needs were taken care of, but then the seasons were introduced. Creating the need for work, some did, some didn't, all of a sudden you had haves and have nots, those who were strong took from those who were weak, and the violence kept escalating until what we have now. . . this is the idea that human suffering, and the ills of human nature are connected to the idea of limited resources. . . that if the plentitude of resources could be re-established, then humans would go back to being the angels we had been.
This idea of a fall, is always connected to the idea of a restoration. If perfection has been, then it could be again. So completely infused in our culture is this notion of the reperfection of humanity, whether we call it evolution, whether we call it utopia, whether we call it Progressivism, or whether we call it Salvation, the coming of the Kingdom of God. So this get's me back to our questions: intentions, actions, or a state of being so lost there is nothing we can do. If Sin is only the actions. . . then the remedy would be simple. . . we could do fix it through law, we could fix it through denying people the ability to commit sins. . . have we tried this? Isn't this the typical idea we've had throughout history? Isn't this the reason for so many laws, so many times that we have sought to legislate morality? There is a belief that perfection is just around the bend, once we can straighten out the system. . . but history would suggest that it really never works. This makes me think that there is more to it than just actions. There is the cause of these actions.
So is it then our intentions that are when sin occurs, the moment right before we act, just when we make the decision to do stuff. This would match some of what Jesus says in the sermon on the mount when he talks about anger being the sin, lust being the sin, not just the act, but the desire for the act. So then the solution is to purge ourselves of the desires. We can just remove temptation from people, create situations where people would be angels because there is no wrong for them to choose. That is the idea behind a woman wearing a birka in Muslim Tradition. . . That is also what Monks were doing when they would flagellate themselves. They would whip themselves when they had desires, trying to curb the desire to sin by connecting it to pain or negative impulse. Shock therapy is similar, so too is hypnosis. People use these techniques to lose weight or to stop smoking. Or what about drugs. More and more drugs are coming out to curb the impulses that people have, whether it is extreme emotion, inattentiveness, or depression. . . we are creating better, fully functioning human beings through chemistry, again perfecting the species by curbing the will, the decision making process. In a much more benign way, education itself fits into this idea. If the world were educated then they would have much better intentions. It seems simple, but I am skeptical.
I'm skeptical because I think our issues go much deeper, much deeper than our actions, and much deeper than our intentions. Both of these are fixable, at least on paper, and they are fixable within each of us, through internal and external factors that seem to be close to our control. That is why these notions of what sin is are so popular because it seems like we are in control of them and can fix them ourselves. We can feel pretty good about ourselves when we don't commit an act of sin. We typically end up with distinct measures, the righteous and the unrighteous, the in and the out, the sinner and the saint, and it is all so easy to see, to notice, to point fingers, to base justice on, and to judge. . . when you have sin based on actions. It is simple, and to me it is too simple, and it doesn't go far enough because those divisions seem to be rooted in sin too, they seem to be evidence not of our wholeness but again of our brokenness, our propensity to make divisions and exclusions, our need to grade, and to put people below us in some kind of moral hierarchy all designed to make ourselves feel better. "I may be this, but at least I'm not that." And our intentions, our decision making, seems to be controllable too, just like with our actions there seems to be a sense that we can judge ourselves fixed.
But we don't. Every week we confess our sin. What are we confessing when we do so? Do you ever have a week when you are good? I know I've had weeks when I can say I haven't done any "sinful" actions, and I may have had a week when I can say I haven't made any sinful decisions at least where I can remember, or as I would judge from my perspective, but I have never had a week where Sin wasn't a part of my life. The biggest reason I think it goes deeper than actions and intentions because our standards, our viewpoints, our basis for judging aren't close to enough. . . and here is the reason. . . because even our standards are corrupted by Sin.
There isn't anything about us that isn't somehow touched by sin, and that is why I think sin is deeper than our intentions and our actions. It is as if our perspective is turned upside down, that wrong and right aren't clear at all, that things are always so complicated, and that we can rationalize pretty much anything, that we can take a look at circumstances, and consequences, and completely convince ourselves that they are unrelated and untrue. It is like we each have created our own reality, based on our own perspective, that is completely independent from facts, from other people, from truth. It  is like our entire world is based on lies, lies we tell ourselves and lies we tell each other.
That was the basis of my talk at Blue Ridge on Thursday Morning at chapel. I called it baggage, and said that we all have it. We all have this stuff we bring along with us. Things that we add to ourselves over time. I read for them my poem about the bunny. The one that has clothes on, and so can no longer run and escape. He is unwilling to cast off the clothes and it leads to his destruction. I asked them, how many things have we added to ourselves that we are unable to unload, be they our history, our actions, the way we see ourselves, the way we see others, the way we see the world. How hard is it to tell the truth or even to tell what is true in this world? How hard is it to even know who we are? How much of even our definitions of ourselves are swamped with lies and partial truths, corners sanded off to make palatable for ourselves, just so we can look at ourselves in the mirror.
I'm reminded of one of the great scenes in the movie, "Glory" about a Black Union Regiment during the Civil War. It was Denzel Washington's first Oscar win. There is the scene where he has been asked to carry the flag, and he says, "I ain't fightin this war for you sir. . .
Trip: I ain't fightin' this war for you, sir.
Trip: I mean, what's the point? Ain't nobody gonna win. It's just gonna go on and on.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Can't go on forever.
Trip: Yeah, but ain't nobody gonna win, sir.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Somebody's gonna win.
Trip: Who? I mean, you get to go on back to Boston, big house and all that. What about us? What do we get?
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: Well, you won't get anything if we lose.

Colonel Robert G. Shaw: So what do you want to do?
Trip: Don't know, sir.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: It stinks, I suppose.
Trip: Yeah, It stinks bad. And we all covered up in it too. Ain't nobody clean. Be nice to get clean, though.
Colonel Robert G. Shaw: How do we do that?
Trip: We ante up and kick in, sir. But I still don't want to carry your flag.

Sin is something that we are all covered up in. . . all of us, Ain't nobody clean. It's inside us. It's outside us. It's something that influences everything about us from the day we are born. And I don't necessarily think it is a disease, like only a flaw, some cosmic thing that shifted. . . when we were expelled from the garden. .. but rather like the work of a lie,  a lie so simple and complete that it infiltrates every piece of our existence. . . like God is a liar. There is no truth. Nothing matters. It's all just in your head. Everybody has their point of view. Truth is just relative. . . to perspective. . . to culture. . . to whatever. . . and the stinky unspoken truth about relative truth is, that it is just a bunch of lies, for who is in a position, as a human, to tell the complete truth?
Augustine put it like this: and it is your Prayer of Preparation this morning. . .
Man's original capacities included both the power not to sin and the power to sin (posse non peccare et posse peccare).
In other words we could do both at that point, the world was pure and we had free will, the freedom to choose either.

In Adam's original sin, man lost the posse non peccare (the power not to sin) and retained the posse peccare (the power to sin)--which he continues to exercise.

We lost the power not to sin. . . see Augustine is seeing things in terms of actions, but he is taking the reason as to why we have to do the action in something behind it, some change in our power, our state. I want to go that step further, connecting it not to a cosmic changing of nature, but of the clouding of our minds. We believe that lie in the garden, and that lie introduces all of our own lies because it gives us license to define ourselves, define existence, define the truth. . . because if God isn't defining through his creative speaking of the Word, than there isn't any.
I said a minute ago, in this world of lies, who is in a position to tell the truth, who lives outside of sin enough to have a credible truth bound view point. . . . Only Christ. and that is exactly what Christ does, he testifies to the truth. . . in words, in actions, in deeds, and shows that the truth, changes our perspective on the limitations of ourselves and the limitations of the world. Christ shows that there is so much more than we thought ever possible, and Christ shows us that what we had thought was based on lies. . . Sin. . . and often these lies make us comfortable. . . and we don't like when they are shaken. That is why following is so difficult, that is why it is the harder path, that is why many choose the darkness instead of the light. . . it is known, it is comfortable, and it is based on our own perspective, but to see outside of ourselves is that start. . . that is why loving God and loving our neighbors is what we are called to do. . . doing so breaks us outside of our lies, and allows us to see truth, to experience truth, and to be reborn to a new creation one uncorrupted by such lies. Is it possible, we ask ourselves, but as I was driving here this morning, the song “It’s gonna take a lot of love” was on, with its claim that “It’s gonna take a lot of love to change the way things are.” And that is right, and nothing else will ever do, luckily the love that God has for us as shown through Jesus Christ is steadfast, infinite, and unconditional, and that is why it can break through the curtain of sin.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Pe 1:13-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Foolish Rabbit

The Foolish Rabbit
Peter T. Atkinson

On a bright and sunny day of spring
As I walked down a lone wooded road
A song in my heart to my lips did sing
Of an Easter morn long ago.

Where much to my surprise I spied
A rabbit in his full Sunday best,
Who asked me for an innocent ride
In my basket’s grassy nest.

“Of course,” I said, and you would too
For who could ever say no
To a rabbit who asked with the manners of few
And was arrayed in such wonderful clothes.

“Where to?” I asked as he hopped on in,
“Just where is your aim this day?”
“Any place you please, and thanks again,
For I just wish to be away.”

“From what” I asked, “do you so hurriedly run?
What cares could there possibly be,
For rabbits seem to have so much fun
Hopping and playing and free?”

“It may seem so to you, who is but a child,
But I always must stay on the move,
For new dangers lurk for me in the wild
If you don’t believe it wait and I’ll prove.

“Why do you think, God made us so quick.
We dash, dart, and hide in a jiffy,
But these clothes have slowed me down a tick
 I can’t run while looking so spiffy.”

“Well that’s easy!” I said, “Just take them off,
And once again free you will be.”
But he just looked away with a scoff,
Saying, “You don’t know a thing about me.


“For how once being clothed in such finery
Could I ever be seen in the nude?
No, my pride won’t allow to let any see me
With nothing on! How indecent! How rude!

“No I have evolved, improved, changed you see
And so I could never go back
To a time where I wasn’t decorously
Fashioned. No, that is certainly a fact!

“I’d rather die than lose these my clothes
They’ve become a part of me now.
It would be like losing part of my nose,
The thought I could never allow.”

And so I carried the rabbit a while
  But my little arms grew quickly tired
For to carry a rabbit is much for a child
And so I then him inquired.

“Is this far enough? I don’t think I can go
Just one more step with the load.
Is this a fair place to leave you so
I can keep on my way down the road?”

“Sure this will do,” he said, “Anywhere
Is just as good as the next
You could have even left me back there,
But I am much obliged to have been your guest.”

And so off I went, but I often think
That those clothes would soon mean his end,
And I feel saddened and my heart does sink
When I think of my poor silly friend.

And now as I walk on this spring day
When I pass that same stretch of road
What changes have I taken on by the way

That I’m so unwilling to unload.

Baggage

Baggage
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 25, 2014
at Gibson Memorial Chapel, Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Psalm 139: 1-6; 13-18
Matthew 11: 28-30

Let us pray,
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.
Amen.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


This morning I want to talk about baggage. I brought up in class the other day the idea that words tend to take on baggage. I was talking about the difference between Denotation – which is the dictionary definition of a word, and Connotation – the feelings and ideas surrounding a word. And so I was trying to get at what connotation meant, and used the term baggage. It is just the stuff that becomes associated with something. The stuff that comes along with it and sometimes with words it gets so that it is hard to differentiate between the word’s original meaning and what it has become. Those of us who are fans of the Washington Redskins know all to well how baggage works. It is a big deal for words, but it tends to be a big deal for people too, even institutions. We all have baggage. We have things that are associated with us. Sometimes they are ideas that other people have about us, and sometimes they are ideas that we have about ourselves. Sometimes those things are good but other times they just tend to hold us down and are too much for us to carry. They weigh us down and keep us from being what we should be, quite possibly what we were made to be, or what we are called to be. I wrote this poem a few years back to illustrate the idea. It’s called, “The Foolish Rabbit.”

The Foolish Rabbit


On a bright and sunny day of spring
As I walked down a lone wooded road
A song in my heart to my lips did sing
Of an Easter morn long ago.

Where much to my surprise I spied
A rabbit in his full Sunday best,
Who asked me for an innocent ride
In my basket’s grassy nest.

“Of course,” I said, and you would too
For who could ever say no
To a rabbit who asked with the manners of few
And was arrayed in such wonderful clothes.

“Where to?” I asked as he hopped on in,
“Just where is your aim this day?”
“Any place you please, and thanks again,
For I just wish to be away.”

“From what” I asked, “do you so hurriedly run?
What cares could there possibly be,
For rabbits seem to have so much fun
Hopping and playing and free?”

“It may seem so to you, who is but a child,
But I always must stay on the move,
For new dangers lurk for me in the wild
If you don’t believe it wait and I’ll prove.

“Why do you think, God made us so quick.
We dash, dart, and hide in a jiffy,
But these clothes have slowed me down a tick
 I can’t run while looking so spiffy.”

“Well that’s easy!” I said, “Just take them off,
And once again free you will be.”
But he just looked away with a scoff,
Saying, “You don’t know a thing about me.

“For how once being clothed in such finery
Could I ever be seen in the nude?
No, my pride won’t allow to let any see me
With nothing on! How indecent! How rude!

“No I have evolved, improved, changed you see
And so I could never go back
To a time where I wasn’t decorously
Fashioned. No, that is certainly a fact!

“I’d rather die than lose these my clothes
They’ve become a part of me now.
It would be like losing part of my nose,
The thought I could never allow.”

And so I carried the rabbit a while
  But my little arms grew quickly tired
For to carry a rabbit is much for a child
And so I then him inquired.

“Is this far enough? I don’t think I can go
Just one more step with the load.
Is this a fair place to leave you so
I can keep on my way down the road?”

“Sure this will do,” he said, “Anywhere
Is just as good as the next
You could have even left me back there,
But I am much obliged to have been your guest.”

And so off I went, but I often think
That those clothes would soon mean his end,
And I feel saddened and my heart does sink
When I think of my poor silly friend.

And now as I walk on this spring day
When I pass that same stretch of road
What changes have I taken on by the way
That I’m so unwilling to unload.


 Like most fables this simple story has a lesson, something to make you stop and think. You can see that the bunny in the story is wearing clothes, and that though he takes great pride in his clothes, it is something that is going to lead to his destruction. The clothes were an improvement that he was trying to make for himself, but in fact becomes something that makes it so he cannot do what he was made to do. What he is as a rabbit has become tragically altered, and so the last stanza then asks us, stops to make us think, asking, “What changes have I taken on by the way that I’m so unwilling to unload?” Like the rabbit, have you become something other than what you really are, all to your detriment? Would you even know it?
And so I ask you that question. We all have things that define us. We all have baggage. Many of them are add-ons. We think that many of them are temporary. Do you ever ask yourself, who am I, and not only who--but what--what is the answer to that question based on? What defines us? Many think we define ourselves. Many let others define us. Many let circumstances define us. Many let arbitrary categories define us: Things like eye color, hair color. . . arbitrary right? What about skin color? What about where you are from? What about who you hang out with? Do you get to decide? Have you ever been shaped by something someone else said about you, something that really got under your skin and changed the way you view yourself? What about a diagnosis? A label placed on you--"he's A.D.D. or he's just a jock, his sister is really smart, but he's the dumb one. . . sometimes those begin with words like "Bless his heart" or "I love him to death." "With all due respect" or "I hate to tell you this" but you are lazy. And those things, if we hear them enough they become a weight around our neck because we believe them, maybe not out loud, but deep down we start to see ourselves completely wrong. Sometimes we try to escape them and make a new start. We go some where new and try to start over. Many of you are new to this school, when you showed up did you decide that you wanted people to see you a certain way? Did you act differently? Do you act differently at home than you do here? If so why? Are you trying to escape those definitions because they aren't really you, or are you just running away from yourself? Do you even know anymore? How much of that stuff--whatever it is--defines you, and is it binding? Is it real? Do you find that you define yourself the same way as others do you? Or do you have a completely different vision in mind? Is your vision of yourself any more real, true, beneficial than what others think about you?
Because here is the biting question. . . How much about the way you define yourself is built on lies? How much of it is built on false assumptions, short sighted notions, given by people who don't really know  you or assumed by you while you're trying to be something that you are not, you're trying to posture, to seem bigger, better, stronger, smarter? You're trying to place yourself in some kind of hierarchy – of coolness, popularity, that ever evasive notion of status? When I was working at Christchurch the Dean of Students had a sign in his office that read, “When you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what you said.” How true is that? How much of a burden do we carry by trying to define ourselves, by positioning ourselves, in false categories, based on lies? But yet we do it, we add these things to us, or they are added to us by other people and often they are destroying us, just like the little rabbit wearing clothes because they just aren't true.
My faith tradition calls this idea Sin, and you see it's not just a personal thing, and it's not just a thing of actions, it's not just a list of rules, but instead is a mixed up way of seeing the world, a way of seeing the world where we are lost in a tangled web of lies, assumptions, misinformation, and things added to us that are not what we were designed to be. Our Psalm reading we read together said that we are made, wonderfully, fearfully, with care, that our inward parts, our real selves, that live within our facade, the outer shell we wear for other people, that even we can't always see through, that deep down within there is really a person there, a person whose mere existence is loved and has value, not because any of the things we add to ourselves, but the people we just are.
Other faith traditions also seek to find the answer to the question--Who am I? There is something inherent it seems within human nature, that we just don't know. Each tradition and culture gives a different word for it, a different goal in mind, And frankly each tradition has some baggage too that may just as often become a barrier to seeking actual truth, but really what it is about, what each tradition is about, at its core, is seeking truth. That is what unites us all, seeking truth. The big fancy word for that seeking of truth is discernment. We are all at different places, have different and unique paths, lives, and identities, different truths we are seeking, but I invite you to work to discern. . . to seek truth. . . to wade through the lies, misinformation, and baggage. . . because I believe that beyond all our comfortable and uncomfortable lies, beyond all the baggage we are carrying, some of which is killing us, slowing us down, and keeping us down, that if we can somehow shake the baggage, and the burdens of our false realities, we can find the peace, the rest, and the firm foundation that only the truth can give. And in the end if you do all that seeking and at the end of the road you find that truth doesn't exist. . . then the road never really ended. . . the end was just another lie. . . so keep seeking. Amen. 

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.
Amen.

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.