The What and Who of Meandering About

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A New Narrative - Sermon from July 27

Romans 8:26-39
Second at Six
You can watch the service by clicking here if you wish. The sermon begins at 21:45.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

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.

Everyone loves a good story.

Our world is full of them.

Story is why we read novels and go to the movies.
Story is why we are moved to tears by documentaries and well developed commercials.
Story is why we find biographies to be inspiring and deep conversations unforgettable.
Everyone loves a good story.

The narrative grabs us. It pulls us in, and it seems to have us at its mercy. We love to ride the current of the narrative and allow it to carry us along with its ebb and flow until we come crashing ashore exhausted yet simultaneously exhilarated.

There truly are very few things that can match the power of narrative.
Yes, everyone loves a good story.

And therein lies the problem. Because not only are we surrounded every day by narratives of love, beauty, joy, and hope, we are also bombarded on a daily basis by narratives of hate, despair, scarcity, and fear. Another shooting in downtown Indianapolis, another plane has gone missing, another day full rockets launched from Israel into Gaza or vice versa, another frightening storm, another child with disease, another tragic end to another relationship. And the seemingly endless list goes on and on.

Like the stories of hope these difficult narratives have the power to change us, too. They have the power to impact the manner in which we view, experience, and understand the world in which we live.

These narratives seem to have us at their mercy.

As dangerous as these narratives are to our daily lives, some of the most insidious narratives come from our own experiences, or the people closest to us, or even from deep within our very selves, and they threaten to wreck havoc on the condition of our soul.

We are not alone in this battle even though it may seem as if we are. Each and every one of us struggles with the narratives that seem to play over and over within our hearts and minds telling us that there is much to fear, that somehow we are inadequate, that we will never measure up, that life is just a series of horrible mishaps, and that somehow these are all evidence that we have lost favor with God. And we are convinced that it is so.

Indeed, it is impossible to ignore the fact that life is hard for each and every one of us. We do not need experts to tell us that. We live it every day.

Our reading this evening from Paul's letter to the church in Rome seems to be ripped right out of our contemporary context and speaks directly into our lives. Yet, it was written nearly 2000 years ago. It was written into a setting that was full of despair and reasons to be afraid. Life expectancy was relatively short. Infant mortality rates were high. Hunger and famine were widespread. Most people lived from day to day just trying to survive. The Roman Empire occupied most of the known world - the peace of Rome established and maintained through the point of a sword and the might of an army. There was persecution at the hands of those in power.
Life was hard.

Yet, into this setting Paul wrote the beautiful, hopeful, and deeply challenging words that we find at the end of Romans 8. These words led a contemporary theologian to pen, "The end of Romans 8 deserves to be written in letters of fire on the living tablets of our hearts." (Wright, 2004)

With that, listen again as tonight's passage begins…
"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, the searcher the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. For we know that to those who love God all things work together to good, to those who are called according to his purpose."

Struggles and hardships do not go unnoticed in this passage. In fact, they are its backdrop. Paul reminds us that when we feel as though we are left all alone to suffer, that it is there that the Spirit intercedes where words likely fail us. At those moments when we simply do not know what to say, there are sighs too deep for words being communicated to God. The "Searcher of the Heart" understands the groanings of our spirit when we have no words to speak. And how often do we find ourselves tongue tied in the face of our own despair or within our most difficult of circumstances. It is comforting to know that communication does not cease with the divine at our own loss of words. That somehow within the silence there are groans communing with the one who is closer than our very breath.

As comforting as that is, Paul doesn't stop there.
In Romans 8:28, a verse that has become the favorite of many Christians who hope beyond hope that their circumstances are not wasted, we hear powerful words. However, they are words that likely do not say what many would like for them to say. Paul does not write that all things that happen are good for those who love God. Oh, wouldn’t it be great if it were so. If we could avoid the difficulty in life if we just believed hard enough or perhaps believed "right" enough.

Wouldn’t it be great?

However, we know in the depths of our being that this is not true. We have suffered far too many setbacks and hardships to believe that somehow these moments are "blessings in disguise". The pain is far too real. When we stop to actually consider this message, we know that it is not true. And it is not even what the passage says. There is a real danger when we only listen to a part of the overall narrative of Scripture. And this is one passage that has been made to say many things that it simply doesn't say; so many damaging things. Of Romans 8:28 N.T. Wright says, "When we are thus marked out as God's people, not outwardly but in the secret prayers and loves of our inmost being, we can be completely sure that God is in charge, that God can bring good out of whatever happens. Verse 28 is a much-loved promise for many who have learned by it to trust God in the many varied and often troubling circumstances of our lives. The world is still groaning, and we with it; but God is with us in this groaning, and will bring it out for good." (Wright, 2004)

Life is hard…
the God of redemption, the "Searcher of our Hearts", is at work for good within and through our circumstance.

But this amazing passage doesn't end there. Paul continues as if he can hear the qualifying questions and hopeless statements based on the difficulty of life experiences before they are even asked by his audience.
But there is so much pain in life. There are so many setbacks. I am not worthy of love, grace, mercy.
To these questions and all of the other inquiries that rest in our hearts attempting to sell us on a narrative that is contrary to the narrative of the Gospel, Paul asks some questions of his own. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" Yes, we shout…
surely these things run the risk of separating us from God. These are the things that are evidence that we have lost favor with God. Right?!

No, says the apostle. In fact, because of the activity of God, because of the love of God, we are found, along with the saints to be completely victorious over all of these and anything else that life may throw at us. Paul Achtemeier writes, "Gone forever (is) the temptation to assume ill fortune is evidence of God's rejection of us! Banished once and for all is the temptation to conclude that when things go badly, it means God has deserted us. God is for us. Nothing significant can therefore be against us." (Achtemeier, 1985). Nothing. This is the good news.

Life is hard…
the God of redemption, the Searcher of our Hearts, is at work for good and nothing can ever separate us from the love of such a God. Nothing.

The past two weeks I had the opportunity to spend time with some of our amazing high school students on a service trip to Sandusky, Ohio. I was continually surprised by the work, the desires, and the words of these young people. One night during worship, one of the students said these words to the entire group as a testimony to the narrative changing power of God in her life.

She said,
"Anyone you talk to is going to have insecurities, whether they tell you or not....In the 7th and 8th grade I was severely bullied & basically all my current insecurities were pointed out to me. I was told that I wasn't pretty enough or that I wasn't good enough and so many mean things that at the time I actually believed they were true. It really took a toll on my life because I didn't want to go to school anymore. Those kids made me feel powerless and like I was completely alone. Instead of turning to God to help me find my way I started having so many doubts…and I started to just give up…all together. I tried to handle all of these issues I was having on my own because I felt like it would be a bother for (others) to hear my sob story. My brother introduced me to Second Presbyterian Church and convinced me to go on the Chicago mission trip last year as my first church function. As much as I didn't want to go and as much as I still doubted God I was able to surround myself with the nicest group of people I have ever come to know and put all of my faith back into God...and now I will always know that (this) is home when everywhere else can sometimes feel like the middle of nowhere. After realizing beauty didn't mean what the other kids were making it out to be I was able to re-evaluate myself and accept some things I was never able to accept before. To be beautiful on the inside means to be yourself & surround yourself with people that make you feel amazing. That's true beauty to me. You don't always need to be accepted by others." (Megan Stanbrough).

Life is hard…
the God of redemption, the Searcher of our Hearts, is at work for good and nothing can ever separate us from the love of such a God. Nothing.

And then with a flourish, Paul brings this portion of his letter to the church of Rome to a climactic end. Again he appears to hear the thoughts bouncing in the heads of his readers preparing to spill out of our lips. But what about the oppressors? What about the powers that be? What about the bad decisions that rest in our past and the uncertainty of our future? What about the forces we cannot see? What about those that we can see that threaten our very well being? Yes, what about all of these things and more?

Look around your life. See these purveyors of a false narrative, a narrative of despair and hopelessness, for the charlatans that they are. There is no truth in their version of the world in which we live. Again, N.T. Wright says, "Look around and see the many things that threaten to separate you from the powerful love which reaches out through the cross and resurrection, and learn that they are all beaten foes." (Wright, 2004)

There is nothing in all of creation, not even the power of our own voice, that can ultimately severe us from the love of God found in Jesus the Christ. Nothing. This is the narrative into which we are called to live. All other narratives are snake oil and religious quackery.

Life is hard…
the God of redemption, the Searcher of our Hearts, is at work for good and nothing can ever separate us from the love of such a God. This is the hope into which we live. It is the narrative that changes everything.

I leave you with this witness from another one of the participants in this year's high school service trip. He said, "It doesn't take much effort to value a human being. Today (after spending time at Nehemiah Center and with the children in their summer program) we all experienced a little bit of this whether we knew it or not. Today," he said, "I met a kid, Aiden. He was pretty chill. I connected with Aiden. I treated him like I would any of you (my peers). I saw Aiden. To some, he may just be a little kid, but to me he was another 'bro'. I could've directly affected that little man, maybe not, but I tried. And maybe, when he grows up to be a 16 year old giant, he too can affect the little 'bros' of the world waiting for acknowledgement; waiting for someone to fall them friend; waiting for someone to see them. And with that, the cycle continues. 'Cause all humans; big, small, weird, or famous; deserve to be treated well. God made them like God made you and we're all great in God's eyes." (Rob Lynch)

This is the difference that new narrative can make. When we get caught in the current of this narrative and allow it to carry us along with its ebb and flow others will get caught up in it as well.

Sometimes we will get kicked in the teeth. Sometimes we will get knocked down. Sometimes we will stare death in the face or feel the hot breath of despair breathing down our neck. None of these things change the truth of the divine narrative at work in our lives and in the world. The God of redemption, the Searcher of our Hearts, is at work for good and nothing can ever separate us from the love of such a God. This is the hope into which we live. This is the narrative by which we are defined, even if the other narratives are the loudest voices in our heads.

If we listen…
if we really lean in…
we hear the rhythm of this narrative echoing in our heartbeat.
You are loved…
you are accepted…
you are more
than any of these other things that the world, our experience or our own psyche may tell us to the contrary.

Our spirit groans for the day when all will be fulfilled as we live in our "not yet" world.

Life is hard…
the God of redemption, the Searcher of our Hearts, is at work for good and nothing can ever separate us from the love of such a God. This is the hope into which we live. This is the narrative that changes everything.
Amen.

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