Future Hope & Present Sufferings



Inspired by Romans 8:14-39

So, we have finally come to the end of year one of our Narrative Lectionary readings, which we began at the beginning of the school year last Fall in the book of Genesis, and continued by reading some of the great stories of the Bible right on through to Paul’s letter to Rome. It’s a four-year cycle of readings and year two begins at the start of the next school year around Labor Day. That leaves us with an opportunity over the summer for some series on Bible books or topics that we wouldn’t normally get a chance to do. So, beginning next week we will start a series on the Psalms, followed by a series on the letter to the Hebrews, and ending the summer with a topical series on Sabbath. Should be fun! I’m looking forward to it, I hope you are too.

Today, our final reading in Romans comes from chapter eight, which is in the middle of the letter, and it’s arguably one of the most profound chapters in the entire letter, which is probably why they decided to end there. However, if you will make the time, I highly recommend you finish reading the rest of the letter, and if you have been following the daily readings that are found in your bulletin insert, you will read most of what we had to skip.

I’m not sure how many of you use that insert but I’d like to recommend it again if you don’t. If you’re looking for a way to enrich your faith life between Sundays, it’s a great resource, even if you only use it for the daily readings, it’s worth your time. As an additional resource for your personal devotional lives, you can find a website on the bottom right of the back of the insert, where you can find a thoughtfully written devotion on each day’s reading. Those are also posted each morning at 6am on our Facebook page for your convenience as well.

But let’s dive into this reading from Romans. The Paul that wrote this chapter I like to call the cosmic Paul, or since we are in California, calling him the hippy Paul also works. He goes from being Mr. Practical, Mr. Realist, with all his talk about sin and the law, into this chapter that ends with promise and life and hope and it just oozes with positivity. There’s a bit about suffering in there too which will be important in a minute but he ends on such a positive note that you wonder who this Paul really is.

When we started in Romans a few weeks ago, I joked about how infuriating Paul can be. But there is a depth to this guy that I’ll admit that people like me just don’t appreciate as much as we should. All that is to say, if you struggle with Paul like I do, don’t dismiss him too quickly. The ancients of our faith included his writings in the Bible for a lot of good reasons, and this chapter is evidence of that.

So, Cosmic Paul has his head in the clouds in this chapter. And what I mean by that is that this chapter is very future-oriented, and by future, I mean after the end of time, after the end of all things, after the end of our time here on Earth. Paul speaks of a future time when God’s glory is finally revealed to us, when suffering is no more, when true freedom becomes a reality.

And Paul is so hopeful about this future, and more than hopeful, he’s certain. His confidence that this future that he describes will come to fruition is contagious! It’s easy to get swept up with Paul in this amazing future that Paul says has been promised to us by God, referring to us as heirs with Christ. And then, you walk out those double doors and back into the world that we live in, down here under the clouds, where suffering, and heartache, and death, are alive and well and in your face.

If you’re anything like me, this is where you struggle. It’s difficult to be comforted by Cosmic Paul when we are stuck in the earthy world that we live in. It’s a struggle to reconcile this ultimate hope of Paul’s with these penultimate times that we live in. It’s kind of like when someone says to you, while you are going through a rough patch of life, “I’m sure everything will work out” or “God must have a plan”, two phrases that, as your pastor, you will never hear me say to you when you are going through something. Not because I don’t believe those statements, but because they are anything but helpful when you are in the muck and mire of life. My response to statements like that is, “Well, that’s great but how does that help me now!” That’s why I appreciate Paul’s words about suffering so much, from this same chapter no less!

Even Cosmic Paul knows that this hope of the future doesn’t lessen our sufferings in this life. His words on suffering are an acknowledgment of our struggles down here. And you know, sometimes that all we need, just some acknowledgment that what we go through down here is valid, legitimate, real, even when it isn’t always logical, and especially when it’s self-inflicted. We don’t always need someone to solve our problems for us, or give us advice, and we certainly don’t need any more judgment than we already give ourselves. But for our suffering, no matter the size, to just be acknowledged, to just be seen by someone else, can make all the difference in the world, and can in its own way provide a comfort that answers and solutions just can’t.

When I was going through the call process three years ago to find a new church, before I found you all, I went to many, many interviews. And after each failure, when either I decided it wasn’t a good match, or the congregation I interviewed with decided that for me, I’d get a call from the synod staff that I was working with to help find me a church, Pastor Nancy Nelson. And the first thing out of her mouth when she would call me after yet another failure was, “Well, this sucks.” I had expected words of comfort, or encouragement, or hope. But no, “This sucks” is how she would always start those conversations. The first time I heard that I was caught off-guard but then I thought, “You know what, yeah, this does suck.” And she would just let me sit in that muck for a minute. A gift that has had a lasting impact on me.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day of the church year that we remember the Holy Spirit coming to those first disciples as recorded in the book of Acts that we read just after Easter. But more than that, it’s a celebration of God’s work in the world through the Holy Spirit, each and every day.

And as Paul highlights for us, that work includes the confident proclamation of hope and fulfilled promises that we can all look forward to, and it also includes the acknowledgment that those promises have not been fulfilled yet, not ultimately. This same Spirit, who provides an endless supply of hope whenever we need it, also knows when to just sit with us, in the muck and mire of our lives, and simply say, “This really sucks.” For me, that is a companion, a partner, a friend, like no other—and that’s worth celebrating on this day. Happy Pentecost my friends. Amen.

Our God-Given Weapons of War



Inspired by Romans 6:1-14

I don’t like guns. No, that’s putting it too lightly. Guns scare the you-know-what outta me! And I know where I get it from. I get that from my mom. She disliked guns so much, I wasn’t even allowed to make the shape of a gun with my hand! I’m feeling guilty just doing right now! Somewhere in northwestern Washington State, my mom’s spidey senses are tingling right now, and she’s probably thinking, “What is my son doing now!” Anyway, to this day I have the same distaste for firearms.

I have friends, who call themselves “gun enthusiasts.” I have a hard time just wrapping my head around that phrase. And they know about my aversion to guns so we just don’t talk about it. Because they know that I’m one of those people that if we woke up tomorrow and every gun in the world had just disappeared overnight, I’d be totally ok with that. But, I’m not a “gun enthusiast” so that’s easy for me to say.

By now, some of you are probably thinking, “Where in the world is pastor going with this! Did he hit the communion wine already?” No. It’s non-alcoholic wine anyway. In our reading today, Paul ends by talking about weapons and so that sent my mind in a whirlwind of ideas about weapons. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a fascinating letter. It doesn’t take you long to realize that there were some issues going on among those Christians.

And Paul was doing his best, from afar, to both encourage the good work they were doing, while also correcting some things that were tripping them up. And like humans of all times and places, they were struggling with the question of, who is in and who is out, who does God love and who does God not love? We’ve covered those questions over the last two Sundays, and now Paul is starting to get into more of the nuts and bolts of our faith.

Questions like, how are we supposed to treat other people now that we know God loves us, and now that we know that there’s nothing we can do to earn that love? And does knowing that change anything? Paul’s answer to that question is an emphatic, “Yes!” It most certainly changes things! It changes you! Or at least it’s supposed to! How can it not?

Have you ever known someone who, for no real reason at all, you just don’t like? They haven’t really done anything to you but they’re just someone you don’t really want to spend time with or maybe they just rub you the wrong way but again, they haven’t done anything negative to you? Please tell me I’m not alone in this! And then, this person pays you the nicest compliment that a person can give! And then you’re like, “Oh crap, now what?” It’s so disarming, isn’t it? All those thoughts and feeling that you had about that person just kinda melt away right before your eyes, or at the very least, they now seem so unimportant.

That’s the kind of change that Paul is trying to get at here. Even though God had been saying it for millennia, through Jesus God definitively communicated to the world, “I love you. All of you. Period.” And then the world let out a collective, “Oh crap, now what? I mean, thank you God for loving me but, you love him too? And her? Everyone? Well, now what am I supposed to do with all these thoughts and feelings I had about them?” That’s the kind of change that Paul is getting at here. I mean, if the knowledge that God loves even him, or her, whoever that may be for you, doesn’t change you, doesn’t change your behavior or thoughts or feelings, or anything, then, I don’t know, check your heart, make sure there’s a beat in there somewhere. Ok, that might have been a bit harsh, I may have crossed the line there.

Ok, let’s get back to guns, there’s a phrase you don’t hear in a sermon every Sunday. Weapons, Paul has weapons on his mind. Paul writes, “Don’t offer parts of your body to sin, to be used as weapons to do wrong. Instead, present yourselves to God as people who have been brought back to life from the dead, and offer all the parts of your body to God to be used as weapons to do right.” Now, here’s the thing I want you to notice there. Paul doesn’t say to put your weapons away. Paul doesn’t say that weapons are bad. Paul isn’t my mom, right? No, Paul wants us to use our weapons wisely. Or, maybe a better way to put it would be, Paul wants us to use our weapons lovingly. But before we can get to that, what weapons do we use unwisely, or unlovingly?

Because if it hasn’t clicked by now, we’re not talking about those kinds of weapons are we? However, we are all carrying weapons though, aren’t we? We are always packing, everywhere we go. So, what kinds of weapons am I talking about? Well, we use words as weapons all the time, don’t we? Either in person, or behind others backs, or behind the safety, or should I say, behind the cowardice of our social media accounts. Ooooh, that one stings pastor! Stop! Hey, I’m guilty of it too! I’ve lost friends that way! What other weapons do have in our arsenal other than words? How about our silence. Maybe, not speaking up in the presence of some evil or injustice? What else? How about our wallets? How many people have you known who have decreased or stopped giving to an organization or church because they’re angry at something they did?

Ok, I’ll stop there. Point is, we have so many weapons at the ready and we use them quite often for not-so-good purposes. In our reading today, Paul urges us to flip the script, in regards to our weapons. Paul says, how about we try using them for good? How about we try using our words, for instance, for fighting injustices we encounter in the world? That could be going to a protest, or sharing something on social media, or as simple as treating a homeless person you come across like a human being and not a statistic.

And how about our silence? How can we use silence for good? Well, the easy answer to that is, knowing when to just shut up when we want to say something unkind! But it can be used in other ways too. Like having a moment of silence to remember victims of a natural disaster or mass-shooting like we too often do here. Or, using our silence to pray for our enemies. Or how about visiting someone you know is struggling and then just sitting with them to listen? Silence can be a powerful weapon of love to battle loneliness.

Ok, you don’t need some pastor telling you how to use all your God-given weapons to make this world a better place for others to endure. Be creative with these and the many other weapons of love that have been gifted to you. And the great thing is that you’re never too experienced or inexperienced to use them. Here’s the bottom line, according to Paul, Jesus died to show you how much God loves you, and Jesus rose from the dead to show you just how transforming God’s love can be for us. So transforming, that it can turn our weapons of war, into weapons of love and hope and life. Thanks be to God. Amen.