Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Book of Exodus

For most of the next month our worship services will be centered on bible passages from the book of Exodus. This book tells the story of the Israelites and their escaping from slavery in Egypt and attempt to reach the land of freedom that God has promised them. At its heart, the book discusses the themes of covenant and community.

On the theme of covenant, the people frequently ask questions about how faithful God will be to them – just how much can they trust God’s covenant? Likewise what is God’s expectation in return – do the people have to do anything to earn God’s favor? What should their religious practices look like – are they like Egypt’s, or Canaan’s or are they something unique?

On the theme of community, the people are trying to find an identity, to understand what it means to be a nation of their own, and to create the rules and responsibilities that should organize them. What does a community under God look like? How can they ensure justice will reign? Who takes leadership and how are they selected?

The book of Exodus is still an important book for us today as Christians. Although we have not recently escaped from Egypt and are not in the birthing stages of our own nation, many of the questions and issues are still ours.

Covenantal relationship with God remains difficult. We still wonder if we can trust God, and we complain when it feels like God isn’t doing what we want. We still ask what we must do in response to God’s love and grace, and sometimes believe we have to earn them. We still debate what religious practices are acceptable, and what we can use from other religions and what must be uniquely Christian.

Likewise, community is still a struggle for us. Look at our nation. We are deeply divided, and we still have no idea what it means to be “one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all”. We lose track of that ideal so easily and become racist, individualist and elitist. We are still trying to find our way to build a community of deep and meaningful relationships that feels like the Promised Land.

So the book of Exodus has a lot to offer us as we read about the ancient Israelites and reflect upon our contemporary situation. I invite you to read the book throughout the month as we study it in worship. Use it for reflection upon our own covenantal relationship with God and the ways that we can build better and stronger community with each other. Perhaps we will find answers, or at the very least we will discover that our search is not new, nor are we alone in the journey because God is with us.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Sermon: Seeing Beyond Pain

Genesis 45:1-15

Last week we read about how Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Much has happened in Joseph’s life since that time: his life has had highs and lows, he has been in positions of respect, and he has been falsely accused and thrown in prison. So in this week’s reading, Joseph is a powerful leader in Egypt in charge of the distribution of food during a severe famine. With great irony, Joseph’s brothers come to the distribution center for food.

If you were the writer of a revenge novel, the set-up is perfect. Karma is about to strike with a red hot iron. They sold Joseph into slavery and now, Joseph will reject their application for food and let them starve! Hahahaha!

But that isn’t what happens. Although Joseph could hold their wrongful treatment against them, although he could throw their past at them and deny them food, he does not. At first it looks like he might seek revenge. Just before the section that was read, Joseph is clearly struggling with how to receive them. At first he plants a cup from the palace in their food and then charges them with stealing it, and at that point the reader is wondering if Joseph will have them thrown in prison on these false charges.

But he doesn’t, instead he tells them that they must go back and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin with them. (Apparently he is concerned that they have treated Benjamin the same way they treated him). But when they return with Benjamin and Joseph sees that his youngest brother is well – Joseph relents from punishing them.

It is then that he reveals who he is, and he offers them forgiveness and calls for the reunion and reconciliation of their family. He asks them to bring their father to Egypt and promises to take care of them all from his position of power. In many ways the end result of the story is a shock to us, because in our world people are much more likely to seek revenge than they are to offer forgiveness.

For many of us, the thought of forgiving others is a great thought, but it is much more difficult to do than it is to practice! I like what C.S. Lewis said, 'Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.' We have a hard time healing the pain, so we have a hard time letting go of the past in order to forgive.

So how is Joseph able to do this? In his speech Joseph gives us one insight into his change of heart,

“Now, don’t be upset and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. Actually, God sent me before you to save lives. We’ve already had two years of famine in the land, and there are five years left without planting or harvesting. God sent me before you to make sure you’d survive and to rescue your lives in this amazing way. You didn’t send me here; it was God who made me a father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler of the whole land of Egypt.”

This is a significant change of perspective – Joseph comes to understand that while his brothers meant to harm him, God was able to use that painful and broken circumstance to bring about greater good. What this teaches us, is that for us to be able to see beyond the pain in our lives, we need to be able to shift our perspective and see the whole situation from another angle.

For example: In The Book of Joy the Dalai Lama talks about his exile. While he was the young leader of Tibet, China came into the country and took it over – the Dalai Lama had to flee for his life. So for the past half-century he has been an exile from his own homeland. Yet hearing him talk about this calamity is amazing, because he has been able to reframe the situation more positively. He can see not only the negatives and what he has lost, but he also sees the gains from it: wider contact, new relationships, less formality and more freedom. He then explains: “So therefore, if you look from one angle, you feel, Oh, how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at that same tragedy, that same event, you see that it gives me new opportunities.”[1]

This shift in perspective does not make what happened less wrong. He still feels that it was very wrong that the Chinese took over Tibet by force and refuse to grant it back its freedom, but the wider perspective does change emotionally how he feels about it. Rather than be filled by anger and resentment, rather than seeing his life as having been ruined by the hardship, he sees the ways that it has brought good for him and others.

Likewise when someone hurts us, as happened to Joseph, shifting our perspective to see how we grew or were strengthened can change how we feel about the wrong that was done to us.

Joseph realizes that God has used the evil to bring about good. It doesn’t change that it was wrong for his brothers to sell him into slavery. But it changes how he feels about it.

So when we look back on our lives and we think about something wrong that was done to us, when we think back upon the ways a person has hurt us or we have been oppressed by society – what these examples suggest to us is that we should strive to change our perspective and see the good that has come from the situation.

Perhaps you are stronger as a person now, perhaps you have grown closer to your family, perhaps your faith and relationship with God are deeper than ever, perhaps you have experienced things that you never would have otherwise – meeting people that you would not have, learning skills you would not have. Not that this makes what happened to us, okay. The wrongs are still wrong. We still speak out against them and strive to change what we can, but . . . we also know in our hearts that God was at work through even the darkest days building us up and guiding us to a new place.

This is not the only shift of perspective that can be helpful. In addition to seeing how we ourselves have benefited and grown, in addition to seeing how God has used our trials and suffering for good; The Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the same book, suggests that we also seek to see things from other people’s perspectives.

He talks about being cut off in traffic and imagining what that person is going through – perhaps they are rushing to the hospital because his wife is giving birth or her loved one is dying.

He says: “I have sometimes said to people, when you are stuck in a traffic jam, you can deal with it in one of two ways. You can let the frustration really eat you up. Or you can look around at the other drivers and see that one might have a wife who has pancreatic cancer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly what they might have, but you know they are all suffering with worries and fears because they are human. And you can lift them up and bless them. You can say, Please, God, give each one of them what they need.”[2]

He explains that this process helps him remember that others are also suffering, and helps him to have compassion for them. That is another shift in perspective. It is no longer just about me and mine, but it is about all of us as a community and a world who are seeking to live together.

You might say that the idea is to see everything from God’s perspective – knowing the pain and suffering that every individual is going through, seeing the whole, and then seeing the ways that this suffering and evil can be redeemed for good.

So perhaps in our Bible story Joseph had thought back to his early life and he had looked at it from his brothers’ perspective. Maybe he had seen his own part in causing his brothers’ anger. Or maybe as he sat there day after day as they gave food to many people during the famine he saw that he was not alone in suffering, that lots of people suffered and that right now God had given him a position in which he could relieve suffering. So as his brothers come before him, he can see that he has a choice – to deepen the suffering they are already experiencing from their immense hunger, or he can be a way of alleviating that suffering and be an agent of forgiveness and healing. Perhaps he was beginning to see things from God’s perspective.

The lesson here is easy to say, but it is hard to actually do. When we are in pain, even when that pain is caused by others, one of the best things that we can do is see beyond the pain, try to see the situation from God’s perspective, knowing all that is happening in the world, all that each person is suffering, and having compassion. And we can look at our suffering from all angles, (And I admit this is much easier years later when we can see the fruit of the suffering). As we learn to see things from new perspectives, as we see beyond our individual pain, the hope and prayer is that we can find deepest peace with what has happened in our past even as we are encouraged to be agents of God who work to bring healing and forgiveness to a hurting world.

[1] Lama, Dalai; Tutu, Desmond; Abrams, Douglas Carlton. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (p. 195).
[2] Lama, Dalai; Tutu, Desmond; Abrams, Douglas Carlton. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (pp. 198-199). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sermon: Jealousy and Injustice

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15

As human beings we like to think that we will always do the right thing. We like to think that we have values, that we know what is good, and that we would never commit an awful act of injustice. I mean, I’m a good person right? But . . . as human beings one of the challenges is that we don’t always act according to our principles, sometimes we act out of raw emotion. The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of those. The brothers know how you are supposed to treat family, and yet they get caught up in a cycle of jealousy that leaves them acting in horrific ways towards one of their own.

Joseph is their father’s favorite, and Joseph himself isn’t the easiest to live with. So when one day the brothers are fed up, even though they are from a religious family, and even though they know what is right and wrong, their anger gets the best of them. At first they are going to kill him, but at least a little bit of their moral values intervene and they don’t do that. Instead they choose to sell him into slavery, and fake his death. This is slightly better, but only slightly. Slavery has no guarantees for Joseph’s safety. He could be put to work in a deadly job, he could be beaten and abused. Plus, imagine the emotional pain they are putting their father through! They are telling him that his favorite son has been killed, and he is going to grieve him, and it is all a lie.

Few of us like to think that we would be capable of such things. We are certain that we would treat our family members better than that. Oh, sure there are days we think about selling our brothers and sisters, there are days we want to murder our kids, but would we ever do it? No, of course not! Or would we? Could we? The suggestion of the passage is that unless we are very diligent, unless we work on what is in the very depths of our hearts, we are capable of exactly those kinds of things.

Now you may be saying to yourself, never! Impossible. But I have seen good people, people with good values do things that they themselves admit they never thought themselves capable of.

Jealousy, grief, anger: these are emotions which can take over our lives and tear us from our normal day to day lives with such force that we lose track of what is right and wrong and we do things we never should. At other times we go with the crowd, and allow ourselves to be pulled into a mob mentality, not realizing that mobs don’t have a moral compass. So we do what others are doing, trying to fit in, or even believing that what others are doing can’t be wrong, until suddenly we have crossed a line so horrendous we are startled awake by what we have done. Perhaps that’s what happened with Joseph’s brothers. Individually they would never have done what they did, but together they fed off one another’s anger and frustration. It can happen far too easily.

I see it most clearly when a violent act happens. Good people, nice people suddenly start wanting revenge. The emotion of anger grows out of control. Particularly lately when there is an act of terrorism. What happens? People are so angry at the person who committed this act of evil, that they lose sense of their own values. Although they say that they love their neighbor, although they know that killing is wrong, and yet they want to vengeance. An eye for an eye.

You see when someone does something wrong to us, it is so easy to want to do something wrong to them – to return injustice for injustice. Unfortunately what also often happens is that the fear and anger that they feel is turned often toward innocent people.

And so well-meaning people, good people, talk about putting people who are of the same nationality or race or religion as the perpetrators into internment camps, kicking them out of the country, doing things that they know are just plain wrong. So recently there has been a strong anti-Muslim sentiment in our country even though the vast majority of Muslims are also good people who would never commit an act of terrorism. But the emotions that we feel have clouded our moral judgment, and we don’t act out of our moral principles. We start doing things that we know Christ would not have us do. Instead of loving our neighbors, instead of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, we do the equivalent of selling our brothers and sisters into slavery.

Likewise with racism. If we simply treated everyone as Christ would treat them. If we simply lived out the value that all people are created in the image of God, then there would be no problem, but instead we treat people differently. And in the end innocent people end up dying in Virginia and elsewhere because bigotry and hatred rear their heads in unacceptable acts of jealousy and injustice. When we lose track of our primary Christian values it is as though we have thrown our brothers and sisters in a pit and left them to die.

So what do we do? How do we keep ourselves from doing things we know are wrong? How do we stay filled with integrity and live our lives as Christ would have us do?

It is vital that we work on our ability to calm our emotions, to center ourselves on the teachings of Christ, and to resist the emotional appeal of acting unjustly. We must strengthen within ourselves the love of righteousness to such a point that our inner guide is not shaken by the ups and downs of life.

In Romans Paul references Mosaic law reminding us what it means to be righteous. The word he uses for righteousness, means literally equity of character and action, and it implies the approval of God.

Romans 10, starting in verse 5 Paul says:

Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them. But the righteousness that comes from faith talks like this: Don’t say in your heart, “Who will go up into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will go down into the region below?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach). Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.

Like I said, a couple of weeks ago, Paul can be difficult to understand, but it is worth it when you start reading what he is saying. As I see it, Paul is saying that there are a couple of types of righteousness.

The first is the righteousness of the law, it is the righteousness of action: I quote: “The person who does these things will live by them” (they won’t just be ideals we never use). It isn’t just a bunch of principles, and ideas, but it is a law to be lived out, to be obeyed and heeded. But we all know that the nature of human beings when it comes to law – we obey it as long as it is convenient. So we honestly need more than just the righteousness that comes from the law.

Paul then says, there is also righteousness that comes from faith. Again I quote: “and the word is near you, in your mouth, and in your heart”.

I think he is reminding us that at some point wanting to do what is good and right moves beyond being law, to being something that is deeply imbedded in our heart and mind. We long to do what God wants. We love what is good, so that the righteousness of God is not just what we say, and in fact is not just what we do, but affects how we respond emotionally, it is the very desire of our hearts to do what God wants. For Paul faith is intimately connected with not only being forgiven and accepted by God, but also with doing what is right. Faith should inspire us to live and be what we believe.

Thus Paul concludes: Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. Allowing our hearts to be consumed with the will of God leads us to actually do and say the right thing.

I think that this shift from a righteousness of the law to one of faith is accomplished by the continual seeking of our hearts after the will of God. As we call on God, God helps us, guides us, and fills our spirit with the strength to do what we know is right, to allow ourselves to overcome emotions which might sidetrack us into acts of injustice. God helps us to overcome our humanness and helps us to do what is right.

It was the belief of the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, that by doing this, by striving always after the love of God and living out that love in our daily lives by loving others that we could be perfected in love in this lifetime.

Not that we wouldn’t make mistakes, or that we wouldn’t fail at things, but that we could really have a righteousness of faith that inspired our every action. That God’s Spirit filled us with such love, that it guided our ways and our words and as such those mistakes were not really sins because they were motivated by love.

If we want to avoid those the pitfalls that Joseph’s brothers fell in, if we want to be able to overcome our emotions and truly always do what is right, if we want to overcome racism, hatred and violence we must open ourselves to God’s Spirit of love and seek a deeper righteousness. We must live striving to be perfected in love. So that it really is absolutely impossible for us to do that which is intentionally evil. But getting there is a lifelong journey. It takes living and loving God and our neighbors every day. Step by step, inch by inch. Growing in righteousness.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Sermon: Ultimate Fighting With God

Genesis 32:22-31

[Opening] For a moment, let me review the Jacob story. Jacob is the twin who tricked his brother out of his birthright, and then cheated his brother out of his father’s blessing. His relationship with his brother became strained enough that Jacob left home to seek his fortune elsewhere.

But after many years, Jacob is returning home, hoping that bygones will be bygones. It is one of those stories that is humorous if you aren’t the one living it. Knowing that his reception might not be ideal, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him to tell his brother Esau that he is coming home. He says, “I have sent these messengers to tell my lord (notice the submissive tone) in order that I may find favor in your sight.”

When the messengers return, they tell him that his brother is coming home to meet him with 400 men. This is not the homecoming Jacob wanted. It sounds like his brother is bringing an army to kill him. So Jacob divides all his flocks in half, sending them different directions, so that if one is destroyed the other will survive. Then Jacob begins to pray to be saved from his brother’s hand.

After praying Jacob takes 220 goats and he sends them ahead of his company with the servants instructed to tell Esau that these are a gift from his brother Jacob. Then he sends 220 sheep in another group with the same message. And then 30 camels, and then 40 cows and 10 bulls, and then 30 donkeys. So that by the time Esau would get to him he had received 5 gifts from Jacob, and would hopefully be in a better mood.

Which brings us to our scripture for the day.

[Scripture is read]

So earlier in the service I gave you the background of Jacob, and we read about the night a man appeared to Jacob and they wrestled until dawn. They were evenly matched, neither was able to get the better of the other. Near the end of their wrestling the other man struck Jacob on his hip socket and knocked it out of joint, but Jacob still would not let go. He asked the man for a blessing.

The blessing that the man gave was to rename Jacob as Israel, a name which means one who struggles with God. Through the name change the story implies that Jacob has been wrestling with God – not just a man. Jacob himself reflected that he has seen God face to face and his life was preserved.

There are several things going on symbolically in this story. For example, clearly Jacob is seen as struggling with his faith as he returns home and finds his brother about to kill him.

Although Jacob is unhappy with his situation he never lets go of his faith. He prays for help, and struggles through the difficulties. He is probably questioning God, wondering why this is happening. If God loves him, why isn’t his life easier, why does everything have to go the hard way? He is doing his best, but he is afraid. So he hangs on to his faith, like he hangs onto the one he is wrestling with and refuses to let go – until he earns a blessing.

But that does not mean he emerges unscathed -- in their wrestling Jacob is both injured and blessed. Consider that for a moment – he is both injured and blessed.

Part of what makes us like the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God is the fact that many of us can relate to the idea of struggling with God. We spiritually wrestle with God. So we showed the video of Raj and Howard, where two opponents jaw at each other a lot but not much really happens, and we asked you – is this you and God? Are you going in circles arguing with God but getting nowhere? Because we may feel like we are in a wrestling match, or a boxing match, or perhaps a mixed martial arts fight with God. Sometimes we may feel like we are getting beat up by life, other times we are simply running in circles. We want desperately to have an explanation, and even more we want God to bring us something good for once. Right? So we hang onto our faith through all the trials, and we hope to win some prize for doing so. This is such a common experience that people really relate to this story of Jacob wrestling with God.

As I was preparing for this sermon, I read the following story: Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the most famous Greek writers of the 20th century, was famous for his books Zorba the Greek, and The Last Temptation of Christ, was constantly haunted by God.

He “once wrote of an experience he had when he went to visit a monk at Mt. Athos. "Father Macarius," he said to the old monk, "I remember that in your younger days you wrestled with the devil. Do you still do that?"

"No," Father Macarius replied, "the devil has grown old, and so have I. I no longer struggle with the devil. Now I wrestle with God."

"You wrestle with God?" said Kazantzakis. "You wrestle with God, and hope to win?"

"No," said Father Macarius. "I wrestle with God, and I hope to lose."[1]

When I read that story, it struck me as one of the most profound reflections that I have ever heard on life. It has been the subject of my meditation and thought for many days.

You see, when we are young we wrestle with the devil because we are striving to do what is right, we are fighting against evil, and in our minds we think, that if I can just defeat the devil then life will go well for me. But what we learn in life is that we must rely on God for that. We must accept God’s grace, and remember that in Christ, the devil is already defeated. Sin and death are done, and the victory is already earned in Christ. We don’t really defeat evil by ourselves, nor do we really need to.

So, if that is the case, if all we have to do is accept God’s help to overcome sin and evil, then our real struggle is not with the devil, but with God. Our problem is our unwillingness to follow God’s directions for our new life. That’s what we struggle with as our faith matures. Will we accept God’s help to overcome, or not? So often we simply want to argue with God, to tell God what is best, we want to wrest control of our lives from the divine, even to the point of trying to control God, as if we can outlast God. We tenaciously hold onto our faith, yet at the same time we fight with the one we have faith in. Like Jacob this wrestling can leave us injured.

But just as we learned that we need not defeat the devil alone, the wisdom that comes wrestling with God over the course of a lifetime is that we cannot defeat God – we no longer hope that God comes over to our way of thinking and does things our way – no, the wisdom is that we will be blessed to come to God’s way of thinking, that God will bring us to a point where we humbly admit defeat at the hands of a stronger and far more experienced being. And that’s what the monk was telling Kazantzakis. We wrestle hoping to lose. That God will win.

We know that in the process that we have been closer to God than ever before, that we have seen God fact to face, and it wasn’t the entirely pleasant experience we expected.

We realize that we were foolish to think we could win, and so we are forever changed. Wisdom suggests that when we finally lose our stubbornness, when we finally stop resisting what God is doing, that is when we will really be blessed. It is in allowing ourselves to argue with God, but be convinced that God is right, and that we were wrong – that real wisdom comes.

Perhaps we can learn like Father Macarius to hope to lose – to hope that God will change us, bless us even when we fight it.

What I love in all of this is the image of God that comes from all of this. God accepts our wrestling and our spiritual struggle. God doesn’t mind that we try to put God in a headlock, or a bear-hug. But God patiently lets us put up all the struggle that we can, until we come to our senses. God even uses all of that wrestling to bless us. God seems infinitely patient with us. Willing to be engaged with us as we fight against what is best and what is right, until slowly and persuasively we come to see God’s way. It is as though God is teaching us in every moment (even when we are fighting against God the hardest).

And I love that image of God. It suggests strength and resolve that knows what is best, but is willing to let us discover it for ourselves. It suggests lovingly allowing us to have our own opinions, until one day we look back and say, like children often do as they get older, my mother was right, my father was right. God allows us freedom and space, but always is pressing us and encouraging us to listen and obey.

So we are the people who wrestle with God – we who look to Jacob as one of the founders of our faith – and the wisdom we have to offer to the world is that when one wrestles God it is best to lose – for that is where the true blessing lies.

[1] .(ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., Collected Works, by Donald B. Strobe)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Kayak Adventure

A week ago, our family hauled four kayaks to the Dowagiac River and went for a three hour get-away. We took two cars and parked one our ending point and took the other with the kayaks to our starting point. That way we had a vehicle available as soon as we finished.

We got on the river in the early evening. The day had been hot, but the water was cool. Donovan hung his feet over the side and relaxed. The water was not too fast, but not too slow. Monty (our dog) rode along with Kristi. At several points, trees nearly blocked the river, and we could only get over them by paddling as fast as we could and shooting over them! At one of these, we actually had to have Logan zip over the log and pass Monty to him so Kristi could get up the speed needed to cross without tipping over.

Because of these types of situations, the trip took a little longer than we expected, and we were racing sunset to finish. We were so relieved when we finally saw the bridge where we were getting out. After we hauled the four kayaks out of the river, Kristi beckoned to me for the car keys. I thought she had a set of them with her, but she didn’t (after all I had driven this car) she had the keys for the car at the other end of the trip – and I realized that I had left the keys for this car in the vehicle that was parked 3 hours up river, about a 8 to 10 mile walk. None of us had brought our phones – it was supposed to be a time of relaxing. So there we were with no keys, no phones, and it getting dark fast and the mosquitos were coming out in force.

Several things could have happened at that time. We could have started yelling at each other and playing the blame game. I could have blamed her for not having her keys, even though I knew I was responsible for it. She could have yelled at me and pointed the blame at me that I certainly deserved. The boys could have yelled at both of us. But what good would that have done? Instead, I immediately accepted responsibility and apologized for my mistake, and we simply went to work on solving the problem.

Our first thought was to knock on the doors of homes in the area and ask for a ride or to use their phone to call for help. But none of them would answer their doors. (I suspect that they get a lot of lost kayakers and simply have decided to ignore us).

Kristi then pointed out that the Crystal Springs United Methodist Camp was only about a mile walk from where we were, and we could see if there was anyone there that could help. So she and I started walking, and left Logan and Donovan at the locked car with the kayaks. By the time we reached the camp it was very nearly dark. We knocked on the door of the camp director’s home and were greeted by Dan Stuglik’s welcoming face. He immediately understood our situation, got his car keys and hauled us to our car. From there we were on our way, and after apologizing again to everyone, all was forgiven (except the mosquitos).

The lessons of this adventure are many. They include the importance of staying calm, of not blaming each other, of accepting responsibility, of having good connections with friendly United Methodists, and remembering my keys!

Sermon: Forgiven By the Lord

Romans 8:26-39

I know that for some people reading the bible is difficult. Perhaps you aren’t a great reader, or perhaps you just feel out of your element when you strive to read it. Believe it or not, there was a time when I went to bible studies feeling totally inadequate, like I was the person that knew the least there. What I can tell you is to dive in, read it even if it is hard. Take is slow, keep learning, and over time the book will start to make more sense to you.

But even as you do that, some books will be easier and other books harder. For example, the book of Genesis and the book of Mark are relatively easy reading because they are stories. They are about people and their lives and how God is at work in their lives. So they hold our attention and are easier reads. Other books are more difficult, like Leviticus which is primarily a list of Jewish laws, and Revelation because it is a book of obscure symbolism.

Today’s reading is from the book of Romans. Reading Romans is always a challenge. This book is one of the most intellectually challenging books in the bible. Law schools have used it for studying how to win an argument and construct a convincing debate. So you have to think and use your logic circuits as you read it. Plus Paul tends to use long sentences and big words in his arguments, so he isn’t easy to understand. Yet this letter of his also has moments that connect to our lives in such deep ways, that we sometimes must trudge through the difficult language to receive the riches blessings that God can give.

Today is about forgiveness. And here is the thing. Romans is talking about all the things that we do wrong, the things that we know make God angry, the things we know aren’t good and right.

The things we are ashamed of. The things none of us like to admit that we do, but most of us have hanging around in the backs of our minds and still bother us 5 years, 10 years, even 50 years after we have done them.

For example, there are many things that I have said over the years that from time to time swim through my mind and fill me with guilt and shame again. Things I never should have said. Things I regret.

Sometimes these things seem rather trivial, and at other times they seem so huge, as if they could never be forgiven. In the movie Rachel Getting Married, one of the main characters, Kym is speaking at a twelve-step meeting, and she shares her story.

“When I was sixteen, I was babysitting my little brother. And I was, um... I had taken all these Percocet. And I was unbelievably high and I... we had driven over to the park on Lakeshore. And he was in his red socks just running around in these piles of leaves. And, um, he would bury me and I would bury him in the leaves. And he was pretending that he was a train. And so he was charging through the leaves, making tracks, and I was the caboose, and I was, um... so he kept saying, coal, caboose! Coal, caboose! And, um, we were... it was time to go and I was driving home... and... I lost control of the car. And drove off the bridge. And the car went into the lake. And I couldn't get him out of his car seat. And he drowned. And I struggle with God so much, because I can't forgive myself. And I don't really want to right now. I can live with it, but I can't forgive myself. And sometimes I don't want to believe in a God that could forgive me. But I do want to be sober. I'm alive and I'm present and there's nothing controlling me. If I hurt someone, I hurt someone. I can apologize, and they can forgive me... or not. But I can change. And I just wanted to share that and say congratulations that God makes you look up, I'm so happy for you, but if he doesn't, come here. That's all. Thank you.”

Into this very heartfelt guilt and shame, the book of Romans, at least as I read it says, if you follow Christ, if you allow yourself to be filled with the Holy Spirit, if you come to God, you are forgiven

And not with a little forgiveness, but you are forgiven from the tips of your toes to the very deepest darkest corners of your heart and mind. Even if you don’t want to believe it. Think about it this way: God is bigger than us, right? So much more than we are. So of course God’s forgiveness is always bigger than any sin we could commit. If it were possible for us to commit a sin that God couldn’t forgive, that would make us bigger than God, and that just can’t happen. God will always be greater than us, and God’s forgiveness will always be greater than our sin. The passage says, Jesus made us righteous. In other words, he took our sin away, and made it as though we were without sin. He has made everything right again.

It is like this. When the books of a certain Scottish doctor were examined after his death, it was found that a number of accounts were crossed through with a note: "Forgiven too poor to pay." But the physician's wife later decided that these accounts must be paid in full and she proceeded to sue for money. When the case came to court the judge asked but one question. Is this your husband's handwriting? When she replied that it was he responded: "There is no court in the land that can obtain a debt once the word forgiven has been written."[1]

You might say, that Jesus came and across all of our sins, across all of our guilt and shame wrote in his own hand, “Forgiven too poor to pay.” So who can bring a charge against us? If God has acquitted us, who is going to convict us? It really doesn’t matter what we have done. It doesn’t matter if it is on Pastor Rob’s list of the 10 worst things a human being can do. It doesn’t matter if we feel so bad about it we will never forgive ourselves. God forgives us and will not allow anyone to press charges. If from the very cross, Jesus can ask for humanity to be forgiven for this offense against God, if Christ’s forgiveness is capable of the great an act, then what possibly could God not forgive? So when Jesus forgives us, that forgiveness is complete. There is no court in heaven that is going to hold that sin against us.

Even for Kym in the movie. If she takes her guilt to God it is forgiven. Even if she isn’t sure that she wants to believe in a God that could forgive that. God is bigger than her sin. God’s love is stronger than her brokenness.

I don’t know if you have every really allowed yourself to feel that level of forgiveness before. There are days I don’t let myself feel that level of forgiveness – but for just a moment consider it.

God can forgive anything. Anything. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rules, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. For just one moment, accept it. Believe it. Let it rush through your soul, until your heart is uplifted and set-free.

These are the kinds of teachings and realizations that make reading the bible worth it. Even the tough and difficult to read books. Oh, yes, Romans can be tough to wade through, but this is stuff we need to know and hear! We need to be told that God’s forgiveness is complete and real. We need to hear that those things that we hold against ourselves, those things we feel guilt and shame for, are washed away by God and they are not held against us in the books of heaven. We need to be assured that there is nothing greater than the love of God. And that it is a power beyond our understanding. We need to be reminded of that on those nights when we cannot let go of our past and it haunts us. We need it so that we can live again. So that we can have joy again. So that we can pursue the goodness that we know God has planned for our lives.

[1] ChristianGlobe Illustrations