Sermon preached July 28, 2013
Texts: Romans 8:31-39
I guess when you take requests for sermons, as I have this summer, you should be ready for surprises. In the sermon suggestion box earlier this summer I discovered a piece of candy. Kind of unusual – then I found the accompanying sermon suggestion. “Relate how salt water taffy warms the heart like the song of God.” Someone also suggested the verses we read from Romans 8, not so much because they found the verses difficult – the theme for the summer sermon suggestions was “sticky Scriptures” – but because they wanted to see what I might do with it.
This morning you get to see what I will do with both Romans 8 and salt water taffy. I do want to say this, however. The taffy suggestion seems to want me to sing the praises of taffy. I intend to use taffy to sing the praises of God.
One of the qualities of taffy is stickiness. There are some different connotations for the idea of stickiness. We can talk about getting stuck – stuck in the snow, stuck in the mud, stuck in traffic, emotionally stuck. That kind of stickiness, that kind of getting stuck is a negative. We can get stuck spiritually as well.
There is a more positive kind of stickiness. When we want to repair torn paper we use sticky tape. When we want to hang a poster we may use sticky poster putty. There are times when it is good that things are sticky because we want them to adhere. We use the term metaphorically to talk about relationships – stick together. We also talk about stickiness as persistence, and that is a good thing – stick to it, stick with it.
This summer’s sticky Scriptures sermon series has mostly been about negative stickiness, and we have one more such sticky Scripture sermon coming later in August. Why would I want to even do such a thing? Because people do get stuck on some Scriptures or theological ideas that get in the way of their spiritual life. Stuck on a difficult idea, they can get spiritually stuck. How can we make sense of the Bible at all? Does it have to be interpreted literally? Did God, in essence, write every word? How do we try and distinguish the human element in the Bible? How do we distinguish the metaphorical, symbolic, mythic? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do we pay so much attention to the two verses in Leviticus supposedly about homosexuality, ignore most of the rest of the book, and miss what is most important in it? What do we do with all those passages where God is violent? What about Revelation – the book? It has been an adventurous summer.
I wanted to tackle such questions with you because they can be sticking points in one’s spiritual life. I want to help us get unstuck. I hope we have helped open the Scriptures up in new ways so God’s Spirit can speak to our lives through them.
Today, though, I want to focus on positive stickiness in response to the taffy and Romans 8 suggestions. Here is the sticky question – what do we want to stick with us in our faith? What do we want to adhere most deeply in our hearts, minds souls? What do we want to stick with us, and stick with as God’s people loved in Jesus? What do we want to warm our hearts like salt water taffy? I think that is just the question Paul is answering in the verses we read from Romans 8, though I’m not sure he was prompted by a piece of taffy.
First a multi-media interlude (picture). I saw this picture for the first time in many, many years last weekend. It looks pretty old – black and white, the hair and the clothes. I am in it – age 15 or 16. Some of the sons and daughters of this congregation are also in the picture. I was 14 when I found Jesus, or Jesus found me, at my United Methodist Church. It was at that time that something started to really stick me, and stick to me about Christian faith. It sent me on a journey trying to figure out what following this Jesus meant, and at least for a season in my life, it sent me beyond my local United Methodist Church. You probably gathered that this was not a United Methodist Church picnic, though it is a church picnic – a church formed as part of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s.
I have grown and changed since this picture. My understanding of Jesus and what God’s love means has grown and changed since this picture. How I read the Bible has changed since this picture.
What has stuck, and still sticks with me, is God’s love in Jesus Christ – a patient, persistent, embracing, welcoming, relentless love.
I have asked a lot of questions since those days, and I still ask a lot of questions. I have a much deeper appreciation for the mystery of life, the world and God than I did in those days. In asking my questions, though, I have had this experience described by the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. Out of the darkness comes a voice disclosing that the ultimate mystery is not an enigma but the God of mercy (God in Search of Man, 353). There are many questions to be pondered, many mysteries to be explored and appreciated. In the midst of it all is the God of mercy, the God of love. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.
This love of God saves. Jesus saves. My understanding of that has changed, but not my conviction that the love of God in Jesus saves. I now think of salvation as something that is just as important now as when we face death, but it is still rooted in the love of God. Here is some theology about salvation offered by one of my teachers and theological mentors, Schubert Ogden. By “salvation” is properly meant, first of all and fundamentally, the redemptive activity of God whereby the whole of humankind, and thus each and every human being, notwithstanding the universal fact of sin, is accepted into God’s own everlasting life – the theological term for this divine activity being “grace.” And then, secondly, and in absolute dependence on God’s grace, salvation is the activity of a woman or man through which she or he accepts God’s acceptance – the theological term for this human activity being “faith” and, more exactly, “faith working through love,” a love that, as I like to say, incarnates itself as justice. (The Understanding of Christian Faith, 123). God’s love in Jesus saves in its acceptance of us, its embrace of us, just as we are – like the old hymn, “Just As I Am.” It saves us from all those feelings of guilt, shame, unworthiness, that plague many of us. God’s love in Jesus saves by inviting a response of faith – accepting our acceptance, and then living life differently because of that – loving, working for justice. It saves us from wondering lost in the world by giving us direction and purpose, in this life, right here and now. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.
What about our lives as we face death, and we will all face death? There, too, we will encounter God’s love. In the face of the mystery of death, we will encounter the God of mercy. My teacher Schubert Ogden put it this way: in spite of the transience and death of all things, and even in spite of our own sinfulness as human beings, their and our final destiny is to be embraced everlastingly by God’s love (136). Our hope and trust is that “in God nothing is lost” (William Placher, Jesus the Savior, 176), in the words of the theologian Karl Barth: No suffering or joy… no ray of sunlight; no note which ever has sounded… no wing-beat of the day-fly in the far flung epochs of geological time (Placher, 176). This love with which God loves us in Jesus Christ now, which saves us now, doesn’t end at death, but saves us there, too. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.
Through all these years, this patient, persistent, embracing, welcoming, relentless love of God in Jesus has stuck with me – this love which is there in the midst of mystery and questions, this love which heals, frees, saves – now and at the hour of death.
I hope that love has been sticking with you, too. Let God love you. Accept that you are accepted. One of the wonderful things about the journey of faith is that over time new images of God’s love and grace emerge. Recently I read this story told by Father Gregory Boyle in his book Tatoos on the Heart. Father Boyle spent some time as a priest in Bolivia, and he recounts one time a Mass he gave in an open field where everything seemed to go wrong. His Spanish was inadequate. It felt awful. Following the Mass an elderly woman wants to give her confession. She had not been to confession in ten years, so she has a lot to say, but Father Boyle understands almost none of it because she is speaking in her native language. He offers some penance as best he can, and then, getting ready to leave, discovers that everyone else is gone. He has no ride down the mountain. “I am convinced that a worse priest has never visited this place or walked this earth” (37).
As he gathers his things to make his way down the mountain to the town, an old peasant approaches him. He thanks Father Boyle for coming, then reaches into his suit coat pocket and pulls out two fistfuls of multi-colored rose petals. He drops them over Father Boyle’s head, reaches in for more and continues the gesture, leaving Father Boyle speechless and in tears. He writes in his book: God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God…. More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy just doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restrictions of not measuring up…. The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on Her mind, and that is to drop , endlessly, rose petals on our heads. Behold the One who can’t take His eyes off of you. (38-39)
A new image to stick with me, to let God’s sticky love stay with me. Let God love you. Let God drop rose petals on your head.
Let God love through and with you. May you be one who drops the rose petals of God’s love and justice on the heads of others.
Let this stick with you. Stick to this faith, this love and the road it leads us on. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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. Stickery than taffy. Amen.