Monday, July 28, 2008

God Is In It For Us

Year A, Proper 12, 2008-07-27
Romans 8:26-39

(please read the text above before the sermon below...)

"If God is for us, who can be against us?"

What a phrase! It's been used again and again over the course of the history of Christianity. It's a wonderful reminder to us that since we have chosen to follow God, to be on "his team," so to speak, we have already chosen the victorious team.

The story goes that Abraham Lincoln was asked by a Union supporter if he thought that God was on their side during the Civil War. It's said that Lincoln turned to the man, looked at him and said, "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side."

And Paul says here that if God is for us, no one can be against us.

But this isn't really a war-rallying cry. Though it's been used that way since the time of Constantine, this was hardly Paul's intent. He did not mean that because we've chosen to follow God, that we can romp around and conquer everyone and everything because God is "on our side". In fact, Paul said that followers of Christ are more than conquerors.

This is like when you were younger and your mother or your father or a teacher noticed you doing something wrong and they would say something like, "Come on...you're better than that." You're above that...you should know better...you're better than that.

And this is what Paul is saying: We're better than conquerors. We're more than conquerors. This is the way of Christ, it's what he demonstrated to us. He could have grabbed Pilate by the hands, tied him up in a pretzel, and shot lazer beams out of his eyes, with Pilate whining like a puppy, and his solders running from the sight. But he didn't. Jesus shows us in his actions that the image of God is better than fighting and force and threats and conquering heroes. He showed us a better way.

And that's what Paul is saying here. We don't resort to using death threats. And we don't succumb to them either. We don't fall into and fear death and persecution and mockery and the like. This is how God works - amongst the evil ways of the world, but not like the evil ways of the world.

And if God is always working for good even amongst evil, then his people will too. If the Kingdom of God is a body that works for good no matter the circumstances, the citizens of the people of God will always be seeking ways by which to usher in goodness even amongst badness.

Some of you knew my grandfather Nease. He died two years ago. I miss him.

I believe I've perhaps shared with you before about his family family. My grandparents had four children. My mother is the oldest, then there were three boys: Floyd, Steve, & David. David was the youngest, and he was beloved by everyone. He was somewhat of a typical youngest child - seemed to get a little more time and attention from his parents and could get away with a bit more than the older siblings could. But even so, his siblings loved him. My middle name is given to me in his honor.

When my grandfather was asked to begin a new college of higher education for the Church of the Nazarene, the family moved from Quincy to Mount Vernon, Ohio, to begin Mount Vernon Nazarene College, now University. They lived right on the new campus, which was really an old estate farm. On the land was a pond. The family also had a beloved dog. And one day during the winter, the dog fell through the ice on the pond. My twelve year old uncle David rushed to save the dog, but ended up himself drowning, dead at the age of twelve.

It was obviously a major tragedy for the family. Here, they were sure that God had led them to the boonies of Ohio to begin a new Christian school. And in the course of time, their youngest son was seemingly taken for them. The question, "Why?" was surely on their minds. It was a difficult time for the family. David's death actually continued on with them for quite a while. Those close to him say that it was with my grandfather until the day he died.

Tough things affect us. As long as we're living amongst this fallen world...they will continue. And to say that we can just forget them is ignorant of our place in the world as human beings. However, when tough times occur, what marks the follower of Christ is how he or she responds.

The days of the early Church, the first followers of Jesus Christ, were not easy. We know that they were subject to persecution, ridicule, and even death. We can certainly imagine that for the followers of Christ in the great city of Rome, to whom this letter was written, things were no easier. Rome, being the central metropolis for the whole Roman Empire, had no better taste for Christians than did any other region. Things were not easy. The world was tough on them. They experienced tough times. And it's in this context that Paul writes to them these words (and now I'm paraphrasing from the NIV and the Message):

"So, what do you think? What should be our response in light of this life, as followers of Christ in this world? Well...If God is for us, who can be against us? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? Who will be able to bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Who or what will be able to do that? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced, and I believe that you can be convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, nothing living or dead, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us.

This is how we respond to the troubles of the world. Paul doesn't say that there won't be trouble. Jesus warns of it. So it's not that for followers of Christ nothing bad will happen. But it is that when something bad does happen, our response can be better than the response of the world, because all the while, we know that God is in it for us, working alongside us, to achieve that which is good for us and for the world.

This is how my grandparents ended up choosing to respond to their son David's death. Sure, his death continued to affect them. It was saddening to them. But they continued on. In fact, it wasn't very long at all after David's death that my grandparents decided to adopt two children. They took two kids and welcomed them into their home. They believed that they still had a lot of love to give. So they adopted a different boy with the name David and his twin sister, Melissa. And these two now got to grow up in a wonderful, loving home environment. And now they serve God and humanity, though in very different ways. My aunt Melissa (actually after graduating from Hingham High School) went on to Eastern Nazarene College, got a degree in education, and then a Masters degree in education, and today she serves a strong and growing church in Harrisburg, PA as the Children's Pastor. My new uncle David has spent his adult life in law enforcement, first as a State Trooper in Vermont, then an under-cover trooper fighting drug trafficking, then training police officers in Iraq, and most recently, as a detective with the Winooski, Vermont police force. I'm proud of my aunt Melissa and my uncle David. They are good people and good parents.

And it all began with my grandparents' choice not to dwell on their child's death too much, but to choose to re-direct the love God had given them to two other children in need.

This is what God and his followers do:

* amongst the bad, push for good;
* in spite of difficult times, make way for love and compassion;
* rather than fall into evil, working through evil for good.

Because when we fall into evil, do "bad things," we've ceased to remember that God is in it for us. Yes, we're weak. But we're in it with God. Look at the first part of the passage again:

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought ("we may not know what to do"), but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 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. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

So in these times, which are difficult for many, we can know that God is in it for us.

"Oh, but the gas prices..."
Gas prices!??! Are you serious? Yes, they're difficult, and we need to make some major life shifts and decisions, but we're talking about gas prices!

"Oh, but the recession..."
I know...it's difficult. I'm sure you heard about the woman this week who took her own life but an hour and a half before her home was to be auctioned off. A home. I know it's important, but it's wood, and boards, and tile, and drywall, and a few thousand nails and screws. It's not worth giving up on life.

"Oh, but I'm so sick of my job!"
What's that? You get to have a job? In the United States? With a minimum wage of $6.55? You're doing better than the majority of the world.

"Oh, but this isn't working out for me" or "That isn't working out for me."
I know, times can be tough sometimes. And they are going to be tough sometimes. That I guarantee you.

So the question becomes, "What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do about these things? What then are we to say about these things?"

Well...If God is for us, who is against us? God gave up everything for us. The living God, the creator of the world, is in it for you and for me and for us. What can bring that down? Gas prices? A recession? The wrong guy for president? The "right" guy for president? ;-) A bad law? A bad job?

No, in all these things we are more than that...we are above responding to tough times with tough whines. How? ...through him who loved us.

For I am convinced (with Paul) 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.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Stewardship, Trees, & SUVs

I'm 27 years old. I can barely remember not recycling. When my family moved to Windham, NH in 1990, the town already had mandatory recycling. So it wasn't until I went to college (in Quincy, MA) that I didn't throw every can, bottle, and piece of paper in a different bin. And I was even more conflicted when we lived in Kansas City, KS for two and a half years, an area where I only found one person who recycled, and he just considered it "a hobby." Recycling was for those liberal tree-huggers.

Speaking of trees, we just spent a week in northern Vermont on our annual trip to the family camp on Lake Champlain, just north of St. Alban's Bay. I attribute much of my love for creation to spending summers growing up on the edge of the Lake, watching the sunset, catching various small creatures of the wild, and driving the backroads of the Green Mountain state, full of incredible views of trees and mountains. (Here are a few pictures of our family vacations this summer, including some decent sunset pics.)

So I was brought up - both in the home and in school - to be concerned for God's creation through care for the environment. Throwing a Diet Coke can or a newspaper into the trash gives me about the same feeling that throwing a dime or a quarter into the trash might. It just doesn't feel right and feels like a waste. For similar reasons, I turn out lights whenever I can (a never-ending job with little ones whose greatest feeling of power and self-ability is to flip those little light switches and watch the grand change it makes).

In college, when I started driving a 1993 Volvo 850 that came with the gadget built in that tells you your average gas mileage and your current gas usage, I began being more concerned with how much gas I used. It was as much a hobby and a money-saver as it was a world-saving activity, but ever since then, it's been a concern.

The fact that we are in the market for a new (used) car coupled with the transportation needs of a family of five means that we have to buy another big vehicle. If I could, I would get a Geo Metro or Toyota Prius. But we can't. It's not practical right now. We made the decision a while ago to be a one vehicle family for the foreseeable future. We challenged ourselves on the American assumption that every family needs two vehicles. We're going along just fine with but one.

I guess I'm settling on the thought that being a good steward - both of finances and of God's creation - goes beyond the first look. Though we're likely to purchase an SUV or minivan (we've somewhat settled on the Honda Pilot) - a vehicle that drinks rather than sips gasoline - there are other factors at hand. Sure...we could also buy a small car for trips to the grocery store and for my daily travels across the South Shore, but in addition to the purchase of the car, that would mean more insurance, more registration fees, and more repair costs. This would further hinder us financially, and limit our ability to contribute to the compassionate needs and ministries that we care about, which for us is also part of being good stewards.

(On a side note, we finally got our economic stimulus check, part of which we've been planning for Kiva loans. We lent for three more last night and will do at least one more. Kiva is great - check it out. I'm not sure this is what Mr. Bush and the Congress meant by "economic stimulus," but it works for me.)

Anyway, I guess this post is a release for me. In a time when everyone is down-sizing vehicles and doing their best to help curb dependency on oil, it seems at first glance for me that we're going the other direction.

There are other things that we can do and are doing to alleviate our usage of depleting natural resources. We compost. We recycle everything that we can. I've just purchased one of these. And I've even *gasp* gone through a day here and there lately without showering...I know: "How gross!"...but it's really not. Daily showering is another American assumption that is in the vast minority of the norm throughout history and even the modern world. We've done really well this summer and the past few to minimalize the use of our window ACs.

As much as it's stretched our budget a bit, I think these oil problems are a good thing in the long run. We Americans have long overrun our allotment of the resources of the world. We need to change our ways. If you want to be challenged on these things, read McLaren's latest book, Everything Must Change.