Rev. Amy Morgan
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Genesis 17:9-14, Romans 8:26-39
Scratched onto a wall at Auschwitz are three lines of a poem:
I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God even when He is silent.
The person who wrote these words was surely experiencing the terrifying silence of God. As the camp’s inhabitants were led, as Psalm 44 says, “as sheep to be slaughtered,” this person managed to keep faith somehow, to believe in a God who would stand silently aloof in the face of this human atrocity.
What is it that makes such faith possible? To use the poem’s reasoning, when clouds obscure the sun, we don’t give up hope of seeing its rays or turn to believing it was a figment of our imaginations. Likewise, when we don’t feel love, it is the hope of someday finding it that keeps us going. Most of us don’t give up on the notion of love entirely each time our heart is broken or we feel lonely or outcast.
But when God is silent, when God doesn’t come through for us, when God fails to provide what we want or need when we want or need it, well, we begin to wonder. We begin to question. Not just about the existence of God. But about the character of God. About the trustworthiness of God. Are we really safe following this God? Does God have our best interests in mind?
We might imagine these kinds of questions arose for Abraham fairly regularly throughout his life with God. God made a profound promise to Abraham, a long-term investment in him, as John said last week.
But in our text today, that promise is still in jeopardy. God promised Abraham a land and a people who would be as numerous as the stars and who would bless all the nations of the earth. But Abraham and Sarah are old. The clock isn’t just ticking for them – that ticker is dead and done for. Abraham’s son Ishmael is still in the picture, but because Hagar is a slave and not Abraham’s wife, Ishmael is a somewhat tenuous offspring to carry so weighty a promise. God has been anything but silent, but Abraham is at the point where actions will speak louder than words.
At the time this story from Genesis was likely written down, somewhere around the 5th century BC, Abraham’s descendants were in captivity in Babylon. They knew God as the one who resided in, and spoke to them from, the temple in Jerusalem. How, then, could they hear God speak to them in a foreign land? In God’s silence, they feared losing their cultural and religious identity. They were surrounded by people who seemed to prosper from the provision of other gods. Was their God - this God who would abandon them in their captivity - really trustworthy? Was God for them or against them?
When the world erupts in violent chaos, when our lives begin to quickly unravel, when we pray for a sign that never comes, when God is silent in our distress, it is easy to question the trustworthiness of God. We wonder if we can really count on God, “lean on the everlasting arms,” and “take everything to God in prayer.” Is Jesus really our friend if he won’t heal our loved ones from illness or protect our children from harm? Can we lean on one who allows us to fall into sin and fail to love our neighbors? When we look around our lives and our world, Christ’s promise to be with us always, “even to the end of the age” sounds hollow.
But if a person in a Nazi death camp can see God differently, if an inmate of Auschwitz can have faith in the face of God’s silence, perhaps we can retain our trust in God, even through the worst of our life experiences.
But it may require us to look more closely at our understanding of God’s promises and the character of God.
When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church, Jews, including those who were Christian, had only recently been allowed to return to the city after having been expelled for several years. In the meantime, the churches had been populated with Gentiles, and the Jewish and Gentile Christians now had to work to find common ground on any number of beliefs and practices, including the question of whether or not Gentile Christians had to be circumcised. And so, it became of crucial importance to articulate what circumcision meant, and what it did not mean.
When God commanded Abraham to be circumcised, and to circumcise all in his tribe, God was putting the covenant promise into the flesh of the people. It was a lived theology of providence, a physical reminder of God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham to be the God of his people. It was not a badge of honor to be worn like a Star-Bellied Sneech. It wasn’t a promise that life would always go well for God’s people. Instead, it was a sign of God’s trustworthiness. Because as long as there are people on this earth who bear God’s covenant in their flesh, the descendants of Abraham continue, and therefore God’s promise lives on. Circumcision ultimately meant – for Abraham, for the Israelites in Babylon, and for the Jews in Auschwitz – that God would keep God’s promise to be their God forever. God would not allow Abraham to remain childless or the Israelites to become subsumed into Babylonian culture or for all of the Jews to be exterminated as Hitler desired. Circumcision was a sign that even when God is silent, God is still faithful to the promise.
The Roman Christians struggled with that reality as they faced opposition from their families and friends and eventually persecution from the Roman emperor. At the beginning of our reading today, Paul assures the church that God does indeed hear their prayers, even though it may not seem like it. Imagine the subtext of these verses: 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.
We might imagine that things aren’t going well for the Roman Christians. We can imagine the letter written to Paul by the Roman church. Dear Paul, we have prayed for God to help us. It doesn’t seem to be working. We’re not seeing God come through for us. Bad things are happening to us because of our faith in Jesus. Are we doing something wrong?
And Paul says, no, you’re not doing it wrong. This is how life is. It’s no different for Christians. But just because God is silent doesn’t mean God isn’t trustworthy. In fact, God is at work, God’s Spirit is interceding for you when you don’t even know what or how to pray. You can’t possibly do it wrong. And even though bad things are happening, God can use them for good.
Paul goes on to reassure the church that nothing they can do and nothing that is done to them can separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
According to Genesis, being uncircumcised means a Jewish man is cut off from God’s people. But according to Paul, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Through circumcision, God put the covenant with Abraham in the flesh of God’s people. But in Jesus Christ, there is a new covenant, an everlasting covenant with all people, which is not marked in our flesh. Instead, this covenant is God in the flesh. This does not in any way negate the necessity of circumcision for the Jewish people. As Jesus himself said, “I come not to abolish the law but to uphold it.” God’s covenant with Abraham remains, and it remains in the flesh of the descendants of Abraham.
But in the covenant God establishes in Jesus Christ, God promises to be with us always, to love us always, no matter what happens to us in our lives. Like circumcision, it is a lived theology, alive and present in the person of Jesus Christ. And like circumcision, it lives on through each new generation as the body of Christ remains in the world, continuing his ministry on earth.
God’s covenant in Jesus Christ continues in the flesh of each person gathered here, each person, who, as Paul says, is “called according to his purpose.” God is at work, through the Holy Spirit, in me and in you and in all who follow Christ’s call to “come and follow me.” The mark of Christ placed upon us in baptism is the only sign we need to live out God’s promise, to be a part of God’s redeeming work in the world.
The writer of the poem at Auschwitz understood that the trustworthiness of God has no direct correlation with our life’s circumstances. Holocausts and plagues, exiles and persecutions are the realities of a fallen creation. When Paul says that We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, he doesn’t mean that only good things happen to those who love God. It means that God can work even the violence and hatred, the death and destruction into something good that serves the purpose of redeeming the world. This also doesn’t affirm the adage “everything happens for a reason.” Life happens, people make choices, we live and we die, we are broken and we are put back together. And through it all, God has chosen to love us and is working God’s purpose out in and through us.
We are the promise of God, in the flesh, the living, breathing new covenant. In the face of God’s silence, we believe in God. Because the sun will shine again. And we will feel love again. And we will see God’s goodness again. Because nothing, nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Genesis 17:1-8, Romans 8:18-25
Laughter and anticipation filled the cabin. Families were headed for vacations in tropical paradise. Men and women who had given their adult lives to fighting the scourge of HIV/AIDS were headed to a meeting with their colleagues in order to further their work. College students were headed to a rendezvous with families. Men, women and children were headed home. It was a day like any other. They were arriving at work early in the morning. Business men and women headed to their offices, cooks and maintenance crews into the building, firefighters to their stations. It was a day just like any other. They had all gone to the market to buy what they needed for dinner. Children scurried around. Vendors and buyers haggled over the price of lintels and bread. It was a day just like any other day. A father was taking his daughter on a stroll. They had survived the winter and now it was time to enjoy the sun. It was a day like any other. Then a finger pushed a button and the plane was blown out of the sky. Men filled with hatred flew planes full of people into buildings. Suicide bombers blew themselves up. A man stepped from a car and shot a two year old and her father.
Unfortunately in our world even these days are like any other day. They are days like any other days because evil is real. I realize that speaking of evil is a dangerous thing. It is dangerous because we use the word evil too often. It has become almost passé. Liberals describe conservatives as evil. Conservatives use it to describe liberals. We use it to encompass entire religions; Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, or even religion itself. We use evil to describe anyone and anything we do not like. This morning though I use it in the sense we use it in our baptismal vows. We ask people to reject the evil that defies God’s righteousness and love. For that is what evil is. Evil is whatever defies the purposes of God; the purposes to bring peace, love and joy to all of creation. Evil can be subtle; the long term verbal abuse and bullying of a teen that destroys their life. Evil can be obvious; the destruction of a plane filled with innocent people by an untrained militiaman filled with hatred. But evil is real. Evil is alive and infects us all.
The question what do we do in the face of evil? There are two things I hope that we will keep in mind when we feel overwhelmed by evil and simply want to pretend it’s not there…or we want to run and hide from it. First we need to remember that God is making a long term investment in eliminating evil and bringing about a world in which God’s righteousness and love guide all of creation. This concept is at the heart of both of our passages this morning. First we have Abram who is now 99 years old. Though God had promised him land, children and blessing, Abram still had neither land nor children, and he had yet to be a blessing to the world. In a moment when most of us would have given up hope, God appears to Abram, reminds Abram of the promises that had been made, and then gives Abram a new name, Abraham, as a reminder that God’s commitments do not fade. God will indeed bless Abraham with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. And it is through those offspring that God will bless all of the nations and renew creation.
This idea of God renewing creation is picked up by Paul in this 8th chapter of Romans. Paul acknowledges that there is evil in the world. He speaks of the sufferings of those to whom he is writing. By following Jesus Christ they had placed themselves in the line of fire of the Roman government. The Christians would be hated, persecuted and killed. Paul continues however and reminds his readers that those sufferings are not worth comparing with the creation that God is bringing about through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He speaks of the whole of creation waiting for the moment it will be set free and experience the freedom that is offered to God’s children. He also reminds them that they have tasted the very first fruits of God’s liberating work. In a sense he is retelling the story of the Exodus, but this time the liberation is not merely from a Pharaoh, but from evil itself. This is freedom from all of that which defies God’s righteousness and love.
The second thing we need to do is for each of us to commit ourselves to a long term investment in this recreative work. We do this first by holding on to hope. Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” The hope to which Paul refers is not a, “I wish I may, I wish I might, wish upon a star tonight” kind of hope. The hope to which Paul refers is a powerful trust and belief that the God who created the world; the God who made a covenant with Abram; the God who liberated God’s people from captivity; the God who sent God’s only son into the world and raised him from the dead, will continue to work. Hope is the belief that this God is working to make all things new; to make all things such that they reflect God’s righteousness and love. God is working at, as Paul writes, “…that the creation itself will be set free from change and decay.” In other words, once again, God is making a long term investment in the recreation of the world and we can find hope in that promise.
The second way in which we make a long term investment in God’s recreating work is to reveal ourselves. Paul uses an interesting phrase in this section. He says, “For the creation waits on tiptoe for the revealing of the children of God.” I was often puzzled by that phrase. But then it began to dawn on me, that part of what Paul is implying in those words is that creation is waiting to see God’s children remove the old garments of sin and evil and show their true selves; selves that love God and neighbor; selves that show forth God’s grace; selves that offer forgiveness; selves that work to restore creation; selves that turn aware from the allure of evil and toward the calling of Jesus Christ. Creation waits for this because it is a sign that God’s recreative work is actually happening. Our task then is to reveal our true Christ-centered selves to the world. We do this not only by resisting the evil that defies God’s righteousness and love, but also by being proactive in showing that righteousness and love to the world. Can you imagine what would happen if every one of those descendants of Abraham revealed that love to the world? Can you imagine what a different and wonderful world this would be? If every person of faith across the planet offered love and not hate, forgiveness and not revenge, compassion and not contempt? This would be the blessing that God intended for this world. Creation would indeed rejoice.
The question then that presents itself is whether or not we are willing to make a long term investment in God’s recreative work. Are we willing to make it in this place as a community that cultivates mission, inclusion and community? Are we willing to make it in Detroit and Pontiac by insuring that all children receive a good education? Are we willing to do so in our places of work or our schools by treating all people as beloved children of God? Are we willing to do so by how we treat our own family members? So here is my challenge for the week, for each of us to ask ourselves, how I am making a long term investment in God’s recreative work, so that God’s righteousness and love shine forth from me?
Rev. Ernest F. Krug, III, MD
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Genesis 25:19-34, Romans 8:1-11
There is nothing more aggravating for a pediatrician than to have a family refuse immunizations for their child. I won’t ask if any of you fall into that category - I don’t want to know! We know that immunizations protect children from a host of deadly or neurologically impairing conditions. During my time in practice I saw the occurrence of pneumococcal meningitis, H. Flu meningitis, and H. Flu epiglottitis, to name just three potentially devastating diseases, almost completely disappear. So why do some parents chose not to immunize their children? Some feel that the very small risk of an adverse effect from the vaccine should be avoided, even if it exposes their child to the greater risk of death or disability from the diseases from which the child would be protected. There is also the argument that enough children are being immunized that their child will be protected by “herd immunity.” In other words, the diseases won’t occur because they are warded off by the “herd” of vaccinated persons. That doesn’t work, of course, if an unimmunized foreign traveler brings the illness into the environment. And it leaves children who have not been able to receive live vaccines because of immunosuppression from cancer treatment or other circumstances at greater risk. How should we think about our responsibility to a community threatened by disease?
Last Sunday John described sin as a spiritual disease, and St. Paul laments in Romans 7 how this condition of sin keeps us from doing what we know we should do as children of the living God. In Romans 8, from which we just heard the first eleven verses, Paul now rejoices in our freedom “from the law of sin and death.” He goes on to say, “...the Spirit of God dwells in you.” How can Paul shift so quickly from his negative commentary on the human condition in Romans 7 to his optimistic view about the power of God’s Spirit at work in us? One way to think about this is to consider our baptism into Christ as a spiritual immunization that protects us from the ravages of sin and death. It does not change our human condition. Moreover, it does not protect us from challenges, hardships, or suffering in this life. It does enable a new way of being in the world. In fact, once we are baptized we are called by God to live into our baptism by being agents of Jesus Christ for the renewal and reconciliation of this world. Christ becomes the center as we seek to live as persons whose minds are set on “the things of the spirit.”
Baptism is therefore a very serious business. When parents choose this for their children, they also agree to model this living into one’s baptism so that their child grows to understand how the Christian life is a different way of being, not conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds [Romans 12:2]. Now I admit that we and our children often don’t live this out. But we can look to God’s grace to help us live into our baptism if we pay attention to opportunities God gives us to do so, and take seriously our birthright as children of God. Now I don’t need to remind you that the history of God’s people contains many instances of rebellion against God, an example being multiple outbreaks of rebellion following the exodus from Egypt. The people of God were not taking the birthright of their covenant with God seriously enough and in sufficient numbers to prevent the ravages of spiritual disease. Yet God continues to claim them and lead them.
Esau did not take his birthright seriously. He and his twin brother, Jacob, were not bad people, although we would not see either one as a role model for godly behavior. They started fighting in the womb, and their mother, Rebekah, figured she was in for a rough delivery. You’ll recall from the Genesis passage we heard that she even wondered if she could survive the pregnancy. Jacob is described as grasping Esau’s heel at delivery, presumably to try to get delivered first. As young adults, one is willing to sell his birthright for food; the other is conniving and willing to take advantage of a brother in need. Recently, at our Rejoicing Spirits’ service in June, John and I acted out the roles of the brothers in a skit prepared by Terry Chaney. I found myself definitely in sympathy with Esau, and took that role. Esau is strong, athletic, and confident; Jacob hangs around the home and thinks up a way to cheat his brother. But be clear about one thing: Esau does not take his birthright seriously.
Esau knew that he was his father’s favorite. He also knew, birthright or no birthright, that he would receive his father’s blessing when the old man died. The culture was totally on Esau’s side. The first born received all the father’s property and other assets period! So what does it matter if a person takes his birthright for granted or gives it away? This is the heart of the matter. God chooses Jacob to be the father of the chosen people of Israel--in spite of the fact that Jacob is a clever scoundrel--because God recognizes in Jacob the qualities he needs. And the most important quality is that Jacob takes God seriously. Recall that Jacob has a dream at Bethel in which a ladder extends from earth to heaven. He has a vision of God standing next to him and blessing him, promising to be with him forever. The relationship is not perfect, however. Jacob does experience conflict with God. Remember when Jacob wrestles with God at Peniel [Genesis 32: 22-31]. He asks God for a blessing, which God gives along with a permanent disability.
In spite of ups and downs and questionable character, what distinguishes Jacob and Esau is the fact that Jacob has a real relationship with God. He seeks God. He cares about and wants God’s blessing. Normal power relationships in this ancient world are turned upside down. This is not to say that being a clever scoundrel is a good thing! It is to say that God’s grace does not discriminate against those WE would consider unworthy. It looks into the heart and finds those who care about their relationship with God. Unlike his brother Esau, Jacob looks into a future controlled by God and trusts God with his life. Esau has a shorter perspective. He relies on the conventions of the day and grasps a prize he can see because he believes he needs it to secure his own future--yes, a pot of stew for a starving brother. As Walter Brueggemann points out, we are taught in this story that the future is not secured by rights or claims of family, but by the grace of God securing God’s future--even when we humans make bad choices. Jacob and Esau make a bargain involving birthright because Esau believes he controls his own future. We know, of course, that it is God’s purposes that are secured.
So how do we fall into the same trap that ensnared Esau? What are ways that we sell our birthright of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection? When do we choose to satisfy our strong hungers with those material things the world provides with promises of a better life--things present here and now--no waiting, no trusting in God’s promises required? There are plenty of bargains out there for an immediate reward, but they are truly no bargain. When we trust God’s promise to restore, renew, and reconcile the world, and accept our birthright to be part of that work, we live our lives with a different perspective. It is a perspective that seeks to be in relationship with God through our Lord, Jesus Christ. We strive to make good decisions regarding our life choices, not decisions that grasp at spurious opportunities to control our own future.
The Romans’ passage and the Genesis’ passage are both about conflict and promise. Conflict is inevitable in life, but our response to it can seek to discover God’s intention for humankind or ignore God’s intention. God is at work creating a future where our fellow travelers in this life are free to love God and each other. When we try to control the future to our own advantage, when we try to create a future out of material benefit we can see, we can miss out on the material benefits God is establishing for the people of God. Even worse, we may ignore and despise the power of God to create transforming life out of nothing we can see or perceive. Remember that Paul uses ‘flesh’ in his letter to the Romans to describes not our bodies but rather whom we serve. We do not have a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ nature. We have our being, which is either in Christ or focused on gratifying the self. The transforming Spirit of God is a gift from God-- unbidden and undeserved--not a part of our nature. It requires our attention to perceive God’s intention and to trust the Spirit of God at work among us. Conflict is inevitable because there are two ways of understanding reality--one defined by God’s purposes and one defined by immediate, perceptible rewards. The promise that defines God’s reality is the reconciliation of the world to God and eternal life for all who live into God’s claim upon his people.
Our baptism immunizes us, if you will, to live in freedom as children of God. Our challenge as disciples of Jesus Christ is to live into the freedom we have in Christ to choose reconciliation where there is conflict; to choose love and inclusion where there is hatred, apathy, or exclusion; to choose a future shaped by the life-giving power of God rather than one dictated by narrow self-interest. We are called to live into our baptism as free agents of Jesus Christ bringing love and life wherever we see conflict and death. We have been immunized by the power of Christ against the life- constricting effects of sin. We cannot defer to the community of other Christians to live into this new life. We cannot depend on a “spiritual herd immunity.” We have been immunized against sin to live into our own calling because the decisions we make matter to God, and God works through each one of us. The alternative is to choose a path dictated by our own limited vision, but that is no bargain. Esau discovered this the hard way, and we should be careful not to despise our own birthright. Work hard to live into your baptism, so that you may daily increase in God’s Holy Spirit more and more until you pass into that relationship with God that has no end.
Thanks be to God for the spirit which brings life and peace through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
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Genesis 15:1-6; Romans 7:14-25
It was unclear to me what they were doing with their hands. They were trying to figure out how to divide up into teams but I couldn’t figure it out. I was about 14 or 15 years old and had gone with my parents and members of our church to the Seafarers’ Center at the Port of Houston. For those of you who are unaware about Houston, it is 50 miles from the coast but is still the second busiest port in the United States and the 13th busiest in the world. What this means is that seamen from all over the world travel and stay there. The churches in Houston have long supported the International Seafarer’s Centers by sending volunteers to befriend and spend time with these seamen who are far from home. My church was one of those. When we arrived some of the men were dividing up into teams for a softball game. They needed extras and asked me to join in. As they were dividing up into teams the men would do a thing with their hands and then one would go one way and the other, the other way. When I fumbled around with this ritual, the man just looked at me and said, “go there.” And I did. It was only years later that I learned what they were doing…paper, scissors, rock. Yes, this is a confession. I was a deprived child who had never learned to play paper, scissors, rock.
I assume that most of you here are familiar with this game of random chance. Paper beats rock. Rock beats scissors. Scissors beats paper. Ok, are we good? Alright then, if you understand how this game works then you will understand what Paul is trying to tell us in this part of his letter to the Romans.
To begin with Paul tells us that sin beats law. Sin is one of those words that carries with it multiple layers of meaning. For many of us growing up, sin was associated with particular actions. It was a sin to lie. It was a sin to steal. It was a sin to harm another person. If we grew up in more theologically conservative homes sin might even include drinking or going to movies on Sunday. Regardless, sin was seen as things. When Paul speaks about sin he is not referring to “things”. He is referring to sin as a human condition. Sin for Paul is like a spiritual disease which is possessed by every human being. Though Paul does not dwell on when, where or how we catch this disease he says we all have it. And what this disease does is distort and deform the image of God within us, causing us to turn away from God and toward self. We become the center of the universe and we will do whatever it takes to stay there. That is sin.
Law is the compilation of the rules and regulations that God has given us so that we can order and direct our lives according to what God desires of us. The law tells us what not to do; namely lie, cheat, steal, or covet among a multitude of sins. The law also tells us what to do. We are to love our neighbors. We are to care for the powerless. We are to make sure everyone has something to eat. Unfortunately Paul tells us that sin, our inner spiritual disease, beats out the law, which is God’s rules for living. Paul writes of not being able to do what he knows he ought to do, and of doing what he knows he ought not to do. He sums it all up in the second half of verse 25. “So then, in my mind I am a slave to the law of God (meaning he wants to do what God wants him to do) but with my flesh (which is another way of saying sinful self) I am a slave to the law of sin.” Sin beats law.
The second part of this spiritual game however is that Jesus beats sin. In verse 24 Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am who will rescue me from this body of death?” His answer is, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is put another way a couple of verse later when Paul writes, “For the law of the Spirit has set me free from the law of sin and death.” What Paul wants his friends to know is that ultimately sin no longer controls them or us. The disease of self-centeredness while still being present no longer controls our lives. Granted, like chicken pox, it never completely goes away. And it may rear its ugly head from time to time, yet in the end it no longer has to dominate our lives. What this means then for those of us who are part of the League of Extraordinary Followers, is that we can live more extraordinary Christian lives. Even though we will have those days when we do what we know we are not supposed to do; or we have those days when we do not do what we know we ought to do; we know that Christ beats sin. We know that the life of Jesus is at work in us, helping us to be the people we are called to be.
My challenge to you then is this…How am I allowing this reality, the reality that Christ beats sin, to encourage me in my daily living? How am I allowing this freedom from the disease of sin to give me hope that I can do what God calls me to do.