Preparing the Armor of Light: November 27, 2016

A year ago right about this time I had breakfast with a friend of mine who grew up Jewish. We were talking about the coming holidays and she asked me about Advent. “You know,” she said, “I always thought Advent started on December 1st, but I’m hearing now that it actually starts in November.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It starts four Sundays before Christmas, so that means it usually starts the last week of November.”

“So here’s my question,” she replied. “If Advent starts in November, why does my chocolate Advent calendar always start on December 1st? I only get 24 pieces of chocolate.”

After I informed her that she was being cheated she nodded sagely and said “Aha! I knew it.”

I’m not sure what happened after that, but I think she may have gone back to the store to file a complaint.

It’s true that Advent usually starts in November, and today is in fact the first Sunday of Advent. So, if you have one of those December 1st-starting chocolate Advent calendars, it is liturgically appropriate, perhaps even necessary, for you to go out today and get some additional chocolate.

But today is more than just the start of Advent in the church. That’s because on the first Sunday of Advent each year, something big happens. Today we begin a whole new church year. This is, in fact, the church’s new year’s day.

For those who were thinking it was January 1st, let me explain, because there’s a good reason for this. The church year is the cycle we follow that tells the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and reign. And if we waited to start a new year on January 1st we would miss this important early stuff. We’d miss Mary learning she was having this baby. We’d miss Bethlehem and the manger. We’d miss Jesus’ birth itself.

And we’d miss Advent, which is our preparation for everything that is about to happen. And Advent matters. Not just for chocolate calendars, but for something much sweeter than that.

This morning we read a text from the letter to the Romans written by Paul. He tells the Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul is issuing a wake-up call to the Romans. He’s telling them that something big is coming and that it’s time to get ready. He tells them to put on armor. But he’s not talking about literal armor here. There’s no metal and no shield.

Paul talks about “armor of light.” I like that image. I like the idea of clothing ourselves not in the garments of isolation and impenetrability but in something that illuminates. I like the idea of shining in a world where so much is shrouded in darkness.

1006084_237267106479277_264921106_nAnd this is where Paul’s wake-up call comes in, because before we can get dressed in our armor of light, we first have to wake up. We have to look around and see what is happening. And if ever there were a time for God’s people to wake up, this is one of them.

I have been despairing of the state of the world this fall. I know many of you have been too. The mean-spiritedness, the fear-mongering, the scapegoating, the anger and violence. There are times that I wish Mr. Rogers were still alive and that he’d get on TV and remind us all how to act. But even if he did, I fear that he’d be mocked and belittled too.

There are days that I wake up and I feel like I’m living in a world that I never knew I lived in, and like I’m seeing it for the first time.

But the reality is that I, like you, have always lived here. And while I think I’m far from naive, the privilege I carry in so many ways means I’ve been insulated from so much of the pain and the darkness.

And so, like Paul says, it’s time for me to wake up. And it’s time for me to be one of the people who puts on the armor of light and by my very being proclaims a better way in the darkness.

And Advent is about a better way. This first Sunday of Advent, in particular, is about hope. And we’re not talking about cheap hope here. This isn’t the kind of hope that comes from anything you can buy on Black Friday, or some promise from a politician, no matter how great it might sound.

This is about real hope, the kind that comes dressed not in the newest styles or the trappings of some political campaign, but wrapped in the clothes of a newborn baby and placed in an old manger. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, because this is ridiculous hope, the kind that defies every expectation and brings with it demands that will change everything.

Including you, and including me.

That’s important to note because Advent isn’t just about waiting for Christmas. It’s not like being in a long line at the checkout counter, trying to distract ourselves until we reach the counter. This isn’t a passive season. Rather, Advent demands our participation. It demands we wake up, and we prepare for what is about to happen. It demands nothing less from us than a willingness to wear the armor of light.

And as beautiful as that armor might be, know that sometimes it is very hard to wear. There is so much in this world that would try to snuff out that light, to extinguish it. You will be told that it is pointless to wear, that there is no hope, that the darkness has triumphed too fully for your light to shine.

Don’t believe that. Wear that light anyway.

There’s a story about a lumberjack who was once asked how he would chop down a tree if he only had five minutes to do so. He replied, “I’d spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”

That’s good advice. Preparation matters. Being ready matters. Being sharpened so that we can be effective matters

On Christmas we proclaim the birth of a child who would change everything. And, we commit to being Christmas people, people who would spread the light and the joy of that child to the world.

Christmas is the time when Christ is born anew in all of our hearts, and when his light shines through us. Advent is the time when we prepare for that light.

To put it another way, Christmas is when we join with the newborn savior to start chopping down the overgrowth of hatred, violence, mean-spiritedness, oppression, and false hope. But Advent is when we sharpen our axes.

And so, how will you sharpen yourself this Advent? How will you prepare to wear this armor of light in a world that needs your light?

That is your challenge this week. As a new season, a new year, begins, what is your Advent resolution? How will you prepare yourself for Christ’s birth and for the coming of the light that you will be asked to wear in this world?

How will you wake up, sharp and bright, and be a person of hope?

Whatever you choose, know that Christmas is coming. And so, keep awake, and get ready. It’s a new year, and it’s the perfect time to start something amazing. Amen?

The Character of Hope

This morning we are baptizing six month old twins. It’s a joyous occasion that we have been repeating often lately, because we are in the midst of a season of baptisms in our congregation, a veritable baby boom. Today Melissa and Erica will bring their sons to the font and they will receive this sacrament in which we affirm that they are God’s, and that God loves them beyond measure.

But first, there’s the Scripture we read today. The one that tells us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

I worried for a moment when I started thinking about this Scripture and about suffering and endurance that after months of middle of the night feedings, sleep deprivation, and more that Erica and Melissa might think I had deliberately chosen this passage to talk about the perils of parenting twins.

Don’t worry, you two. Endurance produces character and character hope. So by the time you get these boys off to school, you will probably be two of the most hopeful people we know.

But the reality is that this passage isn’t about Melissa and Erica. At least, it’s not about them any more than it is about any of us. Originally it was from a letter, one sent by the apostle Paul to the church in Rome. Paul had never been to Rome, but he was planning to go and meet this church. And so, before he got there, he wanted them to know who he was, and what he believed.

And in particular, he wanted to write about what he believed about salvation. He wanted them to understand in particular what it means to be saved not through our works, not by how great we are, but instead by faith and by God’s love and grace.

And it’s in explaining this that he writes these words: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

picmonkey_imageIt’s that line, about suffering and endurance, character and hope, that always strikes me. Because, as much as it was meant for a church 2000 years ago, it was also meant for you, and for me.

And there’s so much about that line that needs unpacking, and understanding. Because the idea that our sufferings are the start of this journey to hope is a dangerous one if it is misunderstood.

When I was a college freshman I was in this leadership program where we did a lot of outdoor challenges in order to build leadership skills. One of them was rock climbing where we scaled the face of this cliff in north Georgia. And the motto that we kept hearing all week, especially during this cliff climb, was one you’ve probably heard before: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

For a long time I liked that idea and the thought that by challenging ourselves we become tough. Invincible even. Because when you’re 18 and standing on a mountain and the big challenge ahead of you is climbing a rock, it’s easy to look at the world and say “bring it on”.

But all of us reach a point in our life where the things we are facing actually do look like they could kill us. And sometimes, even if they don’t kill us, they don’t leave us stronger. Sometimes they might even leave us broken.

I don’t believe that God makes bad things happen in order to teach us lessons. I’ve never believed that. God is up there throwing down car crashes and cancer so that we can toughen up. God is not sadistic like that.

But the reality is that, as Hemingway said, “the world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” We are all going to be broken at times. We are all going to suffer. We will lose people. We will be hurt. We will be lost.

But, for some at least, in our weakness we will also become strong. And that strength will come not because we have endured, but because in the midst of the hardest moments we have recognized our limitations, and found that we are being upheld not by our own virtues, or our hard work, but by nothing other than God’s grace.

This passage, with this line that sounds like you could paint it on the wall at a gym somewhere along with other motivational sayings, has nothing to do with how great we are, or how hard we can push ourselves. Instead, it comes in the middle of a passage about grace, and about how God’s love is so great that it alone is sufficient for our salvation, in every sense of the word.

If you have ever had a time in your life when you felt broken, one when it felt like you were at rock bottom, one when it seemed like you had failed time and time again…then you are extremely lucky.

You probably think I have no idea what I am talking about right now. How can pain be luck? But I do know what it’s like to hit rock bottom. And I do know what it’s like to fail, and to fail again.

But the good news comes in this: that also means that I know about grace. I know that in the hardest times, God’s grace is what can lift us up. And, just as I know that light shines the brightest in the darkness, I know that God’s grace is better than anything because it came to me when I needed it the most, and deserved it the least.

On second thought, we aren’t lucky if we’ve known grace. We are extraordinarily blessed.

And so, when we see that grace, when we realize that it doesn’t come from our own work or worthiness, that’s when what Paul is talking about here really matters. That’s when character comes into play. And that’s where hope comes from.
That’s because for those of us who would follow Christ, those who know that we have received grace upon grace, it is how we respond to that grace that comes to define our character.

The truth is if we really have experienced grace, then we cannot help but respond in one way: with gratitude. If we have truly been lifted up, then we cannot remain unchanged. We have to become people of light. People of grace. People of generosity. People of character.

And perhaps because of all of that, people of hope. Because Paul was right about that. In the end, we hope because we have known what it was to feel hopeless. And we have found that it wasn’t true. Because where God is, there is always hope.

And so, as we prepare to baptize these two children, these embodied reminders of God’s grace, that’s what I hope that we teach these boys as they grow. I hope that we teach them to be hopeful.

Because Caleb and Spencer, they are going to grow up. And, as hard as it is to imagine today, they are going to suffer. They are going to have nights when it feels like God is so far away. No matter what the people who love them do to bubble-wrap them and protect them, they are going to suffer. Because they are human. It’s unavoidable.

But today we are affirming that those moments won’t be the end of the story. We are saying through these waters of baptism that there is grace. And along with their mothers, we are going to guide them in their faith journeys to become people of character, because they will know that grace. And they will grow to be men who have hope. And, even better, men who give that hope to our entire world.

Caleb and Spencer, you are beloved children of God. And you are the hope of the world. Amen.

Nothing: Sermon for July 28, 2014

Romans 8:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.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.

"Paul Writing His Epistles"

“Paul Writing His Epistles”

So, when I was growing up, I was pretty sure I was going to hell.

It’s sort of funny now, given my profession, but growing up in the South hell got talked about a lot. There were billboards and t-shirts that people used to scare you into faith. And my fundamentalist friends taught me that if you even did one thing wrong, you deserved hell. And I wasn’t a bad kid, but I knew I did a lot of things wrong, every day, so surely I was heading right to hell.

So I decided I would look for a solution that would keep me away from eternal damnation. And I asked my friends what I needed to do. And some said I needed to join the Baptist Church and get baptized in the lake and Jesus would forgive me. And others said I needed to join their church and learn to pray the right way, and I’d be fine. And others said I had to convert to a very strict sect of Catholicism or else I was a goner. And I remember them saying only members of their particular denomination would be saved.

I finally snapped out of it when I realized that everyone I talked to thought that everyone else I talked to was going to end up in hell.

But those questions about God never really went away, though, and when I got to be a little older, I started to read the Bible for myself. And the Bible, to me, was a scary book. I’d heard it used in ways that made it clear that God didn’t love certain kinds of people. I’d heard people say it told women that they were inferior. I heard it used to justify the horribly anti-Semitic things said to my Jewish friends. And I really didn’t want to read it for myself because I was scared to find out that maybe it really did say those things, and maybe God really was ready to damn us all.

And above all, one part of the Bible scared me to death. The letters from Paul, or the epistles. Because where I grew up, whenever someone was saying that God hated something or someone, they seemed to be quoting the apostle Paul.

Which is why it’s surprising that it was in reading’s like today’s from the letter of Paul to the Romans, that I learned not to be afraid of God anymore.

Paul is writing a letter to a church he has never been to before, the church in Rome. And he is introducing himself and telling them what he believes. He is trying to tell them who God is, and how to be the church together. And, we can’t forget this, he is writing to people who are afraid.

They are afraid of what it means to be followers of Christ in a time when that was not considered a good thing to be. And more than that, they’re afraid of getting it wrong. They’re afraid that they are not believing the right way.

It’s to this very scared church that Paul writes this letter, but he could be writing that to any of us who have ever wondered about where we stood with God. And he asks, “if God is for you, who can be against you?” And, “who can condemn you?” And, “what can separate you from God’s love?”

And his answer is this: nothing.

Nothing can separate you from God’s love. Paul writes, “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.”

Nothing. You may have noticed in the bulletin that that was today’s sermon title. “Nothing.” So, that’s not a typo, or a sign I didn’t get the title in on time. It’s the take away.

And through the centuries people have taken that message away from this text. Martin Luther, centuries ago, was a man who was terrified of God’s judgement. Even though he was a monk, he struggled to believe that God really loved him. And then he read the Bible for himself, a revolutionary act in those times, and he read this letter from Paul. And some say this very passage helped to spawn the Protestant Reformation.

Later on others like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and Karl Barth, deep in the turmoil of World War II, would read this passage and find God’s love and assurance. This is a passage that changes something. It’s a passage that changed me, and maybe it changes something for you too. Maybe it makes God’s love a little more sure.

Last week in my sermon I talked about “thin places” and “thick places”. Thin places are the places where we feel God and God’s love very close to us. Thick places are the ones where God feels so far away. I believe both of those places exist for all of us.

But here’s what I believe does not exist: disconnected places. Because even in the thickest of places, God remains with us, and nothing, as Paul would say, can separate us from God’s love.

My cousin told me a story recently about her father who was a front-lines infantry soldier with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. That particular division saw some of the worst fighting of the war. And, like most soldiers, he was not a man who went into the Army because he liked war or what comes with it.

And he told her that as he was fighting on the front lines, he would keep repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over to himself. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Over and over, in what was surely one of the thickest places imaginable. And even as horrible as it was, he knew God was still with him, and still loved everyone there.

Our circumstances do not make or break our relationship with God. Whether they are in our control or not, God never leaves us. And no matter what, God’s love, and nothing and no one else, gets to have the final say.

When my cousin’s father got older he began to show signs of dementia. And when he got the most confused and scared he would start reciting the Lord’s Prayer again. And sometimes he couldn’t remember the words. And so my cousin wrote them down for him, and he carried them in his pocket, and even when he couldn’t say them, he knew they were there. And he knew God was there too. (Note: I’m thankful for the permission my cousin Gail gave me to share this story, which she also previously shared in Guideposts.)

Nothing, could separate them. And this is true for all of us. There will not be a moment in our lives, or in what is to come, when anything or anyone or any circumstance can separate us from God’s love. And that is good news.

But as good as that news is, that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. Because that news means that God’s grace is real. And grace is scary. Because being loved by God, no matter what? That means that there is some part of your life that you have no control over at all. You get grace, whether you want it or not.

And so here’s what comes next. You have you have to decide what you want to do about it. And I believe the Christian life is all about that choice. It’s not about being good so that you get into heaven. It’s not about being scared into faith by people preaching a fiery hell. It’s just this: knowing you have received God’s love and God’s grace, and deciding what to do next.

And here’s what Martin Luther and all the others throughout the centuries who have read this passage and been changed by it have said: I choose to live my life in gratitude. And I believe they are right. I believe that the Christian life is all about our gratitude for what we have been given. It’s about living our life as a “thank you” to God. And it’s about choosing to live focused on the abundance that God has given us, and not on our fears or insecurities. Because not even those things, as big as they may be, have the power to separate us from the love of God.

So, when you walk out the doors today, how will you live in gratitude this week? How will you respond to the “nothing” which changes everything? And how will you share that love with the world? What will you give back out of what you’ve been given? What can you do with your life to say “thank you.”

It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves individually, and then we have to ask it too as a church. How will we live in gratitude for God’s grace? As a community, how will we say thank you to God in our life together? And how will our gratitude serve to bless our community and our world.

That’s the question that will determine the kind of church we will be for years to come. And that’s the one that we have to continuously work together to answer. Because when someone looks at us and asks, “What kind of church are you?” we want to know how to answer that. We want to be able to say, in our words and in our actions, “we are a church that knows God’s love and shares it”.

And when they ask, “What keeps you from living into God’s grace?” and “What stops you from sharing the abundant blessings that God has given you?” this is the only answer we should ever allow ourselves to give: “Nothing”.

Amen.

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger?: Sermon for May 26, 2013

Text: Romans 5:1-5

When I was in my freshman year at my college, I was in a leadership program. It was a little like Outward Bound, we climbed rocks, and did high ropes courses, and pushed ourselves past what we thought that our limits were. And the joke throughout the whole trip, whenever we were about to do something that seemed dangerous or impossible, was that someone would say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

It was a good joke for the weekend, but for a while after that trip I began to really embrace that way of thinking. Young adult years are often full of change, and it seemed like a good life outlook because it meant that everything was an opportunity for growth. Whenever I faced something difficult or challenging I just shrugged and said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

And then I finished college, and then seminary, and took a job as a chaplain at a children’s hospital. And all of a sudden things got a little deeper and a little more real. I spent a lot of time with parents who had lost, or were loosing, children. And I saw their utter devastation. And all of a sudden, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sounded pretty trite. Because these parents, they were alive but, at least in the aftermath, they weren’t any stronger. In fact, the exact opposite was true. This wasn’t the challenge of a rock wall set up to build character. This was something far more devastating, and far less deliberate.

At first reading, today’s passage from Romans sounds sort of live that motto I heard back then. Paul gives us this sort of chain reaction where he tells us that suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope. And this passage could be mistaken to mean, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Just live through something tough, and you will be better for it

But the meaning is much deeper than that. Paul is writing to the church in Rome, where he has never visited before, and he is telling this community about himself. And he is talking to a divided people. Some members of the church there come from the Jewish community and believe that the law they have known their whole lives most be upheld. And others are Gentiles, and they don’t understand why they are being told that they have to get circumcised and keep certain commandments. And the community is divided, which means that is is susceptible to false teachings. And so Paul writes this letter to the Romans to talk about grace and how we are not saved by what we do, but instead by what God does for us. And he writes this particular part about hope.

Now, hope is something you can’t buy, and yet hope sells like nothing else. The people who write ads know this, and so we will buy anything that promises us a sliver of hope from a new medication to a new laundry detergent to a political candidate. But Paul is talking about something deeper here. The sort of hope you can’t buy. Authentic hope, which comes from God.

And we have this very brief passage about hope that out of context is misleading. It seems to say that you will be better for your suffering. And on some level, ultimately, that may be true. But we have to be careful not to reduce it to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And we have to be sure that we are not saying that God wills suffering upon us to teach us lessons or to make us better people

In the wake of the tornado this week in Oklahoma, it’s important that we make that distinction. After every disaster, natural or human-made, there are always a few voices that pop up in the media saying that God did this and that this happened for a reason. Usually they say it’s because God wants to teach us something. That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.

One of the best sermons I ever read came from a minister named William Sloane Coffin. And he was preaching the Sunday after his beloved son was killed in a motorcycle crash. And he tells this story about the first days after the crash and how a woman he didn’t really know came in carrying these quiches she had baked for him, and she sighs and says “I just don’t understand the will of God.”

He was grieving, and it rubbed him the wrong way, and he got up and flew after her and said, “I’ll say you don’t.” And he went on to say that God doesn’t go around causing accidents and crashes because it’s God’s will. Coffin says God doesn’t go around with a hand on a trigger waiting to inflict pain. And he says finally that when his son’s motorcycle went into the water, “God’s heart was the first to break”.

It’s a good reminder. God does not make tornados hit Oklahoma. God does not give children cancer. God does not will us to kill one another. God does not cause car accidents. Instead, diseases happen, wars are fought, and accidents occur. And in the midst of it, God cries with us.

At this stage in Paul’s life, he had suffered mightily. He had lost everything, been imprisoned, and been beaten. And yet, he had found hope. Not through his suffering, but through the knowledge that God had upheld him in the midst of it. And it was that knowledge that made him such a convincing advocate.

It is because of what he had endured that he was able to talk about how suffering had transformed him, and had shaped his character, and had given him hope. It was not suffering for suffering’s sake. It was instead a place where God’s grace became most real to him. Strength did not come from pain, but from an experience of finding hope in that pain.

I don’t believe that everything on earth that happens is God’s will. I’ve stood in too many Emergency Rooms with grieving parents to believe that. But I do believe that nothing happens in God’s world that God cannot transform in some way for good.

When I was in seventh grade, a neo-Nazi subculture began to flourish in the area I was in school. It was sickening and it was deadly. And I had an English teach who announced one day that we would have a guest speaker. That day a woman with a slight accent came to speak to my class, and she told us the horrors she had seen in her life and about what the reality of human evil can do. And she rolled up her left sleeve, and showed us all that tattooed numbers that had been given to her on the day she arrived at a concentration camp

God did not will the Holocaust. God did not will her suffering. But in the aftermath of what was then unchangeable, God’s grace worked through her to give her strength, and to testify to what unchecked hatred could do. To show those few who embraced a movement they did not really understand what its logical end was. God had not willed her suffering, but God had transformed her character and used it to give the world hope.

The same is true in many of our lives though, thankfully, usually less dramatically so. Think of the people you most respect. Do you respect them for what they were easily given in life? Or do you respect them because there is something in their life that they overcame and were so transformed by that it affected who they were?

The people I respect most, have not had easy lives. They are the people who have faced adversity, and have been transformed by grace.They’ve overcome injury, or addiction, or hatred, or fear, or pain. And have tried to share the hope they received with others.

My dad would be embarrassed if I told you this story, because he’s not the kind who tells stories like this, but it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I just spent a week with him, and he’s on my mind.

Growing up I knew my dad had been in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I had always assumed he had a desk job. Only in last ten years or so I learned that wasn’t the case. And sometimes he was really in the thick of things.

I asked him once, “Were you scared”? Because as far as I knew at that point my dad had never been scared of anything in his life. And he looked at me and said “of course I was scared”.

I realized then that this man who had always taught me to stand up to prejudice, to be myself, to forge ahead even when I was scared, who had taught me about hope, actually knew what he was talking about.

I think that’s what Paul may have been talking about. Because the people who have walked through the hardest things in life, the people whose characters have been tested the most, and the ones who ultimately emerge with hope, are the ones who manage, by God’s grace, to bring hope to the world.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

No.

What doesn’t kill us, simply doesn’t kill us.

But God’s grace in the face of our struggles is what ultimately makes us stronger. And through that grace, in the most difficult of times, we find endurance. And in that endurance we find character. And it is that character that gives the world hope. Amen.

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Inseparable: A sermon on God’s love, Norway, and us all.

Every Sunday in worship, right after we confess our sins together, I ask you, “Who is in a position to condemn us?” And I then say, “only Christ, and Christ so loved us that he gave himself for us. In Jesus Christ we are all forgiven. Thanks be to God.”

 

That line is from a prayer book, but that prayer book took it from this passage that we are reading here today. These words to the Romans that brought them comfort and hope two millenia ago continue to bring us comfort and hope today. They assure us, as the passage reads, that nothing, not “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.”

 

That’s good news for us humans who will do everything in our power to try to separate ourselves from the love of God. We are born with our hearts turned towards God and, no matter what we do or how we try to ignore it, we are at our best when we stay turned that way our whole lives. And yet we do all we can, maybe even sub conciously, to create a separation and to fill it with everything in the world that is bad for us.

 

And we are creative. We can find a hundred ways to move away from God without even realizing it. Yet in the end, no matter what happens, God decides that separation is no obstacle. And the love of God always wins.

 

I was thinking about that this week. It was hot out there. You’ve heard a born and raised Southerner who prides themselves on not admitting to Yankees that their weather is hot say it is hot. So, it was hot. And when I finally gave up I went down to the Rock River in Dummerston and jumped in.

 

I had never swam there before, and I wasn’t expecting the current to be so strong. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but I found places where I could swim with all my might and not make any progress back upstream. But if found that if I stopped fighting, and let go and let the water do what it was made to do, I realized the current would take me right back to a safe place.

 

The love of God is a lot like that. We try our best to fight our way upstream, swimming against the unstoppable current of God’s love, but we find that when we just let go and accept it we are safe. And that current keeps moving downstream, and in the end even we can’t dam it up. It always wins.

 

Paul knew that when he wrote to the Romans. He knew that no matter how horrible things were, no matter what utter devastation and tragedy would befall us, God’s love would in the end win.

 

And that’s the sort of passage you need on a day like today. A day when we are still asking “Why?”

 

Last Friday a man detonated a car bomb in the middle of Oslo killing at least seven people. He then walked into a youth camp and killed 89 more. We immediately began to ask why. And the answers that have come so far are more related to you and I than we’d like to believe.

 

The man who carried out these acts was a Christian. And he points to the faith he claims as the reason he felt compelled to kills dozens of people. And he wasn’t a madman. He wasn’t someone who snapped and went on a rampage. He was methodical and deliberate and deadly. He was, quite simply, a terrorist. A Christian terrorist.

 

We don’t like that idea. We don’t like thinking that our faith, which has always respected the example of the non-violent Jesus Christ, would be twisted by someone who was filled with hatred. We don’t want to claim him as ours. We want to believe that terrorists belong only to other faiths, and not our own.

 

And yet that’s not true. Of course this man is in the extreme minority of Christians, just as the men who flew planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania represented an extreme minority of Islam. He is not indicative of the beliefs of the vast majority of Christians. And yet in the aftermath, in more places than you might believe, our faith is being painted with a broad brush as violent and deadly and inherently wrong.

 

The people who say that…they’re not right. They’re simply reacting to what happened with the same knee-jerk thinking that targets any group after one of its members goes on a violent spree. But how many of us who feel uncomfortable now have done this to other groups?

 

But the even harder question is this: What are we as a church, a worldwide church, doing wrong that someone would so misinterpret the teachings of Jesus this way? Why is a message of love and grace being heard as anything but? It would be easy to dismiss it if this man were the only one to so mishear the message, but he’s not.

 

Today in New York City, the Westboro Baptist Church is spreading it’s message of hatred there and protesting weddings. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with whether people should be marrying today. I’ve always said there are good Christians on every side of that issue. But it does matter that someone claiming our name is standing there telling people that God hates not only them, but all of America. It matters that they are standing at the funerals of fallen service members and, instead of comforting their loved ones with the words of hope from this passage, the words that say that not even death can separate us from Christ, they are shouting that their family members are in hell.

 

It’s easy to dismiss them as well. But for every extremist Christian individual or group that we dismiss, there are a dozen more that we don’t even know about yet. They are claiming our name, and they think that they are right. And in the process people across this country and around the world are thinking that this is what Jesus Christ was all about. Their violence and hatred and mean-spiritedness is not what Jesus died for. It’s what he died to save us from.

 

And so what do we Christians, who stand here reeling from what was done on Friday in our name, do to respond? Do we fight violence with violence? Do we call for the blood of the man who did this? Or, conversely, do we just talk about how terrible it is and pray for the victims and then let it slowly fade into our subconscious?

 

I hope we do none of those things. I hope we choose a third way. I hope we choose a way that is consistent with everything that Christ taught us about grace and compassion and love. I hope we honor who he was, and is, by proclaiming this passage that we read here today to the whole world.

 

Nothing on earth, not death, nor life, not things present, nor things to come, not a gunman hijacking our faith nor a woman with a hateful sign, will separate you or I or anyone from the love of Christ. No matter how hard they try.

 

Jesus loved the young people whose lives were cut short in his name on Friday. He loved them when they were afraid. When they were in pain. When they were confused. This gunman couldn’t change that. And when this happened, as the Rev. William Coffin said about tragedies like this, God was the first of all of us to cry.

 

And today the love of Christ surrounds Norway, and it surrounds our country, and it surrounds the whole world. But the thing about Christ’s love is that it is most often, and best, felt when it is shared between people. Today in Norway, and in a hundred other places where people have been hurt in Jesus’ name, the word Christian may bring with it some pain, and some fear. It shouldn’t be that way.

 

Our job as Christians is pretty easy: be loved and love. Be loved by God, love God and one another. It’s the simplest job description in the world. And the hardest job you’ll ever have. I’ll save you some worry and tell you that you will never get a pink slip. You’ll never be let go in a round of layoffs. For better or for worse, nothing can separate you from this work because nothing can separate you from the love of God.

 

And today there is a world of people who have been hurt by those claiming our name, and they need to know that Christ’s love is real, so it’s time for us to get to work. As you head back out into the world today, I give you these words as your guide. When I first heard this prayer, attributed to St. Francis, when I was 17, I knew it was all I wanted to do with my life. It’s when I really knew I wanted to be a Christian. May they comfort you as you seek to comfort the world:

 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.