Inseparable

Here are the audio and text versions of Sunday’s Sermon on Romans 8:26-39: Inseparable.

Inseparable

Jim Lewis and Jim Springer were both born in 1940 and grew up just 45 miles apart in Ohio. Jim and Jim had remarkably similar lives, though they had never met. Lewis and Springer were both married two times. If that wasn’t strange enough, their first wives were both named Linda. And… their second wives were both named Betty. Lewis and Springer both had sons named James Allen. Both owned dogs named Toy. As a matter of fact these two men had more in common than names, they shared the same habits. Both had a fondness for woodworking, preferred Chevy over Ford, and remarkably liked to vacation at the same beach in Florida. When Jim and Jim met in 1979, they were astounded by the similarities in their lives, and how they had lived so close to one another. Would you be surprised to know that Jim Lewis and Jim Springer also shared a birthday? The boys were identical twins, adopted shortly after birth and both named James by their adoptive parents.

There are many stories of this kind of similarity in identical twins. From twin sisters giving birth (naturally) on the same day. And the twin brothers in England who, hours apart broke their arms. The first, 2 year-old Mitchell, fell off his backyard slide and was taken to the hospital. After a check-up, he was sent home with a clean bill of health. Hours later, the boy’s identical twin, Elliott, tripped over the base of the same slide and was also taken to the hospital. Doctors found he had broken his left arm, and while he was being treated, Mitchell said his left arm was hurting too. Doctors x-rayed the limb in question and found it to be broken as well.

It is almost as though some mysterious force binds the lives of twins together. Even when they are separated at birth, they seem not to be all that separated at all. Which is all well and good, but not many of us are twins. Roughly 2 percent of the population in the US are twins, and only 2/3 of one percent are identical twins. So, what about the rest of us?

That’s where the apostle Paul comes in with his letter to the church at Rome. Just a few moments ago I read Paul’s words of comfort and assurance to people whom he had not met. Remember, by the time Romans is written, Paul has not visited the believers there. You may not have recognized this scripture in The Message, so let me repeat part of it in the New Revised version.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? 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 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate us from God’s love. We are more than conquerors. Powerful promises.

While these promises are not a blank check that allows us to do whatever we please, they are a profound statement about how we are loved by God. Paul doesn’t promise us that we won’t experience hardship in our lives. He doesn’t say that we won’t experience trouble or hardship. He doesn’t say that, for those who love God, there will be no persecution or famine. Even God’s faithful will have to contend with danger, may be so destitute as to be naked, and will experience the wounding of being cut by swords, both those made of metal and of words.

Paul doesn’t promise us that these painful experiences won’t touch our lives. However, we are promised that none of that can separate us from God’s love.

God loves us.

Not because of what we do.
Not because of what we have done.
Not because of what we will do.
Not even because of who we have been, who we are, or who we will become.

God loves us because of who God is.
God loves us because that is what God does.
God loves you.

Period.

But although the sentence stops there, the story does not. God loves you and me. AND God calls you, and me, into this messy community of faith we call the church. For better or worse, we are called to come together, to support one another, to learn with one another, and to sacrifice for one another. This may come as a surprise to some of you, but church can be a painful place. Some of that peril, sword and nakedness happens here. Because we are a group of sinners. Sinners seeking God, yes. But still sinners.

And we hurt one another. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, and through no fault of our own, our actions (or our inactions) hurt others. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us.

Rather, because we are loved children of God, we are called to be more. We are called to seek, and offer, forgiveness. We pray regularly for God’s guidance and wisdom so that we will not only receive forgiveness for our sins, but be able to forgive those who sin against us. That is not easy to do. It opens us up to that nakedness. It is perilous. And yet, it is part and parcel with being a follower of Christ.

I’m going to be honest with you this morning. I have some tough conversations that I need to have in the coming week. I need to seek forgiveness for some things I have done and said, and things that I have not done… And I am dreading those conversations. Because they are hard.

Is there backstabbing that you have done, or you have been a victim of? Is there some other kind of trouble in your life and relationships that is causing you hardship? Be honest with yourself.

As we turn to God in prayer this morning, I encourage you to make a plan to address those issues this week. How are you going to seek forgiveness from that person you’ve wounded? How are you going to offer forgiveness to the one who has wounded you? Choose one specific situation. There may be several, and we need to address them all, but let’s start with one. Will you see the person face-to-face, or give them a phone call? Where will you be at the time? What will you say? Be specific in your thoughts and plans.

And remember, we offer forgiveness because we have been forgiven. We are loving because we are loved.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Plans

I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.
Jeremiah 29:11, The Message

On our recent family vacation we toured Philadelphia and the area around Washington, D.C. I was struck by the depth of history in that region. (I also noticed that there are a whole lot more people than I am used to being around!) One of the recurring themes that I heard in our trips to places of historic significance to our country, was the ability of our leaders to make and change plans. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln… they all made plans, and changed those plans again and again as they sought to lead the United States (or sometimes the dis-united states) through those formative years.

One of the things I have been trying to learn through the years is how to make good plans. I don’t anticipate that my plans will always meet with success, but I want to plan well, to give myself the best opportunity to succeed, or at least to learn and change those plans. One question that I often ask myself is, “Is this aligned with God’s plans?” Henry and Richard Blackaby write about a similar concept in Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God’s Agenda. One of the first challenges is determining God’s agenda.

I believe there are two important components to making plans that are aligned with God’s agenda. The first is prayer. Prayer is not intended to be an afterthought, seeking God’s blessing on the plans we have made. Instead, listening prayer is to be the first step in making plans. By listening prayer I mean prayer that seeks to hear God’s voice, not cajole God into blessing our presumptions. The first step in good planning for a Christian is to seek where God is already at work. Then seek God’s guidance of how to add our creative abilities into that ongoing work of God.

The second component of discerning God’s plans for us is to test what we are hearing in prayer with the community of faith. I have been learning the importance of testing out plans before I commit to them over the past few years. When I have listened to God and think I have heard what I am supposed to do, I ask some of my trusted friends and spiritual advisors to pray and consider if my plans seem to be in line with what they know of me, and what God might reveal to them in their prayers.

So, now the plans are made. What next? Well, a plan without action is merely a dream, so we put action to our plans. But, even the best laid plans, executed to the best of our abilities, sometimes fail. Does that mean that we somehow failed to understand God? Does it mean that our trusted advisors are faulty? No. It simply means that something changed. Plans were never intended to be rigid. Our plans are best when they are not set in stone, but able to be changed, amended, modified and discarded as the situation changes.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that God’s plans never change. When, in fact, God has been about the business of changing plans since the time of Adam and Eve. God never intended for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of that forbidden tree. But they did, and God’s plans for humanity had to change. Initially God intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah completely because of their sins, but Abraham bargained with God in an attempt to save the cities and was at least able to save the life of Lot and (most of) his family. Jesus did not intend to heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, but her argument swayed him.

Over the next few months we will be embarking on a different way of planning our future together as a community of faith. In this process, each and every member and participant in our corporate life will have an essential voice and important role to play. It is critical that our plans be in line with God’s agenda for Marshfield Christian Church, and for each of us as individuals. But it is equally important that and plans be OUR plans and not MY plans. I am excited to see how God is moving in our midst and where God might lead us in the future.

Elections and Radical Welcome

It seems like they have sprung up with all the rain this year. Those campaign signs must have been planted as seeds some time ago, because they are in full bloom along the roadways of Southwest Missouri. And as the elections near the jockeying for position will undoubtedly intensify. I know that is part of the electoral process, but it does start to weigh on me about this time of year. In the past several elections I’ve known one or more of the candidates, and this year is no different. That is a good thing, but it makes coming to an informed decision all that much harder.

I have made a commitment to keep my political choices a private matter and have really met with overwhelming support for that decision. The problem with my announcing my viewpoint on this or that candidate, is that it can be difficult to separate the views of the pastor from the views of the congregation. It is important for me to let others know that my viewpoint is not necessarily representative of the congregation, and certainly may be different than yours. And I think that is healthy. Especially if we handle election season with a large dose of grace.

Some years ago I knew a family who left the church about this time of year. After they had been noticeably absent for a few weeks (up to this point they had been very involved and weekly attenders of the church) the pastor set up a meeting with them. (I would love to have the chance to talk with everyone who decides to move on from MCC, much can be learned, even if the relationship cannot be restored.) During the conversation the couple told the pastor that they were no longer attending because there were bumper stickers for both party’s candidates on vehicles in the lot. Obviously the church was not teaching appropriately if someone could support THAT candidate…

I’ve always thought that kind of free-thinking spirit is a benefit to a congregation. If we all had the same view on the major topics, I might wonder what important viewpoints we were missing. It is that openness to political difference, and theological difference that first drew me to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) all those years ago in Lebanon, MO. Conservatives and liberals worshipping together almost felt like a partial fulfillment of lion and lamb laying together.

But out openness to diversity doesn’t stop with our politics. It extends into every aspect of our lives. We Disciples are committed to having an open table politically, theologically, racially, generationally and in every other diverse aspect of life. We are blessed to have members of our community from a wide variety of backgrounds in many respects.

One that I have found particularly enlightening is our diversity of religious backgrounds. We have life-long Disciples, but we also have many who are much newer to the denomination. We have fellow church members who grew up in other diverse traditions, Baptist and Methodist, Catholic and Mormon, Church of Christ and Lutheran, and those who grew up without a church experience. Each of these backgrounds adds to the diversity of thought and perspective in our study, worship and communal life.

As we live ever more fully into our call to be a community of radical welcome, we will rub up against people with whom we may have deep disagreements. The test will be to see how loving and grace-filled we can be in those interactions. You may not know the background of the person sitting next to you, but I can assure you that it is likely very different than yours. So, may we be gracious and loving in how we express our views and experiences, and may we be kind and forgiving when someone expresses a perspective that could be hurtful to us. We won’t be perfect. But we can strive to be imitators of Christ in how we love and accept others. We can strive to be a community of radical welcome were all people are accepted and invited to know and seek after God, who loves and forgives us.