Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon: Too Deep For Words

Meherrin Presbyterian Church
July 27, 2014
Ordinary 17A

Too Deep For Words

What do you do when you hear music without words?
Maybe you’re the particularly blessed type, who can simply listen and let the music take its course through your soul.
Probably, though (if you’re like most people), you try, consciously or not, to “fill in the blank.”
Your mind starts to create a story to go with the music.  Or perhaps it begins to invent a poem, in which the words fit to the tune you hear.  Or possibly, if you’re a more visual type, your mind begins to imagine a picture or scene that plays out as the music moves along, with scene as illustration of music or maybe vice versa.
Either way, we modern-day humans have a sharply defined inability (or most of us do, anyway) to let the music simply be music.  We somehow develop the idea, perhaps unspoken but no less powerful, that the music has to mean something, something that we can somehow encapsulate in words or maybe in pictures.
Felix Mendelssohn begs to differ with you.

Some very specific ideas on music and words

Mendelssohn was of course one of the outstanding composers of the nineteenth century.  What you’re hearing is by him, an example of a “Song without words,” a piano work that was something of a specialty of his.  As you can hear, in many ways it sounds like a song you might expect to hear someone sing; it only lacks words, and a singer to sing them. 
Mendelssohn wrote at least four dozen such “songs without words” in his brief lifetime.  A few of them have descriptive labels attached to them; for example, some are labeled as “Venetian gondola songs” because they so strongly resemble the songs sung by the gondola drivers in the canals of Venice.  Most of them have no title, as Mendelssohn so presented them.  A few were given labels after their publication, in some cases even after Mendelssohn’s death, by editors or critics or others who felt that the music had to mean something, something that could be captured in words. (In fact, some editor decided that the piece you've just heard needed the title "Belief.")
In a letter to a former student Mendelssohn very specifically denied this.  As he put it, he believed that words were insufficient to the task of capturing what music meant: to him, words many or few were “so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music, which fills the soul with a thousand better things than words.”  He continued, “The thoughts that are expressed to me by the music I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite…this, however, is not your fault, but the fault of words, which cannot do better… .”
I can’t help but suspect that the Apostle Paul (who was, coincidentally, the subject of one of Mendelssohn’s oratorios) might have at least nodded knowingly at this idea that Mendelssohn expresses here.  At the very least he might have acknowledged that Mendelssohn’s idea that the music he loved was “too definite” for words sounded a lot like what Paul himself writes here in verse 26 of this eighth chapter of Romans:

Likewise 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. (NRSV)

I admit that phrase – “sighs too deep for words” has haunted me most of my life, probably since some sermon I heard as a child.  Back then I wondered what that could possibly mean; being a wordy little kid I couldn’t really imagine how something could be “too deep for words.”  If you couldn’t say it, how could it be real?
I’ve grown up since then and I have at least some small idea of just how silly that childish thought was, even before I ever read Mendelssohn’s own description of his view of music.  Oftentimes this sense, this deep-rooted wordless sighing has been a part of my life in times of trouble; the death of my mother, later the death of one of my sisters, or my own diagnosis of cancer just a couple of years ago.  Occasionally it has been experienced in more joyful times; our wedding day, for example, or a particularly profound musical experience.  Sometimes it has come in moments of struggle or uncertainty; the period of time when I was considering giving up the teaching career I loved to jump off the cliff into seminary stands out there.
Only this week the experience was visited upon me again.  Word came that a former seminary classmate, a woman a few years older than I who had started at Union the year after I did, had been moved into hospice care.  After her first year of school she had gone for an exam for persistent headaches, an exam which revealed tumors on her brain.  She returned home for treatment, but nothing was able to turn back the destructiveness of the cancer. 
Indeed, sighs too deep for words.  Even when my soul tried to fit words into my feelings, their insufficiency and inferiority became painfully clear.  Why does this happen?  Why did I get cancer that I could survive, and she didn’t?  The words collapse on their own uselessness.  Sighs too deep for words.
I suspect you can search your own lives for times when you’ve known that experience of sorrow, or joy, or struggle, or uncertainty, or relief for which words could not be found or did not even exist.  It’s one thing to know the experience of that kind of experience, one “beyond words.”
But it’s a whole other thought to know that the Holy Spirit does that for us. 
For indeed that is what Paul tells us right here in verse 26: “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  When we cannot find the words to pray rightly, whether in our joy or sorrow or need, it isn’t that the Spirit gives us words to say.  No, it is that the Spirit steps in for us with its own wordless, unspeakable sighing. 
Just a few verses earlier, starting in verse 22, Paul writes of all of creation “groaning in labor pains” and not only creation, but we ourselves, “groan inwardly” while we wait for the adoption God has promised to each of us, of which Paul spoke in verse 15.  Paul has also already spoken of the Spirit bearing witness with us, in our times of crying out to God, even as simple a cry as “Abba! Father!  In our unfinished spiritual state, when we cry out for we know not what or even when we cannot cry out, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Advocate Jesus promised us to send after he was gone, is at work in us and with us and for us, bringing our petitions before God even when we cannot rightly articulate them or even know what they are. 
And it is from this knowledge, this promise of a Spirit that intercedes for us beyond our capacity to know or understand, that Paul can exult throughout the rest of this chapter in the unspeakable love of God.  The God whose Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words is the God who pulls all that happens to us into working together for our good, not eliminating suffering or pain from our lives but blessing and sustaining us through the suffering and pain; this is the God who created us and made us to be part of the family of God, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, brothers and sisters in a great unbounded worldwide family; this is the God who, even though we could be charged with all of the corruption and weakness sin can muster, instead intercedes for us, not even withholding God’s own Son, that we would be reconciled and restored; this is the God who justifies, who saves, who redeems and restores; this is the God who loved us and loves us and will love us so profoundly and so unspeakably that Paul can practically sing out in joy that nothing – not death or life or angels or rulers or dark powers, nothing can separate us from that love.  God meets our sighs too deep for words with love too deep for words.
For that, dear brothers and sisters, even though the words themselves are painfully insufficient, let us never fail to say, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 Hymns (all PH ’90): #485 To God Be the Glory, #160 As Morning Dawns, #366 Jesus, Thy Boundless Love To Me

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sermon: Family Resemblance

July 20, 2014
Ordinary 16A
Romans 8:12-25

Family Resemblance

I’ve been married to my wife for a little more than twenty years now.  Occasionally during those years of marriage I’ve been present when she sees relatives, family friends, old teachers, or others whom she hasn’t seen in many years.  One thing that happens frequently in those reunion situations is that someone is very likely to make a remark about how much my wife looks like her mother. 
We’re accustomed to looking for family resemblance of some sort.  Whether it is in a child, newborn or adult, in whose face we see the features of mother or father; or the grandmother who sees in a grandchild’s tantrums or misbehaviors the very same tantrums or misbehaviors the child’s mother – her own daughter – threw when she was a child; or perhaps more unfortunately, the grown son who falls into the same destructive patters of behavior that brought his “old man” down.
In the case of my wife’s resemblance to her mother, though, it’s always a little bit difficult to stifle a chuckle when some aunt or uncle says to her that she looks just like her mother.  You see, my wife was adopted.  The arrangements were made well before she was born, and – after an extended stay in the hospital due to premature birth – she went home with her parents, parents who would adopt another daughter about three years later.
You would never know this, though, just by observing the family.  There is no sense in which the way my wife interacts with her parents gives away any lack of blood relationship.  They love her, and she loves them, in ways you would never be able to distinguish from those of a “natural” daughter and parents.  They are, simply put, a family, and blood relationship or lack thereof simply don’t matter.
To think about adoption, as we know it today, might be just the thing to help us get into Paul’s instruction here in the eighth chapter of Romans.  For one thing, adoption was not an uncommon practice in Paul’s time, particularly in the city of Rome, the location of the church Paul was addressing in this letter.  Now adoption didn’t work exactly the same way in Rome as it does here and now, but there is an important similarity; one who was adopted into a family gained the right of some part of the inheritance of that family.  To be adopted did not signify any kind of lesser status; all of the benefits of being a son in a Roman family were extended to adopted sons every bit as much as to natural sons. 
Thus, for Paul to write in verse fifteen that we have not received a “spirit of slavery, to fall back into fear,” but a “spirit of adoption,” is extremely important, and would have carried a world of meaning to Paul’s readers that we need to understand ourselves as well.  Paul of course is writing to a church in Rome that contains both male and female members.  Given this diversity in the church, it might seem odd that in verse fourteen, Paul uses rather different language that doesn’t really reflect the makeup of his addressees.  Unlike other verses, which use a Greek noun that refers to “children” both male and female, Paul here really writes that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” What’s going on here?  Are the women being left out?  Did Paul revert to sexism?
As Paul might say, “by no means!” Here Paul is making use of his readers’ understanding of adoption and family ties.  Both natural and adopted sons received part of the inheritance of the family, but daughters typically were married off, and their lot was cast with the family into which they married.  So, by Paul referring to “sons” in verse fourteen, he is emphasizing the degree to which all of his readers, and all of us – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free – participate in God’s inheritance.  We are all part of God’s family, which is deliverance from the sin that bound us before receiving “adoption” into God’s family.
Now all of this sounds just wonderful, happy, and blissful…until we get to verse seventeen.
Paul continues from where we left off back in verse fifteen, pointing out that our very crying out to God is the very same Spirit bearing witness to us that we are indeed children of God – and here Paul uses that noun for “children” that includes both sons and daughters – and goes on to say that if we are children of God, we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ … “if, in fact, we suffer with him, so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Huh?  What’s the deal with suffering?  Nobody told me anything about suffering?  Nobody said you had to suffer to be adopted, did they?  Maybe we feel like we don’t understand what Paul’s talking about here.
Except…when we think about it, we really do understand what Paul’s talking about here.  To be adopted into a family means that the child shares in everything that family has.  The inheritance, yes.  The joys that the family experiences, of course.  But also the sorrows, the struggles, the failures, the setbacks and discouragements and sufferings.  When my wife’s grandmothers died, several years apart, it was no comfort to her to think that she was adopted, not really “born into” this family.  The grief and pain was every bit as real, as painful, as if she were their “natural” granddaughter.  She was spared no suffering for having been an adopted child. 
And so it is to be adopted into God’s family.  The difference, though, is that the scope of “family” here is an awful lot broader than we might be accustomed to thinking.  The “family of God” does not stop at the walls of this church.  It does not stop on this side of town, or at the borders of our state or even our country.  And when any part of God’s grand worldwide adoptive family suffers, we suffer.
When rockets fall from the sky and destroy homes and villages, we suffer, even if it’s not our country.  When children flee from murderous drug gangs, we suffer, even if they’re not our children.  When fifty murders happen in one weekend in one city, we suffer, even if it’s not our city.  If we have truly received that “spirit of adoption,” if we are truly and fully among the children of God, we suffer when any part of God’s family suffers.  We don’t smell the stink of the bombs, we don’t feel the heat and thirst of the desert or hear the whizzing of bullets, but we suffer because God’s children are suffering.  When any part of our family suffers, we all feel pain.  That’s how families are.  We feel pain when any of God’s children suffer, if we really are part of God’s family. 
As if that weren’t enough, Paul goes even further starting in verse nineteen.  After talking about children and heirs and joint-heirs, suddenly Paul shifts gears and begins to speak of creation.  Now it is creation that has suffered bondage, creation that was “subjected to futility” as Paul puts it.  All of God’s good creation lives in anticipation, “groaning in labor pains.”  Indeed our family-of-God-ness is bound up not just in other people, but all of creation as well; when any part of creation suffers, we suffer, if we really are part of the family of God.  Creation suffers disasters both “natural” and man-made.  When hurricanes slam into populated places, we suffer.  When earthquakes shatter whole towns or cities, we suffer.  But also, when earth is abused, when air is polluted, when rivers are poisoned, mountaintops demolished, seas become dumping grounds, we suffer with God’s creation.  God’s “family” is really a lot more expansive than we expect. 
Well, this took a turn for the worse, didn’t it?  All of that might just make us a little more cautious about singing that old song, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.”  Finally, though, Paul comes to the climax of his mini-argument here.  All of this talk of adoption and inheritance and family and suffering, for Paul, boils down to the indispensible fact of our hope in God. 
All that has come before points us to the very thing that allows us to find ourselves in the “spirit of adoption,” and to bear the suffering that God’s family suffers.  Because the good news, the gospel that is Jesus Christ, has already been proclaimed, already delivered to the world, we are able to live into our adoption, to live like a child of God, an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ.  Because of that gospel, we can live in a world of suffering, and feel suffering because others suffer, bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s sorrows, without losing hope.  We can know the pain of the world without despairing. 
Hope is, of course, a very tricky thing to experience.  As Paul points out, hope is all about what we can’t see.  It would sound very silly if a child woke up on a Christmas morning and ran to the living room to see a shiny new bicycle parked beside the Christmas tree, only to continue moping around the house saying, “gee, I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas.”  Hope is about what we don’t see yet.  Hope is about the anticipation of what is to come, the joy not yet fulfilled but still to be fulfilled.  We with all creation “groan inwardly” while we wait for the redemption that is, right now, our hope. 
Paul lives throughout this letter in the tension between what is now and what is not yet, between what we know and what we wait for.  No one has to tell us that our physical lives are not yet redeemed.  We still get fat, still get old, still get cancer.  The world still spins out hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes.  Children still get killed, rockets and bombs still fall. 
And yet… .
We know the salvation of God.  We know ourselves to be adopted into God’s family.  It is not easy to wait with patience, as Paul prescribes.  And yet it is the very hope we have that allows us to wait with patience.  We don’t know when or for how long, nor can we really know what “redemption” looks like, if we’re at all honest with ourselves.  And yet, the hope is part of that inheritance, a share of which is ours by adoption into the family of God.

And the more we live into that hope, the more we live into that adoption, the more we know our family to be vast and unbounded, the more we know that we are all together bound up with one another and with all of creation, the more we pull ourselves away from the things that bring suffering to others…the more we start to look a little, just a very little, like our adoptive Brother in God.  The more we manage to be not merely “Christian” but more “Christ-like,” the more we live into our inheritance of hope,…then the more we finally, even as adoptive children of God, start to take on just a little of that family resemblance.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sermon: Living Right But Getting It Wrong

I went back and forth a bit about posting this sermon.  It is a bit "wonky" theologically in spots, and I feel like part of it goes out on a limb a bit as well.  But it seemed to connect with the congregation, and then today has felt as if I've seen or heard about fifteen news stories or anecdotes in which people or groups do the very thing identified in the latter half of the sermon as a rather poor tendency for Christians to fall into.  So, here it is, for what it's worth.

Meherren Presbyterian Church
July 6, 2014 Ordinary 14A
Charles S. Freeman

Living Right But Getting It Wrong

For many years scholars, pastors, and all manner of Christians have agreed that one of the most difficult books of the New Testament (aside from Revelation, perhaps) is Paul’s extensive, complicated, and downright thorny letter to the church at Rome.  The last letter Paul wrote, Romans is set apart from its fellow Pauline letters by its lateness and by the fact that unlike the other letters that can be attributed to Paul with certainty, Romans is not written to a church that Paul had founded; in fact, aside from a few individuals mostly mentioned in the book’s last chapter, Paul did not even know most of those who belonged to the community of Christ-followers in Rome.
As a result, while Paul’s other letters speak to a specific condition or event in the churches to which Paul wrote, Romans has no such focus; rather, it is a theological résumé in letter form.  Because of Paul’s ambitious plans to travel even further west, and because of his desire to stop in Rome on the way to Spain (a journey he was never able to make) and to be supported by the Romans on that journey, Paul needed to introduce himself to the community there.  Just because Paul had never been to Rome, however, did not mean that his reputation did not precede him; therefore, it was also necessary to provide a context and a summary for the ministry and teaching he had carried out thus far.  For once, Paul needed to put forth at least a somewhat coherent explanation of his theology, instead of responding to particular problems in Corinth or explaining points to the church in Philippi.  Romans is, in the end, the closest thing we have to a complete or even mostly complete summation of Paul’s theology, his understanding of such things as the nature of Christ or of sin or other things we would call “doctrine.”
The letter to the Romans is quite wide-ranging, walking his readers through no less than the nature of sin, the goodness and yet insufficiency of the law in the face of sin, the necessity of salvation from God through grace, and the role of the Hebrew or Jewish people in this everlasting and ongoing process.  It is as if John Calvin had written something like his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion as a means of introducing himself to a church in a city he had not visited yet.
A pastor does not ordinarily want to start a sermon with such a long background passage, but in this case it is vitally important to understand where this letter is coming from before delving into the passage before us today.  In dropping into the seventh chapter of Romans we are entering into the book at the very heart of Paul’s argument, the core of his theological understanding.  And it is extremely important to remember this as we begin to unfold this understanding, as Paul seeks to explain no less than the nature and relationship of sin, law, and grace.

The seventh chapter of Romans comes off as a curious piece of writing to biblical scholars and preachers.  Had Paul submitted it as a writing assignment in a composition class, I fear that it would have been returned with numerous red marks, questions, and corrections about carelessly changing the tense and person of his account.  Nonetheless, as twisty a piece of writing as the chapter offers, it marks a key moment in revealing how Paul understood the whole business of sin and redemption, while also both upholding the Torah, or Jewish law (we know it as the first five books of the Old Testament) and insisting on its inability to bring salvation to humanity.
Our beginning point today is the thirteenth verse, which serves both as the end of one part of Paul’s argument and the beginning of the next part.  In fact verse 13 refers back to a point made first in verse seven; that the law is not sin (emphasized by a favorite exclamation of Paul’s, translated here “by no means!” which today might be expressed as “no way!” or possibly something stronger), but the law is the means by which sin is made known to us.  In verse 13 Paul strengthens the argument by observing that the power of sin actually made use of the law – and the law is a good thing, remember – in order to bind the individual to sin.
Now we need to talk about sin for a moment here, which is not a popular thing to do, I realize.  But what we modern Christians tend to think of when we speak of “sin” is often quite a different thing from what Paul is talking about.  We might speak of “sins,” or perhaps of “a sin” as being the problem.  Paul is not particularly speaking of an individual lie we might tell, or an infidelity we might commit.  These may well be symptoms or even consequences of what Paul describes, but the apostle has in mind something much larger.  Paul wants his Roman readers to understand sin, in the words of Ted A. Smith of Vanderbilt Divinity School, as “an active, aggressive power that seizes hold of God’s good gifts – like the law – and bends them towards death.”  John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity” – the utter inability of the human to transcend sin on his or her own – comes close to expressing this idea.  Sin certainly causes us to commit sins, but it is a far more powerful and oppressive thing than any individual act.  We are born into it, we are mired in it, and absent the dramatic intervention of God in Jesus Christ, we die in it.
With this understanding of sin in mind, the extended and convoluted passage from verses 14-20 unfolds differently, or perhaps more expansively, than we are perhaps accustomed to understanding.  Paul’s slip into first-person – “I do what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to do what I do” – tends to nudge us into reading the passage as a lament on Paul’s inability to live up to the law, always falling short and doing in the end what he hates. 
This is a strange reading, though when one remembers the other letters Paul has written before.  In both the letters to the Galatians and the Philippians, Paul is quite insistent on his success in keeping the law.  Galatians 1:14 finds him claiming that “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”  Philippians 3:4-6 finds even more striking claims Paul makes on his own behalf: “If anyone else has reason to be confident … I have more …. As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  This doesn’t sound a lot like the stammering of Romans 7.
But also buried in that Philippians passage is the key: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”  Remember how we are first introduced to Paul in the New Testament?  Back in the book of Acts we meet him, still called by his birth name Saul, at the stoning of Stephen, holding the coats of those doing the stoning and approving of the deed.  We catch up with him again “breathing threats and murder against the disciples” and zealously persecuting those who had taken up with the new sect.  Saul didn’t do these things because he was a wild man bent on violence and destruction; he persecuted Christians because of his zeal to follow the Law.  Paul, writing to the Romans, no doubt remembered Saul the zealous and blameless follower of the law and what came of his rigorous adherence to the law.  Paul knew that even the one who followed the law ended up in the power of sin. 
That is our condition, absent the action of God. 
Even as much as Paul describes his “delight” in the law, he knows sin is close at hand ready to twist and distort that love of the law into something evil.  If even the law can be twisted and misused so powerfully, we indeed can understand Paul’s lament in verse 24 – who can rescue us, indeed?  And yet the very next words from Paul’s pen point to the answer – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 
We cannot deliver ourselves from sin.  This is done for us.  We are delivered from that bondage to sin in the dramatic cosmic intervention that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  As Ted Smith of Vanderbilt puts it, “God does not just give us individual humans the willpower to live our best lives now, or say that it does not matter if we do not.  In Jesus Christ, God sets the cosmos free from bondage, redeeming the law and opening the way to life, and life abundant.” 
And yet, we humans – particularly we Christians – are prone, and even eager, to bind ourselves and others to some kind of  law again.  Perhaps it is biblical law.  Maybe we are prone to pull out the Torah – or particular, individual verses from the Torah – to use as weapons against those we want to keep out, while conveniently ignoring those individual verses from the Torah that might indict or inconvenience us more directly.  Or perhaps it is more a law of our own making that appeals to us.  Maybe we want to judge our own righteousness by how often we’re at church, or how much scripture we have memorized.  As we come to the end of a full weekend’s worth of Independence Day celebration, maybe we might recognize that we sometimes let the law of the land, or the rules of “patriotism,” or some other kind of secular guidelines infiltrate our thought and become a law that we use to promote our own righteousness and diminish others who are not like us.
All of those “laws,” wherever they may originate or however they may infiltrate our minds, are as powerless against sin, and every bit as twistable by sin, as the good Torah that Paul describes.  Anything less than whole-hearted, abject surrender to the grace of God is so powerless and twistable.
We are powerless to resist sin on our own.  We don’t like to hear this; we who have been raised in a culture of independence and “rugged individualism” aren’t keen to hear that we can’t do … well, anything.  We are confident in our own power to “get out of” whatever condition might bind us.  We are not unlike the mathematician John Nash, as portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind, who claims he can use his own analytical skills to set himself free from his mental illness, even though his doctor warns him that the mind on which he relies for analysis is the very source of his illness.  We are so often incapable of accepting what some preacher (or worse yet, some guy who’s still trying to become a preacher) says when we know we can “do better” on our own.
And yet Paul is laying before us here the utter futility of any such claim.  Our own efforts to live up to any standard – be it the Torah or anything of our own devising – will not deliver us from the sinful state in which we are all mired except for God’s divine rescue. 
We have trouble understanding this because, well, when we look around the world doesn’t really look redeemed.  Maybe we don’t really feel redeemed.  And certainly we are not yet at that point where we will fully know what it is to be redeemed by the action of Jesus Christ.  But that is our place; that is the door that has been opened to us.  Even so, even though we don’t really feel it, the promise that follows directly after this passage – “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” is our hope, not just for the future but even for the present.  The way to life is open. 
It is a radical thing to trust, especially in that which we cannot see.  It’s a lot easier to rely on “law” or “rules” than to live relying only on the redemptive love of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  And yet this is our only “escape”; only in this redemption done for us by God through Jesus Christ does our life here on earth have any chance to be anything other than the same old quagmire of sin and despair that we were born into. 
Wretched people that we are, who will rescue us from this mire of sin?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.  No matter how much it pains us, let our prayer always be; Thanks be to God.

Hymns (all from PH ’90): Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing (356), Jesus, Lover of My Soul (303), Just As I Am, Without One Plea (370)