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Month: July 2014

Now and Not Yet

Now and Not Yet

“Now and Not Yet”

A Sermon for July 20, 1014

St Matthew’s Parish

George Martin

This is a poem by Ted Kooser, former poet laureate who teaches at the University of Nebraska. It’s called The Red Wing Church.

There’s a tractor in the doorway of a church
in Red Wing, Nebraska,
in a coat of mud 
and straw that drags the floor.
A broken plow
 sprawls beggarlike
behind it on some planks
that make a sort of roadway up the steps.
The steeple’s gone.
A black tar-paper scar
that lightning might have made replaces it.
They’ve taken it down
to change the house of God
to Homer Johnson’s barn,
but it’s still a church,
with clumps of tiger lilies in the grass
and one of those boxlike, glassed-in-signs
that give the sermon’s topic
(reading now
 a bird’s nest and a little broken glass).
The good works of the Lord are all around:
the steeple top is standing in a garden
just up the alley; it’s a hen house now:
fat leghorns gossip at its crowded door.
Pews stretch on porches up and down the street,
the stained-glass windows style the mayor’s house,
and the bell’s atop the firehouse in the square.
The cross is only God knows where.

[From “Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985 by Ted Kooser]

But St Paul knew where the cross was. At was at the intersection of “Now” and “Not Yet.” As it is for many of us. Some of us with faith. And some without faith. What a difference faith makes.

Faith never takes away the tears or sadness of some reality that crashes into life. But faith can shape that “now” within the context of a “not yet” that is certain and promised.

Last week’s sermon was about Paul’s understanding of “now.”

The title I used for that sermon came from a 13 word verse in Romans which began with these four words: “There is therefore now.” In that sermon I talked about how the Jewish Paul knowing full well the whole history of God’s people had come to believe that it was all summed up in the singular story of Jesus. It’s true meaning in Paul’s eyes was that the death and resurrection of Jesus meant that there was no condemnation, no punishment, coming from God. What God was doing was the creation of the worldwide family of God promised to Abraham. And it was a “Now” in Paul’s world.

Today we heard the next section of the 8th chapter. (And we continue to read from the Letter to the Romans on the next nine Sundays.)

This morning we hear what Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:21)

I need you to be good detectives with me on this. A single sentence in a letter to Paul can be very dense, and can even be the occasion for a single sermon.

So Paul said that creation will be set from its bondage. Bondage? Set free from slavery? It was there in the first verses of our reading today as well.

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” (Rom 8:15)

We’re going back to Egypt with these allusions. And the story remembered to this day by our Jewish brothers and sisters, is the way God brought them out of slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Paul was updating Exodus theology, but not simply as a story about getting out to Egypt, but as it related to the whole creation. I’m struck by the optimism of Paul and the encouragement he gave to those early Jesus people, and I’m amazed by Paul’s courage.

Paul spoke, for example, of a glory that is about to revealed in us. Actually somewhat dangerous words. For all of the public images of Caesar in that world showed glory shining from Caesar’s head alone. Hmm. Paul saw glory coming from all those who would know Jesus as Messiah.

And then there is that phrase that capture’s the reality of “Not yet. But almost.” It’s verse 19 “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Creation is on its tip-toes. It’s something new, God starting all over again, and it so close.

Yes it is a “still-to-be-redeemed world” ..it’s groaning he said, with labor pains, it’s not here, but it is coming, it is near, and it is of God, and that’s what led Paul to talk about having hope, not for what we see, but for what we wait for in patience.

We wait in patience but also aware that the “not yet” of this world involves its complications in that which is evil—that which is counter to all that God’s people are to be like. That reality of the world’s evil is there in the cross which stands at the overlap of “Now” and “Not yet.”

The same kind of intersection was implied in the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

I’m always troubled by the explanation that comes at the end of that reading. I think parables are meant to leave you wondering. The explanation comes from that literary vein of allegory, where everything is suppose to have some meaning that easily explained.

So, yes, Matthew’s community used allegory to explain some of the parables. I don’t think for a minute that Jesus did. In my ears, at least, allegory makes a parable a little too pat when it ends up basically explaining every detail. I think there was a basic inscrutability to the original parables that Jesus told, and there is at least one troubling thing in every parable that seems really hard to believe. And I think we are to stay with what is hard to believe, not what’s easily explained.

Thus in that parable what’s hard to believe is that the weeds get to grow alongside the wheat. And we all know that the only good thing weeds are for is the compost pile and the sooner the better.

Or maybe weeds are simply plants that have some good that is yet to be discovered. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a weed was “a plant whose virtues haven’t been found.” An botanist who wrote about weeds noted they also tend to grow in amazing ways in some of the most hostile environments imaginable—“a bombed city, a crack in the wall” and it “means that they insinutate the idea of wild nature into places otherwise quite shorn of it.”[1]

Let’s take the parable as Jesus told it. The weeds are to be left alone, to grow alongside the wheat. Sounds like real life to me. It’s true. We’re given a picture of what God’s kingdom is suppose to look like, but things happen, weeds appear, and worse. And yet in this complexity the promises of God’s kingdom, in wheat that grows, are there.

But sometime we can’t see the wheat.

I’m thinking of the grief of the five children of Joep Lange one of the 298 who died in the plane shot down over the Ukraine on Thursday. The five children, ages 17 to 27, were in state of shock, the Wall Street Journal reported. Their father had been president of the International AIDS society. It was his research dissertation in the 1990s that led to a protocol of using drugs in combination that gave hope to the fight against AIDS.

It makes no sense that so many innocent people, most of whom were simply headed for holiday, should have their lives taken away, in a war-torn part of the world, that seemingly is dedicated to violence as the only way. So many shattered lives as a result.

Pete Seeger sang “Where have all the flowers gone?” and in that song about the circle that leads to wartime deaths he asked “When will they ever learn?”

In a sense Paul was asking the same question, but with a cross-centered faith he was certain and confident that God had made it clear that there was a way to live in this world that could be grounded in hope.

To be brought into Christ and to know that the Holy Spirit is working in all things, even the worst, is to know the promises of a kingdom marked by love and peace—Paul would say it happens in a cross-centered kind of community that remembers the story of God in Christ.

I began this sermon by saying:

Faith never takes away the tears or sadness of some reality that crashes into life. But faith can shape that “now” within the context of a “not yet” that is certain and promised.

I believe that is true. Over and over I see how faith takes shape in our lives. How it brings us together into Christian community. How when the worst things happen that we reach out in love, in prayer, and walk with each other.

I see the life of faith in a conversation I had with one of the members of this church. She and I were talking about what it means to give at least 10% of what we have away to help others. Yes, there are people in this church, so incorporated into this story, this story that know where the cross is, that they feel God’s spirit leads them to make gifts that others would think are irrational.

Or we get called on to be patient with one another. Forgiving of one another. Tender to the weak or someone who has fallen. Willing to let the weeds stay with the wheat. And knowing we live at the intersection of “Now” and all it means, even terrible realities, but also knowing God’s love and spirit in our midst the midst of what we can’t explain or justify because there is our faith in “Not Yet”. It is a “Not yet” that is certain and bound up in Hope. And we know where the cross is.

 

 

[1] From the book “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” by Richard Mabey. Copyright © 2010 (Found in a 2012 Wall Street Journal essay on June 4, 2011 “Why We Must Learn to Love Weeds” by the same author.)

There is Therefore Now (Sermon July 13, 2014)

There is Therefore Now (Sermon July 13, 2014)

There is Therefore Now
George Martin
Sermon for July 13, 2014

This is a sermon on one verse from all the scripture we heard read this morning. It’s the opening line from the 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans where Paul wrote:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Thirteen words.

Some of you know that part of my daily practice is to walk to the Starbucks in the Palisades early on most mornings and while I’m there having two dark roast coffees, I read very boring books and essays all focused on trying to understand the letters of St. Paul. Sometimes my reading takes me on excursions into philosophy, especially with regard to linguistic issues or post-modernism. At other times I’m learning about Greek and Roman history, but mostly I keep circling back to St. Paul.

So a simple one sentence like this has now become hardly simple at all to me.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

There’s was an argument at work in the first seven chapters of the letter, and then Paul wrote, “There is therefore….” Therefore what? Therefore when? Therefore why? Therefore for who?

And in a way I hope I can help you appreciate many of the answers to that question are implied in that one sentence.

But then we also need context. We need to let the camera as it were draw back from this sentence and see the larger picture, the grand narrative that informed St. Paul, and ought to shape our thinking as well.

We need that reading from Genesis: “These are the descendents of Isaac, Abraham’s son…and [Isaac’s wife] Rebeccas conceived… and there were twins waiting to be born. The first came out all red and hairy and they named him Esau. And then his brother came out hanging onto Esau’s heel, and he was named Jacob.”

And then there’s that story of Esau selling his birthright for a pot of stew and Jacob in effect steals the birthright and the inheritance that was due to Esau. And on that bit of trickery, and not the last, the story of God follows Jacob, as shady and devious of a character as you’ll find in all the Bible.

Paul has this story in mind because his three words “There is therefore” were prefaced with an extensive retelling of the Abraham story in the 4th chapter of the letter. He also went back to the story of Adam and the Fall in the 5th chapter.

And Paul was writing it seems to a congregation that included those who, like him, had been born and raised in the Jewish faith, but now it included Gentiles—all of whom were expected to have a crash course in God’s story going back to Adam, shaped by the covenant given to Abraham, and then there’s the slender thread upon which this story always hangs.

Will the people be faithful to their God, and will their God be faithful to the promises of the covenant? And thus we see the suspense then ensues with Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, from Hagar the slave woman, and then Isaac, from his barren Sarah.

And then Jacob the second born carries the story. And then he has 12 sons, and it’s the youngest, the one his brother’s tried to kill, but they sold him into slavery, and the story of God continues through Joseph. Ah there’s a theme here.

You see it in David chosen in the most unlikely way to be King as he comes in from tending the sheep, and he the smallest the youngest who was destined to be king.

And then Jesus told a story about two brothers, one faithful to his Dad, and the other the errant one, who was for all purposes dead, but who came back to life. And the one rejected, the early Christians proclaimed, was the chief cornerstone of their faith.

Paul straddles the fence in writing to the Romans. With his Gentile audience in mind he’s saying if you want to know who Jesus is, and especially how this Jesus is God’s Messiah, then you have to think and know, and follow the whole Jewish story. These scriptures, we read, are basic to our understanding who Jesus is and why he’s the Christ.

And then Paul’s, “And therefore now” was equally addressed to the Jewish members of that community who were learning to call Jesus Messiah, because this is the “Now” moment, as Paul, unpacked it, that explained that whole history of God going back to Adam, Abraham, David, and then the exile, and then coming into their own time when Israel was still oppressed.

“And therefore now” is an eschatological statement. I can say to all of us we are in an eschatological moment— a “And therefore now” moment in the life of St. Matthew’s. God spirit if hovering over all of us, calling us to a new time, and time in which with the coming of our new rector, another chapter of ministry opens up. But it begins in this “now.”

And then Paul said “There is therefore now no condemnation…” Hmm. Many of us thought that condemnation was what Paul was mostly saying. That somehow he seemed angry. That he didn’t like women. Or that he hated all who ever did anything wrong. That he was “full of himself,” I’ve heard it said. And aren’t there passages where he talks about a coming judgment? And yes there are.

But then how can he say “There is therefore now no condemnation?”

I may not be able to fully unpack this statement this morning. I am planning to give three lectures in October at the request of the rector of All Saints in Beverly Hills at their Wednesday evening adult series, and those lectures are titled, “Meeting the St. Paul You Never Thought You’d Meet.” We’re also hoping that our Fall program here can include some adult classes and if that’s the case I’ll do the same lectures here. At least this sermon might give you a hint of a St. Paul who’s more optimistic and hopeful than you may have ever thought possible.

We should take St. Paul at his word , and say that because in his world there had been plenty of punishment and condemnation. Israel hadn’t really been free for a very long time. Don’t even think of them as second-class citizens, they were plainly put in the category of the oppressed, alongside all kinds of other conquered nations first by the Alexander the Great and then by Rome. And always in the background for the Jewish people was the covenant, and it’s presumptions of mutual faithfulness, and then if they were suffering, the assumption is they were suffering for their sins, or as the prophets kept framing it as their idolatry and apostasy.

And then Jesus appeared. Seemingly as a prophet. Certainly with a message about how to live in God’s kingdom, as we heard in the gospel this morning. By the way there’s pretty good evidence that Matthew’s community was mostly likely made up of Jews who believed Jesus to be Messiah. It wasn’t a Gentile community, or to the extent it had former Gentiles they were probably living a more strict Jewish way of life.

Back to what Paul said, “There is therefore now no condemnation.” Paul re-interpreted the whole story of God, especially the un-resolved time of exile, as the prophetic fulfillment of God’s promise with regard God’s way of keeping the covenant,

and it all comes out in the story of Jesus crucified who was raised from the dead.

In the process Paul isn’t creating a new religion, for he holds onto the themes of one God (Jewish monotheism), election, and eschatology (where does it all end?—what does this moment mean?) and declares that this is a new world that God is creating. Later in this same chapter Paul wrote about the whole of creation groaning and waiting for this moment in time. You see this is a very Jewish Paul who calls Jesus Messiah.

And here’s the amazing thing about “There is therefore now no condemnation”—it’s how God’s family is being re-created but it all went back to the time of Abraham. One family of all the nations. No condemnation of anyone. N.T. Wright, a marvelous Biblical scholar puts is this way:

“For Paul, as for Jesus, the salvation of the individual is set in the context of God’s redefinition of Israel, his call of a worldwide family whose sins are forgiven in the blood of the new covenant.”

What we do each and every Sunday is the announcement that there is no condemnation. You are forgiven. You are accepted. You belong. And we are called to share that Peace with each other. And we are thus defined not by our nationality, or race, or sex, or our sexual orientation, whether we like country music or classical, whether we are rich or poor, or anything else that divides people—instead we make this peace because, in the words of St. Paul we those who are in Christ Jesus.

So much follows from that phrase “those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Go back with me to my Starbucks in the Palisades. As I sit in the alcove reading at a round table, next to me might be Peter, arms stretched out over his head, contemplating a sentence he just wrote. He’s writing about his life. But he doesn’t write much. Or maybe it’s John who owns some property and has a home in New Zealand, in his 60s still surfing, drinking a green forthy coffee thing, and reading the New York Times. John’s not been there for a few months. There’s Linda and her husband—we just met. He gets her coffee, and then heads off to work, while she plays games on her iPhone. And there’s Rick always wearing his St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt and ready to talk sports and he calls me “Father.” And there’s Joshua and Anne the baristas who fill my coffee as I walk in the door knowing I want a dark roast with two ice cubes. None of them know that I read St. Paul. I don’t talk theology with them. But I think it.

I see them as “those who are in Christ Jesus.” They may not know it, but my reading of St. Paul tells me that’s how God sees them. That each is precious in God’s eyes and meant to know God’s love and forgiveness.

The one thing I’m sure about this St. Paul you never thought you meet is that he really had faith that there was “no condemnation coming from God toward those in Christ Jesus,” —The important social ethic principle that follows as the equal and clearly important call for of who are in Christ Jesus is that no condemnation of others should come from us.

Thus theology becomes ethics. What we say about God, becomes what we say to each other. As you’ll also hear next week the primary mark of those in Christ Jesus is to be filled with hope. That theme of hope was there in this one thirteen word sentence wasn’t it?

“There is therefore now…” And imagine how these four words convey to us a sense of hope about what God is doing in our midst. “There is therefore now” at Matthews? Hope for what is next.

Take just these four words with you this week. “There is therefore now” and see what God might show you even in your life, that comes to this now. Amen.

 

 

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