Groaning in Hope: A Sermon for Proper 11A, July 19, 2020

It makes me want to scream. But I also have a sense that I am growing numb to the suffering in the world around us. As the numbers of death from COVID increase exponentially and the measures necessary to combat it mired in partisan conflict, as our planet burns with 100 degree temperatures in the Arctic; as the streets of our cities continue to see demonstrations and nameless uniformed thugs kidnapping protesters in Portland, the relentless beat of the news and our own need to survive incapacitate and paralyze us. The Christian faith, our scriptures, tradition, and worship, seem to lack the resources to feed our souls and inspire our action toward a better future.

All of this suffering, violence, and injustice is enough to make us want to scream out in anger and frustration, or perhaps groan at the emotional pain all of it is costing us. It’s just too much, there’s no end in sight, and our hope grows dim.

 

And then we read the verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. All creation groans, he writes, and “we ourselves groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”

Let me try to unpack this a bit. Today’s reading comes from chapter 8. It’s the conclusion of a section of the letter that is focused on the meaning of baptism, sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. And here we see that same theme being reiterated. While that language is also in our baptismal liturgy, I don’t think we usually connect our own experience, our journey faith, our baptism, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that connection is central to Paul’s own understanding of baptism and we would do well to take it seriously. In 6:4 he writes:t herefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Here, when Paul appeals to the use of “Abba, Father” as our address to God in prayer, he’s not just pointing out the obvious; again, he’s making a connection between the life of the believer and the life of Jesus Christ. There’s the Lord’s Prayer, of course; but also Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, where in a moment of deepest anguish, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father.” And so, for all of the exalted language of union with Christ, sonship, and adoption, for Paul, part of our shared experience with Christ is our shared suffering with him.

But Paul doesn’t end there. He goes further, connecting human struggle and suffering in the present with the whole created order. The whole creation groans, he writes. It’s a jarring image to modern ears, I think, because we are so programmed to think of redemption in terms of our own individual souls, and nothing else.

That’s not the biblical perspective. We’re accustomed to think of the world of nature, creation if you will, as a pristine, beautiful, good, that its problems, its suffering, if you will, is the product of human intervention and despoliation. The biblical perspective begins at the same place, with the beauty and goodness of creation but as Paul suggests, it was affected by human action, not our ongoing destruction of the environment, but the consequences of our sin and death. Creation groans, because like we ourselves, it experiences the pain of existence short of the perfection for which God created it. Creation groans in longing for redemption.

Creation groans as well because of sin and judgment. Similar language is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the cries of mourners as they grieve the death of loved ones or in the midst of community crises. It’s also used in the context of communal or personal oppression—one example is in Exodus, where the Israelites groan in bondage. God hears their cries and brings about their deliverance through Moses. In the prophets (Isaiah 24:1-6) the groaning of creation (ecological degradation) is caused by the sin of the people and is God’s judgment on that sin.

The term Paul uses, and indeed his statement in v. 23, that we groan inwardly suggest a suffering so overwhelming that it can’t be described. We’ve all experienced such pain and suffering; many of us are probably rendered speechless by all that’s going on in the world around us.

For Paul, that’s not the end of the story. Instead, in the midst of this suffering, he casts an expansive vision of a new future—of a world, our bodies and souls, redeemed by God. In fact, our groaning may be all the greater because we have begun to experience what Paul will the “first fruits” of that redemption—or faith in Jesus Christ and in his resurrection. Through the Spirit, through our adoption, we have begun to experience the new reality and the new life in Jesus Christ. For Paul, that makes the realities of our present lives all the more poignant; the suffering we experience, the sins in the world, all the more painful.

Still, suffering is not the end of the story. There is hope. In verse 19, Paul uses the phrase “eager expectation”—imagine yourself stretching yourself out to catch sight of the arrival of a long-awaited friend or loved one. We are saved in hope, Paul writes. We have a sense of that new world, the redemption that is promised by God, the redemption that is shown first in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a redemption when the whole world, and we ourselves will be re-created as God intends. It is hope that gives our suffering and our world meaning; it is hope that gives us the strength to bear witness to that vision of God’s redemption. It is hope that empowers us to work for justice and peace.

So as we struggle in these difficult times, as we cry out in anger and frustration, in exhaustion and fear, may we also know hope. Some of what we are feeling is not only loss for what is gone and may not return, it is also a sense that we know the world can change. And we know that there are people who have a passion for justice and the courage to work for it against all odds, like the great American John Lewis who died this week, and whose life, faith, and hope inspire  us. In these difficult times, may our groans become calls for justice, and proclamations of hope, our hope in Christ and our hope that God is making all things new.

Jesus’ Healing Touch: A Sermon for 4 Lent, 2020

My sermon from 2017 is here

My sermon from 2014 is here

A blind man sitting by the side of a dusty road. It’s likely something that he did every day, sitting there, presumably begging, although we’re not told that in the text. Born blind, he had struggled with that challenge all his life.

Jesus and his disciples were passing by. We may assume that the blind man wasn’t alone, that there were others congregating with him, as beggars, panhandlers do, in places they hope have lots of foot traffic. And like Jesus, when we see them, we very likely pass by as well.

But the disciples took notice. Not of the man’s suffering or need; their theological curiosity was piqued. Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

Were the disciples bored? Were they hoping their question would inspire Jesus to offer a lengthy discourse on the nature of sin, suffering, and divine justice?   Or did this question come from a genuine place of concern on their part? If so, why the blind man? What was about him that drew their attention?

Meanwhile, the blind man is just sitting there by the side of the road, undoubtedly hearing the question and the response. It’s pretty belittling, don’t you think? Unknown passers-by, asking whether your blindness was a result of your or your parents’ sin. They’re not interested in you, not interested in your difficult life. They could care less.

And at first, you’re sitting there, overhearing the callous conversation, and the teacher seems no more interested in you than any of his disciples are but at least he puts the blame for your blindness not on your or your parents’ sin.

“He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Is that any word of reassurance? But then, and again, you don’t know what’s going on because you’re blind and there’s no one to narrate the action, you feel these hands smearing your eyes with mud.

What’s going on? How can someone invade your personal space like that and mess with your face, your eyes? But he hears this unfamiliar voice telling him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and perhaps only because he wants to get rid of the mud on his face, he obeys. As he does it and as he returns, he is able to see.

Now there’s lots more to this story. It goes on for 41 verses with many characters, plot developments, and debate. If you would like to know my take on this story from previous years, I direct you to my blog, where sermons from past years are posted.

Instead, I want us to focus on the blind man, and on Jesus. We are like that blind man. We are in the middle of a situation none of us could have imagined and for which none of us have prepared. We can’t see into the future; we can’t really even see tomorrow. We are helpless, alone, isolated. We are overwhelmed with fear and anxiety. And we are impotent. We can’t control our environment. I went out for a walk yesterday and while I was vigilant in practicing social distancing, many bikers and joggers on the bike path were not.

And there are those voices, like the disciples, in our heads and in our media, asking questions about the pandemic, seeking to lay blame, on our government, on China, or perhaps even blaming ourselves or God.

In our isolation, in our fear, in our blindness, Jesus comes to us, touches us and gives us sight. He gives us hope, courage, and strength. Jesus is the light of the world. He is our light. Shining in the darkness of these difficult days, Jesus offers us healing and hope. His touch comes to us, breaking the barrier of social distance and isolation to open our eyes and fill our hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Mountains, sacred encounters, listening: A Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, 2020

Corrie and I lived on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere for five years. Actually, it was in middle Tennessee, and it wasn’t technically a mountain but the Cumberland Plateau but it was usually referred to as the mountain, and it had sacred significance for many as it was the home of Sewanee, the University of the South, a university affiliated with the Episcopal Church with one of the church’s theological seminaries. The Cumberland Plateau rises high above the countryside of middle Tennessee and when you are one of the bluffs on a clear day, there are spectacular views of the valley below. Having grown up on the flat land of Northwestern Ohio, I couldn’t get enough of those vistas. Continue reading

Leave your gift at the altar: A Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, 2019

In a few minutes, after the prayers of the people, the confession of sin and absolution, we will share the peace of the Lord with each other. For many of us, that is a moment of fellowship time, to greet our friends and neighbors in the pews near us, to introduce ourselves to newcomers, to engage in a moment of conversation. But I wonder how many of you know what is really supposed to be going on in that moment, what in fact is taking place liturgically. Continue reading

The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple: A sermon

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (detail), Andrea Mantegna, c. 1455

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. It’s a major feast in our calendar but one we observe at Grace only when it falls on a Sunday. It commemorates the events recorded by Luke in today’s gospel reading. Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple forty days after his birth to conform to Jewish ritual obligations—the presentation of the first-born to God; and the purification of a woman after giving birth. Continue reading

The Creche and the Word: A Sermon for Christmas 1, 2019

Today is the first Sunday of Christmas. You know that there are 12 days of Christmas, and that those twelve days begin, not end, on Christmas Day. Christmas continues right up to the Feast of the Epiphany—although in many places, Christmas decorations remain in the church until February 2, which is Candlemas, or also the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple. Continue reading

The Messiness of the Messiah: A Sermon for Advent 4A, 2019

As I grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to make keep up with all the changes in popular culture.

That sentence could be the lede for an almost infinite number of examples..

In this case though, I’m thinking of the Hallmark Channel, of which I was only vaguely aware. I learned this fall that from approximately Halloween to New Year’s Day, there’s an endless stream of Christmas movies; and that on Friday nights throughout the year, Hallmark shows holiday-themed movies. Apparently other channels have followed suit. With good reason. Apparently Hallmark’s programming is so successful that for the fourth quarter last year, it was the most popular channel among women aged 19-54.

other channels have followed suit. Apparently, this programming is so successful that Hallmark wins the ratings war for the final quarter of the year with the key demographic of women 19-54. Continue reading

Abandoned Treasures and Marvelous Things: A Sermon for Proper29C, 2019

I follow an Italian social media account called Tesori Abbandonati(Abandoned Treasures). It posts photos of abandoned buildings, mostly churches, palaces, and the like from across Italy. There are similar projects in the US—for example a few years ago, photos of abandoned churches and theatres in Detroit were making the rounds.

Seeing such photos bring up all sorts of emotions. In the case of Italy, when many of the buildings are centuries old, I’m inclined to marvel at the passing of time, the fact that a church or palace from the seventeenth century lacks the architectural or historical significance that would warrant its preservation. In the case of cities like Detroit, different emotions come to the fore—sadness about the decline of a once-great American city, the loss of manufacturing, the racial inequalities that contributed and continue to contribute to the economic despair in many urban centers. Continue reading

God, have mercy on me, a sinner: A Sermon for Proper 25C, 2019

 

A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. So begins the little parable that we hear today in the gospel reading. The temple was the center of Palestinian Jewish life in the first century. It was where necessary sacrifices were made; it was where pilgrims came from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the great festivals of the Jewish year. It was also the nexus between Roman imperial power and the institutions of Judaism, especially the priestly caste. Continue reading

All the Lazaruses in our doorways: A Sermon for Proper 21C, 2019

You’ve all seen the sight as you come to church on Sunday mornings or if you’re downtown at the Overture Center for a concert, or out at dinner at a nice restaurant. As you walk down the sidewalk, you are confronted by panhandlers or see homeless people sitting on the benches. If it’s night, there are people sleeping in doorways or alleys. Whether there are more people experiencing homelessness now than in previous years, the perception that it is a growing problem certainly is real. In a meeting on Friday, Alder Mike Verveer, the alder for this district, said that he has fielded more phone calls and emails, had more conversations with constituents about homelessness this summer than at any previous time in his 24-year tenure on the City Council. Continue reading