Sermon March 15, 2015
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, John 3:14-21
“Nothing You Can Do About It”
Today we encounter some of the difficult themes of theology…sin, salvation, eternal life. Sometimes we think we can do better with words like these if we can define them. It’s never a bad idea to clarify what we mean, but I always feel like definitions fall short when we are talking about words with great big meanings. Sin has been called missing the mark or as Frederick Buechner says, “whatever we do or fail to do that widens the gap between us and God or others.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 88) We talked about redemption in text study this week and some of the descriptions we came up with were: rebooting, being reminded of the covenant, and being freed from sin. I was expecting resistance to talking about sin and redemption, but the conversation was easier than I thought it might be. It wasn’t hard for the group to admit that our behavior has consequences. That afternoon, our book group talked about our struggle with prayer. It was helpful to name it. Wednesday became a day of naming the ways I fall short. It wasn’t in a groveling “woe is me, I am nothing but a worm” sort of way, but just acknowledging that this being human business is tough. I find being human is easier for me when I am doing it with all of you. In the last year, I have said on several occasions that your presence matters here. It really does.
Some may think I am just interested in having bigger numbers in church. It is much more than that. I know that we are better together. Both scriptures today are about love. God’s story with us is one big love story and over and over it comes back to how much better we are together. That’s the thing about community and relationships – they are hard work. When things don’t go our way, it’s easier to walk away. But there is something powerful when we stay and invest in the relationship. Churches are where we learn how to be human. Churches are where we hear the powerful story of God’s love and Churches are where we learn how to live in response to that love. Jack Johnson sings a song called “Better Together” and he says:
“Love is the answer,
At least for most of the questions in my heart.
Like why are we here? And where do we go?
And how come it's so hard?
It's not always easy and
Sometimes life can be deceiving.
I'll tell you one thing, it's always better when we're together.”
It’s why I value small group and individual conversations so much. In those contexts we share our lives and recognize God’s goodness in ways we might not otherwise. One comment from text study this week was “God doesn’t give up on us. We need to not give up on God.”
I love reading memoirs and reflections from people who grew up in the church, walked away when they decided it had nothing for them, and after a break found themselves returning. I find that many of these people see the church with fresh, honest eyes and an open heart. Somehow they realized that life isn’t meant to be lived solo and while the church is so far from perfect, it is also a gift. One person who has made this journey is poet Christian Wiman. Christian openly acknowledges his hunger for faith. He grew up in Texas in a charismatic church. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer is his reflection on the journey he made as an adult agnostic back into the church. Christian writes as someone who knows what it is to struggle. He was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable blood cancer and writes about what faith looks like in the face of death. He says,
“And that has helped me to at least understand those terms somewhat and to explain to myself why I do need some sort of structures in my life.
I do need to go to church. I need specifically religious elements in my life. I find that if I just turn all of my spiritual impulses — if I let them be solitary, as I am comfortable in being, I'm comfortable sitting reading books and trying to pray and meditating. Inevitably, if that energy is not focused outward, it becomes despairing.
It turns in on itself and I will look up in a couple of months and I find that I'm in despair.
So I think that one of the ways that we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves.”
The Psalmist talks about God’s steadfast love and says it is God’s love that redeemed the people when they were hungry, when they were in bondage, when they needed healing, and when they were in danger. The Psalm is a song of gratitude and ends with the call for all to sing of God’s deliverance and redemption. There is a wisdom to recognizing that we are the people in the psalm. We often fail to understand how our lives depend on God. We think about those poor hungry people, those poor people who are sick, those poor people in prison and miss the invitation to depend on God not just in emergency situations, but in our everyday lives.
One of the gifts the psalmists give us is the deep reflection on their journey, honesty about how hard it has been, and a deep gratitude for the ways God has accompanied them. Saying thank you is one of the most basic elements of faith – it really requires us to acknowledge the ways God is with us every day. It’s sad that we forget to do that. It’s funny that in December, mailboxes are flooded with letters requesting gifts from Santa, but those same mailboxes are not flooded in January with thank you letters. Remember the parable of the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus, but only one came back to say thank you.
As we talked about John 3:16 this week, I expressed my discomfort with the idea that what God wants from us is belief. I am not convinced that belief is the goal of the Christian life. Someone suggested that the emphasis might be response rather than belief. That resonates with me. The whole Bible is the story of a love so big that God continues to relate to us no matter what we do to widen the gap between us. The Bible is the story of a love that never gives up on us. The Bible is the story of a love that heals us and sets us free. There is an old saying, “God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it!”
How will we respond to a love like that?
As people of faith, we sing to express our gratitude. One year when I preached this psalm, I invited everyone to create a soundtrack of their lives. I asked them what songs had shaped them and what songs stirred them deeply. It was fun to bring our soundtracks together and share the music that meant so much to us. This music allowed us to express our deep love. Our closing hymn this morning was written by John Newton. John was not a religious person. He was a slave trader who made a series of bad choices in his life. One night, his boat was battered by a violent storm and he cried out to God for mercy. That marked his conversion. He was later ordained and wrote “Amazing Grace.” Singing our gratitude is one powerful way to respond to a God whose grace saves us over and over again.
Living with this psalm of God’s love has taken me into the soundtrack of my life this week. It’s a rather eclectic soundtrack and full of songs that move me deeply. Many of the songs remind me that God breathes life into creation and loves beyond our capacity to imagine. This same God walks with us every step of the way healing us and making us whole. When we reflect on a love that big, how can we keep from singing?
Sing “How Can I Keep from Singing?” #476