May 26, 2013

posted Jun 19, 2013, 12:34 PM by David Hawkins   [ updated Jun 19, 2013, 12:34 PM ]

05/26/13 Sermon (May 26, 2013)

Scripture Reading: Romans 5:1-5 (Liturgist)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Sermon: Poured into our Hearts

When I was in sixth grade, way back when, our school had a science fair, and the weirdest thing happened. I actually learned something! I know, right? And I didn’t learn because of my science experiment, even though it was pretty cool and and it involved a strobe light, and a propellor and a rheostat and all kinds of electircal connections. No, I learned something from my friend Todd James’ experiment, something about the way plants grow.

He had worked for a few months with tomato plants and sunflowers. He had turned plants on their sides, upside down, put a growing light in different places, and observed the plants to see what they would do. And it turns out that plants actually do things. When Todd put the plants on their sides, the roots began to change direction, and point downward, and the stems began to turn upward again after just a few days. Certain plants, especially sunflowers would grow in the direction of the light.

My friend Todd called these reactions to the changing environment, “Geotropisms,” and his research indicated that plants have something inside them senses gravity, and that the roots grow toward gravity, and the stems grow away from it. And that all plants will grow toward the light.

And even though it was still in the seventies when he did this experiment, his theories and hypotheses foreshadowed some of the problems that long term travelers in space might encounter in trying to grow food in zero gravity environments. It turns out that plants grown without gravity don’t know which way to grow, and have a very difficult time producing hardy stems on which to grow fruit or vegetables. You see, gravity and resistance are critical to the healthy development of a plant, and without them, the plant cannot reach it’s true potential.

It was a really well-done project, but I was still upset when he won the blue ribbon instead of me.

But the deal is, his experiment on Geo-tropisms has stuck with me all these years. There is something I think, to be learned from this simple truth, that living things grow against gravity, and grow toward the light. That we all need, somehow, the resistance of life to make us grow up straight, and strong, and healthy, and that a healthy organism is also always reaching for the light, the source of knowing and seeing.

And I think that’s what the Apostle Paul is trying to say to us in today’s scripture. “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Paul thinks of adversity the same way that my friend Todd James thought of the presence of gravity, as a tropism, a necessary part of the gift of life.  

I remember when I was in basic training, we were taught to say to the drill sergeant something like, “Drill Sergeant, thank you for conditioning my mind and body, Drill Sergeant.”
But the reality is, we don’t always see adversity, or resistance, or the hard parts of life as a gift, do we? I mean, really, it was pretty hard to think of what we did in basic training as something for which we should give thanks. And that’s only natural. How often, do we, when something horrible is happening to us, immediately think to thank God for it? That’s not our natural reaction. We don’t think of adversity as a gift.

In fact, our first reaction is usually that adversity is a curse, rather than a gift. That God has cursed us, punished us, or to use old biblical language, is smiting us. That God is beating us for our sins, or the sins of our parents, or the sins of our people.

My friend, Richard Morgan, once told me that I have a thing about Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. And, I guess he might be right. I do have a thing about this church. And that thing got all riled up again recently.

It took less than a week after the horrible tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, for the Westboro Church to place the blame for the tornado on Oklahoma’s support for a homosexual basketball player. One of the worst quotes from Westboro that I heard was, “We wash our feet in the blood of the victims.” Yes, I do have a thing about these people in Westboro that call themselves a Christian Church. I really do.

And Dr. Morgan’s comments made me think about my thing with Westboro. What is it about this church that gets my goat? Why do the things they say affect me so much? Why do their words and their visceral hate upset me so much?

And I realized that like so many things that provoke anger inside us, the reason for my reaction has more to do we me than with them. The problem is, Westboro Church is saying things that parts of the church have said for centuries. And I have to admit, I have also thought some of these things. There has to be a reason for the suffering in Oklahoma. And the only reason is, that it must be punishment for something.

“What did I do wrong,” we might ask. Or, “What did they do wrong?” “Somebody must have messed up big time for God to have to do this. Why else would God be punishing them?” It’s as though we can only think of suffering as a sign of God’s displeasure.

And the reality is, it’s not all that difficult to find Biblical support for this kind of thinking. The idea of blessings and curses has been a part of Judeo-Christian theology for thousands of years. But if we only think of natural disasters in terms of blessings and curses, if we only think of tornados and hurricanes and earthquakes in terms of God’s punishment, we have forgotten the lessons of Job and Ecclesiastes, and we constrict the fullness of God’ character.

Because when we think about God only in that way, we limit God to a wrathful, vengeful, destructive God who is willing to kill 2nd graders in order to make a political point.

And that’s not the God that I worship.

According to Psalm 103, the God that I worship does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love, as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

And it’s not the God that the Apostle Paul worship either. In his words today, he is not trying to find a reason for adversity, for tragedy, for hardship. He is not placing responsibility for natural disasters on the victims of the disaster. He is simply acknowledging that it happens, and it happens to all of us, Christians and non-Christians. He is not assigning blame. He’s recognizing the reality of the trials of life. Sometimes things happen, and we can’t know the reason why, not on this side of heaven.

And instead of trying to find a reason for it, Paul encourages us to trust God, to look for God even in the midst of chaos. That God is not just present in the awesome and frightening power of creation, but that the God of the cross is also present in the suffering of the people, and that the God of the Spirit is also present in the hearts of those cleaning up in the aftermath.

But this requires trust in a God that is bigger than just a vengeful God of curses and punishment.

And that’s what today is all about. Today is Trinity Sunday, a day in which we celebrate the bigness of God, the three-fold nature of God, the Creating Father, the Redeeming Son, and the Sustaining Spirit.

And this is the God I worship. I worship a God who does not simply judge my sin, but is also the one who was judged for my sin. I worship a God who is not just a far-off creator, but is also the God who comes to us and knows our pain. I worship a God that is not just a law-giver, but also a forgiver, one who not only shows me the difference between right and wrong, but who comes to me in grace and power to do what is right.

This is our three person God, and despite what Westboro Church thinks, this God simply does not kill grade schoolers to get his way.

And so we have a choice before us, a choice in how we see God being involved in the midst of natural catastrophes like the tornados in Moore, Oklahoma. We can either see God against us as a vengeful, punishing God, causing the pain, the suffering, proving his point with violence and death, or we can see God for us as the comforter, the encourager, the fellow sufferer, the miracle worker, the community builder.

Today, God has called seven new members to his church. We welcome our latest confirmation class, six of whom have never been baptized. We will celebrate with them their first steps as members of this congregation, promising to help them as they begin their journey of discipleship.

They will face hard times in their journey as all of us have. But these are not curses from God, punishment for our sins. Rather, they are spiritual tropisms, and they will only make us stronger. All of us need the adversity we will encounter in life to fulfill our true potential. And we all need the Light of God to guide us on the journey.

Thanks be to God.