Recovery with Romans (3): The Birth of Something New
by Louise Westfall
In honor of the day, I thought I would start with a little comedy: Do you know why milk is the fastest liquid on earth? It’s pasteurized before you even see it. Don’t trust atoms: they make up everything. Yeah, I should go on a diet, but I feel like I have way too much on my plate. Believe it or not, these are all from a genre called “dad jokes”–as I said, it’s a little comedy.
Happy Father’s Day! We are so grateful for all the men who made us laugh (or groan), but who also taught us useful stuff like changing a tire, catching a high pop fly or swinging a golf club, and how to tell right from wrong. One of the Bible’s most frequent metaphors is that of God as “our father.” Jesus even used a familiar form –Abba—which is akin to Daddy or Papa—when he spoke of God. It’s not the only metaphor the Bible uses to talk about God, but it’s a good reminder that human dads bear something of the Divine in their relationship with children. And they bear some responsibility for faith formation and their children’s experience of a loving God who cares for them. A lot of Central’s focus in children’s and family ministries is assisting dads (and moms) in this sacred and crucial task. Turns out that a father’s spiritual beliefs and practice will be more influential on a child’s than a mother’s. Hmmm. Well, it takes a village…
Our text today might seem to have little relevance for father’s day with its extended metaphor of labor and giving birth. It’s even more ironic when you realize the author, Apostle Paul, was not a parent himself. But what we discover goes far beyond mere metaphor to describe what it means to be included in God’s family and how that changes the way we live in a world of suffering, violence, injustice, and uncertainty. We’ve spoken often about how the pandemic may provide a “re-set” button on the realities we’re facing as families, church, nation and world. Like a good father, the apostle offers loving guidance. A reading from the letter to the Romans, in the 8th chapter, verses 18 through 25. Listen for God’s Word to us.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. The Word of the Lord…thanks be to God.
I’d love to have you join me on zoom each Friday at noon for “faith break”–an opportunity to check in, pray for the concerns of our lives and these times, and explore a Scripture text for an upcoming sermon. In this process we make explicit what is always true: a sermon grows from the conversation between people and preacher, informed by Scripture, brought to life by the power of Holy Spirit. Thanks to Steve Davis, Heather Collins, Rob and Celeste Habiger, Mary Schenk and her niece Caroline, all who contributed richly this week.
It’s worth noting that there is an underlying tension in Christian faith: the gift of life we receive in Christ is both a present reality and a future promise. We live by faith in that tension. We’re not exempt from suffering and pain. But we view it as impermanent; even death does not have the last word. The frame through which we understand life is trust in the One who said, Surely I know the plans I have for you; plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. [Jeremiah 29:11]
This text seeks to flesh out what that future looks like. It does so by way of mixed metaphors–the extended one about the whole creation–and individuals–groaning under the hard labor of giving birth. But then the Apostle abruptly shifts to our “adoption” as children of God. This isn’t sloppy editing. No doubt he had in mind the controversy around the Jesus movement being largely Jewish. Yet as the movement spread, more and more Gentiles were drawn to the good news. Here and elsewhere Paul declared that the old boundary lines of religion were erased in a river of grace. The children of the covenant were part of the family; yes, but also welcome were these newly-adopted outsiders. In Roman culture an adopted child had full legal standing and rights as did a birth child. So Paul could boldly conclude that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one.
Well, we’ve been struggling with that tension ever since. The full effects of our salvation have not yet been realized. And our contemporary realities provide evidence that the old ways are still very much entrenched: the whole creation groans under the suffering brought about through human-induced climate change; unending warfare and violence; bitter divisions that destroy the integrity of human communities, and economic disparity that perpetuates suffering. Even steeped in sophisticated, comprehensive knowledge, we can be brought to our knees by a novel virus.
Here and elsewhere Paul declared that the old boundary lines of religion were erased in a river of grace.
But there are glimpses of the glory about to be revealed to us: the establishment of a new family, one that is inclusive and acts redemptively in the surrounding culture, which may be hostile towards it (as the Roman empire was toward the early Christian Church). And there is this life-giving hope; trust beyond the present into a glorious future of human justice, freedom, peace, and spiritual intimacy with God. One of the group shared her own experience of being adopted and preparing to give birth: both realities filled with goodness and hope.
Seems to me to provide the Church’s mission statement for this time and every time. Our vision, our calling, and frankly, our “to do” list. To assist God in birthing a new creation, and emptying orphanages of all kinds–places where people languish–so that everyone knows they’re part of the family. Like labor, there’s going to be some pain involved. But it’s a very different pain than heartbreak and unmerited suffering. It’s a process, and though we call every birth a “miracle,” it’s one that depends in no small part upon human toil, touched by Divine grace.
It’s happening friends.
*More than one dad has commented that the pandemic has opened an opportunity for greater involvement in his children’s lives. I have realized what I miss on a daily basis from having had these months of working from home.
* It’s happening–how about that photograph of a recent NASCAR race, with the No. 43 Chevy prominently displaying the slogan #blacklivesmatter. The winning driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace has raised concerns of prejudice for years. Urged on by Mr. Wallace and others, NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag from its events and properties as a symbol of racial hatred and discrimination, and to provide “a welcome and inclusive environment.” It’s happening–in the flood of interest and action from Central’s own Racial Healing Life group. Please check weekly updates about how to join voter registration efforts, collaboration with Peoples Presbyterian Church, and more.
*What’s that cherry picker doing in front of Clermont Christian Living Center? Sally Leibbrandt and her sister Marysue are able to visit their mother, Sue Wilcox, outside her garden-level apartment, but their Aunt BL lives in a second floor apartment. By creative negotiation and a friendly fork lift operator, they were able to ascend the outside of the building where they could safely visit their aunt through her open window. When Sally wrote me about it, I couldn’t help but hear a chorus of “ain’t no mountain high enough; ain’t no valley low enough; ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you…” Friends, love is not daunted by any barriers, but finds a way, or makes a way.
*It may have been awhile since you’ve driven by Central, but I hope you will soon to check out the new banner inside the bank of glass doors. Designed by Lisa Daniel, the six panels were given to Central families to color, and then installed by Molly Brown. The image is a silhouette of Denver’s skyline, including Central, the Wells Fargo Building and the State Capitol, with the Biblical verse: The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never extinguished it. It’s a message of hope, forward-facing into our downtown neighborhood. Central is not closed, but is working outside to demonstrate God’s compassion and saving grace.
*While there are many organizations that are actively seeking to reform and transform human community, I find myself drawn to the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, rooted in a “moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all.” Ignited by Dr. King’s dream and the witness of the 1963 Poor People’s March on Washington, this present-day iteration was founded by two faith leaders: The Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Christian Church preacher and NAACP leader and Dr. Liz Theoharis, a white Presbyterian pastor and professor at Union Theological Seminary. This organization is committed to creating the Beloved Community God intended by addressing the crises of our day through a moral and spiritual lens: systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and building unity across lines of division. Along with some 900 other Presbyterians–and thousands of others, I joined the 2020 March on Washington yesterday (ONLINE, OF COURSE) as an act of faith and hope…
…to assist in the miraculous process of birthing a whole new world.
Come to think of it, not unlike the way a dad prepares for his part in labor and delivery, and the journey of parenthood just beginning.
Thanks be to God.