“How Will Our World Heal?”
Romans 11: 1-6, 13-20 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook;
Northwood United Church; August 20, 2017
Last weekend, a state of emergency was declared in Charlottesville, Virginia following a “Unite the Right” rally protesting the removal of the statue of confederate icon General Robert E. Lee, a herald of white supremacy. This rally, which gathered members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis, was described as one of the largest white supremacist events in recent US history. As most know, it commenced on Friday August 11th with marchers descending upon the University of Virginia carrying torches and yelling things such as: “white lives matter” and “blood and soil”. On Saturday, things went horribly wrong. Protesters clashed with counter-demonstrators and the two sides violently faced off against one another. Violence further erupted as a speeding car rammed into anti-racist protestors, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. One week later, our world finds itself in shock ~ over the event and over the unfolding state of our culture. In the aftermath of this incident we wonder: When will our world heal its differences and find unity? How will our world heal? And perhaps even … Will our world heal? It seems like this week has been filled with everyone’s opinion on how America, and indeed our world community, should proceed following this event. Even the late night talk hosts have spoken out.
As I consider this situation, I recall an image in my mind that goes back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A church marquee had posted the following message: “there is no problem bigger than God”. The sign’s message went viral and became a beacon of hope amidst such a devastating time. And to be sure, this corner of God’s world seems to be facing a hurricane sized problem and is deeply in need of healing. It seems that our world is increasingly being threatened by a hurricane of fundamentalism, a hurricane of fear mongering, fear of the stranger, and individualism rising to dangerous levels. And, as much as I applaud celebrities for sharing their opinions, I don’t think this problem will be healed by the late night talk show hosts of our day, or by President Trump or by any-one person in this world today. Now is a good time, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, in this sensitive time of our world, to be reminded that there is no problem that is bigger than … God. Now is the time to be reminded that we need God. We need God’s strength in our lives. We need each and every one of you in the days ahead.
As we turn to the passage that John just read from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, this passage marks the end of a multiple-chapter summary of Paul’s state of things in Rome. Paul had been speaking about the end of our broken relationship ~ the end of our sin ~ and the birth of an unbreakable bond that we have with God through our faith. Paul uses the analogy of sin causing us to fall into a form of slavery. One of the hallmarks of slavery, of course, was that the slave did not have control over their own body. A master may force a slave into labour, inflict corporal punishment, even assault their slave sexually, all without any fear of prosecution for a crime. In our modern world, things are much more subtle; however, I would suggest that slavery still exists. People have become slaves to very subtle masters. Where do you see slavery as continuing to exist? We have become slaves sometimes … to success, slaves to our addictions, slaves to individualistic mindsets ~ believing that our way is exclusively right. Indeed, slavery is still alive in our modern era today, albeit in very subtle forms. The message Paul offers in Romans is that sin’s enslavement over humankind has been broken in Christ. He begins this lengthy multi-chapter section writing “so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and live to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:8).
The great question remaining for the listeners of this section is how does such a gift of one’s relationship with God ~ of becoming alive to God ~ of one’s salvation ~ how does it come about? The debate at the time was over how our relationship can be established in one of two ways ~ it was either established through our good works or through our faith. As you can imagine, there was quite a debate. Paul proceeds to present the debate between the foundation of this relationship ~ a debate between works versus faith. Some, at the time, argued that our relationship was based on the great works that we do in service of God, thereby placing us in God’s favour. We do good things; therefore, God’s gracious love is instilled upon us. Others countered, arguing that our relationship was based on the profound faith we have in God. They viewed our relationship with God as originating from our faith and the good works we do are an extension that flow from the faith that lies at the foundation of our relationship with God. The debate was, and in some ways continues today to be, is our relationship based on faith or on works?
Paul presents faith as the basis for our spiritual relationship and he proceeds to call to mind one of the great stories of the Jewish faith. He speaks about Elijah’s time of fear, in 1 Kings 19, that we focused on last Sunday. It was a time when Elijah was hiding in the cave, hiding away from the wrath of Queen Jezebel following his sleighing of the 450 prophets loyal to Baal. In the passage, Paul quotes Elijah who pleads to God by recalling all that he had done. Did Elijah earn God’s favour through his faithful actions? No! It was not his actions. It was his faith that earned him God’s grace. In the next verse, Paul proceeds to explain what it means to be “chosen by grace” saying “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace”.
What we learn in the passage is that God’s grace given to us is a most priceless gift. It is not something we, as humans, could ever earn. But, rather, God’s grace comes to us as a free and wonderful gift, that we become aware of, and we access through…our faith. Faith, then, becomes the primary way in which we have relationship with God. Works, the good things we do, are secondary, as they flow out of the faith-filled lives that we lead. Faith comes first. It is the foundation of our relationship with God. Good works flow next. They are what we do as Christians as expressions of God’s love through us.
Let’s examine these two elements individually. First of all, let’s examine the concept of “works”. There are many incredible things that are done in society which are of a great benefit to the world. People protect the environment, they feed the hungry, and they protect the broken. These actions, these works, are all wonderful and necessary in their own right. Yet they do not add up and could never possibly earn God’s gracious love in our lives. Does God love Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King more others based on their resume of good works? Of course not! God doesn’t work that way. Our good works, whether they be few, or whether they be many, do not earn God’s grace, God’s favour, or God’s salvation. The most arrogant thing we can ever believe, is that we can, of our own doing, earn God’s grace. As Paul writes, “if [our relationship with God] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace”.
Secondly, let us examine “faith”. One’s faith is that primary component which helps us become aware of the gift of God’s love. In the words of our United Church Creed, it is the awareness that “we are not alone”. And it is critical that we nurture our faith as we, first and foremost, are spiritual beings. As Pierre Teillhard de Chardin observed, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience”. Our faith enables us to uncover this foundational relationship with God that allows us to live and move and have our being. Faith is that primary component that allows us to uncover God’s gracious gift of an unbreakable relationship that we have through Jesus Christ. I recently heard a Christian minister speak to some of the horrific events saying “in light of the recent events, it almost seems like people don’t read their Bible, don’t follow Jesus’ way”. When we consider “faith” as the primary component in our relationship with God, we see it as the essence which informs all that we do and all that we are. It gives us strength in times of weakness; it guides our living in times of action; it is the central source through which all rivers of our lives flow.
What our world so dearly needs today, I would like to suggest, is for us to focus on, and nurture, our faith, and in so doing to uncover the depths of God’s grace uniquely prepared for each one of us. For it is that grace which leads to us uncover who each and every one of us are: man or woman, mother or father, citizen and neighbour, each of us… a unique child of God. And having discovered that identity, that is where the expressions of faith ~ the good works all originate. Dietrich Bonhoffer, the Lutheran theologian and pastor who was imprisoned by the Nazis and later executed at their hands, wrote about grace in his book “the Cost of Discipleship”. He distinguished between grace that is “cheap” and grace which is “costly”. He saw cheap grace as being the deadly enemy of the church and saw the church, in an era with the rise of Hitler, as needing ~ more than ever ~ to fight for the preservation of costly grace. He writes: “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him”.
Most of us have heard of the sociological phenomenon called “the bystander effect” which means a large group of people become disabled from acting as an individual when they are in a crowd. As a result, groups tend to passively function as bystanders. This is why it is so important, for example, in the case of a health emergency for someone to take charge and assign duties. Someone must assume responsibility or nothing will happen. Someone must say: “You call 911”. “You get a pillow and a blanket”. “You flag down the ambulance”. And so on. People do not generally act as individuals when they are in a group. I think the era we live in is one of these times. We too, must act and not be passive. Firstly, we must further root ourselves in our faith: we must pray ~ for our world and its leaders. We must listen to God’s call to us, uncovering our identity, discerning our spiritual gifts. Secondly, we must act. We cannot be bystanders. This is an era that injustices must be addressed. When we see elements of injustice in our world we must, in love, voice that this treatment is not OK. Letters need to be written, marches need to be attended, individual situations that are witnessed call for our voice. Each of us can and must make a difference.
Getting back to the church sign: “There is no problem too big for God to handle”. I think these will be important words for us to hold dear to our hearts. Perhaps we should place them on our sign? They are gospel truth. They are words that were demonstrated on a cross that showed that even the ways of death alive in the world are no match for God’s amazing grace. May our growing faith allow for God’s grace to be uncovered in each of our lives. And may that grace be lived out in the days we have been given.