Monday, July 11, 2011

There Is No Condemnation

Romans 8:18-27

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.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

The majestic 8th chapter of the letter of Paul to the Romans begins with the gospels' astonishing conclusion: "There is therefore now no condemnation." The death sentence hanging over all humanity has been removed for those who are in Jesus Christ. This is a sudden reversal of death's judgment, announce in open court for all to hear. The gavel has come down and found you guilty, thus giving God his due. There is no loophole, no higher court to which one might appeal; the verdict is final. The law is God's terrible and inescapable judgement of the death sentence. (Steven D. Paulson, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3, p 230).

The death sentence. Perhaps you have felt the seriousness of that judgement in another setting. One young man, also named Paul, experienced what felt like the death sentence during the final exam of a college course. He was majoring in zoology at college. One semester this young contemporary Paul took a course in the study of birds – ornithology. For the final exam, Paul studied until he had the textbook nearly memorized. He knew his class notes backward and forward. He was eager to take the exam, certain of getting a good grade.

The morning of the exam, Paul took a seat in the front row of the big auditorium where the class was held. Over 100 students were in the class with him. On a table at the front was a row of 10 stuffed birds, each one with a sack covering its body so that only the legs were visible.

The professor announced, "For this test, which counts for 80% of your final grade, I want you to identify each bird up here by its legs, and then discuss its species, natural habitat, and mating patterns. You may begin."

Paul stared at the birds. All the legs looked the same to him. After spending half the exam period in growing frustration as he tried to determine which bird was which, he picked up his exam and threw it on the professor's desk.

"This is ridiculous!" he shouted. "I studied the textbook and my notes all night, and now you're asking me to name these birds by looking at their legs? Forget it!"

The professor picked up the exam booklet and saw that it was blank. "What's your name, young man?"

With that, Paul yanked one leg of his pants up. "Why don't you tell me?"

Paul's response probably didn't earn him a passing grade, although I must admit, I admire his creativity! (story via

I also admire the creativity of this other Paul, the one we know as the Apostle Paul, who writes in our text today: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (v. 1) Really, now?! No condemnation? I think I may safely say there is none among us who is sinless.

I was reminded this week of the story of a preacher was making his rounds on a bicycle, when he came upon a little boy trying to sell a lawn mower.  "How much do you want for the mower?" asked the preacher. 

"I just want enough money to go out and buy me a bicycle." said the little boy. 

After a moment of consideration, the preacher asked, "Will you take my bike in trade for it?" 

The little boy asked if he could try it out first. He told the preacher he hadn't ridden a bicycle in a long time and wasn't sure he could still ride one. 

The preacher told him, "Just keep trying.  It'll come back to you." 

After riding the bike around a little while, the little boy said, "Mister, you've got yourself a deal." 

The preacher took the mower and began to crank it. He pulled on the rope a few times with no response from the mower. The preacher called the little boy over and said, "I can't get this mower to start." 

The little boy said, "That's because you have to cuss at it to get it started." 

The preacher said, "I can't cuss. It's been so long since I became a Christian that I don't even remember how to cuss." 

The little boy looked at him happily and said, "You just keep pulling on that rope. It'll come back to you."

I know I am not sinless. And neither are you. Yet when Paul speaks of sin he is not talking about our usual moral failures such as cussing or forgetting to pray for someone when we said we would do it. Paul speaks of sin as something larger and more pervasive than our individual moral failures. Paul considers sin to be power that resides in the world and in us. So to hear that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus is strangely good news.

Yes, this is very good news in a world that is full of the power of death. Just turn on the TV to the news channel and see the latest carnage in Libya. Or click on on the web and read about the latest gruesome death scene. Death's power lingers and nips at us all throughout our lives. Just ask any alcoholic about the power of death and if they are honest they will tell you about the living death they know. Ask any parent of a child who is dying from a devastating disease, and your will hear of the power of death to break a heart even before the child's body gives up. Yet, even the terrible power of death is not enough to stop "the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead" (v. 11).

For an alcoholic, there are two choices: the way of death and the way of life. The first step is to admit that we are powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable. The second second is to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. The third is to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.

So it is for the Christian. Substitute the word "sin" for "alcohol," and you have the crux of this passage. We are powerless over sin, which will inevitably lead us to death; but in the Spirit we have the possibility of life. Sin is still a daily possibility; God has not eliminated it form this world once and foralall-not yet. However, a life of righteousness is also a possibility now, because of the Spirit's power.

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (v. 1). This freedom does not take us out of our bodies and fly us up into a netherworld beyond the pearly gates. Instead it frees us to live fully in this world, in this mortal body we have. This freedom is ours in Christ. It is the result of the power of God, a power greater than the sum of all the powers.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on July 10. 2011

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Freedom, Reliance and Relationship

Psalm 145:8-14

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.

They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power,

to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.

Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.

The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed.

A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules; so, the husband flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife making the trip the next day. The husband checked into the hotel.

There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realizing, sent the email.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband's funeral. She decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. Her son rushed into the room, found her on the floor, and saw the computer screen, which read:

To: My Loving Wife.

I have Arrived. I'll bet you're surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now, and you can send emails. Everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then. P.S. Sure is hot down here!!!!

Well, it sure is hot down here in Houston on this 4th of July weekend as we worship God in this cool sanctuary. Whether expressed as warm and clappy or cool and restrained, worship has always seemed exciting to me. Whether it is clap happy worship with hands held high and singing in an unknown language or the more dignified, orderly service we practice here, worship has always been life giving to me. I remember as a small child standing up in on the pew by my parents waving my hands up and down in imitation of the music director who was directing the hymn we were singing. I was full of unselfconscious joy. Of course, the other worshipers, including my parents, found that a bit distracting and so it was brought to a swift end.

Worship has been life giving to me. I have found it a way to connect myself to a greater cause, a higher power, and the rest of humanity. Worship has never been and end to a means but rather an end in itself. We don't worship just to energized to go out and serve God in the world. We worship also because worship is the right thing to do as a human being. It is a visible expression of our metaphysical relationship to the cosmos. Worship proclaims that we belong on this earth. Worship reminds us that this earth is not our final destination. Just as Jesus was said to be like a fox in that he had nowhere in particular to lay his head at night, we are poor, wayfaring strangers, traveling through this world of woe.

Worship is serious business interspersed with comic moments.

Psalm 45, found at the end of the Davidic collection, is the only one of the psalms given the clear title of "Praise." It also appears in teh Jewish prayer book mor than any other psalm. It has been an important part of the liturgy of God's people down through the ages. This Psalm expresses the beliefs of the worshipping community.

Rabbi Poupko of Chicago describes Psalm 145 as the "prayer of all prayers" and the "entry way to the Psalms," to be prayed three times each day by the devout. According to the Talmud, "Everyone who repetat the Thillh of David thrivce a day may be sure that he is a child of the world to come' (Berakot, 4b quoted by Robert A. Cathey in Feasting on the Word:Year A, Vol 3, 200.

Our session has been discussing Reggie McNeal's book Missional Renaissance. One of the critiques of the book is that it seems to downplay one of our essential tenets as Presbyterians. We believe one of the primary reasons the church exists is to worship God. Therefore, we may be a fully functioning and effective church if all we do is worship God and preach the Word from scripture in a relevant and appropriate manner. Yes, we are blessed to bless others, as McNeal points out, and we are also blessed to bless God. Our worship is a way of blessing the One Higher Power who blesses us. We are giving back to the Great Giver. We are reaching out to the one who picks us up when we fall down.

Yes, we do fall down. There is no denying it. We fall behind on our rent or our car payment or our child support. We fall behind in paying our pledge to the church. We fall in other ways. Sometimes, we literally fall down and break a hip. That may lead to further changes such as finding ourselves laying in a hospital bed after reconstructive surgery or sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing. We fall down.

As the Apostle Paul puts it: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (Romans 7:15) With the same tongue and lips we both praise God and curse God. We are up and down, happy and sad, hopeful and full of despair. Life is messy. The road ahead is never clear. There are always options. Choices have to be made.

In the movies and in real life in places of war and violent upheaval, people fall down when they get shot. They are wounded, sometimes fatally wounded. We fall down on our knees when we pray. We lose our balance when we fall down. Falling down on our knees is an appropriate symbolical posture for prayer. We fall down because we are wounded spiritually, morally, financially, physically, emotionally. We are wounded so we fall down on our knees to pray.

And it is there, from that position of fallenness, down on our knees in prayer, it is from there that God lifts us up. Yes, what the Psalmist says holds true today just as it did 3,000 years ago, "The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed." (Psalm 145:14) As the great old hymn, Jesus Is All the World to Me, puts it, "When I am sad, He makes me glad, He's my friend."

On this Fourth of July weekend we celebrate our freedom and independence. Yet in this time of great opportunity many of us don't feel very free. Beyond the public controversy over TSA agents groping citizens trying to board airplanes, there is also the issue of private freedom within ourselves. Many of us are not living the lives that we had planned on living. We have trouble making choices. And we wonder if we will ever get to that place where we will finally be happy. Worst of all, when you are free, you have only yourself to blame for being unhappy.

When we were children and had to do what we were told by parents and teachers who just didn't understand us, we knew that if only we could get free of that, we would be okay. The burden of maturity is having to take responsibility for how your life is turning out. Now that we are free to do what we want, where we want, when we want, and with whom we want, there is no one to blame for our problems but ourselves.

Some of us still try to blame others. But the more you listen to someone blame others for their unhappiness the more it sounds like the familiar whining of children. You can blame the office where it is all politics, or the parent who wasn't very loving, or the mythical they who are trying to take something away from you. But this weekend our nation is throwing a big party to proclaim that you are free. The pursuit of happiness is all yours. So if you are still struggling to get the life you want, the freedom battle isn't really out there. It is within your own soul.

Mariette in Ecstasy is a novel by Ron Hansen. The novel begins with Mariette entering a convent to become a nun. Joining this convent has been the goal of her life from the time she was young girl because she wants so much to do the right thing with her life and is convinced that means settling into a devout, regimented life in the convent. But after her arrival, she falls deeply in love with Jesus Christ. She prays differently from the other nuns, focusing not on her prayers but on the one to whom she is praying. She is literally in love with Jesus and develops a relationship with him that is too powerful to be contained by the careful routines of monastic life. She finds joy in what should be hardship. Eventually she even bears Christ's stigmata on her body which is too much for the other nuns. So she is kicked out of the convent for her excesses in piety. The failure is devastating to her; she feels disgraced as she is exiled into the unregimented world.

Thirty years later, she writes a letter back to the convent describing what she has learned about the love of God and freedom. The closing lines of the letter are the closing lines of the novel: "We try to be formed and held and kept by Christ, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, 'Surprise me.'" (Taken from an online sermon by Craig Barnes called "The Pursuit of Freedom" preached at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 2004)

We value worship because it puts us as human beings in our proper place in the world. Worship reminds us that we are creatures who are created and loved by God but we are not the same thing as God. We live in a culture that says our value comes from being self sufficient human beings but our Bible teaches us that our value comes from our mutual reliance upon God. Somewhere between our personal responsibility and our reliance upon God comes a balance that leads to greater joy. If you listen closely this morning, you may hear God's still small voice saying, "Hey, listen, get up off your knees, surprise me."
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX on July 3, 2011