Sunday, May 24, 2015

Grace Like Velcro--a sermon for Pentecost 2015

Rev. Teri Peterson
PCOP
Grace Like Velcro
Romans 8.18-39, Acts 2
24 May 2015, NL1-38, Pentecost


When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (instead of reading this, we will sing the hymn “On Pentecost They Gathered” which tells the whole story of Acts 2.)

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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.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Nothing.


Sometimes it is a beautiful word: There’s nothing I have to do today. The test results came back—nothing. What can separate us from God’s love? Nothing.

Sometimes it’s a terrible word: what happens when black people are killed in the streets, their beds, their cars? nothing. What will be done about child abuse in a famous family? nothing. What will children eat tomorrow when there's no school and therefore no school lunch? nothing.

Sometimes it’s a helpless word, said with a shrug and a shake of the head: what can we do about the state of the world? often feels like nothing.

Sometimes it’s a word that simultaneously means “no thing” and also an absence. There is no thing—no object, no circumstance, no person—that can keep God’s love away from us. And also there is nothing—an emptiness, a lack of space—between God’s love and God’s creation. Nothing.

In case we wondered if Paul was serious about the word “nothing” he made us a list. He knows that we humans are prone to one of two responses to this kind of grace: either disbelief that it is true for us, and therefore we have to earn it…or disbelief it is true for “them” and therefore they have to work harder to be like us in order to earn it. So in his list Paul includes many of the things we spend a lot of energy avoiding: hardship and distress, hunger and nakedness, danger and violence, heights and depths, death…and also some things we may like too much: life, and the systems and powers of culture, and the way things are and the way things will be, and angels, and all creation.

Nothing. Not one thing—whether we protect ourselves from it or embrace it whole heartedly—nothing can keep God’s love away from us.

This is the verse that undergirds one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition. Our theological ancestors looked at Romans, especially at this chapter, and said that it was clear that grace is Irresistible. There is nothing we can do to stop God from loving, nothing that can stop grace from infusing everything. Grace is irresistible. The image I sometimes use in new member classes is Velcro—imagine that you are made of one side of Velcro, and grace is the other piece. God throws it, showers it, presses it in…and it sticks, whether you want it to or not. Every time. And you know how new Velcro is—you can’t peel it apart. God’s mercies are new every morning, sticking to us despite our best efforts. Irresistible grace.
this stuff can be intense!
Or, as Paul put it just a few verses earlier: since God is for us, who can be against us? There’s no room in between—nothing to get between God’s grace and God’s world and people. Even all those things we worry about—they can’t fit into that space between two pieces of Velcro. Even all the ways we devise to keep people in their place: no room. Even all the horrible things we allow to happen all around us, or that happen to us: no room. None of these things, nor anything else in all creation, can keep the love of God away from us.

I fully realize that it appears I am repeating myself, just like Paul does. And I am: because this may very well be the most important thing any of us can ever know about God: that we are never separate from God’s grace. Even in suffering, even in doubt, even in sin—God is always loving, and always moving us closer and closer to Christ’s new creation, closer and closer to the core of who we are: beloved, made to reflect God’s image into the world.

We should not, however, mistake love and grace for warm fuzzies and puffy hearts. Sometimes the Spirit moves us faster than we might like, or into places we’d prefer not to go, and sometimes the Spirit has methods we would consider unorthodox at best. Look what happened on that birthday of the church: The congregation was gathered together in a room, singing and telling stories of Jesus and praying. It was your average Sunday service, in other words. And the Spirit came rushing in like a violent wind, there were flames everywhere, and the people were thrown out. No more serene prayers and favorite hymns, no more reminiscing about how it was when they walked with Jesus in Galilee—the Spirit literally pushed them out into the street, which was crowded with people, and gave them words to start speaking. Or shouting, even. They raised a ruckus. Some might call it a riot. The spirit-wind was blowing, and polite church was no more. They were so loud and unruly in their telling of the good news that people thought they were a drunken mob. I’m sure the disciples were wishing they could resist just a little—so they could leave the house in an orderly fashion and speak decently to the people outside, sharing calmly that the Spirit of the Lord was in that place, which surely would have been just as compelling?

But God’s grace is irresistible. The Spirit will not be contained or controlled, and she was on fire. It was time. Maybe even past time. Keeping their faith to themselves and separating Jesus from the rest of their lives was no longer an option. The Velcro stuck…and on the other side was God, pulling and pushing and calling and insisting that we had work to do and we would never be alone in it. Even losing control of a worship service cannot keep us from the love of God. Even languages that are hard to wrap our tongues into cannot keep us from the love of God.

And God has plans and dreams for this world—dreams of people talking to each other and actually listening rather than shooting; dreams of an abundance of bread for everyone; plans for our welfare.

It’s interesting that Pentecost falls on Memorial Day weekend this year. Memorial Day is, by definition, a time of looking back, of remembering those who gave their lives for a vision of a better world, for ideals of hope, truth, freedom, life, happiness. Started after the Civil War by a few people from one side who created a memorial to people who had died for the other side, it has been a day for honoring people who saw what could be, though they did not live to see it happen. What I did not realize is that every year, going back at least to the 1940s, the President issues a new Memorial Day proclamation. And in that proclamation—every single one from Truman on to now—the President declares a day of “prayer for permanent peace.” Not a day of staring into the past, not a day of glorifying war and those who fight it—a day of prayer for permanent peace.

That means Memorial Day was actually designed to be one of looking forward—of honoring those who died by building what they dreamed of and fought for. To pray for permanent peace is to put violence in the past and turn our eyes and hearts and minds to another way. To pray for permanent peace is to refuse to allow anything, whether skin color or economic status or nationality, to come between us. To pray for permanent peace is to insist that there cannot be haves and have-nots. To pray for permanent peace is not only to sit in a room together politely saying the Lord’s Prayer, but also to be driven out of the sanctuary by the Spirit to actually do the will of God and help build the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven—in both immediate and systemic ways. It seems the disciples were gathered together remembering someone they loved who was no longer with them…and the Spirit said “time to get to work doing the things he lived and died for.” And their prayer for permanent peace didn’t look very peaceful at first—it was downright disruptive. Of course, real peace is disruptive in a culture that runs on conflict. And yet it is God’s plan—a peace that passes all understanding. We may not understand what the Spirit is doing with wind and flame, with words and welcome, with push and pull, but we know this: The Spirit is here, we are the Body she moves to do God’s work of grace in the world, and that grace is irresistible.

May it be so. Amen.

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