Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Open Hearts

Open Hearts
2 Corinthians 6:1-13[1]
As I look at our society, it seems to me that one of our fundamental problems is that we are filled with anger. Bitterness, hatred, and meanness seem like a virus that spreads and grows day by day. We can get so angry so quickly these days. All you have to do is accidentally pull out in front of someone to experience road rage. Or bring up the subject of politics at the local donut shop or coffee house spot. We get pretty hostile pretty fast. And we start throwing all kinds of hateful words at each other. We shouldn’t be surprised at this, since that’s the way very visible people behave—from politicians to news commentators to social observers of all stripes. The level of nastiness in the way we speak to and about each other can be overwhelming. And we’re shocked that our news cycle is continually filled with acts of violence!
What’s perhaps more disturbing is the fact that we in the church have adopted this approach for dealing with our differences. We seem to have lost the ability to sit down across the table with someone who holds a different opinion on a matter that concerns us deeply and have a conversation that is based on mutual respect. Instead, we are like those around us, our anger ready to come spilling out at any moment. And when it does our words can match the intensity of the “talking heads” in our world—they can be bitter and mean, if not positively hateful. [2]   My brothers and sisters, to borrow from Scripture, in the Body of Christ it ought not be so!
In our lesson from the St. Paul for today, we find the Apostle dealing with hostility that has arisen in one of his beloved churches. The church at Corinth was founded by Paul. He had served them faithfully until he was forced to leave. And after he left, other teachers came along and began to call into question whether he was truly worthy of the respect due to an Apostle of Christ.[3] Apparently, they criticized him for his looks, for the way he talked, and even for the content of his teaching. The end result was that this church which owed its very existence to Paul’s labor of love began to fracture and turn against him. It would seem, in fact, that on one of Paul’s visits, he was publicly humiliated by one of the ringleaders among those who had decided to turn against him.
Not only was this damaging to the church’s health, it was also damaging to the cause of Christ in general. Paul likened it to yeast that could spread its way throughout a whole lump of dough. Since they didn’t know about viruses in that day, it was probably the best analogy he had. But I think a better one is the image of a virus. If left to spread unchecked, it will eventually destroy whatever body it has infected. And Paul knew that to be true for a church as well: bitterness, anger, and nastiness can poison any church and kill it.
Paul’s approach to this problem was to tackle it head-on. Some in his day (and perhaps also in ours) might say this was the wrong approach to take.[4] Nevertheless, Paul insisted that he had been an open book to them. He had not tried to deceive them or manipulate them in any way, but rather had served them in love. In our lesson for today, he says it this way, “We have spoken frankly to you …; our heart is wide open to you” (2 Cor. 6:11). Even though he says that many of them had “closed their hearts” to him, his heart remained open and full of love and concern for them.
If you’ve ever been in a situation like that, you’ll know how difficult it is to keep your heart open. When we come under fire our tendency is to protect ourselves by closing our hearts. But I’m afraid that’s the first step toward hardening our hearts to others. And that leads, in turn, to bitterness and the anger that we may verbalize in ways that aren’t so kind. We can see this at all levels of church life especially when we disagree about the convictions we hold dear. When we take that protective and defensive stance, it’s hard to recognize that our convictions may not necessarily be the final truth, and that others might have some valid points to make, even if they hold different views.
Again, Paul’s approach to this problem is the direct one. He appeals to the people of the church at Corinth straightforwardly: “It is not we who have closed our hearts to you; it is you who have closed your hearts to us” (2 Cor. 6:12, TEV). And so he asks them directly: “open wide your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:13)! This is where some might fault Paul in his approach. And yet he goes straight to the crux of the problem: they had hardened their hearts and had broken their relationship. Since Paul has just explained to them the importance of being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, he now applies that message to the broken relationship between them: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2). Of course, he’s talking to believers, so he’s not inviting them to the new life in Christ.[5] Rather, he’s inviting them to take the opportunity to be reconciled with him that the present moment affords.[6] And the way to do that is for them to open their hearts to him.
We live in a world where it can seem foolish to live with open hearts. Those who make themselves vulnerable in that way inevitably come under attack. And yet, the way of the open heart is the only way for us in the church.[7] After all, it was God who opened his heart toward us in the first place, pouring out his love and grace and mercy in our lives. And it was Jesus who opened his heart and made himself vulnerable enough to die for us on the cross. In that light, I don’t see how we can do anything less than to follow Paul’s example and open our hearts to all those around us, even those who may disagree with us, even those who may attack us. The way of Jesus is the way of love, the way of the open heart.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/21/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Our situation reminds me of Thomas Merton’s comment in New Seeds of Contemplation, 73-74: “Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. … . It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.”
[3] Cf. J. Paul Sampley, “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:97: “Paul’s apostleship has been one of service to others, not self-service and self-aggrandizement, perhaps to the chagrin of some Corinthians who see in him a person of attenuated status, too diminished to be considered a true apostle.” Cf. also Glenn T. Miller, “2 Corinthians 5:11-6:13,” Interpretation, 54 (Apr 2000): 188: “In a passage filled with irony and pathos, Paul rehearses the charges against him in antitheses that contrast his opponents' views with what the Corinthians know to have been the case: "honor, dishonor; good repute, poor repute; imposters, truth-tellers; known, unknown; dying, yet alive; punished, not killed; sorrowful, rejoicing; rich, poor (6:8-10).”  Cf. further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 56–57: “The authentication of his apostolate is given by Christ himself, who reveals himself in his apostle’s cross. Because he follows the mission of Christ, Paul takes ‘his’ cross upon him and reveals the power of Christ through his weakness and the life of the risen Christ through his daily dying.”
[4] Cf. Sampley, “Second Letter to the Corinthians,” NIB XI:102; cf. also 107: “Frankness, now as then, is best suited for strong friendship relations. Outside of friendship, frank speech is likely to be perceived as meddlesome at best. But even among friends, speaking frankly is a delicate undertaking that requires caution as well as a sense of timing and proportion.”
[5] While this is certainly the case, Ernest Best, in Second Corinthians, 58, reminds us that “Just as there is a continual need to be reconciled to God (see 5:20), so there is a continual need to accept salvation day by day, ‘now is the day of salvation.’ No group of Christians can think itself so firm in the faith that it does not need to go back again and again to examine itself lest it accept in vain the grace of God, the gracious way he has acted in Christ.”
[6] Cf. Sampley, “Second Letter to the Corinthians,” NIB XI:98: “Reconciliation is at the heart of life’s business. If the most important single factor about any of our lives is God’s having reconciled us to God’s very self, then the proper celebration of our reconciliation is to share it with others by fostering reconciliation and atonement whenever we can.”  Cf. also Miller, “2 Corinthians 5:11-6:13,” 187: “This is how reconciliation works. First, God reconciles us to God's self through the cross, and we become new creatures. Likewise, others also are made anew. And the fact that we recognize Christ's work in each other means that we have to relate to each other in a new way.” Cf. further Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, 169, 188. See further, Merton, New Seeds, 67: “Love comes out of God and gathers us to God in order to pour itself back into God through all of us and bring us all back to Him on the tide of his own infinite mercy.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 22: “When we see only demons within ourselves, we can see only demons in others, but when we see God in ourselves, we can see God also in others.” Cf. also ibid, 47, where he speaks of the Dalai Lama’s freedom from “any hatred or bitterness toward the Chinese who ravaged his land and murdered his people. He says, ‘They too are human beings who struggle to find happiness and deserve our compassion.’”

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Where did all the kindness go?

Friends, This is the first of what will be weekly posts to give the "back story" to some of my thinking as expressed in my sermons. It's just a way to give you a little extra insight into my own story, but also hopefully will provide some personal context for the sermon.

So, I grew up in the sixties and seventies, but I'm old enough to remember small-town life in the sixties. I was too young to be aware of much of what was going on in the culture at large during that time. Life in our small town of Ingleside, TX seemed fairly quiet and safe. Of course there were personal conflicts between certain families and they affected the church, but again, I was blissfully ignorant as a young child.

I was old enough to vote in my first Presidential Election in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected. Like a great majority of people, I saw Mr. Reagan as a strong leader who could help us out of the malaise of the seventies. I'm not at all saying that was the truth, but that was the perception. While the campaign was hard-fought, there was still a measure of respect and decency involved. So much so that one of Mr. Reagan's strongest opponents, George H. W. Bush, became his running mate! I doubt we would see that today!

Somewhere along the way, I would say in the mid-nineties, political rhetoric got turned up in its intensity. Then we had "talking heads" from both sides of the aisle hurling insults at each other as if that were expected. Along the way, words like "racist" and "sexist" have morphed into "Nazi" and and "Fascist" and other offensive insults. And, sad to say, it seems to me that we've only gotten worse over the years. 

Unfortunately, the same kind of mean-spirited attack has also affected the church. Of course, the church has had its internal battles for centuries. And there were times when you could lose your life if you wound up on the wrong side of the lines. But it seems that as we in the present-day church debate our differences, we have adopted something of a similar approach as the politicians. That troubles me deeply. If there's any place where we ought to be able to discuss our differences in a spirit of respect and tolerance, it's the church. 

So I'll be looking at what St. Paul has to say about this in 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, and the background for that is my concern over the way we treat each other--in the church as as a society.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hear Our Cry, O Lord!

Hear Our Cry, O Lord!
Psalm 130[1]
When I was in Seminary, I worked as a Security Guard to help pay bills. The good thing about it was that I could study on the job. The bad thing about it was that when I showed up for work, I never really knew if I would get off on time. There were many a night when a four-to-midnight shift turned into a four-to-midnight-to eight in the morning shift! Of course, I usually brought extra homework in case that happened, but those were some long nights. Talk about watching for the morning to come! It always seemed like the last hour was the longest hour of the night. It felt like eight o’clock, when I would be released to go home and sleep, would take its own sweet time getting there.
Sometimes I think waiting for God to answer our prayers may feel like that. We pour out our hearts to God in the times when we need his help the most, and it can seem like the answer never comes. In fact, I think that our struggle with waiting for God to respond to our prayers may be one of the great challenges of our faith. It seems the exception to the rule when God’s deliverance comes when we think we need it. More often, the answer may come long after we’ve given up on praying, given up even on God. And when it does come, if we’ve given up on God, we may not even notice that God has indeed answered our prayer, if not in the precise way and at the precise time we expected.
Our Psalm for today presents us with an example of someone who is desperate for God to hear his prayer. The specific prayer he cries out is for God to set him free from the consequences of his sin. Though it’s not hard to pick up on the note of distress in this Psalm, we really don’t know much about the circumstances. We don’t know why the psalmist is crying out to God. It would seem that he has somehow sinned against God and is feeling that burden deeply. But we don’t really know what that sin might be. We don’t know how long he may have been praying this prayer for deliverance. This may have been a prayer written at the very beginning of a wrestling match with God. I must say that I doubt that’s the case. The note of distress and desperation sound to me more like an urgent plea from someone who’s been pouring out his heart for quite a while, and is at wit’s end holding on the hope that God will have mercy and release him from his distress.
When I read this Psalm I wonder what it was that kept him praying through such difficult times. I think we could all ask ourselves the same question: what keeps us turning to God when we feeling like we’re drowning in distress? I think the Psalm points us to an answer: it’s God’s character.[2] No matter how long the psalmist has to wait for an answer to his cry, he remains confident that God is the one who forgives sins. Despite the fact that he can describe himself as being “in the depths,” a place where there is precious little hope and one can truly feel lost,[3] he continues to trust that “with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption” (Psalm 130: 7, TNIV). This heartbreaking cry for mercy comes from one who trusts that the God to whom he prays is the God whose love never fails.
In fact, this is the central truth about who God is in the Bible. God is the one who is completely faithful, completely dependable. This is the “revelation” that came to Moses in the cleft of the rock: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).[4] This refrain echoes throughout the Bible over and over again. And the point of it is that God loves us with a love that will never let us go. That remains true no matter what we may do or where we may find ourselves in life. Even in “the depths” we can trust that God is the one we can depend on to love us with a love never lets us go.[5]
And yet, that same gracious and compassionate love is the very thing that can drive us to the kind of distress this Psalm expresses.[6] The reason for this is that God’s grace which never fails also never leaves us in our sins, whether they may be sins of mild neglect or blatant transgressions. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s all too easy for those of us who have been intentional about living out our faith to slip into the pattern of thinking that this kind of distress over sin primarily relates to others, while our failings are only “minor shortcomings.” And yet this Scripture will have none of it. Even if we have become blind to our sins, the Psalmist recognizes that we all are subject to wrongdoing. He says it this way: “If you kept track of sins, LORD— my Lord, who would stand a chance?” (Ps. 130:3 CEB). The implied answer is clear: nobody. The sometimes difficult truth is that God’s steadfast love and unfailing grace creates in us the very distress over sin that finds such moving expression in this Scripture.
But it is also God’s unfailing love and “full redemption” that makes it possible for us all to turn to the Lord and find forgiveness.[7] No matter what we’ve done, no matter where we find ourselves, we can cry out to God in prayer, knowing full well that we can trust him to set us free from our sins. Even if it takes weeks, months, or years of crying out to God, we can continue to hope in his word, which assures us that his love never fails and that he is the one who forgives our sin.[8] No matter how deep our distress may be, no matter how dark the situation may seem, we can turn to God in the assurance that God always hears our prayers.[9] I think this is especially true when we cry out to the Lord with the kind of urgency and fervor found in this Psalm. And the promise is that God does indeed hear our cry.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/7/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1205: “The psalmist’s waiting is based on the conviction that God is fundamentally gracious and forgiving.”
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 406, where he says that the “depths” is a metaphor that “represents drowning in distress, being overwhelmed and sucked down by the bottomless waters of troubles … . To be in the depths is to be where death prevails instead of life as prospect and power, where the authentic word about existence is ‘I am lost’.” Cf. also McCann, Jr., “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1205, where he says that the “depths” “names the chaotic forces that confront human life with destruction, devastation, and death, and are regularly symbolized by water.”
[4] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1205, where he refers to Exodus 34:6-7 and says, “God reveals the divine self to be ‘gracious’ … and ‘abounding in steadfast love’…, and these attributes are manifested concretely in God’s forgiveness … of the people’s ‘iniquity’.”
[5] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1206, where he says, “Israel’s future does not depend on its own worthiness or ability to save itself but on God’s faithful love and ability to redeem. … No sin or setback will be of sufficient depth to separate God’s people from God’s amazing grace and faithful love.” Cf. also Bernhard Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today, 59: “Unlike the capricious gods of the ancient world, the God whom Israel worships is true to promises made, constant in faithfulness, consistent in behavior.” Cf.  further Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 115: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment.”
[6] Cf. H. -J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 467: “Yahweh is the holy God even in his grace.” He quotes from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:361-2 in support: “as the gracious God He affirms Himself over against the one to whom He is gracious by opposing and breaking down his resistance … . … If we refuse to recognize and , as is right, to suffer this His opposition to us, we are also repudiating His grace.”
[7] Cf. Anderson, Out of the Depths, 94: “the presence of the Holy God in the midst of the people is experienced as both inescapable judgment … and gracious acceptance.”
[8] Cf. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 468: “To fear Yahweh means to wait for his word of forgiveness, in straining attentiveness to look forward to the moment in which Yahweh grants salichah [deliverance].”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 76-77: “Wherever the cry from the depths is heard, the Spirit who ‘helps us in our weakness’ is present. … The sighs of fettered creation are taken up by the sighs of the Spirit who dwells in it, and are brought before God. … There is a cry from the depths at the beginning of every experience of God-given salvation … . And God hears the cry from the depths of desolation.”

Saturday, June 06, 2015

The Lord Reigns

The Lord Reigns
Psalm 29[1]
I’ve lived most of my life in places where people are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait, it’ll change.” We certainly know about that around here. Especially at this time of the year. Those of us who live in “tornado alley” know all about flooding rains, high winds, and tornadoes that can come seemingly out of nowhere and catch us off guard. The weather forecasters do their best to give us as much warning as they can, but ultimately all they can do is make educated guesses. That’s even true in the case of my primary experience with unpredictable weather: hurricanes. The weather service knows they can’t be sure where the storm will make landfall, so they have a “cone of probability” that extends to five days out. With many storms, the “cone of probability” can cover the whole Gulf of Mexico!
The unpredictability and volatility of the weather are potent reminders that we are not ultimately in control of our lives. Not nearly as much as we’d like to think. Those of us who make a living working the soil know that perhaps better than most. In this day and age, with all our satellites and computer models and sophisticated gear for trying to predict the weather, I sometimes wonder how much it helps. It at least creates the illusion that we know what’s going to happen, and can make preparations. I guess that makes us think our lives are a little more safe. But when a storm comes out of nowhere and turns your life upside-down, that illusion gets blown away.
Our lesson from the Psalms for today may seem a shocking reminder of that reality. The Psalmist uses the awe-inspiring and terrifying experience of a massive storm as a reminder that God is greater than anything we can even conceive.[2] The description of the storm is something that those of us who have lived through will readily understand. The Psalmist speaks of the voice of God flashing forth in lightning and overpowering in thunder.[3] He also speaks of the powerful winds that breaks the mighty cedars—which could be as large as the redwoods in California. The storm is so massive that it makes the mountains “skip like a calf” (29:6), shakes the wilderness (29:8), and strips the forest bare (29:9). And the Psalmist adds that those who witness these things from the relative security of the temple cry “Glory!” I would imagine those who were caught in the worst of the storm cried out other things!
We may wonder why in the world the Psalmist would pick such a frightening image in order to demonstrate the awesome greatness of God. In fact, there was a very good reason for it. In the religion of the people of Canaan, the god Baal was the one who controlled storms. People made sacrifices to Baal to try to ward off the storms.[4] In fact, however, in their mythology, the people believed that Baal had to battle the elements of wind and water in order to control them. And so you couldn’t be sure whether your offering to Baal would actually protect you from a storm!
In the midst of that kind of thinking, the Psalmist depicts the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the one who “sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever” (Ps. 29:10). I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in the message translation: “Above the floodwaters is God’s throne from which his power flows, from which he rules the world” (Ps. 29:10, The Message). In contrast to Baal, who must constantly wage a battle for control of the elements, the Lord God Almighty calmly rules the world from his throne on high. While Baal’s power is uncertain, it is clear that God’s power is beyond question.[5]
Now, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe the Psalmist is telling us that God sends the storms and the floods. I find that notion offensive. When our brothers and sisters in the human family suffer the effects of natural disasters, whether flooding, or tornadoes, or hurricanes, or even earthquakes and tsunamis, I don’t believe that God somehow sent that tragedy to teach them a lesson. The point of the Psalm is something altogether different: it means to call attention to the fact that while the power of nature is awesome and at times terrifying, God’s power is greater still. God calmly reigns over not only the forces of nature, but also our lives.
If we still can’t get past the notion that God must somehow cause natural disasters, take a look at what the Psalmist says about how God exercises his reign: “The LORD gives his people strength. The LORD blesses them with peace” (Ps. 29:10). The message of the Psalm is that God’s power is beyond anything we can even imagine—even the most powerful storm. But the message of the Psalm is also that God exercises that power to “bless” his people with “peace.”  God doesn’t cause the natural disasters that can completely upend our lives. But God is there with us to give us strength and peace, and his power is greater than that of the most fearsome forces of nature.
I think one of the main motivations behind this message is to remind us why we come to worship. We do so in order to experience the awe-inspiring greatness of God in our lives and to cry “Glory!”[6] The Psalmist reminds us that the ultimate reason for being here is to be reminded that we worship the God who “rules over the floodwaters,” the Lord who “reigns as king forever.”[7] We’re here because the God who reigns over all things has summoned us. And we’re here to bear witness to the truth that the Lord reigns indeed, and his reign gives us strength and peace to face whatever may come our way.[8]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/31/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 136, where he says the “organizing motif” of the Psalm is “glory”; here it is a “summary term for the attributes of the Lord as king” but also “a term for the manifestation, the display of the Lord’s divine royalty in the world.” This sermon focuses on the display of God’s reign in the world. For a treatment of God’s attributes in this Psalm, see Alan Brehm, “Awesome God,” a sermon delivered on 6/7/2009 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX. See .
[3] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 136; while the phenomena described are those of a storm, this is also the language of a theophany (manifestation of God).  He reminds us that “here its purpose is simply to evoke the power and majesty of the Lord as the ruler of the universe.”
[4] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms” New Interpreters Bible IV:793, where he says that “the religion of Baal asserted what humans are all too inclined to believe in any era, that ultimately we are in control and that our efforts can ensure security. While Psalm 29 is not anti-science or anti-technology, it does suggest definite limits to both. The universe is the sphere of God’s reign.”
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 137: “The name of Israel’s God appears in eighteen of the psalm’s twenty-three measures, as if to say by its constant repetition that it is the Lord, not any other deity, whose power rules the world. Where in Canaan’s myth sea and river were the opponents of Baal in his battle to gain kingship, in the psalm the mighty waters and the flood are simply subject to the Lord’s power as symbols of his everlasting reign.” Cf. also McCann, “The Book of Psalms” NIB IV:792, where he says, “Yahweh’s sovereignty—not Baal’s—is absolute.” Cf. similarly, H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 351, who says that Ps. 29 presents the claim of the creator in the midst of competing claims: “Yahweh appears. Yahweh’s kabodh [glory] radiates forth. Yahweh’s voice resounds. Yahweh makes heaven and earth quake. To him all powers must bow in homage, and him they must serve.”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 137. He says that the Psalm is an indication of the importance of worship, describing it as “the marvelous possibility” of the “use of time and space and sound” to create a situation “in which ‘Glory!’ is uttered in response to the one true God.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:793, where he says that the Psalms “speaks eloquently what Christians affirm regularly in the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer: ‘for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.’”
[8] Cf. Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture, 79: “worship is not an informational event. It is not a time to inform people about the church; it is not a time to inform people about the Christian faith; and it is not a time to inform people about God. It is a time to experience God, to experience the sacred, in ways that are life-changing.”

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Spirit Helps Us

The Spirit Helps Us
Romans 8:18-27[1]
Most of us are used to thinking that we live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We may think of it especially on this weekend when we remember those who have given their lives in service to our country. But the freedoms that so many fought so bravely for may seem to many of us to be evaporating. We used to take it for granted that that our children would have better and longer lives that we had. But for the first time in two centuries, there is some concern that children will actually have poorer health and live shorter lives than their parents.[2] We also have taken it for granted that anyone who wants an education in this country should be able to get it. But the rising costs of tuition makes it impossible for all but the wealthy to go to school without racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.[3]
The truth of the matter is that we are not as free as we’d like to think. Most of us are free to work throughout our adult lives to make a livelihood in order to raise our families, pay our mortgages, and if we’re lucky, save a little for retirement. Many of us will need to work even after we “retire” in order to be able to make ends meet. The financial realities of our lives these days have made it so that most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck, making do with little or no savings, which means we’re carrying way more debt than we should.[4] It doesn’t sound like our lives are all that free.
So it may sound strange to us when St. Paul talks about the hope of freedom for the children of God and for all of creation (Rom. 8:21-23). The idea is that everyone and everything will one day be set free from all that binds and burdens us here and now. We may be much more familiar with the idea of groaning for the time when we can be truly free. I would say that our experience these days is defined more by groaning under the present burdens than by the hope of being set free.[5] And yet, St. Paul insists that freedom is the destiny not only for all God’s children, but also for all God’s creatures.
Part of the basis for this astounding hope is the victory won by our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ in his death and resurrection. But as we’ve been discussing that wonderful event and our response to it throughout the Easter season, we’ve seen that it’s not always easy to maintain that hope in our present circumstances. Life can make it very difficult indeed to hold onto the hope that God is working in this world to bring freedom to all God’s children and all God’s creatures. In fact, I would say that often our experience of life can dash those hopes and replace them with doubts and even despair about the possibility of ever experiencing that kind of freedom.[6]
But I think it is at this very point that the Scripture lesson may address us. I find it very interesting that after talking about the hope for freedom that we continue to cherish in the midst of our current groaning, he says that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26). While the immediate reference is our ability to know how to pray or even to know what we should pray, I think St. Paul is making a broader reference here. I don’t think it is a coincidence that he follows up a discussion of the challenges we face in holding onto this hope with the promise that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”[7] I think the assurance is that the Spirit who was “poured out on all flesh” on that first Pentecost (Acts 2:17) comes to us all and “helps us in our weakness”—whatever that weakness may be.
Now, knowing the experience of the Spirit’s help is not something that is always obvious. In fact, I would suggest that at times the Spirit may be helping us in ways that we don’t even know and can’t even imagine. And yet, regardless of our awareness, the promise of Scripture stands: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness”! In my experience, the times when the Spirit is helping us the most are the times when we may feel like we’re abandoned by God, alone and hopeless. Of course there are other times when we encounter a presence from outside us that renews us, and lifts us up, and gives us new faith and hope and love. But whether we are aware of it or not, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”[8]
If we doubt that the Spirit is present with us even when we feel most alone in the world, take a look at what St. Paul has to say about the Spirit’s work in the world of nature. When we think that God’s purpose is only to redeem the human family, we sell God’s grace and God’s power short. The fact of the matter is that all of creation is God’s cherished handiwork, and the Scriptures speak time and again of God’s determination to restore all of his creatures to the life he meant for them to have in the first place. While the Scriptures can speak variably about God or Jesus or the Spirit carrying out this work, the fact is that the Spirit who was active at creation in the beginning is also working to bring new life—not only to all people but to all of God’s creation.[9]   
If the Spirit is at work in the natural world around us, then surely that same Spirit is constantly working in our lives, and in the lives of our friends and family, and in the lives of strangers, and even in the lives of those we may consider “enemies.” And the end result of this work is that all God’s children and all God’s creatures will find the freedom that God intended for us all to have in the first place.[10] If we have difficulty being able to embrace this astounding hope, that’s why the Spirit is here. The Spirit is here among us all to “help us in our weakness.”

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/24/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Pam Belluck, “Children’s Life Expectancy Being Cut Short By Obesity,” New York Times, March 17, 2005; accessed at
[3] Cf. “The Upwardly Mobile Barista,” The Atlantic May 2015;  accessed at archive/2015/05/the-upwardly-mobile-barista/389513/.
[4] Cf. Linda Tirado, “Why Poor People Stay Poor: Saving Money Costs Money. Period.” Slate, December 5, 2014; accessed at _america_daily_annoyances.htm .
[5] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 490: “The suffering of the saints is part of a cosmic drama into which all creation, inanimate as well as animate, is drawn. … We ourselves are caught up in the same cosmic unease too deep for words.” Cf. also Dunn, 474: “the point needs to be emphasized that the Spirit does not free from such tension, but actually creates or at least heightens that tension and brings it to more anguished expression.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:329.
[6] Cf. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 488. This relates to the “futility” Paul says we have all been subjected to. Dunn comments, “By ‘futility’ Paul probably has in mind the same sense of futility of life which found expression in Jewish thought most clearly in Ecclesiastes—that weariness and despair of spirit which cannot see beyond the stultifying repetitiveness of life, the endless cycle of decay and corruption, the worthlessness of a lifelong effort which may be swept away overnight by a storm or be parched to nothingness in a drought, the complete insignificance of the individual in the tides of time and the currents of human affairs.”
[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:330, where he comments of believers that “they are in a position to hope, and to hope without wavering, even though they do not see; that they can actually wait with patience. They can do this because He, the Spirit, helps their infirmities, i.e., strengthens them in the weakness to which they are exposed by the fact that they do not yet see what they are.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 229: “In this unredeemed world enslaved creation is sighing for redemption, and believers who have received the first fruits of the Holy Spirit join in these sighs, according to Paul (Rom. 8:19ff.); but the ‘sighings’ are the groans of labour pains, birth cries of the divine Spirit which will one day be transformed into eternal joy at the rebirth of the cosmos (John 16:20).”
[8] Paul Tillich, in “The Witness of the Spirit to the Spirit,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 139, says it this way: even when we feel discouraged and think perhaps that God is displeased with us, the Spirit is “working quietly in the depth of our souls.”
[9] Cf. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 487: “Paul’s vision of God’s saving purpose drives him beyond any idea of a merely personal or human redemption. What is at stake in all this is creation as a whole and the fulfillment of God’s original intention in creating the cosmos.” Cf. similarly, Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 144: “God has already set the destiny of creation: …that destiny is the final redemptive transformation of reality.”
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 222: Paul “sees the suffering which is anonymously enslaving the world, …, as being the sign of the Creator’s struggle for the liberation of the world—a struggle initiated by Christ.”