For several months, we’ve been working our way through St. Paul’s magnum opus, his letter to the Church in Rome. Today we have reached chapter fourteen (of sixteen), and St. Paul is dealing, once again, with the mixed nature of the church in Rome. By “mixed” I mean the church in Rome consisted of both Jews and converts, or Gentiles, as well as many other backgrounds.
Now, I know this would never happen at Redeemer, but would you believe in Rome that certain groups within the church had the nerve to take it upon themselves to decide who was in the “cool kids club” and who wasn’t? They were basically dividing the church into two categories: into those whom they deemed spiritually mature and those whom they fancied as spiritually immature or weak.
And while it is true that some had been part of the church longer – that some had “fooled around and fell in love” with grace years before others – St. Paul is rightly convinced that so-called spiritual maturity or immaturity is no barrier – no impediment – to belovedness in God’s eyes. And this is pretty much a tipping point – a defining reality – that can still quite literally (!) change the way you and I live on a day-to-day basis.
Whether you are, or fancy yourself spiritually mature or immature – saint or sinner – St. Paul reminds the whole church in Rome – reminds us at Redeemer – that “whether we live or whether we die, we – all of us – all are the Lord’s.” In other words, there are no obstacles to know and experience the love, mercy and grace of God. If Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell wrote the letter to the Romans, God would say it like this:
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, babe!
In our house, I’m known as the one who likes to watch what my roommates call “boring documentaries.” That is code word for anything about British history or World War II. Recently, I was enraptured in a documentary about the battle of Dunkirk. Anytime I turn on the big TV, Camille, my precious, but nosey, fifth grade daughter, comes to see what I’m watching. She came in and said, “Why are you crying, Dad?” And to mess with her, I said, “I’m devasted because I just heard on the news that Claire’s and the candy store at UTC Mall are going out of business.” She said, “No they’re not; you’re watching World War II documentaries again!”
Anyway, the narrator reminded me that the Dunkirk operation had a plan that is often forgotten when we talk about that battle. You remember the back story; in May of 1940, Hitler’s forces had swiftly overwhelmed the French, British and allied forces fighting France and basically drove all 330,000 of what was left of them onto a tiny stretch of beach along the French coastline not too far from Calais. Hitler had destroyed most of their boats, cut off all supplies, and the Luftwaffe was slowly killing off those left on the beach in a sick and twisted game of cat and mouse. They could almost see England – see home, the cliffs of Dover – yet they had no way to get home. Of course, in one of the greatest miracles ever, home came for them. Pleasure boats, dinghies, frigates, you name it, all came together, braved the channel, and safely returned almost every single soldier.
The rest of the story, however, is that their last-ditch effort to send over every vessel and volunteer had the very ambitious goal of only saving, at tops 30% of them. And this brought up difficult questions like deciding whom to bring back: the sharpshooters, the bravest, the strongest, the youngest or the older and wiser? “Pick me!”
Yet, everybody went home rejoicing: the brave and coward alike, a sharpshooter alongside the “shakiest gun in the West,” the injured and the strong – everybody was treated as Somebody. Every single soldier was beloved.
With Jesus, there isn’t a single person here today – a single person listening online – who has to be left behind. Whatever your situation – whatever mine – Jesus saves.
When I was in elementary school, PE class in Linden, Alabama usually consisted of a game of kickball (followed by an ice-cold little paper carton of Barber’s chocolate milk). The process was always predicable. The teacher would pick two team captains (usually the teacher’s pet), and then the captains got to choose their players, alternating back and forth. The best players of course always got chosen first – Chip, Joe, Angie, Rebecca, Brooks and so forth (not that it left an impression on me or anything!). Since I was pretty much born an avid indoorsman, I was always close to the bottom of the list. Even Alana Dixon, who’s asthma was so bad she carried around a breathing machine on the field, went ahead of me. The message was clear: I wasn’t good enough.
But the gospel is altogether different. None of us will ever be good enough – none of us will ever measure-up. The whole message of the New Testament is that all us – each of us – can face our spiritual immaturity and darkness – our bondage to the flesh and the world – in the light of day through the lens of mercy and grace.
“Grace,” writes Brennan Manning, “is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”
I think we’ve talked about the movie “Captain Phillips” before. It’s the one with Tom Hanks as the container ship captain who gets captured by pirates and is ultimately rescued by a seal team in a terrifying shoot-out. It’s based on a true story.
Camille and I watched the movie again last week, and although we’ve seen it before, I always tear-up at the end when Captain Phillips is finally rescued, and he’s taken to a navy ship for treatment. Clearly in shock, he’s trembling and crying and doing all the things people do in shock. And the words of the nurse – who is totally playing the God role – puts her hand on his shoulder, looks him in the eye, and says, “You are safe now. I need you to calm down. I need you to breathe.”
The word from Jesus to you and to me is the same today – “You are safe now. I need you to calm down. I need you to breathe,” because, you are the Lord’s possession. And if God is for us, who can be – who can be (!?!) – against us?!?
Sermon preached by the Rev. Charleston D. Wilson
Church of the Redeemer
15th Sunday after Pentecost
13 September 2020