Sermon from July 23, 2017 | Romans 8:12-25
The council of bishops meeting has moved from the Philippines to Chicago.
In the UMC, we have a council of bishops that functions as the executive branch of our denomination. Our own bishop, Lawson Bryan, joins with the forty or so other active bishops and the sixty or so retired bishops from around the world: Russia, Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and North America to worship together, fellowship together, make decisions together, and attend to the needs of the running of our global denomination.
The council had made a pledge to meet outside of the US more often and, indeed, were scheduled to do so in the Philippines, but they did not. The bishops in the Philippines recommended they move the meeting location because of the actions of armed militias.
Since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, the Philippines have experienced an certain upheaval. There have long been underlying tensions across the country related to minor political disputes and tribal clashes, but these have felt a renewed vigor in recent years because of President Duterte’s controversial moves against the drug trade and cartels in the Philippines.
He has been nothing less than a man of action, for the drug trade has, as my readings suggested this week, long been ignored by leadership of the country, fearful of the results of pushing too hard against the powerful drug interests that lay intertwined with the ages-long political disputes and tribal clashes.
The results are mixed so far. Duterte has demonstrated gains against the interests of the drug cartels and their supporting infrastructure, but not without impinging on civil rights and giving rise to violence from armed militias around the country.
The chaos that has resulted led the bishops of the Philippines to recommend the council of bishops not come there. And so, they will meet in Chicago instead.
The conflict in the Philippines related to drugs resonates with other drug-infested conflicts around the world. There are wars just like this happening everywhere. We hear about the brutal war on drugs in Mexico that often results in violence and mass graves, sometimes just a few miles from gulf-coast resorts.
In Venezuela, for example, drugs are a reason for the violence in that country; a main reason that locals told me that it’s rare for a male in that country to exceed the age of 30. The drug trade rules the country, thriving on the current chaos of political conflict between the Maduro regime and the Leopardo Lopez-led opposition. The result of this upheaval is not only death of male Venezuelans, but shortages of critical supplies, such as food and medicine, as the Maduro regime digs in and the drug cartels slowly bleed the country dry.
I could talk of other kinds of conflicts, such as in Libya, where civil war continues to rage, or the battle against ISIS, or the ongoing war in Syria, where much of our media attention focuses. Or I could share with you the political crisis in Burundi, the destabilization of Mali, or the starvation of the people of South Sudan as their government limps along without enough resources.
There is much suffering around the world. Too much suffering. We’re more aware today than Paul ever was about the worldwide nature of suffering. Paul says to the church in Rome, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Paul’s hope is so great that he speaks beyond the present sufferings to suggest that the glory about to be revealed is so great, so amazing, that it makes the present sufferings worth it. Seems like an insufficient remark in light of what we know about sufferings around the world, something of which Paul would have had no knowledge because the world, for Paul, was only the Roman Empire.
Insufficient perhaps, for the future glory seems like a poor answer to present sufferings, for the future cannot fix the present. But, lest we get too judgy too fast, we must consider that Paul and the church in Rome knew something about suffering.
This letter was probably written during or around the time of Nero and Caligula, two of the most violent emperors of the Roman Empire against Christians. Nero, who had some, if not all the fault, for the great fire of Rome, blamed it on the Christians, turning the citizens of Rome into a militia that slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians. Both emperors enjoyed watching Christians battle against gladiators and wild animals in the Coliseum. Both used the courts, as did their predecessors and successors, to persecute Christians, although they tended to come down harder on judges who showed leniency.
Christians all around the empire had to face the consequences of three primary charges against them in Roman courts. They could be accused of idolatry, for the crime of idolatry was worshipping gods other than the Roman gods. They could be brought up on charges of incest, for non-Christians would overhear Christians refer to their wives and husbands as sister and brother and jump to the conclusion that someone’s wife was, indeed, the husband’s biological sister. Finally, Christians also faced the charge of cannibalism, because non-Christians heard about the ritual of eating Christ’s body and drinking Christ’s blood at the altar table and assumed the real human flesh and blood of someone named Christ was being consumed.
Laughable as these charges are now, Christians who were found guilty faced the gladiators and wild animals of the coliseums around the empire. They faced long prison sentences, they faced separation from their family and loved ones. They knew suffering, personally.
And today, Christians continue to experience this kind of suffering throughout the world; violence and persecution at the hands of political authorities.
Christians form the largest religious bloc of folks in western Iraq, one of the cradles of Christianity. In what’s now eastern Syria and western Iraq, the church blossomed and thrived centuries ago, giving us cherished traditions, such as our patterns of worship and our understandings of the nature of Christ. And there, in the desert, Christianity has remained vital for all these centuries, even as ISIS persecutes Christians by crucifying them, by slaughtering entire families, by destroying their holy places. Christians are being persecuted by ISIS, for the problems of the Middle East are not confined to those who practice Islam.
It’s Christians in the Philippines, Methodists even, who are suffering amidst the rise in violence, even as they work, they labor, to find ways to peace and care for those impacted by the violence. The UMC is a partner in that process in the Philippines, which means that Christians, methodists, suffer at the hands of those who use violence to achieve their ends.
And it’s Christians all over sub-saharan Africa who face persecution at the hands of the likes of Boko Haram or other religious and political militant groups. The slaughter of Christians in Africa, even as Christianity grows rapidly across the continent, has led to massive suffering. Indeed, Christianity is growing faster than any other faith across the global south: those areas below the equator, but it’s there that Christians also face the greatest chance of suffering because of violence.
There is much suffering around the world. Too much suffering. We’re more aware today than Paul ever was about the worldwide nature of suffering. Paul says to the church in Rome, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Paul’s hope is so great that he speaks beyond the present sufferings to suggest that the glory about to be revealed is so great, so amazing, that it makes the present sufferings worth it.
But are they worth it? Indeed, do Paul’s words here even make any sense? Are these the proper words to a people who are dying daily around the world for the cause of Christ? Are they the right words, to be patient with hope for a future glory, for those whose lives are marked by degradation and despair? Paul’s conclusion here, that we simply wait with hope for the glory about to be revealed, feels insufficient compared with the present suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world.
We know suffering, too. Perhaps too well. We know suffering that comes from the sudden loss of a loved one, from a financial upset, from relationships torn asunder, from a loss of love from a friend, from families split apart by conflict, from watching a loved one fall into the trap of drugs, from falling ill, from experiencing a gradual erosion of our health; suffering that comes from a whole host of places in our lives.
We, too, know what it is to suffer. We can relate to Paul’s words on suffering, but perhaps it’s harder to relate to Paul’s hope: that these sufferings pale in comparison to the glory about to be revealed. Paul wrote those words to a people, a church, who thought Christ would return in their lifetime. They just needed to be patient for a few years.
It’s now been 2000 years and we haven’t seen that glory yet, for Christ has not returned. And I can testify that, in the midst of the deep suffering that I have known at times in my life, a hope of future glory is little comfort in the present moment, for the future cannot fix the present.
Indeed, in our suffering, we long for a solution. But from where will one come? How are we to be patient, to wait in our suffering, to find hope in our suffering, as Paul asks us to? For indeed, Paul’s conclusion here, that we simply wait with hope for the glory about to be revealed, feels insufficient compared with our present suffering.
And so, we seek fixes to our suffering. We seek to control our suffering by trying to control relationships in our lives. We seek to mitigate our suffering through desensitizing ourselves to the problems around us. We seek to release ourselves from suffering through distracting ourselves with stuff. But if we’re honest, we know none of that seems to work very well. Shopping is only a pleasant distraction for a moment, relationship manipulation eventually fails and backfires, and desensitization results in a spiritual death of a loss of empathy.
We seem unable to truly fix our suffering. So what are we to do? Paul’s words seem insufficient compared with the depths of suffering we have known and perhaps even know this day. They seem insufficient compared with the depths of suffering we know our brothers and sisters face around the world, especially in the global south. Paul’s words seem even cruel and harsh, telling us to wait with hope for glory! We’re suffering now, Paul. What do you mean telling us to be patient for glory?
When I moved to Macon, as I have related to some of you already, I saw poverty that created within me deep longings, groanings, for a solution. I didn’t think that such poverty existed in this country. Macon ripped away my rose colored glasses about the economic conditions of the least of these in this country, and I felt a deep stirring in my soul to do something, anything.
And so, I schemed with my Sunday School class to go downtown, to one of the wide grassy medians, and cook hot dogs to give out to any who wanted one. We had no concept at that point of permits for cooking en masse, no ability to fathom the overwhelming number of people who would come, nor any concern for the risks we would undertake if we followed through with such plans.
Thankfully, we were set straight, but that did little for the longings in my soul. Yes, I had a better grip on reality when it came to trying to solve the hunger problem that attaches itself to poverty, but the longing remained. I suffered with the people who were struggling with issues of poverty and longed, groaned, to do something about it.
Those who walked the journey of life with me as I explained my longings for those in poverty in Bibb County eventually helped me see what was happening inside my soul. God was speaking to me, inviting me into the work of the Holy Spirit in Bibb County. God’s heart longed, groaned, for God’s people who suffered under the oppression of poverty and, in sharing that part of God’s heart with me, the Holy Spirit was calling me to participate in what God was already doing and what God wanted to do for those in poverty around me.
My longing, my groaning, my yearning, was implanted by God: an invitation to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit.
Paul tells us that the whole of creation, all of the earth and the creatures on it, yearn and groan for God’s redemption of the world: God’s restoration of creation back to as it was in the garden of eden, before sin, before evil. To be aware of that longing, to be aware of that yearning by creation, is to be in touch with the Holy Spirit. Paul says, “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.”
When we sense that yearning, when we feel those inward groans, it’s the Holy Spirit inviting us to participate in the redemption of world as God moves to release us all from our suffering and restore creation.
I sense just such yearning and groaning here at this church. In our intentional conversations these past several weeks, I have begun to sense a longing, a yearning, a groaning among the membership of this congregation; an implanting of God’s heart for this county into this congregation by the Holy Spirit. As Paul would say, we as a congregation “groan inwardly while we wait…for redemption…”
In my conversations with you, in meetings large and small, I have heard a longing to do something about issues of food insecurity. This has come up through yearnings to see the angel food ministry revived, to impart wisdom of grocery shopping and cooking on a budget, to found a soup kitchen; in short, to walk the journey of life with those who are struggling with issues of food insecurity. I have heard those longings, these groanings, that sound more and more like the heart of God expressing itself through the Holy Spirit in this congregation.
I have also heard longings to address issues related to isolation and the accompanying problem of loneliness. Our lives are busier than ever, as we run after our goals and seek well-rounded children. So busy, that too many of us have too little time for relationships: no time to spend time kicking back by a pool with friends; to spend time sitting around a dinner table, whiling away the hours as the food digests, deep in conversation; to spend time with family and friends doing cherished activities like hunting, fishing; too busy to spend time together sharing our lives: our joys, our sorrows, our fears, our hopes, to experience the tremendous blessing that results from that sharing life together. There’s a longing, a groaning, among this congregation to do something about this very real issue of isolation that results in a sort of spiritual death.
Paul tells us that such comes from the inward groanings of the Holy Spirit within us; the longing we share with God’s heart for the redemption of the world. The Holy Spirit has implanted within us, this congregation, this people who gather here with a heart for Dodge County, a longing that is an invitation to share in the work of redemption.
We asked for an invitation from the Holy Spirit when we said “Here we are Lord, Eastman First; what’s your plan?” And now, I believe we have heard that invitation: for God’s heart, too, longs to address food insecurity and isolation in Dodge County.
The Holy Spirit is powerful and active, moving throughout the world, even right now as we speak, seeking justice, seeking peace, instilling hope. But not only this, the Holy Spirit is inviting all who know the Spirit to participate in God’s redemptive work of creation.
We groan inwardly. That groaning is an invitation. Not everyone senses that inward groan. But we who can sense the Spirit, we who have that relationship with God, have those inward groans, an invitation for our heart to share with God’s heart the suffering of this world.
We see the results of that divine invitation by the Spirit in the bravery of Christians around the world who stand up in the face of evil and continue to share the gospel. Those who work for peace, those who care for their enemies, those who keep worshipping even after their churches are bombed, those who refuse to be quiet about the goodness they know even after they’ve seen their families persecuted; that’s the work of the Spirit moving in boundless ways to restore the earth to as is was in the Garden, that’s the global consequence of salvation, that’s the glory of God’s Kingdom come down amidst suffering.
God has chosen, for reasons that remain a mystery, to use us humans who dwell with the Spirit to accomplish that redemption. We, like our brothers and sisters around the world who know suffering, are invited to be a part of what God is seeking to do through the Spirit: offer release from suffering to our brothers and sisters around this county.
We have an invitation today. Where your heart is yearning and longing for release from suffering, whether release from suffering you personally are experiencing, your family is experiencing, or this community is experiencing; wherever you are experiencing a yearning and a longing amidst suffering, the Spirit is inviting you to get to work.
We cannot fix suffering ourselves. That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn, but it remains true. Release from suffering is the work of the Spirit, and one of the chief lessons of my walk with God in recent years is to leave to the Spirit what is the Spirit’s. I couldn’t fix conflict that enveloped my life last year, I can’t fix family dynamics that have poisoned me and others I love, I can’t fix health issues among loved ones in my life. But the Spirit can, and I have seen the Spirit do so.
So we must leave to the Spirit what is the Spirit’s: bringing about hope, peace, joy and love, changing hearts and minds, releasing from suffering. Those are the work of the Spirit; things the Spirit can and is and will do, things that we cannot.
But we can be the vessel through which the Spirit accomplishes that work. All that’s required of us is that we admit that we have a longing and ask God to show us how to get to work.
Let that be your prayer this morning: asking God to show you how to get to work. Where you’re suffering personally this day, where you’re longing for your family to be released from suffering, where you’re groaning for release from any suffering of any kind, pray and ask God to show you how to get to work. That longing is an invitation from God to participate in the release from suffering that God wants to accomplish through you.
And let that, too, be your prayer this morning for us collectively. The Spirit has given this church longings for those struggling with food insecurity and for those struggling with isolation and loneliness. That’s exciting, because it means that we are invited to get to work for the Kingdom! The Spirit is seeking to address those very issues in Dodge County and has chosen us as the vessel for that work!
And so now all we must do, as a church, is ask God to show us how to get to work.
For we have hope. Not a hope in things seen, for, as Paul notes, who hopes in that? No, a hope born of the Spirit, which is unseen, but which we know to be very real, active, moving for justice, peace, and release from oppression all around the world.
Whether the Philippines, Libya, South Sudan, Venezuela, ISIS, Dodge County, our families, or even ourselves, the Spirit is active and at work, inviting us to join in that work.
So I say to us all, let’s get to work. Respond to the longing of your heart, the invitation from the Spirit, by coming forward to the altar rail this morning, prayerfully asking God to put you to work, or by talking to me privately. I remain available for one-on-one conversation.
And I say to us all, let’s get to work! The Spirit has revealed where the invitation lies, the answer to our question: “Here we are, Lord; Eastman First. What’s your plan?” The plan is to address loneliness and food insecurity. The details of that plan are yet to be revealed, but let’s not shy away from the task, for we have this hope: that the Spirit will provide, and we will know the glory of seeing God move in powerful ways through this church out into our community of Eastman and Dodge County.
So let’s get to work. For our present sufferings are nothing compared to the glory that’s about to be revealed through us.