I guess it’s yet another sign I’m getting older: sitting down at my laptop to work on this week’s sermon, it suddenly occurred to me just how far I’ve come in the task of writing; that is, at least mechanically speaking!
Seriously; when I was young, I remember writing stories as fast and feverishly as hand and BIC pen would allow! Later on, I learned how to type, first employing the classic “hunt and peck” method (which my father used to say is true Christian typing, in that it’s “seek and ye shall find!”); eventually taking a typing class in high school to gain some skill and speed. I started on my parents’ manual Underwood typewriter, then an electric typewriter, then finally one that was considered to be “electronic;” and this is to say nothing of my extensive use over the years of typing erasers, “correct-o-tabs” and “white-out!” Now it’s “word processing” which is pretty much standard equipment on every computer, laptop, I-pad and phone that’s out there! It’s fast, it’s easy, and I don’t even have to worry about typographical errors anymore, because I’ve got spell-check for that! It’s no wonder I no longer have any patience for writing longhand!
For me, though, the best part of these “mechanics of modern writing” is in the formatting, which make the roughest of documents appear polished and professional. I mean, you can pick out the size and style of print you want; you can determine the layout of each page; you can even insert a picture or graphic if you want! It’s great, and as silly as this may sound, friends, on those occasions when I’m writing a sermon and struggling to “get it right,” there’s some small comfort in knowing that at the very least, the sermon will look good! What I’ve written might well be drivel (!), but hey, at least said drivel will be neat and clean, the margins will be straight and justified, and everything will be all lined up smooth and right!
Actually, whether it’s word-processing or life itself, wouldn’t you agree that we all kind of want things to be “all lined up smooth and right?” It seems to me that to one degree or another, most of us are constantly about the business of “justifying the margins” of our lives. After all, we don’t like to leave things hanging; we talk about “tying up loose ends,” and “bringing closure” to unresolved situations or relationships, all so we can put a right ending on things and move forward with our lives in a way that hopefully is “neat and clean.”
Several years ago, I knew a woman who was in the final stages of a terminal illness, and who wanted to make the best of the time she had left; made manifest in a fierce determination to make amends with several friends and family members with whom she’d had conflict over the years. To that end, there were several letters, even more phone calls, and a few visits to people who, in some instances, she hadn’t seen or spoken to in decades. And I remember asking her how that had all worked out; she told me stories about how a few of these encounters led to much appreciated moments of reconciliation, and then there were others… well, let’s just say that it takes two for reconciliation to happen. So it hadn’t been completely successful, which was disappointing to her; but at least, she said to me, she’d come to the end of her life knowing she’d done everything she could to set things right.
It is true: in the journey of life, in our relationships with other people, and even in our relationship to God, we need things to be “set right.” I would dare say it’s basic to our very humanity; to use another word that not only applies to word-processing, but also to theology, we want to be… justified! And therein lays the power of Paul’s proclamation to the Romans in this morning’s reading: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In those few words is found an apt summation of one of the central claims of our Christian faith: that by putting our trust in the power and goodness of God, we are justified and set right before God; and all because of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let me give you a little bit of “Christianity 101” this morning as regards justification, a very important tenet of our theology. Scripture tells us that we are justified by faith alone: what that means is that we don’t get “set right” with God on the basis of what we do or don’t do; we can’t earn our way into heaven by our good deeds or bright smiles, and moreover, on the basis of our own righteousness, we don’t deserve it, either! The fact is that as sinful people, we all fall far short of the glory of God; but we are justified (that is, we are set right) with God, because God, wanting us to be reconciled with him, sent Jesus to pay the cost of our sin, all so that we can be “set right” with God now and eternally.
In other words, we can’t do it, but God can, and does so in infinite love and with graceful abundance! It’s the very image of the prodigal son who comes home to beg his father’s forgiveness, which he knows full well he doesn’t deserve; and yet, what does he see but his father running across the field not only to forgive his but to celebrate his homecoming. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts;” or, as it’s translated in The Message: “We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us.”
And make no mistake, this is good news; because strip away all the theological precepts here, and it all comes down to the fact that you and I – every one of us here – have much in our lives that needs to be set right with God! And it’s usually not so much a matter of “evil” behavior as it is simply and gradually allowing our lives to become too ragged around the edges. I remember back in high school, our band director used to be a stickler for clean cut-offs; we’d play a song, and he’d say, “your timing was good, but your cut-offs were ragged! Your intonation was great, but your cut-offs were ragged. It could have been so very, very musical, but… your cut-offs were ragged!”
I never forgot that; in fact, it sort of became a parable for me, in that life, particularly the spiritual life, can be a beautiful thing, yet sometimes, and all too easily we develop the bad habits that lead us to lose sight of the purpose of that life: a loving relationship with God. Yet, rather than being left to flounder through the ragged edges of life, we have been given this incredible gift of “clean cut-offs,” as it were, so that life can be this beautiful thing it’s always been meant to be; and it comes to us in Jesus Christ, through whom “we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the glory of God.”
Now, this is one of those passages that I wish I could stop right there; because it’s the beautiful, clean life that we all yearn for, and that’s what we’re being given, both abundantly in this life and eternally in the life to come; honestly, it’s the stuff that sermons are made for! But of course, there’s more here to deal with; after all, it’s good to know we’re “set right” with God, but what does that mean for us as life continues to unfold in all its ragged glory? We may indeed be justified by faith, yet there are still problems and conflicts that come at us with each new day. Just as that woman found when she sought to set everything right in her own life, some relationships aren’t going to be reconciled all that easily. Moving forward, there is still going to be people who disappoint us and there will be moments when we are disappointed with ourselves; and try as we might to let it go, we might just find ourselves still carrying all those unresolved feelings of guilt, failure, regret, and fear.
This is also a truth of our faith, beloved; and it’s the antithesis of what’s believed by those who would dismiss Christianity as nothing more than “pie in the sky” thinking: it’s that being “justified by faith” does not absolve us from the struggles and sufferings of life.
But Paul has something to say about this as well. If I might again speak theologically, it’s called sanctification, which very simply defined is the way that the Christian life helps you and me in the process of becoming Christ-like. In other words, having been set right with God, the normal, “default” response is to then model our lives after the one who brought us into reconciliation with God, who is Jesus Christ. But given the fact that we’re still very human, such a thing doesn’t happen automatically nor all at once; it’s going to be an ongoing process, unfolding day to day with each new experience and situation we face. Thankfully it’s not a process we face alone, but in the company of the Spirit of God working in and through what’s going on in our lives; even the amidst the roughest places that we’re convinced we don’t have the strength to face.
And the thing is, we do have the strength; as Paul describes it, we can actually rejoice in our sufferings, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” This is sanctification, friends; that God pours out his love into our hearts through his Spirit to remind us, support us, guide us and direct us along the pathways that lead us to God’s righteousness, holiness and glory as revealed in Christ. The way ahead might well be rough from time to time; but when we are set right with God, we are never shortchanged by his Spirit; to quote The Message once again, “we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”
If that’s true, and I believe it is, I have to wonder what it is that God has to pour into you and me today. I wonder if, in our sharing of the bread and the cup this morning, if there’s new insight, some bit of “blessed assurance” that is ours if only we’ll open our hearts and minds to let his Spirit speak to us. I wonder if there’s something in our lives and living that can yet be “set right” for ourselves and for others; and by that justification we might be more fully molded into the very image of Jesus Christ. What a blessing that would be; not only for us, but for those around us and for the world!
We have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; it is ours in the Lord. All we have to do is receive it as our own; as a gift, freely given out of infinite love.
Something to think about as we come to the table.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry