Christ Reformed United Church of Christ

This Sunday's Sermon

Message for Sunday,  July 25th


Open Yourself to Change

Romans 15: 4b-13


     You know how it goes: "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!” Now there are, of course, a number of variations on that thought that have found their way on-line: "If at first you don’t succeed, then so much for sky-diving.” "If at first you don’t succeed; you’ll get a lot of free advice from other folks who didn’t succeed either.” "If at first you don’t succeed, try doing it the way your wife told you.” Last but not least, there’s a quip from the late comedian, W.C. Fields, slightly modified for use in church: "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a darned fool about it.” And maybe that old funny-man had it about right! Doing the same thing over and over again – without the better result – is rather pointless, isn’t it? "My advice,” said the late Johnny Cash, "is, if they’re gonna break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.” Unless or until we’re open to changing up the thing that’s not working for us, the result will always and forever be the same.


     Until the year I was born – that is, in 1955 – there was a dreaded enemy stalking our world. It was particularly devastating to America’s children during the 1940’s and early 50’s. The Polio virus left in its wake a human wreckage of wasted muscles, paralysis, misery, and death. 60,000 youngsters were infected with Polio during a single summer – the time of year when it’s most contagious. Youngsters were laid out in row after row of so-called "iron lungs” – their heads sticking out from the ends of giant metal barrels, unable to move for a week or two. What a hopeless predicament it seemed to be, as the frantic efforts of scientists and researchers came to nothing until, at last, Dr. Jonas Salk led the team that developed an effective vaccine.


     Yet the Salk team made hundreds of attempts at that vaccine before hitting pay-dirt. When asked about the number of failures, Dr. Salk answered that there were NO failures but, rather, hundreds of "discoveries” – hundreds of lessons learned; hundreds of changes in strategy until, at last, the correct strategy was revealed.


     Jesus of Nazareth suggested that, in a similar way, his beleaguered, struggling followers stay persistent and open to change in their Christian walk. "Seek and you will find,” he said (Luke 11:9); "[Keep knocking] and the door will open.” And to that good advice, I’ll add this: if God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you want, then maybe God is wanting to give you something else – wanting to give you what you NEED.


     I’m convinced, based on personal experience, that Christian prayer is less about changing God’s mind than it is about changing me – and about changing you. There was time when prayer seemed, to me, a great deal like asking Santa Claus for everything I wanted on Christmas morning. In one particular instance, I begged God to get me out of an awkward, painful predicament that I’d brought upon myself; I beseeched the LORD to relieve me of the hard work involved in resolving a significant relationship conflict. Should I have been surprised that the resolution to that difficult challenge was NOT as simple and as easy as finding what I wanted under the Christmas tree on that wonderful holiday morning? By way of reflection and good Christian counsel from other wise souls, it became evident to me that prayer was about changing the way I understood the things of God as they related to life and death, conflict and human relationships. If, then, at first you don’t succeed, try, try again; but if your prayer effort is fruitless, then change up the way you’re doing it; change up how it is that you’re asking; change up the thing for WHAT you’re asking; and, finally, seek the door of God’s Wisdom that you may understand the Lord’s will for your living and relating. Prayer, in my instance, became the resource by which I could, with God’s Grace and Divine insight, overcome the challenge – and not dodge it.


     Now it was suggested last Sunday that the foundation of our True, Christian hope lay in the future that the Lord God will make for all God’s children – indeed, for all of Creation. The God who can raise up and re-create the crucified, dead Christ has Power to mend and re-create a broken world. Yet hope all too often gets confused with wishful thinking – confused, that is, with a notion that, with luck and good change of fortune, we’ll be healthy and wealthy; and that what gets broken can be easily fixed with just a little more human ingenuity and knowledge. And yet so very little of the human condition ever seems to get changed all that much, does it? People and nations are JUST as broken now as they’ve always been.


     Therein lay the problem with which Saint Paul grappled in the Book of Romans. Romans 15 is about a broken world; about culture war between Jews and non-Jews. True hope for the making of a healthier world – and, in particular, a healthier church – says Paul, is in an openness to the change of human hearts and minds. Paul insists that God, after all, never meant for one culture to be superior over all others. God’s plan is for ALL people from EVERY nation to be in equal fellowship around the One throne of God’s Grace. That’s why Paul included in our morning text those quotes from the Old Testament. ALL kinds of people – to the four corners of the earth – are to be included in the One flock of the Divine Shepherd.  


     And what do good shepherds do but give to the lost, rogue sheep repeated chances for change of heart, mind, body, and soul? Let’s think on how it was for one, particular bull ram that got transformed by the Spirit of Christ. Church tradition tells us that, in the end, a disciple named John Mark would look back and write down what he remembered of the Jesus story. The name, John Mark, by the way, is a combination of a Hebrew name, followed by the equivalent Greek inspired name. So DID Mark include himself in his telling of that great story? Well! There’s a curious detail mentioned only in the Gospel of Mark. Here it is, from chapter 14, verses 51 & 52… "One young man following behind [the arrested and shackled Jesus] was clothed only in a long linen shirt. When the mob tried to grab him, he slipped out of his shirt and ran away naked” (NEW LIVING TRANSLATION). Who else would have noticed that obscure incident and thought it important enough to write down? Who else would have even cared about it but a man who had felt the shame and remorse of abandoning a friend? But… if at first you don’t succeed, there’s always the chance that a person can be changed, right?   


     When next we meet a fellow by the name of Mark, he’s a travelling companion of Saint Paul. The story’s told in the Book of Acts, chapter 13… "Paul and his companions then left… by ship, for Pamphylia, landing at the port town of Perga. There John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem. But Paul and Barnabas traveled inland to Antioch” (NLT). Who knows why John Mark abandoned the rest of the crew? It could have been for fear or, quite simply, the inconvenience of being on unfamiliar turf. One things for sure, though. Paul saw nothing good in what John Mark had done. Listen to Acts 15: 36-39… "After some time Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.’ Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark.  But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them… Their disagreement was so sharp that [Paul and Barnabas] separated” (NLT). So by quitting, John Mark had introduced tension and brokenness into the Church’s Christian ministry! What happens if, the second time around, you don’t succeed. Might there be another chance that a soul may be changed?


     Fast forward another decade or so… The apostle, Paul, is sitting in jail. He’ll soon enough be on trial for his life. What a cruel blow it is when a number of his fair-weather friends are scared off from even a visit with him. Yet some of the believers DO have the strength of faith to stand with Paul in the risky work of preaching Christ crucified. Take a listen to 2nd Timothy 4: 9-11…  "Timothy, please come as soon as you can. Demas has deserted me because he loves the things of this life… Crescens has gone… Titus has gone… Only Luke is with me. Bring Mark with you when you come, for he’ll be helpful to me in my ministry” (NLT). So Mark was open to the Power from on High that changed him and his world view! He’d become yet another of God’s New Creations! There IS hope for a willing soul that is open to being changed by the Grace of God!


     Let John Mark’s story be for us as a beacon of hope. Be persistent in your Christian walk, knowing that Wisdom from on High will be given to those who seek it and ask for it – knowing, that Christ’s Presence can, and will transform you. Your hope and mine are founded on the Lord’s gift of a new and joyous future. If at first YOU don’t succeed, then open yourself to the Power and Grace of the crucified, risen, and Living Christ that can – and will – change the way you think, act, and speak; who will transform your Way toward serving and sharing, worshipping and praying.


Message for Sunday,  July 18th

HOPE-Full: Part 1 of 4

Hope Springs Eternal

Romans 8: 15 – 25

(A Message Series based on scriptures from the Book of Romans)


     Have you ever noticed how political campaign slogans tend toward the hope-full message? Here’s a non-partisan sampling of presidential campaign slogans that I’ve heard since coming of age to vote: "Keep Hope Alive,” "A Safer World and A More Hopeful America,” "Hope and Change” "From Hope to Higher Ground,” and – quite simply – "Hope.”  


     It’s not necessarily a bad thing that hope should be revived every once and a while; but is it really hope that we’re talking about in campaign slogans or, for that matter when we "hope” for good weather, when we "hope” to ace our final exams, or when we "hope” that our competitors win more gold medals at the Olympic Games? IS that "hope,” or is it wishful thinking? Wishful thinking is, after all, different from hope; or, at least, it’s different from "hope” as described in Christian scripture.


     Wishful thinking was not at all what Saint Paul had in mind when writing the Book of Romans. The world-as-he-knew-it was clearly broken and busted up; as, in fact, it still is! Pain and suffering, disaster, tragedy, and evil are too much with us on the face of God’s good earth. Now that’s not the WHOLE story, of course. We’ve surely experienced seasons of high joy and contentment, of goodness and Grace. But an understanding of Christian hope requires us to acknowledge the reality that this world is NOT what the Divine Maker intends. Human beings have messed it up; and no president, prime minister, or dictator – no congress, parliament, or council – can fix it, no matter how hard they may wish otherwise. The fixing of this broken Creation is God’s work! Christian hope is built on that foundation: that the Great God who Created a Universe will repair – will RE-create – what’s broken.   


     On what, then, can we pin our hope of a newly formed world? Paul shares a hint in Romans 8:15-17. Listen to how portions of it is paraphrased in THE MESSAGE… "This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What's next, Papa?"… We [believers] know we are going to get what's coming to us – an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we're certainly going to go through the good times with him!”  


     The evidence on which we build our hope for the "good-time” is the resurrection of Christ crucified. "Faith,” says Hebrews 11:1, "is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” The thing we hope for – that is, newness of life and renewal toward joy – DID happen, on the first day of the week when Jesus of Nazareth walked out of a tomb. And God’s promise assures us that the New Life of Christ risen from the dead is a gift to be shared with his disciples; and especially so when the world-as-it-really-is threatens to break us down even as it tried to break down Master Jesus.  


     Alexander Solzhenitsyn – the late, great Russian writer and outspoken critic of the ol’ Soviet Union – wrote of a time when he almost gave up on hope. While imprisoned for his dissent against Soviet authoritarianism, he was forced to work 12 hours a day on a starvation diet. At a point, he’d become so gravely ill that doctors predicted his death. But he hung in there until one day, while shoveling sand under a blazing-hot sun, he made the decision to quit working – knowing full well that the guards would beat and, quite likely, kill him. But for WHAT did he have to live anyway? More misery? It was then that he spied another prisoner – a fellow Christian – walking in his direction. Stopping in front of him, the old man used his cane to draw in the sand the outline of a cross; quickly erasing it before a guard would catch sight of it. In that brief moment, Solzhenitsyn felt all hope in Christ crucified and risen newly restored in his soul. Though his lousy situation did NOT change, his spirit WAS transformed. The revival of true Hope sustained him through the rest of his imprisonment, giving him the encouragement, the patience, and the courage to endure until that glorious day of liberation from prison camp.  


     The difference between Christian hope and wishful thinking lay in their origins. Wishing is born in the human spirit. It’s cousin – optimism – expresses confidence that the good thing will sooner or later be triumphant. Christian hope is likewise convinced in the ultimate victory of what’s good; but Christian hope understands that the victory belongs to God. The strength of Christian hope is born of God’s strength – and not human strength. Such was the gift that sustained Mr. Solzhenitzyn. Though he had little or nothing of soul-strength within himself, faith awakened for him the gift of life-affirming hope.  


     What’s truly astonishing about the morning scripture reading is the broadness of God’s Grace and Power that can renew hope. God’s promise, according to the Book of Romans, isn’t JUST for the fixing of broken people. On the contrary: God’s purpose is for the renewal of ALL things on earth and in heaven. It’s what Paul meant when he wrote… Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead (Romans 8:20, THE MESSAGE).  


     Our hope, then, is for the coming day when God will give birth to the New Creation by merging heaven with the earth. It’s on that day, says the Book of Revelation, chapter 21, that suffering and pain, weeping and death will be no more (see Revelation 21). The resurrection of Jesus, says Paul throughout his numerous letters, is evidence that God has already started that work of making the world anew. And because Christ is alive and working still, we are graced with Christian hope for renewal and transformation toward a quality of New Life that not even death can destroy.


     "I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD, speaking through the prophet, Jeremiah; "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (29:11). Your struggles and trials will take many a’ form. Life is tough. Yet God offers us a future with unimaginable possibilities for well-being and joy; for newness of life.        


     When asked to describe his famous CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, the Christian author, C.S. Lewis, spoke of the work as a "supposal” – that is, suppose Jesus Christ were to visit a place like Narnia. Another "supposal” appeared in a 1980’s book title, called JOSHUA. Full disclosure: I’ve not read the book, but loved the film adaptation. (Note: It’s available on numerous streaming services including Netflix and Amazon Prime.) 


     Joshua appears as a wood-carver setting up shop in the small town of Auburn. And what a mysterious fellow he is! The barn he rents as a temporary home and work studio has a leaky roof, yet no matter where he is in that building, the rain water never touches him. When commissioned by the local Roman Catholic priest to carve a life-sized statue of Jesus’ disciple, Joshua replies "I know Peter.” MORE extraordinary is the impact that he has on the townspeople, simply by hanging out with them, befriending them, and inspiring them. To a bumbling, self-doubting clergyman, Father Pat, he gives the confidence of faith, thus restoring his sense of call. There’s Kevin, a musically gifted teenager, who’s alienated from parents, under-appreciated by everyone else, and without any apparent purpose in life. Joshua shows up, grabs a guitar, and takes to jamming with Kevin, eventually encouraging him to join the praise band at a local church. Joan’s in a distanced relationship with her husband; but Joshua repairs her broken heart (… literally repairs it!) and equips her with new gifts for showing empathy and appreciation to the man in her life who himself suffers loneliness in his vocation as a long-distance truck driver. Joshua goes one night to a revival meeting and gives sight to a woman born blind; giving to her the gift of joy and to the fraudulent, faith-healing evangelist a shot of authentic faith. Theo appears as a slow, awkward man because of his stuttering disability. He takes a bad fall and dies while helping to finish a church re-construction job that Joshua had spearheaded. Yet Joshua resuscitates him to renewed life, after which his speech becomes clear when proclaiming the Gospel in that new church in which he serves as pastor. Then, too, there’s Maggie; a grieving widow whose life is without direction and joy. When she develops a crush on Joshua and tries to steal a kiss from him, he resists and explains that he can’t love her in that particular way. "I feel like an idiot,” she says, while weeping; "I just miss my husband and, it’s so confusing. My life is a mess.” "Your life’s not a mess, Maggie” replies Joshua; "Your life is beautiful.” "My life WAS beautiful,” she protests; "It was great, it was whole.” Picking up a large glass vase, she slams it to the floor, shattering it into tiny pieces. "THAT is my life [now],” she exclaims, "and it can’t be fixed.”


     Soon thereafter, Joshua turns the page and leaves Auburn to follow a new calling. Maggie, too, has decided to leave town in pursuit of new opportunities that she’d heretofore been too frightened to explore. It’s apparent that she’s experienced some degree of prayerful healing over her grief. When dropping by the church to say good-bye to Father Pat, the priest pulls out a gift that Joshua had made for Maggie before leaving – a lovely glass sculpture, molded in the shape of an angel. "Not bad, huh?” says Pat: "What an amazing [guy] – he takes a million pieces of broken glass and makes something beautiful out of it.” As Maggie cradles it lovingly in her hands, a smile comes to her face, and – with the assurance of Christian hope – declares "Something whole.”


     Yes, it’s only a film based on a novel; but the message is real and the message is true: God, in Christ, has Power and Grace to take a broken world – a broken humanity – and make it whole. If, after all, the Holy One can raise up the crucified Jesus into Glory without end, then what can the Lord God not do for you? Hope springs eternal because God – in Christ – is Eternal.