Rev. Danielle K Bartz August 14, 2022
Romans 8:31-39 “Early Stages”
I saw a cartoon the other day that I liked. It showed two people standing in front of a tree. Gesturing to the tree, one person said to the other, “This is the first book I am writing, but it is still in its really early stage.” As someone who fancies herself a writer, I instantly identified with implied procrastination, and the hope that something will eventually move from an early stage to an actual book.
But, that cartoon was also a good illustration of what the work of Christianity can feel like. Christianity, at its best, is a movement of people working towards the promise that Christ shared: of a world rid of Empire, and steeped in justice and peace. A world ruled not by greed, but by the love of God and neighbor. Christianity, again at its best, is as simple and as complicated as that. But after 2000 years on this journey, it feels like we are still in the very early stages. And the road ahead looks endless, the horizon moving faster than we can. To be a faithful Christian can at times feel like looking at a tree and telling people that it will one day be the book you will write – if we are just given enough time.
One of the most frequent prayers I have for myself is for patience. Patience does not come naturally to me, so because I need all the help I can get, I ask God every chance I get. And then ironically get annoyed as I feel like I am forever waiting for God to answer that prayer. Do I understand that that is the answer to my prayer? Yes. Do I like it? Absolutely not. It is a short coming I think the Apostle Paul and I have in common. As much as I struggle with Paul, I can at least relate to his impatience and can relate to him best when I read the portions of his writings that are basically prayers for patience and reminders that whether we like it or not, God always takes the long view.
In his letter to the Romans, his most mature letter, or the one written with the most learned wisdom, he is writing to remind the people of that truly early-stage church that the work of their faith and the building of the Kingdom was going to take a long time, and that perseverance will be a requirement. He writes to tamp down squabbles that threaten to break up the community. He writes with reminders that the promises of Christ are possible, and that to follow in the tradition of the prophets often involves sacrifice. He writes to tell them he loves them, because every community needs to hear that from their minister. And he writes to remind them that nothing, nothing can separate them from the love of God. Nothing can diminish God’s love for them, and they must resist anything that attempts to diminish their love of God.
The section of the letter to the Romans that I read this morning is my favorite. One of my professors read it as I was getting ready to graduate seminary. My seminary attempts to instill in all their students a fierce heart, filled with love for ancient wisdom, and an eagerness to add their voice to the mix. Most of us left there with an understanding that there was a lot of work to be done and a lot of people to be loved. So, when my professor read the scripture, it felt like a shield for the resistance to the Kingdom ahead, like the breastplate of God evoked in the prayer of St. Patrick. The words of Paul were presented like protection: “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other thing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Savior.” To a young seminary graduate ready to take on the world of Empire, that was all I needed.
But, years have passed, and I have come to learn that God takes the long view and that the work of Christianity takes time, far more time than my impatient spirit is comfortable with. So, those words of Paul, once heard as a charge for the journey have now become a balm for my soul. They no longer convict, they comfort. They no longer propel, they quiet. And in a world that tries to obscure the horizon with busyness, these words may be just want we need to draw our eyes to the long view of God once again.
The people Paul was writing to were just beginning to realize that Christianity was indeed a faith of patience. There was, in the earliest movements of the religion, an understanding that Christ would be back again – soon. Any day now, they thought and believed. The teachings of Jesus seemed to reinforce this belief. He told his followers to keep their wicks trimmed and lamps burning; to not fall asleep so they could meet the bridegroom when he arrived. Many of his parables were understandably interpreted to mean that the people didn’t have long to wait for Christ to be back, that the work would be swift, and the Kingdom was in sight just down the road. They didn’t understand themselves to be in the early stages of a movement. They weren’t staring at tree telling people that would be the book they would write someday, they thought they were picking out the final cover art, with the book release party quickly approaching.
But, as I said, they were starting to realize that it wasn’t going to be quite as quick. Paul was beginning to realize that too. This is going to take some time, so be patient, he said. And quit fighting amongst yourselves because we are going to doing this together for a long time. But, whatever may happen along the way, don’t forget: “I am persuaded the neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other thing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Savior.”
I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, and the hard learned lessons of this world have convinced me to stop trying to guess. And sometimes I am okay with the not knowing, and sometimes I am not. I imagine the same can be said for most of you too. But the work is not in vain, our prayers are not empty, and this road is not a lonely one. It is true that it is a hard sell – this long work of Christianity. But, when we have the patience to see it for what it is – we can see that it is not just work. Indeed, mostly it is blessing.
There is a spiritual reflection that I have read to you before, but I am not embarrassed to be doing so again because I have never encountered another that is so rightly worded. Often inaccurately attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, it was written in 1979 by Fr. Ken Untener:
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
That is what we have signed up for as Christians – building a future that will not be our own. The road will be long and difficult, but it will be filled with friends and blessings, and, as Paul taught, nothing will separate us from our greatest strength, the love of God. I am so blessed to walking it with each and every one of you. Amen.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – from the moment you stirred the heavens into creation, you have set us on a path leading towards the hope you have promised. For this path and this hope, we are grateful. And it is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
God, there are times when the needs of this world are so overwhelming that it can be difficult to see the way forward. There are times when we worry that we cannot do it all, so we end up doing nothing at all. But you are always reaching out to us, offering us the strength and courage, the hope and joy we need to begin. Help us to reach back to you and set our feet on the path you have laid out for us once again.
It is in prayer that we offer to you those worries and fears which can cause us to stumble. In this moments of silence, we turn them over to you, knowing you hold them gently…
Good and loving God – we seek with joy in our hearts the future that you hope for us, the future we glimpse in the life and lessons of our teacher and guide, Jesus Christ. It is in his name we pray and using the words he taught, we lift our voices together…Our Father…