By David Sund
View the worship and sermon here.
As I was reading the tenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the little congregation in Rome, I was particularly struck by verses six and following. Listen to the New English Version of verses 6 and 7 “’Who can go up to heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who can go down to the abyss?’ (to bring Christ up from the dead).
Most commentators will tell us that Paul is borrowing language from Deuteronomy 30. He is referencing Moses’ farewell sermon to make a point about Who initiates and maintains any relationship between God and humans. The apostle hints that any misunderstanding about this leads to absurdity and needless exhaustion.
With that point in mind, I have a few questions for you. Who does what in your household? Is there a division of labor? Or does someone have to do it all? If the latter is true, and that someone is YOU, my condolences! Even in a household of one, there is no way for an individual to cover all the bases. What if the circuit breakers keep blowing, or the basement is full of sewage…it’s time to call for outside help! Or to maintain relationships and get all the chores done, what happens if you have to go way beyond your four walls or property lines? Are we willing to scale strange, dizzying heights or explore subterranean caverns? Going to extremes to resolve a relationship or accomplish an overwhelming task…now that brings to my mind the idea of a Quest.
How do you feel about quests and adventures? Would you have been first in line to sign up for the space program, as an astronaut? Or would you have volunteered to join Jacque Cousteau in his yellow submarine? Maybe you’re like Bilbo Baggins and your quest begins with a bit of manipulation on someone else’s part, and comes with regrets over forgotten snacks and handkerchiefs. Or possibly (like me) you get more than enough adventure just by reading the Lord of the Rings, or Don Quixote, or National Geographic.
Speaking of literature, when I think of reaching for the stars or plumbing the depths, I remember my boyhood fascination with Greek mythology.
In Greek mythology, this…super dude, Prometheus goes to great heights, defies the Greek gods by stealing their fire and gives it to humanity. For Prometheus’ theft, Zeus, king of the gods, sentenced him to eternal torment. I won’t go into the gory details. But eventually the hero needs a hero and Hercules comes to his rescue. In western culture, Prometheus has become a symbol of human striving for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching and the danger of unintended consequences. He symbolizes the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence can easily result in tragedy.
Another Greek myth, related to exploring the deepest depths, tells the story of Hecate, a goddess who witnesses the abduction of Persephone, and torch in hand helps Persephone’s Mom attempt to rescue her gal-pal from the underworld (with only partial success).
What is there about humans and our fascination with quests and adventures? And how does that influence our understanding of our relationship with God? One devotional writer put it this way: “If only God would allow us to scale the heights or plumb the depths, to do some great thing, to make some vast sacrifice, we should be satisfied…and his help… would not be resented. But it is intolerable to our proud hearts to be told that our own efforts are useless.”
Vaughn Roberts, the rector of St. Ebbes, in Oxford, England, likes to use this phrase “Grace is received, not achieved.” “Grace is received, not achieved.” Preaching on Romans 10, he tells a parable of a great art competition, in which all the artists have worked so hard. Only to have the prize awarded to some random spectator who just walked in off the street to see the exhibit. Roberts’ point being that in the first century, folks who took religion so seriously and worked so very hard to follow all of the commandments resented Paul for saying that any bloke could come in off the street and be a beneficiary of Grace! No jumping through hoops, no gene testing to prove pedigree, no resumes or diplomas were needed to ‘win the prize!’ Achievement based religion usually has two results…despair over the impossible, Herculean task; or pride over one’s presumed accomplishments.
Now this truth SHOULD be delightful! I should breathe a sigh of joyful relief to forget about charting family trees, inventing applause meters or collecting ethnic or ethical badges for my ‘spirituality sash.’ BUT: there is a part of me that is like those kindergartners I used to teach, who, every so often would reject all offers of help, stomp a foot or two and insist “I can DO it MYSELF.” The thing is, if current events teach us anything, it’s that I can’t ‘do it myself!’ I can’t cure a pandemic, put Beirut back together again, fix systemic injustices or undo natural disasters. Trying to create and implement my own plan to fix ‘life the universe and everything,’ on my own and by myself is absurd and would be exhausting. And maybe I’m impugning God’s character in the process. With my theologies and behaviors am I casting God in the light of the Greek deities who were capricious, self-absorbed, unwilling to bless, miserly with gifts, and who required a fair amount of groveling prior to any unreliable intervention? In my religious activity am I saying that I need to blast off with the intent to drag Christ off his throne, or re-engineer the Channel tunnel to exhume Christ’s body, and resuscitate the corpse before he’ll be bothered to involve himself in my concerns and passions or (more accurately) invite me into his?
When I try to do God’s job (because I don’t trust Him to do it), no wonder I feel spent, frustrated and resentful! Instead, this chapter of Romans reminds me of who has done what. It reminds me of the passionate interest of God; the accessibility of truth; the beauty of a trusting dependence; the breadth of divine inclusion; the universality of bottomless blessing.
Now, just because we aren’t expected to do or be what only God can do or be, DOESN’T mean we aren’t expected to do or be anything at all. If God is present, accessible, relatable and involved, then a relationship with Him can only flourish if we respond in kind. Today’s text ends with words of commissioning. In a broken, flawed world, we are to be savory, luminous, compassionate, inclusive, expressive followers of Jesus. That pandemic? That explosion? Those systemic injustices? Those natural disasters? They are real, and need real attention and action. But I can never be seduced into thinking that my attention and action will make me more worthy in God’s eyes. And I can’t invent or affect change all by myself. But WE can pray persistently. WE can listen attentively. WE can speak boldly. WE can partner in costly intervention. And so, by living Spirit empowered lives, may we become welcome messengers conveying beautiful news. AMEN.
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