Texts: Romans 5:1-5;
John 16:12-15; Prov. 8:1-4, 22-31
HEARTS BROKEN OPEN FOR GOD’S LOVE
Children’s Sermon (or opening of 8:00 sermon): Tell story from insert with photo about Barbara Garcia who found her dog Bowser while being interviewed in the wreckage of her home from the Oklahoma tornado: “I thought that God answered only one prayer, to bring me through alright. But God answered both prayers.”
Barbara Garcia’s comment about answered prayer raises the difficult question: what about her neighbors who weren’t so fortunate and lost loved ones? Did they not pray? If they did pray, did God not answer them? Does God rescue some but abandon others? Before addressing these thorny questions further, I have another question to ask.
Jesus says to his disciples on the night before his death, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Did you notice the future tense? “Will guide you”? Two thousand years later, has the Spirit guided us into all the truth even yet? Or are there truths we still haven’t been able to bear that the Spirit is waiting to guide us into? And what constitutes the truths that the spirit guides us into? Religious truths only? Or all kinds of truth? Scientific and historical truths, too, for example?
I believe that God’s Spirit is continually leading us into the truth as we are ready to bear it and hear it. Even when God has acted in decisive ways in history, like with Jesus’ cross and resurrection, we may not be ready to fully comprehend what it means. By ready, I mean that our knowledge and way of looking at the world may not be sufficient to understand a truth that the Spirit could show us. For example: Jesus could have outlined some basic truths of the universe and the evolution of life, but our human knowledge wasn’t ready for that yet. So Christians today still fight with scientists that if the universe is 13 billion years old, and life has taken several billion years to evolve, then God would have told us in the Bible. Or the spirit knew the disciples couldn’t bear that kind of knowledge yet, and so many of us Christians are ready to accept that the Spirit continues to reveal truths to us, including through science.
What makes for readiness in us to seek and receive new answers? Generally, I think those times of openness come when our worlds are rocked with change — perhaps change that is painful, a time of suffering. So the question about readiness might be answered differently by each of us at different times and circumstances in our lives.
Or we might live at a time in history when worldviews and circumstances are changing so dramatically that more people begin searching for fresh answers to the most pressing questions of life and death and suffering. I believe we live at one of those times in history where our knowledge of ourselves and our world is changing so drastically that we need fresh truths about God to go along with it. Many aspects of our views of God and faith simply aren’t relevant to the youngest generations — and many of their elders — and we see that by their leaving church in large numbers. Again, not everyone is experiencing the change in the same way, and for some the traditional answers still work. But if the church is to welcome back the huge numbers who have left, I strongly believe it will be with some fresh answers to our God questions. We need to see the Spirit of truth as continuing to guide us into fresh understandings of truth.
Rob Bell‘s latest book, titled What We Talk About When We Talk About God, provides another example of that. He begins with that drastically changing worldview, outlining in a very readable and engaging fashion how science has changed our view of the universe. And he then asks questions that might lead us into fresh ways of understanding God that might resonate better with those newer understandings of science. And among the questions he raises is the one we’ve raised today about Barbara Garcia’s answered prayer. Bell writes,
I remember years ago hearing someone tell a dramatic story about something incredible that had happened in his life, and the way he summarized what had happened was “. . . and then God showed up!” It was moving to hear how thrilled he was, but I had one of those “Wait — what?” moments soon afterward. If God showed up, then prior to that, was God somewhere else? And if God was somewhere else, and then God came here for that person at that moment, why didn’t God show up for all of those other people in all of those other moments who could have used some showing up?
I’ve encountered this conception of God countless times over the years, a perspective that isn’t as much about who God is as where God is. I’ve heard people pray and ask God to be with them; …I’ve heard a good event described as a God thing — all of these undergirded by the subtle yet powerful belief that God is somewhere else and then comes here to this world from time to time to do God sorts of things.
The problem with this as one’s only conception of God is that it raises endless questions about when and where and why God chooses to act. Or not act.
I don’t know why the Holocaust happened or why that young girl was abducted or why that uncle got a brain tumor. And neither do you. None of us does. And anybody who can tell you why God decided to come here and act in one instance but not another should not be trusted. Lots of people were given only this particular conception of God at some point in their lives and they’re still living with it: that God is somewhere else and may or may not come here from time to time to do God sorts of things. (1)
Is it time for some fresh conceptions of God that better fit the way our knowledge leads us to see the world God created? I highly recommend Bell’s new book for some guidance.
Let’s finish by addressing our question of the day about answered and unanswered prayers, with a little help from Bell’s book. Bell uses three simple words to ponder anew about God: with, for, ahead. We might pair them with three words important to St. Paul that are prominent in this morning’s reading from Romans 5, a passage that also includes ponderings about the mystery of suffering. Paul’s words are: faith, love, hope — which I believe correspond Bell’s words of: with, for, ahead.
The word faith, for example, is not so much about belief, as Protestants have emphasized, as it is about being with others. It’s about faithfulness, not belief. Faith, St. Paul’s word — with, Rob Bell’s word. I’m faith-ful when I stand with others in ways that are faithful to them. Paul tells us that God has faithfully been present with us through Jesus in ways that reconcile us. Our relationship with God is healed so that we can trust that God is always with us, including times of suffering, when it seems like our prayers are unanswered.
The second pair of words: Love–for. Love is the power of unconditionally living for another person or creature or, in God’s case, the whole creation. God has revealed the divine love to us by living for us in Jesus Christ. “This is my body broken for you, my blood poured out for you.” And when I say loving “unconditionally,” I think it means at least two things. One, that God is always for us and never against us. In Romans 8, Paul will ask, “If God is for us, who is against us — God who didn’t even spare his own Son in order to save us?” (Rom 8:31-32) Paul implies that the divine Love that the Spirit pours into our hearts is always for us, and never against — so much so that anyone else who may be against us doesn’t really matter. And the second way God’s love is unconditional is that it is for everyone and everything. It’s not for some people and not others. So for us to begin to love like God, our love, too, can’t be for some but not others. We can’t even be for our friends but against our enemies. We are called to love our enemies, too.
Finally, hope — or Bell’s word, ahead. We hope in God’s promises of life as always running out ahead of us. Our First Reading today looks back to the beginning of Creation. But Christ’s Resurrection shows us that Creation isn’t finished. His Resurrection signals New Creation and hope, but always out ahead of us, pulling us towards a time when creation is complete and all suffering will completely cease.
Until that time, says Paul, suffering is that which opens our hearts to the faith, love, and hope we need to grow stronger. Above all, suffering opens us to the pouring of God’s love into our hearts that we may live increasingly with that power of love which is bringing about reconciliation, transformation, and healing. It opens us to that unconditional love that is always for all others and never against anyone.
Let’s be clear. It’s not that suffering has to open our hearts to God’s love. Suffering more often tends to breed more suffering. But it’s because God’s love for us, through the suffering of Jesus, that the cycle of suffering can now be broken. Suffering can now lead to new life. In fact, while suffering doesn’t necessarily lead to new life, the opposite tends to be true: our hearts resist being open to new life without enduring suffering. When things are going good for us, we simply continue on that road of the old life, lived in our human kind of love that is conditional. Our human love is sometimes for people and sometimes against — depending on what they’ve done for us lately. And our human love is only for those in our group — our nation, our race, our family. Our hearts are only opened to God’s unconditional love when we allow ourselves to encounter the suffering of Jesus in our own lives or the lives of others.
So let’s finish very briefly with our opening question again: should we never pray for any healing and rescue of ourselves and loved ones? I think that we can dare to pray such things because Christ’s healing and Resurrection show us glimpses of God’s healing love, coming to bring dramatic moments of New Creation. When those times come for us, we celebrate, as Barbara did in finding her precious Bowser. But in those times when New Creation doesn’t come, but is still out ahead of us, there is always the mysterious healing of suffering itself — the openness to God’s power of love to be poured into our hearts that produce in us greater works of that love for the healing of the world. We can become for others that suffering love which can break open their hearts, too.
I have a pastor friend who suffers terribly with M. S. and who says, “There may not always be a cure, but there is always healing.” Through his life of courageous hope, faith, and love, I discover what he means about healing, as he continues to boldly offer to God a life of love lived for the sake of the world. May you and I know that healing once again this morning as we go to this table of New Creation. May the Spirit pour God’s love into our hearts, for the sake of the world. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 26, 2013
1. Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, HarperOne, 2013, pages 97-98.