Scripture: Romans 10:8-13
Given on the first Sunday in Lent, 2018
There is something you should know about my wife, she is not a stuff person. She does not have a great love for cars, she just needs it to be reliable. She does not need a grandiose house, she just needs it to have room for friends to stay with us and good books. She does not have a love for gadgets like her husband possesses. The truth be told, at any given time it is a 50-50 shot as to whether she can tell you where her cellphone is located. She is not a pack-rat in the traditional definition of the word. If she has kept something for any amount of time, it is probably because it is of great sentimental value. Her grandmother’s recipes, artwork from her brother, furniture from another era that belonged to some dearly departed relative, but for the most part, she is not a stuff person. She has but one possession that exceeds her own set standards for her relationship with stuff. Her engagement ring. While it was I who gave it to her, it was she who picked it out and if you haven’t noticed it before, it is a beautiful ring. Crafted by an Italian designer, with a center stone that more resembles glass than anything else because it is so clear. And so it was that she was wearing her ring a few years ago as we were at some friends house about to go out to dinner with them.
We had been at their house for about an hour and as the destination for dinner had been chosen we all, our friends in their car, and Lesley, Jameson (This was before Seamus was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye), and I in another began to load up to proceed to the restaurant until, as I was putting Jameson in his carseat and my wife was climbing into our truck, I heard a shriek of pure panic and saw my wife begin to go into convulsions. I ran immediately to her to try and ascertain what had happen and all I saw was my wife holding up her left hand, which was now shaking terribly, and a ring with no diamond in the center. With tears streaming down her face, all she could muster to say was, “it’s gone.” After a few seconds of holding her, and by this time our friends had gotten out of their car to see what was going on, she said, her ring had brushed against the door and the diamond had popped out. And immediately, before my very eyes, my friends’ yard went from being a well maintained, subdivision sized space to an Amazonian rainforest and we were all about to become explorers on an expedition that I feared was not going to have a happy ending. So began the search for my wife’s diamond. Not around my truck, not around the asphalt and the running boards, it must have flown into the grass. I should say, it is good to have good friends, it is good to have those people in your life who will, after dressing up to go out to dinner, begin to crawl all over the front yard, feeling every blade of grass in search of, what would be in the end, an irreplaceable diamond. We were searching, they were searching and after about 20 minutes, the search party began to grow somewhat dismayed. Now, as a rule, my default setting is anytime there is tension within a group, I seek to dispel it and so I offered that this was somewhat similar to the parable of the woman who had lost something of great value and so she searched for it night and day until she found it. Thought it seemed on this night, my wit had been lost on my wife. It was a Saturday evening and so I suggested that after church tomorrow. I could put a search group together and we could come back out here, but again, a quick look from Les told me that once again I had misjudged her mood and the chances of getting to dinner that evening. And so we continued to pull back blades of grass, to crawl around on our knees for a long time until one of our friends shouted out, “I found it!” After a quick check to make sure that it was not in fact another diamond that someone had lost in their yard, we bagged everything up to send to a jeweler and we proceeded to dinner. It is good to have good friends who will, on a Saturday night, crawl through grass to help you find something of great value.
It seems the longer I live, the more I am convinced that this is the experience each of us have on a day to day basis, if we are able to pull away all the walls that we build up around us, all the stuff that we use to push away the questions of each age. We are all searching for ultimate meaning, for ultimate assurance. We are seeking to know that there is a God, that there is redemption, that there is hope, but these things, these questions are never easy to answer. Much like searching through thick grass for a tiny diamond, we all search through the stuff of life to find the things in which we may place our ultimate trust, the things in which we may ground our belief, the things that may be our the foundation of our own being. But it is never easy. And it is with that belief that we encounter the words of Paul to the church in Rome on this day.
Now, I have come to see the struggle that Paul was expressing as he wrote to this church to which he had never been before, that was young by any standard, and that was searching for its bearings, searching for how you do church. And Paul himself was struggling with these same questions. For Paul, his whole life had been wrapped up in the Jewish tradition, he was a Jew of the highest order, he had studied with the preeminent Jewish minds of his time, and yet he had an experience of the risen Christ that moved him to someplace different. Many of the questions that he had concerning life and death had been answered, many of the tensions of life had been relieved by the experience of the risen Christ, he had found something of great worth that he had been searching for his whole life and now he is trying to help others find it as well. And here is the central line from the whole passage, here is the experience of the risen Christ that Paul has had, that he is yearning for others to have. He writes to this church in Rome that, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Here it is, salvation. Here it is ultimacy. Here it is eternal hope and peace and it comes in two parts. First, Paul is seeking to be a cheerleader of sorts for this congregation in Rome. He is seeking to reaffirm their commitment to the way of Jesus, that is their commitment to walk in the same path as Jesus, to love in the same manner as Jesus, to know and follow the will of God as Jesus did. Paul is suggesting that Jesus is the central figure to which we all should seek to follow moreover, there is no situation that one can encounter in which the path of Jesus does not offer guidance and strength. Then, as now, this was no small feat of courage. The church in Rome was at the epicenter of all the torture and martyrdom and hiding their services in the catacombs under the city, and having an entire legal system stand against you. For Paul to demand that Jesus be the central figure in the lives of these Romans is as radical a statement as exists within scripture. And the second part is the other side of the same coin. If, “you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That is, if you believe that above all else, hope abides, that deep within the darkness, light abides, that within death even life abides, you will find the same reality within your own life. If you believe that out of cold death can arise a power to bring all humanity to God, you will find that reality working within your own life. And we can see this each day. Every day is a mixture of life and death. Of crucifixion and resurrection, of the old falling away and the new appearing in our midst. Each day, flowers bloom and die away. Each day the sun rises and that sun sets. Each day light arises out of darkness and each night, the darkness eventually succumbs to the light. The reality of Paul’s instructions to the church in Rome plays out on a grand stage every moment of our lives and that is the true power of his words. Not simply that they are offered as reassurance to a small group of people struggling against the powerful Roman empire, but also as reassurance to a creation that seeks to become fully reunited with God.
We, here in this place find ourselves on something of a search here this morning. We are each starting the journey of Lent where we will delve deeply into the mystery of God, where we will ponder the things that bring us separation from God, where we will consider the actions of a person—a child of God—so convinced of the love of God to redeem that, when given the chance to turn his back on it all, to recant before the Sanhedrin, to seek his freedom from Pontius Pilate, to tell God that he was unwilling to drink the cup that has been set before him, to choose to walk away and live a normal life with normal experiences, at each point along the way, he refuses and seals his fate to die for your redemption. And my redemption. And the redemption of all of creation. That is the place where we find ourselves this morning. But for us, this moment, is one in which our existence as a church has found its greatest challenge. Declination in membership, as well as the exponential growth of the cost of our property has led us to a point in which we must earnestly ask ourselves if we can survive as a singular body into the future. In many ways, this is the question with which we have been wrestling for some time, but it has ascended to the most pressing issue with which we deal on a monthly basis in the session. And while, we could, rearrange the way in which we use versus save our financial resources in order to buy ourselves some more time, your session has made the decision to explore the possibility of merging with our Presbyterian neighbors down the road at the Church of the Good Shepherd. This is not a done deal. In fact, we really are just commencing a time of exploration with ourselves and between each church that could well be months or years in the scope of time. There are many difficult questions to answer around congregational fit, building occupation, staffing, who will be chosen to lead a potentially new congregation, how many members of each individual church would join a newly formed worshipping body within the Presbyterian Church (USA)? In many ways, a nascent church like this one would be would look a lot like the church in Rome, trying to figure out how to be church with one another when the old ways are no longer satisfying. Having had an experience of redemption and reconciliation that has been facilitated by the spirit of the living Christ in our midst, how will we respond in newness and in hope? For some, talk of merger will come as a welcome change. I know that this has been the dream and vision of several within this congregation for well over a decade now. For others, the potential loss of building, name, staffing, leadership will be more than they are willing to remain for. I understand both of those emotions and the myriad of responses that fall somewhere in between on the spectrum. But there is another way to think about this potential union of two churches. A fresh start. With new friends and old. A fresh start in which we journey together united under the singular question of what can the church, more specifically, the Presbyterian church, offer to the city of Anniston that it is not receiving today. How can we, as a unity of persons of the Reformed tradition, be the hands and feet of Christ in new ways previously unconsidered? How might a new congregation be more about the work of reconciliation of which we are all a part when it becomes unencumbered by the stresses of survival or the worry of where we might worship and simply allow itself to be carried on the breath of the Holy Spirit? What do you still dream of when you think of the church?
Sisters and brothers, as we come together for this Lenten journey, as we explore what death really looks like, we, too, get to explore what life arising out of death looks like. How a savior might be crucified on a Friday and be resurrected on a Sunday. How light, that can never really be overcome by the darkness shines all the brighter in the sunlight of Easter Sunday. This is truly a time that is pregnant with excitement, energy, and spirit. Let us each agree to allow it to take us where it will. Now and always. Amen.