On a hot and humid evening this past week, as we watched the Tigers play the Oakland A’s, John Balogh asked me whether I would be preaching a baseball-themed sermon? Being a lifelong baseball fan, I couldn’t let a request like that get away, and so I began thinking about how baseball might fit with this morning’s sermon theme.
In Romans 8 Paul poses a question: “If God is for us, then who can be against us?” Now, if you’re a Tiger’s fan, could you see God’s hand at work during the game Tuesday evening? Because they won big, surely God must be on the side of the Tigers! Of course, not everyone saw things this way, because two members of our group wore caps of the then first place Cleveland Indians. And while I donned a Tiger’s hat and rooted them on as they played the hapless Oakland A’s, just few weeks earlier I wore a San Francisco Giants cap to the Giants-Tigers game and rooted for my boyhood team. So, on that night I was one of the few in the stadium who went home happy. So, if God is a baseball fan, whose side is God on? And, if victory is a mark of God’s support, then surely God must be a Yankee fan, because no team has accumulated as many championships as they have. I’m sure most of you will agree with me that God could not be a Yankee fan!
So, what does it mean for us to claim that if God is for us, then no one or no thing can stand against us? Being that this is the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War and because Cheryl and I happened to stop at Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky on our way home from the General Assembly, I wondered how this great American President would answer the question. Lincoln said something in his Second Inaugural Address that seems to pertain to this question.
Lincoln may not have been a church member in good standing, but he had a keen theological mind, and he was well aware that both sides in this horrible conflict that took nearly 700,000 lives were praying that God would bless their cause. Both sides seemed to believe that “if God is for us, then who can be against us.” I have my own thoughts as to whose side God favored, but Lincoln recognized the difficulties involved in claiming God’s blessings. And so, in his Second Inaugural Address, as he tried to prepare a fractured nation for reunion once the war ended, he spoke these words:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
Although Constantine believed that God gave him the cross as a sign of conquest, Lincoln was a much better theologian when it came to such matters.
But it’s not just about war or God’s favoring a particular nation with blessings. If God is for us, then where is God when atrocities like the massacre in Norway occur? Or, when a natural disaster like the quake in Haiti strikes? These are not easy questions to answer, and yet they are asked regularly.
Perhaps we can begin to find answers in the opening verses of our text from Romans 8, where Paul tells the Roman church that if you don’t know how to pray, then the Spirit, who knows our hearts, and God’s heart, will plead “our case with unexpressed groans.” Although we may be impressed by long and eloquent prayers, God isn’t so obsessed with the quality of our words, and is more concerned about what is going on in our hearts. So, even if all we can do is offer God our unexpressed groans, God will hear them and respond.
We can find hope and strength, Paul says, in knowing that “in all things God works for good for those who love God.” Do you hear in this statement an invitation to join with God in pursuing that which is good in this world? Do you hear an invitation to join with God in bringing blessings, not just to one nation, but to the whole of creation? Remember our Disciple motto: “We are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” We have experienced this partnership of blessing this summer as we shared in the launch of our Motown Partnership and our partnership with Rippling Hope Ministries, two exciting expressions of our Missional calling. And these ministries have been infused by the Spirit, whom we have encountered as we’ve made ourselves available to God so that we can be a means of blessing to our world.
As we hear in Romans 8 words about being part of the elect, the called ones, there are echoes of the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah, where God promised that it would be through their descendants that the peoples of this world would be blessed. We could hear this promise in very deterministic ways, in which God has already determined who is in and who is out, and therefore the ones whom God has chosen to be blessed will make it through to the end. But, is this how we understand the promises of God?
As we consider this question, maybe we should look to the Chicago Cubs for a good analogy of the way in which God is with us in the world. If we see God as the big Yankee fan in the sky, then we must judge God on the number of “championships” won. But, if we picture God as a Cubs fan, knowing that it’s been decades since they were last in the World Series, let alone having won one, then we can understand God not as the great decider, but as the beloved companion who remains faithful in all things and shares in our sufferings and partners with us in bringing healing and hope to all of creation.
This text and it’s promise that God is for us raises questions about our understanding of the nature and character of God. If you’re like me, you grew up with the idea that God is an all-powerful being who sweeps in and takes care of us when needed, sort of a like a divine Mr. Fix-It. Indeed, we tend to give thanks when something wonderful happens to us or to a friend, but what about all of those times in which God doesn’t seem to intervene? That is, if God is love as we believe, and if God is all-powerful, then why didn’t God stop that gunman in Norway from taking the lives of eighty-four people at a camp, most of whom were children?
Over the years I’ve had to rethink the way in which I understand how God is for us and with us. The traditional understanding of God, which speaks of God as this all-powerful being who knows all things and can do all things, no longer makes sense of the world in which I live. Although I haven’t gotten it all figured out yet, instead of seeing God as the great Yankee in the sky, I’ve come to see God as the one who walks with us in our suffering and invites us into partnership so that together we can bring hope and healing and justice to our world. Maybe this is a view of God that a Cubs fan, and maybe a Lion’s fan, can appreciate.
Our text begins with a promise that when we can’t figure out how to pray or what to ask, then the Spirit will pray on our behalf, and it ends with another promise. That promise is an important one because it touches on one of the greatest fears that we have as human beings – that we might find ourselves alone and unloved. The promise is that nothing – not adversity, illness, or even political powers – can separate us from the love of God.
One of the things that has struck me about the Harry Potter series of books and movies is its emphasis on the importance of love, friendship, and loyalty. While much responsibility is placed on Harry’s young shoulders, since he is the one everyone is looking to for their deliverance from the clutches of the evil one, he doesn’t take on this responsibility all by himself. There are times when he feels alone and even abandoned, but throughout this series of stories his beloved friends, Ron and Hermoine, always have his back, and they’re not the only ones who are standing with him as he takes up this battle with the powers and principalities of this world.
The promise is that God is for us, and therefore, nothing can stand against us. The point is not that we’ll never experience suffering or tragedy, but in the midst of everything that happens in our lives, nothing separates us from the love of God, which we know and experience in Jesus Christ. In this there is victory and there is hope.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 24, 2011