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A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on 2023.0730.A.Pr12 Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8;26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38] Is there anything more challenging than reading St. Paul’s letters? Yes, I think there is one thing that is more challenging: it is listening to what he writes in church! How ironic! Now, I grant you that what we usually hear from Paul often, seems very heady, even frustratingly obtuse. He is, after all, a lawyer and a smart one at that. So it is that if we are looking for sentiments and explanations that easily touch and stir our hearts, Paul usually isn’t our go-to source. Yet, the way today’s epistle reading from the 8th Chapter of Romans concludes, surrounded as it is by all of Paul’s arguments and explanations, our hearts, nonetheless, are definitely struck by his famously passionate proclamation: “I am convinced…I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When you think about it, it is quite a bold announcement. It’s definitely a strong declaration, what nowadays we refer to as an “I statement” -- a personal, existential statement that says unwaveringly, “Here I stand!” In St. Paul’s case, he unequivocally broadcasts a conviction that he has discovered through personal experience: namely, that God’s love, dramatically demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, this life and this love win – no matter what! Not bad heart-stuff for a lawyer who is known more for his steely logic and air-tight arguments. “I am convinced…” The unique genius of Paul’s contribution to the biblical witness about life on God’s terms is that he takes the well-attested to and devoutly believed in reality of Jesus and thinks through all of the implications of such a profound revelation. Like a good lawyer, Paul asks piercing questions about Jesus. For instance, what is God up to in Jesus? What does his life mean? What can it mean that that “Jesus saves”? What does this mean – for us, now? What is going on? It is Paul who most prominently and unflinchingly asked these profoundly important questions about the God-life in Jesus. These questions and their sober pursuit propelled Paul’s thinking and his urgent expression of the “Good News” of God’s Christ. The result of which is that the Letter to the Romans has become a premier resource of Christian faith and thought. The truth is that a great deal of significant literature and writing came out of the city of Rome; but none of it – none of it surpasses the impact of what Paul composed in his “Letter to the Romans”. As a result, the “Letter to the Romans” is often referred to as the New Testament’s “Fifth Gospel”. With Paul’s questions and his thinking in mind, we are confronted with what it is about Jesus and the God-life he reveals that has the power to convince us. The straight-ahead question is this: What is the status of our trust, our faith, our conviction in God and in God’s Christ? To what extent are we “convinced” – convinced that God is God and that we are continually invited to live within the Holy One’s promises? What is it in life that convinces you and me to be the people of God, to do what you and I do as reflections of the God-life? What do you think? I remind you that, at their heart these questions (and others like them) are “religious” questions: Religion being what we keep at the center of our lives. Hence, contrary to so many proclamations among us, the truth is that everyone is by definition “religious”. The issue, of course, is what we worship, what we keep at the center of our lives, what convinces us. What do you think? Demographers and pundits have repeatedly told us that most folks in our culture and time claim not to be “religious”. Given that by definition, everyone is “religious”, what does this mean? What is it that occupies and defines the center of our lives? By what our we convinced? Moreover, since nature abhors a vacuum, to what extent does such an orienting vacancy produce so much of the meaninglessness that so many of us experience? Again, of what are we convinced? And if we dare to make a declaration about what is at our center (and most don’t in my experience), does our conviction bring us life? What do you think? What do you say? What’s your “I” statement? There are people who, like Paul, have such a “Damascus Road” conviction about God’s Christ that their lives reflect the strength and hopefulness of such a deeply experienced conviction. I envy them and the clarity they have been given. Yet, I do believe that most of us (including me) are “convinced but not convinced”. We have our doubts. We have our wobbling, some of them stem from understandable causes. Yet, even in the face of the doubts that occupy us, we must remember that doubt is not the opposite of faith. Fear is. The issue about doubt, especially the doubts that may cloud our conviction about Jesus, is what we do with our doubts. Do we use them as excuses to avoid and drop out; or do we use them as springboards to learn and to mature in our conviction. What do you think? I believe – I still believe; and I believe that places like St. Philip’s are meant to be settings where the centering questions are asked and the support is offered to one another to explore what it takes to live those questions in the light of Jesus and all he represents. One thing that I am convince of is that asking these deeply “religious”, centering questions of conviction is never – ever -- a matter of a “do-it-yourself” project. What do you think? Recently, I came across a book that I have read with great and challenging interest – so much so that I asked the Vestry to read it over the summer and to meet in mid-August to discuss it. The title of the book is Quietly Courageous. Its subtitle reveals its focus and the reason I find its content important: Leading the Church in a Changing World. I have recommended it because in the book Gil Rendle, the author, provides us with both a clear common reference to our changing and often frightening times and also words we can use together to discuss our place in these demanding and confusing times. One of the reasons I trust the book and am convinced by the presentation of its insights comes on the very first page of the text. (It’s nice to read a book and get its purpose right away.). The book begins with a story. I have already conveyed this story to you in this past Thursday’s NOW, but as with all good stories, this one bears telling again and again because it illustrates very faithfully and very clearly what it always takes to follow Jesus and to be convinced he is worth following. Here, again, is the story. Nashon, son of Amminidab, was a prince of the tribe of Judah and was with Moses and the fleeing Israelites during their escape from Egypt to the banks of the Red Sea. When the Israelites got to the shore of the Red Sea, the waters lay before them unparted, which created a great dilemma for the people. On the one hand, to lead the people into the water would be to drown them; but on the other hand to wait without action would be to give themselves up to the Egyptians’ capture and punishment. The People were trapped. Someone needed to be the first to go into the water to test the promise of God’s deliverance. The leaders of the tribes of Israel all gathered at the water’s edge, arguing about what to do and who would go into the water first. Action was needed, but no one knew exactly what to do. The anxiety of the situation rose more and more, until waiting for a decision no longer was possible. The clock had run out. So, Nashon, son of Amminidab, remembered the reason that the Israelites were at the Red Sea and what this had to do with God’s promise of deliverance. So, Nashon, son of Amminidab, rose from the crowd and entered the waters. Nashon stepped into the waters to his ankles. No parting of the Sea. He moved forward up to his waist. Still the waters did not part. Nahon took another step up to his neck, and still the waters remained. With one more step, the waters rose over Nashon’s nose; and the waters parted. Do you think that anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…None of this fazes us because Jesus love us. I am absolutely convinced that nothing –nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable nor unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love. [Romans 8:44-52 from The Message] What do you think? Oh, Holy One, save us from the time of trial. Amen.

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