“The Most Wonderful Chapter in the Bible: Winners”
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
June 26, 2016
So I was thinking about fifth grade the other day. Not fifth grade in general but my fifth grade experience to be specific. Fifth grade was, for me, a pretty terrible year. It came up because I was talking to my counselor whom I visit from time to time, and when you visit your counselor, what do you do? You talk about the crummy stuff from your childhood. So I was talking about fifth grade. In fifth grade I moved from the school I had always known, Quail Creek Elementary, to the school I had never know, Heritage Hall. The problem at Heritage Hall was that 90% of the fifth grade class had been together since kindergarten. Now there were 3 fifth grade classrooms at Heritage Hall and I had been placed in the room with no other new kids. So there was me, little 10 year old Phil, amidst a room full of kids who had all known each other forever. On the first day I showed up with my lunch box, I think it was a GI Joe lunchbox, and I learned a hard lesson. Nobody in the fifth grade at Heritage Hall takes lunch boxes to school. And it was all downhill from there. It was a really bad year.
Now, fifth grade was not the worst year of my life, but it was pretty terrible. I thought about detailing for you all of my bad years and worst moments, but then I began to consider that hearing about the vast failures and low points of my life may not be how you would choose to spend a Sunday morning, so I have, instead, decided to highlight that one year. The point being that when bad things happen to us, whether they be early in life or late, whether they be as rudimentary as bullying or as complex as a failure in our career, they have consequences. Every struggle, every loss, every failure, every bad week, month or year, bears with it consequences. Because things were terribly unpleasant for a time we want to do everything we can to make sure we don’t ever have to endure that again. So we change our behaviors. We modify our personalities. We repress bad memories, and we try to move forward as carefully as possible.
For me, that year had a variety of consequences. I’m not going to go into all those things, but as I have taken a good look at that year I can see how it affected me. Can you see how your bad times have affected you? Are you colder? Are you more of a pleaser? Do you drink more? Are you more emotionally reserved? Are you a door mat? I don’t know. All I know is that they have affected you. Now, in the old times there was another effect from our afflictions. It was separation from God. There was an important and powerful belief that was rampant in the world in the old days. It was this. If something bad happened to you, if you got sick, went broke, lost a loved one, or some other terrible thing, then it was because you, or possibly an ancestor, had offended God. This was no small thing. It was widely accepted that our lives were guided by the degree of favor we’d had with God. So we could say that if you were wealthy, comfortable and healthy, you had pleased God. If you were poor, sick and uncomfortable you had made a grievous error somewhere along the way. Most likely, you had bucked the Law. So bad years were not just something which affected the behavior of a person, they testified to the faith, or lack thereof, within a person. Those are considerably higher stakes then we might have imagined.
Now, despite the fact that these days we don’t speak as frequently in those terms anymore does not mean the residue of those beliefs are not within us. In my years as a pastor, I have heard more than a few parishioners in distress ask the question, “why is God doing this to me?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? Why do I have this illness? Why has this happened to my kid? What did I do, God, that you have done this to me? These are fair questions and they are rooted in that centuries old belief that the substance of our lives is determined, in some way or another, by our fidelity to God. This theology, for better or worse, does not seem like it’s the sort of thing we can shake.
We can’t shake it, despite the fact that Paul did everything he could to change how we saw our lives in relation to God. For the first seven chapters of Romans, Paul railed against the Law. He tells us that the Law can’t save us. The Law orients us back to sin. The Law doesn’t communicate grace in any meaningful way. And now his argument has reached its greatest point. Can you hear it? Can you hear the power of what he has said? Let me read it for you. I’ll take my time…
Did you hear it? It’s a radical change. No, more than radical, it is a life changing change Paul is trying to effect in terms of how people view their lives. Here it is. It doesn’t work. Losing, failure, defeat, suffering. Those things do not work in separating people from God. God is not responsible for them, and, most significantly, they do not mark a person’s favor with God. Do you hear the power of these words.
What they mean is this. My fifth grade year might have been terrible, it may have impacted my life in a variety of ways, and I may have felt like a miserable failure at certain points during that year, and let’s be honest, since then, but that didn’t separate me from God! Do you hear that? Your worst moments, those times when affliction has fallen upon you, that did not separate you from God. Those times when you lost, when you suffered, when you failed, when you mourned, they hurt, they changed you, but they did not, they do not, and they cannot separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For centuries every failure and defeat had made believers feel the icy hand of God’s rejection, but not anymore. Now we should feel the opposite. So remember this, no matter what is happening, it won’t win. It will not separate you from God. Every loss, every defeat, every failure, then, is a testimony not to God’s absence but to God’s presence. It is God, God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s grace which will write the ultimate stories of our lives. Those things which have befallen us, as mild or severe as they may have been, do not own us and they do not have power over God’s love for us.
Make no doubt, we will all lose in life. Paul quotes Psalm 44 to make his point, “For your sake we are being slaughtered all day long.” Persecution cannot separate us. Death cannot separate us. Suffering cannot separate us. Do you hear me? Nothing has power over God’s love for you. Nothing. So know that God is there, with you, even in the darkness of defeat, and let that news transform every defeat, every loss, every bad thing into the truth of God’s eternal and abundant love. If you forget everything else about your Christian faith, if it all leaves you one day, remember this, there is nothing, nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.