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June 3, 2012
Psalm 100, Psalm 139, Deuteronomy 7:6-11, Romans 8:31-39
06-03-2012 Sermon Introduction to sermon series:
Well, I dare say it would not be summertime at UPC without, you guessed it, a sermon series. We may be without a senior pastor, but we are certainly not without sermons.
When the staff met earlier this spring to decide what topic our series should cover, we decided not on something predictable like The Lord’s Prayer or The Beatitudes; no, this summer we decided on something distinctly Presbyterian.
We would focus on one of our church’s confessions; namely, A Brief Statement of Faith.
This confession of faith was commissioned in 1983 after the “Northern” and “Southern” branches of the church reunited to form our current denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA.
Our denominational leaders at the time believed this monumental event called for the preparation of a brief statement outlining our core beliefs as newly united body.
In front of you you should find, there in the pew rack, a small [insert color] card with the The Brief Statement of Faith printed on it. This is for you to use this summer either as a fan or, if you choose, as a reference aid. You’ll see that it’s been broken down by lines into small manageable chunks; each chunk representing that Sunday’s text.
For instance, this morning we’ll be focussing solely on line 1; and next Sunday Ted Wardlaw will be focussing on lines 2 through 6. That’s right, Ted Wardlaw has to follow me. Please keep him in your prayers this week. (I’m kidding, of course, and say this only because I know he’s preaching in New York this morning.)
With that being said, my preamble is complete. Let’s begin with line one. But first, let us turn our hearts and minds to God in prayer. Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each heart in this gathered body, be acceptable and pleasing to you, God, our strength, our hope, and our redeemer. Amen.
“In life and in death we belong to God.”
That’s been my Facebook status since Thursday morning, and can you believe it’s only gotten 26 likes? What is wrong with my Facebook friends?! I could upload a picture of our dog wearing reading glasses and it would get more likes than that!
It did, however, get some pretty great comments. One, in particular, from our own Randal Whittington, who shared that whenever she hears those words, she always thinks of Jack Stotts.
Jack Stotts, you may know, served Austin Seminary as it’s president from 1985 to 1996, and was often referred to as “a gentle giant.” He was tall, but his hugeness had more to do with his intellectual prowess and cheerful spirit than it did with his stature.
What you may not know about Jack Stotts is that he was appointed as moderator of the special committee responsible for writing A Brief Statement of Faith.
It took the committee 8 years to write the 80 lines that make up the confession. And of those 80 lines, Stott’s says, the first one is the most important. Perhaps that’s why Randal thinks of Jack whenever she hears those words; words he believed were foundational to who we are as Reformed believers, as Presbyterians, and as God’s own chosen and beloved children: “In life and in death we belong to God.”
Shortly after the document was adopted into the Book of Confessions, Stotts shared some of his reflections on the Statement during a chapel service at Austin Seminary. I listened to this address, which I could unfortunately find only on cassette tape, earlier this week while sitting in my car because that was the only tape player I could find.
And while sitting there, motionless in my carport, not knowing whether there would be anything of worth on this crummy, 20-year old cassette tape, I heard Jack Stotts deliver an eloquent defense of those first nine words. He said:
“The 80 lines are summarized in the first line: In life and in death we belong to God. Those nine words are, I believe, the throbbing heartbeat of what we hold most dear. They’re the anchor we toss out when times are difficult and waters are assail by storms. They’re the star that can guide us in the midst of sorrow and joy both. They are the handholds on a rocky cliff that prevents us from falling into the abyss. They reflect what is at the heart of the reformed heritage, the sovereignty of god. In life and in death we belong to God.
Those nine words, he said, have the rhythm of a mantra. Words to be said over and over again. Words to soak down into ones experience and into ones consciousness and into ones unconsciousness, so they may bubble up when we need to hear them or we can say them to ourselves or to some others whom we believe need to hear them. Listen, in life and in death we belong to God.”
The tape, I decided, was worth listening to. He was right, those nine words need to be heard over and over again. And each time we hear them, they are perhaps something new for us: a throbbing heartbeat, an anchor, a guide, handholds on a rocky cliff. Whatever their manifestation, they are, at their very core, words of deep reassurance and hope. Words that rescue us even in the most desperate of situations.
In life and in death, and in the midst of life, we belong to God.
One of the younger members of the committee responsible for preparing the Statement, a theologian by the name of Bill Placher, says of this first line, “It does more than say where life and death are to be found. It says where we are to be found in life and death–belonging to God.”—
In an age where it would be unacceptable to list God as your child’s emergency contact, it’s difficult not to believe that we belong to our parents and our children belong to us.
It’s not uncommon for a parent to list the experience of holding their child for the first time as one of the most profoundly meaningful experiences of their life; their life forever altered in the moment they realize, seemingly all at once, both the responsibilities and privileges of parenthood.
And yet in spite of the gravity of such a moment, some parents still fail to live into their parental responsibilities and abuse their privileges.
On Wednesday evening, Holly and I went to an informational meeting for people who are interested in becoming foster parents in the state of Texas. Prior to the meeting I had tried to prepare myself for what I might hear; I knew I would likely be disturbed by some things and surprised by others, but ultimately I had no idea what to expect. Before the meeting started, as I watched people walk in, pick up their handouts, and take their seats, I noticed the wide range of types of people there. There were young people and older people, white people and persons of color, single people and couples, people who already had children, and people that currently had none. But in spite of all this diversity, there was one characteristic we all shared: the desire to provide a child with a place to belong–even if only for a little while.
And so I couldn’t help but think about those words: in life and in death we belong to God. Throughout the entire meeting that short phrase looped and looped and looped in my head like a pesky tune. It bumped into memories from my childhood and adolescence: to whom I belonged was never anything I questioned! I always knew. I knew my parents would take care me, and if something happened to them and they weren’t able to, then I knew another important person in my life would swoop in and claim me. I began to worry that my understanding of belonging was only one sided. What would someone whose life has been riddled with displacement think or feel about the word “belonging?” What conscious or subconscious thoughts would bubble up for them?
And then it occurred to me: these words weren’t written for a denomination torn asunder who put themselves back together again. These words were written for lives that have been torn asunder by powers and principalities that claim we belong, not to God, but to them.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, not even death can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ.
There is a reason, I believe, this climactic and reassuring passage from Romans is so popular at funerals. Funerals, of course, imply that someone has died. But this passage is not for the deceased; it’s for the living, for those struggling to survive the severe pain of separation.
What can separate us from Love? Nothing. Nothing. Not even death.
One criterion the committee required of A Brief Statement of Faith was that it must help us have hope for the future. Without hope, God’s involvement in our present lives, especially in the midst of great suffering, might amount to little more than a feeble expression of the company that misery loves.
I believe these nine words: in life and death we belong to God, contain enough enough hope for a lifetime–from birth and death and every time in between.
[Reformed theologian, Shirley Guthrie, is often remembered for saying, “The best insight we have into what God will do is found by looking at what God has done. In other words, Christians remember the future.”
Hope does not belong exclusively to future; in many ways, without our past we our hope for the future is dismal at best. In 2008 a storytelling project was founded. Stories for Hope, is a storytelling project to help young Rwandans overcome a violent legacy. Many of their lives were ruptured in the 1994 genocide. Their remaining elders were quiet, fearing new grief or the spark of revenge. Lots of young women and men were left as orphans, without knowing the important stories of where they came from. They needed access to the past, without having to repeat it, and that’s where the storytelling project came in, helping to facilitate dialogue between young story-seekers, and their chosen elders. These conversations revealed hundreds of untold family and cultural stories. But, in order to carry young Rwandans to the brink of hope, the elders were encouraged to include difficult accounts of resilience and strength. And because of their courage to share stories about their past, the young listeners have since reported improved family relations, self-esteem, and the motivation to keep moving forward.
These nine words are our story, a complete account of our faith containing enough hope for a lifetime–from birth to death and for everything in between.]
Jack Stotts concludes his reflections on A Brief Statement of Faith with these words of hope:
When disappointment comes to your life as surely it will, remember you belong to God, not to disappointment.
When failure comes as surely it will, in some way, some time, and in some place, remember you do not belong to failure, you belong to God.
When suffering comes, as surely it will come, to me and to you, to our dear friends and neighbors. Remember, you do not belong to suffering, you belong to god who suffers for us and with us.
No matter what happens in the future, remember this promise: In life and in death we belong to God.
That is a solemn promise on which we depend. It’s God’s promise in which we have confidence.
The confession itself ends with a resounding echo: with believers in every time and place we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.