Has there ever been something that you really, really wanted…or maybe even something that you needed…and you just couldn’t quite get there? Maybe it’s a goal…or a hope…but it’s something that you’ve really been working towards…and it remains, elusively out of your reach.
I’ve experienced that. I’m sure you have too. In my college years, I played in the concert band. I really wanted first chair…I really did. Bu no matter how hard it felt like I worked, I just couldn’t get there. I would get so frustrated with myself.
- Never mind the fact that the two people above me were actually music majors…and I wasn’t.
- Never mind the fact that the two people above me actually had a lot of talent…and I didn’t.
That goal…that hope…I wanted it, but no matter how hard I worked, it remained just beyond my reach.
You may have experienced similar things…applying for a job, or trying out for a team…when the results are “almost, but not quite.”
When we experience this, well, it can really affect our sense of self, can’t it? When you discover that a goal might be out of reach, well maybe you’re not actually who you hoped you were. Maybe I’m not the great, concert musician that I’d hoped I was…
This is what the Apostle Paul is writing about in our reading from Romans today. He is writing to those who have been trying…but their goal, their hope, really…their salvation, has been just out of reach.
Let me show you what I mean:
I’m going to drop an orange cone right here. This represents the “starting” line. Over here, this one is the “finish line.” Up here on this platform, this is the prize for getting to the finish line. One, filled, chocolate donut.
Now, I need a volunteer. Someone 16 or older. Really, it won’t be painful, and it won’t be embarrassing. And hey…there is a prize. Who’s up for it?
Excellent. Thank you! Here’s what I want you to do. Stand at the starting line. Do you see the donut? Doesn’t it look good? When you get to the finish line, it’s yours. You can go as far as I tell you. Ready? Ok. I want you to go half-way to the finish line, and then stop. Excellent. Ok, now, from here to there, I want you to go half way. Ok. Go half way again. Great. Go half way. Go half way. Go half way. Go half way. Are you there yet? No. Ok, go half way. Half way. What’s the problem? Do you think if you keep going half way, you’ll ever get there? No. It’s simple math really. You’ll always be just a fraction of a way from your goal. No donut for you.
This is the faith life of those who lived in the Jewish tradition in the time before Jesus.
Righteousness…that is, wholeness with God, came from fulfilling all of the laws that God gave them. And we’re not just talking about the 10 commandments. If you add up all of the laws found throughout the Old Testament, there are a total of 613. If you were Jewish in that time, your relationship with God would be right, when you could follow all 613 laws.
No matter how good you were, do you think you could follow all 613 laws, to the letter? No. You’d always be right here…standing…with the goal almost within reach…but not quite. From the time of Moses, this had been a struggle. And the people had been punished…and they had wandered…and they were frustrated…
This is who Paul is writing to when he says “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’”
Paul is saying that it isn’t about how hard you try…or how close you get…No, it’s not at all about what we do…it is about what Jesus does.
You see, it doesn’t matter where you stand on the line, or how good you’ve been. Wherever you are, Paul is reminding you that Jesus comes to you. Jesus closes the gap, and because of Jesus, you receive the gifts, the gifts that were promised in your baptism. The gift of eternal life, and forgiveness of sin. (and maybe even a donut.) Thanks for coming up and helping.
This is the Good News. But there’s much more. Paul goes on to write that: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” Paul writes this because there were those Christians at the time, who believed strongly that these gifts were exclusive gifts…reserved for those who came out of the converted from the Jewish faith. But Paul is making the bold claim that God’s gift is a gift for all.
I have a friend, named Tom Tipton. Tom is 82 years old. After he retired, he moved to the Twin Cities and was a member of my last congregation. Tom is one of the most interesting people I’ve met.
A couple of years ago, Tom wrote a book called “Shining In, Shining Out,” where he talks about growing up in Washington DC, just a few blocks from the White House. This was during the great depression, and Tom’s family was very poor. As a little boy, to earn money for the family, Tom would stand on the sidewalk outside of the White House and shine shoes for the business people and the politicians who walked by.
When Tom was around 12 years old, he walked on a Saturday to the White House to shine shoes, just like he did every Saturday. When he got there, there were crowds of people inside the fence, on the White House lawn, parents and children. It was the day before Easter, and it was the day of the annual White House Easter Egg Hunt.
Tom stared in at the fun and the activities and walked over to the gate to enter and join in.
But there, a guard stopped him. Tom wouldn’t be allowed to enter. Tom was, after all, African American. So, Tom had to stay outside the gate, on the sidewalk, and just stare in at the laughing children and their parents. So close…but just out of reach.
This had a profound effect on Tom, and he spent much of the rest of his life working to right wrongs, and bring reconciliation.
If you were to sit down with Tom today, at age 82, he could take hours of your time telling stories of all the things he’s experienced.
- He’d tell you about being on the planning committee for the “March on Washington,” you know the one where Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I have a Dream” speech?
- He’d tell you about meeting Hubert Humphrey there, who asked him to move to St. Paul to open a jobs program, that’s still running today.
- He’d tell you about how he loved to sing, and would sing at weddings and funerals.
- He’d tell you about being invited to travel all over the globe to sing gospel songs.
- He’d tell you about being in Oslo and singing for the King, who made him an “Honorary Norwegian.”
- He’d tell you about singing for 4 different US presidents.
- He’d tell you about being invited by Dr. Robert Schuller to sing every week on “Hour of Power.”
He’d tell you the story of that Saturday when he was twelve years old, and was denied entry to the Easter egg hunt. But then he’d also tell you about how he was invited by President Bill Clinton, to return to the White House, fifty years after that Saturday afternoon Easter Egg Hunt, and he was invited to sing at a formal White House reception, right there in the East Room. He’d tell you about walking up to the White House, past the spot where as a child he would shine shoes. And he’d tell you about walking in the gate, where he had once been rejected because of his skin color.
And suddenly, what had been out of his reach, was right there…in his hands. Fifty years later. He writes that it brought a sense of peace, joy and reconciliation.
There are two things I want you to remember from Paul’s letter to the Romans today:
First, it does not matter who you are, where you live, if you are Jew or Gentile, black or white, smart or…less smart, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, male or female, varsity or “b-squad,” first-chair or third-chair…Paul writes that “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
Now, I have to pause here for a moment: My conscience demands that I respond to the events of the last 72 hours. I spent a week in Charlottesville, Virginia a few years ago on a Habitat for Humanity build. It was a beautiful, charming city with amazing, kind residents. What is going on there now breaks my heart.
The racial hatred, violence and destruction happening in Charlottesville is simply wrong. And as Christians who believe what Paul tells us today, that “the same Lord is Lord of all, and that everyone…everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Let me be absolutely clear: Those of us who believe Paul’s words, who believe Jesus’ words, have no choice but to condemn this violence and the racial hatred that motivates it. This is not ok.
Those who perpetuate racial violence? Yes, they too travel this same line that we are all on…but their anger and hatred is driving themselves further and further from the deep and abiding presence of God.
And what really bothers me is that those who commit these acts of racial violence do so by claiming it is God’s plan. They are hijacking the message of the Gospel and twisting it into a message of hate. It is up to people of faith, to speak against this, wherever we see or hear it.
You see, we don’t get to decide who is and isn’t worthy of the love and grace of God. It’s not up to us. We don’t even get to decide if we ourselves are worthy of the love and grace of God. That’s not up to us. Those decisions were already made for us, 2000 years ago, in the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The second thing I want you to remember is this: It doesn’t matter where you are on the journey through life, faith and the law. You might feel like you’re here, at the beginning, or here, in the middle, or you’re right there…so close.
Earlier in Romans, in chapter 3, Paul reminds us that for God, “there is no distinction, since all…all…have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul is telling us that whatever the distance, however far we feel from God, (and I suspect there are some here today for whom God feels pretty distant), Jesus comes to us. There is no distance too great for God. Jesus comes to you wherever you are. He is right there…in reach…always.
Through Jesus, your relationship with God is restored and made whole. And what felt distant, what felt out of reach, is suddenly brought right to you, in the warm embrace of the love and grace of Jesus.
Thanks be to God!