How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?

This has been an important verse for my ministry since it began.  There are a lot of things you can do for God besides being a pastor.  As a good student, I wondered if teaching or engineering might be God’s path for me.  But once I received God’s call to professional ministry, other career options were taken off the table for me.  But within professional ministry (my, how I dislike that phrase), there are a number of different career paths, job opportunities, and areas where one might serve.  And that’s where this verse came to be quite helpful in my discernment.

How might one make the largest impact on the world for God?  I could individually serve people in an underfinanced setting.  I could run a homeless shelter.  I could run mission trips or teach theology.  But how might I make the largest impact?  Why, by not making a large impact at all, but instead by developing others to do that impacting.  If I could teach 100 people in my career to make a significant impact, that would be 100x as huge as me making an individual impact myself.  And so, the pastorate became my residence, my ministry, and my calling.

So, each week through sermons, each day through interaction and daily blog posts I try hard to teach and inspire others to impact this world for God.  I was sent to preach so others might hear and call on God (see the reverse order of the verse above?)  This is my ministry, my calling, and my passion.

May God send you in His perfect timing according to His perfect will to accomplish all He has in store for you.

Who in their right minds tells people today to “try less”?  Not a coach in the world would tell his players to “not try too hard”.  No orchestra director, no CEO, no leader ever would put up a poster in their office of a person swinging in a hammock taking a nap with a thick black border and the caption, “Quit trying!”

So what do we do with Paul’s teachings?  Not Paul’s interpretation, nor Paul’s opinion, but Paul’s description of what God is doing in the world.  The Jews who have tried hard forever to find righteousness by following the law have all failed – every one.  But the Gentiles, who didn’t even try, were declared righteous through faith in Jesus.  Paul seems to be promoting the motto, “Don’t try so hard.”

Evangelical Christians get very uncomfortable with passages like this.  In fact, when we read Rom. 9 and similar teachings, we may literally squirm.  We justify it by saying that following Jesus here means following Jesus’ new set of rules instead of the OT rules.  We ignore it and proclaim that salvation comes through obedience to Jesus’ law.  Or we fight it, citing myriad other verses that tell of all we need to do to to be acceptable to Jesus.

Just like the Jews reading this 2000 years ago.

But what if?  What if what God wants of us is less striving to be loveable and more amazement that we are loved?  What if it truly isn’t about following the rules, but is in stead about following Jesus?  What if God is less interested in our sins and more interested in His destruction of our sinfulness through the cross?  What if we are taking the easy road to righteousness by making it a checklist of sins we have avoided, only to find that that easy road is a dead end?  What if righteousness is the much harder task of living in relationship with God, something that requires far more of our time, energy, focus, and will than just following a bunch of rules?

How long will we ignore, justify, or fight Paul’s (and God’s) teachings in Romans and beyond?

This world seems a terribly unjust place.  As I hear from my black friends stories of their terror at a simple traffic stop because of all the shootings that have been reported, I cry at this world’s injustice.  As I hear from woman after woman who identifies with the #MeToo movement, and not a few males as well, I cry at this world’s injustice.  As bullying ruins lives, and self-righteousness ruins relationships, and the global sex-slave trade continues unabated, I cry at this world’s injustice.

We can choose who to blame.  Many blame “the world” and it’s sinful selfishness, for every one of these has it’s roots in people putting their own needs and wants above those of others.  Many blame “society” that teaches us unabashedly to put ourselves first, to solve problems with violence, and to seek pleasure above all else.  And many blame God who is in charge of this whole mess and should be stepping in to solve some of these problems rather than making His Children (us) do it as His representatives.  With the people of Malachi’s 2nd chapter, they cry, “Where is the God of justice?”  (My guess is that they wouldn’t be very happy with God’s answer to that question through Malachi.

Paul asks this same question for his readers in today’s reading:  “Is God unjust?”  But Paul’s answer is a bit more pensive than God’s in Malachi.  Paul’s answer is this: it is God who defines what justice is, so He is inherently just.  We can’t allow the world to define justice for us, for the world doesn’t know what true justice is.  It changes it’s mind and it’s definition regularly.  And it punishes every breach of it’s standard with corporate shame and judgement, exacerbated by social media.

The next time you find yourself questioning God’s justice, maybe what you are really questioning is God’s timeline.  God promises that the unrighteous will face punishment, and that the victims, the poor, the widows and orphans, the oppressed of this world will have their rewards, but in His time, not ours.  So the next time we think God is allowing child abuse, or bullying, or anything else on our list of injustices, lets remember that His timeline is not ours, and that Justice is itself defined by God’s will, plan, and behavior.

Yesterday, a young man from my church walked up to me, put a piece of paper over my head, and proclaimed, “Pastor Steve, you’re under arrest.”  I looked up to see the piece of paper had a musical quarter rest drawn on it.

Get it?  “Under A Rest”.

I told him, “there’s nothing like a good pun.  And that was nothing like a good pun.”  We laughed and off he went to find another victim.

I truly love puns.  Pun Wars have been a part of my father’s family for a very long time.  I share them with my kids, much to their dismay.  Some call puns “groaners”, and I think I know why.

“Groaning” is not a very fun word.  Groaning means we are in pain, whether physically or otherwise.  Groaning can describe us hearing a bad pun or rocking on the floor with a life-threateningly painful injury.  But seldom if ever have I heard “groaning” used as a pleasant or even good term.

Paul says that sin is causing the ultimate groaning.  In v. 22 all of creation is groaning under the weight of the world’s sin.  In v. 23, it is we who are groaning as we await our redemption.  In v. 26, the Holy Spirit of God groans it’s intercession for us.  And all of this pain, this groaning, is the result of sin, of our disobedience to God’s will, of our constant act of putting ourselves ahead of God.

But the good news comes to us at the end.  In the midst of this groaning and pain, we still cling to the Truth that we are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ because He loves us in spite of this sin.  Sin has consequences, but being unacceptable to God is NOT one of them.

What was your name for your father growing up?  For us, he was daddy, but I’ve heard titles from bampa to father, from pops to sir.  We all have names for our father or father figure – seldom do I meet anyone who called him by his actual name except as a phase in high school.

Jesus used, and Paul then picked up, a beautiful phrase for His Heavenly Father – Abba.  There have been many interpretations of this word, and the most common translation is “daddy”.  It’s a term of endearment from a young son to his respectable father.

Jesus’ use of this for God was shocking, even sacrilegious, to His critics.  It was far too familiar a word to be used for the Almighty, the Creator, the focus of their lives.  This kind of intimacy was heresy, and so this became one more reason for them to condemn Him in the end.

The word Abba, however, was far worse than this.  This is not the word a boy uses for his father.  Let me explain.

As infants, we have just begun using our vocal chords and moving our mouths to produce sounds.  So try something with me – let your mouth hang open and vocalize – you should hear something like a sustained “ahhh” coming from your mouth.  Now, like an infant who has just learned to close and open his mouth, keep the vocalization and open and close your mouth a few times.  Now you begin to get “Bah, ba, ba, ba, ba”.  If you use your tongue as well you might get, “da da da da”.  This is how we invented the honorific “dada” as an infants word for her father.  In the Middle East, rather than a “da” they heard a “ba” and we got the word “Abba”.

All of this is to say that Abba is not the word a young boy uses for his father, but is the word a helpless infant uses.  If we use the term Abba for our Heavenly Father, we are proclaiming ourselves as helpless infants in His sight – and truly that is what we are in spiritual terms.

Let me encourage you to use the term “Abba” in your prayers this week.  Just see how the title fits, and how it feels to admit your helplessness to God.

I still remember vividly and fondly the sermon preached at my Ordination Service in 1999.  We sat in Green Lake, WI and listened as Rev. Willie Jemison, one of the first black pastors in the Covenant, told us what it was like to be a slave.  Having someone who felt that experience as part of their heritage rather than just a historical fact made it more poignant for our class.  And his point was this: slaves have no rights, no choice, and no options.  They obey their master, whomever that master may be.  And every time I read the word “slave” in scripture, I think of this moment.

Today, Paul calls us “slaves to sin”.  We have no rights to tell sin we won’t obey.  As slaves to sin, we do what our master – sin- tells us to do.  “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” Paul says in description of a life lived as a slave to sin.  And if ever there were a description of the culture around us, this is it.  We are a culture of slaves to sin.  We cannot avoid sin even if we want to – this is called addiction.  And it’s gotten so bad, we do not even want to avoid most sins anymore.  We lie, we gossip, we exclude, we live for our own pleasure and comfort and safety, and we seldom stop to realize that our very lifestyle is proof that we are slaves to sin.

But God bought us back from our slave lord Sin.  God bought us with the blood of His son Jesus Christ.  That payment, the life of His son paid on a cross, was enough to buy us back.  But not to buy us into another level of sin, and not enough to buy us our freedom.  Instead, He bought us as His slaves, and so we have a new master, Jesus Christ.  And once again Willie’s message comes home – as slaves to Christ, we have no rights to say no when He requires things of us.  We have no choice but to obey His command.  This is the Christian life.  This is true life, and abundant life (Jn. 10:10)

I’ve always loved the shore.  Swimming is fun, and sunbathing or beach games were alright, but there is something about the shore, the line where the water met land.  My favorite was the ocean.  The shoreline in constant flux, constantly coming and going, with each wave, with each tide; transition in flux.

There’s something about transitions that draw us as humans.  We are drawn to change even when we fear it.  Perhaps it is its inevitability.  Perhaps the thrill of the new.

“Where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.”

Psychologists have given that time between states, what we call “transition” a different name, “liminal time”.  Liminal time is the time after you’ve left one state but before you’ve reached the next.  The best description I’ve heard uses trapeze artists.  The time after you’ve let go of the last trapeze bar but before you get a hold on the next one – this is Liminal time.  It is a time of fear, of lack of control, of uncertainty.  In real life, this is the time between jobs, when you’ve left the last but not begun the next.  It is the summer between High School and college.  It is the mid-life crisis as we transition from our younger idealistic (self-deluded?) selves to our more mature, realistic (self-aware?) selves.

But the amazing news of today’s reading is that God lives in liminal time!  A theologian once said, “Our liminal times of life are the best opportunities we have for growth, and possibly even the only ones.”  God gives us these transitions, these liminal times, because through them we grow in Him and as humans.  Yes, they are frightening, and uncomfortable, and often we would rather avoid them than face them and grow, but God walks with us through these spaces, even when we feel alone.

Watch for these transitions (adolescence, leaving home, marriage, children, promotions, retirement) and rather than run from them, embrace them as times of growth.  And always know that God will be there before you.

A plague hits the world, spreading across the globe until every person on earth is infected.  The gestation period is 4 months, at which time victims die a painful, horrible death.  Fear grips the world and people begin to turn on one another.  Until a report comes that one person has a cure.

What is the rest of this story?  What does this person with the cure do?

Maybe he sells it to the highest bidders.  Charge a ridiculous price and make millions, billions.  People will pay anything, so he sells it and becomes the richest person in history.  But the poor die in their poverty.

Or maybe he uses it for power.  “Obey me and I’ll give you the cure.”  Enslaving the whole world, he becomes the King of Earth.  But the disobedient die in their rebellion.

Or maybe he uses this as an opportunity to make the world a better place.  He sets up a utopia, ruled by his idea of what’s best for humankind, and only those who will agree to his Utopian vision get the cure.  The rest die in their disagreement.

But what if he simply gave it away to everyone freely?  No strings, no rankings, no payment… it was yours if you’d just come and take it.  Those living in constant fear and anxiety about their lives and the final 4 months they had to live would suddenly find themselves free, at peace with the world, and filled with a hope they thought they’d lost.  All he asks is that they go and tell everyone they know about this cure and where to find it.

Sadly, some think this is too good to be true and never come for the cure.  They die in their disbelief, not because they are poor, or rebellious, or disagree with the cure-giver, but simply because they cannot believe that salvation could possibly be free.

Our desire for God’s justice is a tricky thing.  We desire it for others, for those who have hurt us, who have “dug a pit” for me.  But not for ourselves.

I am a pretty intolerant driver.  When everyone obeys the rules and does what they should (by my standards of right and wrong anyway), I’m ok.  But give me just one driver staying in the lane that is about to end so he can gain 3 more places in traffic, give me one motorcycle passing traffic on the shoulder while we all wait in line, give me one merge where people don’t take their turn, and I’m yelling out the window at complete strangers.  I cry for justice for them.  Let their cars break down!  Let them get pulled over!  Let them get in a fender bender that wakes them up to the danger they are creating with their “bad driving”.

Yet when the policeman pulls me over for going just 7 over the speed limit, I’m equally incensed because there was nobody around, and everyone was going that fast, and it was a speed trap after all.

When it comes to justice, we want it for others, but not for ourselves.

Did you pick that up from the Psalmist today?  He begins with, “Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me…”  Our typical cry to God is a cry to set justice aside and give us mercy instead.  We pray for forgiveness, mercy, and grace which are the exact opposites of justice.

But then in the next verse he cries out “to God Most High, to God who vindicates me.”  In almost the same breath, he calls for mercy for him and justice for his enemies.

What would it look like if we cried for the same mercy for our enemies as we did for ourselves?  What if we called on God for justice against us as we do for justice against our enemies?  What if we were consistent?

Praise God today for His justice and His mercy, for His vindication and His grace, that He is just and merciful to everyone, and that which He brings to someone is His choice and not ours.