Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, September 25, 2016
Taken from Romans 8: 15-23
So far in our time together, I don’t think I’ve imposed many woodworking stories on you. Mainly, that’s because your eyes would glaze over within a few seconds of me starting. But, at that risk, here’s a little something from the wood shop.
If you’re going to work with wood, you’ve got to get your head around how a tree grows. Because, how the tree grows will determine how you’re going to work with the lumber that comes out of a particular tree.
Most of us have examined a tree stump, where the tree’s been cut cross-wise to reveal the tree rings. We see the alternating bands of what’s call spring growth and summer growth. We count those bands, and we add them up to get the age of the tree.
Imagine, though, if you cut that same tree not across it’s width but if you cut it up its length, so that you could open up that tree like a book. Like reading a book, you could read the life of that tree in much more detail.
You would see the pith of the tree right at the very center. You’re looking pretty much at the remnants of the sapling out of which this tree grew. All along the pith you’d see where early branches grew out that sapling and then broke off. Subsequent years of growth encased that old branch. That’s how you end up with knots in the wood. Along the way, you might find nails encased in the tree trunk or maybe even small bits of fence wire.
A few Wednesday nights ago, I showed folks photographs of a four-foot length of log I split down along its length. But the two halves didn’t want to separate. I assumed there might be a hidden knot that was refusing to break apart. Turned out not to be a knot at all; it was this lag bolt.
I had to get a hacksaw and saw the shaft of the bolt in two before I could get the halves of the log apart. The tree had grown and literally encased this lag-bolt.
One thing you’ll see in your log now split along its length is that the tree is made up of long fibers. It’s like opening a box of spaghetti, right? You open the box, take out the spaghetti, and you’re holding a fistful of spaghetti. That’s what tree fibers are like; they’re like this bundle of long, thin fibers bound tightly together. Except with this difference. Those fibers are what we call the grain of the wood.
Your fistful of spaghetti you’re holding starts off rigid and stiff out of the box. Then, you throw it into a pot full of boiling water and all the spaghetti gets very loose and flexible. You can bend it and tie into knots if you want to; it’s not going to break.
That’s how those spaghetti-like tree fibers start out. The tree fibers start off very wet and very flexible. Haven’t you seen trees that have twisted themselves into unbelievable curves and bends trying to reach the sunlight? I’ve seen trees that have twisted like a barber shop pole, doing what it had to do to stay alive. Trees can do that because the new tree fibers are like wet strands of spaghetti as they’re being made and added to the tree. They can do that, at least, while the tree is still relatively young.
Each year’s new set of fibers, though, eventually quits channeling water up through the tree. They begin to fill up with resin and minerals and finally, they become rigid and become what we call “heartwood”, which is basically dead wood.
At a certain point, that mass of heartwood fixes the shape and direction of the tree so that it’s just not going to do anymore twisting and turning toward the sunlight. Each new year’s new growth has to follow that shape and direction into which that mature tree is now forever fixed.
There is nothing you, as a woodworker, can do to change those wood fibers. The shape and direction of the grain is fixed; the best you can do is learn the possibilities and the limitations of grain. If the tree as a sapling twisted around as it grew, the wood fibers added in the following years are going to follow that twist come what may.
You can take a plank of wood out of that tree, and you can joint it and plane just as straight and flat as possible that morning. Set it aside. Before you get back from your lunch break, your nice plank will have started already twisting itself back to conform to its original, twisted growth. That’s what that particular tree had to do if it was going to survive and to thrive in the setting in which it grew.
The setting of a tree’s growth—the circumstances of weather and soil, other vegetation surrounding that tree as it grew from seedling, to sapling, to mature tree—all those influences are literally ingrained into every fiber of that tree.
You and I are like those trees. From seedling, to sapling, to mature tree, from birth, through childhood and adolescence, into mature adulthood, we embody not only the nutrients and liquids from which our bodies grew. We embody the influences of all our circumstances, the fair weather and bad, the good actions of others and our own, the bad decisions of others and our own…all of it is ingrained within us.
We have grown, we have adapted, we have twisted and turned, we have each of us done what we must to survive and to thrive. We have learned how to work with the grain of our lives to fashion the most useful, most functioning versions of ourselves that is humanly possible.
But, the somber assessment of the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is, the grain of our lives will not work, as is, for God’s purposes. We are, as with that twisted lumber hewn from that twisted tree, determined to go our own way regardless of the Master Artisan’s design for us.
The Apostle Paul spends a fair part of the opening chapters of his letter to the Romans laying out that very sobering, very offensive, assessment of what we moderns would call “the human condition”. Paul writes, of course, in terms of his own Jewish and Greco-Roman world. He writes of Jew and Greek, or “gentile” as we would say. He explores the values of each way of life—he lauds the Jews as heirs of the Covenant between God and Abraham; he acknowledges us Gentiles with our own inherent sensibilities of good and evil.
We strive to be the best versions of ourselves we know to be. But, if we’re honest, we live within the limitations of our failings. More than our failings, we live within the bounds of our own disregard for what we know to be right. We seldom truly come to terms with the depths of the twists we have turned. We forget the injuries encased deep within the rings of our years just as the maturing tree must encase the stubs of broken branches and injuries inflicted upon it if that tree is to continue to live.
Yet, all of it is there, if we could but cut our lives apart and read it like a book. All of it lies within: each subsequent year of our living, layer upon layer, ring added to ring, the living overlaid upon what once lived but now lies dead within, deep within, the heart, mind, soul and body of our lives.
Knowing this desperate predicament for all people, himself included, Paul cries out at end of chapter 7, verses 24 and 25, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The answer to that question is what Paul knows in his own life: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Why “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”? Why? That’s what Paul wants us as followers of Jesus to understand and get clear on: what has God done now, through the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?
Let’s be clear here. It is not God who crucified Jesus. God did not crucify Jesus. God called Jesus to follow as the Holy Spirit led Jesus and enabled Jesus to teach and to live a life that uniquely manifested the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus mission was to show what a life wholly dedicated to the way of God and the rule of God on this earth meant within this realm of God’s creation called “humanity”.
That’s what Jesus did. Even into that Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed, “God, must this path lead here? Isn’t there some other way to follow you and be spared what is to come if I persist on this path?” Until he breathed his last tortured breath, Jesus never fell away.
Jesus simply followed God as the Spirit of God led him, to live and to love as God lives and loves. Even as he hung, humiliated and crucified on a Roman cross, Jesus lived and loved until he literally had no life left with which to offer God’s love. And in that moment of death, Jesus showed the full extent of God’s love for God’s creation.
It was the local agent of the Roman Empire who crucified Jesus. It was religious leaders too closely entangled with that Empire who crucified Jesus. It was, in other words, the way of this world that refused the way of life and love that is God’s life and love, that crucified Jesus. To the extent that any of us chooses other than to live and to love as God lives and loves, we add our voice to the cries of the rabble: crucify him! crucify him! crucify him and be done with him!
God did not crucify Jesus. What God did, through God’s own Creative Holy Spirit, was raise Jesus from the dead. Resurrection. The world has the power to crucify; only God has the power to resurrect. And, that is what God did, when God released from the tomb not a resuscitated corpse of the Jesus who once worked wood in Joseph’s workshop, but a resurrected embodied person fit to bear the fullness of God, incorruptible and eternal: the unimaginable, the unforeseen, the Risen Christ Jesus.
To get back to our bent, curved and twisted tree: imagine if were possible for that same tree to be pulled up by the roots and replanted out in an open field. There in that open field, nothing overshadows it, choking out the sunlight, depriving it of water or nutrient. Then, imagine if it were possible, over the days and months and years ahead, all those rigid, twisted, fibrous spaghetti-like strands of wood locked in place once again coming alive, water once again infusing every fiber of that tree, from the pith at its core, working its way outwards, layer by layer, ring by ring.
Imagine that tree once again able to flex and straighten up as any sapling ever could, an old tree set free once again to live in God’s full sunlight. You would see a tree made over, to become what that species of tree could truly achieve as God intended it.
That is God’s salvation at work in you and in me and in all who choose no longer to follow the way of a world that crucified Jesus. We instead, have chosen the way of Jesus. We have chosen to way of the Crucified and Resurrected One.
Romans chapter 8, verse 12 reads, So, then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors—we are obligated, we have an I.O.U with God—no longer to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—that is, no longer to the way of the world that crucified Jesus—for if you live according to the flesh you will die. Paul’s grammar there is emphatic, as if he’d underlined it twice in red: live according to the way of the world that crucified Jesus, you will die!
When we had our family vacation out to Yosemite Park many years ago now, the first hike we made was up Vernal Falls. It’s one of the many beautiful waterfalls you can hike alongside of. At the top of Vernal Falls there is a railing to keep hikers from wading into the stream just above the Falls. All along the railing there, the Park Service has posted signs that read, “If you cross this rail, you will die!” That’s it! Non-negotiable, “You. Will. Die!”
That’s how emphatic Paul is writing here in verse 12. To live according to the flesh—again, Paul does not mean the human body; he means embodying the way of life that crucified Jesus, the way that kills us to the life and love of God—well, that is to choose death.
But, that’s not who we are, is it? We have chosen the way of Jesus of Nazareth. We have chosen the way of the life and love of the Eternal God as Jesus revealed that way. In choosing to follow Jesus’ way, we responded to God’s Holy Spirit. We received the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus to that unimaginable, unforeseen Christ-life. We have that resurrection life working within us, to uproot us and transplant us, to change us and to transform us.
Again, to use the analogy of the tree, we have the Holy Spirit within us, rehydrating the fibers of our beings, so that what was dead and inflexible to God, may live once again; so that what’s locked into place like so much dead heartwood may be released to respond and realign with living heart-love of God.
I, as have many of you, have experienced the ministrations of a physical therapist – or, as a friend who is married to a physical therapist once described his wife, the physical terrorist. The Holy Spirit is our Soul-Therapist.
It is a fearsome thing we do when we submit ourselves to the soul-therapy of God’s Holy Spirit. It can be a painful thing we do as our Soul-Therapist lays hold on us, to stretch loose what has become bound, to break free what has become locked, to push us into an increasing range of soul movement, but it must happen! How else can we keep up and keep pace with the Living Lord who commands us, “Come follow me!”?
It is God’s work in progress, in us. It is what Paul refers to in verse 23 as the first fruits of the Spirit…as we wait for [our full] adoption as God’s children [that is] the redemption of our bodies. Verse 24: for in this hope we were saved. It is in and toward that hope we are to live out our lives, in the here and now.
What’s really confounding is that apparently God has this same hope of redemption for all of the created universe. That’s what verses 18 -23 describes. Now, I am not going to pretend to know what Paul is talking about here. The words he uses describe the material, created universe of trees and bees and birds and stars and black holes.
The best I can say is this: it takes more than two teams to make a baseball game. It also takes a baseball diamond with an infield and an outfield on which to have a baseball game. This created order is the really big baseball park in which God is hosting this glorious game. In fact, it seems to be moving at about the same speed as the typical baseball game.
Whatever Paul means in those verses, he is striking a parallel between the spiritual work God is doing within our own material, bodily life, and what God is doing in the material life of creation.
At the very least, verses 19-22 should lead us as followers of Christ to seriously question those who so encumber this creation that it cannot realize the purpose and potential God intended for this physical earth.
As a congregation gathered in the name of Jesus, our first work of salvation is to worship God. Our other big work is to join God in our efforts and our prayers and our encouragement, to learn how to live and to love as Jesus lived and loved.
Well, that didn’t work out so well for Jesus, did it now? Doing that got him crucified. Yes, and doing that also got Jesus resurrected. That is our community; we are a community daily being crucified to this world’s way so that daily we may be resurrected into the way of Christ’s own eternal life. This is at its heart our common purpose and life together as a church.
We help each shake off all the ways the world would yet command us and shape us and twist us in its efforts to keep Jesus crucified and dead. We help each other to shake loose that enslavement, to unlearn, to untwist and to unshape ourselves from that bondage to death. We help each other to be reformed into the life of the Resurrected One.
This is our confidence that the Lord whose call we have answered will one day fully answer us, saying,“Well done! Well done, my sister! Well done, my brother!” All we hope for in Christ now, all will be realized in Christ then.