Labor Pains (6/8/03)
Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Today’s Bible passage is from the 8th chapter of Romans, and I’ve mentioned before that if I had to single out my favorite chapter of the Bible, the 8th chapter of Romans would be among the two or three I would choose from. It is all about life in the spirit, and God’s unfathomable love as expressed in Jesus Christ. There is no practical advice here. This is pure spirituality.
You heard one of the central passages read from the lectern this morning, and I want to repeat a part of that passage, because I think it is really powerful. Paul writes, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” What an image! All of creation groaning in pain. But why? What is creation trying so desperately to birth?
Paul isn’t as specific as most of us would like. He doesn’t say exactly what it is that is coming into being through these birth pains. He says that you and I have these inward pains as a part of creation’s pain, and that the first fruits of the spirit, which we have inside of us, don’t make the pains go away. They only make us look forward with hope to what is coming. But…what is coming?
I have never seen a woman give birth. My children were born by C-section, and back in those days the father was left to smoke cigars and pace nervously in the waiting room—especially if the birth involved a C-section. But I’ve heard stories. This giving birth to a baby is no walk in the park. What women endure in this process is not called labor discomfort, or labor irritability. It is called labor pain, and as I understand it, the name has been well earned.
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Actually, now that I think about it, I have seen a birth…sort of. It was a really big deal when I was in ninth grade—that would have been about 1969—and we all had to take a note home to our parents seeking permission for us to sit through a sex-education class in freshman biology. I remember a group of parents gathering one evening and agitatedly discussing this. My mother thought sex education sounded like a pretty good idea for boys and girls in their early teens. (Boys and girls were taught about this particular subject in separate rooms.) The mother of one of my best friends said, “School is no place to be talking about sex. As far as I’m concerned, children should learn about sex the same way we did in our generation.” And my mother asked her, “How’s that? In that backseat of a car?”
Anyway, I felt terribly sorry for the poor kids whose parents refused to sign the permission slip. They had to go sit in the gym and read, while the rest of us got to watch the movie of a woman giving birth. Now, we were informed that the woman in this film had a pretty easy time of it. The teacher speculated that she had probably given birth to many children previously, because there was no screaming, no cursing her husband for being born male, no sign of agony whatsoever.
But we could still tell this looked a little rough. Sort of like sticking an umbrella up your nose, and opening it. I remember this one kid named Frankie. Frankie was what we called a “hood” back in those days. He was a big guy, and loved to pick fights—especially with people about half his size. Frankie came strutting into biology that day and parked himself in his favorite chair, located, of course, in the back of the room. About halfway through the film we heard this sort of gurgling sound coming from behind us. And the next thing we know old Frankie is gasping for air and running from the room, projectile vomiting every step of the way. It was great.
Anyway, I figure when Paul tells us that all of creation is in the middle of some labor pains, creation must be hurting. But I also figure the pain must be worthwhile, because I haven’t seen a mother yet who, after the birthing experience was over, said, “Well, that just wasn’t worth it.” As great as the pain is, the result makes it all worthwhile.
So I’ve got to ask: How is it that the world—and each of us, according to Paul—is groaning in labor pains, and what is it we are waiting for?
I love my job. Seriously. I get to stand up here and throw out idealistic ideas that make no sense whatsoever to anybody who really knows the ways of the world. And what’s even better, I have no choice! I’m an ordained minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, I can’t stand here and say, “Well, Jesus said not to return evil for evil, and to turn the other cheek, but you can overlook that. If somebody clobbers you, why, you just belt them back a good one.” I can’t say that. Even if it makes sense! It’s just not the gospel. And the gospel never claimed to be wise, at least not in a worldly way. It only claims to be true.
After my more idealistic sermons, I am often confronted by people who say, “That was a bunch of nonsense. That’s just not the way the world works. People who think like you wind up getting killed.” And they are right! I try not to argue with them, although I do point out that the sign out in front of this place says this is a church, and church is a place people go to learn about the teachings of Jesus, and attempt to apply those teachings to their lives.
I fully understand if people sometimes think I am being naïve, or unreasonable, or simplistically idealistic. I can take those accusations gladly. But I would be awfully hurt if someone told me my sermons were unchristian.
I fully realize that we all have differing ideas about exactly who Jesus was and precisely what he said. It always amazes me, though, when people claim that Jesus wasn’t political. Then why did they kill him? Because they got tired of him telling everybody to love each other? I don’t think so. The teachings of Jesus turned the status quo upside down, and challenged the existing power structures.
Now, I make every effort not to be politically partisan from the pulpit. I would not stand here and say Jesus wants us to be Republicans, or Democrats, or Libertarians, or Socialists. But theologians and New Testament scholars pretty much agree that the most political statement a white, male, American citizen can make from the pulpit is this: I’m not political in the pulpit. That’s it! That’s the most political statement I could possibly make. Because what that says is that I refuse to acknowledge the world as it is today does not live up to the vision of Jesus. For me to say, “I’m not political in the pulpit,” is the same as me saying, “I find no problem with the way the world is operating. Things are going in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, and the powers and principalities we are commanded to stand against, are now all agents of goodness in this world.”
Sometimes I lie awake at night imagining what it would be like to have an actual conversation with Jesus. Like most of you, I’ve read the words of Jesus from the Bible countless times, and I’ve prayed for the wisdom to understand what God wants me to do with my life.
But what if I’ve got it all wrong? What if Jesus isn’t anything at all like I think he is? Maybe he’s changed his mind about things over the past two thousand years. And there are some important issues, for example current environmental concerns, that weren’t a problem in 1st Century Palestine. Jesus doesn’t specifically mention them in the Bible. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted how Jesus would think about such things. This is the stuff nightmares are made of! What if I had a conversation with Jesus, and it went something like this:
“Thanks for taking the time to visit with me, Jesus. First, I’d like to know your thoughts about the condition of our planet in the year 2003.”
And Jesus would say, “Well Gary, the planet is in great shape, and I must tell you I’m pretty disappointed in all those tree-hugging environmentalists standing in the way of commerce. We hear all this whining about air and water pollution, endangered species, and frankly, I’ve had about enough of it! What good is safe drinking water if there’s an economic downturn in New Jersey? My Father put things here on Earth to be used, and I say use them until you use them up!”
After regaining my composure, I would ask him, “How do you feel about the way people treat each other in the 21st Century. If you were to deliver a State of the Species Address, what would you say?”
And Jesus would say, “Gary, things are going great! It’s true that there are a few billion people—about a third of the people in the world—who are hungry. But what the heck? There are at least a billion people who are doing fine. In fact, they are perfectly happy, and don’t even think about those hungry people most days. This greatly pleases me, because I want people to be happy. And the technology people have developed is sensational! When I realize that people can launch missiles and precisely land them down some chimney halfway around the world, I simply swell with pride. Your weaponry has come along way in the past two thousand years. I’m especially fond of cruise missiles and daisy-cutters.
I would then ask Jesus about our modern American culture, and of course, he would reply, “You folks really got it goin’ on, Gary. The music, the movies, everything is going pretty much according to the divine plan. I’m especially fond of rap music. Oh, and the church! The church is outperforming my most optimistic expectations. There was a lot of confusion about the true meaning of my message over the first couple of millennia, but things are getting straightened out now. Rugged individualism, every man for himself, pick yourself up by your bootstraps or get run over by those who are willing to take the bull by the horns—that’s what I was trying to say all along. I’m glad you’re finally getting it!”
“One last question, Jesus. How do you feel about the way we, as individuals, are living our lives?”
And Jesus says, “This is one of those frustrating areas where there has been a lot of confusion. All that business about being your brother’s keeper, about the kingdom of heaven being among you—I don’t know what I was thinking. The notion of building the kingdom is ridiculous, unless, of course, you want to be the king. And that’s what I was trying to say. Be the king of your domain. And may the best man win.”
Thus ends my nightmarish conversation with Jesus. And okay, I admit I’m pushing the envelope a little bit here, but not as much as it might seem. Because the fact is, we don’t live the way I honestly believe Jesus challenges us to live. And that is not an accusation aimed toward any of you. That is a confession that comes from right here.
In my fantasy conversation with Jesus, he talked about the planet, the human condition, modern culture, and the way individuals live their lives. I don’t think about the way I am despoiling the biosphere as I drive all over town, fail to recycle like I should, and drench my lawn with potable water so it will be greener than the neighbor’s; I go most days without even thinking for a single moment about the people who are starving on this planet; I am very much a part of our modern Western culture, and I like Hollywood movies and Rock and Roll as much as anybody else in this room; and the last time I checked I was doing a poor poor job of imitating Mother Teresa. I may not be rich by some standards, but by any global measure I am wealthy beyond justification, and I like it that way. I am more than happy to be the king of my little domain.
But I would not stand here and tell you that I live a life in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, because that would be a complete lie. And while I will admit that there is hypocrisy in being a minister of the gospel while having a nice little bank account and a refrigerator full of food, I still won’t cross the line to the point that I will water down the gospel from the pulpit. I’ll be the first to admit that I myself do not always live up to it. But I will never pretend it doesn’t say what it says.
And that, I believe, is what those labor pains Paul mentions are all about. A large part of being a Christian comes in admitting that we are not everything God might like us to be. And creation is groaning in labor as the gospel tries to change us, tries to bring forth something better. The planet, humanity, our culture, and each one of us—we are all changing, day by day. None of those things—not the earth, nor the people of the earth, nor our culture, nor any one of us—is a completed work. The earth is different this morning than it was a year ago. The condition of the human race changes week to week. Our culture is in a constant state of flux. And when we go to bed tonight, we will not be the exact same people we were when we arose this morning.
Everything and everybody is in labor. And that really is what Paul is talking about. Remember our questions: How is it that the world—and each of us—is groaning in labor pains, and what is it we are waiting for? We are groaning in labor pains because we are changing into something new. Our thoughts, our words, our deeds are bringing forth a new planet, a new human condition, a new culture. And the thing we are waiting for is the kingdom—the kingdom envisioned by Jesus, which is already among us but has not been fulfilled.
Where is the kingdom? Right here, right now!
Who is a part of the kingdom? Everybody!
Why isn’t the kingdom a completed reality? Because some people refuse to accept that they are a part of it! But the kingdom is coming, because we have no choice. We can destroy our planet or take care of it. We can throw ourselves into the problems of the human race or we can devolve into chaos. We can only support those parts of our culture that bring goodness into the world, or we can turn the minds of our children into cesspools.
I know, I know, that is a bunch of idealistic nonsense. But what choice do we have, really? What is the alternative to protecting our planet, feeding and educating our hungry, and building a society based more on the common good than the individual desire?
The kingdom will not come with the abolition of this world, but rather with the transformation of this world. And how will this world be transformed? One person at a time. None of us can stop the rape of our planet’s resources. None of us can feed the billions of hungry people. None of us can make brotherly love more popular than personal pride. We have a terribly small domain, you and I. Ultimately, we have control over nobody and no thing other than ourselves.
I want to change. I want to grow into something better. Because that’s the only way the world can get any better. It really does go back to Jesus. His words are so simple and so profound. Turn the other cheek. It sounds crazy, but it works. I hit you, so you hit me. I hit you harder, and you hit me back with a club. So I grab a knife, and you grab a gun, and I get a tank, and you get a jet bomber…Where does it end. It doesn’t. Until somebody refuses to fight. The situation spirals out of control until somebody turns the other cheek.
All of those great sayings: Love your neighbor, give to those who beg, don’t judge other people—this crazy upside down logic of Jesus could get a person killed. In fact, that is exactly what happened to Jesus.
But let’s think about that. What is Jesus viewed human life as the search for something worth dying for? I mean, he knew he wasn’t going to physically live on this earth forever, and in the long run, what’s the difference if he lived to be 33, or 99, or 999? If he could find something worth dying for, then his life would have meaning.
People who find something worth dying for find meaning for their lives. It may be money, power, family, success, nation—there are any number of things for which people have sacrificed their lives. For Jesus, the answer was love. Love is worth dying for. Turn the other cheek, give to the poor, don’t judge other people, love God with your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
And with his ridiculous idealism, he gave birth to something pretty amazing. And make no mistake. We are giving birth to something, you and I. We are giving birth to a new culture, a new humanity, a new world. And like the child that comes forth from its mother’s womb, our offspring will be a reflection of ourselves.
We could do worse than make our lives reflections of Jesus.