Sermon for October 29th, 2017
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints
For some people it's Christmas. For others, it's Easter. But for me...my favorite Sunday of the year is Reformation Sunday. I love the bagpipes and drums, the red and tartan plaid, the old 16th century prayers and liturgies, and getting to sing my most favorite hymn at the end of the service. More than that, I love the history and heritage we celebrate on this day. I look forward to this Sunday for pretty much the entire month of October.
And THIS year! This is the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day--the day Martin Luther sparked the Reformation with his 95 bold ideas nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg. I've been looking forward to THIS Reformation Sunday--and all of the celbrations that are being observed around the world--for almost an entire year now.
But it's not just me. On the eve of this historic date, all of the presby-nerd pastors and elder-commissioners in West Texas gathered together last Thursday and Friday in San Angelo for our quarterly Presbytery meeting, complete with a guest lecturer on Reformation History, and a Reformation-themed costume party. I was ready with the Genevan Scholar's cap I ordered just for this occasion--and of course I've been doing my level best to grow out this reformed beard for the past two months!
So...One week ago today, I was filled with so much excitement and anticipation, I could hardly stand it.
My week began Monday morning when we got word that long-time church member Jack Barron was in the ICU, and about to be placed in Hospice care. Of course, I dropped everything to go see him.
Tuesday was parent-teacher conference day for my kids, which is always a little hectic, but manageable. Then late Tuesday morning I got a call from our church preschool letting me know that a handgun had been found on our church playground. Fortunately, school was not in session, and the handgun was quickly identified, removed, and no one was harmed, but most of the rest of the day was spent working with law enformcement and trying to figure out exactly what happened.
Wednesday morning began with a personnel committee meeting that was difficult, but necessary. Right after that meeting, we got the call that Jack Barron had passed away. On Wednesday, we also began to get calls from the media and from concerned parents about the handgun incident.
Thursday morning was filled with phone calls, emails, and meetings with parents and media. That's when I decided to cancel my trip to the Presbytery meeting in San Angleo.
Friday, after meeting with Jack Barron's family, and several more preschool parents, I found out that another member of our congregation was in the hospital and diagnosed with cancer. While I was in the hospital visiting with that member, I got a call letting me know that May Fiske has entered into hospice care. And so of course, I dropped everything to visit her as well.
It was pretty late by the time I got home Friday night, to an inbox full of more urgent emails and text messages to answer. That's about when it dawned on me that I still had two sermons to write--one for Jack Barron's service this afternoon, and another for this morning on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the Docctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints.
I don't feel like much of a saint, but this week has certainly been an exercise in perseverance (which, incidentally, Webster's defines as, "continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition").
Of course, for John Calvin and the 16th century reformers, the "perseverance" of the saints was not accomplished by the continued effort of the individual, but rather through the persistent effort of God, who gives his chosen ones the strength to endure trials and temptations throughout their lives and into eternity. This doctrine has been summed up with the catch phrase, "Once saved, always saved."
The Reformers looked to Paul's words in today's scripture passage, where he says for God's elect, nothing--"neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
But what about those who believe in Christ, but then later change their mind? Does it mean they were never really "saved" in the first place? And what about people who believe, but then experience frequent doubt (by the way, Mother Theresa was, by her own admission, in that category!). According to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, shouldn't God be strengthening their faith so that it's impossible for them to doubt or turn away?
In Classic Calvinism, the ultimate trajectory of a person's journey is more important than the twists and turns that happen along the road. And in any case, for the Calvinist, "choosing" whether or not to believe in God is NOT what makes a person "saved." It's GOD choosing YOU before the beginning of time itself--and if that happens, eventually God's "Irresistible Grace" is going to draw you to him, no matter how many detours you take along the way.
In Darwinian Evolution, I think that the "Perseverance of the Saints" finds its equivalent idea in the "Preservation of the Species." It's just a slight difference of where the immortality resides. For Calvin, some individuals die in their sins, while others through God's Unconditional Election are sanctified, regenerated, and receive eternal life. For Darwin, some species die out while others, through the process of Natural Selection, evolve, improve, and thrive for millions of years.
Another way of understanding the Doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints comes from my friend and fellow Calvinist, the Rev. Bill Schlessinger. He explains it by saying that "once you see something, you can't unsee it." Once you experience something, you can't unexperience it. You may not have "chosen" to experience something, but you did, and now you are irrevocably transformed.
I want to end this sermon (and this series) with a story, with one of those irrevocably transforming moments that happened for me in the midst of my chaotic, traumatic, emotionally exhausting week last week.
I told you that on Friday evening (when things were, arguably, at their most challenging point), I was visiting a congregation member in the hospital, when I got word that May Fiske had gone into hospice care. May Fiske is one of our most beloved long-time members. She is a centenarian (she celebrated her 100th birthday last year), and right up until just a few years ago, you would find her standing right inside the front entrance to the church, every Sunday morning, with a big smile on her face, waiting to greet everyone who walked through our doors. She is truly one of the saints among us.
So as soon as I heard the news, I rushed over to the retirement home where May lives, hoping to visit with her while she was still alert enough to do so.
In seminary, I learned that pastoral visits should always be brief--you never want to overstay your welcome. And this Friday night, with everything on my mind and on my plate, that was a good thing. My plan was to drop in, check on her, visit with her, pray with her, and quickly go home to start work on my sermon.
But when I walked through the front doors of her retirement home into the main lobby, I walked right into the middle of a piano and guitar recital for elementary school students. And there was May Fiske, sitting in the front row, with a big smile on her face, alert and awake as ever. And when she saw me, that smile got even bigger. So I went over and sat down right next to her. And for the next two hours (there were 36 kids performing at the retirement home that night!) we just sat next to each other in silence, listening to the music, and applauding each student as they performed.
And somewhere in the midst of those two hours, all the challenges and struggles, the roller-coaster ride of the past week and the pressure of things to come...just faded into the music. I think it was probably the first time all day I had been able to sit down. May was clearly enjoying herself, in spite what any of her doctors or caregivers may have thought. And that kind of enjoyment is contagious.
In the room that night were young children at the very beginning of their life journeys, filled with energy and talent and promise for the future.
Their parents were there too--those like me, right in the midst of their journeys, no doubt filled with the anxieties and responsibilites of our characteristically overscheduled lives.
And then there were the residents of the retirement home, those like May Fiske, whose journeys are drawing near to a conclusion, for whom much of their days are spent quietly sitting, thinking, remembering, and simply appreciating the music.
There is a neverending rhythm to life, as we come and go from this world, as our paths cross and connect with others at various points along the way.
One of the last students to perform played a beautiful waltz on the piano--it was the theme song from the movie La La Land. I remember May Fiske telling me once how she and her husband Clay loved to dance, and as my eyes closed, listening to the music, I could imagine May and Clay Fiske as a young married couple again, dancing gracefully underneath the chandelier in that lobby.
And then that image in my mind faded, replaced with one of me and my wife Amy, growing older together, and dancing underneath that same chandelier into our seventies, eighties, nineties and beyond. Other couples waltzed around us--family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, neither old nor young, but timeless--weaving in and out of our path, all beloved children of God.
To me, the Perseverance of the Saints is about putting things into perspective...a broader perspective, or even an eternal perspective. Perhaps it is the eternity of the individual soul, perhaps it is the eternity we share a small part in as generations go by. I don't know.
Either way, when we take that longer view of things, it makes it easier to persevere through comings and goings, through times of stress, and through times of change. That kind of eternal perspective also makes it easier to slow down, pause, and recognize the moments of joy and beauty in the midst of it all.
And so we come to the end (of this series, and our 500 year celebration). From Total Depravity all the way to the Perseverance of the Saints, the five points of Calvinism remind us that every saint is a sinner, too, and through God's grace, even sinners can be saints.
People of First Presbyterian Church...saints, sinners, and spiritual seekers...may you...may we...PERSEVERE--for the next 500 years and more. Soli Dei Gloria. Glory to God alone.