Sermon Transcript

From yesterday:
"From a Dungeon of Our Own Making to An Unbridled and Unshakable Love: The Greatest Story the World Has Ever Known”

Many people believe that the Bible is the greatest book in the world.  Many people believe that Romans is the greatest book in the Bible.  And many people believe that the 8th chapter of Romans is the greatest chapter in the book of Romans.  So I have some great material to work with today.

But before we get into this great material, I want to talk about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.  You may recall that Sergeant Bergdahl was in the news a lot earlier this year because, after being captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan five years ago, he was recently safely returned to the US in exchange for five Taliban detainees. 

Amid all that is going on in the world, this was THE news story for quite some time, and why not?  Think of how many important and emotional themes were wrapped up in this story. 

On the one hand, you have this notion of our military as heroes, the deeply engrained commitment to “leave no one behind,” the sense that a family, a president, a country will do anything and bear any cost to bring a captive soldier home safely.  We Americans would be hard pressed to push back against any of that.

But there is another, darker and more controversial side to this story.  Did Sergeant Berghdahl abandon his station?  Did he empathize with the enemy before or during his captivity?  Should we be honoring such a man with the title of hero?  Was he worth searching for, and was he worth trading detainees for?

And what about President Obama’s choices?  How many lives did he imperil while searching for Sergeant Bergdahl?  How many lives will be endangered as a result of freeing these five Taliban captives?  Was Sergeant Bergdahl worth such a swap?  And was President Obama trying to spin this dark tale into a feel-good story to score himself some political points?

I don’t know.  I’m not trying to make any kind of partisan argument here.  I just want to use the story of Sergeant Berghdahl to draw us into a more intimate understanding of who our God is and what our standing is before him.  So, let’s go back to Romans 8.  I want to read verses 28 to 39.

[Romans 8:28-39]

The book of Romans was written by the apostle Paul, who also wrote 12 other books in the New Testament.  But many people consider Romans to be Paul at his finest.  Here he is, like a high-powered lawyer arguing his case in court, marshaling evidence that speaks to head and heart, until you are left utterly convinced and breathlessly convicted. 

And what is it that Paul is arguing?  Well, for the first seven and a half chapters, he develops five powerful themes that find their absolute climax in the passage I just read.  Let me touch on these themes very briefly. 

One, God is glorious. 

Two, man has fallen short of that glory by exchanging it for things that are not God. 

Three, man is helpless to be reconciled back to God.

Four, God alone does the reconciling work, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

And five, that reconciliation extends to us through our faith in Jesus Christ and not through any work that we do.

Taken together, these five themes, which run through the first seven and a half chapters of the book of Romans and through many of Paul’s other books, are what Christian folks often refer to as “the gospel.”  When we are exhorted as Christians to “preach the gospel,” these are the core components of the message we are preaching.  It is, by our confession, the greatest message in all the earth.

And yet I wonder if that message has lost its bite in our lives.  You may know that “gospel” means “good news.”  Is this message “good news” in your life?  Do you react to it, every day and every hour and every breath, as you would with other good news you receive?  Do you jump up and down, hold your heart and cry, frantically reach out to your friends and family because you are overflowing with joy? 

I want to.  I want you to.  I want our church to.  And I think we will, once we truly understand who our God is and what our standing is before him.  And to help us with that, I want to go back to Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

You see, we ought to relate very strongly to him.  We too have been enlisted into a great and terrible conflict.  But we have abandoned our mates and neglected our posts.  And we find ourselves commiserating with the enemy.  And now we are held captive by that enemy, with no hope for escape from a dark and dank dungeon.

Let me stop here for a minute.  Here’s the problem.  We don’t in fact relate very strongly to Sergeant Bergdahl’s predicament.  We consider ourselves upstanding citizens, do-gooders, fervent believers.  We are far from that feeling of hopelessness that comes from being shackled by our own waywardness and by the vileness of our enemy.  We have distracted ourselves, convinced ourselves, anesthetized ourselves from feeling that feeling of utter lostness.

When was the last time you felt utterly lost?  When was the last time you grasped at the core of your being just how shackled and abandoned you are?  When was the last time you crumpled to the floor because you had nothing left to say or do in your own defense? 

Why do you think so many powerful hymns that we sing have this imagery of light piercing into a dark and dank dungeon?  It is because we need to be reminded that we are in fact, without the saving work of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, locked up in that dungeon. 

And it is an imprisonment of our own doing!  We wandered away, we took up with the enemy, and we now find ourselves shackled by that enemy.  We are, like Sergeant Bergdahl, without a defense and without a hope. 

Let me take a step back here.  Actually, some of us have no problem relating to Sergeant Bergdahl’s plight.  For some of us, the enslavement of our sinful ways is not a long past or theoretical thing, but a very real day to day struggle.  For some of us, we feel the shackles on our limbs, we smell the dankness of the dungeon we are in, and our eyes have long lost hope of seeing light again. 

If you are there, you are not far from the radiant love of God.  Because a prerequisite of needing, seeing, and receiving that love is being emptied of any sense that our worthiness, our hope, our rescue comes from ourselves.  A prerequisite of needing, seeing, and receiving that love is being emptied of any sense that our worthiness, our hope, our rescue comes from ourselves.  It does not and it cannot.  But it can and does come from a God who, of His own free choice and out of His abundant love, chooses to reach into that dungeon of our own making to rescue us into a magnificent light.  

Here is Paul, bringing his forceful argument to a fevered pitch in this second half of the 8th chapter of the book of Romans.  He knows his own heart and the hearts of his readers, and he knows his God.  And so he writes, under the inspiration of God Himself, to melt away all that might stand between us and God’s unbridled and unshakable love for us.

For one, we might consider ourselves too lost to be found, too beaten down to feel we can ever hope for good, too sullied to be glorified.  Just as Sergeant Bergdahl’s critics sneer at the thought of so flawed a man being saved and honored, so do the accusations of others, of the enemy of our souls, and of our own hearts beat us down. 

But Paul says [8:28-30].  God has a plan, and it is to glorify us, and He will not be deterred from achieving that plan, and from doing so in a way that ultimately glorifies Himself.

Two, we might wonder if we are worth saving at all.  Time Magazine asked this very question about Sergeant Bergdahl on its front cover story last month: “Was He Worth It?”  It’s not just the five freed Taliban captives, but also the five years of searching for him and the current political and geopolitical headaches associated with his return.  So too might we question whether we deserve to be rescued at so great a cost. 

But Paul says [8:31-34].  If God is for us, who is against us?  The answer is: a lot of people!  Including ourselves sometimes.  Paul’s point is not that there is no one against us, but that the fact that God is for us trumps everything.  And the fact that God has expended His Own Son to be for us means that there is nothing else He can’t and won’t do to continue to be for us. 

Which brings me to my third and final point, which is what makes all of this “good news” indeed.  And that is that all of this flows from God’s unbridled and unshakable love for us. 

Whether or not Sergeant Bergdahl’s actions were flawed, the fact is that he was rescued.  And whether or not President Obama’s motives were flawed, the fact is that he authorized the rescue.  Even as the pundits and the public argue over actions and motives, the story has a happy ending for Sergeant Bergdahl and his family.

How much more is Romans 8 a happy ending for humanity.  The “good news” about the story of God and His dealings with us is that there are no uncertainties.  You can argue about whether Sergeant Bergdahl’s actions were flawed; I don’t know.  But I do know that we are certainly flawed and without hope in a dungeon of our own making.  And you can argue about whether President Obama’s motives were flawed; I don’t know.  But I do know that God’s love is certain to overcome that dungeon and to pour forth His love into our tattered lives.  Paul writes [8:35-39].

This is the culmination of Paul’s argument, an argument he has been building now for eight chapters.  God is glorious.  We are lost.  And there is no way out.  Woe on us! 

Ah, but wait!  There’s good news!  God initiates and secures the rescue.  He pours His light into the dark and dank dungeon, rids us of our shackles, and rips apart the iron walls that caged us. 

And He did it out of love.  It is a love that cost Him His Own Son, a love that we cannot ever be separated from.  Not by tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword or death or life or angels or principalities or things present or things to come or powers or height or depth or any other created thing.  Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

For five long years, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl lived in the utter hopelessness of his captivity.  Shackled in a dungeon of his own making.  A nation divided as to whether he was worth saving.  And at great cost, he was rescued. 

What about us?  Do we understand how utterly lost we are without the saving work of Jesus Christ?  Can we feel, smell, and taste the dungeon of our own making?  At great cost, we have been rescued.  God did it all.  And He did it out of love.  And He promises that nothing will be able to separate us from that love. 

The story of Sergeant Bergdahl’s captivity and rescue gripped us for many weeks earlier this year.  May the story of our own captivity and God’s rescue compel us all of our days.  Amen.


Where Lincoln's Effectiveness Came From

Given that he announced his candidacy in Springfield and read "Team of Rivals" while on the campaign trail, it's clear Barack Obama saw Abraham Lincoln as his presidential role model.  The two men have a lot in common, and not just because they are tall and skinny and have Illinois ties.  Both entered office as relative lightweights but rhetorical powerhouses, and believed in the power of the rightness of their ideas to win the day. 

But, being almost through "Team of Rivals" myself, I see one point of departure.  Lincoln, while not an extreme gadfly, loved to socialize, joke, and tell stories.  And, combined with a deep sense of humility as well as insight into the human character, it considerably increased his influence over and effect on people.

Lincoln was particularly mindful of and gracious towards the people around him.  If anyone felt he had wrong them, even if it wasn't intentional or there was no merit to the perceived slight, Lincoln went out of his way to reconcile with that person.  He made people feel good about themselves, and was always ready to deflect any praise his way while lavishing it on others.  He could draw a hard line, to be sure, but he was ever ready to accommodate, to butter up, and to give the benefit of the doubt.  And he never doubted his intelligence or his rightness, but he was quick to make fun of himself and his humble upbringing.

Obama, on the other hand, does not seem to enjoy the DC game.  It's hard to fault a man for being loyal to his family to want to eat dinner with them every night, or for being introverted enough to prefer solitary reading and preparation over socializing.  But pressing the flesh and spending time rubbing elbows is how you build relationships, and relationships is how things get done.

Maybe you think it's the Republican obstructionists who have kept Obama from achieving his agendas, and maybe you're right.  But maybe it's something more mundane: he didn't take the time, and didn't seem to want to take the time, to be with people, crack jokes with them, and be thoughtful about how to make them look good (even at the expense of taking a dig at himself).

Maybe you think I'm naive, that that might have worked in Lincoln's days but today's DC is far too partisan and cynical for wise cracks and aw-shucks shrugs to make things happen.  And maybe I am.  But maybe you're being naive if you don't think that lawmakers and other leaders don't care about having time with the President, being complimented by the President, and having the President deprecate himself in order to share honors with others.

Abraham Lincoln was a righteous person with an underrated sense of timing and savvy.  But he was also a socially available, humble, and gracious human being.  Thanks to "Team of Rivals," I am newly aware of the importance of the latter traits in getting things done.  I hope that Barack Obama will learn that soon too.


Sending the Same Letters to Congress

http://likethedew.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Letters2Congress-480x360.jpgEvery six months or so, I like to be a good citizen and write something to my elected officials in DC.  Having last written in early January, I'm due again.  I try to rotate topics but I keep coming back to immigration reform, which I wrote about last time.  I recently reread what I wrote, and feel like I want to resend that, because it represents what I want to say to my political leaders now, and even more given the growing number of young people seeking entrance into our country. 

As I wrote yesterday, I'm torn on what the short-term solution is to waves of kids arriving on our borders.  The only clear thing it's telling me is that a long-term solution is needed all the more.  Economies and societies rise and fall depending on the influx of young talent, human capital, and sweat equity.  And yet we hinder instead of helping when it comes to people choosing our country.  When the history books are written about this time and this subject matter, I shudder at what they will say about our great nation. 


It's Not That Simple

http://www.seykota.com/tribe/EcoNowMics/Hole_in_the_Bucket/1_HoleInTheBucket.jpgI've blogged about being able to see both sides of a story before, most recently in April, but I feel compelled to chime in yet again on account of recent ongoing debates at the local and national level.  Stop me if you've heard this (or said or thought this yourself):

Locally, lack of funding is destroying the public schools, and anyone who opposes efforts to increase funding is heartless.

Nationally, Central American kids are streaming to our borders, and suggesting that we send them back to their home countries is heartless.

Both of these topics are about kids, so it's especially easy to think that the straightforward solution is the only morally acceptable one.  And it may very well be the most morally acceptable one.  But, take a moment to see the other side:

Locally, funding matters, to be sure.  But if there are systemic flaws in our school systems, pouring more money into them without addressing those flaws is like dumping water into a bucket with a big hole on the bottom.  It doesn't actually solve the problem.  (Although, if your goal is not to solve the problem but to look good "fighting for what's right," then go ahead and suggest that we keep on dumping water into that bucket.)

Nationally, vulnerable kids should be protected, to be sure.  But if recent measures to harbor kids are what caused the massive influx in the first place, and are taking us away from a more thoughtful and comprehensive solution to the very complex issue of immigration, I'm not sure that protecting these kids is the best long-term solution and I'm not even sure that doing so doesn't make things far worse in the long run.

I'm not saying that funding schools or taking care of the incoming kids isn't the right thing to do or even the shrewdest long-term action to take.  I'm just saying it's not the slam dunk many people take it to be.  Very caring, very wise, and very thoughtful people can disagree with that stance and not be evil. 


Lazy Linking, 129th in an Occasional Series

3D Calligraphy by Tolga Girgin typography calligraphy
Stuff I liked lately on the Internets:
129.1 3-D calligraphy? 3-D calligraphy bit.ly/UfJgGe @thisiscolossal

129.2 The science behind why I always end up in the slowest line at the cash register wrd.cm/1mdGrvK @wired

129.3 Private equity firms poaching talent from i-banks make offers up to 18 mo in advance nyti.ms/1mt1NW6 @nytimes

129.4 Debunking the Myers-Briggs Personality Test bit.ly/1qctoTH  @voxdotcom

129.5 Less than 1% of scientists publish, but they contribute to 41% of all papers & 87% of highly-cited ones


Recommended Reads, 18th in a Quarterly Series

Stuff I've read lately that I'd recommend:

No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (Beavan).  A sometimes hilarious but always thought-provoking account of how hard it is to truly drive your environmental footprint down to zero.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World Paperback (Johnson).  You know I love Stephen Johnson, but this book blew me away.  It had it all - intrigue, calamity, science, and maps!

The Plundered Planet: Why We Must--and How We Can--Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (Collier).  A very thoughtful exploration into the intersection between economics and the environment.

Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game (Thorn).  Turns out baseball's genesis wasn't idyllic and instantaneous but rather urban, gritty, and incremental.

Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream (Bissinger).  Bissinger's narrative skills shine.  All the emotions, I felt them.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Goodwin).  A fascinating look at a great man through the lens of his working relationships with his greatest rivals.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (Lewis).  Lewis at his best - insightful, informative, and witty.


What Am I Working On

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-IU6bHF_MOkM/UjdZRIKiQzI/AAAAAAAAEow/SW_tyId4Bxo/s1600/inbox-outbox.jpgAs has become my custom every three months, here's what I'm working on now at work. I won't repeat anything from last time that I happen to still be working on, and for confidentiality's sake I have to blur some of the details for some of these studies.

Preliminary employment impact estimates for three groups contemplating the use of USCIS EB-5 funds to finance their development projects.

Estimating the economic and fiscal impact of a proposed landfill expansion.

Doing a market feasibility study for an urban waterfront development site.

Creating an incentives framework for a proposed large-scale transit-oriented development.

Describing the economic benefits of different facets of tourism to a region in the South.

Developing metrics for measuring blight in different kinds of communities.

Identifying household types for a state in the Midwest to target for new resident attraction.

Estimating the economic and fiscal impact of a proposed Native American casino in the Southwest.

Evaluating tech transfer and commercialization efforts across US regions.

Estimating the economic and fiscal impact of a proposal sports complex.

Estimating the municipal, school district, and housing market impacts of a proposed casino in New York State.

Estimating the economic and fiscal contributions of a group of universities to the township in which they are located.

Assisting a mid-sized city to coordinate its planning efforts and incentives tools to stimulate downtown and downtown-adjacent redevelopment.