My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Romans 8:12-25.
Henry was a fellow that I knew on the South side of Milwaukee. Henry lived outside, underneath an overpass which went over the Menominee Valley. Henry was a good guy, he had a good heart. He, of course, had demons with which he fought. He drank to excess, he was almost always in a some state of drunkenness.
Henry smelled bad, due in part to the fact that he lived on the street, and due in part to the fact that after a bender, he would sleep where we fell. He had no one to bring him into bed, or to pull him into a bathroom, or to change his clothes. He wanted to give up drinking, he really did. But he didn’t. In the winter it is hard to sleep, and so Henry, like so many other people in a similar situation, finds that drinking helps him get some sleep at night when the mercury drops dangerously low. Additionally, things were so incredibly miserable for him, that drinking is the only way to numb himself to the pain of it all. So in trying to escape his problems, he caused a whole new set. And in doing so, he entered into a cycle of destruction from which he would never escape.
He would spend his days going canning, that is, going around the city collecting cans into big bags, he would have a couple of secret places to hide his stash, and then when he had enough he would turn it in for scrap. Some times it would only be enough to buy a 40, but there were many other times in which he would have some left over and he would usually give it to the church.
Typically we only think of the cold when we know of people who stay outside, but that isn’t even the most dangerous part, the most dangerous part is the continual risk that one is at when they sleep outside. Every night Henry would try to sleep not knowing if he would get mugged or robbed or killed during the night. He would often keep a club next to him while he slept in case he was attacked during the night. Several times this would happen, and he would find that his ID card and his money was gone. We can lock our doors at night, but when you sleep outside, there are no doors to lock.
Henry was also an easy target for people who go out looking for trouble. On days when he gets some money and he drinks, his reactions are slow and he would often get beat up, sometimes to steal from him, other times just for the sick enjoyment out of it. But in spite of all of this, Henry would walk around with his snow shovel in the winter and shovel walks in the neighborhood, and especially of people he knew, and during the fall he would often find a rake and rake leaves for others.
Henry was the last person to leave after lunch after the service. Many times he would fall asleep and sometimes this would be frustrating, but as I reflect on it, it became apparent to me that it would likely happen because in the church he felt safe, he knew that there were people watching over him, and he could rest in relative safety.
But we would have to wake him, and so often I was the one who would be charged with that task, and I would help him up the stairs, not only because he was intoxicated, but also because being in his late fifties and being on the street for the last decade, it took a toll on his body.
As we would walk up the stairs toward the door to send him out into the world, he would express his frustration at the way that he would try to help people and in return they would steal from him (he would carry around all of his worldly possessions in a ripped backpack) or beat him, or some other way take advantage of him.
He would express his sense of utter hopelessness, that he wasn’t sure if there was a future for him, and if there was it likely would not get better. Henry had a lot of demons with which he battled, but the most significant one was this sense of utter hopelessness.
Henry was in bondage to decay, as the apostle phrased it.
There are roses outside of my office window here at church, and I greatly enjoy looking at them. But after too long, they begin to darken, and it seems that they have been ravaged by insects and they can’t keep going. The roses which were once beautiful become wilted and eventually the petals fall off.
Buildings which are vacant for even a short time begin to fall apart, literally decay before our eyes.
We have experienced, in the recent past, very personal examples of how we are in bondage to decay. Our congregation has lost several people recently. We have lost friends and family members in our own lives.
When we are sick or hurt, and family members and friends try to cheer us up by assuring us that things are going to turn out okay, but you still have that ever present realization that you are in bondage to decay.
“For the creation waits with eager longing,” the apostle writes, “for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
All of creation is in bondage to decay, and in some way, the earth knows this, the animals know this.
Not long ago I was standing by the kitchen window and there was a spider web outside right in front of the window. An insect had the misfortune of finding itself stuck in the web and it struggled to free itself from the sticky web that it cannot even see, to no avail. As it struggled, the spider masterfully walked along this web and approached the insect, and injected it with paralyzing venom, and once the thrashing stopped, the spider grabbed the insect and began the process of wrapping it in the silky fibers of the web.
Studies have shown that plants have a defense mechanism that releases chemicals when they are being chewed on that change the taste of their leaves so that they no longer taste pleasant. Recently a study was released that showed the same response when a recording of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf was played to the plant.
While this may sound strange, I think that the creation knows that it is in bondage to decay and it groans. The earth rips itself open with earthquakes, it hemorrhages lava from volcanoes. Hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and droughts damage and harm all that is, but these pains are not death pains, no they are birth pains. The creation groans.
And it groans because Creation waits with eager longing. You see, it is not just humanity that suffers from the broken state of the world, but the creation itself suffers as well. In the third chapter of Genesis, which we often refer to as the Fall of Humanity, but it is not just the fall of humanity, but the fall of creation. In the curses that are pronounced on the serpent, the woman, and the man, God says to the man, “cursed is the ground because of you…” Adam and Eve sinned, but all of creation paid the price.
The creation is groaning in great pains, but they are not the pains of death, but the pains of birth.
The creation groans because it waits with eager longing. It may seem odd to think of birds and ants and trees looking forward with longing, but is it so strange?
In scripture trees rejoice (Ps 96:12), floods clap their hands (Ps 98:8), the wilderness can be glad (Is 35:1), mountains and hills can burst out into song (Is 55:12), and stones can shout (Lk 19:40. Why should not birds and trees and roses and insects look forward with longing?
The creation groans, but not only this, but we also groan inwardly while we wait for redemption, for restoration. After all, our bodies are still subject to death.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” the apostle writes, “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
You see, it is not just the sorry state of our present condition that the apostle so beautifully speaks, if that was all he was trying to get across, he would be preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. You see, Christians live in a world between worlds. Sometimes theologians will refer to this as the “already but not yet” It is the idea that with Christ redemption has already come and restoration has already begun but these have not yet fully arrived. It is a time of tension, it is a time of upheaval, in a true way, it is a time of cosmic revolution.
And it is important that we live in this tension, and neither become too “this worldly” that we forget that there is something more than what we can see or touch or experience, or become too “other worldly” that we forget that this life has meaning, this life is not just a waiting room, but this is the only life that we have. After all, this is not waiting for the main event, this is the main event. The new heaven and new earth is not the goal, it is the rest which comes after a life well lived, a race well run, a journey well trod.
So we must remember the hope that the apostle gives us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
So while it is true that this is the only life that we will live, and this life is in bondage to decay, we must also remember that this is not all that there is from a cosmic view. There will be a point of restoration and redemption when all of creation will be loosed from its bondage and will be granted so great a glory, of which all of the great sufferings in this present world cannot even compare.
I wish that I could tell Henry that things would get better. There were times when he would sober up and clean up, and it was wonderful to see him in a better condition, but he couldn’t stay that way for long. I wish that I could tell him that if he sobered up that things would get better, but I didn’t know that. It was very likely that Henry would stay in this destructive cycle and eventually it would be the death of him.
And it was. After years of living on the street, of drinking so much, of being in and out of the emergency room from freeing cold, illnesses, and all the rest, he ended up dying after a short stay in intensive care.
And now, he can live into the hope that I had for him, that beyond the sufferings of this present time there would be immense glory, and there would be a time when he, along with all of creation, would be freed from this bondage to decay and can be restored to the glory for which we were originally intended. And this is what is in store for each of us, and the roses and insects and plants. Thanks be to God.