Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Red Thread

I have often said that our son David is really the theologian of the family. What follows is the script of the sermon he preached to Milwaukee Mennonite Church, whose members share the preaching. I am posting it with my sermon scripts, not just out of parental pride, but believing it is worth sharing. David is Dean of Students at Frank Lloyd Wright Intermediate School in West Allis, Wisconsin. You will meet David’s wife, Rachel, and their children in the sermon. The pictures are from the day Elizabeth joined their family and currently.

Romans 8
October 21, 2012
© 2012 David Stolpe


Good evening.

Tonight we continued our journey into Paul’s letter to the Romans. Honestly I have been amazed and challenged by the different perspectives brought by each of you who have preached in this series. Quite frankly I feel a bit daunted by my task tonight.

First off, I am left with the responsibility to offer something of value to you all, and fear my offering may pale in comparison. I am further daunted by the fact that for some reason I was left to preach on Romans Chapter 8.

The eighth chapter of Romans is probably the most familiar portion of the letter. Some of the most memorable and referenced passages of the entire Bible are contained in this chapter.

…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

If God is for us, who can be against us?  

... in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is just a small sampling of the rich text of Romans 8. It is the triumphant highpoint of the letter. So I find the responsibility I have tonight downright intimidating. I started this week by asking myself, “What do I, David Stolpe, have to bring to the understanding of this passage?”

What I haven’t told you though is that Romans 8 has been pivotal for me throughout my life. In fact, it is possibly the passage in the Bible that I have read and chewed on more than any other. But in no way do I feel this makes me the Romans 8 authority, instead it just raises my anxiety about the words I bring to you tonight. After 20 plus years of frequent visitation to and meditation on Romans 8, do I have anything of value to say? I hope so.

Romans 8 is a major building block in at least three aspects of my faith. The first was formed when I was young and had the passion, angst, and fire of my youth. I was dogmatic, at times even belligerent. As my understanding of more complex theological doctrines formed and I found John Calvin’s Institutes to be shaping my understanding of our relationship with God, Romans 8 was a bastion of support for my beliefs of our complete and utter dependency on God for all salvific hope. At this time, I loved to engage in debate and argument to advance my Calvinism on others. Romans 8 was an arsenal of evidence to support my at times aggressive dogma.

Since this time, the fire and angst of my youth have waned a bit, and Rachel deserves a lot credit for tempering this uglier side of me. Today my desire for coercive arguments to prove Calvinism has all but dried up.

That being said, I still hold to many Calvinist tenets, and find Reformed doctrine something to rejoice and celebrate. I must admit I still get frustrated when I hear people characterize Calvinism as a belief in a harsh, vindictive God choosing to flick some people, but not others, into hell. This is an argument against a perceived understanding of what Calvinism is, held by people who object to, but I believe, fail to understand Calvinism. This is not in anyway how most Calvinists understand what Calvinism is.  To Calvinists, like myself, the immensity of God’s love and grace through Christ’s death on the cross, is so great, that the idea of God being harsh and vindictive is entirely irreconcilable. Romans 8 is a defining passage in this understanding. But Calvinism is not the aspect of my faith I will be focusing on tonight, although, this reasoning may well be evident in my words anyway, as the themes of Reformed, Calvinist theology are intertwined with who I am and how I understand God’s love. 

The second aspect of my faith that Romans 8 was foundational in is my understanding of our responsibility in caring for God’s creation. Before I wound up in the world of education, I did my undergrad in Environmental Studies in Humanities. I was concerned about the degradation of the creation, and am convinced that a great deal of this was the result of a false doctrine that believed God created the world for mankind’s use and resource, instead of for God’s own glory. The dominion statement of Genesis has been used as a privilege rather than a responsibility. The religious right has co-opted dominion as a justification for free market capitalism that has advanced the western economy, fueled through environmental degradation that has afflicted the poor, powerless, and already marginalized. My goal was to challenge the church from within, by being part of defining a green theology that recognized that the earth is here for God’s glory, and our sin has compromised that. Romans 8 was a cornerstone of my studies and writing at this time. Verses 19 though 22 state

19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God .22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

It is we, the children of God, and our sin, our brokenness, that have subjected the creation to frustration. And it is not only us, God’s people, who long for Christ’s redemption. All of creation yearns with labor pains to be liberated from the bondage to which we have subjected it.  But this again is not the aspect of my faith that I come to offer tonight.

The theme of this portion of Paul’s work that has come to most significantly impact my faith is his description of the nature of our relationship to God. Paul compares God to a parent and us to his children. This describes an intimate and deep love between God and God’s people. But Paul goes beyond that, and describes this parental relationship more specifically as an adoption. This additional description is by no means without significance. Why does Paul go beyond the parent relationship metaphor, and extend it to a relationship of adoption?   

In the last 7 or 8 years, this theme of adoption has hit home for me in a much more tangible way because of Elizabeth. And as I dig into Romans 8, I now digest each section in the light of Elizabeth’s life story, our adoption experience, and our relationship with Elizabeth. Our adoption is the single most powerful event that I have experienced in my lifetime. The entire story is packed with sorrow, struggle, triumph and joy. While the beginnings of that story remain obscured from me, these real life elements bring new clarity and understanding to me when I try to grasp the immensity of God’s love. I hope that tonight as I share parts of our adoption story it will help each of you have a new appreciation and understanding for the power and immensity of God’s love for you.

Adoption is a metaphor used by Paul to help us understand something greater than our capacity to fully understand. Paul again uses the metaphor of adoption in Galatians and Ephesians. All metaphors have limitations, and this metaphor is limited by scale. The love we have experienced in our adoption is the grandest thing I can imagine, and yet it remains minute, or bitsy, in comparison to God’s love for us. That being said, I still struggle to comprehend the immensity of the love we have for Elizabeth.  To put a finer point on it, Paul has taken the most powerful experience of love in my life, to help me understand the nature of God’s love which is even greater. As a parent of Sam, our biological child, I would find this amazing by itself, but there are specific events and dynamics of our adoptive relationship with Elizabeth that bring increased understanding to Romans 8 that our relationship with Sam does not. So I will spend the remainder of my time walking through Romans 8 to tell you the story of Elizabeth Stolpe, so that you may share in this joy in the further clarity of the immensity of how much God loves you.

As I imagine it, on December 27, 2006, a poor Chinese couple, who lived in a cramped room, had a baby in the privacy of that room. She was tiny, itsty bitsy, probably barely over 4 pounds, and she had a noticeably disfigured foot. She was weak and frail, and if the parents tried to have someone with some medical training do a health check on their daughter, they would find that this delicate baby had a hole in her heart. Her parents had to wrestle with what to do. With no means to provide care adequate care for a fragile child like this tiny girl, it is likely that she would not have survived the year. To cling to her may have been to cling to death.

Paul tells us in verse 6 that “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.” We have a choice to make. If the priority we choose is to cling to, preserve, and indulge our flesh, we also choose death, but if we choose to sacrifice our flesh, and cling to the spirit we are choosing life.

In desperation this mother and father recognized that if they clung to their daughter, it would likely mean death for her, but if they sacrificed their relationship with her, they might also be saving her life.

Despite their love for their daughter this poor couple made a decision that is incomprehensible to me. They chose to give her up in order that she might live.

The Wuxi newspaper reports that on December 31st 2006 a 36 year old woman found a little girl in a box in the alley. It says the girl was dressed in cute clothes and a hat, and was left with a bag with some more clothes, a bottle, formula powder, and a paper that stated that she was born on December 27th.

This decision to give up their daughter is a decision that Rachel and I can barely stand to even think about. It is so incomprehensible and painful for us to think about. Would we have enough love to make that decision? Would we cling to our kids to preserve our relationships and bring death, or would we be strong enough to make this sacrifice of faith in order to allow our children to have life? Fortunately, we don’t live a life that forces us to make that decision, but this is what Elizabeth’s birth parents did for her, knowing that they would lose their daughter forever.

This scandalous act of love was likely a gift of life for Elizabeth, and a certainly a gift of a daughter and sister for our family. In verse 32 Paul states that likewise God did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will God not with him give us everything else? God displayed this same act of scandalous love, giving up the Son as a gift of life for each of us.

Half a world a way, and about year before this helpless little girl was found in that alley, I sat at our kitchen table in tears, terrified that Rachel was going to have a break down that was going to leave her hospitalized or self destructing. I was scared that I was going to lose the woman I fell in love with. We had been trying to have a second child for almost 2 years. The pain of infertility had been building up, and Rachel was in the middle of her second month of using Clomid, a fertility drug that threw her into deep depression and limited her grasp on reality. I told her I wanted her to stop taking it because I was scared about what it was going to do to her. She stood at the counter and desperately cried out that she wanted a second child. We held each other for a while, sobbing, and decided that having a second child did not justify the damage being done to Rachel’s well being by this chemical. We had to find another way.

One morning after having a particularly rough night, we went to our old church pretty tired and emotionally exhausted. Sam went up for the children’s message and in the back and forth of Pastor Mark’s conversation with the kids, Sam announced that he was going to be a big brother. Immediately everyone in the congregation looked at us and smiled congratulatory smiles assuming that Sam knew something we didn’t let the rest of the church know yet. I quickly shook my head no and indicated that it was not the case, as Rachel crumpled into my shoulder in tears. For the next few weeks people would come up to us trying to congratulate us for being pregnant, and time and again we had to face them and tell them that Rachel wasn’t. We wallowed in these unwanted and to frequent reminders that we were not going to have a second child.

Within a few weeks Rachel’s Dad convinced us to pursue adoption as an alternative. It would be another two years before we would take Elizabeth into our arms. During our four years of trying to have a second child, Rachel and I would go through many more ups and downs. As I said before our adoption of Elizabeth is the most powerful experience of love and joy I have had in my life, but I also said that the story was packed with sorrow and struggle. The adoption process took over 2 years and cost about what I was making each year when we started. There are so many hoops to jump through. This four year period of our lives was the darkest we have walked. It is my primary basis for understanding suffering. It was a time of severe longing and yearning. A time of pain and grieving for the loss of someone we never even had. Romans 8 became a place of refuge and hope for me.

 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

This passage provided the promise of assurance, but the adoption process seemed insurmountable, and Rachel and I often lost hope and belief that it ever was going to ever really happen.  But Sam of 3 to 5 years during this period of life would walk every visitor to our house into his bedroom, show them the giant map on his wall and point to China and confidently say that that is where his sister was going to come from. Sam never lost hope. The 2 plus years of adoption seemed endless to Rachel and me, but to this small loving boy, it was not a deterrent. Sam never stopped believing. He had unshakeable faith in a hope in something unseen, his sister, and he waited patiently, setting an example for Rachel and me.

We struggled to display Sam’s hope and faith in what was unseen. Rachel will tell you that she would go through the pains of the birth of our 11 pound 9 ounce Sam ten times again before going through the pains and the inward groans of the adoption process. Simply put there was no comparison. This was a period of great inward groaning and suffering for us. But as Paul pointed out, our present sufferings were nothing in comparison to the glory in our revelation.   

I will never forget the night that Rachel and I walked into the Nanjing Grand hotel, the night before we finally got Elizabeth. We had been in China for a week, and yet Elizabeth still seemed like a concept that was never truly going to happen to our family. As we stepped into the hotel there was a crib set up at the foot of the first bed. When Rachel and I saw the crib we both burst into tears. Sam asked why we crying. We told him that for the first time Elizabeth seemed like a real person and not just a story that we kept telling ourselves. I don’t thing Sam understood, but then he always had faith, hope, and confidence that he was going to be a big brother, lacking the doubt that we had.

Now I know I said I wasn’t going to spend the night talking about Calvinist theology, but in the last half of chapter 8 Paul starts throwing around these words, predestination, called, foreknew, and elect. And this raises the question of predestination. While many Non-Calvinist believers view this concept as portraying God as someone who damns some people to hell and not others, this is by no means how most Calvinists view the concept, certainly not me.

Here again our adoption experience colors my understanding of this text and the concept of predestination. During the children’s sermon I spoke of the Red Thread. This again is a traditional story shared within the community of adopting families, in particular families with children adopted from China. The concept states that the people who are meant to be together are connected to each other with an invisible and unbreakable red thread. This red thread ties us to each other and assures that we will find the people in life that we are supposed to be with no matter what. And when we do, this red thread will bind us together.

It is easy to dismiss this as a nice quaint story with no grounding in reality, and think that families will love their adopted children no matter what, but I think there is more truth to it than that. When we went to China we were part of a group of nine families who were all adopting with the same program. On the day we were united with our children, we quickly connected with our children. As we all rejoiced and cried with this hope fulfilled, we spent the next two weeks together with this group. Within the first day there were dynamics that we all noticed in the children and their new families that made many of comment on how well fit each family seemed to be for each child, and visa versa. When Elizabeth was handed to us she immediately popped the same two fingers in her mouth just as Sam always did. This is just a minor example, but in reality, there seemed to be instant bonds with each adoption, and it became difficult to imagine the children paired with any other family, even in that first day. The chemistry of the bonds that were forming seemed to be natural and logical, and arbitrarily changing them seemed illogical. The personality combinations just would seem to be mismatches if any child was paired with any other family other than the one they were matched with. This is the concept of the red thread.

This concept was further strengthened when our friend Maureen let us know privately that she and Stu were originally paired with Ji Ju. When they opened their envelope, they looked at Ji Ju’s picture and Maureen felt blank. She told Stu, that’s not my baby. They made the tough decision and declined the match. They were then paired with May. Ji Ju was paired with Mike’s family. We grew very close to these two families in our next two weeks. Even within the first day, we thought about what would have happened if the two matches hadn’t been flip-flopped. That just seemed wrong in our imagination.

I believe our adoptive children were tied and bound to us. Maybe not with a red thread, but by God’s will and divine plan. They were predestined to be in our families. This is how I have grown to understand the concept of predestination. It is not God fickly damning people to hell; it is God binding himself to each of us with a red thread, that connects us no matter what. Nothing is going to stop our adoption from happening, nothing is going to keep us from God’s love, not even our own sinfulness and fallenness. God is going to fight relentlessly to welcome us into his arms.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul also writes in Galatians 4:3-7

…when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

God has adopted us, let us rejoice!

God has transformed our lives!

Not just from a slave to a freed person, but from a slave to a child of the family, from slavery to sonship, from a slave to an Heir. On April first, 2008 when we finalized our adoption, we were asked to swear an oath to the government of China and to Elizabeth. The oath stated that Elizabeth was to be considered and treated as if she was our own biological child. An heir to our family’s wealth, no different than a child born to us. We sealed this oath and our promise with a thumb print left in red ink. God has tied and bound himself to us with a red thread. God has not only freed us from slavery, he has taken us into his own family, adopted us, called us his own children. God has made us heirs to the kingdom, considering us no different than God’s own son Christ. God has sealed this oath and promise not with red ink, but with the Red Blood of God’s own son.

Ephesians 1:3-6 says,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship  through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—  to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.