A Sermon for 30 July 2017 – 8th Sunday after Pentecost
A reading from the letter to the Christians in Rome 8:26-39 (NRSV). Listen for God’s word to us.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that the Son might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom God predestined God also called; and those whom God called God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified. 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.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Remember when your little ones were toddlers and they were all clinging? A few of you are living through this phase right now and could tell us all about it. I once rescued a teacup poodle who never did grow out of this stage. He just couldn’t stand being away from me. It’s the time before little ones, and rescued dogs, know that you will be coming back to them. Life is experiential for them. Pre-cognitive. You certainly can’t reason with them that daddy’s just going away for a little bit. Or momma will be right back. Their little brains don’t yet know that things exist away from them. As you try to drop them off at daycare or their grandparents’ house or anywhere for a few hours while you go out for a relaxing dinner; their grip around your neck tightens as the screams get louder and the tears flow. It’s separation anxiety – a stage every little one goes through.
Being separated from one you love can be a very scary thing. I’ll never forget the time when my sister who is two years older than me got separated from our family. We were in a big department store at a huge mall in an even bigger city far from home. She was around six or seven years old and the next thing we knew, she was gone. My parents had some experience with this as it seemed I would get stuck every week on aisle three in the local grocery store when I got drug along shopping with my mom. I couldn’t resist poking holes with my little kid hand through every roll in the toilet paper packs. Mom of course wouldn’t let me do such a destructive, disrespectful act so I’d find a way to hang back while she went on to the next aisle. Only once in all those years did I ever get so separated from her that I couldn’t catch up with her a few aisles down. But this with my sister was different. The city we were in was huge and everyone there were strangers to us. We rarely went to that great big department store. And even though I was too young yet to read much, I knew those faces of children on the milk cartons. Boys and girls who somehow got separated from their parents – many of them missing for years according the snap shots on the cartons. I was sure my sister’s photo would be on the very next batch. It was terrifying. Certainly some of you have gone through a similar experience and know firsthand that being separated like that is one of the worst feelings in the world.
My sister was found and returned to us a few hours later. But I can’t help thinking about those who live separated each day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind as one who experienced the extremes of separation. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor born in 1906 and hanged by the Nazis on April 9, 1945. From the start he was in opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews. Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler in pleas to his fellow Germans to consider that the rhetoric of Hitler was incredibly misguided. After Hitler found a way to infiltrate the German Lutheran church, Bonhoeffer was a key organizer in the oppositional Confessing Church which would create “The Theological Declaration of Barmen,” a confession in the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions, in which Christ alone is hailed as Lord – not Hitler or any other representative of the state. . . . The Confessing Church was a small but mighty force, led by Bonhoeffer and others, against the Nazi government. To keep him in check, Hitler eventually arrested Pastor Bonhoeffer. Separated from his church and family, it would have been easy for Bonhoeffer to feel abandoned too by God. Cut off completely. But, legend has it that he kept himself going in prison with the hymns and scripture verses he would bring to mind. He must have turned that time of separation into communion with God instead. Convinced, even in those extreme conditions, that he was not separated from God. How can we ever really be when God lives in and around us always? . . . Similar to the first Christians imprisoned for speaking out against the empire, Bonhoeffer continued to spread the message to fellow inmates and guards – acts that got him moved to Buchenwald concentration camp and then to Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was condemned to death by the state and hanged just two weeks prior to US forces liberating the camp. In every way, this was a man cut off from his previous life. Separated from those he loved, the pre-Nazi German homeland he cherished, and freedom itself. Still, a man who saw his execution writes: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer . . . kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution (which he was marched to naked), he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds.” The on-looker writes: “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer). In spite everything, Bonhoeffer clearly knew from One he was not separated at all!
We’ve got to wonder if Bonhoeffer held the words from Romans in his heart that day – and every day of his valiant life in which he sought to follow our Lord Jesus Christ. The words from Romans chapter 8: “What then are we to say about these things. If God is for us, who is against us? . . . Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:31, 35). . . . It’s true, isn’t it, that we go through our days often feeling very separated from God. Like lost little children, not as connected as we’d like to be to our Gracious Parent who created us, and loves us, and wants us to live each day in the goodness of God’s great love for us. Too many of us live like those far from a sense of home in God. Or maybe even as those up against horrors almost as trying as life in Nazi Germany. So many of us feel separated from God – anxious if God even exists, or if God really cares enough about us not to leave us all alone. We’re aware of that swirl of unrest in the pit of our stomachs. It is a part of being human, that we’ll feel separated from God and at times even doubt God’s true existence. It’s a terrible way to live – feeling cut off like that. Sometimes we just have to keep telling ourselves an alternate truth until it seems real in our hearts and in our minds. Like the old saying: fake it ‘til you make it. Or: repeat it often enough until the truth of God’s steadfast, ever-present love sinks down deep into every fiber of our being. Nothing able to separate us from that. Nothing able to keep us from the goodness of God’s unconditional, eternal love for each one of us. Nothing!
That’s God’s promise to us. Captured in the beautiful words of Romans 8 that NOTHING “in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). Nothing! Not our struggles. Not our doubts. Not our wanderings. Not any trial that comes our way. Not even our very selves. . . . We often hear these words at funerals – or at the side of loved ones who are on their deathbeds. They are a wonderful balm to troubled souls. But it’s not just in the face of death that we need this reminder, is it? We need it every day – to combat our separation anxiety. To remember that no matter what happens to us in that day, no matter how much we mess up as disciples of Christ, no matter how others might put us in positions that really could shatter our faith. No matter what anyone else might say or do to convince us otherwise. The love of God will never be taken from us. We’ll never be separated from our great God – even if it feels like it. That’s our perspective, not God’s. That feeling is a signal to us that something in our actions or our understandings need to change. With a sure and steady hope, we can know that God’s love is faithful still. We’ve no need to fear because we never, ever, ever could wander off so far from the love of God that we would be separated from it. Never. . . . It’s news good enough to allow someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to speak out without fear against the evils of the world. It’s news good enough to sooth any angst in us. It’s news good enough to move us out into this world reminding others too of the amazing truth!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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