Faith United Methodist Church

August 6, 2017

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  Romans 8:26-39

Prayer for Illumination:

O God, open our hearts to hear your word of grace.  Give us honest spirits, that we may receive your gift.   Help us experience anew the surprise and joy that your presence in the word can bring.  Amen.

Sermon: Inseparable

The summer after third-grade I went to sleep-away camp.  Maine’s version of Covenant Hills or Sky Farm is Camp Mechuwana and I couldn’t wait to go.  It was a family tradition ~ my mother, my aunt, and my cousins had all gone before me.  The week arrived and my parents drove me the 45 minutes to Winthrop, ME.  As I dashed out of the car I barely looked back to say good-bye to Mom and Dad as I rushed off to meet my new friends.  Everything was good ~ for the first three or four hours.  Then the tummy ache started and the headache and I couldn’t sleep after lights-out.  I was homesick.

And it didn’t turn out to be a minor case either.  My separation anxiety was severe.  The next day, when my counselor couldn’t deal with me any longer, I was allowed to call home.  It was decided that my mother would come up, just for the day, to help me settle in.  Once she arrived I was right back to playing and swimming and getting to know my new friends.  My mother loves to tell the story of how I whispered in her ear, “Mum, you’ll never believe it, but I don’t feel homesick at all since you got here.”

Our Scripture lesson today, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, is rich with striking declarations of God’s promise to never leave us.  It’s a beautiful passage.  Paul affirms that when life is at its worst, when we can’t find the words to pray, when we don’t even know how, the Spirit steps in on our behalf.  Paul, who had himself been in the depths of despair more than once, insists that all things work together for good for those who love God and that nothing ~ absolutely nothing ~ can separate us from God’s love.

But wait a second ….   In a world where refugees wander the globe seeking welcome and nuclear war seems an ever closer possibility and good people get cancer and fall behind on the rent and struggle to feed their families, how can this be?  Can all things really work together for good for those who love God?  It certainly doesn’t always feel that way, at least to me.  Maybe Paul was using a little hyperbole… getting a bit carried away.  All things work together for good.  Every cloud has a silver lining.  God never gives us more than we can handle.  When you are given lemons, make lemonade.

And who could blame him?  It’s easy to get carried away sometimes, isn’t it?  Like when you’re just off a great week of vacation….or you’ve been offered that perfect job….or you’ve received good news from the doctor.  At those times it certainly seems like all things work together for good.  But then there are those other times. I don’t have to tell you about them.  You know what I am talking about.  Tough times.  Days, weeks, months when nothing seems to come together, when everything good seems just beyond reach.

The truth is, tough times are part of being human.  No one can escape them.  The Christians in Rome knew this to be true.  Groaning under conflict within their community and persecution from those outside, the struggling faithful in Rome had good reason to question if God was present at all.  Paul’s words of encouragement pointed them to the good news of the Gospel ~ ours is a God who loves us enough to never leave us alone.  Good News indeed.

A woman once approached the renowned preacher, Tony Campolo, and said to him, “I never realized Jesus was there until Jesus was all I had.” Sometimes we have to get to that place of realizing that Jesus is all we have before we recognize the wonderful gift that we are given.  Not that we are never given more than we can handle, but when we are at the breaking point, discouraged and weighed down, God is there plodding through it with us.

I’m afraid that preachers sometimes give the impression that God makes things easier for those who are faithful.  I hope I’ve never fallen into that trap.  As theologian Paul Tillich says, “It is certainly not a vague promise that, with the help of God, everything will come to a good end; there are many things that come to a bad end.” Christians aren’t promised trouble-free lives.  We are promised that when trouble comes, we won’t be alone.

So, it seems to me that Paul was not succumbing to hyperbole after all.  No.  I’ve come to believe that he wasn’t exaggerating or ‘making lemons out of lemonade.’  Paul didn’t say that God would deliver us from the tough times.  Paul didn’t say that God would make things easier for Christians.  In fact, he had been there himself ~ tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword. Paul’s witness was borne of personal experience.  What he did say is that no matter our circumstances, God is with us.  Inseparable, in fact.  God’s love will never leave us.

Sometimes I still feel like that homesick third-grader. But these days my mom can’t always make it all better.   When life gets overwhelming and nothing seems familiar, it is easy to think that I am alone in the world.  It is at those times when Paul’s words renew my hope.  Because “…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 me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  In those times that we do feel alone, let us remember that God has been and remains here with us all along.

In words attributed to Thomas Merton, let us pray:  My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me and I cannot know for certain where it will end… and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you….I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire, and I know that if I do, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore, I will trust in you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.