Sermon 1 Kings 3:5-12
Catharine Reid Psalm 119:129-136
Proper 12A Romans 8:26-39
30 July 2023 Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that 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 us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
With these words we have reached the culmination of the first part of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we have been hearing as our Epistle reading this Pentecost season. Unlike in his other letters, Paul is writing here to a community whom he has never visited. His words are meant to strengthen them and encourage them in the face of cultural and political opposition, but also in light of the divide within their own community between Gentile and Jewish Christians. Under the previous emperor Jews had been expelled from Rome. The return of Jewish Christians at the time Paul writes may have been part of what aroused tensions within house groups in which non-Judean Christians had become the majority – reminding us that a sense of separation existed even then in its infancy between differing groups within the Church.
While written to address issues in the Church in Rome, in our day this passage is most often read at funerals – reminding the hearers that nothing, even death, can separate us from the love of God. But the text speaks well not only of death, or to issues in the early Church, but to many of the matters that threaten separation in our time and in our lives – from each other and from all God would have us be and do.
We live in an era in which it has become the norm for people to put more emphasis on what divides them than what should unite them, a need to be seen to win at all costs, to differentiate rather than seek common ground. We see this daily in our news feeds that seem to nearly drown us as the rhetoric seeks to denigrate and put down the other side of whatever divide is being discussed – whether political within our own country at the local and national levels or between nations. Even what passes for entertainment seems to be like this with reality shows in which individuals are voted out of the group. More marriages end in divorce than ever before. Hate crimes are on the increase.
Whoever is the “other” is identified as a threat. We are told that illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs or are all members of gangs. Muslims are labeled as all being potential terrorists. Refugees should be limited by place of origin as though everyone from a certain country poses a threat, yet more deaths occur through the proliferation of guns than by any terrorist whether foreign or domestic. We should be afraid to enter public restrooms because of the likelihood of being harassed or worse by a transsexual person. Somehow those same persons are now considered a threat to our national security or the morale of our armed forces, despite many having served honorably for years more likely to be victims than perpetrators of any offense.
We seem more intent on undoing our current healthcare system, than finding ways to improve it so that everyone has access to care. Working together in congress across the aisle for the common good is seen more as consorting with the enemy that good statesmanship. Getting re-elected more important than actually accomplishing something.
And then there is our own complicity with the forces that separate – individually and collectively, historically and in the present moment. Our church as well as others has been slow to welcome the full inclusion of those who are other in full membership and ministry whether African American, women or gays, lesbians and transsexuals.
I know myself how easy it is to live in a bubble with limited contact with those less like myself. Or to hold onto anger in a way that is destructive rather than quickly seeking reconciliation or whatever can restore a relationship. When we pray the confession, we ask forgiveness for what we have done and for what we have left undone – sometimes our silence, or holding back is what helps to perpetuate the many separations we experience.
Yet Paul’s resounding message reminds us that despite all the forces that work to separate us, to divide us one from another, nothing will prevail against God’s love. When we find ourselves unable even to know what we can do, or how to pray, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” interceding with sighs too deep for words. We gather as a community to hear the words of scripture that both reassure and challenge us; we are fed with food for the journey to sustain our hearts and our work; we give thanks and praise; we are reminded that at the heart of Jesus’ message is his prayer that all may be one. In our opening hymn we sang: “Awake, awake to love and work … so let the love of Jesus come and set thy soul ablaze.” Ablaze as Paul was with God’s love that we may do the work we have been given to do – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bind up the wounds of those who are hurting, to make visible those our society would like to ignore or have disappear, to speak words of comfort to the bereaved, and not to be silent in the face of anyone attempting to divide rather than unite, to tear down rather than build up, to spread hate rather than love, to breed despair rather than hope.
In the words attributed to St. Francis we pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I want to close with lines from a poem by W.H. Auden written in memory of W.B. Yeats at the time of his death in 1939. The world seemed very bleak at the time as France and England both declared war on Germany. A time of powerful forces seeking to annihilate the other. Yet, he writes of healing and praise. True signs of hope.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the desert of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
W.H. Auden “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (d. Jan 1939)