RCL, Year A, Proper 12: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
[Listen to the sermon here.]
I can’t believe it. It feels like yesterday, but it was actually 10 years ago that I was living in Sewanee, TN and getting up very early each morning to drive into Chattanooga for CPE. For those of you unfamiliar with the lingo, CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s sort of like boot camp for aspiring clergy. For 3 months, you work full-time in a hospital setting doing pastoral care and processing the interactions with supervisors and colleagues. I’ll bet that anyone who’s done CPE would agree: spending 40-plus hours a week (not to mention weekends on call) entering into people’s lives in times of crisis, grief, and loss can be emotionally draining and spiritually challenging.
One of my assignments at Erlanger Hospital was the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit. I’ll never forget one of the guys I met there who was suffering from brain tumors. He was in a lot of pain, and perhaps because he was so very afraid he was willing to let me, a complete stranger, catch a glimpse of the turmoil in his soul. He told me that what was happening to him was God’s doing. I asked him why he thought God would afflict him and he told me it was because he had stopped attending church. God was punishing him for failure to worship. I was stunned by this man’s loss of trust in God’s goodness, and by his conviction that being right with God was all up to his own efforts. And I was also deeply saddened, because what this man needed as much as anything else was the conviction that whatever the coming days and weeks might bring, he was loved by a God who would never, ever abandon him. And that somehow – even if only in the world to come – what he was going through would be redeemed and made right by a loving and just God.
This man’s case may sound extreme. But I wonder if it is. Don’t we all go through periods in our lives that challenge our trust and confidence in God? Don’t we sometimes have cause to wonder if God is really on our side, if God really cares for and loves us? Maybe it’s a medical diagnosis. Maybe it’s a move to a new place where we don’t really know anybody. It could be the collapse of a relationship that’s left us feeling shattered or the death of a friend or family member. Maybe it’s an opportunity we really wanted that’s passed us by. Or perhaps we’ve lost a job and now find ourselves in a place we never dreamed we’d end up, having to reinvent who we are and reassess what matters in our lives.
There are countless ways that life can throw curveballs that cause us to question God, and even to lose our confidence that God’s intentions towards us are benevolent and loving. When we enter those dark valleys, the words we hear this morning from the apostle Paul may sound dissonant. He says: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).
I’ve been through times in my life and in relation to family and friends when that verse sounded more like a sappy line from a Hallmark greeting card than the inspired words of Holy Scripture. But it’s important to remember that Paul is no shallow sentimentalist. On the contrary, he’s someone deeply acquainted with suffering, loss, grief, and death.
Paul was a guy who had it all: education, power, social status and respect, and a promising future as a leader among the Pharisees. His reputation as a fierce defender of Jewish orthodoxy and a force not to be messed with was solidified by his relentless persecution of those men and women who dared to publicly assert the heresy that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that he had been raised from the dead. Paul was on a crusade to stamp out that nonsense. But then the curveball came, and when it hit, it utterly shattered the image of having it all together that Paul projected to the world. Out of the blue on a road to Damascus, Paul encountered the risen Jesus. And it knocked him flat. His very identity – everything he thought he knew for certain about the scriptures and God’s truth and his role among God’s chosen people – collapsed. It was such a devastating blow that it would take three years for Paul to recover and be ready to venture out into the world with a new identity and a new message (cf. Galatians 1:18).
But it hardly got any easier for Paul. Proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ didn’t restore his social status and prestige. Instead, proclaiming the Gospel ensured for Paul a life in which persecution, death threats, beatings, imprisonment, ship wreck, hunger and the very real possibility that everything he’s worked for may fail, were just another part of the typical work week.
And yet, in spite of it all, Paul can still say with absolute confidence that all things work for good for those who love God. And he can still say with absolute confidence that nothing in all of creation – not even sickness or addiction or broken relationships or a lost job or even death itself – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And even though he could be arrested or killed at any time, even though his enemies who preach a different gospel may prevail and destroy everything he’s worked for, Paul still says this not only with confidence, but also with joy.
Either Paul is crazy, or he knows something that many of us either don’t know or haven’t allowed to sink into our bones.
I believe that Paul is not crazy. And I believe that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and is thus rightly received as the authoritative Word of God. And so what Paul says in our epistle lesson this morning is true. And it’s truth that has the power to change our lives.
There are times in life that we so easily experience as the end of the world: times when our sins come home to roost, when we lose something or someone we love, or when sickness or death cast a dark shadow. When those times come, Paul reassures us that they do not ultimately define who we are and they do not get last word. There’s someone that can give us a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose that can never be taken away by the changes and chances of this life. Indeed, if Paul is right, there’s someone worth risking everything for, someone worth living and dying for, someone whose love can touch and heal and transform us to the depths of our bodies and to the core of our souls, and someone we can trust absolutely.
That someone is Jesus Christ.
My friends, the grounds of our confidence and joy in life cannot be found in our own efforts to insure our security or to please God. It’s not found in the prestige of where we went to school, where we live, what we do for a living, what kind of car we drive, or where we worship. It’s not even found in our relationships with family and friends. All of these things will change and eventually pass away.
Our confidence and joy in life are grounded in a deeper and more reliable reality: the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the forgiveness of our sins, and an expectant hope for the world to come. It’s the joy of knowing that our personal well-being and the fate of the world are not determined by current circumstances or by whether we succeed or fail in pleasing God. They are determined, not by what we do, but by what God has done and continues to do. They are determined by the victory of God in Christ over the forces of sin, suffering, sickness, death, and decay, a victory we share by virtue of our baptisms.
Paul’s confidence and joy are gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit. But those gifts don’t just belong to Paul. They are given to all Christians in Holy Baptism. So perhaps the real question is not, “How does somebody like Paul manage to be so confident and joyful in the midst of so much trouble?” The real question is, “What hinders us from sharing the same confidence and joy as Paul’s?” What keeps us from living with confidence in the power of Jesus’ forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection? What prevents us from owning the truth of our baptisms: that we are marked as Christ’s own forever and that we are eternally safe in his love?
Perhaps we can name what those things are. Perhaps we cannot. Either way, I invite you this morning to bring all of that stuff with you when you come to communion. Offer all of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly – to God. And in return, receive the precious gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood, the outward and visible signs of the truth that in Christ, God is quite literally dying to love you. And then go forward with the reassurance that nothing will ever take that love away.
In Christ, we are secure and we are loved. May that love penetrate into the depths of our being. And may it bear the fruits of unquenchable joy and unassailable confidence in the truth that, ultimately, all things shall indeed be well.