I preached this sermon at a Lenten mid-week gathering of the two Lutheran congregations in Davis. The scripture for this evening was Romans 8:38-39. I also had the opportunity to cantor Holden Evening Prayer, which you may know is an all-time fave.
It is a joy to be together with other Lutherans in this season of Lent. We don’t always talk about joy during Lent, as we are very dedicated to our dour faces of fasting. Couple that with finals week, and this rain interrupting our first day of spring...it’s a good thing we’re here together because otherwise, our joy would be far off.
I don’t normally preach during finals week, as our students are buried in books or already on their way home for spring break. The opportunity to gather with our wider community is a delight, and I am particularly delighted by the scripture that was chosen for this week. It is a small slice of a long letter, but it is, perhaps, the best part.
Let’s take a step back. This letter, written by the Apostle Paul—one of the undisputed letters, even—is one of the densest books of the New Testament. That’s part of why we could grab this two-sentence pericope and have so much to say! This book is full of “church words” like justification, salvation, obedience, apostleship, righteousness...Paul did not have the spiritual gift of concision.
Reading this letter can be stressful, because it seems impossible for us to maintain the level of perfection that Paul is describing. There are paragraphs on paragraphs about whether we’re following the law or not, whether we’re practicing what we preach, whether we’re wicked or righteous.
I am grateful, in times like these, to be a Lutheran, and know that while our conduct is crucial—no cheap grace around here—we are not wicked OR righteous, but always both/and. We are simultaneously saints AND sinners. So as we read this letter, with its condemnations and proscriptions, we can also read its assurances and blessings. Thanks be to God!
Our snippet of this letter for tonight is verses 38 and 39, but it helps me understand a bit better if we start a few verses sooner. In verse 35, it is written: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” This is important, because the people Paul is writing to are experiencing these things. These are real concerns, not hypothetical wonderings about future potentialities.
These communities in Rome were Jewish and Gentile Christians, and a few years before the writing of this letter, Jews and some Jewish Christians had been expelled from Rome.
The recipients of this letter would be nodding along, remembering their own friends and family members who had been or were currently experiencing hardship, distress, and persecution.
They were, perhaps, being separated from their families. They were, perhaps, being imprisoned. They were, perhaps, being tortured. They were, certainly, afraid. They knew that these things could separate them from their loved ones, from their livelihoods, from the safety of their communities. And Paul senses that they have likely begun to wonder if these things are also separating them from God.
Is God still with them? Is God still with them, as they are separated from one another? Is God still with them, as they suffer? Is their suffering proof that God is absent?
When we look at our own suffering, we may also feel this way. We may not be in “peril” in this same way, but we may be. Those of us who are part of marginalized and minoritized groups live under threat of violence. Christians, in this country, are not being persecuted for our faith—despite what some Christians may claim—and are, in fact, more likely to be doing the persecuting.
Our siblings—like the Muslim community in New Zealand and right here in Davis; like the LGBTQIA+ communities around the world and in our community; like the refugees and migrants being detained at our borders; like the black and brown Americans being killed unjustly; like people with disabilities or chronic illnesses who cannot access the healthcare they need to survive—our siblings are in peril.
I do not know each and every one of you, so I do not know to which of these groups you, yourself, may belong. These instances of hardship and distress, sometimes intersecting and compounding, may be just the tip of the iceberg of our suffering. We may suffer at the hands of others, and we may suffer internally.
Are you anxious about your final exams or your work deadlines?
Are you going through a breakup, divorce, or other tumultuous relationship?
Are you grieving the death or the impending death of a loved one?
Are you struggling to care for your children, or struggling to be pregnant?
Are you sick, or lonely, or depressed?
Are you unsure about what’s next in this season of your life?
Dear friends in Christ, I have good news for you: God is with you.
This is one of the very few things I know to be capital-t-True. God is with you. The God who created you, fearfully and wonderfully, perfectly and preciously, loves you deeply. God loves you as you are, here in this room right now. God is with you. God is with you in your joy and in your sorrow and in everything in between. There is nowhere that you go that God does not. There is nothing that you have done, are doing, or will do in your life that will send God away from you. God seeks your repentance, your turning toward God and toward wholeness. God is with you.
And so I am convinced, just as the Apostle Paul was “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” (Romans 8:38-39).
Anything! (I can list more things, if you want.)
I said earlier that this was the best part of this letter. I have loved these verses for a very long time. I have recited these verses over the phone and in person to friends, family members, colleagues, students, and probably strangers. I recited this list to a sibling who was convinced that their queerness separated them from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; I recited this list to a congregation who was convinced that my femaleness separated me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; I recited this list to a student who was convinced that their uncertainty separated them from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; this list was recited to me by a dear colleague and friend when I was convinced that something could separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You may feel that I am belaboring the point, now, but I am not sure that you are convinced. You may be looking at this list of things that do not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, and you may think you’ve got the exception. These things, sure, but your thing? That’s the thing that separates you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is my duty and my joy to tell you that you’re wrong. You might not be convinced today—or maybe you’re convinced today, but perhaps tomorrow you won’t be—and that’s okay.
The beauty of life in Christian community is that one of the ways that God is with us is in one another. When our burden is too much, our community can share it. When we are feeling light, we can help to bear someone else’s weight. And when we are not convinced, we can seek assurance in one another’s faith.
You may not be convinced of every word of this passage, but if you’re convinced of some of the words, and the person next to you is convinced of some of the other words, and the person next to them is convinced of some of the other words, we’re covered. We’re in this together, friends. And so we’re going to do a little audience participation. We’re going to say this together, out loud. Ready?
(Dear online reader: please read this out loud to yourself, now.)
“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.”