I spent this last week with Christin on our congregation’s youth mission trip. We went once again to Chicago with CSM (highly recommended if you’re interested in short-term urban mission experience!) and we had a great time. That meant that this sermon was written very quickly on Saturday! Now that the weekend’s over, I’m catching up on sleep!
This week’s sermon texts for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost in RCL Year A are Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.
In the landscape of the Bible, the Old Testament lays the foundation, telling the story of creation, the fall, and God’s chosen people, Israel. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus, the center of our faith, the story of God coming to be with us.
But in my opinion, the Mount Everest of the Bible, the absolute peak, the part that summarizes the whole point is the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. We read part of it last week talking about how we have been adopted as God’s children, and we continue this week with the rest of the chapter.
This passage from Romans 8 contains my personal favorite Bible verses; in fact, my confirmation verse is in this reading. But it also has one of the most misunderstood parts of the Bible, especially verse 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
Often, this passage gets used by well-intentioned Christians to inadvertently belittle people’s suffering. People mean well when they say there’s a purpose in suffering, but it rarely comes across that way. There’s this idea that God is causing suffering in order to teach you something or prepare you for something better.
It gets quoted when you get a lay-off slip from your job to say don’t worry, when God closes a door, He opens a window, so this will really be for the best. Or worse, it gets used when a teenager died in a car crash, and people tell the grieving parents not to worry, because this must have been God’s plan to get another angel.
That’s just not true. Not only that, it’s harmful to people’s relationship with God. The God I believe in does not kill children in car crashes. I was in Chicago this week on the youth mission trip, and in the first 5 days we were there, there were 50 people shot and wounded or killed throughout the city. The God I worship did not cause any of those shootings. That’s not what Paul is saying.
Paul doesn’t say everything is good or everything is from God. He says that despite all the evil in the world, despite all the suffering and the pain and the sickness and the violence and the despair, God is still on our side, walking with us, even carrying us.
Sometimes, we can see a reason for suffering. Cancer can be caused by smoking. In the case of shootings, it’s pretty clear – someone pulled the trigger. Someone sinned. In a soup kitchen we served at on Wednesday, I saw a poster with three big words: Don’t shoot people.
But so often, there is no reason. Why does the chemo work for one person and not the other? As the Bible often asks, particularly in the Psalms (for example, Psalm 73), why do wicked people prosper and those who do good suffer?
Paul asks, when we see the suffering in life, what then are we to say about such things? Yes, sometimes we can look back at disappointments and trials in life and in retrospect, we can see God doing something good through it.
But often, our attempts to explain suffering as caused by God don’t lead anywhere. All of our pretenses of being in control, our attempts to find meaning in suffering run into dead ends. Eventually, we’re left with Jesus Christ and the confidence in faith that God is for us. God is on our side. God 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? Who will bring any charge against God’s children?
All of the misfortunes in life, all the pain, the suffering, the fears, the doubts, all the hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, violence, sickness, all of that falls away in comparison to the love of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ.
It’s not that God causes evil in our lives, it’s that God’s love is so good, so ultimate, so overwhelming and final that it covers all the junk. God’s love lasts forever, the one thing that remains long after everything else has ended.
And we know God’s love because we can look at Jesus on the cross. We can point to the God who loved us enough to come in person to suffer with us, to do what we couldn’t do, to take all of the evil and pain and suffering onto himself and put it to death.
This passage is the center of the Bible because it’s the core promise of what God has done for us, the core promise of faith. This is the part that’s my confirmation verse (or “life verse” as we called them at Ascension).
“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.”
That’s the core of the gospel. God loves you. Period. Nothing can change that, nothing you can do, nothing anyone else can do to you, nothing that can happen to you. Nothing.
That promise of God’s love is the foundation for everything else in our faith. God’s love is at the root of the kingdom that Jesus talks about and is bringing into reality. This promise is at the root of how we live as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom.
One of the images Jesus uses in those parables we heard in the Gospel reading is that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
This parable reminds me of that famous philosophical question, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” The pearl here is God’s love. What would you do to receive God’s kingdom? It’s worth your whole life, and Jesus has already paid for it.
With this promise of God’s love, we can persevere through any suffering, through any situation. And not only can we persevere and endure, we can allow God to work in us to change the world.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, Jesus says. It’s a tiny seed that grows into a large plant, but beyond that, it’s an invasive species that’s very difficult to eradicate once it starts spreading.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast hidden in flour, spreading out to affect the entire batch of bread.
This promise is so great that when we understand it, when we recognize the truth that truly, nothing can separate us from God’s love, it demands we do something in response. It changes the entire way we live. Every little thing we do, every act of love done in response to God’s love brings God’s kingdom closer.
On Thursday, we were in a pretty rough neighborhood in Chicago to look at a “reconciliation mural.” You can see some pictures of it when we present on the trip in a few weeks, but basically, it’s the story of the world.
It starts with God creating this beautiful, perfect world, full of life and diversity, then sin comes in and shatters the world like into broken pieces, like a baseball bat hitting a light bulb. Sin causes all the brokenness, all the hate, the violence in the world we know, but God doesn’t give up on it.
Instead, God comes to personally begin the work of reconciliation, putting the world back together. The mural itself is a work of reconciliation, as members of rival gangs actually worked together to paint it to beautify their neighborhood. God is working for reconciliation even in the places you’d least expect, and God has entrusted that work to us as the church
Of course we can’t put the world back together ourselves, and we don’t usually think of our mission in that way, but as a church, that really is the point of what we do. God is putting the world back together through us. God is working through you and me to heal everything that’s broken in the world, and nothing, not even sin or death, is big enough or powerful enough to stop what God’s doing.
This week, may you dwell in this promise of God’s amazing, unending love. May this promise move you to action for the sake of God’s kingdom. And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.