Nothing Can Separate Us

First time back in the pulpit in several months. Delivered this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, MI.

Click here to read the Lessons.

Back when I was working as a counselor for drug addicts in upstate New York, a client came to me one day with a question about spirituality. He was working the Twelve Steps program through Alcoholics Anonymous, which leans heavily on faith in High Power to help a person find sobriety. He had never thought much about God, but figured he should start by reading the Bible.

He asked me, “Where should I begin?”

And I responded, “Why not at the beginning? Start with the book of Genesis.”

“Why Genesis?” he asked.

And I told him, “Because it’s the only book I can read and find people more messed up than I am… and God never gave up on them either!”

That really is my favorite part of the book of Genesis. In it, we hear the story of four generations from an extremely dysfunctional family. It’s full of deceit, betrayal, manipulation, sex, and violence. I sometimes read it and wonder whether Abraham and his descendants belong in the Bible or on some sleazy daytime talk show.

The picture we get in today’s first Lesson from Genesis is perfect example of that. Jacob is on the run as a fugitive from justice after cheating his brother out of his inheritance. He finds a home and goes to work for his mother’s relatives in a neighboring country. Jacob’s uncle, Laban, lies to him about his contract and changes the terms without telling him. The women in this story, Rachel, Leah, and Zilpah, are tossed around like pieces of property and never get to have a say in their own destiny. After the section we read today, Jacob goes on to do some pretty crafty lying himself. The whole situation is a mess!

And that’s the point, I think. By preserving this encounter in Scripture, God presents us with a messed up situation that bears an awful lot of resemblance to our own messy lives. None of us is perfect; none of us lives in circumstances that are ideal. We mere mortals struggle to make the best of things in life and often fall short of our highest aspirations.

But here’s the good news: God never gives up on us, either.

Just like Jacob in the book of Genesis, we are part of a much bigger story that both includes and transcends the messiness of our individual lives. There is a sacred mystery at work within us and among us: some might call it the hand of God.

St. Paul tells us as much in his letter to the Romans, which is our second Lesson this morning. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Later on, he continues, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The Apostle is bold in reminding us that our varied and scattered lives are part of an unfolding story that includes the entire universe and spans the whole of time, from the beginning to its end. In all of our struggles and temptations, we can trust that we are not alone. In the often painful and seemingly random events of our existence, we can trust that life is meaningful. We can trust this, Paul says, because there is One who has created us, loves us unconditionally, and will eventually weave the various threads into a single, unified, and beautiful whole. This is why Paul is so bold to declare:

“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.”

In short, St. Paul is saying that life is meaningful because we are loved. You are loved. Sitting at your desk and stressed out of your mind, you are loved. Standing in a courtroom while a judge pronounces sentence, you are loved. Crouching in a foxhole while sustaining enemy fire, you are loved. Collapsing to the floor when you get a late-night phone call with awful news, you are loved. Lying in a hospital bed as a doctor says there is nothing more he can do, you are loved.

Love is God’s way of working in the world. That might not seem like much, but it changes everything. Jesus compared it to a seed in today’s Gospel: it starts small but grows into a place where others can make a home.

Even better, Jesus compares God’s work in the world to yeast microbes, which are too tiny and insignificant to be seen by the naked eye, but change the nature of bread. Leaven the dough with yeast, and everything rises.

That’s how God works in the world and in our lives: like yeast in the bread. Starting with a seemingly random collection of matter and energy, God adds something else, something living, to the mix and the whole thing rises. One might think the Almighty would impose the divine will on creation by force, but God chooses to work instead from within, using the smallest and most insignificant lifeforms in the cosmos: people.

When God set out to redeem the world from sin, God took on human flesh and lived among us in the form of a tiny baby, born to a pregnant teenager in what was basically the parking lot of a motel, in a backwater hick-town in an occupied territory of the most powerful country on earth at the time. Yet this seemingly insignificant baby, so the Church tells us, born to the Blessed Virgin Mary and laid in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, is God Incarnate.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loved us, healed us, and taught us to love one another. When we refused to listen to Jesus’ message and turned to the power of state-sanctioned violence to shut him up, God absorbed all of our human hate into the Divine Body. And then, on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead in order to send us the unmistakable message: “My love is stronger than all of this. All your hate, all your violence, and all your power to deal death cannot stop the power of my love.”

“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.”

Love is stronger than death, and nothing we do, nothing life throws at us, can separate us from it. It is the free and unconditional gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.

Friends, this is the Gospel. This is the good news of God in Christ. This is the message that we are called to proclaim to the ends of the earth: That there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love.

Just as God did for us in Christ, we are called to embed ourselves in the chaos and messiness of life in this world. We are called to share this world’s pain, to take it into ourselves, and perhaps find a way to heal some of it in Christ’s Name.

The irony is that the work of the Church doesn’t happen in church, but out in the world. We are called to meet people where they are and demonstrate to them, in word and deed, that they are loved. That is what the Church is for. Everything we do is for the sake of that one, singular goal.

That is why this parish hired me as your Community Development Administrator. I can’t do this work for you, but I can facilitate, guide, and encourage you as you do it. That’s why I want to get to know you, listen to your ideas, and open doors wherever I can.

And I certainly hope that, as you do this work of the Church in the world, you will hear anew for yourself the good news that we proclaim to this messed-up world: that you are loved.

Amen.

2 thoughts on “Nothing Can Separate Us

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