July 30, 2017
St. John’s Episcopal Church
The Rev. Jamie Osborne
I’d like to take a moment and tell you how grateful I am to be here. I officially started here at St John’s at the beginning of this month. Everything is new and I’m taking it all in. It’s an honor for me to begin living into my vocation as an ordained person with you all.
Today is the third time I’ve had the opportunity to preach on Sunday morning, and it’s not something that I take lightly. It’s a great honor and responsibility to address the people of God, trying to connect the scriptures with the community and the moment we are living in.
Stepping into this pulpit, I think and wonder of all the different men and women who have preached here, who were trying to do the same thing. And I treasure the opportunity that I have to live and listen and grow along with you, as I learn the preaching life.
My first sermon here was under ten minutes, and one of the comments I received afterwards was that any sermon under ten minutes can’t be bad. Another person told me that my sermons aren’t long enough to be boring.
And the reason I mention this, is that after hearing today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans, I wonder if there is anything left to say. I’m tempted to just read it again and say amen. That would be a short sermon, maybe my best ever here at St John’s. But that’s not saying much because the sample size is so small.
I won’t read the whole passage, but here is a small portion:
“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.”
Sometimes there is a tendency to deny death and suffering. And it’s often because we think we are being more faithful to God if we overlook the bad things. It’s almost as if we believe God can’t handle death and suffering.
Or that to acknowledge the pain is somehow wrong or shows a lack of faith. In this approach, faith ends up becoming just another word for staying positive, being happy, and looking on the bright side of things.
But after a while, all of this energy being spent on being happy and positive can actually hurt us, because our faith never learns how to walk in the dark, to reach out and trust that God never leaves us or forsakes us, whether we’re walking in the noonday sun or in the middle of the darkest night.
I heard a story about an Episcopal hospital chaplain in Atlanta, Georgia. It was Ash Wednesday and he had gone to church and came back to work with a cross of ashes and oil on his forehead. He went in to see a female patient he described as a “smiley-faced Christian,” someone who went to what could be described as a “happy-clappy” church.
When he came in, the woman thought he had dirt on his forehead and tried to wipe it off. The chaplain said, “Don’t wipe it off; it’s a cross in ashes.” The woman was puzzled and asked why he would leave it on. Without thinking much about it, the words just came out and he said, “It’s a sign that God is with me even when life goes to hell.”
She reached up, took some ashes, put them on her forehead and said, “I need that, too.”
What this dear sister in Christ needed was the permission to be honest in her pain and suffering. To be able to open up that part of her life to herself and to God. To step out and trust that God’s love can meet us in the midst of suffering and even death.
“It’s a sign that God is with me even when life goes to hell.” She needed that. And you and me, we need that too.
We need to be reminded that God is with us even when life goes sideways. When we don’t even know what to pray because things are so bad. When death and suffering come knocking at the door. Or as a voice on the other end of the phone, choking back tears. Or as a text message that pops up on your phone and in a few short words, lets you know things are never going to be the same.
Words can’t make it better. Nothing can be said, just groans and sighs, too deep for words, God’s spirit and our spirit breathing out in what can only be called prayer. As Paul says: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Groaning and sighing are a major theme in this part of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Because of Adam’s sin, suffering and death have entered into the world. But in Christ, new life has come into the world, new creation beginning right in the middle of the old, and all of creation is like a woman in labor pains, groaning for this new creation to come.
And we groan along with it, waiting for suffering and death to be no more. The risen life of Jesus has begun a new creation, a healing of all that is dying and decaying, and suffering because of sin. It’s a new creation that has begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and we who have received the Spirit are waiting, and groaning, in expectant hope for the time when all things will ultimately be put right.
And we live in the in-between, on one hand we can say that Jesus has destroyed death and the grave, and on the other, we groan as we wait for the day when sin and the grave will ultimately be no more. And there are times in this in-between space, when no words can be offered, just groans too deep for words, offered in the trust that nothing can separate us from God’s love. That God is with us even when life goes sideways.
This is why Paul can exclaim that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. We have victory in Christ because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not even death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Victory in Christ isn’t found in denying suffering and death. Victory in Christ is to learn to trust that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And this leads us to Paul’s question, which he asks throughout his letter to the Romans. What then are we to say about these things?
Do you believe it’s true?
Do you believe this morning that you are loved by God, that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? Not that God loves others. Not just some abstract idea. But that God loves you as you are and there is nothing that can ever change that.
Because until we learn to trust that the love of God is true for ourselves, we will never grow very far into the healing work of Jesus.
The most fundamental truth that we know in Jesus is that God loves us. Yet, I believe that this is one of the most difficult things for us to live into. That’s the thing about God’s grace, God’s undeserved kindness towards us. It doesn’t make sense. And it’s hard to believe. It’s too good to be true. There has to be something we have to do to earn it, to make ourselves deserving of it. But there isn’t.
All that we have to do is remember what is true about ourselves. That we are beloved children of God in whom God is well pleased. This is what the Father said of Jesus at his baptism. And it’s the truth we enter in our own baptism. When we were baptized into Christ, what was true of him became true of us. We are God’s beloved children in whom God is well pleased.
Just reach up and touch the cross on your forehead. The ashes may have rubbed off since Ash Wednesday, but you still have one there even if you can’t see it. It’s the one you received at your baptism when you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
So when life goes sideways, remember who you are. Reach up and touch the cross on your forehead to remind yourself to trust what will always be true: God is with you even in suffering and death, in groans too deep for words. And that nothing will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.