These last few weeks of following the news have been rough. As the situation in Palestine and Israel has deteriorated once again, I have listened as story after story of deaths by bombs has been reported. Even hospitals, which would normally be left as safe havens, have been decimated – with doctors, nurses, and injured peoples killed. Words keep getting thrown around like “justified,” and “terrorism,” and “power.” But at the end of the day, people are being killed for the sake of safety and security. As we imagine each Palestinian mother, father, and child dying, we hear the Spirit interceding with sighs too deep for words.
Then there is the Church in Mosul in Iraq. As ISIS has moved in, they have demanded that all Christians either convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, or be executed. As hundreds of Christians have chosen to flee, many have been robbed and abused. Homes and places of worship are marked with the letter “N” for “Nazarene.” Those labeled buildings are being destroyed or taken over by ISIS. The Christian community that had been present for over 1600 years is almost completely gone now. As we imagine Christians fleeing with only the clothes on their backs, we hear the Spirit interceding with sighs too deep for words.
Finally, much closer to home, children are crossing our own borders in waves. Thousands and thousands of unaccompanied minors are fleeing violence, abuse, and poverty in the hopes of asylum in our country. Just to have crossed the border means these children have already been through significant ordeals. Without parents and sometimes without a word of English, they come in the hopes of safety and security. While our governmental leaders and even some of us worry about long-term solutions and costs to our country, many religious communities are offering emergency food, shelter, clothing, and medicines. As we imagine rooms filled with confused, scared, vulnerable children, we hear the Spirit interceding with sighs too deep for words.
There are many things about today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans that I find confusing. Paul says wonderful things like “…all things work together for good for those who love God,” and “If God is for us, who is against us?” and “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” And yet, could any of us utter any of these phrases to a Palestinian, a Christian in Mosul, or a Latino refugee child in Texas? How can Paul admit that we have deep weaknesses, so strong that the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, and yet still believe that nothing can separate us from God? Instead Paul’s words come off as pithy to those of us who also groan with the agony of this world, overwhelmed and feeling helpless in a world that bombards us with awful, terrible news of suffering and pain. If God is for us, we are unsure that God’s team really can win. We have seen too many things working together for evil to believe that all things work together for good. And we in fact feel very separated from the love of Christ, especially at times like these.
Many years ago, while I was serving as a chaplain, I met a woman who had been ill for quite some time, and who was wondering whether death might be approaching. We talked for a long time, and she finally admitted to me that she had stopped praying. She had stopped praying because she no long knew what to say to God. She had run out of words, and she was afraid to show any of the anger that was bubbling up inside of her to God for fear that God would abandon her. She felt alone – isolated both from the world and from God – and that feeling left her bereft. She could not even pick up the Bible anymore because of Psalms like the one we heard today that begins, “Give thanks to the LORD and call upon his Name…Sing to him, sing praises to him, and speak of all his marvelous works.” Those words made her angry. She did not want to give thanks to the LORD, and she resented the Psalms for telling her to do so.
Being a person of faith is not easy. We often find ourselves in these conundrums. How are we to trust in the LORD, stake our claim on God’s love, when much of our experiences run counter to the idea of God’s love conquering all or nothing being able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? When our lives have not turned out how we expected, when our loved ones suffer, or when the world seems to be doling out more hatred than our souls can bear, we find leaning on God’s love to be almost impossible.
And yet, that is Paul’s invitation today. Paul takes our broken selves and heaps piles of love on top of us. When we are weak, and we do not even know how to pray, Paul says that the Spirit helps us. The Spirit knows our pain and suffering, and in fact, the Spirit too groans in pain and suffering – with sighs too deep for words. The “Spirit’s groans are unspeakable words of intercession for those of us who groan in weakness.”[i] Why does the Spirit think that God might hear? Because God has made those same groans. Every time God’s people broke their covenant with God, God groaned with sighs too deep for words. As God’s son hung on a cross, God groaned in agony over his death. God knows our groans because God groans too. God groans when Christians are forced from their homes in Iraq. God groans when God’s people kill one another in the most holy of lands. God groans when we turn innocent children into political issues.
And yet, even in those darkest moments of groaning, God loves us. Hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword cannot separate us from God’s love, Paul tells us. “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,” says Paul. Paul, who had persecuted and murdered Christians earlier in his life, turns his life around and embraces love. Paul who has seen and participated in the worst of life manages to see that the loving embrace of our God never left him; and then he shares that love with others. He is thoroughly convinced. Nothing. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not even death, not even evil rulers, or awful abuses of power, or sinful ways, or wayward people of faith can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.[ii]
As I have been following the news this week, I have begun to see God’s love percolating. I listened to an interview with a Jewish teen who is studying in Israel right now. The interviewer asked the teen how he felt about Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and though the teen initially stated that he supported Israel’s actions, as he talked his way through the complicated issue, he finally confessed that he simply did not want anyone else to have to die – on either side. As violence continued in Mosul, I watched on Facebook as people changed their profile pictures to the symbol for “N.” The explanations for the changes are simple. “I too am a Nazarene.” As politicians struggle to find the most economical, politically savvy way to handle the children seeking refuge in the United States, I have watched Christians of all stripes advocate for these children – from Catholics and Episcopalians to Evangelical Protestants and Southern Baptists, from Quakers and United Methodists to Unitarian Universalists and Jews. Russell Moore, of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention was quoted as saying, “These children are made in the image of God, and we ought to respond to them with compassion, not with fear.”[iii]
As I visited with that woman in her hospital bed, we talked about the other Psalms: the ones that invoke God’s wrath and vengeance. All of the anger and abandonment that she felt was also present in those songs to God. She was not the first to rail against God. And she would not be the last to rediscover God’s love for her. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword. 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. Not bombs or evictions or refugees. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
[ii] David M. Greenhaw, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 282.
[iii] Michael Paulson, “U.S. Religious Leaders Embrace Cause of Immigrant Children,” as found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/us/us-religious-leaders-embrace-cause-of-immigrant-children.html on July 23, 2014.