Sermon, 7/27/14, The Rev. Lori M. Lowe

Pentecost VII (Proper 12 Year A)                                    

St. Paul’s McHenry

July 27, 2014                                                          

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God…”

For anyone who reads or listens to the news, things have been really bad lately.  Heck, things have been really bad for a long time!  One thing after another, it seems.

  • One plane disappearing, another – both civilian, commercial airlines – shot down.
  • The madness in the Middle East boiling over… again.
  • The weekly announcements about the body count in Chicago.
  • The news is just crazy.  All of it!

Those are the headline stories.  Just as surely, there are others less likely to make the news.  Most of us could tell one close to home.

  • A friend in an auto accident…
  • A family member diagnosed with some serious condition…
  • …a troubled teen or struggling elder
  • Someone losing a job, someone hating a job
  • A loved one in trouble.

Is it just me, or does it seem to you like we’re drowning in all manner of suffering?  Of course there’s good stuff happening all around us, too.  But sometimes I feel like the Charlie Brown cartoon going around on Facebook this past week.

Charlie Brown and Linus are sitting on a log with long faces.  The caption above them reads: WORRYING WON’T STOP THE BAD FROM HAPPENING.  IT JUST STOPS YOU FROM ENJOYING THE GOOD. Well, that’s true enough.  But I don’t think we are supposed to ignore the bad stuff either.  To all of this, Paul says: all things work together for good for those who love God.  And I want to know… HOW. I want to know how, you understand, but I’m not big on a lot of god-talk.  I don’t want to hear bumper sticker theology… things like “Every day with Jesus is brighter than the day before,” or “Give it all to God and God will take care of it.”

When I’m feeling depressed and burdened by the hatred and violence that seems to be spreading across the face of the earth like a dark cloud, when I’m feeling sad and heavy-hearted by the sorrow and suffering that seems to be our human lot, cheap god-talk won’t do.

I’m reminded of a story that Fred Craddock tells.  I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned him to you before, but just in case… Dr. Craddock was one of the professors of homiletics at Candler School of Theology (my seminary).  He was on the list of the Twelve Best Preachers in the English Language; a list which was produced by Baylor University in 1996.

Fred tells a story about going to a victory party after attending a Georgia football game with friends.  (That’s the University of Georgia, you understand… sort of like “Da Bears” and what?… Notre Dame rolled into one.) The party was in a grand house in an Atlanta suburb.  Everyone was wearing stuff that said “How ‘bout them Dawgs,” and talking about the great game. Just about the time the hostess put out trays of little sandwiches, Fred noticed a woman who was a little overdressed to have just come from the game.  She was, in Fred’s words, “just dripping with success,” she and her husband both.  She stood up in front of everyone and announced, “I think we ought to sing the Doxology.” And before anyone could even vote on it, he says, she started.  A few sang with gusto.  Some stood there and counted their shoelaces, some tried to find a place to set their drinks because it didn’t seem right to hold a drink during the Doxology. (Obviously they weren’t Episcopalians!)  Others just sort of hummed along, feeling a bit awkward. When it was over, this imposing woman said, “You can talk all you want about the running of Herschel Walker [he was the 1982 Heisman winner], but it was Jesus that gave us the victory.”  Somebody asked, “Do you really believe that?”  And she said, “Of course I do. Jesus said ‘Whatever you ask in my name, I’ll give you.’  So I asked, ‘Jesus, I want us to win more than anything in the world,’ and we won.  I’m not ashamed to say that it’s because of Jesus, because I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” About this time, Fred says he was moving toward the kitchen.[i]

Me?  I think I’d have been moving toward my car.  That kind of god-talk doesn’t do it for me.  So how is it that we can even entertain Paul’s point blank statement that “all things work together for good for those who love God”?  At least, how can we do it without cheap god-talk?

Take that last bit, for instance — the part in Paul’s letter to the Romans about “for those who love God” — even that part rattles me.  I mean, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love God.  That’s not to say that I haven’t gone through times of doubt, confusion, and even despair.  But even then I had a sense – however vague – of belonging to God, of loving God. So wouldn’t you think that those of us who love God would get a break?  Be due a little favoritism?

My father died when I was 18.  He was only 41.  His long illness had invaded every aspect of our lives, mine and my mother’s and my sister’s.  At his funeral, I remember holding on by the skin of my teeth by saying over and over again to myself: “There must be a reason.  I don’t understand it now, but someday I will.  There must be a reason.” I didn’t know the Bible well enough back then to have quoted Romans.  Nevertheless, I think I was pretty darn close to something like… This will somehow work for the good, even if I don’t understand it now. Surely that’s what Paul is talking about when he says that for those of us who love God, the Spirit lives in us, and when we are rendered speechless, the Spirit prays on our behalf.  The Spirit puts our deepest groans into words.  So even a grieving eighteen-year-old girl can hang on for dear life.

We might not always be able to see the evidence of God’s love for us.  Sometimes we might feel overwhelmed by the immediate circumstances.  But it is at just such times, Paul tells us, that we are to claim – grab and hang onto for dear life – the gift of Jesus.  The gift of Christ’s suffering is to remind us that we are not alone. That is the proof of God’s solidarity with us.  We are not alone, and nothing — not life or death, not the past or the present, not anything in all creation — can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

All that being said, it’s a fair question to ask me: what good came of my father’s death?  Can I point to something specific and say, there, that’s the good that came of his untimely death?  Or, yes, I understand it now.  No.  But I can say this: that loss, and what I learned from it, is part of who I am. It is one of the things that has shaped my life, my vocation, and my faith.  It has made me stronger in the broken places.  God’s grace has turned my devastation into hope; my sorrow into tenderness.

In 2005, there were two sisters from Tennessee on one of the London subway trains when a terrorist bomb went off only ten feet from where they were sitting.  Both sisters were seriously, but not severely injured, though people all around them were dead or critically hurt. When they were back in the States in a rehabilitation center, they were interviewed.  Both young women spoke quietly and simply of how, while they were waiting for help to arrive, they prayed not only for the injured and dead, but also for those who were so misguided as to do such a terrible thing. It was not cheap god-talk; anything but.  It was as if the Spirit had been praying through them.  Clear, pure, honest, simple. That’s the kind of faith, courage, and strength we get, I believe, only from being in the community of faith, the family of God.  It comes from hearing the stories of the Bible, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, and being fed by the Body and Blood of Jesus.

That’s how I knew to say “someday I’ll understand” — my youthful version of “all things work for good.”  I learned it in church. That’s why we’re all here, I suppose.  Because this is where we absorb what we need.  This is where we are continually reminded of God’s love for us.  This is where we are nourished in mind and body and spirit… so that when the time comes, we can say with Paul: ALL THINGS WORK FOR GOOD FOR THOSE WHO LOVE GOD. And this is what we have to offer to others; to those who have no framework for their suffering, no company in their loneliness, no hope in their confusion.  Not that we have the answers – and certainly not easy answers.

Nevertheless, in this sometimes dark and violent world, we can offer peace.  In a world that glorifies revenge, we can offer forgiveness.  We may not be able to stop the bad stuff from happening, but together, we can help each other enjoy the good. And in the process, we can be reminded that all things work for good, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Nothing.

Amen.

Lori +

 

 

[i] Craddock Stories, p. 73-74