Not Just for Funerals

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

When I was a kid, I had this recurring nightmare: my mom was walking away from me, out of our back door, through our yard, into the neighbor’s yard and on. She just kept going and wouldn’t look back, even though I kept calling her name. I’d call and call, but she’d just keep walking. I would wake up in a cold sweat, terrified that it was true.

I know now that that dream represented death; in particular, my fear that my mother would die. I also know now that such dreams aren’t all that uncommon. In fact, my daughter had a similar nightmare about my wife just a few nights ago. Maybe you’ve had one, too.

What gives this particular nightmare its power is that it touches on one of our most primal fears: being left alone, deprived of the ones who love us. That need to feel connected, to be joined to and accepted by someone who loves us, to feel thereby safe, is one of the of the deepest needs in our species. Little wonder we are so attracted to orphan characters in literature — from Orphan Annie to Harry Potter, we see in these plucky characters our worst fears realized and so root for them because we are simultaneously grateful that its not us in this predicament and hopeful that we’d face it with the same measures of grit and grace.

Today’s reading in Romans touches on this same deep need and, indeed, primal fear.  Paul continues describing our life in the Spirit — life, that is, when we are joined to Christ and others via our baptism and belief. He has already announced that there is no condemnation for those in Christ and proclaimed that we are not only God’s children but also God’s heirs and Christ’s co-heirs. As if it couldn’t get any better, Paul continues, stressing that because God is for us, no one can stand against us. No one, that is, can level charges that deprive us of God’s inheritance or diminish our status among God’s beloved. His language is stirring: “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us” (8:33-34).

Did you hear that? Jesus — the one who preached God’s kingdom and embodied God’s love, the one who suffered and died on the cross and was raised again — this Jesus is now interceding for us. If this is true, then our future and hope is assured. As Paul continues, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (v35). His answer, of course, is a resounding, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And then comes the best part, the part so stirring we almost always read it at funerals: “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” (v.38-39).

And there it is — Paul addressing our deepest needs and deepest fears, all in one fell swoop. We will not — cannot! — be separated from God. No matter what nightmares we may dream or experience, no matter where we may go or what we may do, no matter even what may be done to us, yet nothing can separate us from God. Paul’s list is meant to be exhaustive, but of course we could add in our own. Disease, divorce, bankruptcy, a lack of a sense of purpose, a frustrating or failed call,…. What else might we add? What else might our people add? What might happen if we asked them — right there in church — whether to name in groups or to write on paper or simply to contemplate: what are those things that you have done or have happened to you that you fear put you beyond the pale and separate you from God? And then, having had the courage to name our deepest fears, to hear Paul’s response: “Nothing will be able to separate us from God!”

Moreover, it’s not just God in general — who Luther always held was just a wee bit terrifying — but the love of God in Christ Jesus. That’s right. God loves us…forever…no matter what. That’s why Jesus came: to tell us, show us, embody for us, God’s love. My goodness, but if there was ever a message we needed to hear in this transient and fear-ridden hyper-modern world we live in, Working Preacher, it’s this one. And you and I get to preach it. Not just at funerals, but today, this week, every week. So let it rip this week, Working Preacher — let the cat out of the bag and the secret out of the box: our God loves us…all of us…forever…no matter what…and nothing — no, nothing! — can separate us from God’s love!

Thanks be to God: for this Word and promise and for those who proclaim it!

Yours in Christ,