a sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12)
God hears our prayers when we cry for help, even when we can’t find the words to say.
Back when I was in seminary, I got a call from my daughter, Sarah. She lived in New Orleans and was working at Tulane University in the student affairs office. The freshman class had just arrived on campus for orientation. But Hurricane Katrina was also on its way and she wondered whether she should leave New Orleans and go to a friend’s house about an hour north, or ride the storm out in one of the shelters at the University. “Go,” I said. So she packed a few pairs of shorts and t-shirts and she left that very afternoon.
Of course, Katrina was the biggest natural disaster to hit the United States in many years. And after a few days at her friend’s house, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to return to New Orleans any time soon. The city was underwater, power and water were shut down, thousands of people were in shelters all over the city, and the street were patrolled by looters and gangs. She had to come home here in Columbia. So we decided that she would drive all by herself here, where we could take care of her. Although I tried not to tell her, I was terrified of this prospect, too. We had heard stories of long lines at the gas stations and lots of people being stranded on the side of the road. All Rindy and I could do was wait – and pray – until she arrived safely at home.
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
There’s an old saying that says, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” It means that when we are terrified, when we have nowhere else to turn, we still turn our hearts and our minds to God in prayer. In our fear and weakness, we don’t always know what to say. And we certainly can’t control our emotions and our fears. Still, the Spirit comes to our aid, even when words fail us. God remains faithful, even when we can’t form the words to cry for help.
In today’s Epistle reading, Paul reminds the small band of Christians in Rome that even in times of great fear and stress, we remain bound to God through the love of Christ.
“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.”
Fear is a perfectly natural emotion that God instilled in each of us to protect us. When we’re afraid, we become more alert to our surroundings, our heart beats faster to pump more oxygen to our muscles so that we can run or fight, our brain releases more adrenalin so that we can stay alert. Our fears protect us and guide us in times of stress and danger. At the same time, fear sometimes gets in the way of our relationship with God and with the people we love.
Paul knew something about fear. He had spent his life traveling the world for the sake of the Gospel. He was beaten, thrown in prison, shipwrecked, persecuted, and staved. He had given up a life of honor and status as a Roman citizen and a high ranking Jew. Still he asks, “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Absolutely nothing. Not the hardships of life, not the things that cause us to worry about the future. Not persecution for what we believe, or what group we belong to, or the way other people try to categorize us and pigeon hole us. Not fear of our ability to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, clothes for our children. Not crime in the streets or even war. None of these can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ, the one who died and was raised again for us all.
I know that many of us in this room have experienced many of these same fears. The fear that comes from a cell that goes haywire in our body and causes cancer, the fear that comes from being unable to work or pay our bills, the fear someone we love might leave us, either through death or divorce.
And the hardships of our personal lives aren’t the end of it. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard of commercial planes being shot down in the Ukrane, of Christians being crucified in Iraq, and of children fleeing their homes in Central America.
Through this and so much more, God remains faithful, no matter what. Through disease, divorce, death, or depression, through feelings of inadequacy or failure, through torture and terror, God stands by us and carries us. God’s love is stronger than any of our fears.
One of the most uplifting parts of this scripture is also in our burial service:
“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.”
What would we attempt to do if we knew we could not fail? What might happen, if we took the energy that our fears consumed and turned it into energy for building the kingdom of God? How might our lives be transformed if we looked deep into our hearts and called out our deepest fears by name and offered them up to God? How might you transform another person if you let them know that God loves us, all of us, forever – and that nothing, not any thing, can separate us from the love of God.
Thanks be to God.