|Our prayers this night in worship - |
each one spoken simply and then held by the community in prayer.
The very last thing I would want to hear, if I were the parent of any one of those kids on that island in Norway – whether living or dead, or really, if I were any Norweigian at all today, is “All things work together for good for those who love God…”
I might be a little more open to hearing, “The Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words.” Because it isn’t that we know what to pray for and just need a little help getting it out, it’s that we have no idea what we need, we don’t even know what we want half the time-
Sometimes all we have is just pain, just raw awful pain and nowhere to put it and nothing to say about it. Or we have regrets; half the time we want to pray that something didn’t happen, we want to pray to change the past, and our prayers are just a bunch of “if onlys” and “whys?” Can we just pray that that madman didn’t get on that island? Can we just pray that we never sent our kid there?
Very rarely do we know how to pray or even know what we’re praying for, as though we would know how to solve the nation’s budget crisis? The devastating famine in Somolia, projected to kill 800,000 kids? The war in Iraq? As though you and I could figure out the best way to bring peace to the Middle East? As if I know how to stop my son’s deep fears, or help my mother cope with unemployment or chronic pain?
Lord knows, we don’t know how to pray. We just know things are not right. And we don’t even know how it would look if they were right, or we feel selfish asking for perfection, or overwhelmed by the suffering of others, so we are paralyzed in prayer so much of the time.
So, if I were a Norweigian parent of one of those kids tonight, I might be ok with being told that the Spirit prays for me with groanings too deep for words, because that is all I would have right about now.
But this passage is filled with things that are gospel, which means, "good news," I mean really, really good news, that have often been wielded so thoughtlessly, applied so dreadfully, that it becomes not really good news at all, kind of news we’d rather avoid instead. Like being told, in the midst of some crushing grief, that all things work together for good, as though God wanted this tragedy to happen, or at least planned it, which in my book would be plenty malicious enough.
After centuries of filtering the gospel through Catholic guilt and Protestant work ethic and Western Capitalism and American Consumerism and Individualism, we can barely hear the good in this news at all. And what is good news here, what most everyone can agree is most certainly and undeniably good news, we reserve mainly for the dead.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus! So for you who lay before us in your casket, gone from this life, this is great news! You are held safely in God’s care and love. As for the rest of us… I guess someday we’ll all be in your shoes anyway and the promises will mean something for us as well.
This passage is so filled with pitfalls and baggage hooks, especially for formerly religious or raised religious folks, this “comfort” ends up the opposite – it represents a lot of the reasons we left the church or are wary of coming back. "No condemnation" for some must surely mean condemnation for others – and all this talk of “elect” means we’re just politely not mentioning the “damned”, right?
But despite all the theological jargon and the baggage-laden words (like “predestined” “conquerors” “justified” “saved” “elect”) that may make us want to steer clear of this passage, and also often those who feel comfortable with it, there really is good news here, good news for all of us, and for the whole world.
And it begins with who God is.
Because if God is a distant God, demanding perfection and hard to please, dictating in advance all that is to happen without regard to its impact on individual human beings or communities, if God is just wielding God’s power, arbitrarily choosing when to step in and stop things and letting other terrible things go on, for the sake of some greater purpose that some of us might be called to and others excluded from, then this is not good news.
And it really isn’t for any of us either. Because who among us could really please this God? Who among us could endure such suffering as "conquerors" and just go along with whatever "good" must be coming from our pain? Perhaps there are some.
But I already know I’m not one of them.
And it would take some kind of super feat of faith, some great personal piety (and a hearty dose of denial?) to live as though things around us are unfolding as they were always meant to, as though God intends each and every thing that occurs, and its meaning simply temporarily escapes us.
Poet and essayist Scott Cairns says,
“Whether or not you think the world was initially created as the shaky sphere it is - a notoriously unstable crust skidding over a roiling swirl of molten rock - there's no arguing that it isn't something of a crapshoot now. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, famine, flood - take your pick. And lest we forget the human hand in our crapshoot's wealth of crap, we must remember to add to that wild mix our own pathological history of aggression, murder, war, and genocide.
And where, exactly, is our God in all of this?
Well, the story goes that He has descended into the very thick of it.
The story goes that He remains in the very thick of it." (Scott Cairns, The end of suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain, 108).
And if THAT is who God is, then suddenly the good news really is good. Because God doesn’t stand back like a puppet master, God enters into all of human life and existence, with and for us. Jesus lives life with us and suffers death for us and is raised back to life and now death never again gets to have the very last word. In Christ, all of life is bent back towards God; in Christ all of life is redeemed.
So to say that "God works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes" does not mean that God plans out a course of suffering for us to make us stronger people, or lets bad things happen in order accomplish some supernatural purpose or glory. Instead, because God joins us in our suffering, shares it from the inside, bears it with us, for us, all things work together for good because there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. All things work together towards love. Because God’s love embraces us even when we feel utterly abandoned and godforsaken, God shares our place of abandonment and godforsakenness in Jesus’ death on the cross.
The promise is that this suffering, this tragedy, this pained relationship or financial ruin or horrifying disaster or crippling depression – God’s love meets us even in this. God’s love isn’t stopped or hindered by this, in fact, the power that brings life out of death brings all things, anything, no matter how awful or trivial, into God’s purposes of love.
Earlier today I shared a message from Bard and Kjersti, our congregation’s friends in Norway, Bard said, "We are all well - all considering. Today we are in tears, mourning and losses of those killed in the bombing and particularly all the young people (at least 84!) shot to death at the social democratic youth camp. But how radically evil this is - we will not let hate eat our hearts out. Today the atmosphere in Norway is one of care and love."
For those who love God and are called and moved and motivated by God’s purposes, by the things that call and move and motivate God – love, forgiveness, healing, wholeness - for these the good news is that there is nothing that ever happens that cannot be used by God for love, evil can never get the last word, hopelessness or despair cannot win. Because God can work love and healing and wholeness in and through everything.
And we are more than conquerors, stoic endurers of suffering who one day get the satisfaction that we’ve made it through, survived, as though this life is something to be merely tolerated, or is to be separated from our spiritual existence. No, we are more than that, much more. Through Christ we are participants in this love that transforms, redeems, makes whole, not just us, but the world we live in, the people we love, the communities we share, the families we’ve been given for this short time we have on this planet.
“The extreme greatness of Christianity,” said Simone Weil, French philosopher and Christian mystic, “lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.” But, as Paul reminds us, it isn’t we who work to do this, it is the Spirit of Christ who lives in us, prays for us, works through us. And for a God who brings life from death itself, all things are ingredients for life. And, as we pour into one another and declare over one another at our baptisms: since we have been claimed by this love and now belong to it, chosen by love to spread it and talk about it and share it and hang onto it and give it away, what, then, could ever separate us from the love of God?
Could "hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" If all of evil swelled up and swallowed us whole, even that would be no match for the love of God in Christ Jesus, this love that claims us and lives in us and works everything towards love.
So groan away great Spirit within us and between us, because we don’t know what to do with our sadness sometimes, and we don’t know how to fix the brokenness we see and share. And draw us ever more into your love, to be people moved and motivated by your very heart of love for the world.