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What can separate us?

Guest commentary by Matthew A. Rich

On Wednesday, July 25, 2018, 17-year-old Sarah Rhoads was killed in a tragic car accident.   A member of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia, Sarah was on her way to serve as a counselor at a day camp for developmentally delayed children organized by Reid Memorial members.

Sarah’s death has deeply affected not only her family and the congregation, but the entire community of Augusta, and even beyond, as she had served this summer at the Massanetta Springs Middle School Conferences and as a member of the 2019 Montreat Middle School Conference.

On the Sunday after Sarah’s death, the first time the congregation had gathered since the accident, I offered the following sermon on exile, hope and the faithfulness of God. The Presbyterian Outlookshares it this week as a resource to communities facing tragedy close to home.

What can separate us?
(Psalm 137:1-6 and Romans 8:31-39)

Our first reading this morning comes from the songbook of Israel, the Psalms.  It is a psalm that comes from the time when the people of Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians and taken into exile.  Let us hear this Word of God.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
 

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Our second reading for this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, chapter 8, verses 31-39.  With these words, Paul summarizes the gracious gift of God in Jesus Christ that is the foundation and the essence of our faith. Let us hear this Word of God.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 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. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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. 

“How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” God’s people found themselves sitting not within the walls of the temple in Jerusalem, but beside the rivers of Babylon. They had been dislocated.  Carried far from home and not by choice. Everything they thought they knew — gone.  They could envision a future no different from that day.  They did not want this.  They did not plan for this.  They did not expect this.  Pain, hurt, tears, loss.  Scripture calls it … exile.

Yes, exile.  It is not an experience unique to God’s people in Babylon all those many years ago.  As Lee Beach puts it in “The Church in Exile,” exile is “a cultural and spiritual condition where one feels at odds with the dominant values of the prevailing cultural ethos.” So, to be in exile is to feel disconnected from what we have always known, to wonder about terrifying new realities of loss or conflict, to question whether this feeling of “dis-ease” will ever pass.  Yes, anyone can be in exile, everyone can be in exile, even if we lay our heads down in our own beds each and every night.

My friends, I know that throughout this week I have been asking myself, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in this exile?” For this is not the week that any of us had planned.  This is not the Sunday that we had anticipated.  Reverend Nadine Ellsworth-Moran was supposed to be preaching this morning as we continued through our summer lectionary series on Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon.  That all went out the window on Wednesday morning when Sarah Rhoads’ car ran head-on into a log truck on the Little River Bridge. We suddenly found ourselves in exile. We did not want it.  We did not plan for it.  We did not expect it.  Pain, hurt, tears, loss. Exile.

And this morning we have gathered seeking to hear a word from the Lord.  If we are honest we come with this longing every Sunday, for exile always threatens God’s people.  Tragedy hit close to home for us this week, but we are not alone in experiencing suffering.  Indeed, the statistics on tragedy and suffering can easily overwhelm us.  Millions of children in the United States live in poverty. Almost 30,000 children around the world die of preventable diseases every day. More than 750 million people in the world live on less than two dollars a day. If we stop for a moment and consider all the tragedy in the world and the number of people who suffer every day — exile.

While the worldwide scope of tragedy and suffering can be overwhelming, it is my experience that the majority of those who seek pastoral counsel do so because they experience the sort of suffering that we have known this week — yes, tragedy much closer to home.  For all it takes is one suspicious text on your boyfriend’s phone.  One bag of marijuana found hidden beneath your child’s mattress.  One friend laid off from work.  One argument at church that ends in tears.  One person in your family diagnosed with cancer.  One night wide awake in bed because the one you have loved longer than you can remember will never lay his head on the other pillow again.  One telephone call from the state police at an accident scene.  All it takes is one.

So whether it is thousands, millions, billions, or just one — exile.

And when we are in exile, we get anxious.  And when we get anxious, despair threatens to take over.  And when despair overwhelms, we begin to fear that the future is fixed or that it will be even worse than today.  And when the future is fixed and when we are gripped by fear, we start trying to just survive.  We really do not know what to do.  We work harder at the things that we have always done.  But so often, despite our best efforts, nothing changes; things do get worse, we worry more, and survival becomes paramount.  Pain, hurt, tears, loss. Exile.

But, my friends, there is another response that the church can make in exile.  Another response when we feel anxiety rising within us.  Another response when the tragedy threatens to overwhelm us.  It is a response of memory and hope.  It is a prophetic response that sees God still at work. For as theologian Ephraim Radner writes of the people of Israel’s exile to Babylon: “Exile is also a moment by which our God delineated deliverance.  As such it can hardly be a cause for fear.”

Yes, in our own individual lives, if we are paying attention, we often see God most clearly in those darkest moments.  The same is true for the people of God.  In the exile of Egypt, God hears the cries of the people and delivers them.  In the exile of Babylon, God hears the people’s cries and does a new thing to bring them home. In the exile of the Roman occupation of Palestine, God hears the people’s cries and comes in Jesus Christ to deliver and save.  And my friends, God hears our cries too. Hope!

For despite the challenge, confusion and disorientation that exile always brings, as pastor and theologian Lee Beach writes, we will find our way through “not because we are so astute, but because God is always faithful to his promises and is constantly working in new and innovative ways.”

That is worth hearing again – we will find our way through exile not because we are so astute, but because God is always faithful.  We do not have the resources to survive the exile on our own, but God is always faithful. Hope!

In the midst of the exile of his own day, this is what the apostle Paul reminds the young fledgling church in Rome.  He begins with a question of his own: “What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?”  For Paul, that is a rhetorical question.  He knows the answer: God is for us; no one can stand against us, because God has demonstrated God’s grace in the gift of Jesus Christ.  God did not withhold God’s own Son, but gave him up for all of us. God gave God’s only Son for us so that things might be put right again, not because God had to, but because God wanted to give us a great gift. Hope!

Now, the giving of God’s own Son was certainly not easy. Our God knows what it is like to lose a child.  As we have experienced this week, there is no greater loss than that.  Flesh of your own flesh, bone of your own bone.   And more than just dropping him off at the airport for a trip, the giving of God’s own Son was a giving to death on the cross. A humiliating death for a common criminal.  But for God, death was not the final word.  Exile is never the final word.  Resurrection follows death and opens the door to eternal life and a renewed relationship with God here and now.  So, Paul asks: “Who is to condemn us for our sin?  It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us.”  This is the song of faith that we sing.  God gave us the gift of his own Son so that Christ Jesus might die for us, be raised for us, sit with God forever for us and pray for us.

This is the song of God’s faithfulness.  And if we believe it, then even in the midst of our deepest exile, in our deepest pain, hurt, tears and loss, we can live and witness with confidence. Hope!

Paul’s witness in the midst of exile goes like this: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  All things that we as human beings do to one another or to ourselves.  Can any of these things separate us from the love of Christ?  Paul says: “No!  In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” All these things which we may think of as signs of God’s displeasure with us: Hard times financially, distress in our families or emotions, persecution, hunger, being without the right clothes, danger, or even war.  We are conquerors of all these things through God who loves us.  God is for us and God did not withhold the Son as proof of that love.

But the exile still threatens.  There are more things that may separate us from God, so Paul makes a final statement.  This final statement begins with one of the strongest words in Greek: πειθω (peitho).  This means trust, confidence, rely on, be certain of.  If one is certain of something, then there is nothing that can undermine that confidence.  It is the rock upon which you build your life.  The idea against which you judge everything else you do.

“I am convinced, πειθω, 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.”  Nothing in all creation can violently tear us away from the love of God that God demonstrated for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Nothing, not political rulers, nor things we cannot imagine yet, not even the tragic, unimaginable death of one so beloved can separate not just me, not just you, but usfrom the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Hope!

My friends let me ask you to reach out your hand, to grasp the hand of one sitting near you.  If you need to move just a bit closer to someone else, that’s OK.  We will wait a minute.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in exile?  We sing together.  Hold on to one another because we cannot do this alone. We know pain, hurt, tears, and loss.  But I am convinced that God is faithful always and nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God.

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