Sunday, July 15, 2018

Inseparable Love: Sermon on Romans 8:35-39

It was a cold night on the sea. A storm was approaching from a distance, but hadn't yet overtaken the shivering sailors of Sparta as they sat and stood around the deck. They were on their way, under the command of Lysander, to wage war on the allies of Athens. But this storm this night, in this cold and this dark, had a few of the younger sailors unsettled, in spite of all their vaunted Spartan bravery, heirs of Leonidas and the three hundred. One asked doubtfully, through chattering teeth, “What hope have we in the storm to come?”

An elder pointed above, to two stars overhead, and asked, “Do ye remember the story of them gods of our city? Men tell of a queen of Sparta, Leda her name, and her husband King Tyndareus – though unbeknownst to her king and husband, Leda was visited by the king of the gods, Zeus, one day in disguise, sating his sovereign lusts. Leda gave birth to children, among them these twin boys, Castor and Polydeuces. Oh, the adventures they had together, thick as thieves! Side by side, they chased the Caledonian Boar. Side by side, they sailed on Jason's Argo. Side by side, they rescued their sister Helen from Theseus' grasp. Not a thing did one do that the other didn't. Theirs had no rivalry, no contest, no variance of path; only unbridled friendship and untainted brotherhood. Wild on horseback and fierce athletes, the two of them, and never the one without the other.

Oh, over a pair of twin sisters they began a feud with their twin cousins – twins against twins, Castor and Polydeuces against Lynceus and Idas. Castor and Polydeuces stole the latter's cattle, but Lynceus and Idas saw them in the act, caught them in the act, and Idas in his fury thrust a spear through Castor. Polydeuces gave chase, killed Lynceus, was in danger of retaliation – until a thunderbolt consumed Idas. Polydeuces ran back to his brother, his dearest friend, dying, death rattling in his throat. Polydeuces wept hot tears, cried out to Zeus, begging to die at his brother's side, 'for glory is departed from a man robbed of his friends,' said he. Zeus came to him, told him the secret truth: Leda had lain with Zeus and the Spartan king in such quick succession that the twins were, in a fashion, sons of both – but Polydeuces heir to Zeus and immortality, and Castor heir to the king and the inevitable pains of death. Nonetheless, Zeus offered Polydeuces a choice: 'If freed from death and the harsh years of age, it is thy will to dwell beside my throne upon Olympus, companion to Athena and to Ares, god of the shadowing spear, this choice is thine to take; but if, in thy heart's travail for thy brother, thou art in mind to share all things alike with him, then half thy days shalt thou beneath the earth draw breath, and half within the golden citadels of heaven.' And Polydeuces had no need to think twice: he gladly bartered half his divine heritage away to his brother. Oh, you may hear from some that they trade off, passing as ships in the night, but believe them not. One day, the two together are among the heavens; the next day, the two together make their home in the darkest valleys of gloom; but together always. And in the sky Zeus placed their stars, to watch over ships, but surely those of their kinsmen and fellow-citizens of Sparta on the sea.”

And so the Spartan sailor might well have consoled his shipmates with the old myth – a moving myth, of the exalted heroes who share and share alike, half-immortal each. Castor and Polydeuces were, through love, made inseparable. Polydeuces – or Pollux, as the Romans would later call him – refused to let anything, not even a mortal wound, not even death itself, separate Castor from him. Just a myth – but a myth with beauty to tell. Their popularity spread far and wide, vastly beyond Sparta. Paul passed by the Anakeion, their temple in Athens. He surely passed by their statues in Corinth, day by day, as he wrote his letter to the Roman churches. The early Roman Christians, as they went about their business and passed through the forum, walked beneath the gaze of statues of Castor and Pollux set in front of their temple there. And when Paul finally left Malta where he'd been shipwrecked so that he could journey and be with the men and women who'd read his letter, the ship that took him there, Luke tells us, had carvings of Castor and Pollux on its prow (Acts 28:11).

Paul and the Roman Christians alike rejected their temples and statues and observances, but maybe, just maybe, they could appreciate the sentiments of the story. Things in the Roman churches – and note the plural – had not been great. The spread of the gospel had met reception and opposition there in the Jewish community – and it had gotten heated. Fed up at the strife, the emperor Claudius had given an order expelling Jews from Rome. It was this that sent Priscilla and Aquila to Corinth where they met Paul. In their absence, the Gentile converts had taken the lead in Roman church life, crafting an approach all their own. And then the Jews, including many Jewish Christians, returned. Now nobody saw quite eye to eye; we'll find out more about that in the months to come. But there were many churches – some more Gentile, some more Jewish, some with one position, some with another. And there were some Gentile-heavy churches that evidently got the idea, from treatment like this, that God had chosen them to replace the Jews as God's chosen people, even to replace Jewish believers – that the Jews as a whole, even the believing remnant, had been rejected, separated from God's electing love. After all, look at how they had suffered in their exile from the city! And didn't everyone know that disaster was a sign of rejection? Didn't even Jewish wisdom say that “seven kinds of punishment come to the world for seven categories of sin” (Pirqe Avot 5:8), with famine, distress, and the sword among them? Didn't Jewish writings themselves identify God's wrath with “evil diseases, famine, thirst, pestilence, and the sword” (4Q504, frg. 2)? If the expelled believers were suffering all these things, when the Gentile believers were building the church fine on their own, how could the afflicted exiles under God's wrath not be separated from the love of Christ?

We might consider it an odd way to think. Or do we? Rome, when Paul wrote, was full of churches judging each other, full of believers judging each other, full of churches and believers reading love and wrath into the big events of their communities and the littler events of their lives. The emperor's order comes down, and you know some Gentile believer mad at the Jewish guy in the other pew thought to himself, “Ha, serves him right.” You know that, even after the Jews were readmitted to the city, Roman churches at odds would start to look for every twist and turn of fortune as signs of God's favor or disfavor. You know there were surely at least a couple believers in exile who came back, heard what the others were thinking and how they were judging, and started internalizing it, thinking, “Maybe I am rejected. Maybe all this was punishment. Maybe God isn't for me any more. Maybe I'm outside the love of Christ.”

And is it all so different today? Aren't we tempted to think like that? To worry that we'll be rejected, turned out, turned away, cut off? To wonder what we've done wrong when things go wrong? To see God's favor or God's disfavor, God's love or God's wrath, in the numerical growth and decline of churches and denominations, or in the circumstances of our lives, or the health of our bodies? “Tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” – the seven classic woes that Paul and the Jewish Christians expelled from Rome were actually suffering or close to suffering, and some of which will enter our lives, too – well, aren't we tempted to think they offer evidence that God isn't with us, that God isn't for us, that we've been “separated … from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:35)?

Paul has three things he wants to say to that. The first one is pretty simple: “No” (Romans 8:37). The answer to his question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35), is none of those things. Such things like that cannot be used as evidence that God has divorced his people, or a segment of his people – that they, or we, stand now under God's wrath instead of God's love. Tribulation doesn't prove that. Distress doesn't prove that. Famine or drought don't prove that. A radical collapse into poverty to the point of nakedness and destitution doesn't even prove that. Not even being attacked or executed proves that. All of these are real, live possibilities for faithful Christians. The story may have had Zeus protect Polydeuces by dropping a thunderbolt to make Idas crispy, but seldom does fire fall from heaven to immediately smite those who want to hassle us. God, the real God, may not intervene to keep you out of tribulation or distress. God may not fill your table in the time of famine. He offers no guarantees against poverty and homelessness. God may well allow distressing things to cross your path – allow cancer and car crashes, danger and dementia, exclusion and ejection, falls and famines. Is it evidence God loves you any less? Evidence God is punishing or rejecting you?

The Roman Christians needed proof, so Paul opens up Psalm 44 for them. It's one of those psalms that starts the right way – praising God for his ancient deeds, when he expelled the Gentiles from the promised land and planted the Jews there as a free people (Psalm 44:1-2). For that, the chosen people could always say, “Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us” (Psalm 44:5). But after a moment's thought, the psalmist sees something confusing in his day: “You have made us like sheep for the slaughter and have scattered us among the nations” (Psalm 44:11). They became a “laughingstock,” tarred by “disgrace” and “shame” (Psalm 44:14-15). 'Scattered among the nations,' 'sheep for the slaughter' – just like what happened to the Jewish Christians again under Claudius and in their wanderings.

Was it evidence they did something wrong? The psalmist says no: “All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way” (Psalm 44:17-18). The psalmist's people were suffering, and it had no relation to whether they were right with God; there was no just punishment involved here. And so the psalmist cries out to God to “rise up; come to our help; redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” (Psalm 44:26). But first he summarizes the situation: “For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:22).

And that's the verse Paul quotes for the situation in his day (Romans 8:36). All those seven woes – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword – they came against the psalmist's people, and the word of God itself says that it didn't mean they'd done something wrong. Their heart hadn't turned back that time. Their steps hadn't departed from God's way. They hadn't forgotten God or been false to his covenant. They were still chosen. Their sufferings were no proof they'd been separated from his love. It was for his sake that they were suffering in their exile. It was godly suffering that God chose to allow, but it was no sign of God's disfavor. God was still with them. God was still for them. You can suffer all these things without it being a sign that God has stopped being for you. You can go hungry, and it doesn't mean God's abandoned you. You can be in poverty, bankrupt, homeless, and it doesn't mean God's forgotten you. You can be in harm's way, you can even be facing down death, and it doesn't mean you're separated from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35).

There's a second thing Paul wants to tell all the Roman Christians, and us too. Remember, Rome is full of these churches busy judging each other. The Jewish-heavy churches especially were all but wiped out by Claudius' decree; they're persecuted, they're embattled, they're still struggling to hang on. Plenty of the members of the churches in Rome, some more than others, are populated by immigrants and the poor, even though there are some fairly rich and well-placed Christians, too. Some, fresh from exile, having been starved and deprived, are struggling to rebuild a life in Rome – struggling to keep a roof over their heads, struggling to stretch their food from one day to the next, struggling to cover all the bills, struggling with new forms of sickness and disease picked up on the way. They're weak – in fact, we know that plenty of Roman churches divided people into 'the strong' and 'the weak,' in more ways than one (cf. Romans 15:1).

Some of us know what that's like. Here in the United States, we're fond of mentally dividing the world into 'the strong' and 'the weak,' 'the deserving' and 'the undeserving,' 'the worthy' and 'the unworthy,' 'the haves' and 'the have-nots.' The strong think, “Why can't the rest just get their act together?” We divide the world into winners and losers. Major figures in American public life speak openly today about how those who are with them are “winners,” those who are against them are “losers and haters.” From our school days onward, we learn to think of some as being the 'winners' at life, and others as being the 'losers' at life. And what makes the difference? The folks who have it all together are, to the American eye, winners – clean bills of health, good clothes, good diet, in keeping with our upper- or middle-class ethos and our cultural values of production and consumption. The folks who struggle are, to the American eye, losers – maybe compromised in health, maybe malnourished or out of shape, maybe dressed poorly, maybe at variance with our cultural values, maybe in jeopardy of losing a home or defaulting on a loan, maybe unable to keep a job, maybe cultural outsiders. Subject to things like what Paul listed.

And here's Paul's second message: Poor and broken believers are not losers. Depressed and wounded believers are not losers. Homeless and destitute believers are not losers. Exiled and aimless believers are not losers. Sick and disabled believers are not losers. Immigrant and foreign believers are not losers. Fatigued and worn-out believers are not losers. Unemployed and unemployable believers are not losers. Awkward and ill-at-ease believers are not losers. Persecuted churches are not losers. Underresourced churches are not losers. Small and shrinking and struggling churches are not losers. Confused and troubled and distressed churches are not losers. None of the faithful are losers. Poor believers, depressed believers, disabled believers, worn-out believers, sick believers, afflicted believers – not losers, but winners, and more than winners! For “in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37)!

That's right, and it means underresourced churches are winners! Small churches, even shrinking churches, can be winners! Confused and troubled and distressed churches can be winners. Persecuted churches – winners! Churches in exile, churches out of place in society, churches that see nowhere to go – winners! And not just winners, not just conquerors; “more than conquerors,” super-winners! The kind of winners who do more than just put up a good fight, but who have the promise of one day seeing all their past tribulation, all their past distress, all their past persecution, all their past famine, all their past nakedness, all their past danger, all their past execution, all that knocked them down and beat them up, one day carried off the field of battle in body bags – that's being a super-winner. And depressed believers are super-winners, disabled believers are super-winners, destitute believers are super-winners; disadvantaged churches are super-winners, distressed churches are super-winners, declining churches are super-winners. Not through anything they themselves bring to the table, but “through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

And so we have that promise, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper” (Isaiah 54:17) – not when the day is done. Because you, if you have faith – you, if you endure – are a super-winner. Through the name of Jesus, we have that promise that we will indeed “tread down those who rise up against us” (Psalm 44:5). It's not because we trust in what we bring to the table – whether the psalmist's bow and sword, or our own talents and health and easy living – but a continual glorying in God in spite of all that has us down (Psalm 44:6-8). That is being a super-winner. And that is for the persecuted and exiled church, that is for the struggling church, that is for the churches of Rome, and that is for us, and that is for you. Through the love of Christ, you are more than a conqueror; you are a super-winner.

And you don't have to worry about anything coming in and getting between you and the love of Christ. It's like Castor and Polydeuces – the love of Christ gives itself for you over and over again; it never leaves your side; it never succumbs to circumstances; it's with you in the highest highs and the lowest lows, never forsaking you, never allowing the slightest distance from you. The divine love that chose you will never stop choosing you, never stop choosing to be for you, never stop choosing to be with you. Nothing can divorce you. Nothing can obstruct you. Nothing can separate you.

That's why Paul is so totally “convinced,” he says, “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” (Romans 8:38-39). Death can't do it – not the sum total of every form of weakness, every form of sickness, every disability and depression and distress and disadvantage. It can't come between us and God's love. Life can't do it – not the sum total of every form of strength, every form of prosperity, all health and happiness and comfort and privilege. It can't come between us and God's love either. No otherworldly power, no thisworldly power, no underworldly power can separate us from God's love. If Michael and Gabriel and every archangel tried standing in the way, God's love would be unbreakable all the same. If Satan and Belial and Beelzebub and every demon legion marched across our path, God's love would shine through unobstructed. If every government, every corporation, every bank, every court, every media conglomerate were to propagandize you and bully you and knock you flat every day for a billion years, it would not hinder your access to God's love in the slightest – not so long as you find God's love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Not the highest highs nor the lowest lows can separate you from God's love. All the fate the Romans feared, all the astrological signs they watched the sky for, all the heavenly power reserved in stars and planets to dictate the course of events of life on earth, or so they thought – even if it were true, not all the powers of destiny and star could steer God's love away from you. Not a one, not the whole bunch, could dictate to God how long he loves you, or dictate to you whether he's yours forever. There is not a thing on earth or above earth or under the earth, nor will the limitless halls of eternity future ever evolve or reveal or develop or cobble together, any force that can deflect the tiniest spark of God's love from you; not a thing that can change his mind about you. Not all heaven and not all hell can separate you from God's love in Christ. There is nothing in all creation, not a one, that can get in our path, obstruct our access, fence off God's love from you or you from God's love.

That's good news for all the churches in Rome. For the weak churches and the strong churches, for the Jewish churches and the Gentile churches, for the little churches and the big churches, for the poor churches and the rich churches. Nothing can come between the poorest, weakest, tiniest church or believer, and the all-powerful love of God that chooses them or him or her for boundless hope in Christ. Nor can anything come between the wealthiest, strongest, biggest church or believer and the very same love of God, unextended and unmitigated. And the love of God is more than all victory; through this love, a prize greater than all conquest is all ours, no matter what the world sees, no matter what others see, no matter what we ourselves see.

Castor and Polydeuces are but a pale pointer to the inseparable love of God, with us in the highest highs and lowest lows the same, self-sacrificing to the full but victorious forever. The brothers of Greek and Roman myth have nothing on God's love as displayed in the nail-pierced but living and lively body of Jesus our Lord. He may well allow all sorts of affliction, even when we've done nothing wrong. But not all the weapons of this world or the next can prosper finally if formed against 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” (Romans 8:38-39). To him be the glory forever. With confidence we pray to the God of Inseparable Love:

Rise up;
    come to our help;
       redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Psalm 44:26). Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

God for Us: Sermon on Romans 8:31-34

As the Congressman stepped out of his vacation home and into his fishing boat Adam's Fancy, he had to admit – the last twenty-four hours had been good ones. As he zipped across the narrow gap between South and North Bimini, journalists gathered on the docks near Brown's Hotel and Marina beneath the sweltering June sun to await him. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., tall and suave and self-assured, disembarked beneath the blue Bahama sky, joined his attorneys, and held a news conference extolling the court's decision.

A Congressman from Harlem, Powell was proud of the news report that once called him “arrogant, but with style.” A preacher and politician devoted to fast living and beauty queens, he'd been dogged by assorted scandals – contempt of court charges in his home state of New York, accusations of misuse of congressional funds, the usual. Though duly elected again and again, the Ninetieth Congress had been fed up – they'd refused to even seat him, excluded him from taking the oath of office. But Powell fought back. The US Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, was clear on the qualifications for Congressmen – age, citizenship, residency – and, Powell reasoned, he met them all.

It had been a long fight, for most of which Adam Clayton Powell had stayed holed up in his property in South Bimini, “Adam's Eden,” and the local bars. But now he was vindicated. Just over two weeks since Powell attended his son's wedding in Washington DC, and a mere day before Powell's sunny press conference, June 16, 1969, Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, in his last act before retirement, had handed down an overwhelming majority opinion on Powell v. McCormack. Congress couldn't make up their own qualification requirements for seating duly elected representatives.

A lot could seemingly be said about Powell's fitness for office, though his friend Martin Luther King considered his exclusion a “terrible injustice” on racial grounds. But as far as the Supreme Court was concerned, the qualifications were cut and dry. And in spite of Congressional protest, it ultimately didn't matter what they said or did; the Constitution was clear. Adam Clayton Powell was, in this, at least, justified. And once the highest court in the land weighed in, it didn't matter how much his enemies in the House fussed and moaned about all the things they thought made him unqualified to even take the oath of office. If the Supreme Court was for him, who could be against him?

Powell's office in the United States House of Representatives is one thing. But Paul is of the view that there's an office for you, too. He says that “those who receive the abundance of grace” will “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). He mentions that enduring believers will “reign with” Jesus (2 Timothy 2:12; cf. Revelation 5:10). We are “predestined to be conformed to the image of [God's] Son” (Romans 8:29), called to a “glorious liberty” as God's children (Romans 8:21), given “the first-fruits of the Spirit” so that we can “groan” a priestly groan on behalf of creation (Romans 8:23), appointed as “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Paul even says that God is determined to “grace us with all things” alongside Jesus (Romans 8:32). Co-ownership of the universe – that's what Paul is talking about, and he has you in mind, us in mind. We are each appointed to the office of a royal priest over creation. In this empire of grace, you fill a post in King Jesus' administration.

And that is so much more than we're used to seeing ourselves. That is so much more than a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Can you really believe that God means for you – yes, you, you individually – to be an official in his administration? Can you really believe that God intends to give you a role in running the entire universe? Can you really believe that you, and the person sitting next to you in your pew this morning, are priest-kings or priest-queens to the entire created order – given a solemn priestly calling on behalf of every murky deep and every fruited plain and every far-flung galaxy? It's a stretch of the imagination! And with an office that weighty, that magnificent, that cosmic, it is so hard to see ourselves – or our neighbors – as qualified.

There are countless objections I'm sure you could bring up why you – or your neighbor – couldn't possibly exercise that office; why you or they aren't the man or woman for the job. And whenever believers withhold fellowship from each other, whenever we separate, whenever we feud, whenever we complain and criticize, we're at heart impeaching one another's qualifications for office – filing an affidavit for the devil's collection, giving testimony against each other. And gleefully, gleefully does the devil dance at the thought of using our own testimony against us as he files suit to block us from taking office in the universe-wide empire of grace.  And how often we willingly collaborate with the devil's project, filing affidavits against one another and against ourselves!

But here's Paul's great message for you today. Sure, accusations can be brought, charges can be filed to block you from taking this high office – but for it to even be considered in court, the petitioner has to have standing. And who has standing any longer? The Trinity, seated on the bench, have already issued a unanimous ruling in your favor! The complaints against you, those accusations, those charges, have all been dismissed for a lack of standing! Or as Paul says it, “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33). You are God's elect – God's choice for a post in the administration of the whole universe – and God is the Judge who has already ruled in your favor.

What's more, who's going to argue the case against you? Satan isn't admitted to the bar in this court. The only eligible prosecutor in the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of God is the Eternal Word, Jesus Christ. But Jesus, in his ascension, approached the bench and informed the Judge that he was taking on your case, not as a prosecutor, but as your defense attorney – and if the only prosecutor eligible in court is already occupied as your defense counsel, what can stand in your way? Or as Paul says it, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ has approached the bench, indeed gone into the Judge's chambers. And there, with a “great cloud of witnesses” thronging the courtroom gallery to cheer their support for your cause, Christ is not there to litigate against you; he's there to argue your case. And “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). There can be no exclusion from the office to which his Father has elected you – not when you're in him.

See, with a set-up like that, it's irrelevant who tries to stand in your way, isn't it? It doesn't matter who tries to bog you down in red tape! Satan can file motion after motion, all your critics can file motion after motion, you yourself can file motion after motion against yourself – but they sit in a heap, unnoted and unread, so far as the court of God is concerned. When it comes to your qualifications for office, those motions just don't matter. The case is a sure thing. The only eligible prosecutor is your defender. The complaints are dismissed for lack of standing. The judge has ruled in your favor. And “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

It's such a mind-blowing thought – that things could really be that sure, things could really be that certain. And with so much at stake! Can you really believe it, once you get your head around it? Can you really see yourself and your neighbor in the pew serving in the administration of the universe, seated in the government of Jesus' kingdom? Can you really accept that none of the motions filed against you have any weight? How can we be so sure? How can we really be certain that “God is for us” (Romans 8:31)?

Just this: that God is clearly for us in Christ – for God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). God's Son is the “one who died” for you, the one “who was raised” for you (Romans 8:34). Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). “Christ died for our sins” and “was raised” to life again (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).

For you, God handed him over. For you, God surrendered him to the cross. For you, God watched as his Son hung there, stripped bare and bloody, with the weight of all the accusations and charges against you on his shoulders. And if God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him grace us with all things?” (Romans 8:32). That is the guarantee, the ultimate assurance. The constitutional qualifications for office in God's kingdom are clear. And the blood of Jesus and the breath of his Spirit fulfill every last one in you. No motion filed against you can deny it, so all motions against you are beside the point. All the affidavits the devil's been collecting to use against you? I say this quite literally – to hell with them!

But words are sometimes weak to convince us. So God has given us more than words. He offers us physical proof. He offers us physical proof that he gave his Son up for you, delivered him up for your trespasses. He offers us physical proof that his ruling is in your favor. He offers us physical proof that the prosecution table in the Supreme Court of the Kingdom is empty – because another table is all too full. Today, in just a few minutes, you will hold the physical proof of these things in your hands. You will touch the physical proof to your lips. You – yes, you – will clench the physical proof between your tongue and your palate. Proof that God's Son died and was raised for you. Physical proof of the Jesus who said, “This is my body, which is given for you (Luke 22:19). Physical proof of the Jesus who identified “the new covenant in my blood” with “this cup that is poured out for you (Luke 22:20). Physical proof that God is for you – for all of us.

And “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). God is so for us, he insists on being in us. Mind no red tape; pay heed to no procedural quibbles. God has elected you to office; you took your oath of office at baptism; and while your open reign has not yet begun, your invite to the state dinner affords you physical proof that no accusation, no charge, no motion, no complaint, no red tape, no self-doubt can stand in your – in our – way! Not when God is for us. And here, with our own eyes and our own hands and our own mouths, we can tangibly experience that he is. God is for you. He aims to grace you with all things. God is for you. God is for you. Come and see. Come and touch. Come and taste. Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Called to Freedom: A Sermon for Fourth-of-July Weekend

British America is already become considerable among the European nations for its numbers, and their easiness of living, and is continually rising in greater importance. I will not undertake to decipher the signs of the times, or to say from what quarter we are most likely to be molested. But from the course of human affairs, we have the utmost reason to expect that the time will come, when we must either submit to slavery or defend our liberties by our own sword. And this perhaps may be the case sooner than some imagine.”

By no means was he wrong. On Monday, June 7, 1773, the day he spoke the words, Rev. Simeon Howard was the forty-year-old pastor of Boston's West Church. His was a dignified congregation, prominent in the Boston community and in British America overall. Two and a half years into his pastorate, Rev. Howard had baptized John Hancock's little brother Ebenezer. And now, six months out from a dinner with John Adams, Simeon had been asked to rouse the local artillery company with the word of God. Like a fierce-eyed and bare-toothed prophet of old, he warned the soldiers that the time would surely come when the liberties of America would fall under attack. So he preached on liberty and tyranny, freedom and oppression – hot topics all, in the 1770s. Fortunately, Simeon found a verse in his Bible to suit the occasion: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

Rev. Howard was hardly the first colonial preacher to preach on that line from Galatians 5:1. Nor would he be the last. A year to the day after Simeon's dinner with John Adams, an organization calling themselves 'Sons of Liberty' set off a raucous and destructive protest in Boston's harbor. Less than three months later, elsewhere in Massachusetts, an elderly but energetic preacher named Jonathan Parsons took up the same verse in a sermon dedicated to John Hancock – only Rev. Parsons, as a Separatist, used it to plead against tax-funded church establishments, urging that Paul's words demanded that the colonists respect each other's religious liberty if they wished the British Parliament to respect their civil liberty. Twenty-six days after his sermon, that Parliament passed the first of what the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. Later that year, the First Continental Congress convened and petitioned King George III to fix a series of grievances they had. They urged him that their “Creator” had not “been pleased to give us existence in a land of slavery,” but rather that they “were born the heirs of freedom.”

With no answer forthcoming, militias began to train; the British standing army made moves to seize their supply of weaponry; shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. Less than a month later, the Second Continental Congress convened. Nearly two months into their meetings, on Wednesday, July 5, they adopted one last Olive Branch Petition; but the next day, they adopted a Declaration of Causes justifying their armed revolt against the government of the empire; and the day after that, Friday, July 7, 1775, at the Continental Congress' own request, a Philadelphia pastor named Jacob Duché welcomed the First Battalion into his church and preached to them from, you guessed it, Galatians 5:1. “Liberty, traced to her true source, is of heavenly extraction,” he told them.

Battalions like Duché's hearers were put to good use in the months ahead. Delegates to the Congress urged their home legislatures to authorize them to move toward declaring independence. It was one such legislature in the colony of Connecticut that invited Rev. Judah Champion to preach to their situation. On May 9, 1776, he gave them his special sermon. He warned them: “Gloomy and threatening indeed is the cloud impending our land and nation. Our privileges, civil and sacred, are imminently endangered. Under these alarming circumstances, the admonitory language of divine providence and revelation is this, Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” Less than two months after Judah's fiery call, the Second Continental Congress, its delegates now authorized to make their move, declared that “the Laws of Nature and Nature's God” had entitled them to assert self-evident truths “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” The rest is, quite simply, history.

Where did the popular support for all this come from? The vast majority of Americans weren't reading the sorts of political pamphlets that kept elites occupied. No, political pamphlets were vastly outsold by another kind of popular literature with far more influence: sermons. By 1776, printed sermons were published at four times the rate of political pamphlets. More sermons were being preached that year than ever before. People were hungry for pastors to bring the word of God to bear on the major questions of their day. The words of thousands of preachers gave shape to popular opinion. And the third most commonly preached-on verse in the colonies was: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” One historian, looking back on the late colonial period, called this verse “an American motto.” It was these words of Paul, filtered through the sermons of Simeon, Jonathan, Jacob, Judah, and others like them, that shaped this “course of human events.”

Many of us have forefathers after the flesh who were here at the time – who may well have read their sermons, or heard others like them from one or another pulpit. What was it they heard in this passage? What did they see in Galatians 5 that inspired their passion, enlightened their vision, urged them to fight and resist and overthrow? It's worth saying, first of all, that for all the fascinating directions they took it, colonial preachers from Simeon to Judah didn't deny Paul's context. Paul was tangling with the Judaizers, who were preying on his Galatian converts and deluding them into thinking they couldn't be full members of God's people without accepting what was popularly called the 'yoke' of the Law. But it was, in the words of one colonial pastor, “a tribute which they were not bound to pay.” Paul “could not brook the narrow spirit of those Judaizing Christians,” who aimed to lead the Gentile Christians' “free-born spirits” to “tamely submit to slavish, carnal ordinances, which the Gospel of Jesus had entirely exploded and abolished.”

The colonial preachers got the gist, even if they didn't yet know some of the details. As we read it in our Bibles today, Paul urges the Galatians that the Judaizers, who offer a way to be included in Abraham's family, are only begetting children for the slave-branch of Abraham's line through Ishmael; that is the path of Mount Sinai and the old covenant, which are merely “bearing children for slavery” (Galatians 4:24). Paul's gospel aims to beget “children of promise” like Isaac, who are “born according to the Spirit” by simple and glad-hearted faith that embraces the freedom God so generously offers (Galatians 4:28-29). “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 4:31—5:1).

In Paul's world, there was a special way for slaves to become free: with money paid into a temple treasury, a temple would then use that sanctified fund to pay the redemption-price of a slave, thereby making the person a slave only of the temple's god, but free as regarded any human law. In surviving inscriptions commemorating temple manumission ceremonies, the slogan they use to describe it is: “For Freedom.” Paul's saying that Christ is the god who has bought us out of slavery, and we must remain firm, stand firm, be confident in the birthright of freedom Christ has given us. The old law may not be used to burden us, to add extra hoops and steps on our way to God; we are not bound by all the busybody demands of law this and law that; we walk by wisdom, in the promise, according to the Spirit. We are free to soar in more dimensions than the thin pages of the old law; we are “called to freedom,” Paul tells us, summoned to run straight to God, summoned to explore his wild life, to feel his liberty on our skin, to pursue the happiness that's found only in him.

But when colonial preachers read Paul, they thought his words meant more than how Paul used them. When the pastors of eighteenth-century America saw the phrase, “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,” they thought broader than the age of the gospel; they looked back to the creation. They knew that Jesus was really no latecomer to the human scene; they realized that Christ was the Creator. Judah Champion said it outright: “All things were originally created by Christ.” They knew it was Christ who built the mountains and dug the valleys; it was Christ who planted Eden and walked between its vines in the cool of the day; it was Christ who lovingly designed Adam and gently crafted Eve. And so, from the beginning, Christ made us in the image of God – endowed us with dignity, with sacredness, with basic rights and privileges inborn into every human life. In forming societies, we contracted limits, but our limits are themselves limited – some rights are unalienable, and God would never recognize our efforts to barter them away. As Simeon Howard put it, “There are some natural liberties or rights which no person can divest himself of, without transgressing the law of nature.” The Second Continental Congress would add, “and of Nature's God.”

This liberty bestowed in creation – colonial preachers saw it as a divine gift from Jesus – hindered by law, hampered by sin, but now freshly renewed and reinvigorated in the bright day of the gospel. Judah Champion saw here a “liberty and freedom belonging to us, not merely as men originally created in God's image..., but also as Christians, redeemed by the blood of Christ.” So Judah included those inborn human liberties when he said, “Every blessing is therefore to be considered as flowing to us through the blood of Jesus. Civil government is his institution.” Jacob Duché agreed that civil liberty was “as much the gift of God in Christ Jesus” as spiritual liberty is, “and consequently, that we are bound to stand fast in our civil as well as our spiritual freedom.”

There's that phrase again: 'stand fast.' Taking Paul's exhortation to their own ends, colonial pastors urged their fellow-citizens to assert these rights that Christ had given them. “For men to stand fast in their liberty means, in general, resisting the attempts that are made against it, in the best and most effectual manner they can,” Simeon said. He said that not defending one's God-given liberty would be like the servant who buried his talent during the Master's absence and let it go to waste; not only an act of cowardice, but also an act of ingratitude, and more than that, of cruelty, since to relinquish one's liberty, he thought, is to doom the next generation to slavery. Judah said that “we must assert [our rights]; highly esteem, and conscientiously improve them; zealously, and with utmost vigor, exert ourselves to maintain and defend them.” He urged the people not to “wantonly throw them away,” or else risk the curse of the Lord who gave us our “inestimable privileges civil and sacred.” And Jonathan Parsons added, “Whether success attends our endeavors or not, it becomes us, as men and Christians, to assert our natural and constitutional privileges – never to give them up,” since “they are a legacy left us by Christ, the purchase of his blood.” He declared that “we may not give up those rights and privileges that Christ has purchased for and bestowed upon us; for giving them up would not only reflect great dishonour upon Christ, but would be inconsistent with the peace and welfare of the people, and therefore be quite intolerable.”

Not everything the colonial preachers said stands the test of time, much less the test of the gospel. Still, surely they have some points. Christ is the Creator – the Bible leaves us no room for doubt about that. When we were created, all the blessings we received, all the blessings he packaged into what it means to be human, what it's supposed to mean to be human – those are all from his nail-scarred hand. We were stamped with divine dignity, the image of God, made to receive his life, run in his liberty, and pursue his joy and holiness. It was Jesus who gave us life and declared us his. So long as we're made in God's image, an attack on any human life is an attack on God – hence why the God-hating devil became “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

It was Jesus who called us to serve him in cheerful love – to do which is to exercise the freedom of religion and conscience. It was Jesus who called us to listen and hear others, and to then speak words of gentle truth in his name – to do which is to exercise the freedom of speech and press. It was Jesus who called us to share our lives with each other, to convene as a holy community and to bring his presence with us into the midst of every other community – to do which is to exercise the freedom of assembly. It was Jesus who gave us these gifts, and gave us the option of using them well or poorly. It was Jesus, speaking by his prophet, who bade us do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, by whose image all others share a common and equal authority with us. All these things are gifts of Jesus – so it's easy to see and appreciate why colonial preachers saw them as being incorporated in “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Galatians 5:1).

So we should absolutely stand fast, speak up, resist like good soldiers against encroachments that would steal the gifts of Christ from us in practice – stand fast in every way consistent with the holy walk to which Jesus himself called us. As we look at the life of the apostle who wrote these words, we see that Paul surely exercised freedom of religion (in following Christ rather than the dictates of the Sanhedrin, Caesar, or any pagan priest), freedom of speech (in his preaching the gospel), freedom of press (in writing his letters), freedom of association (in meeting with other believers, even where banned by illegitimate laws), and so on. Nor was Paul shy about invoking his rights as a Roman citizen whenever it was useful. He did, however, forsake his rights – though gifts of Christ – on occasion for Christ's purposes. He did accept limitations, aggressions, slave-like treatment, whenever it would create an opportunity for the gospel. He had plenty of rights, he stood firm, but on occasion he could honestly say, “I have made no use of any of these rights” (1 Corinthians 9:15), wherever he found he could worship and witness and work better without invoking them. Paul would surely invite us to do the same.

Paul would also be the first one to tell us that far more important than any civil liberty is our spiritual liberty – our freedom in Christ from the power of sin, our freedom in Christ from the demands of the old law, our freedom in Christ from every burdensome load that obstructs us from God's liberating embrace. We are called to this freedom; it is what we were made for, and we cannot, dare not sacrifice it. To turn away from our spiritual liberty in Christ, to burden ourselves with a bevy of rules and systems and old childish ways, is to trap ourselves in a man-made maze; it is slavery, it is prison, it is death. On this point, Paul's words are absolute: “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Don't play the Judaizers' game, or any game like it; don't give an inch to those who make up defunct rules, who call you to jump through their hoops, who want you to base your Christian life anywhere but in the wide open expanses of God's mercy. Accept no abridgment of the freedom you have to live as God's child, a child of promise, a child born through the Spirit. Accept nothing that would hinder you from running with the Spirit when Jesus takes off running.

And the colonial preachers admitted that was even more important. Levi Hart, another of their number, asked, “What is English liberty, what is American freedom, when compared with the glorious liberty of the sons of God?” Far more important than civil liberty, he said, was “that we are subjects of that spiritual liberty, which unites us to and interests us in the good of the whole kingdom of God our Saviour..., which shall last forever!” Simeon Howard called it “another and more valuable kind of liberty..., a liberty which consists in being free from the power and dominion of sin … Whatever our outward circumstances may be, if we are destitute of this spiritual liberty, we are in reality slaves, how much soever we may hate the name; if we possess it, we are free indeed.” On that score, Levi and Simeon are absolutely right. American rights, First Amendment rights, human rights – all great blessings, but nothing compared with the gospel liberty Paul has in mind.

The colonial preachers made much of Galatians 5:1. Less frequently did they venture onward to verse 13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). Not that they disagreed with the sentiment. Simeon Howard noted that liberty was no shapeless thing, moldable however we want it: “The law of nature which bounds this liberty, forbids all injustice and wickedness; allows no man to injure another in his person or property; or to destroy his own life.” Liberty, he said, is bounded by God's vision for human flourishing; 'injustice' and 'wickedness' have no place in a proper use of it. We may not use our freedom as an excuse to indulge our worst desires. That isn't real freedom; that's venturing off liberty's map and falling headlong into new slavery.

Simeon added that every community was bound to use its liberty “for the honor of God” and “to be an example of virtue to neighboring communities, and afford them relief when they are in distress.” And the same, I'd say, is true of us all: the proper way to use our liberty is to honor God, individually and as a church; and for each of us individually and us together as a church community to model a Spirit-led life of virtue to others; and for each of us individually and us together as a church to afford others relief when they are in distress. That is not slavery. That is real freedom. That is the right meaning of freedom: serving others in love, which is all the law was ever truly trying to get at anyway, “for the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).

All our rights – this is what they're for. This is why God gave them to us; this is the end for which Christ hath made us free. We are to serve others in love, to show them what the good life looks like, to help them in their times of distress, to do all this in every way that honors God. Freedom is for that. Paul and his interpreters in the American colonies, at their best, could agree on that. That purpose is what makes liberty worth standing firm over. And it implies so much about how we should live, about what our celebrated rights are ultimately about. The first step in standing fast for them is using them rightly in the first place.

This week, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, I'd encourage you to think about some of the rights you have – rights and privileges and liberties given to you by God, some of which are enumerated in our founding documents and supposed to be secured by good governance. Think of those liberties – freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom to have a voice in representative government, property rights, and so on – and ask yourself, “How am I standing firm on this? How am I using it to honor God? How am I using it to model the virtue of Jesus? How am I using it to afford relief to those in distress? How am I serving others through love with it?” But most of all, more importantly than all the rest, think of the spiritual liberty Jesus really died to win for you – and don't lapse back into the old routines that get you addicted and tie you down when Jesus is calling you up to action.

Stand fast, stand firm in every freeing gift of God in Christ, whereby your faith can use that freedom to serve others in love – love, service, and true worship are what your freedom is for. Having started this morning with a message by Rev. Simeon Howard, I'd like to close by turning things over to Rev. Jacob Duché. Hear his words for the First Battalion and for you:

Stand fast, then. Stand fast by a strong faith and dependence upon Jesus Christ, the great Captain of your Salvation. Enlist under the banner of his cross. … Stand fast by a virtuous and unshaken unanimity. … Stand fast by an undaunted courage and magnanimity. … Lastly, stand fast by a steady constancy and perseverance. Difficulties unlooked for may yet arise, and trials present themselves, sufficient to shake the utmost firmness of human fortitude. Be prepared, therefore, for the worst. … Coolly and deliberately wait for those events which are in the hands of Providence, and depend upon him alone for strength and expedients suited to your necessities. … In a word, my brethren, though the worst should come..., let us, nevertheless, stand fast as the Guardians of Liberty...

Even so, grant, thou great and glorious God, that to thee only may we look, and from thee experience that deliverance, which we ask, not for any merits of our own, but for the sake and through the merits of the dear Son of thy love, Christ Jesus our Lord! To whom, with thee, O Father, and thee, O Blessed Spirit! three persons in one eternal God, be ascribed all honour, praise, and dominion now, henceforth and forever!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

All Things Work Together: Sermon on Romans 8:28-30

“I have gone about as a beggar, showing against my will the wound of fortune. … I have been as a ship without sails and without rudder, driven to various harbors and shores by the parching wind which blows from pinching poverty. And I have appeared vile in the eyes of many....” It all but goes without saying that the man who said that was not having a very pleasant day. Once again, he packed up what little belongings he had, the papers he could carry with him, the clothes on his back, and fled for his life and liberty. Nothing in life seemed to be going his way in the slightest.

He used to have almost everything he wanted. The man had dreams once. Born and raised in the Tuscan city of Fiorenza, he'd lost his parents young – by eighteen, he was left to carry his family through life. Two years later, he accepted the marriage his late father had arranged for him to a kind and tolerant young woman, Gemma, a daughter of a powerful and well-connected family, the Donatis. He himself was of noble breeding. Four years later, he went to battle, fought in the cavalry at Campaldino to settle the political strife that had shredded Fiorenza since before he was born. For years, two factions – political parties, if you will – had mistreated and abused each other constantly: the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. But, of course, we wouldn't know anything about two political parties ravaging each other, would we?

Well, this young man – twenty-four at the time – was a loyal Guelph, just like his parents. The Guelphs stood against more encroachment by the emperor over life in the city-states of northern and central Italy. And with this battle to defend Fiorenza, the Guelphs had won. He returned home in victory to his family. And six years later, the ambitious young man joined a guild and entered the political arena himself. And he was good at it, too – so good, so persuasive every time he spoke, it made some people uncomfortable. He rose to superintendent of road repair; more than that, had a seat on the main city council; more than that, served a brief term as one of the six priors of the city. He had wealth. He had power. He had influence. He lived the good life, and provided for his family, and attended his church on the regular – after all, it was only three minutes' walk from his house.

In the meanwhile, as can happen to any political party, a fault-line cracked open within the world of the Guelphs. Some families began identifying themselves as Black Guelphs; others as White. The Black Guelphs wanted to expand the political influence of Pope Boniface VIII, who ruled the Papal States to the south. In Fiorenza, their faction was headed by Corso Donati, a relative of Gemma's. But Gemma and her husband, despite family ties, were White Guelphs – they didn't want that at all. But surely we can't relate to a political movement collapsing into petty infighting, can we?

Well, as the feud escalated into local political violence, the White Guelphs sent several ambassadors to the pope, whose thug Charles of Valois was on his way to come be a 'peacekeeper' in the city. Our man was one of them. Pope Boniface didn't much care for him; he detained him at Rome 'til the dirty work was done. Charles was some peacekeeper – if by 'peacekeeper,' you mean a partisan hack who turned Fiorenza over to the Black Guelphs, let them riot, let them destroy property, let them kill and banish their enemies, let them take over the city government. Once in charge, the new government levied false charges of financial misconduct against our man, confiscated his assets, and threatened to burn him at the stake if he came back without paying a steep fine and groveling for mercy. Just like that, he was homeless and penniless, separated from his family, and on the losing side of history, it looked.

Fleeing northward to Verona, he tried to take part in a conspiracy to regain power over Fiorenza for the White Guelphs, but it fell apart and was crushed; disgusted and disillusioned with the movement, he became an independent, a party all to himself. Forced out of Verona, he went to Bologna and tried to reestablish himself. For a few years, he had hope – until the fragile political truce there collapsed to Black Guelph influence, and once again, he had to flee the city, alone and friendless. He lamented his “exile and poverty,” “all my woes and all my misfortunes,” he called them. And he finally had to admit: he'd lost it all; his dreams were dead.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever found yourself feeling all alone, or opposed at every turn? Have you ever felt detached from the world, homeless, unmoored, set adrift? Have you ever had it all taken away from you, or felt like you'd lost just about everything that mattered? Have you ever been in a situation where you just can't see how things can possibly turn out right? Have you ever been able to identify with “woes” and “misfortunes”? With “pinching poverty,” with being like “a ship without sails and without rudder,” with feeling like you appear “vile in the eyes of many”? Have you ever wondered why all this could be happening to you? I know plenty of you have. I know there are some in this church who may have felt that way in the past year. I know there are some of you who may feel that way right now. Bad things are happening to you, you're losing all you dreamt of, things are just falling apart. And for you, I'd like to fast-forward fourteen years and show you one more scene.

Fourteen years after leaving Bologna, the man exiled from Fiorenza – well, I'll be honest, he never returned to his hometown. He settled for a while in Verona as a sad and serious man, and rediscovered his intellectual pursuits that his political career had begun eclipsing. Before, he'd been a minor poet in the big city. But while on the run from place to place, he'd written a few books – not all got finished – and then turned his attention to the magnum opus that occurred to him. He wrote it in thirds. The first third came out, and it was like wildfire. In Verona, he finished and published the second part of his trilogy and started work on the third.

Already, his fame and influence were growing; not limited to one city, he was becoming beloved throughout the known world. The lord of the town of Ravenna was a big fan – thought this man had become the greatest poet in the world, his favorite writer – and invited him to leave Verona and move there. He did, and brought two of his sons there. Finally, his wife and daughter fled Fiorenza and joined him in Ravenna – the first time he'd seen either in nearly seventeen years. Within the next two years, he finished the last third of his work. And with that, Dante Alighieri, in the final year of his life, had secured his lasting fame.

To this day, he's considered one of the greatest authors to ever live – equal to Shakespeare, if not greater. His three-part epic poem, La Commedia – “The Comedy,” since it dared to sing of a happy ending – took an imaginative journey from the dark woods of despair and lostness through the pains of hell, the mountain of purgatory, and the blissful light of heaven, closing with a face-to-face encounter with God, in the form of a bright and infinite circle in whose depth “it conceives / all things in a single volume bound by Love, / of which the universe is the scattered leaves” (Paradiso 33.85-87). Dante concluded his masterpiece by describing God as “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso 33.145).

The Comedy was eventually upgraded in title to The Divine Comedy. It shaped the art of Michelangelo, the writings of Milton and Chaucer and C. S. Lewis, and the lives of millions. To this very day, over 700 years later, there are people who publicly credit Dante's vision for saving their lives. It left Dante himself international acclaim and enduring praise, gave him and his family their reunion in peace, and offered Dante influence he never could have dreamt of. Pope Benedict XV called Dante “the most eloquent singer of the Christian idea”; the current pope called Dante “an artist of the greatest universal esteem” and “a prophet of hope”; the noted poet Thomas Carlyle said, “I know nothing so intense as Dante”; the famed author James Joyce said he loved Dante second only to the Bible; Napoleon said his great regret was that his France never could produce a match for Dante's “sublime mind.” A few years ago, an Italian astronaut broadcast herself reading from The Divine Comedy from the International Space Station.

Dante could never have gotten there without his dreams being crushed, without his career being ended, without being sent on the run to rediscover his greater passion. Without losing everything, Dante never could have found his true life. His disillusionment was, in the end, dispelled; he saw a glimpse, ever so fleeting, of how all these bad things – his exile, his poverty, his woes, his misfortunes – somehow teamed up, not against him, but in his favor. Glory to God for a story with a happy ending – for a divine comedy.

His exile was not itself good. His loss and devastation were not themselves good. And we can relate. Because there are so many times in life when things are just not working out. Disasters happen. We lose our homes. We suffer strokes and heart attacks. We get diagnosed with illnesses beyond curing. Careers and plans fall through. Loved ones die – husbands, wives, parents, children. We labor beneath chronic pain and difficulty, tremble with the onslaught of wounds beyond our control. And we cry out to God, and things just seem to get worse and worse, and we don't understand what this could possibly be for. Is it just senseless, meaningless? Is it penalty? Is it a lesson? Is it an exposure of the dark void at the heart of the world? And sometimes, to cope with it, we're tempted to brush it all aside, put on a happy face, and proclaim that it's all good. We give our stoic stamp of approval. But these are not good things. And the first step is to be honest like Dante was honest.

In today's passage, Paul makes mention of “those who love God” (Romans 8:28). That was the commandment given to Israel long ago: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). That was the key to the spirituality of God's ancient people, the words they came to recite in prayer several times every day. But Israel just couldn't do it, this greatest commandment. But Paul reminds us that we trust Jesus. In trusting Jesus, we're spiritually fused to him, embedded in him, melded with him closer than any conjoined twin – that's what faith is all about. His love flows into us. His Spirit flies in, fulfilling the law in us, letting us honestly address God as a closely beloved father, 'Abba.' And although our love is like a drippy spigot weak in pressure, what counts is that it's installed and connected to the water main of Jesus.

And for people connected to the main, people fused to Jesus and declared heirs of the whole universe through him, all the junk we have to deal with just doesn't seem fair. It doesn't seem like anyone should deserve it, but least of all us. Is this the thanks we get for trying to live our lives right? For making an effort to clear out the pipes of love and let it flow? Are we thereby emptied of all our dreams, broken and fractured? Is it all just a big cosmic joke with a punchline falling flat? What are we to make of it when things shatter and we lose it all? Or when we just seem to be stuck in exile, when we're driven from home and family and health and love? Or when we can't make ends meet, or when we're cordially invited to the funeral of all our dreams?

Dante can relate. But Dante was called to something bigger than his dreams. And so are we. Paul defines us, not just as “those who love God,” but as people who are “called according to purpose” (Romans 8:28). He describes us as “those whom [God] foreknew,” people he engaged a relationship with before we ever emerged on the world's scene, just like Jeremiah the prophet was: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you: I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). And Paul says that's for us, too. All those connected and fused to Jesus are the people God knew before he formed us, and whom God consecrated from the start. That's what he means when he says were were “predestined” – it means 'set apart in advance,' consecrated before birth like Jeremiah.

And just the same, we have an appointment: Paul tells us that “those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). Our purpose, our advance consecration, involves being set right and made big – bigger than all the sum of our dreams. But it happens, Paul says, through ultimately being “conformed to the image of [God's] Son, that he might be the firstborn of many brothers” (Romans 8:29). Our purpose reaches its climax in being made like Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, the Man on the Mission.

So just like Dante had a purpose he was called to, we too are “called according to purpose” (Romans 8:28). And here's the thing about how God works when he has a calling and a purpose for somebody. See, it was not a good thing that the Black Guelphs exiled Dante. It was not good that they confiscated his property. It was not good that they separated him from his family. It was not good that his career got ruined, that he had to travel around begging, that he had to live on the run, that failure dogged him every way he turned. None of those things were, in themselves, good. But God rearranged those deadly shards and made them his jigsaw puzzle. Few individual pieces were good, but God worked them together for good. God worked them together for the good of Dante himself, and what's more, good to all Western civilization through him.

It's just like how it wasn't good that Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, wasn't good that Potiphar's wife falsely accused him, wasn't good that he went to prison, wasn't good that he was forgotten there for years; but God worked it all together for good – good to Joseph, and good to Egypt, and good to the family of Jacob, and through them, good to the world. And it's just like how it was not good for Judas to betray Jesus, or for the high priest to condemn him, or for Pilate to turn him over to the executioners – but God worked it all together for good – good to Jesus in resurrection to glory, and absolutely good to us sinners he was sent to seek and save.

See how this goes? Fitting together for good is not what things naturally tend to do on their own. Dump the ugly pieces out of the box, see if they line up all pretty. They don't. They're just a pile of ugly sharp little bits. But God designed them to fit together; and, what's more, to fit into a picture that turns out beautiful in the end. It's God who takes the initiative, and reveals the intention he had for them all along, which explains his allowing them in the first place. It's just like Joseph told his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). So much so, that Joseph can describe God at work through the disastrous actions of the wicked brothers: through them selling him into slavery, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (Genesis 45:7; cf. Psalm 105:17).

God takes the initiative in designing the pieces so that, ugly as they are on their own, he can fit them together into a beautiful picture, to which each offers its own curious contribution we seldom could have guessed. And that's because we have so little idea what the 'good' looks like. It's God's initiative, so it's God's definition. We just don't know what all this 'good' is going to include. It's like Dante wrote:

Predestination! O how deep your source
   is rooted past the reach of every vision
   that cannot plumb the whole of the First Cause!
Mortals, be slow to judge! Not even we
   who look on God in Heaven know, as yet,
   how many He will choose for ecstasy.
And sweet it is to lack this knowledge still,
   for in this good is our own good refined,
   willing whatever God Himself may will.           (Paradiso 20.130-138).

Plenty of painful and distressing things may befall us. We have little in the way of promise that they won't. But we do have this promise: that God has designed the ugly and misshapen pieces for the sake of a bigger design we don't see, and he will allow nothing to enter our lives that cannot be fitted into and indeed contribute to this larger purpose. Or, as Paul says it, “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to purpose” (Romans 8:28). That is God's promise to us: that every piece, however sharp, will find its fit for you if you are among the lovers of God with a mission and calling to answer in your life. And that holds true whether or not you can start to see the pieces fit together now, or whether or not you'll begin to see the connection next month, or even if it will look like just a heap of disconnected chaos and miscellaneous nonsense until you stand at eternity's threshold and the puzzle is done.

I can't tell you what that puzzle looks like. I can't tell you exactly how the sharp and jagged piece you're dealing with now fits with the one next to it, or what that connection is. I can't tell you how or when those local pieces will, once fitted together, start looking pretty, start producing a good outcome for you. I can't tell you whether it's this side of eternity or not that you'll begin seeing that. Answering those questions, Dante would say, is beyond the purview of even the saints in heaven, let alone the saints on earth. And the questions whose answers are hid from us are certainly annoying, I won't deny that. But maybe it can be “sweet” for us to “lack this knowledge still,” and deepen our faith to “will whatever God himself may will.”

Is that consolation if you're facing chronic pain? Yes – your pain and its results will somehow, some way, have a place in a bigger and beautiful picture; just keep the spigot of love turned on, keep loving God, keep seeking and serving God's call according to purpose. Is this consolation if you're caring for a loved one with dementia? Yes – even that will fit into the puzzle. What about if you lose your home, like Dante? He's proof that God can work even that, combined with all the rest of your experiences, together for good. What about in the case of grief and separation? Yes – if that enters your life, that take that as God's declaration that he can somehow work it together with the rest for a good outcome; just keep loving God, keep answering his call, keep going deeper in this mission that will bless and save the world. Because that is the core of our call in Christ.

This is the guarantee: For all our little tragedies, and indeed through them, by means of them, we have this God-given promise that they will turn out to make up a divine comedy indeed – a story with the happiest ending of all. So all our journey through, may we trust, as Dante would advise us, in a “grace abounding that shall make us fit / to fix our eyes on the Eternal Light / until our vision is consumed in it!” (cf. Paradiso 33.82-84). May we fix our eyes on the Eternal Light of Grace who will work all our tragedies together into a good and divine comedy that knows no end.  Amen.