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.

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