Way back on September 9, I kicked off our church study of Romans by reading a letter of Paul to Forest Hill Church. I love letters and I love “love letters.” Not to get too mushy – but after Deanne and I were engaged we were separated for a time: I came home to Virginia, Deanne remained in Edinburgh. This was before emails, texts, Skype and so I wrote her every day. Pretty sweet, huh?
In letters you get to say things that are deeper, more thoughtful, more lasting. You are a bit more careful about what you write down. Letter’s let you into the soul.
I remember twenty years ago or so, Deanne and I would rush home from whatever we were doing to turn on PBS and see Ken Burn’s The Civil War. It was a magnificent series. We were living in Winchester, Va. at the time – which is nestled in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. General Lee, Stonewall Jackson, knew the village well. George Armstrong Custer made his name at the third battle of Winchester. Indeed, in Winchester, some still say, that the war of “Northern Aggression” is still being fought.
Perhaps the most poignant memory I have of the whole series is of the love letter of Sullivan Ballou, who on July 14, 1861, wrote to his beloved wife Sarah from Camp Clark outside of Washington D.C.
Dear Sarah: (he wrote)
“The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. And lest I should not be able to write you again I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more.” Sullivan writes that he is willing to “lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.”
“Sarah, my love for you is deathless…The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes and future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.
“If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name…
“Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have sometimes been! But, 0 Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in the darkest night… always, always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air on your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.”
Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the 1st Battle of Bull Run.
Man, that dude could write a letter!
Today we read a portion of the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. While not as romantic as Sullivan Ballou’s, Paul shares his love for many and I am struck with a similar poignancy. Paul writes of his desire to travel to Spain. On his way he plans to stop and visit Rome and “come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.”
Yes, Paul would go to Jerusalem. Yes, he would bear his collection from all the churches in the West and deliver it to the home church – to Peter and James. But, in Jerusalem he would, for all practical purposes, be betrayed by the church there – and be handed over and imprisoned. Yes, Paul would make it to Rome but not in the fashion he had hoped for. As tradition has it, he would die there, executed during Nero’s reign.
I am so glad we have his letters and an insight into Paul’s soul. At this point it is less about theology and much more about a man who is not quite sure he will be acceptable to those he almost wants to please the most. He moves east with a shaky confidence of what tomorrow will bring.
Like Paul, you and I don’t know what tomorrow brings. We do not know how our best intentions will be received, how our plans will work out. Thanksgiving food was in the refrigerator and Christmas presents were ready to be wrapped, when the Lindseys were at their kitchen table enjoying a glass of wine and the odorless carbon monoxide fumes killed them. Thankfully, they leave many good memories and much love.
You and I can’t know what next month will bring. We work so hard at controlling our own destiny and yet one doctor’s appointment, or one late phone call, or one text message while driving can change everything. I don’t mean to get depressing – just real.
You know me, I don’t believe that you and I have to fear the future. Paul wrote that “nothing separates us from the love of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”(8:39) I am not one of those preachers, and we are not a church that poses the kind of question like: “If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?”
But we can ponder and should consider how we spend today and the moments we have. We do have a responsibility to, in the words of the sign on the campsites “leave this campsite in better shape than you found it.”
How are you going to be remembered? What is your legacy? What would you write in a letter to the ones you loved?
Sullivan Ballou’s legacy is a love letter so beautiful that it makes me tear up. Sarah, his wife, treasured it and handed down through the generations until Ken Burns shared it with the world.
Paul, a genius of a man, fell in love with Jesus; he was blinded by the light on that road to Damascus. He took the raw stuff of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and formed it into a construct, a paradigm for interpreting life, the world and history. It has been every bit as important to how we view reality as Newton, or Einstein.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was everything to him; Paul trusted completely that God was working the divine purpose of reconciliation in history. Despite human brokenness, despite personal and corporate sin, despite the reality of evil, despite misunderstandings and tragedies and famine, and sword, and principalities and powers … God had, in Jesus Christ, broken every barrier down. God WAS reconciling the world to herself; God IS still creating, redeeming, forgiving; present and personal – God’s spirit, a “soft breeze on the cheek and cool air on a throbbing temple” and power for the living of these days.
Paul’s own experiences of prison, of torture, of shipwreck, of being chased out of cities was nothing compared to his love for Jesus. In another of Paul’s letters he says that everything else is cow dung, compared to the truth that he had experienced on the road to Damascus.
And I want to tell you this day – this Sunday after Thanksgiving, Christ the King Sunday, this last Sunday of the liturgical year – for next week is Advent, a new year in the church, a new year to hope and be expectant, and put on the whole armor of faith… I want you, this day, to claim the mantle of Paul – to live as if you really believe that nothing separates you – that God is God and still taking whatever chaos and madness and creating – that nothing is bad or good until God gets through with it.
I want you to think about your legacy – what are you leaving behind from this year to the next, from this day to tomorrow – from this moment.
Always hold things loosely, do not grasp. Give thanks continually. Rejoice and again I say rejoice. “Repay no one evil for evil, associate with the lowly, overcome evil with good.” (12:21) Share your gifts, your wealth, be hospitable.
Paul calls you into a new day – and it isn’t about riches, or titles, or status, or education – it isn’t about having right answers, or knowledge to all life’s conundrums – It IS about orienting yourself to God – a God of mercy, of grace and peace – a God who showed his hands, and feet, and whole body in the form of Jesus – and then died to show you and me the depth, and breadth, and height, of divine love – NOT judgment – LOVE – inclusive love – no one is outside for there are no barriers – expect the one we make for ourselves. And even those are unable to contain the tsunami of God.
Sullivan Ballou waited for battle. St. Paul waited for his journey.
What are you waiting for? What kind of letter would you write?
“Now to God, who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.” (16:25-27)