Being that it is Reformation Sunday, it is appropriate to hear the wise words of the great 16th century Reformer, Martin Luther, who began his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans this way: This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while – not only to memorize it word for word– but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.
The Rabbis taught: We study the Scriptures so that the Words are put on our hearts; then when our hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.
By studying and preaching from Romans we are finding that Luther was right. Romans is indeed becoming a precious word to us and we must continue to hear its radical message of grace.
I started working on this sermon by reading aloud Romans chapters eight through eleven. The short passage of 9:1-5 felt like Paul paused to take a break from his theological argument in order to give a passionate plea to his people, “I am speaking the truth in Christ-I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit. I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”
These are the words of a heartbroken man; a man filled with anguish for his people. A people who did not accept Paul’s message of God’s love through Christ that extended the boundaries of grace to include everybody. Paul was mystified at their refusal to receive it. In fact, Paul wished that he himself could be cut off from Christ for the sake of his people whom he so loved.
Martin Luther also said, “It is by living and dying that one becomes a theologian.” I think he meant a theologian is not one who merely speculates ABOUT God as an intellectual enterprise. Rather, a theologian is one who has walked with God through the valleys and flames–one whose word about God comes from a lived and tested faith.
Paul was a theologian, tried and tested by life and suffering. He had had transformative experience with the living Christ on the Damascus Road that forever formed his mission and message. A profound spiritual experience leaves a person changed forever. Paul’s journeys were continually fraught with hardship. We can understand why at the heart of Paul’s theology was the cross of Jesus, and it shaped everything for him. He understood that Israel’s God was the God who suffered on that cross. And it was precisely because of Jesus’ suffering that all people were made righteous.
At the core of the Christian gospel is heartbreak.
I don’t mean to overstate this, but Christianity is precisely a story of disappointment, doubt and death. (You are probably thinking…I thought it was stewardship season, not Lent.) You might ask, what about the resurrection? Yes. Alleluia! Death did not prevail! Death was not the victor!
Nonetheless, the scars of the crucifixion upon Jesus’ hands, feet and side did not disappear after his resurrection. He carried the marks of death on his own perfected body, and in that is something so profound. Death and suffering were not wiped clean from the Gospel story.
We ARE beloved children of God. We preach and teach that message in this church with conviction and a clear conscience (as Paul said) week after week. We trust in the radical grace of God. But that does not mean we ignore the fact that our adoption as beloved children came at a price.
The scars on Jesus’ body were the marks of God’s own broken heart. Strangely, not morosely, that truth brings comfort. The longer each of us lives, hopefully, the wiser we get. Wise enough to know that life carries both pain and joy, grief and loss. To live is to suffer, the Buddha taught. I like that. It’s realistic.
My stepfather used to say, “Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.” (It’s safe to say he leaned toward pessimism over hopeful realism.) A message of realistic hope however is not to meant sugar-coat life. A message of realistic hope is that loss and heartbreak don’t have to be the final word.
We cannot live with the delusion that life won’t bring hardship. Some folks believe they can control life; others think love should be predictable. And if it’s not, they’re not going to open themselves up to the risk of being hurt. Here’s the heads up on love: when a couple makes vows at the altar to love “as long as they both shall live,” Some have the notion marriage will be like a romantic comedy. The truth is, there is no guarantee that the love shared on a wedding day will be shielded from the storms and temptations of life through the years.
Any time we open ourselves to love, to life, we open ourselves to heart break. The paradoxical truth is that the RISK makes us a little more alive, a little wiser, a little more open to others pain. If life came with a guarantee for happiness, and a warranty against sorrow, we would not understand the fullness of humanity the way God intended.
We have over 200 people in this congregation today. Many of you have brought heartbreak into this sanctuary with you. It might be big or small, from daily disappointments to life-altering injury. As warm and friendly as this congregation is, don’t be fooled. We aren’t immune to or in denial about life’s disappointments. Our pain is what makes us a family; it knits us together. I’ll tell you my story and you tell me yours. I guarantee the best stories are the stories of life’s pains.
I’ve been reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln titled, Lincoln’s Melancholy, by Joshua Shenk. Lincoln suffered with bouts of debilitating depression throughout his life. Lincoln held in the balance the depths of joy and despair. He appeared to understand wisely that it was out of his own suffering that true compassion for others could be borne. There was a creative tension between his despair and his hope for humanity. One story tells of Lincoln standing on the back of the train when he said goodbye to his friends and loved ones in Springfield, IL on his way to take the office of President of the U.S. His farewell speech focused on the divine call he felt at that time to face the crisis of division in the Union. He said, weeping, As Jesus in Gethsemane, I wish this cup could be taken from me, but alas I am called for this time. There were reliable records of Lincoln weeping openly in the Oval Office as the war waged on.
Lincoln stood in the lineage of leaders of Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and countless other men and women saints through the ages who each wept for their people. Their love was entwined with heartbreak.
We understand this kind of love: We know people who passionately love this country, or their city, or their congregation or denomination. We know the love and heartbreak parents feel for their children, and children for their parents; and friends for each other. We are disappointed sometimes in the ones we love best because we care so deeply and we desire so severely that they bring forth their best selves.
But, frustratingly, we cannot control others. We are not Creator nor Savior. We might work for change; but we cannot save the world, and we are insufficient to save ourselves. We can however trust that God loves those whom we love more than do we. Paul concluded that it was God’s business to take care of Israel’s salvation. Paul’s call was to trust the loving and gracious God he knew so well.
So many great leaders appeared to be failures. In fact, I read that Martin Luther preached his very last sermon in his birthplace, Eisleben, only to five people. He was angry about it, and wrote a friend that he was not confident that the whole reformation movement was nothing but a failure. Lincoln himself was tormented for a time by his fear that he was a failure as a president, and his own party almost removed him from office midterm.
Last week, Pastor John in his sermon asked, “What would you do, how would you live, what would you get involved in if Paul’s words were true for you, if you gave your heart to the truth that: God is for you. There is no charge against you. There is no condemnation… even the worst that can happen is not ultimate.”
So let me ask too: what would you do if failure didn’t matter? What would you dare to try? What great deed would you undertake even if you knew that failure could actually be the result of your efforts– BUT that failure is ok?
Fear can keep us from taking risks. Fear can keep us from living life fully and loving with abandon. But fear can also be a motivator if we let it. Nothing can happen to us beyond God’s redemptive love. Even our deepest wound can become for us our most profound blessing. Our failures might in fact create the cracks and fissures in our hearts where the holy words fall in.
Paul understood this well.
Nothing in life or death was to be feared.
Not even the future of the salvation of God’s chosen people; their salvation was God’s hands.
Paul ended his brief pause with a doxology of confidence and praise: It is Israel’s God who is above and over all things. What indeed then shall we fear?
Thanks be to God.