Rev. Caroline Barnett
Smiles and Separation
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Occasionally, and particularly in the last couple of months, I have found it difficult to keep up with the news. Ever since mid-March, I have felt tethered to my computer waiting for the next piece of “breaking news.” But even so, or perhaps because of, I read some stories and wonder: Wait, when did that happen?
But last weekend, it was difficult to miss the news that civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis had died at age 80. Memorials and obituaries poured in, telling stories of a man who dedicated his life to pursuing justice, and many of these stories included photographs of Lewis throughout his life. And one in particular stuck with me.
It was his mugshot from 1961 when he participated in the Freedom Rides across the South. Lewis, who was 21 years old at the times, was arrested with other the civil rights activists for using a so called “whites only” restroom in Jackson, Mississippi and Lewis and his counterparts were yelled at, beaten, arrested, put in jail.
But what was striking about this mugshot is that John Lewis, despite all that is happening, stares at the camera with an unmistakable smile on his lips. He does look not afraid, or even concerned by what has happened. Rather, he looks like he knows something the photographer doesn’t. Like he’s in on the joke, and so he smirks.
Lewis once said about this photo: “Even though I was under arrest, I smiled because I believed we were on the right side of history.”
And later in another interview, he talks of that day, of getting arrested, and he says even though jail is— in his words— “not a pleasant place,” he felt liberated and freed by his actions. He knew that though he was suffering unfairly, this movement was making the world, and making himself, better.
But the world didn’t want to be made better, and so it tried to condemn Lewis. People opposed to his work of racial equality tried to kill him— multiple times— but he smiled because he knew they were in no position to condemn. He knew that if God was for him, if God was for a world that had no enslaved or free — who could be against him?
Now John Lewis was not a gullible or naive person, he was well aware that many people were against him. And neither was Paul as he wrote this letter to the Romans. They both understood the worlds they lived in were not the worlds they wished they were.
But in our scripture passage for today, Paul speaks confidently of a hope in Christ that can overcome anything thrown in its way. A belief that despite whatever feelings of separation and loneliness this world had instilled in the Roman Church, the reality beyond this reality was one where nothing could separate them from the love of God.
In light of real suffering the early followers of Jesus experienced, this is Paul’s smiling in his mugshot.
The Roman Empire’s control is all-encompassing. They are the government, the economy, the religion. And so to follow Christ and to say that there is something bigger, deeper, more powerful than the Roman Empire is not only blasphemous to Roman ears, it is also treasonous. Jewish communities and later, Christian churches, are not looked upon kindly during Paul’s life, as they say they worship a different sort of God than that of the Roman Empire.
So Paul is no stranger to all the things he says can’t keep God away. At different points in his life, he is imprisoned, put under house arrest. He has watched friends martyred, witnessed the innocent suffer.
Sometimes we think of “Paul the apostle” is this theological giant, a perfect, shiny celebrity of our history, “Paul the person” is deeply human, writing to communities he is separated from, experiencing a world that is broken, one where hope can feel inadequate.
When Paul speaks of hardship, of death, of peril and sword, he is not speaking in metaphor. He knows what it is to live in the world.
And we not ignorant of the suffering in this world. We know that this is hard place to be, even in the best of times. No one makes it through life unscathed— pain and suffering seem to be our birthright as humans.
And these days, it feels even more acute. Recently, I listened in a podcast that, at the beginning of the pandemic, paused its regular programming to open their phone lines and listen to people tell their stories. Callers from all over the world told their stories of what was happening where they were.
A woman was visiting Japan and was trying to move up her return flight so she can go home. She and the host discussed how her father died last year and lately she’s been feeling more parental to her mother—a role reversal she never expected—and so she just wants to be home.
In Algeria, where there is little healthcare infrastructure, a woman prints off crosswords for her father while he stays indoors because they know if he were to get sick they would not be able to afford to go to the hospital.
In New Jersey, a father tries to explain to his young son why they cannot go out and play with their neighbor. The two families had tried to stand each on their own driveway, but the two children could not comprehend why they could not get closer to one another. The playdate felt more painful than joyful.
And on and on these stories went. And I could have called in with my own story. I imagine so could you.
Overwhelmingly, these were stories of people who longed to be with others, to cross oceans and cities and driveways, and six feet of distance to be together. And being unable to, they crossed the world over phone lines and the internet, to connect with strangers who were just as separated and lonely as they were.
I spent about two hours listening to these stories, and I admit, each story made me feel less and less hopeful. The pain and suffering was so raw and evident in the voices that drifted through my speakers. I could feel the anxiety of the hosts who would often pause before speaking— they didn’t know how to respond, they couldn’t do anything for these people.
The reality of this world made it hard to believe in a scripture that says all things work together for good when not a lot feels very good right now.
It is so hard to believe that we can overcome anything through Christ, when everyday, a new challenge emerges.
But in that way, we are not so different from Paul, whose faith and hope in God is hard won.
These words Paul says were not easily handed to him, they are not cliches meant to pacify, pithy sayings meant to fill uncomfortable silences. They are mantras he said to himself and to his community when they were deep in the trenches of human pain and brokenness.
He speaks of hardship, distress, and persecution because they are a constant presence in his life.
But he speaks of a hope in Christ that can cross any distance because he has also experienced that. He has witnessed communities form around faith in Christ, communities that despite their separation from one another, despite the ways in which they are wounded, they persist in trusting in a hope and love that is more powerful than any empire that prefers violence to God’s love and justice.
As Katie read the text aloud today, you might have heard phrases you recognized. If you didn’t —don’t worry— there’s no requirement to memorize certain passages to be a Christian. But the lines like “sighs too deep for words,” “all things work for together for good,” and “nothing will be able to separate from the love of God” are well worn phrases in our tradition, in part, I suspect, because they are often used in funerals and memorial services.
These are the words we hold close to our hearts and read aloud not just when things are going well. We read them when we are separated from our loved ones in a way that feels very permanent to our human selves. We read them with tears in our eyes and aches in our hearts, on days when we don’t feel like smiling, when we long for a world that is different than the one we are living in. On those days, these words sustain us until maybe we feel like smiling again.
For now, we remain separated from one another at least physically, like Paul and the Romans church were. And we continue to live in a world where injustice, persecution, and hardship are present, a world that is all too similar to the world that assaulted and arrested John Lewis in 1961.
Which means Paul’s words to the Romans feel just as relevant today as they did two thousand years ago. The need for a hope that lives side-by-side with our pain is just as necessary right now.
Because it is a hope that does not deny the reality of suffering, but sees that there is so much than that.
Because the hope we have in God, that hope that lives in us even when we experience peril and distress and hardship, it can us make us smile, like John Lewis, and work for something good.
Thanks be to God. Amen.