Wednesday, March 23, 2022
Pastor Alexandra Jacob
Will you pray with me? O God, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I wonder if you have had this experience before: you’re sitting in a church service listening to the scripture being read, and all of a sudden there’s a melody in your head. You might think to yourself, “where on earth did that melody come from?” And then you realize – that scripture texts, or a piece of it, is in a hymn or a choir anthem. Scripture is all over the place in Christian hymns. You know Psalm 90 because you know O God Our Help in Ages Past. You know Psalm 46 because you know A Mighty Fortress. You know Lamentations 3 because you know Great is thy Faithfulness. The list could go on for days.
But as well known as this wonderful text from Romans 8 is that we just heard, I wonder if it evoked a melody in your head. Likely not – there are not many musical settings of this text, likely because it’s not quite as poetic in nature as the psalms, for example. But there is a wonderful and evocative setting of this portion of Romans 8 in our most recent Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God. As we dive into this scripture text together today, I’d like to share this hymn with you. The text and tune are both by living hymn and tune writers – text by Mel Bringle and tune by Sally Ann Morris. I invite you to listen to what the melody of this hymn does to evoke something new in this well-known text. What do you notice that you didn’t notice before? Does the tune stick with you? Let’s hear it now, and you can follow along in your bulletin.
I wonder what you noticed about this hymn. Did you notice how this melody rises and then comes crashing down as we sing “even death, even death?” I bet you musicians out there noticed that the meter feels a bit unsteady – some bars are in 5, some in 6; it perfectly evokes Paul’s feeling of building anticipation with his rhetorical question – what can separate us from God’s love? What? And then did you notice that the last verse finally answers the question? No power of earth or heaven can part us from your love, O Christ. I hope that we all go home humming that tune, as unusual as it is. Because it is no small thing to profess that nothing separates us from Christ’s love.
When I was in seminary, our preaching professor started off the course by telling us that scripture is not only meant to be read in the pulpit or in the solitude of the pastor’s study. Scripture is meant to be read everywhere. So once we had our scripture picked out for our first sermon for preaching class, our professor instructed us to write the text on an index card and keep it in our pocket for an entire week. We were to take it out and read it everywhere – especially in the unlikeliest of places. The doctor’s office waiting room. In line at the DMV. On the playground after a babysitting gig. On public transit. She reminded us that we hear scripture differently in different places. The poetry and prose of scripture speaks to us across time, space, and generations, and that means it is speaking to us today, here, in this place, wherever we are and whatever we’re experiencing.
When we read these words of the Apostle Paul from those early days of Christian communities, we hear echoes of what has been true across the ages: that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is profound and true, and it will always be profound and true. But it becomes an even deeper affirmation when we read it in the context of our own world, right here and right now.
What does it feel like to affirm that nothing separates us from God’s love, even in the midst of the rising violence in Ukraine? What does it sound like to affirm that we are embraced and loved, even when we continue to experience the anxiety and burnout of this global health pandemic that is somehow still present with us? How does it change our perspective to remember that God’s love covers us even when things are hard, when we struggle and experience pain and brokenness?
Paul’s words are rather abstract, but when we add to it that kind of specificity, we catch a glimpse of what it means for God to continue loving and embracing us and calling us back to Godself.
If we were to re-craft Paul’s words for the present moment, they might sound something like this: What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will a global health crisis, or a national racial reckoning, or growing entrenched bipartisanship, or systemic poverty and oppression, or warfare in Ukraine and the rising threat of violence here and abroad? No – in all these things, we do not lose heart. For neither death nor life, heavenly powers nor earthly tyrants, things now nor things beyond, the breadth of the horizon nor the depths of the sea – none of these things will separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.
I’m reminded of this truth every time I witness a child’s baptism and every time I am blessed to perform one. We pour water on the head of the infant, say the words of baptism, and then we make the sign of a cross on the child’s forehead. “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Those words ought to stop us in our tracks – “marked as Christ’s own forever.” This is no small thing. From before we are born to the day that our baptisms are made complete in death, we belong to God. I often say to the high schoolers that I work with at Westminster: nothing you do can make God love you any more or any less. God’s love for you is a complete and unconditional love – a “no matter what” kind of love. Marked as Christ’s own forever.
And of course, as always, to affirm this deep and beautiful truth is to receive a challenge. If nothing in life or death can separate us from God’s love, then how are we to treat our neighbors? Following in the way of Jesus, love incarnate, we are to be generous with our own love – we are not to withhold generosity, or to shrink away from seeking justice. We are to treat our neighbors as if they are truly loved and embraced by God – because they are.
As we continue on in this Lenten season, may we remember that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And as you, Augustana members, prepare to welcome a new pastor into your midst, may you welcome him as one of your own, trusting that he, too, is part of the story of God’s love that spans generations and continents. Even in seasons of change, God continues to love us and call us back to Godself, and then God calls us to share that love with one another. May it be so; Amen.