Sunday, November 22, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "The Challenger Deep"

(This will likely be the only post for the week as C and I take a week of much deserved vacation to spend Thanksgiving with family.  I'll be back next Sunday, though, with the kickoff sermon to my new series for Advent based around the Nativity scene we all know, love, and decorate our homes and houses with. ~E.A.)

Romans 8:35-39

Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter. 37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs Too Deep For Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week Five

For two days in June of 1944, the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet engaged in a massive air-and-sea battle with the navy of the Empire of Japan in the Philippine Sea, near the Marianas Islands and just above the Marianas trench—the deepest area of the seabed of the Earth’s oceans.  Basically, it’s the reverse Himalaya mount range: just as the Himalayas represent the highest peaks on earth, the Marianas trench contains the deepest points on earth, including the deepest point on earth: the Challenger Deep, sitting nearly 36,000 feet below sea level (if you’re trying to compute that in your head, it’s nearly seven miles).

Far above the Challenger Deep, in the air above the sea and ocean, the American Hellcat fighter planes achieved such a decisive victory over the Japanese Zeros that Japan’s ability to conduct large-scale air-and-sea operations was basically ended. 

While those planes were flying at a much lower altitude than ours do now, imagine a plane flying over the Challenger Deep today—for instance, Concorde, when it was in active use, would keep a cruising altitude of 60,000 feet, so high that passengers could see the curvature of the earth.  And the U2 spyplane (not the band) has an even higher operating altitude of 70,000 feet.

From 70,000 feet in the air to over 35,000 feet underground—and what Paul says to us, in such beautiful, vivid poetry, is that nothing, absolutely nothing, in that 105,000 feet of earth’s biosphere in which our existence is lived out, could ever possibly be enough to separate us from God’s love!

This is a sermon series that has amazingly taken us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season—which starts *next Sunday* (holy cow!).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story beginning next Sunday, but we’re not quite there yet, and we still have Thanksgiving to celebrate this Thursday!  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ve spent these last four Sundays reading through his elated words about the Holy Spirit, its fruits, and the ways in which it intercedes for us in our moments of weakness and selfishness.  Last week, we thematically moved on to the Spirit’s relationship not just with us as individuals, but with all of creation, with “sighs too deep for words,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 26, from which this series got its title, and today, we arrive at the start of Paul’s conclusions to all of these different things, and he covers a ton of ground in doing so!  This week, we arrive at the end of the chapter, and one of Paul’s most famous passages in all of his letters.  It is famous for very good reason—it provides as great a possible sense of hope and wonder in the greatness and fullness of God’s love that it is scarcely equaled to, really, anything that I might be able to say about it.

But I’ll try to.  And hopefully Paul isn’t like Yoda and thinks, “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”

Paul is like Yoda, though (and I cannot believe that I am using Star Wars as a segue here…) because like Yoda, Paul is very much on the lam, as it were, from those who would do him harm.  Recall that Paul spent significant parts of his own ministry imprisoned, and that he was eventually martyred, and it’s much easier to see the sort of danger that Paul—and a great many other early followers of Jesus—really were at the hands of the Romans and their collaborators among the Judean leadership.

Knowing this crucial piece of context makes understanding Paul’s inclusion of a verse from the 44th Psalm (Ps. 44:22) that says, “We are being put to death all day long for your sake; we are treated like sheep for slaughter.”  It comes from a psalm that is clearly of lament, one that, if you read in its entirety, outright questions God and wonders how God could be asleep in the midst of such pain.

This is a critical question for Paul—he has just spent this entire chapter outlining the ways in which the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalves, and yet our own lives are not always protected.  It is the sort of question that gets asked after the Paris attacks, or the Beirut attacks, or the Kenya attacks.

And, frankly, should be a question that is still being asked, not just because of the attacks but because of our response to them, towards the refugees from the Syrian civil war.  In terms of sheer body count, they are experiencing the equivalent of the Paris attacks every single day; it is small wonder, then, that they are fleeing.  A war between Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State is a war where you desperately want both sides to lose, but guess who also loses?  The people in the middle.

Just as the early church was facing down the threats Paul is laying out here, in laundry list fashion, so too are the Syrian refugees right this second.  Trouble?  Yep.  Distress?  Check.  Harassment, danger, the sword?  All of them.

And after being attacked, after seeing attacks like these, fear is an entirely natural reaction in the purest sense of the term: fear is in our nature as humans.  But fear is not supposed to be in our nature as Christians.  And let me be clear here: the trials, terribly difficult trials that I know many of you face, and whose difficulty is real, in so very many ways pale in comparison to the trials these men, women, and children are suffering, facing, and experiencing.

If we are meant to show the love of Christ to all people—not just our tribe—then spiritually, we cannot afford to separate refugees from the love of God, especially when it is already so difficult a process to even arrive here in the United States as a refugee—a process that generally takes a minimum of a year, often two or more, all the while you must still find a way to live and provide for your family day-to-day.

So, can we be as the church in Rome is meant to be, as Paul is exhorting them to aspire to?  To cast aside these things of hurt and pain for ourselves and others—the distresses and the troubles and the famines—and finally, at long last, “win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us?”

All the way back in June of 1944, our Navy won us a great victory, flying planes high in the air over the deepest place on all the earth, a victory in the greatest, most terrible war that was ever fought in all of human history.

Can we—dare we—seek such a victory again, not in military terms, but in terms of life, of freedom, of uncut, unadulterated human flourishing?

Because were we to do so, then we would, I absolutely believe, be living out this powerful, poetic, profound dictum upon which Paul ends this chapter of his letter to the Romans, that there is indeed nothing, not angels or rules, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or anything created, in such a manner so as to completely change the world.

Let us begin, then.  With all of the vigor and strength that comes with following the eternal God who came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

November 22, 2015

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