As COVID-19 restrictions still prevent us from singing together in church, these hymns are for home-worshippers only:
Here is the service, which was live-streamed via our Facebook page. Yes, it’s sideways. This is a Facebook issue.
Here is Rev Sue’s sermon, should you wish to reflect on it further:
What can separate us from the Love of God?
I’ve recently had my daughter and two small grandsons to stay. They both know exactly what to do if anything goes wrong. They ask for Mummy, either in words (the 4-year-old), or by crying until she comes (the baby). Frustrating for the adults when Mummy is trying to nap – but they know that the most important thing in the world is that Mummy loves them, and will always be there for them.
As adults we know that that even mothers are fallible and that ultimately, we must stand on our own two feet. But Paul, in the passage we heard earlier, is telling us that the toddlers have perceived a shadow of the truth. The most important thing in our lives is that we are loved by the one who is never fallible, who is both our heavenly father and mother.
It took me a long time to understand this passage, because I still had the toddler mentality. God should sort it all out. How could all the bad stuff happen if God truly loved me? Why was he doing this to me? But it can’t be said that Paul was an optimist who hadn’t encountered pain and suffering. He was an expert in misfortune. He had faced more than his share of trials and tribulations. Another saint, Teresa of Avila didn’t have things all her own way, either, and like Paul she didn’t become immersed in her own suffering.
She describes a journey she had: “We had to run many dangers. The rivers were so high that the water in places covered everything, neither road nor the smallest footpath could be seen, only water everywhere, and two abysses on each side. It seemed foolhardiness to advance, especially in a carriage, for if one strayed ever so little off the road (then invisible), one must have perished.” Teresa’s companions were alarmed. She turned to them and encouraged them, saying that “as they were engaged in doing God’s work, how could they die in a better cause?” She then led the way on foot. The current was so strong that she lost her footing, and was on the point of being carried away when our Lord sustained her. “Oh, my Lord!” she exclaimed, “when will you cease from scattering obstacles in our path?” “Do not complain, daughter,” the Divine Master answered, “for it is ever thus that I treat My friends.” “Ah, Lord, it is also on that account that Thou hast so few!” was her reply.
Teresa is asking no less of her nuns than Jesus asked of his disciples – to follow her even to death.
Now, at this point you would be forgiven for thinking that this is not a sermon about Good News, since we seem to have strayed onto the territory of all the bad things that can happen. But on the contrary, you already knew that bad things happen, and most of us have had a good few happen to us. The good news is that ultimately, the pain and the sorrow do not have the last word. I do not say this lightly. I am all too aware of the terrible things that happen both by human sin and by things beyond anyone’s control. The current pandemic, of course, being a case in point. And yet disasters do not have the last word, for all things work together for good for those who love God. For our ultimate good, in this world and the next, is to be loved by him. The only condition is that we love God – even if it’s as a toddler loves his Mum, not perfectly, often selfishly but wanting him there.
Now, Paul goes on to say
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.
When he talks about angels, powers and rulers, he is talking in a language his hearers would understand. He is referring to angelic beings who were not always on the side of good. Today we think in psychological rather than supernatural terms. So, what do we fear will separate us from the love of Christ?
The first set of feelings that might get in the way are the ones that we have towards ourselves. Low self-esteem, guilt, shame and depression all involve us focussing on our own unworthiness. Guilt can be genuine and valid – it is an appropriate response the things we know we have done wrong. Which is why, in every service we confess our sins and receive absolution. Once guilt has brought us to the point of acknowledging our shortcomings, it is time to move on, to put right anything we can, and to focus on God’s forgiveness, not our own unworthiness. But for many people guilt, and its cousin shame, have become ingrained in the way we see ourselves. We are sinful, unworthy, failures, inadequate. We cannot believe that God loves us, because we cannot believe that we are truly loveable. In the wrong circumstances this can turn to depression, a darkness that can become overwhelming in which the voices of those who love us cease to penetrate the gloom, and God seems very far away indeed. If you identify with what I am saying, I ask you to believe that the truth is that God loves you however you feel, and to acknowledge that the feelings are just that – feelings. Lifestyle changes, counselling and medication can all help, because the negative thoughts that arise are no more real than the whisperings of the demons people used to believe in. The truth is that how you feel about yourself cannot separate you from the Love of God.
Some people rarely encounter God when they are alone. They meet him in relationships with others. We find God through coming to church, and in relating to other worshippers. And we encounter God in our personal relationships, learning about love first from our parents and then from loving our friends and partners. Without those relationships in our lives, how would we know the meaning of love? The last few months have been cruelly lonely for many, and for some the loneliness continues. We may not feel that God loves us if we feel that others do not, or we feel deprived of their presence by circumstances. Loneliness can turn us in on ourselves, so if we feel like that it can sometimes be an effort to seek out others, to pick up the phone to write an email or letter, or to simply smile and chat with whoever we do encounter. There is always love and fellowship for you in the church community. We are not perfect, and sometimes we get it wrong, but let’s reach out to one another and find God in the everyday kindnesses of life.
Lastly, for some the issues are more around understanding than feelings. We may doubt that God exists, that things we say about him in church are true, or that any of this makes sense. Jesus took the intellect seriously. He disputed with the teachers in the community. But he didn’t give us a creed that we have to assent to. Theology, our beliefs about God, does matter. But it matters because it influences the way we live our lives. To have an open and inquiring mind, taking one’s faith seriously, is a good thing. Sometimes that might result in confusion, or a sense of loss as concepts of God we had in the past no longer seem to fit. But God is always far greater than we can understand, and all our theology cannot define or limit him. His love does not depend on our reasoning.
Let me finish again with the words from the passage, that put the truth so beautifully.
If God is for us, who is against us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 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.