Recovery with Romans (4): God the Heart-Searcher
by Louise Westfall
I wanted to begin my sermon this week masked, because I think these little patches of cloth are a potent symbol of what Jesus called the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. I am sorry they’ve become politicized, but without a doubt the decision to wear them or not sends a public message. Now would be a good time for the church to model our care and concern for others by wearing them…er, uh, religiously.
…and by that I mean as humans who understand themselves to be part of God’s beloved community, ones who trust God’s watchful presence and tender care. And because we do (or try to do), we hold ourselves accountable for more than just our nearest-and-dearest. Your life and health and well-being matter to me. Black lives matter. The lives of small business people trying to stay afloat matter. Other people matter in ways I couldn’t have imagined on my own. If you hear nothing else from these sermons from the letter to the Romans, hear this: faith in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, means demonstrating a vision where human dividing lines have been erased, and the holy Spirit of God has been loosed upon this world to redeem and restore all of humanity to a way of life governed by love and mercy. This is our calling, our purpose, and our destiny.
How we live into that glorious reality is, of course, where it gets interesting and often messy. More than one Black person, for example, has commented on the weariness of having yet another white person ask them what they can do to help. Isn’t it obvious? Well, yes, like not putting a knee on your neck and snuffing your life out. But maybe not so much for some of us who have watched from the sidelines or who move primarily in uni-racial circles.
Our morning text continues the Apostle Paul’s summary of the good news and the God to which it testifies. In these verses, especially notice the language of intimacy–the God we worship and serve is not “out there,” distant and unconcerned, but One who desires relationship and closeness. A reading from the eighth chapter of the letter to the Romans, at the 26th verse through verse 30. Listen for the God who searches the heart and speaks to it the word most needed for healing, for justice, for a world made whole. [Romans 8:26-30]
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. The Word of the Lord…thanks be to God!
Jesus Christ is the firstborn of a large family to which we all belong and for which we are all responsible.
This is a Word for a time of perplexity, ambiguity, contradiction and pain. In other words, for now. Here we encounter a God who is mindful of our struggles, the strange mixture of selfishness and caring in every one of us. Here is a God whose Spirit first breathed into us the breath of life, now wordlessly breathing on our behalf, for healing, reconciliation, repair according to God’s intentions for us and all people. The picture of the Spirit sighing strikes me as both sign of God’s deep sadness for a people who have fallen so far short of Her design, and at the same time, rekindles dying embers into flames that warm and enlighten anew.
The heart-searching God recognizes its human mysteries: that we can be hateful and generous in practically the same breath. The heart-searching God sees the fear that underlies so much of the hatred, laments the history and abuse and neglect that fuels it and continually sets about to right it, working from a vision embodied in Jesus, and continued by a community conformed to Him.
But of course that community never quite gets it. We fail to let that vision take shape in us, and have to be continually called back to it. But God is faithful and gracious and can take our brokenness and bring good out of it. All things work together for good…Let’s be clear this is not some kind of formula suggesting that God causes all things to happen and that they were intended for our learning or correction. No. There is nothing divine in the reality of global pandemic or systemic racism or environmental degradation or our deeply divided and hostile nation. The hope of our faith lies in the truth that God’s love for the whole creation can take whatever happens–whether occurring naturally or by human causation–and use it for good.
But here’s the thing, friends. God doesn’t operate in a vacuum, pulling strings from on high and messing around with natural phenomena and logical consequences. Instead, God is intimately involved with the beloved people, to show us and persuade us of our deep connections and our common destiny of life and glory. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of a large family to which we all belong and for which we are all responsible. Following his example we know what to do. And the Spirit breathes into us what we need to pursue the life God intends. We pray. We learn. We receive. We take another step.
Across 17th Street from the Church is a small business—a hole-in-the-wall shoe repair place, run by Tommy Rhine, a Black man of indeterminate age who has been a cobbler for over 40 years. Its proximity to the church meant that I discovered it pretty quickly when I needed new heels on a pair of dress shoes. I took them in, and Tommy struck up a conversation as he filled out the paper work. When I told him I was the pastor of the church across the street, his craggy and solemn face wreathed into smiles. I knew Pastor Marty, he said, who gave me a lot of business. Great guy. And I always felt like he was someone who cared. I was struck by the loving witness of this former pastor, unnoticed by any except our heart-searching God.
Freddy Groff shared an update about Tommy. During the pandemic, with most downtown businesses closed, work orders had dried up and he was in danger of losing the store. He’d been interviewed on Channel 9 as a small business victim of COVID-19. But a young man who heard the story set up a Go Fund Me account, explaining Tommy’s plight, and suggesting that this was an opportunity to support a Black-owned business. Last I saw, the fund had raised over $10,000 dollars, which will make the difference for Tommy Rhine’s Shoe Repair store. One contributor commented, For all the hatred the world is holding on to right now, there are still millions of people like you [the young man who started the fundraising effort], who have kind, selfless hearts.
…I swear I heard the Spirit sigh, and this time it was a sigh of relief.
May it be so.