Genesis 29:20,25; Romans 8:35,37
The suffering that separates us
Our text in Romans talks about separation. As I was thinking about this text I thought about what I could come up with in everyday life experience that has to with separation. As I was thinking about I was chipping away at the remnants of the fence post that held up the fence between our yard and that of the neighbors. That fence is not there anymore and the new one is not there yet. We are working on prepping for that new fence. It’s slow work. So here I am working on that which separates me from my neighbor and it doesn’t occur to me that it could have anything to do with the text. That makes me wonder: how many separations between our fellow human beings and us do we not see? We may be in the process of shoring up our walls that keep us from knowing others and we may not even know it. I have known by neighbor for many years. His kids take care of our yard when we’re gone. But it is interesting seeing that our yards have suddenly become one. I have gotten to know their dog Leo much better as he now roams a much larger territory. And their fifty year large desert tortoise Rocky comes and checks me out as I chip away on my knees. I found out they put him in a plastic box on a shelf in the garage for the winter until he starts moving around in the box around mother’s day. With the fence gone less separates us. But this is not where we are going as a country and a world. We fence and wall ourselves in more and more.
Our text in Romans talks about the things that can separate us from God . These things at the same time separates us from each other many times: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword. One thing overlooked in accounts of the Holocaust is the toil the cruelty of the oppressors takes on the relationships between the oppressed.
The Theologian Willie James Jennings writes:” Suffering separates us. This is its most diabolical work. It draws a circle around us and slowly shrinks our space-separating peoples, then families, working all the way down to the individual body. “ (Christian Century July 5, 2017, p 21). He continues by saying that suffering often becomes the playground of that which is evil. We can certainly attest to that: just look at what has happened in Mosul and what is happening with retribution. Just look at the deranged gunmen in this country who have gone on a rampage. Look at the mindless gang warfare. Jennings makes a jarring point when he says:”Too often people imagine that forgetting suffering is the antidote to our wounds and the only way to enter a future freed from suffering’s effects. So ignoring suffering has become a skilled practice in the West. “
Friends, you can take down a fence, whether it is a fence in a slave camp or a concentration camp, but over time if you pay attention, you find out that it is harder to get rid of the traces of that wall. There are all kinds of debris in the post holes and pieces of that which separated people will show up. It may be in the children or in the children’s children. Of course, there will be a new fence, as we are too used to our privacy by now and we still have this deep animal instinct for marking our territory. Just like we keep repairing our fences at the churches to keep us from incurring costly damage. It’s the only way in this current society that we know how to establish a kind of order. But that doesn’t mean that’s how it was meant to be.
Jacob suffers. He misses home, but he falls in love and works seven years so he can marry the woman he has fallen in love with. Then he is betrayed and he works another seven years. Imagine that. Yet Jacob suffers because he has made those who loved and trusted him suffer. That suffering has separated him from his parents and brother Esau. Suffering separates. There is suffering in all our families. People have deep seated hurts and wounds that sometimes they no longer recognize or that were inflicted before they were even born. And new ones get added or strengthened over time.
Friends, there is suffering everywhere. Our Buddhist friends remind us of that as they have spent a lot of time thinking about this.
Friends, God know about suffering. There is, in my opinion, a wrong belief out there that God wishes and even orchestrates suffering. I agree more with Jennings that God turns suffering toward the good. And at the heart of the Christian faith is the suffering of Christ on the cross. It looms large and solid on our wall back there. But as we begin to realize that suffering, in many cases, separates us, the suffering of Christ unites us. It is, when you break it down, the reason we are all here. Friends, may you know your suffering and may you be conscious of the suffering of others. May we commit yourself to not let us separate us. May it, like the cross, unite us. Thanks be to God.