Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, July 20, 2014
Romans 8:26-39, Matt 13:31-33, 44-52
I went out geocaching with some friends. We set out braving the mosquitoes, the poison ivy and the brambles to find the hidden treasures. (It’s fun—really.) All of a sudden, I stumbled on an unexpected treasurer and let out an excited yell. Everyone thought I had found the geocache and came running towards me until I exclaimed, “Wild strawberries!” For some inexplicable reason, they turned away, back in search of the real geocache treasure while I feasted on my little patch of heaven. Everyone knows that the world of a berry-picker simply stops when a new patch of “berry-d” treasure is found.
Matthew tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a new-found treasure or a pearl of great value, where the finder sells all to buy it. This morning we heard a reading from what I consider one of the greatest treasures of our scripture—the last part of Romans 8. This little passage is packed with a treasure-chest full of pearls of wisdom and has become one of my favourite passages.
This passage from Romans 8 is also the source of some of the greatest confusion and controversy in the history of the Christian church. A great number of doctrines and beliefs reference this passage. Predestination & providence, speaking in tongues, atonement, theodicy, the existence of evil, the supremacy of Christ, the supremacy of love—it’s all here.
I will focus on one verse from our Romans passage—a verse which I often hear people quoting today to support a theology which makes me a bit uncomfortable.
The verse is Romans 8:28, which reads in the NRSV: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” I’ve heard people refer to this verse when they’re going through a difficult time. They will say that somehow, even in the midst of their tragedy, God will cause all things to work together for good. For them, this belief helps them through the difficult time. But for others, this verse has been used to justify a tragedy—that God causes something bad to happen so that good can also happen. And this is not necessarily a comfort.
One of my professors at seminary had a dear friend who was dying of AIDS. As he talked about his friend, I could see tremendous pain and grief on his face. He then stated that, as horrible as this was, it was within the will of God because nothing happens outside of the will of God. It was on that point that we differed. I could never name a disease, such as AIDS or cancer, as being within the will of God. I could never name natural tragedies, such as floods and hurricanes, as being within the will of God. Nor could I ever name human tragedies, such as the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 or the Hamas rockets and Israel missiles, as being within the will of God. There are some things that lie outside the will of God.
To say this is to challenge the providence of God. It particularly challenges our Presbyterian doctrine of predestination. And yet, this challenge is not new. It is an old argument about free will and God’s will. How much does God actually cause and how much does God let happen according to the forces of nature and of humanity?
Some of the earliest manuscripts we have of the book of Romans differ in their wording of this verse because they differed in their beliefs of providence or the will of God. One of these earliest manuscripts reads, “for those who love God, God works all things for good” which could mean that if things don’t work out for the good, we may not love God enough. Have you ever heard someone say that if you just have enough faith, God will answer your prayers? This is a version of that—if you just love God enough, God will make everything work out for you—not for the heathens, mind you, just for the Christians. I hope that you can notice my tongue in my cheek. Well—that’s what one ancient manuscript reads.
Here’s another. It actually removes God as the author of good things and simply reads, “everything works together for good.”—it’s a rather unrealistic, optimistic view of our world.
A third manuscript reads, “In everything, God works for good.” Ah—this is different. This does not say that everything that happens is in accordance with God’s will. Rather, it could read that even within tragedy, even within things that God does not will, God works to bring some good out of it. A translation based on this third manuscript reads “In everything, God cooperates for good with those who love God.” This translation suggests that God tries to bring some good out of everything in cooperation with us.
The holocaust was an act of evil, devoid of God. But within the horrors of the concentration camps, God did work some things for good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote Letters from Prison, which were collected into a book and have transformed thousands of lives.
The Miracle of Camp 60 gives us another example. In the Orkney Islands is a strange building called the Italian Chapel. It is located in what used to be a prisoner of war camp in the Second World War where several hundred Italian prisoners were held. The guards were generous, allowing the prisoners to beautify the camp, although the only materials they were given were barbed wire, concrete, metal Nissen huts and paint. It was incredible what they were able to do with these materials. They created flower gardens and walks, a theatre and a recreation hut, including a concrete billiard table. Then came the final pièce de résistance: a chapel, whose concrete walls were painted into brick and stone, complete with Italian frescoes. When the camp was finally dismantled, the chapel was left to remind everyone that the power of faith and friendship will outlast the hate and destruction of war. To this day, the Italians and the Orkneys exchange visits and gifts of friendship. One of the Italian prisoners wrote, “People cannot be judged by their precarious situations. Their culture, spirit and will to express themselves in creative thoughts and deeds are stronger than any limitation to freedom.”
This story shows us how God cooperates with us in working together some good out of tragedy. God doesn’t intervene and obliterate human autonomy. God is not coercive, but persuasive in power. Process theology suggests that God continually sends us energy and impulse to do good, to love, but God never steps in to force us. And so—tragedy continues, as does love. But in the face of tragedy, God does not give up. Romans 8 assures us that the Spirit grieves with us, intercedes for us even in groans when words fail. In the Spirit’s constant companionship through tragedy and joy, may we find the courage and strength to work with God to ensure that love has the last word. “For I am convinced,” concludes the 8th chapter of Romans, “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”