If you’ve been around Royal Lane much over the past four years, you have probably heard my standard response when someone asks me how I am doing. “How are you, pastor?” “I’m hanging in there.” I say it because I feel uncomfortable with not being completely honest, with not telling the truth. Most of us tend to answer with “I’m good” or “I’m fine.” But I’m not good or fine. We are not good or fine. Most days, all we can do is hang in there until the storm passes or until we become stronger in order to deal with the stresses or struggles. So, for me to say, “I’m hanging in there,” is to say that I’m hurting, I’m struggling, life is hard, but that I’m doing the best I can, just as I know you are doing the best you can. Because, in all honesty, if we were deeply truthful when someone asks us how we are doing, we might respond with, “Thanks for asking how I’m doing. Today, I think I have a broken heart.”
Lately, it seems that every week we come into worship with more anguish in our hearts than joy. I think we could even translate the part of our Romans passage today where Paul says he has sorrow and anguish in his heart as him saying to us, “I have a broken heart.” I don’t know about you, but my heart seems to be breaking a lot these days. Our hearts break over the agony families are experiencing with COVID-19. Our hearts are breaking at our relationships being destroyed by arrogance and mistrust. Our hearts are breaking today as I see people trying to stand their ground rather than understand others with humility and grace. Our hearts are breaking for the state of our nation, for the state of our faith, for the state of our jobs. Our hearts are breaking for our elderly parents, spouses who are sick, and children who have lost their way. My heart is breaking for my own family as we wait for baby Ford to get through his crucial milestones and come home. I’m sure that many, if not most, of our hearts are broken in some way this morning.
But often, as I previously mentioned, we think we have to keep silent about our breaking hearts. When people ask us how we are doing, our natural reaction is to say “fine” and not let people know what our hearts are feeling, the inner truths that we so wish to share. But we see that Paul wants none of that. Paul doesn’t want the empty platitudes from the oppressed Christians in Rome. He knows they are suffering under persecution and control. He knows that they do not want fake hope and fake joy. They want the truth. And the truth was brutal: they had a difficult life. The truth was that Paul was experiencing pain and torment. The truth was that the Roman Christians felt cut off from Christ. They felt isolated and alone. And Paul seemed to say that if he were to speak the truth in Christ, then he’d have to be honest. And being honest was to say that sorrow and anguish had crept into his heart.
Whew. That’s pretty authentic, right? It’s pretty unnatural for us to be that open and honest, because if we were, we’d have to be vulnerable too. And that is why I think the Spirit of Truth is important in this letter to the Roman Christians. Paul was setting an example. He was modeling a leadership that was humble, vulnerable, and honest. And this is the truth Paul wanted these early Christians to see. He wanted them to be opposite of the Empire that hounded and hurt them. He wanted them to be opposite of the political and cultural leaders of the day who claimed to be perfect or claimed to be God. He wanted them to live as if they had a Spirit of Truth and to lean into the God who had adopted them, comforted them, loved them, and had given them an identity as equal and unified siblings in Christ. Paul hoped that they would live into a Spirit of Truth.
You see, we talked last week about how the Roman Christians were mostly Gentile, people who were not from the Jewish lineage. And we see in this particular passage, and in fact in these next couple of chapters of Romans, that Paul is heartbroken, not only because of the persecution and hurt experienced by Gentile Christians in Rome, but because many of the local Jews were not receiving and accepting the gospel message of Christ’s apostles. But let’s be clear, this shouldn’t spark anti-Semitism or frustrated understandings of early Jews. God didn’t reject Jewish people. Jesus was Jewish and Paul was Jewish. Paul’s heart was breaking because he wanted more of his fellow Jews to seek after the reconciliation and justice of Jesus.
According to commentators, Paul seemed to have an affinity for every group, Gentile or Jew, slave or free, woman or man, who was outside the love and care of Christ. One commentator imagines Paul as being devastated over the idea that his friends and fellow Jews were rejecting God’s gift of justification in Christ. This commentator says, “In contrast to all those Christians, both ancient and modern, who take a kind of self-righteous pleasure in the idea of the destruction of the outsider, the foreigner or the nonbeliever, Paul is willing once again to be ‘accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake’ of his fellow Israelites who are ‘stumbling over the stumbling stone’ – that is the free gift of grace in Christ. In this sense Paul is like the Christ he worships, willing to take the punishment upon himself so that others might be saved.”
At the end of the day, Paul was broken hearted because he desired that all people would experience the radical and transformative power of God’s love. And this love, as we heard last week, is inclusive of all people and of all the world. Do you remember? Paul said, “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.” Which means the truth we experience in this text today is that God’s love was for the Gentile nonbelievers AND for the Jewish believers. Everyone is loved by God and Paul’s heart broke for the early Christian communities, and even those who didn’t believe in Jesus, didn’t know they were loved, they were equal, they were free.
To pronounce the truth of his broken heart was a vulnerable moment for Paul. Martha C. Highsmith describes Paul’s pain. “In a letter that might have been read in a Roman worship service, [Paul] speaks of his own despair. After some of the most inspiring testimony in all of Christian Scripture, he seems to break down, fall apart, with grief over the failings in his own people to receive God’s gift of the gospel. He is so distressed that he is willing even to surrender his own relationship with Christ, if only the Israelites could see what they have. These are members of the family who have excused themselves from the dinner table, and he will give up the most precious thing he has in order to get them back.”
My friend, Rev. Heather Mustain, the Associate Pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church, told me that “the world needs more vulnerability. It makes us more courageous.” It is my hope today that as we hear about the vulnerability of Paul and his willingness to sacrifice that which was most dear to him, his faith and his relationship with Christ for the sake of others, that we might affirm the heartbrokenness we feel in ourselves and in the world. It’s difficult to be vulnerable. It’s difficult to claim everything is ok. It’s difficult to declare that we don’t know everything about someone’s life and experience. It’s difficult to admit that we are wrong and we have learning to do. It’s difficult to confess when we are hurting or have been hurt. But that vulnerability leads to courage and creativity. Without courage and creativity, it might feel impossible to care for shattered hearts and shattered lives.
As I was writing this sermon one afternoon from my home office, I heard a loud crash come from the kitchen. One of our mason jars had tumbled to the floor, hitting our travertine tile, shattering into thousands of pieces. And this didn’t result in a few shards of glass. No, this was glass dust. Immediately, I went to help my mother-in-law sweep up the glass so that we wouldn’t step on it. We swept the floor four times and mopped it twice. Yet, try as we might, there was always one more piece of glass glistening in the afternoon sunlight.
Friends, the brokenness in our world seems overwhelming. We wonder if we will ever be able to find all the pieces of pain that have been inflicted upon us and upon one another. But maybe we can begin to do so with vulnerability. Do we have the courage, church, to be vulnerable about our faults? Do we have the courage to be vulnerable about our mistakes? Do we have the courage to help clean up the messes in the world so that others can find healing, acceptance, and freedom? Sure, it might feel as if we are ripping at the core of our faith and even our relationship with God. But for others to experience unconditional love and inclusion, we might just need to question those things that we hold dear. For the brokenness of the world hides in nooks and crevices, and it is sometimes impossible to heal the hurt without vulnerability that leads to courage and then to change.
Highsmith continues, “While we may not look on the state of Christianity today with the same acuteness of grief that Paul felt, still we have our own lype and odyne, words translated as “sorrow” and “unceasing anguish,” both with a meaning something like unspeakable pain. Brokenness in the world, in the church, in our own lives, when it is deeply felt, wounds us that way: it breaks our hearts. In an irony of faith, it may be that this is the way we come to know the strange working of God in our lives.”
I pray that in the midst of our heartbreak this week, we might understand and affirm the Spirit of Truth in our lives. And that truth is that “nothing will separate us from the love of Christ.” Just as Paul learned when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, Jesus never left him and continued to nourish him throughout his journey. May we come to know the strange workings of God in our lives, even amidst the heartbreak, so that we will partner with God to bring healing and love to our broken lives and into a broken world. That is our hope this morning. And so, we end with Paul’s last words in our text today as we seek to turn from our own despair in order to go out and proclaim the power of Christ, the one “who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”