This binding, unbinding love
This binding and unbinding love July 26, 2020 P. Escamilla
If the letter to the Romans were a densely wooded forest — lovely, dark, and deep, intricate and entangled in its ways of expressing the gospel story — then the middle chapter in that letter where we have arrived to today would be like the edge of that forest where the trees begin to part like wide sky, for us a seashore and beyond it the ocean deep. This is our territory now at the juncture of Paul’s letter; things so expansive, so infinite in nature, a deep deep love that will never let us go. Paul gathers us around this expansive view to invite us to understand it and take it in and live it as our own. These words have been cherished by many of us, maybe you know them well, by generations of people. Often they are the words that I share at bedside in the homes of the sick, or in an assisted living facility, or nursing home, or hospital. I have a pocket Bible and two places in it are creased; one, of course is the 23rd psalm, the other Romans 8.
These words about God’s love that expands beyond any boundaries, these words have followed many to their grave, followed many from the graves of loved ones, assured of God’s love for the one they have loved and lost. “I am convinced,” the apostle writes, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present or 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.” In that one sequence we find a certain word “oute” (nor) used ten different times. “Nor death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come”, nor, nor, nor, ten times. It’s Paul’s way of reinforcing a truth that is bigger, wider than the sky and deeper, more profound than the ocean deep.
Rev. Bill Harris was a pastor in this annual conference, beloved by many, and in the memory care facility where I would visit him, he always requested these verses. In one way or another I knew what he meant, and when I got to them and began to read them, he often would recite them with me. He cherished those words and every time I finished that reading, those last words, “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”, his response was, everytime, “Amen amen amen.” I began to figure that his answer to that reading was his way of trying to match the number of times the apostle uses the word “oute”, “oute oute oute” ten times. Bill Harris, “amen amen amen” — those words from Roman. Two years ago followed Bill Harris to his grave and followed his loved ones away from that grave back into life, assured.
The lectionary is wiser than we are and we’ve said that before. Do we choose these texts to read or do they choose us? In today’s reading, there is a word that’s key for Paul’s method and it’s that word “separate”. Only the Greek word, there is not “separate”. Technically, it is literally space. Who can space us from the love of Christ? Nothing can space us from the love of God and of course that word space has risen to the top of our vocabulary. It is a household word, it is our bread and butter lately during a pandemic. We are all about physical distancing, spacing from one another — 6 feet to be precise. Spacing is the way we move and live and have our being lately. Rachel Goeres figured there were nicer ways to be sure that someone was six feet away from us, so she made this Corona pole for Laura Heely, roughly six feet in length, tied up in pretty ribbons so you can be a little more polite in telling someone to stay six feet away from you.
There is something particularly poignant, relevant, about this moment in time around this text. Who can space us from the love of Christ? Nothing. Neither death, nor life, nor plexiglass, nor lane ropes, nor floor decals, nor stay at home, nor sanitizer, nor masking, nor masking tape, can space us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; a love that is binding, encompassing like magnets that cannot be pulled apart from each other. This is the love of God, for us and all creation.
Betsie ten Boom lived out her days in the Ravensbruck concentration camp and in December 1944, she died in that camp. Her words borrowed so often by her sister, Corrie ten Boom, have rung true for me for years, and maybe you know them too. “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.” A binding love that will not let us go. Binding and yet unbinding too.
Paul’s understanding of the gospel is that it liberates, it sets free. It is a love that launches us into life and there is no greater love than that love that loves another into largeness or light, life, spirit, heart, calling. This is the love of which the apostle speaks — that place where the deepwoods part and we see the open sky and the deep ocean. This is where we meet a God that emcompasses us in love, binds us forever in that love, but also unbinds us with that love, sets us free to live our lives fully and freely in the world in love and grace. If we climb to the top of that passage where we’ve been, a statement that is remarkable in and of itself, in that very same passage, “If God is for us, who is against us?” In the Greek more simply, “God for us, who against us?” Paul’s letter could be subtitled, “Letter to the Romans – God for Us”, the entire letter about God’s love for us launching us into healing forgiveness, wholeness, freedom, life, and love. “God for us.” In Greek, “God Hyper Us.” Imagine a God who is hyper for us — yearning, longing, desiring, wishing for our wholeness, our freedom, our being unbound and turned into the world to love and serve, to advocate and lead, to be that love that binds and unbinds. It is beginning to sound as though the love of God is a love that binds with a bandage, as it were, our hurts, our wounds, our brokenness, our grief, our guilt and our pain, our anguish, a binding love and an unbinding love that unbinds. Our hurts now healed, our hearts now mended, to reveal the satin scars of resurrection and lift us to life and turn us into the world with that same love.
It is some kind of a paradox that the love of God can bind us and unbind us at the same time. The pastor poet in Scotland, George Matheson, encapsulated that marvelous paradox in a beautiful phrase, “Make me a captive, Lord and then I shall be free.” Are there ways in your life that you have been waiting for the binding love of God to come and enfold and encompass, to mend and heal, to say, come to me you who are weary and I will give you rest, give you comfort and strength through a difficult time? Are there ways that we have shared that yearning, that longing, that hurt, that weariness, for a wider world and have sought that gift of God’s binding, bandaging, healing, mending love, encompassing us? Are there ways in which you feel ready to live from that gift of love — I am loved, I can risk loving you? An unbinding love, a God for us, hyper for us, loving us into largeness of life, in heart and spirit and calling, sending us into the world with courage and compassion to be those wounded healers for others. That is the paradox of this mysterium tremendum, this expansive sky and deep ocean of love that binds and unbinds us both.
George Matheson gave us another treasure, as well, in another poetic line. He was nearly blind, a pastor in Scotland, living out his life in marvelous gifts and graces shared with the church there, but came upon a dark night of the soul. We don’t know the particulars of it, a moment of excruciating suffering for him. He kept the particulars of it to himself. In some ways, we can all then imagine our own suffering, our own places of hurt and woundedness. The phrase he gives us in that poem that he wrote is “weary soul”. If I were to ask you what you know about a weary soul, you would know. We all know. In this season, none of us have escaped the weariness of soul, from the intersection of so many hurts and harms and grievances and injuries and health risks and economic risks and all the many ways that the world is groaning in travail for its redemption, its deliverance, its being bound up and then healed and then unbound. It’s weary soul of a pandemic is around us all.
I had a dream some nights ago in which it was raining, as it has been here this morning — thanks be to God for the gift — raining. Although I was having lunch in the rain. My sandwich was soggy and not very easy to eat. It was falling apart in my hands because it was drenching wet, and then I went to my mail tray in the office work room at the church, only the office work room was exposed to the sky. The rain was coming in and all my mail was soggy. And in the parking lot I was visiting with one of you and the rain fell upon us there too. This is our life, that rain, the weariness of heart and soul. You felt it, too, I know. We have found our way to others who have felt it more than we. We have offered that binding and unbinding to others. In the coming days, one of our Sunday School classes will gather 250 note cards with children’s pictures and messages from others to give to 250 who work directly with patients suffering from Coronavirus at our own metropolitan Methodist Hospital; the hospital with the greatest number of virus patients. That is an immeasurable gift of love, from those who surely are weary in soul, given to others, healthcare workers, who are weary in the work.
Where have you found your way to the binding, unbinding love of God? Perhaps this is such a moment, this is such a text. A text that you and I can commit to memory, can inscribe in a notecard, can share by another’s bed, can offer to the world as the assurance that nothing, even in a time of physical distancing, can space us from the love of God that will not. “Oh love, that will not let me go. I rest my weary soul in Thee. I give Thee back the life I owe, that in Thine ocean depths, its flow may richer, fuller, be.”