June 28, 2020

Only the Lonely, VIII: Neither Death Nor Life

Passage: Romans 8:31–39

Click here to listen to this sermon.

For I am certain that neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor powers, nor pestilence, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:38–39

The media have been doing a splendid job chronicling our collective experience of coronavirus, not just the statistics and the science and the warnings and the safety advice and the hunt for a vaccine, but also what’s happening to us psychologically in our personal lives.

The Washington Post for instance, told the story of Gina Fernandes, who is 33 and lives alone in a studio apartment in DC. Her quarantine is probably coming to an end now, but the whole lingering experience was disheartening. She felt very alone. Gina likes to quote Charlotte from Sex and the City: “I’ve been dating since I was 15. I’m exhausted. Where is he?”

Her friends get together for quarantinis on Zoom, but she avoids these gatherings because in their little Zoom boxes, everybody is all coupled up. They lean against each other with arms intertwined. Little children zoom in and out of the screen, pardon the pun.

Gina says, “At my age, everybody is coupled up, like Noah’s Ark. Here we are at the end of the world and I am in my apartment of one.” She never touched another human being the whole time.

Gina wonders how long it would take anyone to find her if she died alone in her apartment, like that woman from Brooklyn who’d been dead in her home for over a year before the neighbors noticed. Gina is joking. Mostly. But it’s not very funny.[1]

We’re in Phase Four now, so I guess you could say it’s over—for now—but it lasted 90 days. Some introverts say, “Living my best life! Love the solitude!”

Henry David Thoreau found human connection to be shallow and tedious. He said, “We live thick and get in each other’s way, and stumble over one another.”[2] So he self-quarantined at Walden Pond for two years, two months, and two days.

But not most of us. While I’m lost in thought walking the dog, the face of someone I love and miss will flash randomly and unbidden into my mind, and I’ll say to myself—because there’s no one else there—I’ll say to myself, “I haven’t seen King Poor for three months. Where did he disappear to?”

The good news is that even if we are bereft of human companionship, we are never lacking God’s near presence. Scripture is strewn with promises of God’s close, constant, conspicuous companionship. If you do the right Google search, you will eventually find a web page called “108 Scripture Verses About Loneliness.” You heard me right: 108, and the list is not even exhaustive.

And maybe the apex of those 108 or more Scripture promises of God’s near presence is that passage I read a moment ago. It is one of the most beloved and familiar texts in the entire Bible, and only our long familiarity with it prevents us from the surprise we should experience when we come to it. To find such an elegant, eloquent, poignant poem in the middle of all that abstract theology!

Paul’s Letter to the Romans, of course, is his magnum opus, the shapely, towering précis of his entire life’s work and thought, but it is dense, difficult, and dry. It’s almost 10,000 words long and reads like a doctoral dissertation, which is what it is. This is what earned Paul his Ph.D.

And right about the midpoint of all this sophisticated, twisting, turning, meandering argumentation, we come upon this glittering diamond of passionate, pastoral poetry, where Paul pauses to pastor his parishioners. In 35 years, I have officiated at about 400 funerals, and I’ve read this passage at about 60 of them. It is what holds us up and keeps us going when we lose one of life’s long loves.

“For I am certain that neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor powers, nor pestilence, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul pulls one arrow after another out of his quiver, piling up the perils we’re afraid of, and it’s no accident that Paul lists death first among that fierce catalogue of menaces that threaten us. Death is humanity’s archenemy. You remember what Shakespeare has Claudio say in Measure for Measure, right?

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot...
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds...
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. (III, i, 129ff.)

Anna Duarte Velasco is a nurse in Barcelona during this time of covid-19. She says, “The look of fear in the eyes of the dying will never be erased from my memory. I feel rage and helplessness.”[3]

That’s just it: rage and helplessness; that’s what we feel when we send a dear one off to the undiscovered country on the far side of the grave.

But who occupies and reigns in that undiscovered country on the far side of the grave? None other than God God’s Very Self. Even Death has no power over God’s love; even death cannot pry us out of God’s fell grip.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful,
Thou art not so...
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.[4]

But Paul’s not finished yet. He knows it’s not just death we fear. “For I am certain that neither death, nor life, nor principalities nor powers will separate us from the love of God.” What’s “principalities and powers”? What in the world is Paul talking about? Well, I’m glad you asked.

Remember that sermon series I preached earlier this year? Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water? Of course you remember. That sermon series was called The Elemental Spirits, because the ancient Greeks thought Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water were so powerful that they were gods. The ancient Greeks personified and deified Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water, the Elemental Spirits.

And what Paul wants to say is that the Earth will quake and flatten our skyscrapers, the Wind will rage and wreck the entire city of New Orleans, the Fire will blaze and kill 85 people in California and a billion animals in Australia, the Waters will rise and destroy much of a prosperous Michigan  town, but even these fierce Spirits, these potent principalities and powers, cannot dislodge us from God’s imperishable mercy.

Not even Death. Harletta Sasser was a member of my Grand Rapids church for 58 years. What a great name, huh? Harletta Sasser. She’d been an accomplished musician, trained at the Cincinnati Conservatory, played at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. She’d been a powerful force in the early years of great music in Grand Rapids, literally set the stage for the very fine Grand Rapids Symphony, and our St. Cecelia Society, but by the time I arrived in Grand Rapids, Alzheimer’s had stolen her from us.

She was all alone when she died. Her husband had died years before, she never had any children, many of her friends were gone and the ones she had left she didn’t know any longer. She was all alone when she died. But not really. There was Somebody waiting to catch her as she fell.

Long after all her memories were stolen from her, when she did not know where she was, when she did not know who you were when you visited her, she still had her music. Till the end, she could still sit down at the piano and bang out the jazz.

My Church took good care of her. One time a Deacon named Betty visited her, and Betty said, "Harletta, how are you?" And Harletta said, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." A very inappropriate response to "How are you?" right? Maybe not.

Among the thousands of beautiful Americans taken from us by the coronavirus was Annie Castor Glenn. She died on May 19 of covid-19. She was 100 years old. Annie Castor met her future husband John Glenn before either of them could walk or talk, in a playpen; their parents were good friends.

You might remember that for much of her life Annie was a severe stutterer. Doctors said she was 85% disabled, which means that 85% of the time, she could not speak the words she wanted. She never spoke on the telephone; she never spoke to a clerk in a department store; in taxis, she would write down the address for the driver; in restaurants, she would point at the menu.

Her husband John was the first American to orbit the earth in 1962; he later served as a U.S. Senator from Ohio for 24 years; and best of all, he was an Elder in his Presbyterian Church. Colonel Glenn flew 59 combat missions during World War II and 90 during the Korean War. He shot down three MIGs and earned six Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Every time he left Annie for deployment he would say goodbye to his wife the same way. Every time. To the Marshall Islands or Midway in the South Pacific or later to South Korea, where he earned the affectionate nickname Magnet Ass because of the amount of flak his airplanes took. Twice he returned to base with 250 bullet holes in his plane.

Every time he left for one of those dangerous missions, every time, he would say to his beloved Annie: “I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.” Every time. And every time, Annie would respond, “Don’t be long.” She could speak those three simple words when just the two of them were there. Don’t be long.

And when Colonel Glenn left Annie to go back into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery at the age of 77 in 1998, he said the same thing, and this time he gave her a pack of gum. She kept it next to her heart until he was safely home. When John Glenn died in 2016, they’d been married for 73 years.[5]

“I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum,” he said. “Don’t be long,” she said. None of us will ultimately escape the reach of that fell fiend Death, but when we do submit, we fall straight into the encompassing mercy of the Maker of all the burning stars and spinning planets.

[1] Caroline Kitchener, “A Woman Living Alone,” The Washington Post, April 15, 2020.

[2] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in The American Tradition in Literature, eds. George and Barbara Perkins (New York: McGraw Hill, 1994, originally published 1854, p. 1340.

[3] From “In Harm’s Way,” by an army of reporters and editors at The New York Times, June 15, 2020.

[4] John Donne, Divine Sonnet X.

[5]Steve Ray, “John Glenn’s Wife,” http://www.catholicconvert.com/blog/2013/09/30/john-glenns-wife-i-teared-up-reading-it-to-my-wife/, also Wikipedia entries for Annie Glenn and John Glenn.