For Good

July 30, 2023

Series: July 2023

Speaker: Bethany Nelson


Today's Sermon


"For Good"


Scripture Reading

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom God predestined God also called; and those whom God called God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? God who did not withhold God’s own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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.

First, a song inspired by this scripture passage, titled, “Your Love Never Fails.”

Nothing can separate; even if I run away, your love never fails.
I know I still make mistakes, but you have new mercies for me every day; your love never fails.
You stay the same through the ages; your love never changes.
There may be pain in the night, but joy comes in the morning.
And when the oceans rage, I don't have to be afraid,
Because I know that you love me. Your love never fails.
You make all things work together for my good.

Your love never fails.  That really is the theme of this scripture passage. Perhaps the theme of our entire faith tradition.  Nothing, says Paul - not hardship, distress, persecution, or peril, will separate us from God’s love.  Often, this passage is read at memorial services.  Paul ends the passage by reminding us that neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  We hold on to those comforting words when someone close to us has died.  It is important to remember that even death does not separate us from God’s love.  However, I think we miss out if we only encounter this passage at memorial services, for Paul is talking about much more than just death.  Paul is reminding us that nothing separates us from God’s love not only in death, but also right now, in life.  Certainly, we have all experienced hardship and distress as a part of life – some of us are experiencing that right now – and Paul is here to tell us that none of that separates us from God’s love.  We do not move through hardship and distress alone or abandoned, but instead God loves us through every moment of every day of our lives.

This is Good News.  This is news that we cannot hear enough.  This is news that is at the very heart, the very center of our faith.  God’s love never fails.  Nothing can separate us from God’s love.  If you hear nothing else this morning, hear that.  Know it in your heart and soul.  Believe it.  God’s love never fails.

I could end the sermon right there.  But Paul has another line, which the song repeats several times, that I also want us to notice.  Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God ...” This line has received a lot of attention from Biblical scholars through the years due to the wide variety of ways it has been interpreted.  First, let’s make sure we do not read this line as saying that terrible or tragic things that happen are somehow good, or gifts from God.  That is not the case.  God does not go around causing bad things to happen just to help us grow or learn a lesson. I want to be careful that we don’t ever glorify suffering as somehow “good.”  There is real pain and trauma and grief in life that is not good, and it is important to acknowledge that. 

I have talked before about my nephew – my sister’s son - who is on the autism spectrum.  A couple weeks ago, my sister and her husband attempted a family camping trip, which had many moments of joy, but lots of difficult moments as well. My sister wrote a blog post about tending to my very dysregulated nephew once they returned home.  The trip had been a big break from his routine, and he was having a hard time controlling his body, so my sister held him in a big bear hug.  She writes, “As I held him there, feeling his heart racing as he tried to relax into my hug, I wanted to cry. I was sad for my little guy who so loved camping, but is also so unable to control himself. I felt grief over the long-held dreams of longer camping trips, heck of trips in general, that we just can't do. I felt such sadness for my son who so wants to do these things, but literally cannot handle it. I felt angry that all of my planning and energy is still not enough to counteract his overactive sensory and nervous systems.

“I grieve, and I feel anger, frustration, and helplessness. Life is hard, and it will probably always be harder for my beautiful boy no matter how much we educate and empower him. I often try to look on the bright side, because I am by nature an optimist. He has many gifts and talents and brings me much joy. But you know what? I don't always need to look on the bright side. I don't always need to push away the sadness and grief. Sometimes I need to stop, to acknowledge all of this, all of the emotions, even the hard ones.”

Things are not good all the time, and it is absolutely an act of faith to acknowledge the wide range of our emotions and life experiences. But if that is so, what does Paul mean when he writes that all things work together for good? This particular line usually comes with several footnotes in any Bible that you read, because the translation from the Greek is a bit unclear. I could take you down a deep grammatical rabbit hole about what exactly is the subject of the sentence, or if the verb is transitive or intransitive (yes, people have written about that) – but I was not an English major, so suffice it to say, the line could read, “God makes all things work together for good with those who love God.”  That “with” is important.  All things are not intrinsically good.  Some things are very, very bad.  But, we are called to join with God in the work of making good. In the work of being good.  In the work of making sure that no one ever feels separated from the love of God, in times of both good and bad.

What does this look like?  I’ll offer one example, from a book titled, “I Take My Coffee Black,” by Tyler Merritt.  He is an author, actor, and public speaker.  In his book, Merritt writes about his shock and fright when Alton Sterling – an unarmed black man – was killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2016.  Merritt writes, “Alton Sterling was about my age, and his skin tone was about my same skin tone.  The whole incident was terrifying to me.” Merritt then goes on to list 48 unarmed black people killed by police from July 2016 – April 2021.  He writes, “I felt hopelessness come crashing down, like a great wave over me.  I felt like I was drowning. I felt that primordial ‘fight or flight’ instinct kick up, but there was nowhere to run.  So I was going to have to fight back the only way I knew how.  My name is Tyler, and I build things.”

He decided to host a conversation in order to build some relationships.  He describes it like this. “There would be no cameras. No microphones. No media. No press.  Just a large room, and forty or so people from all over Nashville. Black men. White men. Black women. White women. Some young, some older. Some wealthy. Some not wealthy. Some gay. Some straight. The goal: this group of disparate strangers would sit down and talk about what was going on in the nation and our city regarding race. We would have an honest, and painful if needed, dialogue. It would start as a room full of strangers. By the end, maybe something would have changed.  I called it ‘The Safe Place,’ and it was the first test of my theory that I could use my unique life experiences to do something to make the world a better place.”

I love that.  “I could use my unique life experiences to do something to make the world a better place.”  God makes all things work together for good WITH those who love God.  Tyler Merritt simply hosted a conversation.  It wasn’t anything earth shattering.  Or was it.  Merritt writes, “Here’s what I saw: the conversation was more personal, more honest, and more empathetic by a hundred times than anything I have ever seen online.  There was more dialogue, and way less grandstanding and monologues.  Far more active listening.  It was an emotional ride, a deeply bonding experience, and every single person said it had changed them in one way or another.  After the meeting, people exchanged numbers.  They hugged. Respect and friendship began to flow.”[i]

The death of those 48 people was certainly not good.  Merritt describes himself as shell-shocked, scared, and grieving.  But, he did not allow pain and violence and death to have the last word.  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or peril, or sword separate us from the love of God, asks Paul.  No.  Nothing separates us from God’s love.  And we make sure that this good news is known by all people because we join with God in the work of creating good.  I love the line by seminary professor Anna Bowden, “Faith requires activity.  It is not a passive belief, but a life dedicated to active participation in making the world good.”[ii]

One more story, this one from Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry’s book, “Love is the Way.” He talks about pastoring a church in a tough Baltimore neighborhood.  Many of the congregation lived in other areas of the city and didn’t necessarily represent the demographic of the neighborhood, so they were always looking for ways to connect with the community where the church was located. Curry writes about one Christmas when they decided to go caroling in the neighborhood.  “As we walked the streets near the church with our flashlights, I could sense that enthusiasm was waning.  Caroling on the streets isn’t like singing in church. In a church, voices bounce off the walls with a resonance that amplifies and improves the sound.  A mouse can belt like Patti LaBelle.  But on the streets, we got no such lift.  Our voices seemed quiet and flat, lost in the air of boarded-up and derelict homes.  Still, we stuck with it, determined to share some spirit that night.

“We stopped on one block near an alley and began a quiet rendition of ‘Silent Night,’ even though we couldn’t see a soul. As we neared the finish of the first verse – ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’ – we were about to walk on.  And then, from the darkness of the alley, we heard a response.  A voice sang out from the darkness finishing the song: ‘Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.’ I experienced surprised elation, but also sadness. Down that alley, someone was listening. And also down that alley, someone was possibly cold, possibly hungry, possibly high. I would never know, because he didn’t show his face. And yet, he had responded. Thanks to that unseen neighbor, we understood that even when it didn’t seem like it, somebody was listening.”

Curry concludes, “It is tough to maintain a humble and dedicated relationship with God and with others, especially others who are not like you. But that kind of relationship is how we create a new dynamic, where there are no saviors, but only people working together for a better future for the good of all.”[iii]

A conversation among strangers. Christmas caroling on a seemingly deserted street.  Small acts of love that can lead to so much good. 


[i]I Take My Coffee Black, by Tyler Merritt, pp. 234-250.


[iii]Love Is The Way, by Bishop Michael Curry, pp. 153-155.