Boasting in Suffering?

Jun 14, 2020

Sermon 6-14-2020
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Romans 5:1-8
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     It’s so wonderful to look out into the congregation and see you who are here in person. Did everyone remember to change out of their pajamas? Of course, that does not apply to you who are joining us by live-stream in your living rooms, or decks, or wherever you have found a comfortable place to worship God. 
     If someone had told me on March 8, the last time we gathered for in-person worship, that 13 Sundays would pass before we came together again, I would have been incredulous. On that day, March 8, it was the Second Sunday in Lent. We held our third Sunday Funday with a congregational breakfast and inter-generational conversation. The time change was that weekend. And, the Gospel lesson was the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night with questions about eternal life which ends with the well-known passage, John 3:16-17. Doesn’t that seem like eons ago? 
     Now we gather with masks, social distancing, are missing singing, fellowship, and having all of us in the church building. Yet, we are intent on making everyone’s health and well-being is our priority as this Covid 19 pandemic continues. I imagine you have been asked what you missed or what was difficult during the stay at home order. My question is, “What surprised you?” 
     I thought of three things for myself. First, I’m surprised that, when it comes to ministry, I was nearly as busy as usual, but doing different things and learning new ways to connect. 
     Second, I am surprised that I nearly adjusted to live-stream worship with only a congregation of only a few. When we began, I would not have thought that was possible. This is as good of a time as any to express my and the congregation’s gratitude for David and Melissa Johnson, Geoff Whidden, Tom Antal, Dineen Dowling, and Emma Antal, who were here all 13 Sundays making live-stream worship happen. Also, Joseph Antal, Bob Mollard, Gabe Hyter, and in recent weeks Rich and Michelle Borodkin, who assisted with music, reading, and technology. If it had not been for all of them, worship would not have happened. 
     I also want to thank John Weisend for counting the offering during this time, and the church staff I have not already mentioned who were and are finding new ways to do ministry and the Church Council for meeting more than usual and making the tough decisions. 
     My third surprise was that while I came into the office/church on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday - it was SO quiet here - I worked from home on Tuesday and Thursday. That was a new experience, and I always found myself out-of-sorts by the end of the day. I could blame that on my vocal and persistent cat, Sophie, but I think the reality is that my sub-conscious kept accusing me of slacking. I guess I’ll have to work on that before retirement! What were your surprises?
      I think it’s true that during the past three months, in various ways and to greater or lesser degrees, we all suffered. On the extreme end of that suffering are those who were ill, those whose loved ones were ill, those who dealt with death, those who suffered job and financial loss, and those who were separated from a supportive family, all of which is on-going. Add to that the recent upheaval due to racist actions that led to suffering and death. The words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 5 have a true ring to them: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Vs. 3-5) 
     It certainly seems odd to say that we boast about our suffering, but it’s not the suffering which is the object of our boasting, it is our hope of sharing the glory of God. That’s possible because, Paul proclaims, in Jesus Christ, everyone has access to God’s grace.
     Grace is a word we Lutherans use a lot; it refers to the unconditional, undeserved love of God, made known in many ways, but especially in Jesus. By grace, we are forgiven and have peace with God. God reaches out to us with grace; grace is our dwelling place, the place in which we stand. Even in the midst of suffering, grace transforms us.
     I like what commentator David Bartlett says about the gift of grace: “God’s goodness to us surrounds us and upholds us and defines who we are. Our lives are shaped by the gift we can never achieve but can only receive.” (1)
     So it is that suffering, shaped by the Holy Spirit, grounded in grace, produces in us the moral and spiritual development needed to be examples of faithfulness in this imperfect world. Paul writes that suffering produces endurance. Another word for this is perseverance; it’s the idea that when we suffer, we do not lose strength, but grow stronger. Our faith is stronger, our priorities are better, our focus deepens, and our physical, mental, and emotional resources expand. 
     That’s endurance, and it leads to character. That’s not so easy to define because it involves how we live, how we speak, how we think. It is to have the mind of Christ, to make decisions based on sacrificial love and serving; it is to act with humility, but also to stand firm in the face of injustice. 
     That way of being and living creates hope. Commentator Elizabeth Shively notes that for the Apostle Paul, hope isn’t wishful thinking, but absolute certainty about the future because it is grounded in God’s faithfulness to keep God’s promises. That is, what God will do for the believer in Christ is grounded on what God has done for the believer in Christ. (2) 
     What had God done? Let’s read verses 6-8 again: “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
     In other words, humanity didn’t deserve such grace; being neither righteous nor good; when sin left the human race powerless to go to God in faith, God graciously came to us in Jesus. (3) That’s grace, and grace (unconditional love) is a source of unshakable hope. Could it be that one of the things that surprise us most in this life, not just during a pandemic, is God’s grace?
     A Mennonite pastor named Isaac S. Villegas wrote a Pandemic Diary, portions of which were published in Christian Century magazine. His small congregation is suffering, primarily because of the downturn in the economy, and may not survive. Listen to the character and hope in his words: “I hope our little flock survives. I know some congregations won’t. God hasn’t promised cash infusions to keep us solvent. A bank account is not a might fortress, a bulwark never failing.” (All us Lutherans should know what hymn he’s quoting there.)
     He goes on, “Instead, we live by grace, organize by grace, build our structures as grace. The church is not an asset but a gift of the Spirit. We may fail to keep our organization funded, but that doesn’t mean the demise of God’s plan. Our faith has to do with the cross, with defeat and humiliation - and the birth of something unspeakably, unimaginably new: resurrection. The Christian movement is a miracle of grace.” (4) 
     The fact is that our day-to-day lives as a congregation and as individuals is a miracle of grace. And, that’s why we boast in suffering that leads to endurance that leads to character that leads to hope, the hope of sharing the glory of God, a reality in which we are never disappointed. AMEN
(1) Commentary on Romans 5:1-8 by David Bartlett,
(2) Commentary on Romans 5:1-8 by Elizabeth Shively,
(3) Lectionary Epistle Commentary by Doug Bratt, Romans 5:1-8, Center for Excellence in Preaching
(4) “A Pastor’s Pandemic Diary: Becoming the Church” by Isaac S. Villegas, Christian Century, June 3, 2020, pg. 36