The very first sermon I preached, which I just came across in some papers –
I want to talk about this passage from Romans and I want to talk about today being Trinity Sunday — we’re going to see if we can tie these in together a bit.
I’ve been known to start in the middle of things and that’s what we’re going to do here. Right here in the middle of these words from Paul’s letter to the people of the early church in Rome, where the going was rough at the time. Let’s go back over it – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – which does not disappoint
That sequence sounds pretty good – but does it always work that way? It it inevitable that we move from suffering to endurance to character to hope? I’m thinking it’s more of a choice as to whether it goes that way or whether we get stuck somewhere.
As I look around this room, I see lots of people who have suffered. I don’t even know all y’all that well, but I know every single one of you has faced some sort of suffering in your life. I’m a pretty fortunate person myself, but I know I’ve suffered. Everybody suffers – black/white, rich/poor (yep, odd as it seems, I’ve known some incredibly miserable rich people), young/old, gay/straight, single/married, Democrat/Republican. Sometimes it’s our own fault. Sometimes the causes are completely out of our hands. Regardless, it’s suffering.
Now remember where we are going. Suffering leads to endurance, right? Except sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. It just feels like suffering.
But if we are to believe this – and let’s hold onto it for now – then from suffering, we learn endurance. Let’s talk about endurance. You hear about people running marathons and such. They call these endurance events. They are not sprints. They are the long haul — and it takes all the strength you can muster. Endurance like this is not passive. It takes fortitude. It takes all your strength.
So our suffering can produce endurance. We can get stuck in suffering. Or we can get stronger. Life is an endurance event. We find our strength. We know suffering, but we also know how to endure.
And where do we go from there: suffering produces endurance produces character.
Now that’s an interesting turn. Character’s where we stop looking inward so much and start looking out. Specifically we start look out for one another. If we make that step, we become people who don’t just think about our own selves. Character means we take that strength and we share it.
Then what comes next – anybody remember – say it with me – suffering produces endurance which produces character which produces hope.
Let’s start in on hope by making a distinction. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. We can thank the philosopher brother Cornell West for speaking of this distinction. Optimism is this belief that everything is getting better. Well, we all know this world look mighty bleak a whole lot of the time. All we have to do is look around – look near, look far. Whew. Hard to be optimistic when you see all that suffering.
But hope is BIG. Hope takes us out of all that bleakness and opens us to the possibilities for grace, no matter what happens or is going to happen. Those graces may be big or they may be small, but one thing is that they are there. Our job is to be open to them.
So suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope.
But HOW do we do that? How do we go through all these things and not get STUCK along the way? How do we actually get from suffering to hope?
Well, today – this Sunday – reminds us of how that works. For that we skip from the middle of our scripture passage to its beginning and its end: from the beginning – “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”
And from the end – “ God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit – that has been given to us.”
So we’ve got God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That works well for today, Trinity Sunday: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, right? Or some may prefer God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer.
That’s going to be our how. But this concept of the Trinity can be a tough thing to get your head around. The notion of God in 3 persons confuses many a believer and many a non-believer.
The very first semester of my freshman year at college, I heard that a world famous theologian was going to teach a class. He was visiting from Germany, a renegade Catholic by the name of Hans Kung. He’d written several books about this thick. Well, I was a history major, but here I am in my first semester of college and I figure I better not miss the opportunity to take his class.
I’d never actually heard of him, but the student newspaper said he was famous, so I sat in a big lecture hall with a whole bunch of other students for a class that met on Monday nights all semester long. Three hours each class. He had this serious German accent. They put him in the fanciest lecture hall on the campus — in the business school. The seats were really comfy. I had classes all day long on Monday, so by Monday night I was about ready for a nap. So . . . I don’t actually remember a lot about what he said in that class.
But — although this was more than 20 years ago, I still remember the time Dr. Kung talked about the Trinity. He said — true words — that it is a tough concept — and one that his friends from other religions really struggled to grasp. So he had decided that the best way to explain it was this:
God the Father, the Creator, is God above us.
God the Son, Jesus, is God beside us.
God the Holy Spirit – we were just talking about the Holy Spirit with Pentecost last week – is God within us.
So God above us, God beside us, God within us.
That, I’ll argue, that kind of presence – that’s how we CAN go – if we choose – from suffering to endurance to character to hope.
From God above us, we get a sense of wonder, a sense of awe. That comes to us in a lot of places. For me, it’s often outdoors, out in the woods. It can be when we hear music. We sure know how that works in this congregation. It might be standing on your front steps or in the library or in the grocery store. It can happen anywhere when we know we are in the presence of God.
For God beside us – we think about the real presence of Jesus, who walked here on earth and who walks with us through each day. We see God embodied in the presence of the people around us – in what Jesus calls the least of these and in the faces of the people we know and, though it’s hard, in the people we want to cuss out in traffic. In everybody we encounter. God is in every single one of them, beside us every day. So we find God among the people around us, even when it’s hard.
Now God within us – the Holy Spirit breathes life into every one of us, every single day. The Quakers are especially good at reminding us of this. They say that there is that of God in every person. So God is in us. So with this knowledge – that God is within you, all the time, in the Holy Spirit – even when you are emptied out by suffering, let that Spirit fill you.
And from these things – God above you, God beside you, God within you – you can know that HOPE that St. Paul is talking about. Hopping back into the middle of that passage for just a moment – then we HAVE ACCESS TO THAT GRACE IN WHICH WE STAND. Don’t miss that line. We stand in hope and in grace. God above, God beside, God within.