Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Even in Australia: A Sermon for May 30

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Romans 5:1-5
5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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.

Have you ever read the book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?” Written by Judith Viorst, this is the story of a little boy named Alexander and his Terrible, Horrible No Good, Very Bad Day. The book begins like this, “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible horrible no good very bad day.” Alexander’s day does indeed get worse: there is no prize in his cereal box, his friends make fun of him at school, he has to go to the dentist where he learns he has a cavity, he gets in big trouble when he visits his dad at work and that just takes us to dinner, where there are lima beans on the table and kissing on TV afterwards and he has to wear his railroad pajamas to bed – -and Alexander hates his railroad pajamas! He did indeed, have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And all along, Alexander keeps saying over and over again “I think I’ll move to Australia…”

Have you ever had an Alexander day? When we are grownups, they can feel a lot more serious – instead of gum in our hair and dropping our sweaters in the sink, you may wind up waking up to a sick child or the realization that yes, you really were laid off yesterday. Cereal doesn’t have a prize in the box anymore to fight over with our siblings, but we might run out of our blood pressure medication, and even grown ups still get cavities. Sometimes, on the days we log onto the internet and price tickets to Australia dreaming about running away – (they run about $1600 if you want to leave in October) our bad days are even more serious – -someone we love has died, maybe there are health issues to face, and we think, surely, surely, they don’t have days like this elsewhere.
But they do have days like this – as much as Alexander really wanted to run away – -all the way to the other side of the world, as his mother tells him, “some days are like this, even in Australia.” It seems that even in Australia, there are days when the world is not right, when we might be sad, or people might die. Even in Australia, do children wake up with gum in their hair, and even there, little boys have to wear their railroad pajamas.

Our text for today is Romans Chapter 5, hear it again: Romans 5:1-5 “5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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.” How many times have we heard it? “No pain, no gain” is plastered all over the walls at the gym in an effort to encourage us to work harder. “That which doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger.” “Play through the pain.” Have you ever bragged about working through a headache or playing through a pulled muscle? This is not the boasting Paul calls us to do in our reading for today. Sometimes it is not physical pain that we push and play through. We all can probably name someone in our lives who seems to thrive on not feeling well, or on not being well spiritually or emotionally – -who might live his or her life seeking to talk all the time about their suffering, how hard they have it, how painful things are. And while it may be true, are we called to call attention to it, to brag about it, to make our suffering and our trials the focus of who we are and what we are about? According to Paul, no – -this is not how we are to live. It may seem like it at first glance, but we are not called to delight in our suffering, but rather in the peace we find in God. The point is not the pain, the point is the hope, what happens on the other side.

Richard Sheffield tells the story that when he was in the midst of personal tragedy – when he was probably having a whole string of Alexander days that a friend of his said to him, “don’t waste the pain.” He wondered, is this what Paul may have meant in his words to the church? Boast in your pain, for if you suffer, then you can endure, and if you endure, then surely you have character, and if you have character, then and only then will you know hope? That it is in the end that your pain produces hope? The more you suffer the stronger you are, and so the more hope you have? Richard says he doesn’t think this is what Paul is saying, and neither do I.

The passage for today is about who we are in relationship to God, and to the world. Paul writes this letter to a church that was being oppressed, and so he tells them not to hide, but to stand and boast – -to make who they are and what they are about known. That is not the suffering they are currently undergoing – -Paul does not exhort them to boldly proclaim all the reasons they as a church want to move to Australia, but rather all the ways God is with them at work while they are being persecuted and forced to hide. To affirm the glory of God at work in their lives, to affirm the love of the Holy Spirit which has been poured out into them, even in this deepest time.

That makes it feel a little different –even in our darkest times we can affirm the presence of God with us, we can talk about how the love of the Holy Spirit is being poured out into us. That knowledge and that living is what produces the endurance, and the character, and the hope that Paul writes about to the Romans. Being able to see God in the midst of suffering, being able to praise God in the midst of suffering, takes patience and hard work. It takes us developing a relationship with God throughout our lives. If we know the stories of Abraham and Sarah we learned when we were little– Paul refers to the before our reading for today – -we know that there are others to whom God has been faithful in the past. If we have the disciplines of Bible Study and worship, we know in our very beings that we have a relationship with God that is not ephemeral – God will be with us through the very worst days, just as God is with us in the very best days.

Paul’s letter to Rome was written near the end of his life – -after his conversion, the road trips, the ups and downs, the imprisonments – here was someone who might have booked a plane ticket to Australia if airplanes had been invented and he knew about the existence of the continent. Instead, he wrote about peace – -the peace he had been given by God. And he wrote about grace, the grace we have in Christ. And he wrote about hope, the hope he carried with him through it all. Paul’s letter was not one encouraging us to seek suffering, to find pain or to dwell in it when we find it. We are not to rejoice when bad things happen, or wish them upon anyone. What Paul wants us to remember is that when it happens, and it will, that life and hope and health can come from the midst of pain and tragedy. We can learn to endure, and grow in character and experience hope, even in the midst of what seems to be the hardest situation we will ever have to face.

In what do we hope? Paul writes that “character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that God has been given to us.” Frederick Buechner describes the hope Christians have as, “For Christians, hope is ultimately hope in Christ. The hope that he really is what for centuries we have been claiming he is. The hope that despite the fact that sin and death still rule the world, he somehow conquered them. The hope that in him and through him all of us somehow stand a chance of conquering them too. The hope that at some unforeseeable time and in some unforeseeable way he will return with healing on his wings.” Until that day, we know that in our suffering, God is indeed with us. The love of the Holy Spirit has been poured out into each of us so that we are not alone in our times of distress and need, we are not alone as we hope.

I’m a fan of the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, and if ever a hospital was in need of a chaplain, Seattle Grace is it. This medical drama aired their final episode of the season over a week ago, and I’m going to talk about it, so I hope you have caught up in your DVR’s. If not, this is the spoiler alert. In the season finale, there is a man who has come to the hospital and has started shooting doctors. The hospital is on lockdown, and everyone is terrified. On one of the patient floors, Dr. Miranda Bailey was visiting a patient with her resident Charles, when he was shot by the shooter. As the day has progressed, Dr. Bailey has done all she can to save Charles, and realizes that she has to get him to the Operating Room if he has any chance for survival. Dr. Bailey and her patient, who has essentially become her assistant, figure out how to drag Charles down to the elevators, and push the buttons to take them to safety, to the OR where she can perform the surgery and save his life. Without the surgery he will die. However, the elevators have been turned off by the police as a part of their efforts to secure the building. They will not be able to save Charles. As the reality of the situation sinks in, Charles asks Miranda if he is dying, and she tells him the truth. Yes, he is. She takes his hand and she promises that she will be with him the whole time, that he will not be alone. And she holds his hand and waits with him. Watching that, I thought about all the times we have people who wait with us when we are scared or suffering. It may not be in a situation quite like that – how many of us live in TV dramas – but there are times in our lives when our faith may be shaky as we struggle, and our community of faith says “you are not alone, we are with you.” If you look at the letter, Paul says “we” – -together we have been given the peace of God. We have been justified by faith, we have been given grace. If I were writing the script for the character of the hospital chaplain at Seattle Grace Hospital, he or she would have been sitting there telling Miranda and the patient, that just as they sat there and held Charles’ hand while he died, God was sitting there holding all of them in their pain, pouring out God’s love into the places where their pain was breaking them open.

Martin Luther once said, “God can ride a lame horse or shoot straight with a crooked bow. Christians do not believe that we have an answer to the tragedies of life, rather that what we have is a God who, in Jesus Christ, enters tragedy, stands with us and makes a way through. The cross of Christ, the greatest of the world’s tragedies, is a sign. Not an answer or a reason for the hurt that happens in life – it is something even better. The cross is a sign that God is with us, particularly in the dark times. The cross says, wherever there is tragedy, injustice, pain, there is God.” Paul does not promise us the answers or the solutions, Paul promises us what we know to be true, that we have the love of the Holy Spirit, the grace of Christ and the presence of God with us despite what may happen to us in our lives. We live in a world where pain is, unfortunately unavoidable. Suffering abounds, even in the midst of joy. Until the redemption of the world, this is a reality for us as people. So what do we do when it comes? Scholar Linda Thomas writes, “We can rejoice… when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us – -they help us to be patient. Patience develops our strength of character and helps us to trust God more each day until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady. We are then able to hold our heads high, no matter what happens, and confidently know that all is well. We know how dearly God loves us, and we feel this warm love within us because God has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with God’s love.” Even on the days when we wake up with gum in our hair, drop our sweaters in the sink, have to wear our railroad pajamas or worse, we are in God’s care. On the days when we say “I think I’ll move to Australia” God pours God’s love out upon us. And, even in Australia, God is with us in the midst of it all. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


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