Thankful For Something Terrible
Romans 5.1-11: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 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. 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 perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
“We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”
Light poured in through the windows and heat radiated off of nearly every surface. The room felt suffocated yet contained a sort of brilliance. Decorative lamps, family photos, and comfortable furniture filled the space, but it was clear that everything had recently been re-arranged. Formerly a living room, the indents of old couches still remained in the carpet but had been replaced by a single cream colored lazy boy fully extended in the middle of the room. Enveloped in the chair was a little man, dressed comfortably with one of those airplane pillows tucked neatly behind his neck. As he softly snored in the afternoon warmth, his mouth was curved into a smile as if it was a permanent feature of his life, chiseled in by God from the very beginning.
Next to me sat a long-haired brilliantly bearded man on the verge of tears, hoping to keep everything together. “Dad,” he said, “Dad, wake up now, there’s someone here to see you. This here is Taylor, the intern staying with us this summer.” The little old man’s eyes began to lift, and he looked about in the room for this visitor. His eyes, clear and sharp, rested on mine penetrating deeper than I had expected. The smile from his sleep was gone, replaced by a brilliant grin that was infectious. I sat patiently smiling and staring back when he finally opened his mouth and disoriented me far more than the heat seeping through the windows: “Taylor, this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Rev. Willie Mac Tribble was dying of a brain tumor. He had given his life over to God’s call and was a United Methodist pastor who served ten churches over 40 years, but now every waking moment was a test of his strength, endurance, and courage. Simple movements resulted in lightning bolts of pain throughout his nervous system. Without his wife’s help everyday he would have been unable to get dressed, shaved, eat, or do much of anything. And here he was, nearing the end of his journey, thankful for something terrible.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul discusses the questions of salvation and justification as made possible through faith in Jesus Christ. In the reading from this morning however, Paul moves on from these questions to the consequences of faith in Christ Jesus. He emphasizes God’s love, Jesus as mediator of that love, and the reconciliation produced by that love. For Paul there was no greater sign of love than God in Jesus Christ dying on the cross for us while we were still sinners. Many of these words come to us at no surprise, we have heard this read aloud, preached upon, sung about, it even makes up part of the liturgy for the Lord’s Supper.
But perhaps most surprising in these eleven verses in chapter 5 is Paul’s discussion of the paradox of suffering that produces hope. Now the progression of suffering to endurance, character, and hope is something not unfamiliar to our modern culture. It is easy to pick up a book, search the Internet, or turn on the TV to a miraculous story of suffering that led to a renewal of life. Just think of Nelson Mandela who served 27 years in prison before serving as President of South Africa in the 1990s. Or just last week I watched a special program on ESPN about Kyle Maynard, a congenital amputee (born without arms or legs) who recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Or maybe something a little closer to home: A few days ago I invited some of my friends here at school to gather in celebration of one of my favorite musicals. For two hours my companions suffered through Ted Neely’s falsetto portrayal of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. They endured the theologically unsettling, harmonically frustrating, musical. They developed a new found sense of character defined by the rock anthems of the 1970s. And finally they found hope; hope that I would never make them watch it again. These stories are inspiring, laughable, tear jerking, and moving, but they fall short of Paul’s point.
Paul tell us that we boast in our sufferings, KNOWING that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. But do we really KNOW this to be true? Does the man who recently lost his job and is no longer able to support his family KNOW what suffering produces? Does the child diagnosed with Leukemia KNOW what the suffering of Chemotherapy produces? Does the woman who found her teenager hanging by a belt around their neck KNOW what suffering produces? Where is the hope at the end of Paul’s homilectical device for those overwhelmed by suffering?
When we suffer, our pain is the only thing we see, the only thing we KNOW. We become blind to the glories of God’s creation because pain overshadows everything else. We are suffocated by what we cannot control.
What Paul is really talking about is a profoundly new reality; One where our hope is born out of our sufferings, not for anything that we can do, but for what someone already did.
Because of Jesus on the Cross:
We have been justified by faith, we have peace with God, we boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God, God proved God’s love for us, we will be saved from the wrath of God, we were reconciled to God, we were saved. Paul wrote these words in the first century because the church in Rome needed to hear them. So too, the church of the 21st century needs to hear these words.
God’s gift of Jesus on the cross and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit changed the dynamic of the world. Where else can we find this new reality if not the church?
When we gather, whether on Sunday mornings or during the week in Goodson chapel, I notice all these people who seem to have it all together. I think of the families who sit neatly together in their pews with the children dressed properly, hair combed, diligently working on their connect-the-dot Kids Bulletins. I consider my classmates who sit with palms outstretched, eyes wide, mouth curved into a smile, ready and eager to worship the Lord. I even reflect on our professors often knowing more about the scriptures than those up in the pulpit preaching yet still glorify the Lord in worship. I look around and sometimes I wonder what I can do to start looking like, acting like, praising like these people. The problem is that no one really has it all together. We all can get the kids ready for church, throw out our hands in praise, and study the scripture before the sermon, but this is only a façade. We think the church is the place where everyone should be perfect, all of the time. We spend our time in church pretending nothing is wrong in our lives.
In fact, I think we all pretend like our sufferings don’t exist. Consider the call for Joys and Concerns in smaller congregations. How many times have you ever heard someone confess his or her own suffering and ask for help? In the churches I have worshipped in, we spend that time praying for someone’s neighbor named Bobby who broke his arm riding his bike, or an anonymous friend who lost their job. Why are we so afraid to name our sufferings?
Perhaps we are afraid because the church has become a marketplace for the exchange of trivial platitudes such as: “Oh don’t you worry about that, God has a plan for you,” or “As long as you believe, God will make all things right.” Or even: “I’ll be praying for you…”
In many ways the pews of our churches have become walls isolating us from the truths of one another’s lives, leaving us content to shake hands and forget about each other until next Sunday.
We have accepted the narrative of individuality where we are supposed to be isolated and alienated from one another. However, the Christian life demands that all humans are not essentially individuals, but are rather one. Being created in the image of God indicates how we participate in one another through our participation in God, for the image of god is the same in each of us. We have been baptized into ONE body!
The fact that we exist so individually, seeking to protect ourselves from other people, unwilling to confess our pain, is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong…
“Taylor,” Mac said, “this cancer has been the best thing that ever happened to me. For the first time in years people have been anxious to come visit with me. My sons and daughter, who would call once in a while, have been driving in to see me regularly. I’ve had old confirmands from decades past seek me out in these last days. Old parishioners have stopped picking up the phone to call, and instead get in their cars to come see me. I’ve never been so blessed in all my life”
Mac’s hope was not grounded in simple and kind platitudes. He recognized the gift of life and was honored by the visits from his past. Every time I talked with Mac, the pain of cancer was replaced by an admirable amount of endurance. I knew he was in pain, but all I could see was his character; character defined by a life of service to God. He had hope, not necessarily in the cancer being eliminated, but a hope in things to come. He believed in the message of the church to the world, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But most of all, Mac believed in love. For a man who spent his entire life loving others, it was fitting that towards the end, love was poured upon him in droves.
Christians must relearn to live in such a way that suffering is no longer ignored. We must not be afraid to admit in honesty how we are in pain. We are responsible to our brothers and sisters to help them endure through suffering. The pews of our churches must no longer be walls that divide us, but rather avenues that carry us to one another. When someone suffers the church must be the place where suffering can be named.
Mid toil and tribulation and tumult of our war,
We wait the consummation of peace forever more;
Till with the vision glorious our longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious shall be the church as rest.
We now on earth have union with God the Three in One,
And share though faith communion with those whose rest is won.
Oh, happy ones, and holy! Lord give us race that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.
20 minutes after I left my Field-Ed placement on my final Sunday in Bryson City, Mac passed away. For five hours I drove across North Carolina remembering all the conversations and anecdotes I had had with Mac when we met. Yet, the one image that stuck with me on that drive, and one that I still think about everyday, was Mac’s smiling face. When I close my eyes now and imagine Mac comfortably resting in the afternoon sun, I know he was smiling because he had hope. The hope of sharing in the glory of God.
It was Christ who first suffered on the hard wood of the cross, endured through the agony of death, defined his character by love, all done in the name of hope. We must learn to boast in something that is wholly beyond our own powers: hope in God; hope in salvation. The church must become a place where our exultation is done for and in something beyond our own ability. By doing this, we will not let suffering and pain have the final word, but rather faith and hope in the God who delivered himself onto the cross while we were still sinners. Indeed, hope does not disappoint.