David A. Davis
June 16, 2019
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Always? “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us” Always? “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us” Never? “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us” 100? 100%? 100% of the time? Hope does not disappoint? “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us???” Ever?
Last week I stood before you on Pentecost Sunday and told you that when it comes to the weekly sabbath rhythm of my preaching life, God has never, ever, ever let me down when it comes to having a word to offer on Sunday morning and that it is a testament to the grace of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This morning I stand before you with these words of Paul: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us”. And I am not at all as sure. Always? It’s sort of like hearing someone try to drop the mic with Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” And the reaction, the voice in the head, the first thought is “all things?’ Really? Always?
Our partners at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church long ago shared with us a congregational response of praise deeply ingrained in their worship life. “Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord. We just want to thank you Lord.” The second verse is “Been so good” repeated just like “thank you, Lord”. We sing it here every now and then as our response of praise. We probably sing it every time we worship together with Witherspoon Street Church. One Sunday at the church door, a visitor came through and with her first words said to me: “you know it hasn’t been good!” I had no idea what she meant, what she was saying. But there was tone of frustration, maybe a bit of anger. “It hasn’t been so good. It is NOT SO good.” And she turned and walked down the steps before I could say another word. I was sort of speechless anyway (which doesn’t happen to me all that often.) Maybe I I should have said “It was just a song!” That would have upset the musicians I work with and the choir would stop speaking to me. Or maybe I should have called to her down the steps, “You’re right, you know”.
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us” Always? The Apostle Paul, ever the poet, the lyricist, the hymn writer, putting to text the aspirations and the longings of the Christian life. Painting with words the promised landscape of life in Christ. Just a song?
You will remember that some of the Apostle Paul’s best stuff, the most memorable phrases, the most powerful scripture comes when he is writing in the first person. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2) “ I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2) “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3) Paul use of the plural pronoun here in the memorable, poetic verses of Romans 5 ought not be missed. The “we” is important; Paul’s theological pronoun choice. “We are justified by faith. We have peace with God. This grace in which we stand. We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us.”
The hope and promise of sharing the glory of God. It is hope and promise to and for the body of Christ. It’s a collective, fellowship, community, group effort kind of thing. Every Sunday when we gather here you should look around take in the collective hurt, struggle and suffering in the room. You don’t have stand here where I stand to be struck by the collective pastoral concern. Take a moment to try to fathom the collective endurance in the room. You ought to be inspired by the collective character in the room. Allow your own heart to soak up the collective hope that is in the room. Because when the suffering is on one side of the room on a Sunday, the hope might be on the other side. When the struggle is so very real, so is the endurance….when we’re together. No, not all suffering is for good. Using theological language, not all suffering is redemptive. Suffering is not what God intends. Here in the body of Christ, the call is to care for those who suffer. Your character may be shaped when you sit with the broken-hearted, when you visit the sick, when you work to eliminate the cause of another’s suffering, when you advocate for the long suffering. For the people of God, for the followers of Jesus, for the body of Christ, according to Paul, hope? Our hope? Our hope is in the sharing of the glory of God.
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us” Always? I don’t know about you, but the only way for me to wrap my head around it, is to try to do it, try to live into it, try to proclaim it…..together with you.
Over the years hear at Nassau Church, one of my faculty mentors at the seminary kept giving me books by Nicholas Wolterstorff who taught theology and philosophy at Yale for a long time. I realize now that my teacher and friend knew that reading Wolterstoff would make me a better pastor. Even after my encourager retired, the Wolterstorff books kept coming. One, entitled “Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church, and the World” came in Lent 2012 with the inscription, not from Wolterstorff, but from my teacher, “with deep appreciation for your call to Nassau Church.”
In the preface to that collection of essays, Wolterstorff shares his spiritual autobiography in a short piece entitled “The Grace that Shaped my Life.” With honest and moving prose, the author tells of how his understanding of God and the grace that shaped his life changed in the aftermath of the tragic and accidental death of his son. “God was always majesty for me, indescribable majesty” Wolterstorff writes, “and graciousness, goodness; God is the one who blesses, a blessing calling for gratitude. To be human is to be that point in the cosmos where God’s goodness is meant to find its answer in gratitude. John Calvin told me that” he writes. You see his point, the grace that shapes us, to stand in grace is to be up to your eyeballs in gratitude. Suffering, endurance, character, hope….. and you darn well ought to be thankful through it all.
But then everything was different, the author goes on. When he could see no majesty. When, in his grief, he could see nothing at all, nothing but dark clouds hiding the face of God. Then when clouds started to lift, only slowly lift, “what I saw then” he writes, “was tears, a weeping God, suffering over my suffering. I had not realized that if God loves this world, God suffers. I had thoughtlessly supposed that God loved without suffering. …..I do not know what to make of this; it is for me a mystery….The gospel has never been presented to me as best explanation, most complete account….life eternal doesn’t depend on getting all the questions answered.” Standing in grace for Wolterstorf no longer meant being a pillar, an exclamation point for gratitude. Rather, it meant being washed, being filled with the love of God. “I knew that divine love was the key. But I had not realized that the love that is the key… is suffering love.”
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us” Always? We may never figure it out. But suffering, endurance, character and hope, before it has anything to do with us, it has everything to do with God. The God we know in and through the love, compassion, and suffering of Jesus Christ. The suffering of Jesus Christ and the suffering of God.
God’s suffering love, to use Paul’s language, poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. God’s suffering love, not just sprinkled, or infused, or sprayed, or dabbed, but poured, poured into our hearts. When there are no answers, and the explanations won’t do, how about just the promise of God’s love pouring. God’s suffering love pouring, drenched with tears.
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hopes does not disappoint us” Always? The Apostle Paul. Sometimes he reads like a drill sergeant (put on the whole armor of God), or a coach (press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus), or a revival preacher (death where is your victory, O grave where is your sting) or a motivational speaker (therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the works of the Lord, knowing in the Lord, your labor is never in vain). Paul can be, Paul is all of that. And today, here in Romans 5, maybe more like a poet, or a well-worn member of the body of Christ, or just like one of us, any one of whose been through a lot, a whole lot when it comes to God and life and suffering and endurance and character and hope, just one of us who wants to find a way to say to you and to me: “you don’t have to it figure out, and you don’t have to take me at my word, I’m not explaining, I’m just telling you, that for me, that for us, that’s how it is when the love of God just pours into your heart.”