Scripture: Romans 5:1-5
5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 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. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
I have a confession for you. The first, second, and third times I looked at the Romans passage for this sermon, I had an intense gut reaction against it. In fact, this is the second sermon I have written for this morning. The first one was an angry rant against all the afflictions we’ve experienced collectively in the past few years, culminating in some really fiery stuff about mass shootings. The working title of that sermon was “Paul Is Full of (a four letter word one ought not speak from the pulpit).”
You see, friends, I disagree with what Paul is saying here about affliction. I don’t think that affliction inevitably leads to endurance, or that endurance always builds character, or even that character will always find hope. To suggest that this is the only laudable response to affliction by people of faith is insensitive at best and pastoral malpractice at worst. It is no one person’s place to tell another what sense they are to make or not make in their affliction. So who does Paul think he is to tell us that we’re not only to find hope in the midst of affliction but that we are to boast in it?
Now, I’m no stranger to affliction. I’ve suffered more than you might expect by looking at me, but my suffering pales in comparison to the suffering I see in the world around us. The pandemic, mass shootings, racism, poverty, climate change…the list goes on and on and on. This was the affliction I had in mind when I first read the Romans passage for this morning. And then there was Buffalo. Then there was Uvalde. Then there was Tulsa. Really, Paul?? Really?! Boast in our afflictions?!
But a conversation on Tuesday began to shift my perspective. I met with a new student at the seminary that day for a campus visit. He is in bureaucratic limbo as he awaits the government’s decision about his application to change his visa status so that he can study in one of our programs. Adam (not his real name) is from a country in the Middle East where Christians make up only 1.5 percent of the population. We talked a lot about the afflictions I just mentioned that inspired my anger against Paul. We talked about denominations here in the US as Adam tried to orient himself to the religious landscape here. We were reflecting that while American Christians are squabbling over relatively heady theological concerns, Christians in Adam’s country are concerned for their very survival. It is illegal in his country for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. Christians like Adam who are of Arabic descent are openly persecuted. Because his last name is recognizably Christian, he fully expects to be treated as a second-class citizen whenever he goes to apply for work or to seek government services. He told me about friends of his who have to hide their Christian faith from their family and friends because if anyone found out that they had converted, that friend would be immediately ostracized.
Now, before you go getting any ideas about vilifying the majority population in his country, I want you to know that we were talking about the similarities between the majority population in his country and the majority Christian population in ours. They aren’t as different as we’d like to think. Adam reminded me that there is a lot more affliction out there in the world than the kinds of affliction that I’ve been focused on recently, afflictions that look more like what the apostle Paul probably had in mind when he wrote this passage. And yet, the afflictions that Adam and his community have endured have made them better Christians, boiling off the theological non-essentials so that the most important things—faith, hope, and love—are all they have time and energy for. Paul is so wrong to instruct us to boast in our afflictions, and he’s wrong to expect us to endure with unwavering faithfulness. And yet…
And yet, suffering is just part of living. We take the bad and the good, and we try to make some sense out of all of it. We understand that we do not suffer our affliction alone, divorced from loving community and a loving God. We also have some resources to help us endure. So, we do our best, failing spectacularly sometimes, despairing occasionally, but God honors and appreciates the effort, I think, and God does not leave us to face it alone.
We are, indeed, justified by faith, as Paul argues in chapter 4, but that justification he talks about is an essentially communal thing. He isn’t writing here about justification like it is just you or me as individuals being justified. He’s writing in the plural. It is our faith that justifies us and makes us a part of God’s people. That’s the thing, friends. That’s what I was missing the first time I wrote a sermon for this morning. That’s what I’ve been missing for more than two years of this pandemic: affliction doesn’t always have to be faced alone. Our strength as individuals will fail, and that’s okay because God gives us community, a place where someone can help hold me up when my head dips under the waves of my own suffering.
Something else happened on Tuesday that shifted my perspective on the other end of Paul’s progression from affliction to hope and reminded me what hope can look like. A dear friend of ours has been in and out of the hospital for the past 6 months. She and her husband have a one-year-old and a three-year-old. She was back in the hospital this week, and their kids, who are likely distressed about their mother’s sudden absences from their daily lives, have been acting out in daycare. The younger one got in trouble for biting his peers, and they both got sent home early while their dad was in a doctor’s office getting a medical procedure of his own done. He had to scramble to get alternative childcare for the boys, and at the end of the day after he picked them up, he had to stop by CVS on the way home to fill some prescriptions.
While there, the older boy found a pair of sunglasses that he decided that he just had to have. When dad told him no, that they weren’t going to get sunglasses today, the three-year-old did what three-year-olds do when they’re told no in a public place. Dad was trying to corral the boys and listen to the pharmacist and shush the older one’s temper tantrum and manage his physical pain and cope with his wife’s illness and and and… When an older woman walked up behind him, put her hand on his shoulder, handed him the sunglasses, and said, “We all struggle sometimes.” Then she just walked away and the dad was left there exhausted, exasperated, afflicted, and profoundly grateful for this moment of love. Turns out she’d bought the sunglasses for the screaming three-year-old and offered the dad just a moment of grace in a week filled with anxiety, stress, work, and screaming, biting kids.
Y’all, grace comes into our lives, into our afflictions, into our worst moments and gives us glimpses into the love of God. That grace is scandalous. It ain’t fair. It ain’t even right much of the time. But it is good. I bet anything that my friend would trade in his moment of grace in that CVS and give it to those kids in Uvalde without a moment’s hesitation. But for whatever reason, that’s not how grace works. It’s not a commodity that we can buy, sell, or trade. I don’t know why grace comes when it does and doesn’t when it doesn’t. It confounds me and makes me angry at God sometimes. It makes me angry at Paul for telling us that we should boast in our afflictions because they lead to endurance and because endurance leads to character and character leads to hope. Paul is so wrong, and yet…
And yet, Paul is right that if our response to affliction is to endure it as best we can with the love and support of our community, doing so will shape our character. And when we have character, every once in a while, in fits and starts, these moments of hope break through the dark clouds and into our hearts. Y’all, Paul is a bull in a theological china shop. He crashes in full of bluster and bombast with his all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking and tramples on whatever he wants. So, if your reaction to affliction today isn’t endurance, that’s valid. If your endurance isn’t giving you character these days, that’s okay. If, like me, you have an awfully hard time recently finding hope, it’s alright. You’re in good company. You’re in company. You’re not alone. We are here as a church community to support you, to help you, to encourage you as you try to find a way to endure, to build character, to see hope. That’s what good community is for. It gives us companions to shoulder the yoke with us when we can’t do it on our own.
And there too is your trinitarian theology for this Trinity Sunday. Because, you see, the most beautiful thing about the Holy Trinity is that it is a community perfectly unified. The Trinity is always working together so closely that the three persons are, indeed, one essence. This Christian doctrine teaches me that love, that most fundamental characteristic of God’s, is so powerfully relational that God is perfect community within God’s self. Love is God’s wild card that breaks all the rules. It breaks the rules of monotheism because it doesn’t make sense that there’s one God who is three persons. It breaks the rules of fairness when it comes to who gets grace and when they get it because some folks get sunglasses from an old lady while others are discriminated against because of their faith. But breaking all the rules isn’t a bad thing.
In writing this sermon, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems that I discovered in one of the first books that I ever read about Christian spirituality. It’s a poem by Anne Sexton called “The Rowing Endeth.” Listen in it for the wild card:
I’m mooring my rowboat
at the dock of the island called God.
This dock is made in the shape of a fish
and there are many different boats moored at many different docks . . .
On with it!” He says and thus
we squat on the rocks by the sea and play—can it be true—
a game of poker.
He calls me.
I win because I hold a royal straight flush.
He wins because He holds five aces.
A wild card has been announced
but I had not heard it
being in such a state of awe
when He took out the cards and dealt.
As he plunks down His five aces and I sit grinning at my royal flush,
He starts to laugh,
the laughter rolling like a hoop out of His mouth
and into mine,
and such laughter that He doubles right over me
laughing a Rejoice-Chorus at our two triumphs.
Then I laugh, the fishy dock laughs
the sea laughs. The island laughs.
The Absurd laughs.
I with my royal straight flush,
love you so for your wild card,
that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love.*
God plays poker on an island called God at a dock made in the shape of a fish and wins with a fifth ace that trumps all else (there are only four aces in a deck of playing cards, of course). But the poet also wins because she held the best hand in poker. They both win because that’s what we’re promised happens in the end. That’s what Paul, that great apostolic bull in a theological china shop, is trying to get at in today’s passage.
Affliction, for whatever reason is just a part of life. We have some say, though, in what we do with it. If we can endure with the help and support and love of those around us, we can build character. And character gives us a way of looking at the world that allows us to sometimes catch the glimpses of hope that are peeking through to us. So, Paul is so wrong to suggest that this progression from affliction to hope is so obvious and clear-cut that he has the audacity to say that we should boast in our afflictions. Paul is so wrong. And yet . . .
Let us pray.
Loving and merciful God, Creator, Lover, Fifth Ace, we come before you today as an afflicted people. We are afflicted by things we don’t control like pandemics and things we do control like violence. Sometimes, we feel hopeless. Remind us as we ponder and wonder at the mystery of you who are, three-in-one and one-in-three, that we are also parts of communities, that we are not left alone in our affliction. Love us as we seek and strive to endure. Help us to put our endurance to good work so that we might build character. And give us hope, for we are in great need of it these days. In the name of the one who came to show us what love is all about, the very same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, amen.
*Source: Anne Sexton, “The Rowing Endeth” in The Awful Rowing Toward God (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), 85–86.