St. Paul’s – Trinity Sunday- 6/12/2022
These are hard times. No doubt about it. Wherever we look, there seem to be pain and suffering in our world. A few months ago, we celebrated Easter and were reminded of our fundamental Christian belief in the risen Christ and the hope that this most glorious event in our liturgical calendar places before us. But, even as our Alleluias fade into the past, the realities of our world and its violence remain fixed before us — on TV, the internet, the media, the next block. Everywhere.
How are we to understand the words from Psalm 8 telling us that Yahweh has made us little less than a god crowned with glory and splendor? Or the words in Proverbs, which declare how Wisdom permeates the earth and how the world is shaped in such a way that it manifests the presence of God? How are we to absorb the great mystery of last week’s Pentecost, which assures us that the Holy Spirit comes down upon us in tongues of fire to send us forth with hope for the world?
Indeed, Easter and Pentecost challenge us as followers of Christ to live out our faith more in darkness than in light. I think that’s it. I think that faith is, indeed, ridiculous — that it is only for those who have truly fallen in love with God and been captured by the Spirit of Wisdom — She who is Fire and Breath and Wind, She who calls us to listen especially in the darkness. We know all about that. But even as we experience these dark times in our world, we must be conscious of the light — not a lot — but intense enough to make a difference and reflect another reality.
Some years ago, Japanese scientists did some research on micro-organisms. They discovered that 10% of micro-organisms in and around us are negative. Another 10% were deemed positive. The remaining 80% were classified as neutral or wait and see micro-organisms. Those in this last category observe which of the two 10% (negative or positive) gain ascendancy, and then they gravitate towards the stronger.
This fascinating piece of research holds a powerful message for the Christian community in today’s world. We are to be the 10% positive (light, leaven, salt) in a world of darkness — but so intense and authentic must be our faith that others will be drawn towards the light. We will be agents of transformation and new life. That is what the message of Easter tells us and what Pentecost empowers us to live out in reality. It is Wisdom — the Spirit of God — who calls us to see deeper than the darkness and to recognize that, even in the heart of chaos, God lives, permeating our reality and calling us to remain intense and authentic.
There is a story about an International Congress of Skunks that gathered not so long ago to ponder the state of the world (the skunks representing evil in the world). At some point, the chief of all evil (the devil himself!) stood up and counseled all the little skunks (devils) to allow humanity to do whatever they desired — even to love one another and to be kind and generous. But, the devil declared, even as the humans do good deeds, you must ensure that the light of hope dies in their eyes. Then we have them!
A mythical but enlightening story of how we must keep the light of our faith and hope intense — especially in times of violence and fear.
We read about hope in the epistle this week from Romans 5: Suffering brings patience, patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope — one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Still, as always, being faithful in a world of suffering is a challenge and maybe making sense out of it is, as Jesus says to the disciples in the Gospel of John, too much for you now, but when the Spirit of truth comes, She will lead you to complete truth. Maybe that truth is all about hanging on with a ridiculous faith because we do not let go of that tiny but intense light that comes upon us in an on-going Pentecostal event.
All of our attempts to think about pain and suffering, along with our recognition of the difficulty of speaking honestly and compassionately to this problem make all the more remarkable the words we hear from the apostle Paul today…
Here is what stands out to me….We even take pride in our problems…. Can Paul be serious? How is it possible for anybody to be able to say, I am so proud of all the problems that currently beset me?
Then Paul makes an even riskier and more questionable claim: we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. In one of his books, C. S. Lewis attacks the notion that behind suffering there always is some reason, some greater good. Imagine walking into someone who is in the crisis of grief and saying to them, I want you to know that though you are suffering great trouble now, one day you will be thankful because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Rejoice! You are being given the gift of endurance. And endurance produces character!
Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost. There we heard Peter quote the prophet Joel in saying that God promises one day to pour out my Spirit upon all—men and women, high born and low, from all walks of life. Peter told the scoffing crowd out in the street at Pentecost, that promised pentecostal day is now. God’s Spirit has descended. In Luke’s account in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit enables people to witness to Christ.
But in today’s scripture from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Paul highlights another gift of the Spirit. Paul claims that because in baptism the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon all believers, we are given the gift of being able to endure our troubles in a particular way. Like anybody else, Christians suffer.
Being a baptized Christian does not exempt us from pain. In fact, sometimes by following Jesus we are put in pain by the world. Sometimes we suffer ridicule, scorn, contempt and resistance. A preacher who presents the Christian faith by claiming that you will have less suffering by following Jesus isn’t being true to scripture. Jesus was upfront that his way was the way of the cross.
And yet, because the Holy Spirit has been given to us Paul says that we are able to have hope, even in our pain. There is a way to be in pain that is peculiar to Christians. Christ has not promised us a pain-free existence. He has been upfront that following him will sometimes put us in pain that we would not have had, had we not been following him.
Still, Christ has promised us also that, even in our pain, he will be with us. He does not necessarily snatch us away from our pain, but walks with us in our pain. And in our pain, sometimes the Holy Spirit reminds us that Christ himself has suffered, suffering the most anguished possible death, death on a cross. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reminds us of a deep truth that we need to ponder in our pain—he has been there.
Because the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us we are able to hold our pain in the confidence that God holds us, holding us particularly close during our times of pain.
I don’t think that the statement we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope is the sort of thing you want to say to someone who is in acute pain, particularly when you are not in pain. However, I do believe it is the sort of thing that you can say to yourself. That’s the way I take Paul as the one making the statement. Paul is not necessarily telling fellow believers that they must look at their pain as always producing positive benefits. He is giving witness, testifying that in his times of pain—and Paul had many such moments in his life—he had found that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
It’s because of the working of the Holy Spirit in his life that Paul is able to say that even amid our times of pain we have hope. Our hope is based, not in ourselves and our powers of endurance, but in our conviction that we are not left alone with our anguish. The Holy Spirit is there with us. Through the Holy Spirit we are given powers of endurance, resilience, and maybe just plain old grit whereby we surprise ourselves by our ability to move through our times of pain with hope, dignity, and strength.
Perhaps then, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and even though we know it can be a risky thing to say, we are able to say that Paul knew what he was talking about when he said we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
Indeed, We will hold on, even if, so often, it appears that we hold on to almost nothing. God’s grace is more powerful than the deepest darkness.
Why is the world so messed up?
I asked God,
So much anger, violence, poverty,
And everywhere I look
I see fear and doubt and loneliness.
Where, in all this sadness,
Is your light –
Take your boots off,