First Lesson: Mark 11:20-25
Second Lesson: Romans 5:1-5
Children’s story: Romans 1:8-13
Sunday, February 21, 2016
A few years ago now, my Uncle John passed away. Our families were always very close and I still have a close relationship with his children, my cousins. At his funeral, the pastor spoke about this passage that we have just read from the book of Romans. He went on and on for about forty-five minutes, and the gist of it all was to say how very happy God was that my uncle had suffered in his last days. My uncle was a good man. A sincere, deeply committed Christian man. He was an elder in his church forever and ever. He was kind to his very core and had a gentle little sense of humor. He was a very astute, very successful business man. He had three children – one of them is a judge in Grand Haven, another is a nurse in Grand Rapids, and another is a musician in Italy. He loved his wife dearly and he had an open heart toward everybody he ever met. There would have been a great plenty for any pastor to thank God about in Uncle John’s life. But this pastor had to go on and on and on about how happy God was and how good it was that he had suffered in his last years. I squirmed and fidgeted and got very antsy and angry in my seat and if I hadn’t been sitting way in the very front next to my mother I would have walked out. I do not believe that God is happy when we suffer. I do not believe that for a moment. I believe that God cries right along with us when we cry and that God anguishes with us when we anguish. And there is no way in the world that I could ever be happy that that dear man had suffered.
And yet. Paul is writing these words. And if anybody can talk about suffering, it’s Pastor Paul. Several weeks ago now we read that passage in the second letter to the church in Corinth. He goes on and on for several lines about how he has suffered. The Romans had this policy you know, that they would not whip a prisoner forty times with their whips because they believed that forty lashes would kill a person. So they restrained themselves and they only whipped people 39 times. And that’s what happened to Paul, five times. Five times over his career as a pastor he was beaten with 39 lashes, almost to the point of death. And there was more – three times he was beaten with sticks. Once he was stoned, three times he was shipwrecked and spent a night and a day floundering around in the ocean. He faced danger from bandits and danger on the high seas and danger from his enemies. And he had been in prison more times than anybody else he knew. Among other things. And that’s the man who says that he rejoiced in his sufferings. That’s the very word he used. He was glad about his suffering.
And yet. I have spoken with many people who have had cancer. And some of them have said to me things like this: “I never wanted cancer and it was very hard experience, but I am grateful for what I learned through it.” I know a man who struggles with severe disabilities and a host of other serious health issues. And he says to me almost every time I talk with him, “I am so grateful for the good things in my life. God is so good to me.” Or people have said to me, with tears in their eyes at a funeral, “My faith is bringing me through this hard time.” My friend Don had some very tricky, very serious surgery recently and the night before the surgery he posted on his Caring Page, “This experience is bringing me closer to God.” And recently somebody said to me, “I went through a very hard time back there. And it was the prayers of other people that made all the difference.”
I cannot say that I have ever really suffered the way some have. I have not lost a child or spouse to death. I am a very healthy cancer survivor. I have never been shipwrecked or beaten or put in prison. I live very nicely in my lovely home.
And yet. I have moved a lot in my life. My dad was a pastor and I’m a pastor, and that just simply means that we move. And from about the age of nine, every single one of those moves has been heart-wrenching and very, very hard. I would have given anything to have stayed happily in my childhood village of Whitinsville, Massachusetts or in most of the other places I have lived. And now that I am adult it just keeps on. Every time I have left dear congregations and dear people whom I have loved it has been very, very painful.
And Yet. Moving so many times has had its blessings. I’ve learned to be hospitable to others who may be lonely. I’ve learned to welcome newcomers into my life for what I may give them and for what they may give me. Most of all, I’ve learned that God is with me wherever I am, and it doesn’t really matter what my address happens to be.
We talk all the time in this church about becoming the sons and daughters of God. Becoming the people God intends for us to be. About becoming more and more like Jesus every day, for the rest of our lives. We say that it’s a lifelong process. We Presbyterians have a long theological name for that. We call that the process of sanctification, which happens to us as the Holy Spirit works in our lives. We talk about getting up every day and saying good morning to God and then living through the day with God. Whatever that day will bring. And every single Sunday morning I lift my hands over you with the love of God flowing through me, and I give you God’s blessing for the week ahead. Whatever the week will bring. Whatever surprises or happiness or deep sadness will come to you.
And Presbyterians say that God works through the experiences of our lives to bring us closer to God. Through the words of dear friends when we don’t know where to turn next. Through the words of Scripture when we’re grieving – maybe a Psalm written by somebody long ago who was also grieving. Through nature when our bodies cannot contain the joy of a perfect summer day. In prayer, when we blurt it all out and blubber in front of God and hardly know what to say. AND we say that the very hard experiences of life bring us closer to God. We don’t say that lightly. We don’t say that loudly. We don’t say empty pious words to each other in times of illness or death or grief or trouble. But we acknowledge what we experience to be true. That suffering brings us to the arms of God.
We learn from the saints in our lives who have been through the death of dear ones, and through surgeries and through large losses. We sit with them every chance we have. We listen to their stories. We see their patience, and grace and kindness and hope and gentleness. We witness the strength that comes to those who trust God. We see the love of God in their lives in ways that astonish us. We hear that there can be a beautiful side to suffering. We learn to experience what Paul says, “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
Maybe you have experienced that?