(a sermon for July 22, 2018, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Romans 5:1-5)
One year for his birthday – I think he must have been 12 or 13 at the time – our son Zachary got himself a model rocket with his birthday money. As I recall, model rocketry was all the rage that year – the kids had been building their own rockets at school and launching them out on the athletic field – but now, as was and is typical of our son, Zach wanted to take things to the next level. And I’ll tell you what, this rocket was cool; bigger and better, with considerably more firepower than the dinky little models they shot off at school (!); and it even had a tiny camera in the nose cone so you could take pictures of from 500 feet up! So this was a big deal; and after waiting days for the right weather and opportunity for “launch,” the moment finally came and on a crystal clear Saturday morning Zach went out to the field behind our house to set this thing off.
And off it went, indeed! It went higher, faster and straighter than any rocket he’d ever launched before! The only trouble was that as it flew the rocket started to veer ever-so-slightly toward the sky above the woods adjacent to our house; which meant that when it finally fell to earth, the rocket would almost certainly get caught in a mess of tree branches and be lost forever!
But that’s not what happened (!), because just as the rocket’s pre-installed parachute deployed there was a hint of a breeze beginning to blow off the Scarborough marsh; and, as if by grace, this little bit of wind literally changed the course of the rocket’s descent: from the woods, back across our field and the parking lot of the church, and out toward the main road, where finally and gratefully it gently hit the ground! It was, as they say, “another happy landing,” except that as Zach was running up the parking lot to retrieve the rocket, a car turned the corner and ran right smack over it, smashing the rocket into several different pieces!
Now actually, to his credit Zach was pretty philosophical about the whole thing; I remember that for days, he’d tell the story to anyone who would listen and it always ended with, “You should have seen it go!” In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the mangled remains of that ill-fated model rocket is still in a box somewhere! In the end, I suppose it was something of a life lesson; a reminder not only that what goes up must come down, but also that oftentimes what comes down, comes down hard, and that happens, it can hurt!
To think about this in broader terms, one of the truths of life that we all have to come to grips with is that suffering comes to everyone sooner or later. We may well have moments that we “fly high” in this life, and those are truly the moments we live for; but it’s just as likely that we’ll find ourselves “falling to earth” from time to time. The only question that remains is when it the crash comes, will it destroy us or simply bolster us for the next launch?
And therein lies the parable!
It has been justly said, you know, that suffering is an equal-opportunity offender! No matter who we are or where we are in life, hard times come to us all: accidents happen, illness comes, jobs are lost, age brings the deterioration of body and mind; people we love break our hearts as they make destructive choices; and we get hurt by cruel words and mean deeds. Sometimes we end up suffering because of things that have absolutely nothing to do with us; we simply get caught up in the crossfire of somebody else’s situation!
It’s simply part of life, and if you’ve ever been there then you know just how overwhelming, exhausting and ultimately, destructive it all can be! You get to the point, sometimes – especially when the troubles just seem to accumulate, layer by layer, upon your shoulders – where you simply don’t have the stamina to keep going; you’re feeling as though you will collapse if one more thing happens to you! You’re literally “sick and tired” of it, so much so that you’re tempted at varying times and degrees to either give up, wallow in self-pity, indulge in bitterness and blame, or simply choose to withdraw from life altogether; or else you’re hurting so bad that some voice inside you is telling you that anything’s got to be better than what you’re feeling right now, and so you start seeking out anything at all that might make you feel better; even if that comes at the expense of your health, well-being, reputation, relationships, or your life!
This is suffering at its worst, friends; it is the embodiment of utter hopelessness. But it’s precisely this kind of suffering to which Paul is referring in our text for this morning, when he says that we are to “boast in our sufferings.” I don’t know about you, friends, but nothing I’ve been describing here sounds like anything we’d want boast about or to “glory in,” as it’s translated elsewhere (NIV)! Yet, as inconceivable as it sounds, here is Paul proclaiming to the early church and to us, to glory in our suffering, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Looking at this passage from Romans, it’s important to understand that in no way is Paul suggesting that God is causing us to suffer so that we can learn endurance, become stronger people or better Christians; God never wishes suffering upon us to “teach us a lesson.” But the fact remains that suffering is a reality, and what Paul is saying is that while most everything else in our lives can and does disappoint, there is hope that will not disappoint; the hope that comes from God: “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.” In other words, because of God the bad times that come to us do not have to make us bitter; they can make us better!
Central to our Christian faith is the knowledge that God loves us; and that this is a love revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God names us and claims us as his own, and wants the very best for us; friends, the good news of our faith is always and ever that our lives and our living matters to God! So, while human suffering might be inevitable, God will use that suffering to bring us closer to Him, helping us to stand strong and endure all the pain that comes our way. We will find the hope we need to get through it all, and it is a hope that “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Friends, nobody wants to suffer; but the good news of this text is that there is spiritual depth to be found amidst all the sufferings we face in this life, and that God does find incredible ways even in our worst moments to hold us close, build us up, and fashion us for the purpose he has for our lives… and, might I add, for the world! That’s what Paul was talking about when he said, “We have peace with God… [and] we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” But the question is, do we believe it? Do we trust God to lead us through the suffering, and to provide us with the hope that we need? More to the point, do we really believe that God loves us, and that our living matters to God; and do we believe it to the extent that we’ll let God shape our lives and living? Let me suggest to you this morning that the less we believe that God loves us, the more likely it is that we will respond to the bad times of our lives with bitterness and resentment and bad behaviors. It’s hard enough trying to stand upright with everything “piling on;” without the strength and endurance that God offers, we risk collapsing under the strain! To stand strong amidst all that life can and does dish out, we first need to have faith in the love of God.
Of course, truth be told, most of us have a hard time giving up our control of things; to “let go and let God.” I have to confess, folks, that all too often in my own life I could be the poster boy for this! I cannot tell you the number of times when I’ve found myself so weighed down with life’s stresses and circumstances that I’m just about crushed; and yet, what am I doing? I’m strategizing – I’m thinking to myself, OK. If I just do this and that and then take care of the other thing, I’ll fix this. If I just work a little harder, if I’m just a little better or smarter about it, then everything will be fine! But what do I accomplish by that? That’s right; NOTHING! More often than not, I end up piling more guilt and responsibility upon my own shoulders than what ought to be there, and more often than not things get worse rather than better.
But let me tell you something, friends: throughout my life, it has only been when I have had the faith to get out of my own way and let God lead that I’ve found relief from whatever is weighing me down; it has only been by the grace of the Lord, his Spirit working in and through my life as well as through the lives of others around me that I have known the real hope and the peace that I need to endure. And I’ll tell you something else; on those occasions when I finally recognize what God has been doing in me and for me, I am bowled over by a truth I had previously failed to recognize: that it was a gift; a gift of grace. It was the gift of God’s Spirit pouring the abundance of his love into my heart.
And that same gift, friends, is being offered to you – right here and now – by the God of grace who loves you beyond measure; the God who wants you, in the midst of all your troubles, to have the hope that will not disappoint. And all you have to do is accept the gift.
James Bracher, a congregational pastor and leadership consultant, tells the story of a conference he once led in which among the speakers was former President Gerald Ford, as well as several of his associates. Bracher wrote that he was so excited about the former president coming to speak that when the time came to meet one of those associates to prepare for the conference, Bracher started gushing like a fan talking about a rock star. “Do you know President Ford?” he asked. “Do you know the president?” But he was both confused and humbled by the associate’s response: “Jim,” he said, “the question is not “do I know President Ford?” but, rather, “Does President Ford know me?”
Bracher goes on to explain that while hundreds of millions of people know the president of the United States, how many people do you suppose President Ford would say he knew; I mean, really knew, because a real relationship with someone, be it the president or a neighbor down the street, requires not only that you know that person, but also that person knows you!
That’s how it is with God, beloved. We know God; but the real blessing comes in the fact that God knows us; that he really knows us. “God knows our soul,” Bracher concludes. “God knows our intentions, motivations, anxieties, deepest hurts and most noble ambitions… what makes our faith so wonderful is that we have access to the grace of God,” and because of this God meets us where we are and how we are and helps us to build a life of meaning and impact.
Only time will tell what this coming week will bring to our lives: maybe our rockets will be flying high, or perhaps they’ll come crashing down to earth; who knows? But the good news is whatever happens, the God who knows us and loves us will be there; empowering us and bringing the kind of insight, understanding and peace that we might not otherwise have known. My prayer for all of us today is that while we may not “boast of our sufferings,” we can certainly rejoice in hope that will not disappoint. For this hope, and for the love in which it is grounded…
…thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry