5.28.2013

The Hot Mess/ Holy Spirit Sermon

Last week was rough. Even as I was celebrating the mystifying return of my lost wedding rings, I was also recovering from a quick and icky stomach virus. Thankfully the only other person who got it was Ben, but since we were collectively incapacitated for three days, I didn't even get to start writing my sermon until Saturday morning. I know and love many Saturday sermon writers, but I am not one of them. I'm a done by Thursday kind of girl. To add insult to anxiety, Ben and the girls went on a ridiculously fun field trip together on Saturday. While I was enclosed in my study agonizing over Paul's theology of suffering, they were going on pony rides and petting goats. Hmph. I had a terrifically tough time writing, and didn't actually finish until about a half an hour before the service started. Even as I was walking up the steps of the pulpit, all I could think was this sermon is a hot mess.

Maybe you know where this is going.

It was one of the most well-received sermons I've ever preached. I felt it too. I was on fire. As I was walking down the steps of the pulpit, all I could think was I was filled with the Holy Spirit.  It was humbling and exhilarating.

I'm fairly sure this is one of those times the manuscript is a flat and lifeless string of words compared to the Preaching Event. But I share it nonetheless. 

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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. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

I struggle with this text. But according to Paul, that’s great, because all the time I spent agonizing over this scripture this week was good for me. So, too, was the virus that knocked me out for two days earlier this week. I can happily boast that those days of aches and nausea and low-grade misery produced endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and so on and so forth.

I struggle with this text. The fact of the matter is this: it’s true, at least sometimes, that what we go through can make us stronger. It’s a biological process – to get bigger biceps you first have to work them enough to sustain tiny tears in the tissue, and the muscles grow larger through the process of repair. And it’s a psychological process, too. Though we’re all too familiar with the horrors of post-traumatic stress syndrome, psychologists have determined that some people experience what they’ve dubbed post-traumatic growth. They note that these people “gained a new inner strength, and discovered skills and abilities they never knew they possessed. They became more confident and appreciative of life, particularly of the ‘small things' that they used to take for granted. They became more compassionate for the sufferings of others, and more comfortable with intimacy, so that they had deeper and more satisfying relationships. One of the most common changes was that they developed a more philosophical or spiritual attitude to life… their suffering led them to a ‘deeper level of awareness.'” (Psychology Today)

It’s lovely that suffering can have this redeeming effect on us, but I still can’t help but doubt if the growth is always worth the trauma. And I’m not talking about my paltry little bout of the flu. I’m talking about Moore, Oklahoma. I’m talking about Newtown, Connecticut. I’m talking about all the infinite ways our hearts and minds and bodies are torn asunder. I’ve never accepted the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” and I certainly don’t accept that terrible things happen for the express purpose of building character.

I had a bit of a shouting match with my biblical commentary this week. The theologian wrote, “When we face problems, guess what! We can rejoice and say, “Bring them on!” Paul takes the sting out of problems. He deflates them by saying that they are good for us.” I’m sorry, but that is baloney. Paul does not take the sting out of the devastating gun violence in Chicago. Paul does not take the sting out of what it’s like to grapple with addiction. Paul does not take the sting out of the grief of losing a loved one to the horrors of war, no matter how noble the soldier’s sacrifice. It isn’t unfaithful to be incapable of rejoicing when your world gets turned upside down. You don’t have to say “bring them on” when calamities threaten to upend your life.

As much as I struggle with this text, there are a few things that make a difference in the way I read it. The first is considering whether it is prescriptive or descriptive. It’s one thing for a well-meaning friend telling you that every cloud has a silver lining, that your particular suffering is happening for this particular reason, that you should just thank God for all this pain because it’s going to make you such a better person. But it’s an entirely different thing for you to work through the meaning and purpose and consequences of your own suffering. One of the things we know about Paul – because he writes of it elsewhere – is that he had something wrong with him. We don’t know what it was – he referred to it as a thorn in his flesh – but he prayed for it to be removed. Not once, not twice, but three times he prayed to God to make this affliction go away. It didn’t. God’s answer was this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

So,” Paul wrote, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” This understanding worked for Paul. It gave meaning to his life: even though he suffered, his suffering helped him lean all the more heavily on the one he called Savior. There’s nothing wrong with Paul or anyone else interpreting their pain in a redemptive light. Where I take issue is when we treat an interpretation like that as a prescription for someone else’s experience.

We need to let people have the dignity of interpreting their own suffering, of charting their own course through pain. We can receive Paul’s words as a description of one pathway through troubled waters, one that may or may not always reflect our own journeys through sorrow.

Another thing that demystifies this scripture is paying attention to its context. One scholar notes that “The New Testament writers all wrote in a [culture] governed by honor and shame; honor was to be sought at all costs, and shame, particularly public shame, was to be avoided.” This is a fascinating observation, particularly if you were wondering about Paul’s curious choice to use the word “boast.” If you live in a world in which most people assume that if you are suffering you must have done something to deserve it, and, what’s more, a world in which shame is the absolute worst thing ever, you are highly unlikely to boast about your miseries.

Of course, we do live in such a world, or we at least have one foot in such a world. There are still illnesses that bear unjust and isolating stigmas. There are still crackpot preachers who will traipse up onto their soapboxes every time a natural disaster happens so they can point fingers at who is responsible for incurring God’s wrath. In this light, Paul’s charge to boast in our sufferings is positively radical. So very often, suffering is heightened by feelings of shame, and here, Paul transforms the scarlet letter into a badge of honor.

And this is how I know that Paul’s words are indeed gospel, because that is what the gospel of Jesus Christ always does: turn everything upside down. We didn’t think God would become a man, let alone a helpless infant. We figured if he did come into the world, it would be to condemn, not to save. We assumed that when he gathered up his disciples around him, he would choose the best and brightest, not a bunch of bumbling outcasts and sinners. We were dumbfounded by the string of teachings that were not exactly what we expected to hear: the last shall be first, love your enemies, blessed are those who mourn. We waited for him to show off his awesomely powerful divine glory, and he died. On a cross. Like a criminal. Like the worst kind of criminal.

And then, despite the fact that it seemed like Jesus’s mission was a total fail: surprise. From the worst suffering imaginable, God extracts salvation. The whole story, from start to finish, is one big long tale of God turning conventional wisdom on its head.

And if our faith in this wild, beautiful, upside down story changes everything, if we are indeed granted peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, then yes, we probably will handle suffering differently. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul challenges the people not to grieve without hope. Not that we shouldn’t grieve, simply that we shouldn’t grieve as if we have no hope. Hope is key. Hope gives us the ability to see past our present circumstances. Hope convinces us that no matter how bad it gets, sorrow and evil and suffering and sin do not have the final word. Hope insists that the healing and reconciling work of Jesus Christ is not finished until everything and everyone is healed and reconciled.

I have said it before and I will say it again: I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, least of all terrible tragedies. Nor do I believe that we should somehow be above sorrow because of our faith. You won’t find me shouting “bring it on” when faced with a crisis. But I do believe that God is with us. Always. I do believe that in Christ, God has reached into this world and experienced the depths of human suffering.

I do believe that we stand in grace, even when we cower in fear. We stand in grace, even when we collapse in despair. We stand in grace even when our suffering does not produce endurance and character and at long last hope, because ultimately what redeems us is not our suffering, but our suffering savior.

“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.” May it be so.

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