This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, on the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The reading I preached on was Romans 5:1-5.
This is a sermon about suffering. And about honesty.
First, let’s be honest about the world we live in. I once had the funeral for an man in his 70’s, we’ll call him Gary. I met with Gary’s daughter Molly to plan the funeral. Molly was middle-aged, with a few kids of her own. She had been close to her father, and she was taking his death hard. She told me, “I just don’t understand how this could happen.” I said, “I know. It’s very hard to lose someone we love so much. You thought you’d have more time with him.” She said, “Why would God do this to me?” I wasn’t sure where she was going with this. “You mean why would God allow your father to die?” I asked. She said, “Yes, I just don’t understand. Why did he die? He’s my Daddy. He’s not supposed to die.” And I realized that Molly wasn’t just upset that her father died now – she was absolutely shocked that her father was mortal. She really thought he would live forever. So let’s be honest about the world we live in. Death happens here. Suffering happens here. We don’t have to like it, but it’s true. We might as well accept it. Pretending that suffering can’t ever happen to me doesn’t help.
Secondly, let’s be honest about God’s role in causing suffering. In the time of Jesus, it was common belief that God was in control of every single thing that happened. Every leaf that fell, every worm that crawled, every moment of suffering or delight was caused by God. Good things are the reward for good people. Bad things are the punishment for bad people. But Jesus told his disciples that wasn’t true. They once asked him, “Why is this man blind? Did he sin, or his parents to cause his blindness?” Jesus responded, “It’s nobody’s fault, but I’m going to use his blindness for good. Watch.” And he healed the blind man.
To be honest, scripture is actually rather unclear on the cause of suffering. It seems as though some suffering is from the hand of God, and some is not. And it can be very hard to tell the difference. I think we have to be very careful about assigning blame for such things to God, because sometimes, as Jesus said, there is no reason for it. It just is. But even if we’re not certain of the cause of suffering, we can say with confidence that God will use that suffering for good.
In our second reading today, Paul writes, “we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Now, this sounds on first glance like stereotypical Dad wisdom: No pain, no gain. Just deal with it, it builds character. That’ll put hair on your chest. Whether or not these proverbs are true, they’re not what Paul is talking about here. Paul says, “suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Suffering can be productive not because of the suffering itself, but because of the Holy Spirit that is in our hearts. Because of God’s presence. Now, let’s be honest about Paul himself. Paul was a bit of a nutcase when it came to suffering. If he wasn’t suffering for his faith, then he though he probably wasn’t doing his job as a Christian. He wrote several letters while locked in prison, and he seemed to be happiest when he was locked up. Even when an earthquake hit, and the doors of the prison where Paul was fell open, and the chains holding him fell off. Did he run out and escape? No! He sat there singing hymns with the other prisoners. So, I’ll grant you that Paul was a weirdo. But Paul trusted that whatever sufferings he endured, God would transform them into something good. Indeed, the night of the earthquake, Paul was able to use that event to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the jailer, and he and his whole family were baptized.
But we don’t have to relish suffering like Paul did in order to grow from it. I don’t relish suffering. I don’t like pain, or grief. I don’t like feeling lonely and betrayed. But I have found that Paul was right. Amazing growth can come through pain. Now God doesn’t cause us pain just to make us grow. It is not God’s will that we suffer. But it is God’s will to come into our suffering and make something amazing in it. To give our suffering meaning. Not that it feels that way at the time.
Let’s be honest about ourselves. You suffer. Perhaps you’re suffering now. But you are never alone in your suffering. Never, ever alone. God’s love has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit, and God is with you every step of the way. Giving you at least a little comfort. Giving you at least a glimpse of hope. Giving you at least a modicum of peace. And giving you other people to sit with you. When you are suffering, look around. There are people around you who can help. Perhaps a family member. Or a friend. Or a support group. Or a counselor. Or a congregation. Because that’s the way God tends to work. Through relationships with other people. It is not weakness to ask for help. On the contrary, it is precisely what God created us to do.
And when you are not suffering, look around. Because someone else is. And as the body of Christ in the world, we are called and equipped to be with others in their suffering. Perhaps by sharing your own story. I know that my story of depression has helped some other people with similar problems. Perhaps by just sitting with them, offering a hand or a hug. Perhaps by sharing a little bread, or a little money. Perhaps with just a smile. Finally, let’s be honest about the church. We, the church, the body of Christ, are the support that suffering people need. We may not be able to solve their problems, but we can offer support, friendship, hope. Which is precisely what God promises. We are the way God answers prayer. We are the way God enters their lives, just as God once entered this suffering world in the form of Jesus Christ. We become God’s hands in the world. The church is a community of people who know suffering, who are called to support one another and the whole world in their suffering, and to proclaim that through God, our suffering will be the fertile ground in which hope grows.
Featured image: “Suffering” by Rennett Stowe.