18 May 2007

either way

Romans 5:1-5, " . . . hope does not disappoint us . . . "

You know, some weeks it is just easier to pull together a sermon than others.

Sometimes it is a matter of a difficult bit of scripture. Sometimes it is just the struggle of day-to-day life that happens. You’ve been there some days and you know that struggle too.

Sometimes it is that looking at scripture, even for your pastor or priest sometimes, sometimes you read it, you recognize the truth of God speaking through it, you recognize what it has meant to you before, but . . . then other times it is tough. It can be hard to find that word for yourself or for others.

And in this passage, Paul writes to us about faith and about suffering . . . and enduring . . . and character . . . and hope. Paul writes to that church at Rome (and to us too for that matter) about how our faith has justified us, about how we stand in the grace of God before we did anything, no matter what we have done, no matter who we are, whether we think that we deserve it or not . . . God’s grace was with us in the beginning. And I read those words over and over this week and in some ways struggled with them.

And I remembered Carol (not her real name).

She was a neighbor of ours in Rincon. I helped her move out of her house. She and her husband got a divorce several months before; it was all very sudden. And I’m not sure what I would’ve done in her situation.

Having faith in something, in someone, and then to have that taken away is a tough and hard thing. But she did what she had to do. She went back to work. She thought long and hard about whether she could stay in the house that she and her ex-husband had bought together just three years ago. She thought about her parents, her mother with Alzheimer’s disease, and whether she needed to go home to take care of them both. All of this had been hard on her. There have been lots of decisions to make . . . and then that day, with some help from a few friends of hers at church and her neighbor, she packed up her stuff, filled up a 24 foot truck and a trailer on the back . . . and headed home.

It is not a pleasant ending I guess . . . but then I don’t know if that is the ending either.

I can tell you that there were many times where I wanted to say to her the things that we think we are supposed to say, things like, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to work out. It’s all going to be okay.” And those things are good things to say, but I don’t think they would have done a bit of good.

Somehow when you are in the midst of suffering, in the middle of whatever it is you are going through, your own grief, sorrow, illness, or distress, sometimes someone saying in that rosy voice, “Awwww. It’s going to be alright” just isn’t alright.

And Paul doesn’t say to the church at Rome that everything is going to be alright.

Paul knows better. Paul has experienced too many beatings and trials, and shipwrecks and jail time to think that the world is always a fun place, always sweetness and light. But Paul reminds that church in Rome that they started in, began in God’s grace; and that hasn’t changed.

Suffering doesn’t change that. Suffering doesn’t change God’s love for us.

But sometimes we think that it does.

Because sometimes we just sit back and wonder, “Why is this all happening?” There’s plenty of things around to prompt this question when we think about the way that war and violence, sickness and death, always seem to be with us.

Or maybe you ask a more personal question of God, “Why is this happening to me?” Sometimes it just seems like everything piles up at once, not like you are having one of those days, but you feel like you are having one of those years . . . or even worse . . . one of those lives.

Or maybe your question is, “What did I do to deserve this?” as if God is just sitting up there, counting our rights and our wrongs, and sending bad things to happen to us if you do something wrong.

If you believe in a world where people get what they deserve, then maybe you should look a little harder.

And that church in Rome, a church that like many of the early churches suffered persecution for their beliefs, for their actions, this church was suffering . . . and Paul starts by reminding them first, first and foremost, that God’s grace was there in the beginning. It is not that they deserve suffering . . . it is not that God sent the suffering . . . or that they are doing anything wrong. They are still people that God has shown wonderful grace to, that somehow out of that ongoing trust and faith in God, there is peace.

Sometimes we forget where God is in our suffering. Paul is telling the people at the church at Rome that God is there . . . with them . . . God’s grace has not left them. Paul reminds them of this just a few verses later when he talks about how God loved them while they were still sinners . . . and how that proves God’s love for us.

Suffering doesn’t mean you did something wrong, but your reaction in the face of suffering might give some insight into what you are going to do next.

And it makes me think about Leo, a fellow I met back in Savannah. He installed a set of beautiful stained-glass windows in the church that I served in Effingham County. It makes me wonder what all he went through when his wife was shot and killed at the corner of Montgomery Cross Road and Waters in Savannah.

What is it that allows you to start again? What is it that gives you hope?

What is it that allows him to still have energy to work, to install windows in that place, revealing a wonderful beauty and light through broken pieces of glass?

Can you still see beauty in all the brokenness? I wonder if Leo can still see that right now.

Somehow out of that suffering come endurance, comes character, comes hope . . . and Paul writes that hope does not fail us . . . and that God’s love fills us.

It is a funny thing about Christian hope . . . and about this Christ that we follow. He did not show us a way around suffering . . . or over suffering . . . but through suffering.

And even in those days when even your pastor or priest doesn’t really know what to say or to do, on those days when you don’t either, we know that God is with us, has always been with us.

The day I helped Carol move, the best way I knew to say that God was with her was to pick up boxes and furniture and pile them into a truck . . . and to pray to myself that her hope would sustain her.

Sometimes my best prayer for Leo is not that everything will be alright . . . it won’t ever be alright like it was before Gloria was murdered, but maybe my best prayer is that Leo know that God is with him.

Maybe that is what Paul is offering us in this passage.

Thanks be to God for that grace that was there all along.