Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019
Eighteen years ago this month, I was attending Annual Conference in Virginia Beach and excited about reaching my final level of ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church. Yet at dinner on the first night, I began to have severe abdominal pain that, as I lay alone in my hotel room, became unbearable. I would later describe it as “like being sawed in half.” I called the hotel’s front desk to ask the location of the nearest emergency room, only to be told by the person on the other end of the line that he “was not from here and had no idea.”
I was somehow able to drive myself to Virginia Beach General Hospital where I was admitted to the emergency room, where doctors would mistakenly diagnose me with a kidney stone. I remember writhing on the gurney, waiting for the Demerol to kick in, waiting for Tracy to arrive from Newport News, trying to make sense of what was happening to me.
After discharge from the hospital, I would spend the next two days in my hotel room, only leaving for the ordination service. In the ensuing days, I lost enough weight to be lighter than I was in high school, and I never received a conclusive diagnosis as to what had caused this malady at all. The same thing would happen to me six years later when emergency room physicians at the University of Virginia Medical Center would diagnose me with what they called “intussusception of the terminal ileum” which they described to me as “my small intestine turning itself inside out.” After weeks of tests for illnesses such as cancer and Crohn’s disease, my team of doctors concluded that my condition was idiopathic. The problem went away and has not resurfaced for the last dozen years.
Still, it was without question, the most profound pain of my life, and I say this as someone who has broken his collarbone twice and had stitches just above his eyelid.
Paul writes “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.
Each time, as I went through what for me was profound pain made me consider this morning’s text from the fifth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Roman church, and each time, I initially came to the conclusion that Paul was romanticizing suffering in a way that was, frankly, ridiculous. Laying there in blinding pain with no one able to explain the cause of it led me to no epiphanies. I never felt like my character was improving and I certainly felt no bounty of hope. It honestly seemed to me that the only knowledge my experiences of idiopathic suffering produced was that the University of Virginia Medical Center has much, much, much better drugs than Virginia Beach General. The first time this happened, I concluded that I had completed all of the hard labor of ordination only to die immediately thereafter, that I was never going to live to see my daughter born, and that all of this was some divine referendum on my nascent pastoral ministry.
Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
At various times in my life, I have wondered to myself if this teaching of Paul’s is actually true, or if it is merely a platitude, a salve for people who are hurting at best, or a vapid romanticizing of suffering at worst. I have thought about those stories of the Christian martyrs like Saint Lawrence who in the year 258 was roasted alive on a gridiron above hot coals and who, at one point reportedly cheerfully said to his tormentors “I am well-done on this side. Turn me over!” In seminary, when I learned about the early persecutions of Christians, how sometimes all it took to avoid persecution was to offer a pinch of incense offered to be burned in the name of the supposedly “divine” emperor, and I wondered what I would have done. Even in modern times, Dorothy Day had her “long loneliness,” Henry Nouwen suffered from severe depression. Thomas Merton suffered from debilitating back pain.
In this morning’s text, Paul clearly is not describing a God who is removed from our suffering, and he certainly is not describing a faith in this God that removes us from suffering either. Here, Paul describes a faith that even causes us to suffer, for as disciples of Jesus Christ, as disciples of a redeemer crucified and risen, we are the children of a God who redeems our suffering, including and especially the sufferings that naturally result from following a gospel that runs counter to what the world believes.
Paul experienced resistance to his message throughout his ministry, even from churches he had personally founded, even from his own people within Judaism. The Epistle to the Romans is the last of the letters composed by Paul, and in many ways, chapter five serves as a mini-reflection upon his life as an apostle and what he has learned from it. One could argue that Paul never could have been as successful as he was or survived as long as he did were today’s text not true, that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces a hope that does not disappoint us, as it did not disappoint him.
It should, therefore that Paul gives this discourse on suffering immediately before describing the sufferings of Christ, and especially the fact that Christ suffered and died not for the righteous or people who seemed to be “deserving” of his sacrifice, but that he died for the “ungodly,” and that it was through Christ’s suffering that even ungodly people like you and like me can inherit the hope of redemption in this life and in the world to come.
For Paul, living a life faithful to the gospel will naturally result in a certain amount of suffering; the good news for us is not always heard as good news by all. In the second century, the bishop Irenaeus of Lyons believed that suffering was a necessary means by which God forms us into disciples of Jesus Christ. Two years ago, the Rev. Ben Campbell of Richmond Hill stood in our sanctuary and proclaimed that we should “pray in such a way at church that it propels us into service in the world, and we should serve in the world in such a way that it propels us back into our worship spaces and puts us on our knees.”
As I drove home through the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel from Conference in 2001, still sore and sick from whatever had happened to me, I tried and failed to find meaning in it. I did not feel stronger or more enlightened or hopeful, just tired and weak, disappointed that what was to be an important milestone in my life was reduced to a haze of Demerol.
This is how I felt about it until the next time the phone rang at church and I drove to the hospital to visit one of my parishioners.
I parked the car, grabbed my pocket Bible, and I approached the entrance to the hospital. I have performed literally hundreds of hospital visits, but this was the first one since I was the patient. And it stopped me in my tracks for a moment. I realized how much more mindful I now was, how much more attuned I was to what I was about to do, and what the person I was about to see was facing. Before, waiting with a patient for relief to arrive was just that: waiting, waiting and trying to be supportive, to say the right thing. Now, I was the pastor who could remember what it was like to lay there, helpless, suffering, and alone, waiting in the dark for the morphine to arrive.
It is difficult for me to gauge how suffering changed my endurance. I am still the patient who always fills the prescription. However, my two great experiences of physical suffering and the experiences of grief I have had have, without question altered my character, for my experiences of suffering and receiving care have so deeply increased my ability me to be a caregiver for others. It is now less about trying to say and do the right thing and more about being, less about trying to bring Christ, the suffering servant, into the hospital with me and much more about simply witnessing to the ways in which he was already there.
This is not simply limited to pastoral care. I see these truths evident in your life and your witness as well. The mother who has experienced the heartbreak of fertility challenges who offers herself as a resource to other women. The cancer survivor who invites me to give his phone number to anyone who needs it. The woman who lost a parent who tells me “Of course you can send someone who has just gone through it my name as a resource.” And all of the prayer vigils, the meals prepared, caring bridges and sign-up geniuses, the stranger who called me out of the blue and offered his assistance setting up college funds for two children in my church whose mother had just died of cancer, a mother who died at home in her own bed while the children were at school, who died surrounded by a patchwork of members of the community and the church as she passed from life to life eternal.
For me, the hope that Paul writes about in today’s text comes, in many ways from the means by which I see character borne of endurance manifest in how suffering brings us together, and brings out the best in us. I see hope in our church’s support groups and how they weave together lives and stories of people who may have never met were it not for the Spirit mystically bringing them together and all the myriad ways suffering brings out the best in us.
I saw it in the story of my college classmate Luke who lost over 100 pounds because on September 11, 2001, after hours of waiting in line, was told by the Red Cross that he was simply too obese to give blood, and who drove home, opened a garbage bag, and discarded every single piece of junk food in his house so that there would never be another day when he was called upon to help others where he would be unable to do it.
This sermon series is titled “The Visible Christian: Revealing Jesus to an Unbelieving World.” As I regard the nation and world in which we find ourselves today, I can think of no more potent way for Christians to reveal Christ than for us to be purveyors of hope, the kind of hope Paul discusses in this morning’s text, the kind of hope that redeems our own suffering and allows it to be used for good to bless and edify those around us. For this hope, this hard-earned hope borne of suffering, allows our own suffering to be transformed such that we can be agents of hope in the midst of the suffering of our neighbors, those here and those far away.
“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.” May the love poured into our hearts be filled to overflowing such that the overflow extends to those around us. May our endurance strengthen us to give our lives for others, may our character fill our lives, households, communities, and churches with grace, and may our hope be God’s hope, and God’s hope the hope of the world, now and forever.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.