Long ago, so long ago memories are often exaggerated, I worshipped a small white ball, stitched in red. Baseball was my life. Before I was seven I dreamed of playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. Such a goal demanded focus, commitment and an extraordinary skill set. I possessed two of the three. My battle cry was, “No pain, no gain.” Unfortunately no amount of pain can compensate for “warning track power.” Denied my dream, I eventually concentrated on golf, an exercise in which mental anguish begins immediately after the ball is struck. But my approach has matured. I now recognize a bad shot as an opportunity to make something good happen. Every Friday I am given ample chances to test this strategy as I encounter trees, sand traps and water hazards. What is the source of such wisdom? Would you believe the Apostle Paul?
As I have grown older, Romans 5:1-5 has become one of my go to verses. “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” I am not suggesting we need to become masochistic to fully understand God. But I do believe our society has become so drama driven we would rather complain than consider suffering as an opportunity to discover ourselves and the world around us.
Imagine living in the world of Paul. I believe a major reason for the explosion of Christianity was the people who heard the preaching of Paul experienced suffering every day. Paul’s message did not resonate with the rich and powerful. His attempts to debate the intellectuals in Athens pretty much fell on deaf ears. The rich and the powerful understood their privilege as a blessing from the gods. They believed the rest of humanity only existed to uphold their advantageous position. “God is with us, therefore you will serve us,” is the declaration of any Empire. Paul’s audience came from the opposite end of the political and economic spectrum. The folks who worshipped in Corinth, and Philippi and Thessalonica were slaves and women. They had no ear for a god who would justify their station in society and therefore were quick to embrace Paul’s defiant message promising God’s concern for and presence with those who suffer.
We misinterpret Paul if we believe the Book of Romans encourages folks to only look within themselves to find happiness. Paul wrote to a burdened people, overwhelmed by the whims of privileged folk who shared no concern for the existence of the oppressed. Those broken by the chains of tyranny were seen as less valuable than livestock. To these who were forgotten, Paul dared to write, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God.”
Please don’t think Paul was suggesting Christianity existed only for slaves, the oppressed, or those marked by affliction. What Paul would have us consider is people are not pronounced blessed because of their wealth or achievements but rather by their ability to see beyond their current condition. If God is with us, then God works with us to overcome that which enslaves us. I suspect most of us have been slaves to something. Many are even enslaved by the way they understand God.
Seventeen years ago, I had the opportunity to spend time in a seminary outside of Havana. If you have the chance to visit Cuba, I would suggest you go now before it turns back into a casino. It is an island filled with paradox and wonder. The seminary was a microcosm of the island. The student body represented an interesting mixture of faith filled folks. They included Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Protestants of various flavors, and even a few folks who practiced a Christ centered belief flavored with ancient African customs. Where does one begin when faced with such a diversity of dogma?
If you are a student of a main line denomination in the United States, the first day of class begins with the doctrine of salvation. On the second day you discuss how all the other denomination’s concept of salvation is ill-conceived. That is not where you start theology 101 if your class includes students from traditions as varied as Catholicism, Baptist and Voodoo? Taking a tip from the Old Testament, this particular seminary began with the Doctrine of Creation, confirming we are all part of God’s original plan to live in perfect harmony with God and each other. But something went horribly wrong with God’s plan, not once but twice. First human nature introduced greed, power, and arrogance into the equation of life, separating us from our wholesome relationship with God and humanity. Second, bad theology convinced many Christians that the only way back to the good graces of God was through our death at which time we are saved from this dark world of sin and corruption. The folks in Cuba identified the problem with this scenario. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible speaks against such nonsense. From the beginning, God has called for a return to our original creation, putting the emphasis on life before death, not vice versa.
To be more specific, our theology and especially our songs, have been kidnapped by a “when we all get to heaven” mentality. When our focus is only on what happens when we die, we fail to concentrate on the components of fear and evil which work in concert to destroy all that is good in God’s holy creation.
Paul understands this because Paul initially made the same mistake. In his earliest letters, Paul wrote, “Every day might be the day that Christ will return in all his glory. Our focus must be on preparing for that day.” But as Paul grew older, he began to fully comprehend that no one knows the mind of God. His eyes were open to the corruptness of authority which burdened the human spirit. His tone switched from God is coming, to God is with us now. Those who are enslaving you are working against the will of God. Amazingly, this revelation of Paul was placed on the back burner when the church became an institution rather than a liberating force for the freedom of the human soul.
In the last 2,000 years, how many times has Christianity found itself compromised or in league with those obsessed with power. The Holy Roman Empire was not so holy. In the Middle Ages rulers, with the blessings of the priest, flourished on the backs of the peasants. The Reformation brought reform but hardly changed the status of the oppressed. American churches were built by slaves. All of this oppression was upheld by the promise that servitude to the master guaranteed salvation upon death.
But that is not the message of the Bible . Because of the grace of God we are called to live in a world where all things are possible. To quote N.T. Wright, “Living between the resurrection of Christ and the final coming together of all things allows us the chance to both celebrate and work towards God’s healing of this world.”
God has never left us and God has never left this world. Yet we still opt out of living because sometimes life and those things that enslave us seem too difficult. It is easier to say, “When we get to heaven things will be perfect.” But that is not the language of God.
I know every person here has faced obstacles. I feel confident in saying while those obstacles might have caused you pain or heart ache, but at some point you decided the thorn in your side would not define who you are.
Likewise God will not be defined by human failure. God will not be defined by evil or oppression and most importantly God will not be defined by bad theology. Paul was writing to a people who wanted to check out. They were afraid and tired and had lost their reason for living. Paul would hear none of it. “Because you believe in God you share in the glory of God. Don’t be enslaved by your suffering, embrace it, for suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope will never disappoint us.”
Peter Steinke says, “We ‘waste’ suffering if we gloss over it, deny, avoid or neglect its message. But if we learn from our pain, it is not wasted and becomes a source of life and health.”
Martin Luther King talked often about an elderly lady in his congregation named Mother Pollard. When fear or weariness or self-doubt would sometimes overtake Dr. King, Mother Pollard would come up to him and say, “Son, you didn’t talk so strong tonight. Remember, we are with you all the way. But even if we weren’t with you, God will be. Don’t you ever forget, when fear knocks on your door, let your faith open it, and no one will be there.”
My friends, faith can transform the whirlwind of despair into a warm breeze of hope giving us the endurance and character to remember God always stands with us. God always has. And God always will. Amen.