A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA
May 14, 2023
Introduction to Worship
Good morning and welcome to worship. Today is Mother’s Day, which is not a liturgical holiday, not a church holiday, per se. And it is a complicated day. It will not be the focus of worship, but it is a part of who we are.
So we are glad that we can all be here together. To celebrate with those who celebrate. To mourn with those who mourn. To sit in silence with those who cannot voice their pain, their dreams, or their grief. Whatever you are feeling this day is honored here.
I invite us to take a breath together, to breathe in God’s mercy and love, and to breathe out God’s hope for our reconciliation and repair.
Today we are continuing in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where he talks about how 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.
And so we bring all of who we are to worship, and we weave it all together. Our suffering. Our hopes. And that is who we are.
This week I shared a favorite quote of mine on social media. It’s from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.
Listen to this poem to God:
She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth—
it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration
where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
it’s you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.
May our hope in God stretch us beyond what limits us this day.
As I mentioned last week when we began our series on Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is considered to be his masterpiece, at least of the letters he wrote that we know about. Scholar NT Wright says this about it:
It is “…neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages. Not all onlookers have viewed it in the same light or from the same angle, and their snapshots and paintings of it are sometimes remarkably unalike. Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.”
Paul wasn’t writing an abstract statement about how our salvation happens. As I said last week, he was writing letters to churches he knew, wanting to further instruct them in the new faith. While Paul founded many churches in his travels, Christianity seems to have beat him to Rome, a community that had a sizable Jewish population at the time of Jesus. These Christian communities in Rome would have been comprised of gentiles and Jews.
Today, it would be like people who had been Muslim, Hindu, and LDS joined our congregation. We would be coming to the conversation with different experiences of religion, with different vocabularies, and with different traditions and theology. To be in conversation about our faith and what it means to be followers of Jesus takes patience, nuance, and a willingness to learn—trusting that God has brought us together because we each have something to offer the other.
The passage we heard today starts out with the word “therefore”, which means that we are jumping in at the crux of his very long and complicated argument.
Paul is making clear that we do not earn salvation. We don’t earn it by following the Law. We don’t earn it by our works, by our wits, or even by our charm and winsome manner. In Rome people were differentiating between people who had come to the faith through Judaism (the ‘circumcised believers’) and through other faiths (the ‘uncircumcised believers’).
Paul’s response to the churches in Rome is that we are all, no matter the journey that brought us to faith, worshiping the one God, the only God. And that God has justified us through the faith of Jesus, and not through whatever works we may do.
There are also a couple of moments in the chapters we didn’t read where Paul tells people not to boast. In chapter 3, he says in a conversation with himself:
“Then what becomes of boasting?
It is excluded.
By what law? By that of works?
No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (3:27-28)
He’s saying that if you walk around boasting in the things you do, your works, then it means you believe you’ve got it all figured out and you do not need God. And Paul firmly believes that not one single person, other than Jesus, has got it figured out. In chapter 3 he says, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”.
If we want to be the church, we have to acknowledge that we all need Jesus.
I mean, if I could preach amazing sermons every week because of what I know and how I speak, I could boast in my works. But the truth is, while I do have to sit down and write the sermon, most weeks I don’t know what I’m going to say until the Holy Spirit shows up and gives me a sermon. Yes, I try to give my best, as does the rest of the staff and other worship leaders, but it is because of God’s grace when things go well in worship.
We don’t boast in our works. And not because we’re trying to be humble (you know I’m not humble). But because we recognize that all have fallen short, and that not one of us has it all figured out.
John Calvin, the 16th century Protestant Reformer and my favorite medieval curmudgeon, called this Total Depravity, which is also a great name for a band. He believed that if we wanted to know who we are, we have to first know who God is. God is the Creator, and we are the creation. God is perfect, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. We are none of those things. God is perfectly holy, and we are not.
This is not meant to be depressing. It’s meant to be freeing. Both for Calvin and for Paul. Grace allows us to step out of the race to win God’s love, to win being the best Christian, to win being better than anyone else. We don’t have to play that game.
We don’t boast in our works, says Paul, who then does tell us to boast. He tells us to boast in our sufferings. “…we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings…”
I’m more than happy to listen to people talk about their sufferings. And I’m grateful for the people who listen to me work through mine.
But you and I both know that people who boast in their sufferings are insufferable. Think about people who hear your story of pain because you have a broken arm, and say, “oh that’s nothing. A flesh wound. One time my leg fell off. Now that really hurt!”
Paul’s not telling us to be that guy, insufferable in our boasting.
Paul is calling us to claim our suffering, and to acknowledge that a life in faith is not a life without pain and challenge. We can stop pretending that life isn’t hard. We can stop pretending we have it all figured out. We can be Christians and not have perfect lives. There’s really no other way to be a Christian.
A disclaimer here about suffering— if you’re suffering abuse and violence, that isn’t what Paul is talking about. Get out of those relationships when you can. God doesn’t mean for you to suffer abuse.
We don’t boast in suffering to win a ‘life is terrible’ award. Paul means we acknowledge our suffering as much as we acknowledge our success. God is with us in our success. God is equally with us in our suffering. As I shared last week from Romans chapter 8, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Listen to what Paul says about suffering:
“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.”
To glory in our suffering is to claim our struggles in faith, to not pretend we don’t have challenges. I don’t have any experience in suffering because of my faith, at least not the way Paul did. Sure, I occasionally get hate mail threatening violence from people who claim to be ‘pro-life’, and there are online trolls. But that’s not the suffering Paul faced. He was beaten. Thrown in jail. Kicked out of town.
Answering the call of God led him to travel the known world, facing all sorts of trials. Answering the call led me to live in San Francisco and get to work with you. It’s not the same. I don’t know suffering the way Paul did.
Most of us probably don’t experience suffering for our faith, and we should be wary of Christians in this country who claim to be facing great persecution. We can worship freely, without interference by the government. The vast majority of people elected to represent us in city, state, and national government claim to be Christian. Our Christian religious holidays are national holidays. Knowing people live by different faiths, different creeds, different values alongside us—that’s also not persecution and suffering.
Christians do face real persecution in other parts of the world. Christians in the US do not face persecution as Paul did, and we should be mindful we don’t participate in the persecution of others, either with discrimination here or with governmental policies.
But we do have sufferings in our lives. We know pain. we know heartbreak. We know loss.
And into those situations, Paul calls us to explore our pain, to investigate it with curious minds open to wonder, open to growth, open to transformation.
I don’t believe God subjects people to suffering so they may learn faith. God is not a bully. I do believe God is with us in our suffering, however, our companion through it, inviting us to transform it into something else.
As I read through this passage, I’m reminded that my road to hope is paved with suffering, endurance, character. My faith has been nurtured more in times of trial than in times of ease. And yet, I seem to always want to pave smooth the path so that I don’t get tripped up by the suffering as I journey. And goodness knows I’ve wanted to protect my kids from it.
A colleague once described the progression from suffering to hope this way.
Suffering = what happens to us.
Endurance = what we do in response.
Character = who we become.
Hope = finally looking outside ourselves, and back toward God.
Hope doesn’t disappoint, because it doesn’t depend on us, but recognizes the work of the Spirit in us.
I know a lot of young people who have been suffering because of the impacts of covid on their young lives. I don’t think our culture has reckoned with the toll these past three years has taken on them. And for the young people I love, I don’t see a lot of hope. I hear a lot of nihilism and despair. And while working through this text this week, I realized that it’s because they haven’t had time yet to go through the cycle to get to hope. They’ve suffered. They’re enduring. Their character is being shaped, but in some cases, they can’t see hope around the corner yet.
And I think that’s one reason why Paul calls us to boast in our suffering. There are people out there in the process of suffering who haven’t gotten through it yet. They need to know the stories of faith of people who have been through it. Again, not in the “back in my day, we walked uphill both ways to school in a pandemic and we didn’t have shoes” kind of boasting.
But we need to share the stories of when our lives were full of pain and despair and how we even then experienced the love of God and the work of the Spirit which got us through our trials.
The final ‘boasting’ Paul mentions in this passage is to boast in God, to put our confidence, and our hope that God is at work in our lives, bringing reconciliation.
Reconciliation is God’s work that brings us closer to God. It’s also the work we do that brings us back to each other. Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, ‘if we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other’.
Friends, we belong to each other.
Reconciliation is the hard work of reaching out to each other across our differences and trusting that God can bring us back to each other. The shortest distance between two people is a story. When we know each other’s stories, the things that separate us don’t seem to have the power they used to have.
With whom do you need reconciliation?
Reconciliation is also a broader cultural need we have, not just for our personal relationships. South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to try to heal the sins of Apartheid. There’s been one in Canada too, attempting to heal the pain caused by the government’s treatments of indigenous, first nation peoples. Neither of those processes have been perfect. Neither of them solved all of the problems. But they did make space for stories to be shared, truth to be spoken, and for some healing to happen.
There are conversations right now about reparations here in California, and at a national level, for African Americans. Earlier this month, “the California Reparations Task Force approved economic models for calculating reparations which could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars owed to eligible Black residents to address past racial inequities.
The models tell the state what is owed. The Legislature would have to adopt the recommendations and decide how much to pay, task force members said.
The state-appointed task force also unanimously voted to recommend California formally apologize “for the perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity and African slaves and their descendants.”
After 15 public hearings, two years of deliberations and input from more than 100 expert witnesses and the public, the task force voted to finalize its proposals in an Oakland meeting.”
I’ve learned a lot through the Racial Equity Group here at church about the systemic nature of racism, how laws and policies have harmed communities, and how even after those policies are removed, the harm remains and the effects continue.
Our African American siblings have long been telling us of their suffering, and they have endured, and they have hope in God, not always in us, because I’m not sure we’ve heard their stories. Our country has not been ready for reconciliation. I pray that we are changing. I have hope in God, and because of that, I have hope for us.
God has already reconciled us to God, freeing us to do the work of reconciling with each other. May we hold our heads high and if we boast in anything, may it be that God is on our side and will help us do that work.
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