Sunday, May 26, 2013

Hope does not disappoint us

Trinity Sunday
Romans 5:1-5

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Every so often, a week in the church office
doesn’t pan out quite the way
it looked on the calendar on Monday morning.
Pretty much every week is like that, actually.

And . . . not always, but once in a while that means
my sermon is only in . . . embryonic form
when the bulletin gets printed Friday noon,
so I have to come up with a title
while the content is still, shall we say, being discovered.
That was the case this week.
So even though I’m still honoring this as Trinity Sunday,
and I’m still using these texts that speak of God
as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
I won’t be preaching about the Doctrine of the Trinity,
as my title suggests.

I have preached about the doctrine here before. Fairly often.
And it’s certainly interesting, and useful,
to think about and talk about.
Over the millennia the Christian church has spent much time
trying to figure out how to speak correctly about
the Trinitarian nature of God,
and then either excommunicating, or even executing,
the heretics who didn’t speak about it that way.
Eventually the Eastern church (the Orthodox)
and the Western church (the Catholics)
divided over it, a division that exists to this day.
And this doctrine does make a difference.
I don’t make light of it in any way.

But it’s also rather easy to start playing mind games
with this doctrine,
trying to logically get our heads around it,
trying to come up with some model or analogy that works.
I love what Bishop N. T. Wright says about the subject.
He says Christians who get into arguments about the nature of God,
“run the risk of being like pointing a flashlight toward the sky
to see if the sun is shining.”
He also said this, which I find profoundly truthful (I quote):
“It would be a mistake to give the impression that the Christian doctrine of God is a matter of clever intellectual word games or mind games. For Christians it’s always a love game: God’s love for the world [is] calling out an answering love from us . . . [God] is love itself . . . The very heart of God’s own being, [is] the love which passes continually between Father, Son, and Spirit.”

So I won’t be talking about the doctrine, per se.
Just ignore the title in the bulletin.
Or if you want, cross it out and write the word “Hope.”
Because it became clear to me Friday and Saturday
that I needed to preach on hope.

Trinity Sunday is a very good Sunday to preach on hope.
It is this very Trinitarian understanding of a God who is
not only great and powerful and mighty,
but is “God with us,” who suffered, and who suffers, with us,
and is still at work in the world,
that is good ground for hope.

The age in which we live, and the culture we inhabit,
is suffering from a deep loss of hope.
In our culture there is very little optimism that life—
that everyday human life—has much meaning.
Our culture has been secularized,
has almost completely given up on the transcendent.
In other words,
when we try to make meaning from life,
we don’t look to the transcendent—
what is above and beyond us,
what is of eternal and cosmic significance,
what is of God and from God—
we look to the immediate, the concrete, the material,
to make our meaning.

That’s why advertizing is so successful,
when it tells us that the purchase and consumption
of certain material things like food, cosmetics, drugs, or cars,
will not only give us the basics we expect from them,
like good nutrition, smooth skin, healthy bones,
and a safe and comfort ride to work and back.
These material things will give life meaning, we are told—
will bestow on us happiness, self-esteem, peace,
pleasure, power, beauty,
human connection, even love.
And so we buy them.
And in these things we place our hope.
And they disappoint us.

We look to all kinds of things material,
to give us what God has already given us at creation,
a deep meaning and purpose,
when God placed within us God’s own image.
St. Augustine wrote that we were created for “union with God.”
That union with God and all that God has made
fulfills our created purpose,
and gives life meaning.
And so we used to believe.

But now, we instead look for ultimate meaning
in the material, and concrete, and immediate stuff of life,
and reality rarely looks like what we hoped for.
And so we lose hope.
And the greater our disappointments,
the greater our loss of meaning, and
the greater our loss of hope.

Another reason Trinity Sunday is a good time to preach on hope,
is the wonderful text from Romans 5 that we are given.

In this passage,
the apostle Paul tells us exactly where our hope is grounded.
And it’s in kind of a surprising, unexpected place, I think.

Given that much of Romans is devoted to Paul extolling
the grace of God,
and the glory of God,
which is ours through Jesus Christ,
we would expect Paul to tell us
to pound in our stake there.
That right there, in the grace and glory of God,
we will find our hope.

But no, there’s a more indirect path,
or so Paul makes it sound.
Yes, verse 2 says that we do
“boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
But getting there is a winding journey,
and we pass through other gates.
First (we see in v. 3) “we 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.”

So there is hope to be found, both in God’s promise of future glory,
but more significantly for our daily life here and now,
our hope is anchored in our sufferings,
knowing that God is with us in our sufferings.

This unlikely source of hope—human suffering and brokenness—
is only made possible because of the cross of Jesus Christ.

David Lose, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary,
made this observation about today’s text:
“Paul saw God take shape in the world and in his own life
most concretely in the cross of Christ.”
He wrote that in the cross, God “sanctifies . . . human suffering
by promising to be there with us and for us.”
And further, “If God’s greatest revelation was made manifest
in and through the struggle and suffering
of a man hung on a tree,
then what suffering of ours can ever truly be God-forsaken?”

The promise of God is to be with us in our suffering,
whether that suffering is slight or severe,
whether it is momentary or lifelong,
and God promises to work in that suffering,
to build character and endurance,
to increase our capacity to hope.

Now, we should not start to think,
especially in light of the recent tragedies in the world—
the Oklahoma tornado,
the massive loss of life in the Bangladesh factory,
the continuing crisis in Syria,
and many, many more . . .
we should never start to come to the conclusion that
God orchestrates human suffering
so he can grow our capacity to hope.

God never has, and never will, get any joy out of human suffering.
No, God is with us in suffering.
And that presence of God in our suffering,
dignifies it in ways we don’t fully understand.

For that matter,
God is with us in the humdrum and ordinary days, as well.
As I noted in the bulletin insert
introducing our worship series for “Ordinary Time,”
day-to-day life for most of us is neither
overflowing with things spectacular and triumphant,
nor filled with things catastrophic and tragic.
For most of us, life is filled with
moderate joy, and moderate disappointment,
often overlapping with each other.
Life is characterized by ordinary challenges
and everyday complexities.
Sometimes life just goes.
Little seems to be happening of cosmic significance.
Life is bearable,
but sometimes we just count the days and weeks.
Our once-lofty dreams are not being fulfilled.
Expectations we had for ourselves
are only partially realized.
We can see the destination we were aiming for,
but we’re not even halfway there,
and we’re moving slowly.
Sometimes, life is even boring. Painfully boring.

The question I asked us to ponder in my little bulletin essay,
is “Can we learn to live fully and attentively in the Spirit,
even when life doesn’t look extraordinary?”

The good news is that God is with us now, in this “ordinary time.”
This time is, in fact, the only time
in which we are able to embody the gospel in our lives.
We cannot embody the past.
We cannot embody the future.
We can only embody this time, whether it be a time of suffering,
or triumph, or boredom.
And God is with us in this time!
God doesn’t love us because of what we may yet become.
God doesn’t love us because of what we hope to achieve.
God loves us now.
God loves and values this particular time in our lives,
and that is enough.

As Archbishop Rowan Williams said,
“The hardest thing in the world is to be where we are.”
God does not call us to live in the future,
or in some imagined utopia,
but to be at home in the present.

The good news is that God is with us in this time,
and this time, this moment,
“is sufficiently loved and valued by God
to be the material with which God will work,”
to use Rowan Williams’ phrase.

I love that thought!
The time and place and life circumstance we are in right now,
is all the material God needs,
to do a good work in us,
if we offer up this time and place and circumstance,
and release it to God to work with.

This is the ground of our hope—
God with us, in our human limitations and sufferings.
Not just in some heavenly day to come.

That’s why I love the concept of God as a Triune God.
Never mind trying to logically understand three-in-one.
Never mind find the perfect analogy to wrap our mind around it.

The bottom line is that the very concept
of a God who is Almighty and all-encompassing,
who created and sustains the Cosmos,
and who is with us—
is already too mind-blowing,
that it’s beyond the limits of our language to describe.
That this transcendent God would choose to enter our tiny world,
and our severely limited humanity, and just be with us,
2000 years ago in the flesh,
in a particular place and time,
and now, eternally, in the spirit,
is too amazing and mysterious to put into words.
Or as the Psalmist said in Ps. 139,
“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is too lofty to attain.”

So neither Jesus himself, nor Paul, nor any other New Testament writer,
ever actually laid out a Doctrine of the Trinity, per se.
You won’t find the doctrine stated in the Bible.
You’ll only find it in the creeds of the church.

But what you will find, in the words of Jesus,
like what we heard this morning in John 16,
and in the words of Paul and other writers,
are crystal clear declarations
that this great God has come to us in the flesh,
in the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,
and continues to be with us,
through the Holy Spirit—
named in various ways:
the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth,
the Spirit of Jesus.

It doesn’t all wrap together nicely
in a logically coherent doctrinal statement.
But these declarations about God,
and about the human experience of God-with-us,
are profoundly true,
and have given rise to the church’s attempts over the years
to describe this profound truth,
even if we have to stretch the limits of language to do it.

The doctrine of the Trinity is putting into words
our experience of a transcendent God
who is also with us,
living with us in and among the immediate and material.
It is putting our worship into words.
It is taking a dynamic relationship,
and trying to capture in words
the profound beauty and joy of that relationship.
Those words then serve as a starting point,
to contemplate within ourselves,
and to communicate to others
in ways that invite others to enter this relationship,
join the divine dance,
and to be drawn into the embrace of a loving God.

Let us worship this Three-in-One God,
by singing together a new song, found in your bulletin.

The text will be new to most of us.
It’s written by Brian Wren, a wonderful contemporary hymn writer,
and sung to a tune from Southern Harmony,
one of the books from the shaped-note singing school tradition
of the early 1800s.
So it has a bit of a lilt, and dance-like feel to it,
like our local Harmonia Sacra.
So let your heart and voice, and even body if you want,
dance a bit as we sing this joyful and profound truth
that God is with us, as Three-in-One.

—Phil Kniss, May 26, 2013

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