Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5: 1-5; John 16:12-15
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN
Last week a man sat in my office and with some desperation, began to share with me, a crisis he was experiencing. In full disclosure, this man is completely unaffiliated with this church, and doesn’t even live in Houston. I say this to save you all from looking around church wondering who this person might be – he’s not here. He began to tell me the story regarding the demise of his marriage to his wife. Together they have young children, and he went on to describe to me the alcohol and substance abuse problems he and his wife struggle with. He ended his lament telling me that though she had not yet submitted them, his wife has filled out the papers to file for divorce.
As I listened to this man tell his story, I was struck with what he said after telling me the details. He said something along the lines of “I just never expected that my life would turn out this way.” In saying those words, the man had done what many of us do. He had created a narrative for how his life was supposed to go. Marriage, two kids, growing old together, grandchildren in the future, perhaps. That’s the way it was supposed to be. There was nothing in his narrative about divorce or addiction. Who wants that in their future planning?
When then man sitting on my couch said, “I never expected my life to turn out this way,” it struck a familiar feeling within me. Like him, I have found myself at moments examining my life and thinking, “Well I never would have predicted this!” But isn’t that the human experience? It is, at least according to the Bible.
In the very first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, a man and a woman have everything provided for them in an extravagant garden. But as good as they have it, the serpent whispers a lie to the woman, which the woman believes, and the man and the woman are banished from paradise as a natural consequence. Upon their banishment, I imagine the man and the woman both saying “well, we never expected that!” Although I do not personally receive the story of Adam and Eve literally and as fact, I do believe it is a true story. A true story about human suffering and pain.
Human suffering and pain are common themes in the Bible, and in today’s reading from Romans, we hear the author, Paul, reflect on them. Paul says these words: “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.”
I think what Paul might be saying is that human suffering, like what Adam and Eve experienced, like the suffering experienced by the man sitting in my office last week, like the suffering that you and I are going through, is painful. It hurts. Non one likes it. But suffering is not the end of the story, at least for Paul. Because if what Paul is saying is true, then suffering produces endurance. I don’t know about you all, but I have learned in life that the more patiently I endure suffering, the easier it becomes. When we are patient through our suffering, we build endurance.
What does that endurance do for us? Well, according to Paul, the endurance we accrue through patient suffering is character. When we patiently endure suffering, we produce character, and that character that we now have, it affects other people. And other people see that character in you, and they look at you and they say, “Wow – look at her or him, and how they are going through this really hard time but look at how emotionally and spiritually strong they are. Look how peaceful they appear. I want what they have!” That’s the power of character.
The character you have as a result of enduring suffering – that character is powerful, and it gives people hope. For the person struggling with a broken marriage to see a couple that once were on the road to ruin but now recovered, that is powerful. Your character is precious, because it was refined through your suffering. Your character is a gift given to you by God, for the purpose of bringing hope to others. And that hope – that precious, beautiful hope, it will never disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Most of us in church are probably living lives that have not turned out exactly as we once expected them to. But is that a bad thing. We all suffer. All of us hurt at times. But out of suffering comes not just endurance or character. Out of suffering comes hope. Suffering is the birthplace of all hope. With no suffering, there can be no hope, because to truly appreciate hope, you need to feel pain.
St. Andrew’s is a church in midst of growing pains. We are no longer the church we were five or ten years ago. We are not, today, the church we will be five or ten years from now. Growth and change can hurt. There is nothing easy about what this church is doing, right now. For those of you who have been here a long time, you might be thinking “well I never thought the church would turn out this way!”
We are learning, we are falling, we are suffering – together.
We are enduring – together.
We are building character – together.
Finally, we are falling into hope which will never disappoint us – together. AMEN.