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Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
I chose this text at least a month ago, assuming the focus of the sermon would need to have something to do with today being Trinity Sunday. But truth be told, while I am deeply grateful for the theological insight that we know our God as triune, with relationship at God’s very core, I am not a big fan of Trinity Sunday. In part, that’s because I have yet to encounter a congregation who gets excited about hearing a sermon on a theological doctrine.
That lack of enthusiasm is why I chose this text from Romans, for even though this text is often assigned to Trinity Sunday because it contains references to God the Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit our Sustainer, it also contains other challenging and rather well-known phrases from Paul. For example, “Therefore, we are justified by faith” is one. “We also boast in our sufferings” is another. I figured that with so many complicated details in this short excerpt from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, we could just touch on Trinity Sunday and then move on to other interesting things.
But since I chose this text, we learned of the horrific killing of Ahmaud Arbery. And we heard about the shooting of Breonna Taylor, whose birthday would have been last Friday. And almost two weeks ago now, many of us watched on video the murder of George Floyd. And those are just the latest three people whose names cry out to be spoken aloud. Others have already been added to that tragic list. And all of us have seen, if not experienced firsthand, the protests. All of us have seen, if not experienced firsthand, the deep pain and the rage.
And yes, all of us have seen and some have experienced firsthand the destruction that came about from the looting and vandalism that followed some of the peaceful protests. Emerging from all of this unrest, many of us are joining our voices with the chorus of millions of other voices in our country and around the world calling out for the need for extensive police reform as well as the need to finally substantively address other historical inequities that continue to plaque our country 400 years after people who look like me brought the first enslaved people to these shores.
Even though I know that all of you know what’s been going on, I still have to speak aloud our contemporary context, because all of these events make me feel like I need to tiptoe up to this text from Romans rather than dive into it. Tiptoe up to this text because Paul talks about boasting in suffering, and how that suffering produces endurance, and how that endurance produces character, etc. “But who am I to talk about suffering in these days?” I have been asking myself.
As I wondered about this sermon and you and reflected on the fact that we are once again in the manse rather than in the sanctuary, contrary to our planned, because downtown Chicago has again been closed off, I started to feel the way I felt in April 2019 when the Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III invited me to preach one of Jesus’ last words from the cross for his congregation at Trinity United Church of Christ on our South Side. I was very excited to say yes until Pastor Moss assigned me the first word: “Father, forgive them.” Those of you who attended know that before I could even begin preaching, I had to acknowledge my discomfort with the reality that I, as a white woman, was preaching to them, a black congregation, about the importance of forgiveness. Knowing the history of our country and how the still-pervasive stain of the powers and principalities of racism and white supremacy continue to infect me, even when I do not want that to be true, I told that congregation I needed to be asking them for forgiveness rather than telling them what it was about.
I feel the same way today. It feels dangerous, perhaps even disingenuous, for me to preach on boasting in suffering when the suffering of black people in our country and city has once again been laid bare in the newscasts, made plain in the personal stories of our black church members and staff, and shouted loudly and clearly in the cries of protest for change long denied and deferred.
But even beyond that, there is other good reason for my reticence. It can be dangerous to preach on texts like this one because it has been one of those scriptures that people have abused. “Stay in that marriage,” a battered woman might hear, “because God is using it to make you stronger and more faithful.” Or “This suffering must be a part of God’s plan for your life, your cross to bear,” a preacher might say, “in order to give you endurance.” Furthermore, this passage has also been used to support the phrase that I personally do not like very much at all, the one that states “God does not give you more than you can handle.”
Really? Is that something we say to George Floyd’s son and daughter today? Is that what we tell Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend or Ahmaud Arbery’s mom? If you have a family member who is struggling to get through COVID-19 today or whose business was harmed in the destruction last weekend, would that be a useful thing to hear? In my opinion, that phrase is one of the most unhelpful phrases we can say to people who are in the midst of pain and suffering. Sometimes they can barely handle making it through the next hour. But with that phrase, we dare to tell them that God wants it to be that way for them? So that God can teach them some kind of lesson? Not the God I believe in.
I once heard an orthodox rabbi reflect on what he says when people come to him after tragedies of violence or illness to ask about the meaning of that suffering for themselves or for others. He stated, “I think my job as a rabbi is to help people live with those questions. If God’s ways are mysterious, then we have no choice but to live in the mystery. It’s upsetting, it’s scary, it’s painful, it’s deep, and it’s interesting. But no plan. That’s what mystery is. You want a plan? Talk to me about plan, but if you’re going to tell me how the plan saved you, you’d better be able to tell me how the plan killed them” (Rabbi Brad Hirschfield in “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, Frontline on PBS,https://to.pbs.org/3dYatH7). I have a feeling the rabbi would not appreciate some of the ways we have used this text from Romans to explain the suffering of others.
So I say again, this text can be dangerous. We want to tiptoe up to it, for these verses out of Romans have been misused throughout the years. Some of us preachers have taken these words up out of Paul’s letter and plopped them right down on to other people’s heads, making them stone to harm them rather than bread to nourish and give them life. And yet what else could the Spirit be saying to the church this day, through Paul’s words today? How else might we hear his words today in Chicago, on a Sunday after more than twelve days of protests in every state in the United States, protests that show no signs of slowing down? How might we hear Paul’s words as the National Guard continues to be stationed on American streets and George Floyd’s family prepares to lay him to rest in Texas on Tuesday? How might we hear Paul’s words as we still find ourselves in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and are unsure when life will get back to normal and what normal will even mean?
For me, the first thing we can do is to take Paul’s words out of our own mouths and put them back into Paul’s mouth, for one thing I do know is that it is very different for someone who is suffering to claim these promises from the inside than it is for those of us on the outside to speak them on their behalf. It is very different for a person who is living with a disease or dealing with a traumatic loss to interpret these words for herself, and to give voice to some goodness she watches bloom, some growing endurance or grounding in hope she is experiencing even in the midst of her own suffering, than it is for me to tell her that is what God is doing with her as she lives with her illness or grieves her loss. Therefore, the first move we must make with these words is to give them back to the one writing the letter—Paul.
After all, Paul wrote as someone who intimately knew suffering, both emotional and physical, and not just any kind of suffering either, but suffering for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. We remember that Paul had been Saul—a Pharisee, a persecutor of Christians, a man who, according to his own writing, boasted in his ability to wreak havoc on the lives of the baptized (Galatians 1:13–14). But after his vision of the risen Christ on his way to Damascus, Paul’s life transformed. He became a new creation. Yet his old friends were not supportive of his conversion, to say the least, and many of them became so threatened by Paul’s new vision that they set out to try and kill him for it. We know from his own writing that Paul was frequently beaten and imprisoned for his refusal to keep silent about Jesus.
If anyone knew what it meant to suffer, it was Paul, and for me, that makes a difference. He speaks as one who knows. Paul knows from his own experience that his suffering brought him endurance and that his endurance strengthened his character and that his character led him to stand firmly grounded in the hope that only God could give. These were things Paul was claiming for himself. It is important that when we hear these words we hear them emerging from Paul’s own mouth and not coming from the mouths of bystanders who are more than willing to interpret Paul’s pain on his behalf.
But in addition to that, the second thing we must pay attention to is where Paul lodges these verses, for Paul places these words right in the middle of his argument on justification—an argument that articulates how, because of God’s extreme love not just for us but for the entire created order, God chose to come and be with us, be one of us, in Jesus in order to put us back into right relationship with God. In order to get us back in line with what God hopes for God’s creation, for us. In order to remind us the height and the depth, the width and the breadth of God’s amazing love for all people, for all creation. Paul begins the whole discussion about suffering and endurance and character and never-disappointing hope while standing squarely on the foundation of grace as a pure and unmerited gift from God’s own hand.
So perhaps we are always missing the point whenever we read this passage trying to find a reason for our suffering as individuals or as a community or whenever we read it trying to discover an explanation for the suffering of others as individuals or as a community. Maybe Paul did not write this part of the letter to give us reasons or explanations, prescriptions or plans. Rather, perhaps Paul wrote this purely as testimony. Paul wrote it simply to bear witness to God’s goodness that he had experienced for himself in the middle of all his pain.
Perhaps he wanted to give voice to the myriad of ways that God had somehow always managed to work out beauty and possibility even in the midst of the deep suffering that he, himself, endured. And Paul wanted to give voice to his experience not as a way to say that his suffering was somehow good or even necessary but as a way to say that even in that kind of deep opaque gloom, because of what he knew of Jesus, because of what he had experienced of Jesus, Paul trusted God was still at work, bringing light, leading him forward, transforming the world.
I wonder if Paul wanted to offer us his testimony in the hope that whenever the bottom does drop out on us, as people or as a people; whenever injustice does try to fight back and delay progress on the way to being beloved community; whenever the pain of generations of racialized trauma does finally catch up and takes breath away, coming dangerously close to taking hope away as well; whenever the Alzheimer’s diagnosis is spoken aloud or your cancer markers increase again; whenever you do lose your job or your business or your imagination about what might be next; whenever those things do happen, then Paul wants us to know that by the grace of God he has discovered in his own experience that no matter what, we will always, always, land on something solid.
As Quaker William Penn said, We cannot fall beneath the arms of God. However low we fall they are still underneath us. I think Paul wrote this testimony to remind the church in Rome, as well as to remind us in Chicago, and to remind you whenever you are today, that no matter what kind of suffering we do experience, there will always be ground, there will always be support, there will always be something, someone, there; there will always be grace that will hold us up (Meg Peery McLaughlin). And knowing, experiencing, trusting that God’s grace will always be our foundation no matter what is the only way we can even begin to think about endurance, or character, or hope emerging in us and among us despite all the suffering we see or personally experience. Not emerging because of the suffering, but in the face of the suffering. A counter-testimony to the suffering, if you will. A voice crying out “You don’t get to win” to the suffering.
And that is a gospel, a grace-full mystery, up to which we need not tiptoe. That is a gospel that is bread and not stone. That is the good news of God’s Love named Jesus Christ—a love that endured its own suffering, suffering even unto an unjust death hanging from a tree at the hands of the Roman authorities before a crowd of jeering onlookers so that we would know and trust that no matter what comes, God’s arms are always underneath us, holding us up, bringing us light, offering us hope, pouring out grace—even in the midst of the trauma and the suffering. A counter-testimony to the chaos. A promise of never-ending presence that empowers us, that calls us, that demands that we kick at the shadows and the gloom until they leak light (adapted from the Unvirtuous Abbey page on Facebook). And that promise is something about which we all can boast. Amen.