Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 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.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Let us pray. O Lord, startle us again with your truth, that we might live as people of peace. Amen.
Friday was the last day of elementary school for Davis. For the kids, there were some beautiful rites of passage. Davis walked across a stage, and simultaneously, as he was called David, realized that administrators aren’t perfect. He brought home a stack of artwork mixed with old math homework, and simultaneously learned that parents flamed out as math tutors at a certain point. They made a special slide for the slideshow that highlights their personality, and simultaneously learned that some things – even poignant slideshows set to country music ballads designed intentionally to make parents cry – can still last too long. And they got grades, and simultaneously learn that there is no way to get credit for all that they learned, like how hard it is to do a group project, or come back to school after a pandemic, or fit in to a group of people or even a pair of pants.
This is how they learn that not all growth can be tracked by the letters on a report card or pencil marks on the wall. And the older people here continue to learn that. Not all achievements are covered by those bold words on our resume or in the newspaper or on those hospital charts or even in the history books. Not everything that counts to God, not everything that counts to us, can be easily counted by us.
In the Scripture passages today, people are doing the math of life. In Genesis, God promised Sarah a child. That there would be an entire nation in her lineage, a covenant explained by the light of countless stars, but Sarah knows how old she is. The idea of trading her walker for a stroller was laughable to her, not just because of her age but because she was starting to count the times Abraham had taken shortcuts around her to have a child. The ache she must have carried was a lot bigger than the words Scripture gave her, but we do hear her laugh. She laughs at God’s promise. It’s a laugh of incredulity and sadness. God’s promise was laughable, until it finally happened for her. Isaac was born.
Then, Paul wrote to the fledgling Roman church. Roman culture was thick with messages about suffering. Most religious people believed suffering was God’s payback because you did something wrong. Stoics taught that suffering was something you did wrong, just for a different reason. Your suffering was a lack of resilience. A lack of grit. A mindset problem. Then, the Epicureans taught that we don’t really answer to anyone except ourselves. They believed that, ultimately, there was no calculus to life beyond how you feel at any given moment. In their math, you want to max out the pleasure column and zero out the suffering column. Our culture is thick with those messages too.
Then Paul came along and taught them the counterintuitive math of God. It was a shocking idea to suggest that there could be something of worth in suffering itself, and that means there could be something of worth in suffering people. You see, while we were yet sinners, totally complicit in the heartache of this world, Christ died for us. Christ came for the hurting and the broken. And Christ entered the hurt and brokenness. And if that is the one to whom we answer, then this faith is one of downward mobility. This faith is lived not at the corner of happy and healthy, but at the corner of suffering and service. And Jesus creates a way where there used to be no way and paves it with grace and peace.
Now, the math of Christ is not as easy as, say, A = B = C=D, suffering equals endurance equals character equals hope, as if suffering is automatically a road to hope by the transitive property. Hear me on this, suffering for its own sake is not God’s goal. If you are someone whose life has been divided into before and after, it’s ok to admit that before was better. If you have been part of the company of the afflicted, you probably don’t love glib formulas people might offer you like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Kate Bowler, a theologian who is living with stage 4 cancer prefers to laugh and say, “What doesn’t kill you will probably try again tomorrow.”
But what Paul says is not glib. It is not an easy formula. He says that what we go through matters. How we show up for each other matters. And any road that is hopeful cannot really sidestep suffering –Jesus blazed a trail right through it, and grace is the fact that somehow our wobbly efforts to follow count in God’s ledger. The receipt has been covered.
So, maybe the formula that Paul lays out should be called, if you’ll allow the wordplay, not math but aftermath. After you have been through hard things, you can look back with your head on a tilt and sometimes marvel. There are glimmers back there of endurance, all that stuff you had no choice but to deal with. People probably said glib things to you like, “Oh, you are so strong!” and back then all you thought was “what choice do I have?” But your compassion muscles grew.
There are glimmers back there of character formation, the decisions, the habits, the course-corrections that – for better or worse – shaped the kind of person you were becoming.
And sometimes looking in the rearview mirror, you can see bright lights, the people who said or did something beautiful. Who came close to you in suffering, times when you couldn’t see two feet in front of your face, and they held the lantern of hope for you when you couldn’t hold it yourself. They spoke hope to you in words you could stomach.
But once you find yourself at the corner of suffering and service, it is easy to become overwhelmed there. The numbers become too massive. Your heart can’t take it all in. Some people become passive. Others burn out. The book we’re reading as a congregation calls this the Smoky Bear problem… Only you can prevent wildfires! What part of the problem is mine to face? Is it only me? Which wildfires are on my watch? How big is my forest?
So, here is the final lesson in aftermath, according to Paul. Somehow, God’s love pours through us. The Holy Spirit, that great multiplier of holy things, is like a river, or perhaps a firehose. We can’t bottle it up, but fortunately, we can let it flow through us. It will carry us where we need to go and provide us what we need, even if we don’t realize it at the time.
There are two quotes that balance me during times when the math is too big. The first comes from the rabbinic tradition, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. You are not responsible to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.” And the second comes from a modern pastor named Deryl Fleming who preached it so memorably that other people quoted him to me. “You can only do what you can do, but only you can do what you can do.”
For about 15 years I helped lead a ministry called Lunch for the Soul. Day laborers would come to the church on Wednesdays for a healthy meal and a worship service. One year when it was my turn to lead the devotional, I thought, “Ah, Father’s Day! I’ve got a plan.” So I casually asked the group of about 40 men from El Salvador and Honduras, many with paint splatters on their pants and less than a full set of teeth, “What is the best lesson you ever learned from your dad?” I expected a conversation about resilience or faith or fishing, folksy stuff but maybe with a Central American rhythm, but immediately I was shocked by their answers. One man said, “I never knew my dad. He died in the civil war.” I blanched. The next man, “My dad was a drunk. He didn’t live with us.” Another guy named Denis said, “I left home when I was 10 years old. No one looked for me, and so I just kept going, riding the buses, and now I am here.” After that kind of sharing, I stumbled my way into a prayer, but I could barely process what I had heard. For a second, I felt embarrassed that I had ever thought a lunch and a prayer could exist in the same equation as stories of intractable suffering like theirs. My Spanish prayer began to falter if it was intelligible to begin with. Then, as if summoned by the Holy Spirit, one of the men started singing, loudly, Senor mi Dios, al contemplar los reinos. And before I knew it, a group of guys were belting out How Great Thou Art. And even though most of them were a ways off from hitting that high note in the chorus, it felt like a wave of grace was lifting us all up together. It was a moment of stunning beauty.
And it didn’t end there. After all the guys had headed home, I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch. So, I headed over to Chipotle with all those stories and that hymn still coursing through my brain. I made it to the front of the line at Chipotle when I heard a person maybe 4 or 5 people behind me in line call out. “I am buying her lunch.” He said it again, “I am buying her lunch.” Well, Chipotle moves quickly and before I knew it a transaction had taken place, and I held my tray, smiling and grateful to someone I vaguely recognized. He introduced himself as Jose. He was wearing a professional landscaper shirt with his name on it. Then he said, “Many years ago, you all gave me lunch when I needed it. I had nothing. And today I get your lunch, sister Rebecca.” He held up the receipt and we laughed for a solid minute. “Dios te bendiga!” he said and headed out to his truck.
I will never forget seeing him smile, holding that receipt. I will never forget laughing in Chipotle and simultaneously learning a bit more about the beautiful arithmetic of God. Not everything that counts to God can be counted by us. By the grace of Christ, a receipt has been paid and we never saw it coming. And what do we get to do? We do what only we can do, which often includes singing and laughing in the aftermath.
Thanks be to God.