Trinity C, May 22, 2016

May 23, 2016

Spiritual Fitness

Romans 5:1-5


1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 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. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 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.


There’s a wonderful line spoken by one of America’s great television personalities:  Daffy Duck. He spoke it in an episode called “The Abominable Snow Rabbit”. The situation is as usual, Daffy Duck has done his best to shake off the threat of the moment by putting Bugs Bunny in harms way, but Daffy Duck has a hint of a conscience. And he has this moment when he says to himself:

Poor Bugs. But anyway you look at it, it’s better he should suffer. After all, it was me or him, and obviously, it couldn’t be me. It’s a simple matter of logic. I’m not like other people. I can’t stand pain. It hurts me.


Daffy Duck and I – we aren’t like other people. We don’t like pain. It hurts us! Maybe it hurts you too. But the Apostle Paul was no Daffy Duck, and he didn’t want us to live with Daffy Duck mentalities either. I don’t believe Paul was encouraging us to find ways to suffer, but he didn’t want us to live in fear of pain. Paul wanted us to understand and embrace the value of suffering.


Paul wanted us to understand that suffering is something that can be redeeming. And while it’s not hard for me to accept Paul’s proposal as a sound theological proposition – it’s still hard for me to put into practice what he’s preaching.


It’s not hard for me to believe that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope that is rooted in the good news that Jesus Christ revealed does not disappoint, but this truth isn’t so easy to put in to practice. I like my comfort, and I don’t like to do things that put my pleasure in jeopardy.


In some ways I feel very fortunate to be living in a country and at a time in which my religious faith and practice is not illegal nor does it carry any kind of social stigma. In fact being a pastor provides me with an elevated level of social standing. I probably don’t have the automatic level of respect that clergy people once enjoyed in this country, but I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that it’s not a disadvantage to be a Christian in this country. In fact you probably need to be one if you want to get elected to high office.


But I also know that there is something skewed about all of this. I really don’t believe that the world has changed so much over the last 2000 years that there is little conflict between the powers and principalities that largely rule our world, and the One who actually presides over the universe. I can’t help but wonder why it is that Paul was so persecuted for his faith, and why I am held in high regard for embracing what he taught.


But I don’t really want to look too closely in to this question because I suspect I would find that I’m fully cooperating with some systems that are totally at odds with the teachings of Jesus Christ. What I’m inclined to believe is that some of the greatest evils of our day are simply more masked than they used to be. I don’t believe this world in which we live has come to be so much more in line with the love of God – I just believe it’s more hidden. I believe evil is such an insidious presence in this world we can find ourselves cooperating with it in ways we don’t fully understand.


Don’t get me wrong – I’m not unhappy that I can make a nice living and live in a nice home while working as the pastor of a church. I’m grateful that I don’t experience the kind of physical abuse and material deprivations that Paul experienced, but I’m not at all confident that this is because the world in which I live has become a more hospitable place for the message of Jesus Christ. I suspect that there is more distortion of the truth going on than there is actually harmony between that which is Holy and that which is profane.


And in a profound way I’m grateful for the lack of clarity about this. I know what it looks like when the battle between good and evil becomes all to clear, and I don’t want to be in that place. I thank God I’m not a pastor living in Germany in the 1930’s. I’m so grateful I’m not forced to compromise my faith in order to keep myself and my family safe. Pastors in that place during those days had to make the decision to support the church as it was defined by Adolf Hitler or to support the church as it was formed by the Holy Spirit.


Of course such monumental conflicts aren’t so far away. We’ve certainly had high stake decisions of faith within our own country. It wasn’t that long ago that United Methodist pastors had to decide where to stand on issues of desegregation and women’s equality. And there are pastor’s today that have lost their credentials for conducting same-sex marriages or for revealing their own unauthorized sexual orientation. If you paid any attention to the quadrennial meeting of our General Conference that recently concluded you know that this was an issue, and I think it was handled in the best possible manner – we authorized the Bishops to form a special commission to review the language in our Book of Discipline and come back with recommendations. Some say we’ve just kicked the can down the road, but that’s probably better than kicking each other in the shins. This is certainly a point of conflict within our denomination, and it’s a serious issue for us to resolve, but nobody’s getting firebombed for stating their beliefs about this.


I can testify that you don’t get crucified for expressing your opinion that we need to be more open in this regard. I have done that, and I have not been assaulted by anyone. It may not have been a great career move, but it’s not dangerous.


And I’m sure there are some powerfully costly and dangerous things that we Christians should be doing if we were totally focused on following the teachings of Jesus Christ, and it would be good for our souls if we were so faithful. As surely as it takes some physical strain to keep our bodies fit and functional, I believe it takes some suffering and endurance in order to maintain the kind of sensitivity in our souls that puts us in touch with the kind of hope that Jesus Christ provides.


On the other hand, I don’t believe any of us need to go looking for trouble. I really am unsure of the kind of activism we should be engaged in if we were truly sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and I really don’t want anybody to destroy my blissful ignorance. I also know that we are probably all in touch with a good supply of pain. No, we aren’t living under Roman rule or Nazi occupation, but we all have our troubles.


And those troubles we have can be an excellent source of instruction for our souls. I don’t want to romanticize or make light of the kinds of troubles we have in life. Troubles are painful, and suffering gets delivered to us in many different ways. It came to Paul from men with clubs clubs and from being imprisoned, but it comes to us in the form of disease, through the death of loved ones, from financial ruin, and the breakdown of relationships. There is no end to the ways in which we suffer, and suffering is a chronic condition for many of us. The suffering of some people is obvious while others suffer in silence. None of us know exactly how other people suffer, but our suffering doesn’t have to be in vain.


Paul has a very clear thought about the value of suffering. He believes it can provide us with access to the most enduring form of hope that there is. He believes our suffering can guide us in to a deeper connection with the Holy Spirit, and he believes that this is the source of true relief from the various forms of pain that this world produces.


This is not to say that the Holy Spirit swoops in and carries our pain away. The Holy Spirit doesn’t fix everything that assults us, but our suffering is not a sign of abandonment from God, and through our suffering we can become more aquainted with God. And there’s a kind of hope that can grow out of our suffering that doesn’t diminish regardless of what may transpire.


In a significant way I think I’m talking about something I don’t fully understand. Just as surely as I don’t understand the level of physical fitness that it takes to run 100 miles I don’t understand the level of spiritual fitness that it takes to endure the kind of pain that I know some people encounter in life, but I trust that it’s true. I know a little bit about both physical and spiritual fitness, and I believe there are always significant benefits to the work of becoming more fit.


I believe Paul knew what he was talking about when he spoke of the benefit that we can experience through faithful endurance. Remaining faithful to God through extended periods of suffering can put us in touch with a form of patience that enables the most enduring type of hope that we can ever have. What Paul wants us to understand is that our suffering can open us up to the presence of God in a way that nothing else can.


As I say. I don’t want to romanticize the pain that we encounter in life. Daffy Duck is like other people, because pain hurts us all. But pain can be a tremendous teacher. It can enable us to become people with more highly developed souls. People who are more sensitive to the pain of others and to the love of God.


Don’t go looking for any pain. It will find you soon enough, and when it does remember that it may well be your best opportunity to experience the most profound sense of hope that we can ever know.


Thanks be to God!




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