This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Romans 5:1-11. Note: this is my final day in this role, as assistant curate across two parishes, so this was my farewell sermon, so to speak.
A man from Texas was boasting to an Australian that everything was bigger in Texas than anywhere else. Then a kangaroo hopped by, and the Texan stared silently for a few seconds then said, “Well I… I guess your mice are bigger.”
But seriously, nobody likes to hear other people boasting. It seems to be a subtle – or not-so-subtle – game of “I’m better than you,” and there’s really nothing gracious about that. So it’s odd, perhaps, to English-speaking ears to hear Paul refer to boasting so often, and not always in negative ways. In today’s reading, he talks about boasting in our hope of sharing the glory of God… and of boasting in our sufferings.
And that’s a bit counter-intuitive to us, the idea of boasting in our sufferings, so I wanted to look at it a bit more closely. It turns out that the word we’ve translated here as “boasting” isn’t quite as negative in the original languages; rather than having nuances of pride and arrogance, it can mean something more like, making an identity statement. This is who I am. We see that sort of thing in some of the Psalms; “My soul makes its boast in the Lord,” and so on.
So just like we might make identity statements in other ways, through how we dress and present ourselves, or what interests we pursue, or even what we read, Paul is talking about aspects of the Christian life as things about which we can – and should – make identity statements. This is who we are; this is where we stand, in God’s grace.
This is an aside, but I know over the last little while we’ve had some talk on parish council and around the parish in general about marketing, and whether marketing is something we can do better, or even should strive to do better. But if we think about marketing as “making identity statements,” (this is who we are, this is where we stand), and as making invitations (come and stand with us!) then I’d have to say that it’s something that would be fairly fundamental to a Christian way of life, as Paul presents it here.
But that’s a side comment to what I wanted to say this morning.
Paul talks about boasting in our sufferings; or perhaps that might be better rendered as, making identity statements related to our sufferings. This doesn’t mean that our sufferings define us; not at all. But it means that how we position ourselves in relation to our sufferings might very well define us.
Let me give you an example. When I was in my first year at college, some stuff happened which led to me having something of a crisis, and eventually being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I had several years where I was, emotionally speaking, a wreck. Passages like this one, which speak of God’s love being poured into our hearts – or even the part of our worship which asks us to lift up our hearts – became intolerably painful to me, because it seemed to me that my heart, the core of who I was, was shattered beyond any hope of usefulness or repair. What good was God pouring his love into my heart, if my heart was so badly smashed that it couldn’t hold anything?
But the thing is that, slowly, painfully, and painstakingly, God put those shards of who I was back together. Piece by piece, through the love and care of good and patient people, through experiences which gave me glimpses of new possibilities, and through the gradual working through of the guilt, shame, and anger of what had happened, I began to be a person who was no longer just a pile of shards but something of a whole again.
I’ll never be the same. I’m acutely aware of where the cracks are, where the sore spots are, and my own limitations, in a way that I never was before. But I can once again be loving, joyful, creative and hopeful; and work effectively together with others to do something worthwhile.
I tell you that, so that when I say that after that, yes I agree with Paul that suffering produces, ultimately, hope, you’ll understand that I’m not talking from a complete lack of experience of suffering. Having been through something like that, I now know that whatever happens, God is at work in it; bringing light from darkness, and order from chaos. That when you’re in the middle of a bad experience, that’s not the end of the story. And that even our most profound suffering, in the end, does not define who we are.
Those are identity statements. My suffering does not define who I am. Who I am is defined by the God who is at work in the depths of my being, even when I’m not aware of it. The end of my story is not what I’m experiencing now, but something held in trust for me by the God who created everything that is, and will make everything perfect in its time.
That’s the kind of boasting Paul is talking about; and it’s important for us to be able to do that. To be able to put into words the hope that will not disappoint us; to have that as a clear and shared anchor for times of difficulty.
And this is important for you now, I think. You’ve been through some rough times as a parish. There are hurts and wounds here which are real, where God still has some work to do. There is, I know, some anxiety here about the future of the parish. Will the new beginnings that you’ve begun to see over the last couple of years continue to grow into something good, or will what looked like it might be promising turn out to have been a false start?
In my first sermon here, I said that it seemed to me that this parish was like an old tree, sturdy, strong, with deep roots; but a tree that had been in winter for some time, and needed to remember what it was like when spring comes. And I think, together, we’ve begun to see some signs of spring as we’ve prayed and worshipped and worked together.
But the thing about spring is, it comes not because of anything the tree does, or even anything the gardener does, but because the turning of the world is an irresistible force which affects everything on it. If the Spirit is at work in you, turning your world around, bringing spring, bringing new beginnings and new life and new hope, that doesn’t actually depend on the person up the front. It doesn’t even depend on how hard you work (although that’s not an excuse to stop working hard!) It will simply happen, and you will either be ready for it, or taken by surprise!
I say to you now what I said to you on that first Sunday; I don’t think God’s done with you yet. Spring is coming. New beginnings are being felt. The potential is still here for a season of growth. And if the proposed building project does go ahead, you might have more of it than you know what to do with!
But what will help you to be ready for that is the kind of boasting – or confident identity statement – that Paul talks about in his letter. The ability to say things like:
Our current circumstances do not define who we are. Christ does.
God is at work, in us individually, in us as a community, and in the local people around us, in ways we seek to discover, cooperate with, and celebrate.
The next chapter of our story is held in trust for us by God, and we look forward to moving into it with joy.
Aren’t those boasts worth holding on to?
And the thing is, it’s not the kind of ugly boasting that seeks to put anyone down, but the confident knowing who you are, and standing in that place at peace, and with confidence, because you know that it’s God who planted you here, and he doesn’t plant in vain.
The Lord be with you.