Recovery with Romans (2): The Grace in Which We Stand

[special_heading title=”Recovery with Romans (2): The Grace in Which We Stand ” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]One of the delights of caring for my 5-month-old grandson is hearing him laugh. He smiles a lot, but I’m talking about that belly- shaking, eye-squinching, full-throated laughter that comes from his dad singing a song in a silly voice, or his mom tickling his collarbones, or lately his weegie surprising him with peek-a-boo. A baby’s laughter falls upon your ears like divine blessing. A moment of grace in a day filled with mundane diaper changes and spit-ups, as well as larger, more troubling concerns of pandemic and racial injustice, economic recovery and climate change. I feel the particular challenge for Central, both in the short term as we figure out how and when to gather again in person, and as we look beyond this moment to envision our community and mission post-COVID-19.

That’s a tall order, because this is a time of suffering. Experienced by us to a lesser or greater extent, perhaps, but full of losses, uncertainty, and lament. We’re still mostly sheltered at home, missing family and friends. I check in with Tammie Carroll at New Genesis every week, and am impressed at the herculean effort made every day to provide 3 meals for over 100 men, clean and sanitize every inch of common surfaces, and monitor symptoms and isolate and care for those who fall ill. Some offices and businesses are bringing employees back, with unknown risks of a second infection surge. And everywhere, people are on the move, masked and unmasked, marching for racial justice and protesting systemic racism.

The morning scripture text was written for such a time as this. The church of resurrection faith had spread throughout the Mediterranean world, and though it brought great joy to many, was also perceived as a threat to ruling powers. Persecution of people who professed this faith was common, including imprisonment, forced labor, and even martyrdom. The apostle Paul writes eloquently of the spiritual dynamic that helps us trust God and God’s ability to bring meaning and life in even the most difficult circumstances. A reading from the letter to the Romans, in the fifth chapter, verses one through five. Hear God’s Word about the grace in which to stand and withstand.

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.  The word of the Lord…thanks be to God!

I am grateful for the insights of Mary Schenk, Sherry Kenney, and Heather Collins who contributed to this sermon. Please join me any Friday at noon for Faith Break on Zoom, time to check in, pray together, and listen for God’s Word to us in a text for an upcoming sermon.

The apostle describes life in the middle: we have peace with God, yet we also have suffering. Other biblical texts help us wrestle with the question of why good people suffer, and even why there is suffering at all in a creation called “good.” There’s little of that here, except to acknowledge that human life will involve suffering. No one will escape the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”  What the text does instead is provide a different frame for that suffering–one that produces hope. And not just generalized optimism in a rosy future, but a deep foundational belief that our lives in Christ are moving us ever-closer to the glory of God. In the typical Pauline habit of overstatement, this conviction allows us even to “boast” in our suffering, because we know it is not permanent.[callout_box title=”As we see suffering through the lens of grace, we grow in our ability to endure it and even allow it to shape our character. ” subtitle=””]I think it’s worth saying explicitly that suffering is nothing to boast about. It extracts a huge toll on people, and can cause recurring trauma and deep distress, affecting their ability to thrive, to enjoy healthy relationships, and in the extreme erode their will to live at all. So hear me: this text is not saying that suffering is good for you, because it will build character.

Instead, the apostle suggests a way through suffering that may produce resilience, wisdom, and empathy, a way to see beyond the present moment into the next. Sort of like that line from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Everything will be all right in the end; if it’s not right, then it’s not yet the end. [Deborah Moggach]  The confidence that everything will be all right in the end –at least for people of faith–is possible because of God’s intention for the beloved creation, and divine love which is at work in us, taking the raw materials we offer–including our pain, disappointment, regrets–and transforming them into something good, that will help us keep moving onward toward glory… to keep our eyes on the prize. Not just heaven and an afterlife beyond death, but a new kind of life here and now; one marked by clear purpose, deep joy, and continual hope.

That kind of life does “mark” us. The word “character” in Greek is a tool used for etching, for stamping an image on an object. As we see suffering through the lens of grace, we grow in our ability to endure it and even allow it to shape our character. We may become literally marked with wrinkles or scars, but also with new perspectives and deep reservoirs of empathy for human suffering. One of the photographs from news coverage of the protests against police brutality and calling for racial justice, spoke to me of this character marking. It was an image of an elderly Black woman, her face lined and tear-streaked, reading from a well-worn Bible right at the front line between protestors and police in heavy armor. There was no rancor; she wasn’t yelling the verses; her posture and expression spoke of humble faith but also great strength from the truth of words she had read so often. It seemed to me to speak as eloquently as the “marks” on Jesus’ own body from the suffering he endured; the scars on his hands and feet and side. [suggested by Wyndy Corbin Reuschling in Connections Lectionary Commentary, Year A,  Westminster/John Knox Press, p. 79]

…a sign of the grace in which we stand. A foretaste of the glory of God in which we share–what the ancient church father Irenaeus defined as a human being, fully alive. The grace which forms and reforms and transforms us, galvanizing us to form and reform and transform the world around us towards the glory of God.

It was Mary Schenk who told me about day nine of the protests in Denver, when organizers set aside time to hear from the youth in the community of all colors. There was no agenda; every young person who wanted to was allowed to speak. Out of the mouth of babes …we heard: “They should make it equal for every person in the whole entire world. Because it’s true… God made us for that,” said eight-year-old Mac Vasquez. She hadn’t planned to speak at all, and even admitted it was kind of scary, but found her voice to add enthusiastically: There’s also another true statement I would like to shout out, it’s don’t judge a book by its cover, and that’s not being taken very seriously right now.

A blond haired boy in a Lakers jersey identified himself as Jordan, 7 years old. He told the crowd that he knew he had white privilege which to him, meant that things were not equal for all. But, he added, That doesn’t mean I won’t come out here to march and stand with each and all of you for justice.

Cuteness?  We could dismiss it as that, but I prefer to hear it as amazing grace from the voices of children who see beyond the present suffering to envision the glory a community that embraces one another as family and guarantees justice and equal opportunity for all.

It was enough that day to touch my weariness and anxiety and rekindle hope. Hope that is both God’s gift to us and a practice to which we commit daily. Hope that will not disappoint, because it is secured by the One who takes illness, fear, broken promises, and the bloody crosses of every time–and brings forth life.

Thanks be to God.