Sunday, May 26, 2013


Romans 5:1-5
May 26, 2013/Trinity Sunday

            The Ethics course that I taught at the Community College in Iowa was considered a survey course.  What that meant was that I taught a whole variety of ethical theories and perspectives so the students would come out of the course with a broad view of ethics and ethical understandings. 
            One of the perspectives that we touched on, briefly, was Stoicism.  It was taught alongside Aristotelian ethics and Hedonism.  There was an analogy about Stoicism that I made my students learn each semester.  It was that of a dog tied behind a moving cart.  The Stoics worldview was that the universe was the moving cart and humanity the dog.  If the dog resisted the moving cart, or struggled or balked or tried to stay still, the dog would suffer.  If the dog chewed at the rope or tried to go a different way, the dog would suffer.  But if the dog trusted that the cart was moving in the direction it was supposed to and just followed along, then it would be all right.  The cart might take the dog through times of suffering, but resisting the cart made the suffering far worse.  The Stoics believed that following behind the cart without resistance was the best way to, if not avoid, than at least minimize suffering. 
            It's a great analogy.  Unless you're actually in the midst of suffering, then I'm not sure it works so well.  I don't think I would make a good stoic.  I would be the dog who not only resists the rope and the cart but would have to be dragged behind it.  Because let's face it, suffering stinks.  It has been horrendous this past week seeing the suffering in our community and in the community of Moore. 

While it has been heartbreaking watching all of this unfold on television, I can only imagine how awful it has been for those who are on the ground in the midst of it.  Suffering stinks.  It's terrible.  I don't believe that any of us want to suffer, any more than I believe God causes it.  Suffering stinks.
            Paul would have been well acquainted with the Stoics point of view.  You don't expect too much because that might produce hope and "hope disappoints."  You just follow along behind the cart and try not to resist the rope.  But Paul seemed to see suffering differently.  I don't think that he was trying to promote suffering, as this passage has sometimes been interpreted.  When Paul writes about boasting in suffering, I'm not convinced that he meant that as a call to seek out suffering solely for the purpose of building endurance to grow character to embrace hope.  I think, instead, that Paul realized that we are not alone in our suffering.  God is there with us.  As Dr. David Lose wrote this week in his Working Preacher column, Paul's particular lens for seeing the world and seeing suffering in it was shaped by the cross. 
            The real human being, Jesus of Nazareth, suffered.  The divine being, Jesus the Christ, suffered.  When we suffer we are not alone.  God is with us.  God is in the midst of it.  God is made visible in all of the hands and all of the faces that reach out to help after disasters like the ones Oklahomans have suffered this week.  God is in the midst of the quieter suffering that people endure as well.  God is with us in the daily trials and tribulations that we all endure.  God is in the midst of it.
            The difficulty comes in the midst of it.  It seems to me that when we're in the midst of suffering, recognizing God is the hardest thing to do.  Maybe I'm wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if the people who lost loved ones this past week are struggling to see God in all of this.  If I were one of them, I would be.  So it's up to the rest of us to continue to show them that God is with them through our love for them.  It's up to the rest of us to be the hands of God for them.           
            Today is Trinity Sunday.  If Pentecost is one of my favorite Sundays of the year, then Trinity Sunday is my least favorite.  It's not that I don't appreciate the Trinity; it's that it's not an easily or satisfactorily explainable doctrine.  As I may have said to you all before my dear and wonderful Church History professor, Rebecca Weaver, told us never to fall back on the words, "it's a mystery" when it came to the Trinity.  There are ways to talk about it, ways to make it meaningful if not completely understood.  
            If there is anything that I grasp about the Trinity it is this.  The Trinity is God in relationship. The nature of God is relationship, and that relationship models for us what it means to be in relationship, in community.  I think it is in times like these when we fully reflect that model of relationship.  We reach out, we care, we help, we comfort, we work to restore and rebuild.  I've seen that kind of relationship, that kind of community, at work this past week.  And I know that it will continue in the weeks and months ahead. 
            All of this great, but it doesn't change or minimize the reality that suffering stinks.  And we are in a time where there is great suffering.  Even if the tornadoes hadn't happened, there would still be great suffering all around us; suffering of poverty and abuse and broken relationship.  Suffering stinks.  And we desperately need a word of hope.
            Yet when the present is this difficult, trying to hope for the future seems almost impossible.  So I think that sometimes the way we find hope in the present is by remembering the past.  I told you once that I trust God in memory.  I look back over my life and I see how God has worked.  I didn't always recognize God's presence at the time, but looking back I realize how fully God was with me.  So I trust that memory and I trust that God is with me now, even if I can't see or feel God's presence in the moment.  Perhaps that is how hope works.  We hope for the future because we recognize that God was with us in the past. 
            Think back over your own life.  Think back to the times when you've suffered, hurt, when you felt lost or alone.  Can you see now that God was with you?  Can you see how even in suffering some good came from it?  I will never proclaim that God causes suffering, but looking back I can see how diligently God worked to pull good out of suffering. 
            Writer, pastor, preacher Frederick Buechner wrote these words about hope in a sermon entitled, A Room Called Remember. 
"Then at last we see what hope is and where it comes from, hope as the driving power and outermost edge of faith. Hope stands up to its knees in the past and keeps its eyes on the future. There has never been a time past when God wasn't with us as the strength beyond our strength, the wisdom beyond our wisdom, as whatever it is in our hearts--whether we believe in God or not--that keeps us human enough at least to get by despite everything in our lives that tends to wither the heart and make us less than human."
            "Hope stands up to its knees in the past and keeps its eyes on the future." 
            Paul saw human suffering through the lens of Christ on the cross.  God suffered and God suffered profoundly.  This does not diminish our suffering, but provides us with the assurance that even as we suffer God is with us.  Even as we suffer, we trust that something more, something beyond our present reality, beyond our understanding is coming from our suffering.  Suffering produces endurance.  Endurance produces character.  Character produces hope and hope does not disappoint.  Remember, as best as we can, that God is with us and let us hope.  The past, present and future are Gods and so are we.  Let all God's children say, "Amen."


  1. Amy Lou, (in case you haven't read it yet), Tom Wolfe's novel "A Man in Full" has a very interesting portrait of a modern Stoic -- of a character who makes sense of his tragic and absurd predicament and finds a satisfactory pattern of behaviour for himself by reading Epictetus, all on his own without instruction. Part of the comedy is that the people he encounters are completely flabbergasted by this turn of events. Highly recommended!

    1. Thank you for the recommendation. I haven't read it, but it's going on my to-read list. I appreciate your comment.