Pastor Russell Peek
Zion Lutheran Church
26 May 2013
In our second reading this morning, there’s this peculiar line that has always vexed me. St. Paul writes to the church at Rome that “we boast in our sufferings.” Really, Paul? We boast in our sufferings?
I’ve struggled with that because when I see massive tornados that strike parts of Oklahoma or someone that is in their last days dying, I wonder why in the world Paul would say something like that.
I didn’t get much of a chance to watch the coverage of the tornado in Oklahoma this week, but I don’t remember hearing someone boasting about the fact that a tornado came through their town again and flattened it like a pancake.
I think for Paul there’s something important for the church to hear in those words. Not that we would be someone who would be a glutton for punishment, but that the God that is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can take our sufferings and transform them. They aren’t the final word for us.
As odd as it sounds, when I think about pain and suffering, one of the people I think about is Jane Fonda. I know she’s not the most popular person among veterans, but it’s who I think of….
Some of you may remember that back in the early 1980’s, Jane Fonda had these aerobic workout videos that swept the nation. Of course, some of you weren’t even born then, but that’s another conversation…
As people watched her videos because of this new technology called a VCR, they saw her in fashionable leg warmers saying things like, “feel the burn,” and “no pain, no gain!”
No pain, no gain! My hunch is that we’ve probably heard that before and maybe even said or thought it before. On the surface this seems to make sense, but in reality this a lot of people in the exercise world don’t agree with this statement.
For instance, several years ago back when I was regularly practicing yoga, the instructor would say quite the opposite. If it hurts, don’t do it. If your body isn’t there, then it’s ok. Take what you’ve been given and work within those parameters. That meant that we worked up to our edge, pushing as hard as we could, but knowing that pain wasn’t going to be helpful in the long run.
I’ve heard many athletic trainers who will caution people against a “no pain, no gain” sort of attitude because muscle pain might just be a sign of overuse or physical damage.
No pain, no gain doesn’t quite get it right… I think a better phrase is “don’t waste the pain!” I know, I know… it doesn’t rhyme. But a man who cares very deeply about the church named Peter Steinke makes this point one of his books, “we ‘waste’ suffering if we gloss over, deny, avoid, or neglect its message…. If, however, we can learn from pain it is not wasted but a source of life and health.” (Healthy Congregations, 52)
We don’t celebrate our sufferings… We learn from them…. Paul is not saying that the people of Moore, Oklahoma should be celebrating the fact that most of their town was destroyed this week by the second major tornado in less than a generation. The point is that we celebrate and boast in the midst of our sufferings. Not that we have them, but even in the midst of our sufferings, we can celebrate.
Because God can use our suffering and pain to transform us and this world… So much so that he reminds us that
Suffering produces endurance.
Endurance produces character.
And character produces hope.
We have this myth in our society that good people get good things and bad people get bad things. If my retirement account is going gangbusters or I’m the popular one at school, or my children made the honor roll, then God must be blessing me and I must be doing something right. And the flip side of that is also true – if bad things are happening to me, then I must be doing something wrong in my life. God must be mad with me about something.
But that’s not how I read Scripture at all. Life isn’t always happy, easy, or all that enjoyable. And believing in the Triune God has never meant that suffering or bad things will magically go away. If that we’re the case, we wouldn’t have to ask people at Zion to prayerfully consider becoming a Stephen Minister.
In fact, being a follower of Jesus means that we will probably find suffering all the more. St. Paul knew that first hand. Most likely, Paul wrote Romans wrote this towards the end of his life and had lived through suffering by pastoring a hard congregation like the church at Corinth, by being imprisoned, and most likely martyred for believing in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In another one of his letters he talks about all the things he had going for him before Jesus got a hold of him and how now he regards all of them as rubbish.
Suffering produces endurance
That endurance produces character
And character produces hope.
Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the power of the Spirit.
This wasn’t just some pipe dream or theory for Paul, he lived that out in his own life…. It wasn’t that Paul was seeking pain or was some sort of glutton for punishment, but it instead it is that Paul is suggesting, I believe, that we can learn from pain and see it as a source of life and health. Don’t waste the pain!
Life, health, and even hope can come in the midst of suffering. Suffering gives us the ability to witness…. To say that even though we go through hard times, we can hold our heads high and say that we are justified, at peace with God and that the Holy Spirit has been poured out into our hearts.
And as we suffer, we can look to the very life of Jesus and see what God did to him – he raised him from the dead. And then he seated him on his right hand. And because I follow in the same way of that first century Jew named Jesus, I get the honor of suffering…. But I also get the honor of sharing in the glory of God. God chose not to waste the pain of suffering, but instead transformed it.
This weekend in our society where we find our pondering those who have lost their lives serving in the military. While we find ourselves looking up to those who have served in the military as heroes and examples of good and honorable citizens of our country, we also know all too well that soldiers who have seen combat have witnessed some terrible things – including suffering and death.
And those things take a toll on us. The horrors of war are well documented because of warriors who served our country that now have PTSD. Boasting in our suffering doesn’t mean that our sufferings will go away or will be magically healed. Pain will still be a part of life.
But what it does mean is that God ensures that our sufferings will never be wasted. We are loved and claimed, put in the right… justified.
We remember that when we gather for the Eucharist, for Holy Communion.
In just a few minutes, Pastor Dave will say words that the faithful have proclaimed for years – “in the night in which he was betrayed…” At the very moment when evil made its best plans to show that suffering doesn’t lead to hope, God takes bread and wine and uses it as a transforming moment to remind us that by the power of the Spirit, God’s love has been poured out into our hearts. Death still happens for Jesus…. Suffering and our own deaths will still happen for us…
But – God will never let that be the last word. Thanks be to God. Amen.