“The Bridge Between Suffering and Hope”
Sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
May 26, 2013
John 16:12-15; Romans 5:1-5
Our first of two brief texts for this Trinity Sunday is from the Gospel of John. It is part of what is known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in the John’s Gospel. The discourse takes place in the Upper Room on the night before his arrest, and it spans five chapters, with only a few interruptions from the confused and anxious disciples. Listen now for God’s word in John’s Gospel, and note how Jesus speaks of the Spirit and of the Father. This makes this passage one of the texts on which Trinitarian theology – the idea that we worship one God in three persons – is based.
‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Our second short passage comes from the 5th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It, too, could be understood to be Trinitarian in its way, given that Paul mentions God, and Jesus, through whom, he says, we have obtained access to peace and grace, and the Holy Spirit, through whom God’s love is poured into our hearts. But it is the fact that Paul says that we rejoice or boast in our sufferings that I want you to listen for: pay attention to the progression of his reasoning as he builds a bridge from suffering to hope.
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.
It is a moving image, one that sticks with you. A young widow kneeling in front of a plain white tombstone at Arlington Memorial dressed in black, head in hands, weeping. Behind her, a spectral image of a soldier, in combat fatigues and boots, on one knee, with his hand placed on her shoulder. The caption reads, “Memorial Day. So you thought Memorial Day was all about your three-day weekend?”
It is harder to get the idea that Memorial Day is all about your three day weekend when you know a soldier or a sailor, or have been a soldier or a sailor. It is harder to get that idea when you’ve known someone whose life has been lost in the line of duty. It’s harder to get that idea that Memorial Day is just about a three day weekend when you hear the names of at least some who have served and those who have died in service, read aloud in worship.
What the image of the widow reminds us of is that military service comes with a cost, not just to those who serve but to their families. It is true that those who put on the uniform have in a sense written a blank check which they are willing to cash with their very lives. Even those who come back physically whole have often been psychologically wounded. The high number of suicides among veterans should give us pause: 22 a day, 600 a month, 7200 a year.
No, Memorial Day should never simply be about a three day weekend. So tomorrow, as we will do today, take a moment to give thanks for the sacrifices military personnel and their families make. Show your gratitude to them, and to God.
The image of the grieving widow at Arlington introduces another theme that cannot be avoided today, one that goes beyond just recognizing our military. It is the theme of human suffering. Not everyone will lose a family member on the battlefield. But every one of us will at some point face the ache of saying goodbye to someone who dies too early. Not everyone will endure the pain of being wounded in battle, but we will all know what it is to be hurt in some form or fashion. And truth be told, if we stand up for love, mercy and justice; if we pay attention at all to the suffering of a world where tornadoes level schools and neighborhoods, other natural disasters wreak havoc, and where momentary human mistakes can have tragic consequences, we will know pain. So a little reflection on how we handle suffering is in order.
The Apostle Paul, who certainly endured his share of hardship over the course of his life, outlines an interesting perspective on suffering in his letter to the church at Rome. Now, you should know that these were people who had to worship in the catacombs. They knew, or would come to know, what it was to be persecuted for their faith.
The book of Hebrews describes the persecution of early Christians in this way:
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword, they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering over deserts and mountains and dens and caves of the earth.
It was first to them and then to us that Paul wrote, “We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God, and not only that but we also rejoice in our sufferings.”
From time to time, I want to pull Paul aside. I’ll bet some of you want to pull him aside even more than I do! From time to time I want to pull Paul aside and say, “Really? Really? Rejoice in our sufferings? That sounds kind of sick. What could possess you to say that?”
Suffering hurts. That’s why we call it suffering. And before we too easily say that it leads people to rely upon God more deeply, we have to take seriously what Somerset Maugham, writing in the shadow of World War I (a terrible conflict), said. He wrote, “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character, happiness does that sometimes, but suffering for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”
Of course, that’s not always true. But the late Peter Gomes was right when he wrote of Maugham’s words, “As with most literary pronouncements, there is some truth to this one. We have all read, even the least literate among us, of characters poisoned by suffering, made old and mean-spirited before their time. The petty little scorekeepers who dignify their daily dose of deprivation as sufferings are with us on every hand….”
Suffering doesn’t always ennoble the character. Recognizing that, how on Earth could Paul suggest that we rejoice in it? Well, in his writing he constructs a bridge, a bridge from suffering to hope. The bridge starts with suffering, but it doesn’t end there. Suffering without meaning is hopeless indeed. It is the process and prospect of meaning coming out of suffering and hardship that can lead us to celebrate it.
You’ve all known someone like this. The person who is undergoing a lot of psychic or physical pain in the face of changing life circumstances, but at the same time is determined not to let those circumstances, to let that pain, get the final word. The suffering he or she is feeling is real, but the determination to learn, to grow, to redeem the time in the middle of it is real, too. I was talking to someone like that just the other day. She is determined to overcome, and in that she is an inspiration to me.
The Greek word translated as suffering in Paul’s text literally means pressure. Pressure is something we can understand in Northern Virginia. Let’s have a show of hands as we did last week. Who here is not experiencing any sort of pressure right now? Who in this room is?
Now what if we came to see our suffering, the pressure we face in life, in terms of how it might be shaping us for something better? Not rejoicing in suffering for suffering’s sake, but in how it might be the sand in the oyster that makes the pearl, or the pressure on the coal that turns it into a diamond, or the exercise regimen that turns the couch potato into an athlete?
The first step in the bridge is to see suffering as something that might just have some meaning in it.
Which leads us to the next step – endurance. Suffering produces endurance, which in Greek is hupomone, literally the ability to stand under something, or to bear up under it. What if we looked at suffering as an opportunity to practice standing under what we face, and understanding that God stands with us? The word for endurance is also sometimes translated as patience.
The ability to stand up under something leads to character, in Greek dokime, which comes from a word that means to prove, or to be proven. I think of the Aberdeen Proving Ground, or of boot camp. Those of you who are or have been in the military, do you remember going to boot camp? Was it easy? I know it was probably harder when you went through it then it is now, that’s what people always say. But boot camp is intended to make you ready, to prove you ready for the challenges you’ll face. It brings out your identity, like a refiner’s fire burns off the dross and purifies the metal. What if we looked at suffering as something that might bring out our identity, our true character, as children of God?
When suffering brings out our deepest, truest character, well, that leads to hope.
I want to talk about hope now in light of three things that happened this past Monday. First of all, there was the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, leveling a school and a whole neighborhood. Yet another instance of young people killed: we’ve seen too many of those in the past year. The F-5 tornado came up out of nowhere. There was really no time to get prepared for it and the devastation it would wreak.
In the aftermath of it, there were so many who came out to help. And as it was unfolding, there were those who did what they could to protect the most vulnerable. I think of the teachers. I saw an interview with one of the first responders, and he talked about digging through the rubble and coming to a teacher who had laid her body across three students to shield them. And, choked up, he said, “Good job, Teach.” How often we’ve seen that happen: teachers going to great lengths to care for their students, their character coming out in the midst of hardship. “Good job, Teach,” indeed! That gives me hope.
On Monday, we also had a memorial service here for Jay McAllister, an Immanuelite who died from cancer, at age 57. In the meditation for him, I addressed the importance of how we spend our dash – the dash between when you are born and when you die. I trust most of you know that poem titled The Dash. I also talked about how life is like a kaleidoscope, that for everything there is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, a season. As life unfolds, with each turn of the kaleidoscope, there are new images to behold and new challenges to face and experiences to undergo. If we lived like Jay, the images we see might be deeper in hue and richer in texture.
As the meditation continued, I said, “We’ve talked about the dash and the kaleidoscope, but what about the promise of the gospel? Sometimes people get confused about the promise of the gospel. The promise of the gospel is not that we get to avoid pain and suffering, it is that God is with us right in the middle of them.” Then I looked at Jay’s son, Ned, a high school senior who was in one of the confirmation classes I worked with a few years ago and I said, “Remember when I asked you, before this service, over in the Church House Lounge, how you were doing? And you told me, you were doing as well as you were because of the support of your friends at school? That is gospel. The way they came together to embody love and support for you, that’s gospel.”
Another thing happened on Monday. Zach Sobiech died. You may have heard of him. Zach, who was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer at age 14, became an Internet sensation because of the way he lived with his disease. He wrote a song for his girlfriend, called Clouds, that has received tens of thousands of YouTube views. A documentary filmmaker produced a short film about his life and the people he touched. One of the things that Zach said is that he saw the purpose in his life was to bring a smile to other people and to make people happy. And that is what he dedicated his life to doing. He died on Monday at the age of 18, but he spread hope.
The hope we have, though, is not finally just about us and what we’re able to accomplish.
Today is Trinity Sunday, and the joke among preachers is that all of us are a little scared to take on the topic, because no matter what we say, we’re likely to commit some kind of heresy. Be that as it may, let me tell you what I believe about the Trinity, the way I wrap my mind around it. It’s my own heresy, I suppose. I think of God, the Father, as God beyond us. God the Son, or Jesus, as God beside us…. And God the Holy Spirit as God within us. Beyond, beside, within…Not just within, but also beside. Not just beside, but also beyond.
Allow me to close with a quote from Vaclav Havel. Havel, you may know, was the Czech playwright and dissident who after a stint in prison, was eventually elected the President of Czechoslovakia. He wrote this in a chapter called “The Politics of Hope” in his book Disturbing the Peace:
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.”
In other words, not just from within us or beside us, but from beyond us.
In Jesus’ name,
Aaron D. Fulp-Eickstaedt
 You can find that image here: http://www.phoenixecigs.com/blog/?attachment_id=258
Kevin Freking, “Veteran Suicide Rate at 22 Each Day, Department of Veterans’ Affairs Report Finds” The Huffington Post (February 1st, 2013). You can find the link here:
 Hebrews 11:35-37
 W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence, (London, William Heinneman, 1919). You can read it in its entirety on line here: http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/s-maugham/moon-sixpence.pdf
 Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: Avon, 1996), p. 226.
 Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 1990), p. 181