Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sermon: An Oak or A Squash

Romans 5:1-8

Earlier in the service we showed a video with the kids and the story of the oak and the squash.

Oak Versus Squash

Most of us know that the quick and easy answer seldom makes us stronger. That for us to be shaped into oak trees takes time and it takes struggle. There is a part of us that knows that really is through struggling, and perhaps even through suffering that we are made stronger. What is the saying right now? “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Not that we like that or enjoy that, but we understand that if we want to be strong, we have to live through some trouble. The Apostle Paul says something like that in Romans 5:1-8.

Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Whenever I read a bible passage, I always look for a phrase or two that jump out at me and catch my attention. That is part of spiritual practice of bible reading that suggests that those phrases jump out at us because God has a message for us in those phrases. So as I read the passage from Romans, I noticed that the apostle Paul says a strange thing – he says that “We even take pride in our problems.” That statement caught my attention. It jumped out at me. It made me think.

My first thought was that many of us we try to pretend we are strong and we don’t admit there are any problems in our lives. We try to ignore the fact that we struggle with pornography or alcohol addiction. We don’t tell people about our marital problems that happen behind closed doors. We never let on that we struggle with our emotions like depression or anxiety or anger. We may be unable to pay our bills, or fighting health concerns, but we don’t go trumpeting the fact from the rooftops. Because the fact is we are ashamed of them, not proud. So we are far more like to pretend the problems aren’t there, to cover them up. What Paul is suggesting goes against the natural pattern for many of us. He is saying stop being ashamed of your problems and take pride in them. I’ll come back to this.

Of course, as I thought about it, I was reminded of the people that I know that seem to take too much pride in their problems. They are always in crisis, and their crisis is always worse than yours. You know what I mean, if you had a relative die, they had two relatives die. If you had triple bypass surgery, they had quadruple bypass surgery. They take pride in their suffering – perhaps too much pride. It is like life is a competition for who got dealt the worst hand, and they are bragging about how awful theirs is. They always seem to have a problem, a crisis, and they are telling you about it. I do not think that is what Paul is talking about here. I don’t think he is talking about being the loudest whiner about how lousy our life is.

So if Paul is challenging our natural reactions to life, if he is telling us not to be ashamed of our problems, but rather to take pride in them – how can we do that without becoming whiny?

Actually Paul talks about it right away. He follows up his statement on taking pride in our problems by telling us that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.

It isn’t the problems themselves that we are proud of; it is the fact that those problems provide opportunities for our growth through the grace of God, for our learning from life. In The Book of Joy that I gave to the graduates a couple of weeks ago, the Dalai Lama says, “Many people think of suffering as a problem. Actually, it is an opportunity destiny has given to you. In spite of difficulties and suffering, you can remain firm and maintain your composure.” In the same chapter the Archbishop Desmond Tutu observes that we are not strong in spite of our difficulties, rather that we are strong because of our difficulties. In many ways, these two are saying what Paul said, suffering is an opportunity to build your endurance, your character, and ultimately your hope.

Specifically in Romans, Paul says that there is a progression there that we should be learning from. Endurance, character, hope.

Let me return to the image of an oak tree. As the acorn first sprouts it is small and relatively frail. During its first year it must face the blistering heat of summer, and the blizzards of winter that will cover it completely with snow. As the years pass it must survive the times of drought and low rainfall, and the times when there are heavy storms that batter the tree with wind and torrents of rain. All of this produces within the tree a power to endure all situations.

As it endures, the tree itself is shaped -- it grows deep roots for strength to stand, to reach into reserves of water that are beyond most plants. It becomes strong yet flexible. It is as though time itself is shaping it into that which is good and right. Not only is the tree able to endure, but it is a better tree. If it were a person you would say that it was building character. So when we face our problems and through them and through God’s help become better people, when we grow in our ability to love others, when we discover a deeper sense of purpose, when we find joy in things we once took for granted, when grow deep roots, become strong and flexible – when that happens the Holy Spirit has been at work at us, and then not only have we learned to endure the sufferings of life, but that endurance is producing character, and we have moved to the second step.

From character Paul says we develop hope. This is harder for us to see in trees, since we cannot really see into their souls and know if they feel such a thing as hope. But the idea is that as we face life’s problems and we learn to endure them, as we learn to see that we can actually use them as opportunities to grow, our attitude about suffering changes. Through each of those troubles, we have turned to God, and God has poured God’s love into our hearts. So no longer is the pain of this world a thing which makes us feel hopeless, no longer are our troubles things which bring us down – rather in them we are reminded that God is at work. We learn that in every time of pain, in every grief and sorrow, God was there. And so when we face a new trouble we are not overwhelmed by it, but rather we know from experience, from having endured, from having grown, that God will be there in this one as well.

That’s why Paul is able to say that we can take pride in our problems, not because we are in some whining contest, but rather that the sufferings of the world, the troubles we face, if we face them with the correct attitude, can actually be things which turn us into saints who truly believe that God is in all things working for the good.

It is boasting in the hope of God’s glory, that by grace God takes squash, people who are weak and sinful, filled with guck (that’s the official name for what is in the middle of squash, guck), and over time --- usually over years -- God transforms us into oak trees. Paul reminds us that Jesus dies for us while we are ungodly people. You would think we would be of little value to him. But God loved us enough to enter into our lives, to gift us with the Holy Spirit, to see beyond our now and into our potential, so that we might grow through God’s grace to be mighty oaks. So as Paul says in another place, “The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” But to do that we have to be willing to look at suffering differently – not whine about it, not pretend it isn’t there but allow the power of Christ to be at work in us to produce endurance, character and eventually unconquerable hope.

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