By The Rev. John Bedingfield
In the name of one God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
When I was a kid, there was often music playing in our house. My love of jazz comes from early exposure to my father’s Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck and Ray Charles albums. But if the radio was playing in our house – other than in my sister’s room or mine – you can bet that it was country music that was playing. I have fond memories of listening to many of the pioneers of country music on the family radio. I was recently put in mind of one of the signature songs of the “new country” era in the late sixties and early seventies. Do you remember the break out hit song for Lynn Anderson in 1970? It had as its tag line,
“I beg your pardon.
I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine
there’s got to be a little rain sometime.”
I have no idea how many times I heard that song played in my junior high school years. In addition to the radio saturation that the song got, it became my mother’s standard response to teenage whining. Whenever either my older sister or I would begin the age old lament, “That’s not fair!” my mother would invariably respond with, “I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.” All of this nostalgia came rushing back to me Wednesday during our Lenten supper program. By the way, if you haven’t been coming to this series, you ought to start. Not only is it good food, it’s good for your mind and your soul. So far we have not had a bad bowl of soup nor a bad discussion, and we are expecting equally great things this week.
Anyway, on Wednesday we talked about the Bible and miracles. And one statement made was that it was easy to believe in a miracle-working God – it takes real faith to hang on when the miracle you pray for doesn’t come – “along with the sunshine, there’s got to be a little rain sometime.” And as I was reading the Epistle for today – from St. Paul’s masterpiece letter to the church in Rome, I couldn’t help but think that – in a very simple way, Lynn Anderson and the Apostle Paul are saying the same thing, in very different ways.
First, Paul says, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is important for us to understand that when Paul talks about peace here, he is not talking about a dreamy-eyed, mellowness that we think of when we remember 1960’s hippies. Rather, Paul is talking about the calm that comes to our very souls as a result of our knowledge of the love of God and the power that love has in our lives. That peace to which Paul refers is what he suggests should be our response to hard times, when the miracles — at least the recognizable ones that we’re looking for – don’t come.
Paul says that we stand in God’s grace and boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Not only do we boast in the glory of God, but Paul says we also, rejoice in our sufferings. Now is that not an odd thing to say? We, “rejoice in our sufferings.” What suffering is he talking about? Is it physical suffering? Emotional suffering? Spiritual? All of the above. Paul calls us to boast in ALL our sufferings, from being hospitalized as a result of an illness, to going through a divorce. From drowning in a sea of consumer credit, to dealing with the death of a loved one, to losing a job, we are all supposed to boast in these sufferings. We are to boast in the suffering that may result “in times of self-examination when introspection lays bare the weakness of our faith”. So, let’s go. Are you ready? …. Hip Hip Horay! I’ve been sick, my faith is shaky and I’m afraid of the future! That is not what St. Paul had in mind – thanks be to God.
Instead, he simply means that suffering is a part of life. No matter what we might want, no matter how many times we see movies and television that try to make us think someone else’s life is perfect, no matter how many times we complain that life is not fair, Paul wants us to know that suffering is simply a part of everyone’s life, BUT if we allow it to happen, we will – as a result of that suffering – end in a place of hope.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I wish I’d had your service so many years ago. I was doing some research for teaching a class on the lectionary this coming Sunday and your material is fantastic for its insights. You settled the question about the differences between ‘whoever is not with me is against me’ and ‘whoever is not against US is with us.’ I had a confrontation with a troubled person two decades ago on that very point. I wish I’d had your insights back then.”
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When we are down, when things look the bleakest, when depression hits, when we reach the point where we are no longer at the end of our rope because even the knot on the rope is a distant memory, then we can remember all of the others we know through Scripture who have suffered. The children of Israel, led by Moses, as we heard this morning, wandered through the desert for 40 years, suffering all along the way – testing their patience (and God’s) before they reached the promised land of Canaan. Abraham and Sarah suffered in patience through decades of infertility. Job lost everything to become the poster child for suffering. But it is Jesus whose suffering Paul really wants us to appreciate.
St. Paul wants us to get a handle on the fact that Jesus was the Incarnation – God in human form among us – and this man, Jesus, whom we might assume had the choice and the ability to avoid suffering, instead suffered mightily. The mental image we have of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, fearfully and desperately praying that God would please take away what was about to happen to him, is the epitome of mental, emotional and spiritual suffering.
But remember what Jesus did to get through that time. He prayed and ended his prayer with, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42). He put his suffering in the hands of the God of love and trusted that he would come through. Then, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, suffering more than we could ever possibly imagine, his cry to God – straight from Psalm 22 – was the mournful lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). But that cry of distress was followed with, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). Again, in the midst of his suffering, Jesus came out the other side in hope, through faith and grace.
Paul wants us to know that by the pure grace of God, through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, we have been redeemed. We now have the ultimate hope of everlasting life by the grace of the God who loves us enough to become the paschal lamb for our sakes. When we say during the service, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast,” it is a reference to this point that Paul and the Synoptic Gospels want to make sure we don’t miss. Jesus, the innocent lamb, was led to slaughter and was sacrificed for us – just like the Jews used to sacrifice pure, spotless lambs on the high altar of the Temple – so that we might have a new and closer relationship with the almighty creator God, the God who promised us that we would never be alone in our distress. Paul wants to make certain that we understand that through the grace of God, we – just like the children of Israel, may take a long and difficult journey through the wilderness, but we will end up in the promise land.
So, when we suffer, if we do so in patience – meaning keeping our focus on God rather than going into a panic or a depression because things are bad – then the results will not be shallow optimism, nor a deep fatalism, but rather will be hope. And it is hope through the grace of God that Paul calls us to celebrate today. The reading we just heard said that hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been poured into our hearts. The “love of God,” can be understood to mean what Jews call the Shema. Jews pray the Shema the same way their ancestors have, back to the time of Moses. ” Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 WEB). What Paul is talking about in this Romans passage is the hope we get from loving the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might. To center our hearts on the love of God is more than mere consolation, it is the fulfillment of Shema. It is what God created us for. And when we are fulfilling the purpose that God has for us, we will have the hope that God imparts to us through God’s grace.
Lynn Anderson told us that we were never promised a rose garden. That is true. Along with the sunshine, there will, indeed be rain sometimes. And sometimes, along with sunshine we will feel like fire hydrants in a world full of dogs. But what the song does not tell us, and what Paul wanted so desperately for us to know, is that by the grace of God, through the gift of Jesus Christ in our lives, we have the hope of resurrection, and even before the resurrection comes, we have a God who loves us so much that that God promised never to leave us alone. Suffering with God at our sides leads to patient endurance. And patience leads to character. And character leads to hope. And hope will not disappoint us. The recipe for pulling us through the darkest of times. Thanks be to God.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.