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Trinity Sunday, May 26, 2013

On Monday, a tornado with 200 mile an hour winds ripped through the town of Moore, OK. The last time I checked 24 people had been killed. Thousands had lost their homes. Two elementary schools were destroyed. Many were being treated at hospitals in Norman, the closest large city, because Moore’s hospital had been destroyed. The Washington Post provided many details of suffering – pictures of people hugging each other amid the devastation and a woman sitting exhausted in a chair after trying to salvage what she could from her home. They described rescuers pulling dirty children out of the elementary school rubble and a Facebook page that had been set up to try to find missing relatives. There will be suffering in this town and in many towns across the country that will face tornadoes and hurricanes this year for a long time to come.

What does suffering have to do with the Trinity? Everything, says Paul in his letter to the Romans. We cannot avoid suffering in a world that is broken, but with the Trinity’s help we can learn to “boast” or “rejoice” in it. The concept of rejoicing in the midst of suffering jangles the ears and hearts of many of us. We do our best to avoid suffering, to keep it away from us. We wear seat belts so we don’t have fatal accidents. We try to amass wealth so we do not one day lose everything and find ourselves without a job and without a home. We exercise and eat right in order to stay away from ill health and even death. We try not to anger anyone, preferring instead to make sure we go along to get along. We stay away from people we find difficult to be around. If all or part of us believes in a God of wrath, we do our best to follow the rules to the letter, so we do not anger God.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to avoid suffering, and we certainly should not go looking for it, but the truth is that suffering comes to us all. Whether it is in a natural disaster or at a more individual level, we all experience some suffering – loss, sickness, grief, broken relationships, physical or mental disabilities, accidents, financial reverses, feeling far away from God and a host of other things. Paul addresses the attitude to suffering we should have as Christians. We should rejoice in the midst of it because it can give us hope. Suffering produces endurance (or patience) and endurance produces character – we grow more in the image and likeness of God. It is those things that give us hope – hope in an eternal future for ourselves with God.

When faced with suffering, everyone has many questions. One of the universal questions is why suffering happens at all. Why do we have to endure painful moments or hours or months or years in a world created good by God? Paul does not address this question, but one explanation is that suffering happens because not only did humanity fall in the Garden of Eden, but the world fell too. Nature was a victim of the snake just as Adam and Eve were. The result was suffering and death for us, caused by one another and the natural world.

We also want to know where God is in suffering. Paul would say that God provides the hope in the midst of suffering – hope of sharing in the glory of God through Jesus Christ and the hope of God’s love within us in the Holy Spirit. We know that God loved us enough to send Jesus to be human like us and to suffer with us and for us, so we can hope that God can redeem our suffering as God redeemed Jesus’ suffering. We also know that God has an inside member – the Holy Spirit, who is present in our suffering providing us with God’s love, praying for us with sighs too deep for words, giving us help to endure whatever we must. God is present in suffering, just as God is present in joyful times, so we are never far from God.

Why did God let this happen to me, we ask. Notice the difference between “let” this happen and “make” this happen. I have heard theologies that posit that if nothing is outside God’s control then God visits us with every illness, every grief, every sorrow we ever experience. I once read an article that said in part, “God gave me diabetes, so I could learn something from it”. Another popular theology is that God never gives us more than we can handle. I find that to be untrue. There are lots of times we get more than we can handle on our own. But there is good news. My spiritual director said to me recently that God does not cause our wounds, but God never wastes them. So the wounds are not God’s doing but God uses them to produce endurance and character and hope that make us better able to be all God meant us to be.

Sometimes our thoughts turn to Jesus’ suffering, and we wonder why God allowed this. On the surface, Jesus suffered and died because his ministry upset the religious authorities too much to let him live. But Jesus’ suffering and death were not purposeless. Jesus died to give us peace with God. We in the world – all of us – were estranged from God and God wanted relationship with us. So Jesus died to reconcile us with God. Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we have peace with God through Christ and we have access to grace and mercy through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through this peace, we can rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

When we are suffering, we naturally want it to go away, and we want to know when it will end. I think Paul would say it is up to God. The important thing to Paul is that God is with us, however long our suffering may last and however bowed down we may be by it. God is in it with us, giving us peace through Jesus Christ and the love of the Holy Spirit to take care of us when we cannot take care of ourselves.

We want to know what kind of love God’s love is in the midst of suffering. Is it a ministry of presence, or is it a more active ministry. Does God have a role in finding us the best doctors or marriage counselors or helpers? Does God send our neighbors to provide consolation and support? I think Paul says yes to this. All we receive from God makes us grateful, and our gratitude helps us bear our suffering.

If we have an Old Testament image of God, then one of our main questions is whether God is punishing us or not. Paul would say definitely not. God is a God of grace and mercy, who gives us life and hope.

All three persons of the Trinity are involved in Paul’s theology of suffering. God gives us peace. Through Jesus we have access to grace and the hope of sharing the glory of God. The love of God is poured into our hearts in the Holy Spirit. Because God is three in one, we have been given all these gifts to help us endure suffering patiently and to even gain something out of our pain. The Trinity in community works together to help us bear what we could not bear without God. Having the Trinity is like doing a trust-building exercise when you close your eyes and fall backwards into someone’s arms and having three someones to catch you instead of one.

We can bear any suffering with the help of the Triune God active and involved in our lives because we receive peace, hope and love through their efforts. God is constantly creating new life in us, redeeming the old through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and loving us eternally in the power of the Holy Spirit. God surrounds us and fills us, giving us the courage to go on, whatever our circumstances. So while suffering is not good news, the good news is that God the Trinity can transform every part of our lives into a peaceful, hopeful, loving experience. It may be a big stretch, but perhaps we can learn to rejoice, even a little bit, in our sufferings, because of the good they can produce.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker