(This meditation was recorded and made available in place of a worship service cancelled due to the COVID-19 virus concerns.)
Scripture: Romans 5:1-11; Finding God in Suffering
Hi. This is Hamilton Throckmorton. I greet you in the name, and by the grace, of Jesus Christ. And I am so glad, in these unheard-of times, to share a few minutes of connection with you even if it’s only electronically.
Let us pray: God, life has turned upside down, and we look to you for guidance and support. Give us grace and strength, we pray, that we will be filled with your deep peace. In the name and by the grace of Christ we pray. Amen.
What a strange new world we have moved into over just the last few days. Who would have guessed on Tuesday that we would have seen as much disruption, and as many events and programs cancelled, as we’ve seen. My daughter-in-law Cynthia, who’s a middle school science teacher, said a couple of days ago that she told her eighth-graders that this is their “9/11.” Not unlike that earlier event that is so seared into the minds of many of us, this will be one of the most vivid memories for the rest of these children’s lives. Strange new world.
If you are listening to this podcast, you are no doubt aware that, here at Federated, we have suspended our gatherings for worship for the remainder of March. We are among countless organizations that have done the same thing. The Cleveland Orchestra, the NBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball, the Cleveland International Film Festival, Cleveland and Broadway shows, college sports programs, and Ohio’s public and private schools have all closed for at least several weeks. With what we’ve learned over the last several days, we anticipate that, here at Federated, we will be continually reexamining our plans, adjusting to the vagaries of this viral contagion. COVID-19 is nothing if not fast-moving and unpredictable.
The scars the disease leaves are many and varied. It touches virtually everyone. First and most serious, of course, are the ways it has affected those who have contracted the disease, several of whom are right here in Northeast Ohio. Wherever they are, though, the suffering is real and sometimes acute. Add to that the disruption in the lives of family members and friends who accompany those who have been infected. And then there are those who have been in close contact with people who carry the virus, and the fear that goes with that.
That fear seeps out to the rest of us, as well. Not only we worry that the virus may invade us, but we wonder if we have enough milk and bread, enough wipes and tissues, enough food for a two-week quarantine. In trying to order hand sanitizer, our lead custodian Jacob Evans could find very little that was still available, and discovered two big bottles being sold for $108. Mass anxiety can lead to hoarding.
And then there are the collateral losses that go with the disease. Our younger son Taylor took some of the track and field athletes he coaches to the NCAA Division III National Championships in Winston-Salem, NC, this week. They had arrived at the site, and were all ready to compete, when the meet was cancelled. All that work, that preparation, that excitement went up in smoke. I thought of numerous high school and college seniors who are now denied opportunities to compete in their last season or participate in their last theater production or maybe to experience an in-person graduation—what a deep disappointment and sense of loss they must experience.
And what about for us? Maybe there was a play you so wanted to see, or a concert you wanted to hear, or a March Madness matchup you were looking forward to. Maybe you’ve been looking forward to shared time in the sanctuary, being soothed by our choirs, reassured by the words of scripture, reminded of what’s at our core, and comforted by the richness and warmth of the Federated community.
In the absence of our being able to gather in person, though, we dare never forget that we still have the heart of our faith to sustain and guide us. We’re in the middle of the season of Lent. Many weeks ago, long before COVID-19 had left such a vivid mark on our lives, I had set the theme for this weekend’s worship: Finding God in Times of Pain and Suffering. How eerily apropos that theme seems now! Rather than dismiss it as coincidence, though, I see it as such a gift, reflecting the movement of God in our common life.
The scripture passage for today is remarkably pertinent to the situation in which we find ourselves. Two millennia ago, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to a fledgling church in the city of Rome. He hadn’t met the people there, and in his letter, he set out to give them the basics of Christian faith. His letter to the Romans is an extended reflection on the heart of what it is to be a disciple of Christ.
Paul knows that no account of God can fail to take account of the suffering that is so rampant in the world. Any reflection on God has to wrestle with the fact of evil and pain. So here’s what he wrote in the passage for today: “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” (Romans 5:1-5).
What a strange thing to say: “we boast in our sufferings” (5:3)! I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a single time when I have wanted to celebrate my sufferings, to rejoice in my pain. Mostly I just want it to go away: get rid of my injuries, God; take away my pain; keep illness away; make sorrow and grief vanish. Boast in these low points? Oh, come on—really?! What in the world would make us boast about the COVID-19 virus that’s now a global pandemic? Seems ludicrous, doesn’t it?
I suspect, though, that Paul is reminding us of something we so easily forget, which is that there are strange blessings hidden in the heart of disappointment and grief, of pain and loss. Our work is to reframe what we’re seeing and experiencing. We don’t want to deny that there is real and abhorrent suffering. We only want to remember that, even in that suffering, the richness of God can wash over us.
Let me remind you of something I have said before. After 9/11, James Forbes, then the minister at New York’s Riverside Church, was asked by journalist Bill Moyers if God had made those vicious attacks happen. Forbes said something I’ll never forget. He said, “I don’t believe God makes everything to happen. But I do believe that God can make something happen out of everything.” In other words, Forbes didn’t think God had instigated that violence. But he did believe that God could turn things around in its wake.
Lent is a time of turning. It’s a time of turning to God. When we are faced with something as serious and sobering as COVID-19, it’s an opportunity to remember that, no matter what should happen, God will walk with us on the journey. Illness, financial struggle, death? God will be there with us. The work of the Lenten journey is to turn back to the One who grounds us in all things, the One who says, “I will never let you go,” the One who tends to us in death as in life. Let me invite you to turn around, to turn toward God, to receive the blessings of the One who delights in you no matter what. Take a moment right now to breathe deeply, and to remember that that breath is the Spirit of God coming into you and refreshing you and holding you.
There’s one more blessing in this, and that is that, in the fear and isolation that can run so rampant in these times, we have the opportunity to reach out to a friend or neighbor or church member who may just need to hear a friendly and reassuring voice. Compassion, I heard someone say recently, is the most distinctly human gift and trait we have. And compassion is only possible because of suffering. We could wish all suffering to disappear, but if we did, we would also lose that most magnificent of all human qualities, the quality of being able to support and care for each other on this bumpy road of life. You and I are at our most human when we call someone up who’s homebound or sick. We are most filled with holy blessing when we deliver a meal or send a note or listen with full attention to someone who lives in fear or agony. The suffering of the world, grim as it is, is also the catalyst for the greatest glory of human life. We are most who we are, and we most clearly show the face of God, when we connect with and nourish and bless each other. That is a gift that no contagion can erase.
Suffering has its strange gift. Remember Paul’s words: “We . . . 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.”
These days present us with a strange and paradoxical gift. It’s the gift, ultimately, of hope. These times let us turn back to God and to find again our true foundation. And they give us abundant opportunity to share holy grace with each other. Together let’s live in the heart, and the hope, of the peace of God.