Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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.
My mom used to tell a story about my father’s mother, Anna Maxwell. I am telling this story from my memory, so I’m sure I have some of the details wrong. I hope both my mother and my grandmother will forgive me from heavenly perch.
I remember one part of the story very clearly. It was my mother quoting my grandmother saying to my father, “Oh no, Bob. God will provide.”
When my father told his mother he had advanced melanoma and only limited time to live that’s what she said. “Oh no, Bob. God will provide.”
Every time he talked with his mother during the brutally short time he had between his diagnosis and death, my father tried to explain to her about all the experimental treatments that had failed and that there was nothing left to be done.
My grandmother would have none of it.
“Oh no, Bob. God will provide.”
I am not sure why my mother told me that story, and I don’t remember much of what mother said about it.
Truthfully, it’s probably my mother’s imitation of my grandmother’s voice that made it stick with me so long.
I think my mother might have been tell me something about my grandmother’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the gravity of my father’s illness.
Instead, my grandmother was relying on God to fix a situation, and she did not wish to discuss it at all with my father.
As I’ve grown older, I have much more sympathy for my grandmother.
I am more able to imagine the darkness she experienced as a widow whose husband died when he was in his early 50’s. Now she was facing the untimely death of her only child.
That darkness must have been overwhelming. And that woman of deep faith could only hold on to the idea that God wouldn’t do this to her again. She clung to the belief God would surely provide some miraculous path.
When we are in that dark night of the soul, we want to find the light.
When things get dark, we want to somehow look to the bright side, a way out of the pit we are in.
We want to believe something good will come out of suffering.
I remember reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-Sided” years ago in which she writes about being diagnosed with late stage breast cancer, and then being bombarded with wildly optimistic, inspirational phrases.
God will provide. If you just believe enough. If you just pray enough. If you just keep a positive outlook. It will all work out.
Ehrenreich didn’t find that sentiment helpful and observed that cheery optimism is a particularly American trait, even in the face of painful and disfiguring illness. She writes of the significant distance between the experience of her cancer treatments and the pink shoes worn by NFL players or the pink ribbons on products you can buy at the store.
Of course, in the midst of a dark night of the soul caused by illness or pain, we want to believe there a cure.
When there is suffering, we don’t want to wallow in it to the point of being unable to function.
And as people of faith, we want a big, big God to pull off a miracle.
When it comes to suffering, there are few biblical characters who had it worse than Paul.
After a dazzling career in persecuting Christians, an encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road changed everything.
Within a few days after he encountered the living Christ who told him to knock it off, Saul/Paul’s own people wanted to kill him. And for the 33 years that Paul preached the gospel until his death, they came very close to killing him between years in jail and savage beatings and being chased out of town more than once. So when Paul talks about suffering, he knows what he’s talking about.
And yet, as we see in Romans, Paul takes in that suffering, holds it up to the light, and looks at it through God’s love and providence.
Notice that Paul doesn’t put a sunny spin on it, or engage in wishful thinking.
He doesn’t expect or pray for his suffering to vanish.
He just continues to stubbornly hold on to hope because, even in deepest darkness, Paul knows there something deeper.
Paul sees that all things work together for good for those who love God.
Paul says hope endures because God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s hope is born out of a deep sense that God’s love outweighs all the terrible stuff that life has thrown at Paul.
Paul was an expert at suffering, that’s for sure. But he was also deeply connected to God through Christ, and keenly aware of the Holy Spirit’s movement in his life and ministry. Paul lived years before there was any attempt at figuring out the relationship between God, Jesus and the Spirit, but there is no doubt Paul could sense the movement of that relationship. Paul could not explain the Trinity, but he spent 33 years of his life depending upon it.
Today is Trinity Sunday. And at Bible study this week, we spent two hours wondering about if and why the Trinity matters so much. I’d say the room was evenly split on the question of if it matters. And we took a good stab at the why.
In the past when I have preached on this Sunday, I have mostly dwelled in the mystery so beautifully articulated in the Psalm we heard today.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
I like that Big God, don’t you? I love mystery with a capital M.
I love looking up into the heavens when I’m away from the city lights – at the beach, in the small town where I grew up, even when I was in Africa. I love looking up at dazzling night sky, seeing millions of stars and knowing there were millions more behind them. I remember sitting on a beach in South Carolina one year on New Year’s Eve, feeling as if I would be swallowed up by the sky. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful before or since.
What are human beings, anyway? What is this Earth we live on? Just another star in God’s vast universe, one of millions that are born every day. What are humans beings in this incomprehensible infinite space and why do we matter?
How can I, with my puny human brain, hope to find words for the mysterious unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God – a God far bigger than I can possibly conceive in a thousand Sundays?
As I quipped in Bible study, please don’t ask me to explain the Trinity.
I don’t even know how the toaster works.
Furthermore, I don’t need to know how the toaster works.
All I know is that I put my bagel in the toaster, and expect it to pop out, golden brown. That’s all I need to know.
Same way with the Trinity. I can’t explain it.
Theologians are like the guys who designed the toaster, manufactured the toaster, and know how to fix the toaster if it breaks. They can deal with explaining it. I’ll just be over here eating my bagel.
The Trinity is, truly, a big and holy mystery. Someone said we probably shouldn’t delve too much into something as thoroughly inexplicable as the Trinity because, let’s face it, even God deserves some privacy.
But as I was reading through the prayer list for the church this week, it struck me that mystery is pretty useless when your beloved spouse is ill.
A God out in the universe creating new stars that you can’t even see is not much help when you’re waiting for test results or reading another story about children being blown to bits by guns or dealing with an aging parent.
Paul’s God is big. Big, big, big. Make no mistake. Paul’s hope is not based upon sharing some small sliver of God’s goodness, but in sharing the dazzling, starlit glory of God.
But Paul’s God is also personal. Paul’s God is the God of relationship. Paul’s God is the God of community. Paul’s God is the God of love. Paul’s God is the God of peace. Paul’s God is the God of glory. And Paul experiences God in all of those ways. And, thanks to the Trinity, so do we.
Which still doesn’t explain the Trinity, but it explains why Trinity matters.
The Trinity matters because that mysterious God in community, which reveals itself in endless layers and experiences of grace is absolutely the only way any of us get through anything that this life throws at us. Of that I am certain.
It is in the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit that we are encouraged, consoled, challenged, and cherished. We need them all, in different ways, on different days, in different iterations, in different locations, all of them always present with us, among us, and through us.
I thought about this as I thought about my grandmother and her words to my father.
I don’t think my father wanted his mother’s reassurance that God will provide. I am certain there was more than a small portion of my father’s heart that hoped against hope for a miracle.
I think my father wanted to talk to his mother who had brought him into this world about the unfairness of it all.
I think he wanted to have the conversations with her – with many people — that would help him endure his disease without denying its reality.
I think he wanted my grandmother and the people around him to listen to the hope he had for what future he had left, and hope for the future he would not see. And when his hope was running low, he needed his community to hold that hope on his behalf.
I think he wanted to tell his mother what it felt like to know that he would not see his children grow up and to know that he wouldn’t be around to help his mother as she aged or hold her hand when she died.
He wanted her to see his suffering was not only physical, but also about leaving the world of single malt scotch and Dave Brubeck records and the eager young students he taught at Penn State.
My dad didn’t need formulas, doctrines, or even a miracle, although I am sure he wouldn’t turn it down.
My father needed community.
And when the church is at its best, that is the community we offer.
And when the church is at its very best, we might begin to see why the Trinity matters.
God doesn’t work alone. The Trinity tells us that.
And you and I don’t get through anything alone. The Trinity tells us that, too.
We need all of it – Creator, Word and Spirit.
We need to open ourselves up to the dance of the Trinity more than we need to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. We need to experience the Trinity because without it, our faith becomes dried up and useless. Without the Trinity, we are left with a God who sits in isolated splendor somewhere up in the clouds, useless and irrelevant and passionless.
We need the God who is personally involved, who understands our pain, and who is not somewhere out there, but present with us in every breath.
We need the God made known in Jesus – always inviting, always relating, teaching, revealing, healing, giving.
We need the God made known in the Spirit to move through us with every breath, whisper in our ear, surprise us, kick us in the rear end, and comfort us in our grief.
That’s the kind of God we need when receive the bad diagnosis. That’s the God who will slog with us through the terrible days and, yes, celebrate with us on the good ones.
That is the God we experience in this community we call church.
I can’t explain the Trinity, but I can tell you where I see it.
I saw it this week when someone said he knows he can call upon any number of people in his church at any time and know that someone will, without hesitation, listen to him, talk with him, and pray with him.
I saw it this week when someone said a group of people went to a Pride parade, and one of the moms was inspired to wear a sign saying “Free Mom Hugs.” Total strangers whose own moms have cast them out for being gay come up to her for the first hug they’ve had in years.
And I see it all the time, in the stories you share, in the love you show for each other, and the particular ways you care for this community.
So maybe the Holy Trinity is a dusty doctrine that I can explain to you and I am sorry for that.
But the Trinity is a community that you and I can experience when we breathe in the glory of God, the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love that is constantly poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God. Amen.