Rev. Katherine Todd
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
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.
This passage from Romans challenges the way we approach suffering in our society.
It is common belief that you reap what you sow.
And where did that idea come from?
Well,… probably everywhere. It’s the idea behind Karma. And it is quite literally in the Bible.
There is truth to that statement. We do reap the consequences of our actions. But how-much-so does vary by situation. Some folks, who you can easily and quickly think of, seem to have far more than their fair share of suffering. And o-so-many have suffering we dare not ever attribute to the result of their actions or inactions, sins, or mis-steps.
While we do reap what we sow. Life has shown us that that’s not always how things go. Some folks seem to prosper in doing evil. We can look at any number of big corporations to see that. In our Old Testament reading today, we glimpsed a merciful ending to the crazy story of Joseph. While God indeed used all the evil dealt on Joseph for good, Joseph suffered more than most of us will ever know – sold by his brothers into slavery, falsely accused of rape, and imprisoned for many years…
So it is clear that while we do reap what we sow. Sometimes, we do not. And perhaps many times, true justice or fairness may only come in the hereafter.
But I will tell you why I think this idea of reaping what we sow is so strongly engrained in our sub-consciousness as a society. It’s because whenever bad things happen to us, we are mesmerized and incensed. We slam our hands down; it isn’t fair! We protest with righteous indignation.
We expect that if we do good, we will receive good.
And when we don’t get it, we get mad.
Often we even take it further: we question what we did wrong. We wonder where we went wrong to get such a bad outcome. We rehearse and review moments and years and decades in our minds. We turn a situation over and over in our imaginations. We try to figure out why something bad happened. We are trying to prevent it from happening again. We hope to learn from the experience and change our future. And we are grappling with feelings of inadequacy, shame, or guilt for being unsuccessful.
Now sometimes, these feelings are well founded in reality: we have indeed made poor choices and we will do well to learn from them as much as we can. But other times, this guilt and shame are entirely misplaced.
This is what happens with victims of assault, violence, and violation. Quite often the victims feel ashamed – as if what happened to them has made them dirty, as if they somehow were flawed to begin with to have had this happen to them. They, in fact, rehearse the horrid scenes over and over in their minds, searching to make sense out of what has happened.
And I think that’s the key to our responses when bad things happen – we want to make sense of them.
We want to believe that we live in a world that is right and just. We want to believe that good will happen to the good and evil will come to those who perpetrate evil. We want to believe that we have power over our world and our lives.
But, experience shows us that this kind of justice and fairness do not yet cover the earth. This Kingdom of God living, where justice reigns and peace makes its home in our hearts – this Kingdom is ever coming and ever not-yet-here. It comes in the actions and persistence and diligence, and compassion, and fierceness of those following the Spirit of God in this world. But in many, many other realms, justice and peace and wholeness are not yet the reality.
And so no, we do not always reap what we sow.
And as much as we want to believe it to be true. In loving kindness to both ourselves and one another, we must allow that it is also true that injustice and evil also wield their might and bring death and destruction. We do not fully control or have power over the outcomes in our lives.
Now why have I delved into such a tricky topic after such an inspiring verse as this passage from Romans?
I have done it because I think Christian culture in America has a problem with “boasting in our sufferings.” Christian culture in America will far sooner shame or judge those suffering than recognize, that for some, if not many, their suffering is undeserved and unjust. Their suffering is a symptom of our societal sins, and not their own personal sins.
We suffer for the sins of one another, not just our own sins. We suffer when someone in power lacks the courage to stand up to injustice. We suffer when company’s and individuals think that to win someone else must lose. We suffer when anyone tries to store up for themselves all the world’s wealth, without a mindfulness and compassion to their fellow human beings. When one of us weeps, we all weep. When one of us rejoices, we all rejoice. …that is also in the Bible.
We affect one another. But I believe that in our grasping to understand and order our world, in order to make sense of our experiences, we rush to blame. We rush to explain. We rush to judge. We rush to dismiss.
And in-so-doing, we deal ourselves and one another death-blows. We hit ourselves and one another when we’re down, when we’re at our lowest points.
And that is an even greater injustice.
Christ instructs us not to quench a smoldering wick. In other words, when someone is down, do not push them flat to the ground, do not trample them further, do not break their back and their spirit.
But when we judge… And when we shame… And when we reach to explain the evil and suffering we see wreaking havoc in the lives of our brothers and sisters, we quite often are doing just that – breaking their spirit, piling on.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, is counseling us to do just the opposite of this.
Instead of our hiding our suffering in shame. Instead of tightening the hatchets and closing all the blinds. Instead of isolating ourselves further when we need the most help – lest we be judged on top of it all… we are instead to BOAST in our sufferings.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
Who in our society would BOAST in their sufferings?
The only place I’ve seen it consistently done, are in cultures and segments of our society that have known long-suffering. Those whose descendants were enslaved, for example. Or those cultures subject to genocide and discrimination.
And WE need to learn from these segments of our society.
How can WE become a community of faith that BOASTS in our suffering…
Knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
IF WE can become a community that LIVES this advice of Paul,
That speaks out our sufferings,
Without fear or shame
Worry or judgement,
Then perhaps we will open the doors to SEE and HEAR and WITNESS God’s mighty acts among us.
For GOD IS DOING A MIGHTY WORK.
But we will only have eyes and ears and hearts to perceive it,
When we create a community safe enough
For each of us to be our authentic selves
Perhaps then, a brave soul, would dare share with us the pearls quarried from the depths of their exquisite pain and suffering.
Perhaps then, we will hear and pay attention, and learn to see
Just WHAT our God can do.