Dear Working Preacher,
I’ll be honest: I find Holy Trinity Sunday among the most difficult days of the year to preach. As I’ve said before, I don’t claim to understand the Trinity and don’t trust those that report they do. The Trinity is, at heart, our best if manifestly inadequate attempt to capture in words the mysterious nature of God. It has something to say about both the unity and diversity of God’s work and manifestation, and about the importance of community to God and all those whom God has created and loved. Beyond that, I don’t have much to say.
So my advice to you this Trinity Sunday? Don’t preach on the Trinity, preach on hope instead.
Why? Two reasons (above and beyond the dicey nature of preaching a doctrine to post-doctrinal people): First, one of the most challenging elements of the secular age in which we live is a distinct loss of hope regarding the meaning of our everyday life. Second, Paul offers in the second reading a profound and powerful understanding of hope that has the potential to give our people what the need and want but all to often struggle to find.
Okay, so first: life in the secular age.
There are a lot of ways to define “the secular age,” of course, but one of the most helpful comes from Walter Taylor’s book of the same name. Taylor describes secularism as a loss of transcendence. People don’t expect God to be a part of their lives or world, even when they believe in God. Rather than look to the transcendent for meaning, we look instead to the imminent, to the concrete, and – particularly in our culture – to the material. But often, our material accomplishments haven’t been quite as meaningful as we’d hoped they would. As a result, we wonder what significance our daily occupations, relationships, and even lives have. As Taylor puts it, many of us succumb to the haunting suspicious that “what previously satisfied us, gave us a sense of solidity, seems not really to match up, not to deserve what we put into it” (p. 307). Hence, with a loss of transcendence comes a loss of meaning and loss of hope.
Second: Paul’s confession.
Given that Paul is talking about the grace and glory we have received in Christ, you might think he anchors our hope there. But while the promise of future glory certainly occasions hope, the Apostle doesn’t stop there. Rather, he continues by saying that, “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.” Paul, that is, roots our hope not only in the “things above” – that is, the transcendent promises of God – but also in the “things below” – our own struggles and suffering that are hallowed by God’s presence and love.
Why? Because Paul saw God take shape in the world and in his own life most concretely in the cross of Christ, the cross by which God dignifies and sanctifies all human suffering by promising to be there with us and for us, and the cross that we bear as we struggle to be faithful in this world. If God’s greatest revelation was made manifest in and through the struggle and suffering of a man hung on a tree, then what suffering of ours can ever truly be God-forsaken. Hence, God promises to be with us amid suffering, and even work through that to build character and endurance and increase our capacity for hope.
Not, let me be clear, that God ever desires us to suffer or causes our suffering. God did not cause the tornado that swept through Oklahoma anymore than God caused Jesus to die. God does not delight in suffering. Ever. But God does promise us to be with us in our suffering, and to use our suffering whenever possible for some greater good, and in and through all things to redeem our suffering by joining it to Christ’s own.
No tear shed, that is, goes unnoticed by God. No frustration or hurt or loss is unimportant to God. No tragedy – personal, communal, national, or global – is ignored by God, which means that God is present in our suffering and dignifies it by God’s presence.
But this passage isn’t only about tragedy. Precisely because God determined to make God’s own self known in the concrete form of Jesus and his suffering, we can look for God in the concrete, ordinary, and every day forms our lives take. In our relationships, in our jobs, hobbies, volunteer activities, and more. God hallows all of this by promising to use anything done for the good of the neighbor as a way to extend God’s love and concern to all of God’s beloved people.
This was revolutionary, even scandalous talk in Paul’s age, as Stoics warned against hope because it might disappoint, and Hedonists scoffed at hope because it meant delaying pleasure. So also, many in our reality-TV-saturated world of instant gratification may wonder why we’d boast of our struggles and suffering, while today’s stoical pundits often scoff at Christian faith as a “false hope.” Nevertheless, we believe that this hope is not only true in the long run but powerful in the here and now as it hallows our daily labor, ordinary relationships, and our everyday struggles both routine and monumental as the places God desires to be.
“The time being,” W. H. Auden once wrote, is often “the hardest time of all.” So that is where God showed up in Jesus and still shows up when we gather to hear his word and leave to share it in word and deed.
So where is God in Oklahoma? Working through rescue workers, comforting the grieving, encouraging those who are helping out, and guiding those who try to plan to avoid such disasters in the future. And where is God in our sometimes painfully mundane daily lives? Present with us in the struggles, rejoicing in the triumphs, nurturing our best relationships, encouraging us to care for those around us and receive their care in turn, using us and even our daily routines to love and care for the world and people God loves so much.
This is the hope Paul talks about. And that kind of hope is, as he well knows, a powerful thing. Indeed, even our larger culture senses the power of hope, even when it at times misunderstands or mistrusts it. There is a scene, in fact, from the recent blockbuster film adaptation of Suzanne Collins popular novel The Hunger Games that, while it wasn’t in the book, fits the story perfectly and captures the power of hope in a nutshell. President Snow, the totalitarian ruler of futuristic Panem, asks his chief Games-maker – the one charged with creating a spectacle as entertaining as it is barbaric – why they must have a winner. The answer? Hope. Snow wants to give the oppressed people of Panem hope that maybe, just maybe, the odds will be in their favor and they may win the Hunger Games and escape their life of servitude. “Hope,” he explains, “is the only thing more powerful than fear.” But for that very reason it is as perilous to a dictator as it is useful: “A little hope,” he explains, “is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.”
Paul invites us into “a lot of hope” by tying our suffering to Jesus’ own and inviting us thereby to recognize God’s presence not only in the distant heavens but also, and even more, in the daily struggles of our lives, trusting – promising! – that this kind of hope does not disappoint.
Blessings to you this week and always, Working Preacher, as you share the good news of the hope that is ours in Christ. The world has never needed your voice more.
Yours in Christ,