160522 – Boast Worthy

Yr C ~ Pentecost 1 ~ Romans 5:1-5

I couldn’t resist. My first Sunday back after last weekend away and a scripture passage comes up about boasting – exactly when I have something to really boast about! So I’m gonna! boast-worthy
Last weekend I graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary with a Doctor of Ministry degree (D.Min for short). I started back in the fall of 2012 and completed the dissertation on my recent sabbatical. Cynthia and I went to Atlanta (where the seminary is) last weekend for a few days of celebration – a picnic, a worship service, and the pomp and pageantry of a graduation. It was lovely.

I was very honoured that I was asked to write and offer the prayer of thanksgiving and intercession at the ceremony with another student. That meant I got to process in and sit with the platform party and sit beside the dean.
Then degrees were conferred and these fancy hoods were given.
And following that came the awards during which I was honoured to receive the award as an outstanding D.Min graduate!

It was a wonderful end to a wonderful journey. I am very, very grateful for all the support I had as I studied – from my family who put up with me with my nose in books, and from you as I tried out ideas on you in sermons and programs.
My dissertation is called “Coram Deo: The Presence Project” (coram deo means before, or in the presence of God) – and it’s based on the “surely God is in this place – help me notice” stuff we’ve been doing here for the last couple of years. So thank you! Y’all helped me write it!

So, I am now, officially, the Rev. Dr. Larry Doyle. (Please continue to just call me Larry!) I have more letters after my name, and a new business card to prove it! Clearly, this is boast worthy, isn’t it?

But there’s the rub, because we all know that good Canadians, and certainly good Christians, are supposed to be humble, and unassuming, and absolutely not boast at all.
Boasting is prideful.
Boasting is arrogant.
Boasting is self-aggrandizing.

Or is it? Is boasting always wrong?
Are we supposed to strive for accomplishments but then never say anything about them?
It’s a fine line, isn’t it. Take pride, but not too much!

Maybe the problem is the baggage the word has. Boasting carries the connotation of excessiveness – that it goes beyond pride to vanity.
Did you know the word originally simply meant “to rejoice proudly”?

That’s how the word is used when you talk about a city or a group. We say things like, “Toronto boasts several major sports teams” (ok, some of them aren’t really boast worthy), or we say “the United Church boasts many fine preachers!” That’s not arrogant or prideful, it’s objectively valuing, it’s rejoicing proudly.

Did you know that in the bible when it uses the word boast in Romans 5 that the word meant “to hold your head high” – the root of the word coming from “neck” as in to stretch your neck in dignity and esteem?

So today I will stretch my neck and hold my head high and do a little boasting about this accomplishment. If I’m still going on about it in a few weeks by all means call me to account. But today I’m celebrating and rejoicing proudly!

A second really important aspect of this boasting thing is who you’re ultimately pointing at. Motives matter.

If I undertook doctoral studies so everyone would praise me and be impressed by me that would be the wrong kind of boasting. And while I will certainly admit that I enjoy esteem I did not study for that purpose.

A D.Min degree is about asking deep questions about faith and offering to the church a body of research that’s intended to strengthen the body of Christ. In other words, I get some credit but the point is to nourish and nurture the Church.

Next week I’ll be at our Conference annual meeting and I’ll be giving a workshop helping other congregations to use the process we did here a couple of years ago to help them notice the Presence of God everywhere and always and to learn to be better present themselves. I think that’s boast worthy too.

What is boast worthy for you?
What are you comfortable taking pride in and ultimately using to point beyond yourself to something bigger?
What about your faith life is boast worthy?

It’s hard to embrace that term, isn’t it? Listen again to how Paul uses it in Romans 5.

5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith (since we’re shown to be righteous by our trust in God), we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…

So, Paul says we have peace with God through Jesus not because of our actions or accomplishments but because of our heart, our trust in God, which justifies or shows that we’re blessed. Because of our heart for God we have peace through Jesus, (verse 2),
through whom we have (drawn near) to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of…the glory of God.

We stand in grace (which means unmerited favour). Isn’t that a wonderful image?
That’s where we get to reside! In grace!
– And we boast, we hold our heads high, in our strong expectation that we rest in the glory, in the thumbs up, of God.

In other words, it’s ok to feel good about your faith!
It’s ok to embrace your abundant life.
It’s ok to say, “I’ve received this gift and it’s awesome!”

And you could even tell other people about it! Honest!

As long as you’re not saying, “Hey, I’ve got the Spirit of God in me and I’m blessed by God so I’m better than you” but instead are saying something like, “Hey, I’ve got the Spirit of God in me and I’m blessed by God and you could have it too” then go ahead and boast!

It continues:
Romans 5:3-5 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.

And boom, we go off the rails. We were chugging along nicely but I’m pretty certain that the moment I said that “we also boast in our sufferings” you were gone. Boast in our sufferings? What the…?

Let me tell you, that used to stop me short too. Then about a year ago – while doing reading for my doctoral stuff! – I read something from Richard Rohr that absolutely transformed the way I read this passage and passages like it.

But before I share that let me start with what this doesn’t mean. Boasting in your sufferings does not mean that you become a martyr; that you go around with a “woe is me” story designed to make everyone admire you for all the terrible things you endure. We all know people like that, don’t we? They hear your story and they have to one-up you with their own far more impressive tale of woe. If you know Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch you’ll know what I mean!

Boasting in suffering doesn’t mean you revel in feeling bad, or that God gives you bonus points for having a hard go of it. There are no gold medals for a stiff upper lip.
And it doesn’t mean that you can’t be faithful unless you’re in abject pain and misery either.

The problem is that we’ve defined suffering too narrowly. The suffering that’s talked about in the bible is different than our usual way of looking at it. What we call suffering is just a tiny part of what’s meant.

Listen to the definition of the Greek word: suffering, or tribulation, is about internal pressure that causes someone to feel confined, restricted, “without options.”
Illness or pain certainly fit the bill here. If you’re ill or in pain you certainly feel internal pressure that causes you to feel confined and without options.

Here’s where Richard Rohr helped me. He says that when you’re without options you are not in charge anymore – something has happened and inside you are no longer calling the shots.
Here’s Rohr’s definition of suffering: when you are not in control.

suffering-controlWe suffer when we’re not in control.
When we’re ill we’re not in control.
When we’re in pain we’re not in control.
When the world gangs up on us and bad news comes our way we’re not in control.
When we’re not calling the shots, when we’re not in charge, when we’re not in control, that’s suffering.

But sometimes it’s good to not be in control – especially in your faith life. If you’re in control and trying to tell God what God can and can’t do in your life then it’s not really faith.
We use language like yielding, allowing, and surrendering to talk about our relationship with the Holy Spirit. We use those words but we don’t like to do it!
Do you like to not be in control?
Do you like to surrender?
That’s suffering! That’s what the word means here in the bible.

This is a total game-changer for me!
Have you ever heard someone say something like “you’ve got to suffer for your faith” and thought they were a masochist? People used to beat or flagellate themselves so they could suffer for Christ. That’s craziness!
God doesn’t desire our pain; God desires our hearts and the only way to give them to God is to let go of our vice-grip need to control everything – to surrender.
“You’ve got to suffer for your faith.”
Does its meaning change with Rohr’s definition? Absolutely!
“You’ve got to surrender for your faith!” We say that all the time!

The bible speaks of the “suffering servant” image in Isaiah 53. Christians have taken that to mean Jesus – and usually Jesus on the cross. Considering Rohr’s definition might we rethink this image?
Maybe our emphasis shouldn’t be on Jesus suffering on the cross but Jesus surrendering on the cross.
Maybe the message of faith isn’t that Jesus felt pain and therefore we’re all good, but that Jesus surrendered control – and in utterly trusting God became a person who could authentically boast in his sufferings.

Watch this! Go back and take out the word “suffering” in today’s reading and replace it with “not being in control” or more succinctly, surrendering, and see what happens.

And not only that, but we also boast in our surrendering, knowing that surrendering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

Do we boast in our surrendering in order to impress people with how holy and righteous we are? Of course not!
We boast in our surrendering in order to communicate to someone how wonderful it is to trust in God, to know and be known by Jesus, to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can share the love that transforms us.

And that kind of suffering/surrendering generates steadfastness, which produces character, which grounds our conviction and hope – and hope doesn’t disappoint us.

So we’ve tried to redeem two problematic words today: boasting and suffering.
Boasting can be seen as rejoicing proudly and holding our head high.
And suffering is more than about pain; it’s about not being in control, about surrendering.
Here’s the whole thing:

5:1 Therefore, since we are shown to be righteous by our trust in God, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have (drawn near) to this grace in which we stand; and we rejoice proudly in our hope of…the glory of God.
And not only that, but we also rejoice proudly in our surrendering, knowing that surrendering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…

Why? (here’s the payoff) Verse 5:

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.

God’s love poured. Maybe knowing our hearts are brimming with God’s love that’s been poured into us is what makes suffering – surrendering – something we can rejoice proudly about!
That seems pretty boast worthy to me!