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June 18, 2019, 8:40 AM

Flowchart of Faith - Sermon, 6/16/19


Every year! Every year, the Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. Every year! So, every year, I have to figure out something to say about the Trinity. Every year! So, every year, I struggle with the Trinity Sunday sermon. And, every year, I give myself a massive headache trying to figure out how to talk about the Trinity. Every year!

 

Every year, I like to think about one of our Christian ancestors in faith, Saint Patrick, and his fame for spreading the Christian message in my ancestral homeland of Ireland. He is especially famous for teaching the Trinity to the people of Ireland. The stories say that he used the three leaf clover to explain the Trinity.

 

Every year, I try to figure out how to use the image of a three leaf clover to teach about the Trinity. A few years ago, someone came up with a very funny cartoon about Saint Patrick and the ways he introduced the Trinity to the people of Ireland. The cartoon is told from Saint Patrick’s perspective and features two men listening to Patrick’s explanations. The two men look vaguely like leprechauns and speak with very thick Irish accents. Each time Saint Patrick tries a different explanation of how the Trinity works, the two men listening interrupt Patrick, accusing him of one heresy after another.

 

Every year, I am afraid that these little leprechaun-looking men are going to show up with Irish accents like my great-grandmother’s, accusing me of one heresy after another. So, every year, I chicken out trying to preach about the Trinity.

 

After all, there is almost no way to confidently preach about the Trinity. Because, after all, the Trinity is a mystery. Three persons? One God? So, this year – like every year, I am not even going to try to preach about the mystery of the Trinity. Instead, I want to talk to you about flowcharts.

 

I don’t know how many of us worked as educators of any sort in our lives, but I was – in a time long ago and universe far, far away – an eighth-grade teacher. I remember trying to teach science lessons using flowcharts. Flowcharts are especially helpful when teaching biology or chemistry. One action leads to another which leads to another which eventually leads to a final result. The benefits of using flowcharts to teach are to show processes. Seeds lead to seedlings which lead to plants which lead to blossoms which lead to flowers. And you can’t jump right from seed to flower – you have to go through each step of the flowchart. Or something like that, right?

 

I was thinking about flowcharts in relation to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Usually – or at least for me – when we think about a church in Rome, we think about what eventually becomes the Roman Catholic Church. But Paul writes his letter to the young church before there are popes in the Vatican, bishops in cathedrals, or even priests at an altar.

 

Instead, the young church community that received Paul’s letter was made up of young Christians. Not necessarily young in age, but the people in Rome that received Paul’s letter were young in their process of figuring out how to be followers of Jesus Christ. And, as new Christians, the church in Rome needed help and explanations about how belief in Jesus can change their beliefs, their behaviors, and their lives.

 

Sometimes, I wish Paul could have used words and phrases that were easier to understand in his letter to the young church in Rome. Instead, Paul uses words and phrases like “justified by faith” and “obtained access to (God’s) grace.” Paul even says that, as Christians, we “boast in our sufferings.” It’s that last phrase – boast in our sufferings – that seems especially confusing.

 

Boast in our sufferings?” If I break my ankle, it’s not as if I would hobble around on crutches, proud of my pain or boasting about the size of my cast. What would that even look like – boasting in our sufferings? And why would we boast in our sufferings?

 

This is where flowcharts come in. Paul, in his effort to introduce the young Christians to their new faith, Paul creates a sort-of flowchart of faith. Paul writes, “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”

 

Like the seed’s journey to become a flower, each step has to be followed to get from suffering to God’s love.

 

In the first part of the flowchart of faith, Paul says that suffering produces endurance. We know this from our life experiences. Each experience of suffering increases our ability to endure more suffering. Eventually, after many instances of suffering, our endurance gets to the point that we are better able to handle suffering.

 

In the second part of the flowchart of faith, Paul says that endurance produces character. We also know this from our life experience. Sometimes, when a person has experienced lots of suffering and has developed lots of endurance, that person develops lots of character. It’s almost as if a person’s ability to endure suffering makes that person more interesting and more admirable. We can see this character development in people who have survived war – whether as residents of war-torn countries or as veterans.

 

In the third part of the flowchart of faith, Paul says that character produces hope. And not the Pollyanna kind of hope, either. A person with deep character often has deep hope. Because a person with character has suffered with a strong sense of endurance, that person often develops a strong sense of hope. “I have survived this before, so I trust in the hope that I will continue to survive suffering.”

 

In the fourth part of the flowchart of faith, Paul says that hope does not disappoint us. The hope that comes towards the end of a journey that started in suffering is deeply anticipated and deeply appreciated.

 

And why is it that hope does not disappoint us? Hope does not disappoint us because of God’s love. God’s love is the gift at the end of the journey that begins as suffering. God’s love is the flower at the end of the journey that begins as a seed.

 

I believe Paul is telling the young church in Rome that it’s impossible to jump directly from suffering to God’s love. The journey matters. The flowchart of faith matters. Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because of God’s love.

 

So maybe this is why we can “boast in our sufferings.” Maybe Paul sees the value in the process of going from the pain of suffering to the comfort of God’s love. Maybe Paul sees the value in the flowchart of faith, proceeding from suffering, step by step, to the gift of God’s love.

 

If we find ourselves suffering this morning, may we take comfort knowing that God is guiding our journey through that flowchart of faith. May we take comfort knowing that God’s gift of love awaits us at the last phase of that flowchart of faith. Amen.


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