Last summer while I was visiting my parents in California we took a trip to Sequoia National Park, one of my favorite places in the world. It’s always good to stand next to one of the largest living things on earth—the sequoia trees—and feel awe and remind yourself how small you are. It brings to mind the verses from the Psalm today, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, What is man that you should be mindful of him? The son of man that you should seek him out? You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor.”
But in addition to their size, one of the other interesting tidbits about sequoias is that in most cases, there needs to be a forest fire for their seeds to germinate. The heat opens the seed pods and releases the seeds, and also clears out the low brush that would shade and choke sequoia saplings. No fire, no new baby sequoias. And the sequoia trees themselves are well protected from fire—their bark may be scarred, but they continue to grow, and grow; the oldest sequoia living today is something like 2500 years old.
I have been soaking in the portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we heard today. Two sentences that encapsulate so much rich theology. Justified by faith, peace with God, grace. And then the second sentence, which is particularly resonant with me this week: “…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.”
Suffering is only the beginning of the cycle. It’s hard when you’re in the midst of suffering to believe that anything good can come out of it. And yet, as Paul says, suffering produces endurance. And that’s where this verse gets particularly interesting to me; because I think often we might just give up at endurance. “Oh good. My suffering was not for naught. I have endured.” But if we just stop there, we miss out—because endurance produces character. Again, we might give up with that. Character sounds pretty good after you’ve been through suffering and endurance. “Look at my scars—they make me interesting. I’ve got character.” But the challenge and blessing of following Christ is that character then produces hope—perhaps not in such a linear progression but there’s hope at the end. And hope—God’s hope--does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
The fire releases the sequoia seeds and clears the ground for them to grow. And when the best thinking in forestry was to put out forest fires instead of letting them burn, the sequoias in California didn’t reproduce enough. By trying to protect them from what was perceived as suffering, they couldn’t complete their life cycle.
Where do we try to save ourselves suffering and prevent the passage through suffering to the other side? Because that’s part of Paul’s message today, too: without suffering, we do not get to hope. He was writing to a community that was suffering persecution and rejection, and didn’t want them to play it safe. He didn’t want them to back off from their beliefs, from their faith, from their community to make it more palatable to others so that they’d be safe. If they were forced to suffer so be it—because in that suffering a door opened that led through endurance and character to ultimate hope. Which doesn’t mean that Paul is asking the Christians in Rome to seek suffering but he is promising the possibility of redemption for that suffering, and pointing the way through the suffering to the other side. There is rarely a direct line from suffering to hope; but you can get there at the end.
What is our hope as Christians? The Gospels and Jesus don’t say a whole lot about hope. Paul does. A lot. Paul’s answer in this passage—which is pretty consistent throughout his letters—is that our hope is sharing the glory of God. Hope is union with God, eternal life, resurrection, participating in glory; hope is not giving in to the despair that comes with living the injustice and violence and grief of the world.
A little bit later in Romans, Paul writes: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:24-27)
We hope for things unseen. Hope is not coveting someone else’s happiness, or having ambition for someone else’s life. Hope is trusting that God’s desire for us, which we cannot see, is fulfilling and radiant. When we are suffering—or enduring—hope can very much be a thing unseen. But that’s where our faith, that God—not us—has put in our hearts comes in. We have faith that hope will come, and that hope will be enough.
Now what does all that say about the Trinity, since this is Trinity Sunday? A popular picture on Facebook this week said, “To avoid preaching heresy on Trinity Sunday, say nothing and just show pictures of cute kittens.” Tempting. There’s also a cartoon video of St. Patrick using every “bad” metaphor for the Trinity that preachers use; including a number that I’ve used here, like a shamrock, water-ice-and-steam, and even (I haven’t used this one, but I wish I had) Voltron—the 5 lions combine to make the single Voltron robot.
But…. these passages from Romans contain a lot of activity on God’s part, beginning with, “We are justified by faith.” For Martin Luther, faith is God’s work, not ours. It is God who puts faith in our hearts, God who justifies via that faith. It is then Jesus who intercedes for us and brings us to peace with God, and who give us access to God’s grace. And it is the Holy Spirit who is pouring love into our hearts. In the later Romans passage, it is the Holy spirit who is interceding on our behalf to God the Father, the Holy spirit who has those “sighs too deep for words” that cause God the Father to look into our hearts and know us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all working together in different ways for us, interacting with us and with each other, extending themselves back and forth.
It is in the fullness of the Trinity that I find hope. God is not just up there and distant; God is not just right here by our side and in our hearts. God is dynamic and moving, passionately loving to us and to the 3 person of the Trinity. With such a loving God and, frankly, busy God, how could we not have hope?
Toward the end of Romans, Paul writes this beautiful verse as a blessing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13) Amen.