Scripture of the day is from Romans 5: 1-11 (NRSV)
5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 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.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.[e] 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
There are about 10 different sermons that I can think of to tackle from these words about ourselves as Christians and what Paul is trying to share with the Roman Christians of his time. It would be perfect to share the message of “justification by faith”, as we enter Easter, for the word “justification” gives implication of our coming to believe in God, in Jesus’ death and resurrection as a gift and tool by which we see how much God wants a relationship with us, as well as how much God loves each one of us, individually. That is just the beginning too! We are saved through faith, even if after we have faith, as James points out, we must go on to show good works because of the realizations that a faith in our Lord brings to us.
We could talk about different theories of atonement and why God chose the route that God chose to come and forge a new covenant with all nations and all people of all times, and what that means for us.
But I would bet if I asked you what one word was on your mind as you entered the church doors today, it was not “justification”, was it? For me, and for most, I think that one word would be “Coronavirus” or “Covid-19”…..unfortunately.
William said to me the other day, “I don’t remember anything like this, Mom.” I had to say that I did not either, at least to this degree, but way back in my memories of childhood, I recalled some stories…much like the one surrounding this young lady, during her lifetime. (see photo below)
I pulled this story, of which I will relate a bit of it in a moment, from a blog done for National Immunization Month….It’s author tells it like this….
Today’s blog post, written for National Immunization Awareness Month, is by P. Loughman.
The photograph of a young woman and small boy is so precious that my cousin won’t take it out of the oval frame. He was her father and kept the photo on top of his bureau until the day he died. ….. The oldest child born to a stone mason from Naples and a multilingual Greek mother from Alexandria, Josephine Rosiello was a confident girl and capable helper with nine younger siblings in early 20th century Brooklyn. Her immigrant parents preferred nicknames and the family called her Fina. Dressed in fashionable flapper styles, she forged ahead into the new modern world, the epitome of a first generation American, until she succumbed to polio in October of 1924.
Josephine’s legs, which had strode through Sheepshead Bay and Charlestoned at parties, suddenly grew weak. Though her family was now solidly middle class and could afford medical care, doctors could only wait and see what course the disease would take. Her death certificate states anterior poliomyelitis ascended her body and reached her intercostal muscles and diaphragm causing asphyxia (at age 17). …. The baby of the family, Margie, also contracted polio around the same time and survived with a deformed foot. Bea, my grandmother and second oldest child, escaped the disease herself, but in 1948 her four year old son complained of a headache during yet another summer epidemic in New York City. He spent a year in the hospital and was discharged with leg braces and crutches used for the rest of his life. Polio was the scourge of my grandmother’s family for two generations and is found in the saddest chapters in our family history, until the discovery of an effective vaccine in 1952.
When the author wrote this in a blog in 2014, he or she wrote,
‘…my uncle said slowly, his voice choking, “My mother missed her sister for the rest of her life, and my grandmother cried about Fina’s death for years.” I hung up the phone thinking about this young woman whose brief life and terrible death was still palpable in our collective memory ninety years later.’
Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper discovered poliovirus in 1908 by proving that it was not a bacterium that caused the paralysis, but a much smaller entity—a virus.
In 1916, New York City experienced the first large epidemic of polio, with over 9,000 cases and 2,343 deaths. The 1916 toll nationwide was 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. Epidemics worsened during the century: in 1952, a record 57,628 cases of polio were reported in the United States.
As the number of polio cases grew, the paralytic disease changed the way Americans looked at public health and disability.
1931, scientists create the first filter able to trap viruses. (In 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk invented the first vaccine for polio, but unfortunately the virus can still be spread to unimmunized communities.) There is no cure for polio, it can only be prevented.
I pray that in a very little time, as we have 100 years more of medical knowledge and scientific advancement, we will soon be able to say that we have a vaccine for this Coronavirus. I pray that the numbers will be so much smaller and that our self-quarantining and that our “social distancing” works so very well, that in a few years, we will wonder, “why did we have to do that again?”
The truth is though, as quickly as we might get this virus under control in the world, some will have died….All of us will suffer, in small inconveniencing ways, to larger ways of not receiving the meals our kids used to get at school and need, to the worst suffering of all, in dealing with a loved one who contracts it and doesn’t get over it quickly. But this is where Paul’s words to the Romans are so very, very important for us to ponder and to take home with us for daily use.
Where some may not have a faith that has addressed the issue of suffering before; where some may mistakenly think that God is to blame; where some may even jump to a conclusion that there is no need to believe in God because their suffering suggests to them that we only need science today, so to understand the world we live in….Paul and billions of Christians before us tell us otherwise.
“Boast” or “rejoice”, depending on how you translate it, in the fact that you have faith in God, through Christ, says Paul. Boast in sharing what God means to you, says Paul. “…boast in in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 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.”
I personally do not like the word boast, as today’s English has a different connotation to boasting and it is not the type of vociferous, good hearted, loving, rejoicing which I believe Paul was trying to relate to the Romans.
Rejoice in your sufferings doesn’t sit much better, since it goes against common sense and what we learn about anything that we have suffered in. Yet, rejoicing in our suffering makes sense if you read on and realize that only in suffering do we gain endurance, positive character, hope, and I would add, come through on the other end, with stronger faith, when we keep ahold of our faith in God throughout the ordeal. Science never delivers that my friends….
As believers and faithful children of God, we look to that reward of eternal relationship and life with God which is our gift, just from having faith and believing. Yet that gift of God’s love and care for us, is not something of fairy tales or pie in the sky. That gift gives the hope that we aim to hold onto tightly in times like these; in times of suffering.
I can’t today stand here and tell you that it all goes in straight and uncomplicated way such that faith automatically gets you to realize that suffering is how we grow a deeper faith, nor that it automatically says to me, “oh, good, now I can grow in endurance, in character, and wha-hooo, now I am more hopeful than ever. Yet the pieces, along with anger, the questioning, the action of spending more time in prayer and listening for God’s voice, all come in stages that allow one to look back, no matter the outcome, and to be better prepared for the next time of suffering, which always comes, as it is simply a part of living. When we are living in a world with natural disasters, with wars that humankinds creates, with viruses and diseases that appear to grow and mutate on their own, with times of financial need, with simply chain reactions from people’s decisions, negatively affecting another person and leading to suffering.
What I can tell you, brothers and sisters, is that by holding onto our faith and trusting in God, our endurance during suffering times has allowed me, and many, many others over the history of the world, to have a peace and a hope that is fairly constant and eternal, in the big picture of life. It is not that anger or frustration, on many levels, does not still occur. No matter how strong our faith, every human being needs to vent and to blame something or someone for the woes they have when suffering, but it is what we do with our anger, where we misplace it at times and then learn better than doing so for the next time, that matters. Truthfully, whether it leads us to better spiritual rituals or disciplines that grow our faith in the end, or if we give up, is what matters.
I share with you though, what Paul shared so long ago….God does not give up on us, nor does God decide we are now not worth loving. Although in tough times we can unfortunately allow others who do not have a strong faith, or who have no one to aid them continue on in growing their faith, to affect us. And let’s face it, when you are low on faith and trust in God and in your future, it is easier than ever to disengage with church, with God, and even declare yourself a non-believer these days. There are tons of people around us to aid that disbelief or to lead us astray.
ABC news, not long ago, reported that their polls indicated that at least 1/3 of Americans at any given time are angry at God and blame God for their sufferings. https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/angry-god-thirds-americans-blame-god-problems-survey/story?id=12540557 There are many theological learnings of people from different backgrounds of faith that may explain some of this. There can be explanations of needing someone to blame. Yet today, I wish to share with you as my church family; we are family, united in belief in God, here to aid each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually, as we suffer together, however that comes to look or however long that seems to be.
We have learned from sermons, from studying together, and from sharing life and life stories with one another that God is always with us, suffering with us, rejoicing with us, and trying to guide us through times of suffering. God, through the Holy Spirit, will do as God has always done, in continuing to grow us when we lean on God, continuing to love us even in moments of doubt or anger when we do not understand the eternal question of “why?”, and continuing to stand with us until we come out the other end to see that we have grown in understanding, grown in endurance, grown a sturdier and more Godly character, and thereby grown in hope and faith….all because we continue to have faith. It is a joy to have. It is a joy, yet a test in endurance, to keep and to expand faith. If we can rejoice now, we will be able, like Paul, to boast about it in the future, not only to give an example to others about faith through our Lord and what it gives us, but about it’s incredible power to get us through times of troubles and worries like these.
And as theologian, Don Wardlaw writes, “While the world offers peace as an escape from disputes or disorders, Christ’s peace assures a stability and serenity, not apart from but in the midst of the “the thousand natural shocks of life” (Feasting on the Word, Revised Common Lectionary for 2020, p.91)
God and God’s peace is not a substitute that we pull from the air for the pain when we suffer. It is what we use in the midst of suffering, so to get endure and grow from the world’s pains which we all experience in life.
So the big question for this week of Lent is, how will you use your faith to step through this part of our messy and difficult lives? How will you endeavor to grow in endurance, character, and hope, because you already know of God’s love and salvation, through Christ our Lord?
I may not know much about Coronavirus or where it will lead us in the coming weeks, but I do know this….We will stand together in faith, hope, and love of God, and we will be better and stronger for it. Thanks be to God! Amen.