Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 22, 2016
Romans 5: 1-5 – Common English Bible
“Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness,[a] we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Long ago in India, a king ruled the land. He always had his closest advisor by his side. The advisor was wise, but he also had a way about him that frequently got on the king’s nerves. No matter what happened, the advisor always responded by saying, “That is good, that is good.”
One day when the king was out riding, his horse was startled by a large snake. The king was thrown and dragged some distance. In all that galloping chaos, he suffered a terrible cut to his foot and he lost a toe. As his advisor knelt beside him, he said, “That is good, that is good.”
Incensed, the king screamed, “How can you say that is good? Look at my foot! You’re fired.”
In response to his firing, the advisor said, “That is good, that is good” and he went off to the palace to pack his bags.
The king returned home and his foot eventually healed, minus the toe. In due course, he decided to go riding again. This time, however, he became separated from the rest of his party. Suddenly he was ambushed, tied up, and taken back to his captor’s village.
Now, it was the practice of those who kidnapped him to use their prisoners to sacrifice to their god. The king knew this, and he knew his fate. They washed him and decorated him for the sacrificial celebration. As the king was led to the place where he would be killed, music played and all the people danced with great joy and anticipation. The king shook with terror from head to toe. He nearly fainted as the priest came forward carrying a long knife. The priest danced around him and inspected him from every angle. Suddenly he ordered the music and dancing to stop. “This one’s no good. He’s damaged.” He pointed to the missing toe, or where the toe used to be. “We can’t sacrifice something that has already been cut.” The priest slashed the vines that bound the king’s hands and legs and set him free. The king raced back toward the palace as fast as he could.
Once he was back home safely, the king thought about his ex-advisor and sent for him. The king told him the story and said, “You were right. It was good that I lost my toe. Because of it, I was not sacrificed. And yet, when I fired you, why did you say “This is good?”
The advisor replied, “There is always some good to come out of things. If I had not been fired, I would have been with you that day and captured too. And as soon as they passed on you, I would have been next.”
The king praised the wisdom of his advisor and said, “You are truly right, my friend. That was good. That was very good indeed.”
In our passage from the Book of Romans, I take great comfort in Paul’s words when he said, “I take pride in our problems, because we know that our troubles produce endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And this hope does not put us to shame (or as some translations put it: This hope does not disappoint), because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
In the story of the king and the advisor, despite the king’s annoyance and anger, they ended as friends. The king said, “You are truly right, my friend.” A friendship that grew out of their conflict. Good from conflict…
I too would have been annoyed by the advisors constant “That is good. That is good.” Because, as much as I take comfort from Paul’s words to the Romans, I cringe every time anyone uses those same words to tell someone who is suffering, “Well, it’ll all work out for the good in the end.” Really!? Really, this is good?! It makes me want to slap them and act very un-Christ-like.
Instead, I don’t usually say anything. I let it stew. I may tell others about it with righteous indignation. “Can you believe…?” But I hate conflict. Is it because I don’t want to invest in the time, and multiple misunderstandings along the way, that are necessary to establish an honest relationship? Do we really want to say, “That hurts me and here’s why?” Rather, how often do we avoid the issue and find ourselves drifting away, not out of the heat of anger from misunderstanding each other but from the indifference that grows each time we attempt to avoid the pain of conflict? Certainly no good could come from this…
But our reading of this text from the Book of Romans can also lead to a callous disregard for the problems of others. We might not tell someone “That is good, that is good,” but it can result in a careless indifference to suffering caused by injustice. It’s even led to people praising the poor for their courage. The nobility of poverty: “Oh, they’re so brave.” And therefore relieve ourselves of any responsibility.
Perhaps the difference is telling someone how they should feel about their troubles or experiences of loss rather than coming to the realization for ourselves. I happen to think it’s true that we learn more about ourselves and our strength through our troubles than through our successes. Well, at least that’s how I have often experienced it. I can’t say its universal – telling you how you should feel about it. Proclaiming from on high: “Take pride in your troubles.” And yet, isn’t it good news that trouble can be transformed? Trouble, suffering, conflict, pain, grief… can be transformed into endurance, character, and hope. Hope, not optimism. And from that, a better understand of self, more deeply grounded. Or, maybe we’re scared of what we will find in the process.
And what about God? Like any relationship, are we willing to risk good conflict? How far are we willing to go beyond the pleasant “Nice to know you” mouthed in the words of liturgy to our ability to say “Damn you” when a tornado rips through a school. When cancer returns. When a loved one dies? Can any relationship survive harsh thoughts and words spoken in anger? How about when we don’t speak, thinking it’s better to keep them to our self?
But God knows us better than we know ourselves. As Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.”
According to Psalm 139, God knows our thoughts before we think them. Words before they are on our lips. Fears before they frighten us. Psalm 139 is one of my favorite passages of scripture. It literally saved me when I was afraid to come out.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
The point of the Psalmist is, to God we are totally transparent. But here’s the beautiful part: the Psalmist isn’t afraid that God knows too much. Should we? We might think we are the masters of hiding ourselves – our emotions, our fears – but God sees right through that. God sees right through our pretensions. And often, more often than we think, so can other people. So should we fear what others know about us? Or the conflict that comes should we speak up? It is precisely because God knows us that we can trust God to guide us.
Paul says in Romans that our troubles produce endurance. It’s not that suffering is good for us. “No pain, no gain.” But the truth is, we all suffer. What do we do with it? Paul encourages us to believe that endurance produces the kind of character that produces hope – character, not optimism. And hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. A kind of protective shield so that true love can emerge out of conflict.
Do relationships fail because of the words we speak to each other… or do relationships fail because of the words that we don’t say? Both, of course. Hurtful words cut like a knife. And sometimes we’d rather not know. But those same words can heal. Words never spoken cannot heal and will not build relationships that can survive the test. There is no hope in a relationship that can’t handle truth. We will never know what the other is capable of, or what we ourselves are capable of, if we only maintain with each other the polite gestures of an acquaintance. Nothing could be truer of our relationship with God too.
The relationship of the king and the advisor changed. They became friends after their conflict. Something good from conflict. Is that something we could risk? To know ourselves better; to go deeper in our relationships; to trust more in God?
Troubles to endurance to character to hope…
I think of the hope we are expressing today after worship when we will meet as a congregation to adopt our new vision. When we started our long range or strategic planning process in 2009, there was some uncertainty about our future. Tentativeness. An earlier period of conflict shook the congregation during its first interim. Add to that the uncertainty all congregations feel in our rapidly changing world. When I arrived two years later, confidence would not have been the first word used to describe us.
In the plan we adopted in 2010, one thing we set out to do was to reclaim our bold history. Park Hill Congregational UCC has an especially long history of work for racial justice. For those who are new here, this church chose a radical path during the 60s to welcome African Americans into the neighborhood who had previously been blocked from moving across Colorado Boulevard. And to stand up to the bigotry of the accompanying white flight. It was a very tense time. Block busting. Realtors calling in the middle of the night to sow fear. We can do nothing but express wonder and admiration for the courage of those who believed in racial justice for our neighborhood so much that they risked the conflict that comes from taking a position of inclusion. Many people left Park Hill and some left our church. It was a bold history worthy of reclaiming.
But not to simply revel in it. Just what is the struggle today? The presence of Black Lives Matter in our church reflects that the struggle for racial justice is and will always be in the DNA of our congregation, which is one reason I wanted to come here.
Yet when our leadership teams met in March to begin evaluating our previous plan, several people noted that our vision sounded apologetic.
As we read those statements out loud, the implication to people who hadn’t been here at the time was that we were apologizing for not being bold, not having a purpose, and spending our time on matters that were not important. A longer time member around the table, Lucy Loomis, wisely observed, that’s how it felt. Others agreed. And, that things feel so differently now. More confident, more certain, more hopeful.
How did we get to this place of hope? Trouble, endurance, character, hope? In part, by risking conflict. The decision to avoid conflict is the decision to choose stagnation. And so today we can look around this room with wonder and admiration. A church that took the risk of relevance in the 21st century. That’s where our hope comes from. Thanks be to God!
Our Proposed Vision
1) Participation: A church where everyone finds their place for ministry.
Creating a loving community where everyone belongs and stands alongside each other in times of need, connecting new friends and longtime members to opportunities for discipleship, and developing effective structures for leadership. (for the purpose of serving our neighbors.)
2) Social Justice: A church full of people who live and proclaim the social justice witness of Jesus Christ.
Whether it’s at home or work, among our neighbors or on the front lines, our faith as Christians means fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ: good news for the poor, working for the release of captives, advocating the liberation of the oppressed, and challenging the blindness of anyone who excludes and denies the full humanity of all God’s people and the care of God’s earth (Luke 4: 18-19). (for the purpose of serving our neighbors.)
3) Education: A church community fully engaged in faith formation.
Nurturing the values of a compassionate Christianity for children and families, helping youth integrate progressive Christianity into their lives, and exploring a deeper spirituality in adults – through inspiring worship, engaging classes, meaningful service opportunities, and creative intergenerational activities. (for the purpose of serving our neighbors.)
4) Stewardship: A church committed to developing and using our resources wisely.
Expanding use of our building, securing our long-term financial health, growing our congregation, and nurturing our individual spiritual gifts and talents for the purpose of serving our neighbors. (Notice that we could/should add this final line to all the previous statements)
So, our mission remains the same:
We are a diverse community of seekers
Inspired by the teachings of Jesus
Called to bold acts of compassion and justice
And Our Core Values
In other words, hope. Through some challenging times.
 Elisa Davy Perman, editor, “That is Good,” Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World, Pilgrim Press, 1998, page 5
 New Revised Standard Version