Suffer Endure Hope
A homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 10, 2016
Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Romans 5: 1-5
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we 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.
As some of you may know, I had the unique opportunity to baptize my second daughter Clara this past Sunday. I must say that it was a special day in my life as a father and as a pastor. In my brief ministry she was my fifth baptism to perform. They are all special. In my tradition when the baptism is of a child, the parents take vows and the congregation takes vows. . . promising to raise the child together in faith. I chose this same text as the one just read from Paul’s letter to the Romans to preach from on that occasion because I wanted to preach about hope. I wanted to testify to the real reasons that my wife and I would choose to Baptize our daughters. I wanted to speak of hope in a world that all too often at face value seems so very hopeless. We have seemingly insurmountable challenges as humans on this earth, divided by violence, hatred, the desire to control, driven often by selfish rather than noble motives, all when combined together would seem by any account to be unlikely for us solve and impossible for us overcome, and of course in the meantime these problems are the cause of great suffering in this world. But Paul writes that hope is actually the fruit of suffering, which completely goes against the grain of what seems right. Most of the time we would think that suffering leads to despairing, and despairing is the very antithesis of hope. To despair is to have fallen into a pit, and have come to the conclusion that the pit is all that exists, whereas hope sees beyond the walls of the pit, beyond circumstances that seem impenetrable to more, that there is more, simply more than the pit, rather than less, rather than nothing.
I bring this to you all this morning, not because I want to preach hope to you, but rather the other parts of Paul’s dynamic, for they are the seeds of hope, and having been firmly planted, the rest will take care of itself. Paul strings together quite a sequence here. He says that suffering, leads to, no he says produces, endurance, endurance then produces character, and character produces hope. Now we spend a lot of time talking about character at this school, and I think it is by far the most important thing we do. We are always looking for ways to measure our success at instilling you all with this intangible quality, we call character. . . have we ever thought to use hope as that measuring stick? I wonder. . . .
But that is getting ahead of myself. . . let’s start at the beginning. Suffering. .. This is the real message I have for you today because it speaks to your situation. You all will suffer greatly over the course of the next three weeks. You will suffer because you will be so close to being done, to being out, to being home, for some of you for being graduates, for heading off to the next step. . . and the slowness of time will cause you to suffer as you bump your head against the chains of structure that has kept you here and in line all year. You will also suffer because there will be much work to do. The time to coast has long since passed, and now you have projects piling up, tests, you may be behind, and sitting beneath the burden of make-up work, all before the reckoning of exam week strikes. You may be begging for extra credit, which buys yourself another chance, but of course more work, and the time though dragging when you think of home, dramatically speeds up when you think of all that you must do first. You may be suffering because you have not prepared adequately, that you have procrastinated, that you have coasted, that you took a break the third week of April, but now you are expected to know that stuff. You may be suffering because between your lack of preparation, the lack of time left, your lack of knowledge in your brain, your lack of skills acquired, your learning differences, your excuse factory, your, what the existentialists call, “bad faith” and what that great philosopher baron, Yuichi Isaka so famously called evil Yuichi, you have every reason in the world to believe that you will fail, and that you can’t do it, and even worse that none of it matters anyway. You may be suffering like that. . . maybe not perpetually, maybe not every day, maybe not all the time, but you may have some of those moments in the next few weeks where you will be tempted to give in and give up.
Now what does giving in look like? Giving in can take the shape of escape. . . I can’t do it, it doesn’t matter, so I won’t start this now. I don’t know the first step, so I’ll convince myself that I don’t get it, then I’ll blame someone else for me not getting it, all to make myself feel better, and I don’t really believe myself, I don’t really feel better, but it will at least get me through the next few weeks. I’ll deal with it all later. I’ll learn it later. That’s one way it can happen. Another way it can happen is that the anxiety will start to come into play. You haven’t prepared, you haven’t done what you needed to do at this point, and rather than going all in, you allow the worry and fear to take over. . . you don’t really want to do the work, but feeling that anxiety makes it seem like you care, and then maybe someone will take pity on you and give you that “out” you’ve been hoping for all along. This is a loving environment, there is always someone who’ll let you out, right. Of course, but probably the worst of all is you cheat your way through it. You get that illegal copy of the test, you cut corners on your research paper, you cut and paste when you should have paraphrased, you write the answers on your hand, you sneak a peak at your neighbor’s paper. . . or you cheat yourself by cutting corners to the finish line, calling something clearly not your best, and you convince yourself that it is the better way, but again it is just putting off reality with illusion. . . and the real you, the real potential you, the real person gets beaten down into that pit I was talking about. . . but there is nothing there but despair because you allowed this moment, these three weeks, and this suffering to be all that there is. And you traded all of the rest just to feel better about your pit. . .
I always make my students laugh because when I talk about cheating I tell them that not only will I fail them, but I will do everything in my power to make sure that they get expelled, and that they know they are lower than scum, and not worthy to breathe the same air that the rest of us breathe. They laugh because it seems so extreme. . . but it makes sure that they know it matters. . . because to me, and I tell them this too, the definition of hell. . . so much worse than any punishment Dante dreamed up, or any eternal fire. . . is having to look at yourself knowing that you thought so little of yourself that you would trade the ability to look yourself in the eye for a test, or a project, or grade. . . or three weeks without struggle or conflict for the peacemof not being messed with. : .it may in fact be worse if you are never caught, and didn’t have to own it, that there were no consequences at all. . . because it robs you of everything of value. . . your character. . . and your hope, because for the rest of your life. . . or at least until you finally do own it. . . you will know that you could not endure the suffering, and so the suffering owned you. . . and then the suffering became for you all that there is, a hopeless, despairing, pit of life, and that would be a tragedy for sure, but it’s worse because people like that usually don’t just bring themselves down, but let their pit spread, try to pull others down into it with them. . . sharing the gospel of the pit, letting everyone know that despair is all that there is. . . Maybe Dante did know this. . . for the one thing that all the people in his Inferno have in common is a lack of hope.
So you’ve got three weeks. . . endure it, own it. . . fight. So you aren’t as prepared as you should be. . . fight. . . prepare as much as you can. . . and see what happens. So you haven’t . . . learned the material, you haven’t read the book, you haven’t learned the formula, nor practiced the process. . . fight. . . struggle. . . claw. . . own it. You’ve been avoiding that teacher because you’re worried about having disappointed them. . . or you’re worried they are going to hold you accountable, to limit your freedom. . . they are going to make you do it the right way. . . fight. . . face it. . . do it. . . or don’t, but don’t lie to yourself. Don’t avoid the truth. Own the fact that at this point in your life you don’t care because you may not, and you’re tired of every adult in your life telling you, you should care. But there are 40000 reasons why you may want to rethink that position.
The truth is every single one of you can do the work we give you. You can. It ain’t that hard. The honest truth is you can do it. . . if you can’t it is because deep down you don’t care, maybe. . . or you’ve convinced yourself otherwise because you’ve let the suffering own you in the past, and you stand today with no hope. The great thing about this world, and the grace that abounds in it, is that the pits of despair that we create for ourselves through avoidance are illusions. . . that character can be built each day. . . . the great thing about the abundance of suffering that we are surrounded by is that there is always another chance to endure. . . and so build character. . . and then be fortified by a new hope. May the force be with you. Amen.