We “boast in our sufferings,” writes Paul to the Romans, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us….” It sounds, doesn’t it, like Paul is encouraging the Romans to brag about their problems and how well they handle them, as if endurance, character, and hope were the prizes handed out in some sort of “affliction Olympics.”
Well, he’s not. The Greek word here is kauchaomai which the lexicon interprets as “to glory in a thing.” The New American Bible rendered this injunction as “we exult in our tribulations.” The old Revised Standard Version translated this word as “rejoice.” I rather like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this text in The Message: “We … shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles.” So, no … Paul is not encouraging competitive bragging.
It’s the last Sunday of the Christian year, sort of a New Year’s Eve for the church. We call it “the Feast of Christ the King” and we celebrate it by remembering his enthronement. Each year on Christ the King Sunday we read some part of the crucifixion story. As Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his Palm Sunday homily a few years ago, “It is precisely here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross!”
My friend Malcolm Guite, a priest of the Church of England and a remarkable poet, has written a lovely sonnet for this feast:
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
In 1978 the German Caribbean disco group Boney M covered a Jamaican Rastafarian anthem called “Rivers of Babylon.” Their cover claimed the Number 1 spot on the European pop charts that year and Number 30 on US pop charts. You may remember it. I’m going to ask our sound man to play the first minute or so of the song now.
That danceable little tune is based on Psalm 137, the same psalm the choir chanted this evening. That bouncy rhythm seems just a little bit at odds with the psalm’s words of lament, don’t you think? — and that violent imprecation at the end?
The last sentence of our reading from Genesis says, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” so this text is often treated as a story of faith. But, in all honesty, this is a story of doubt. It is the story of Abram questioning God’s promise of a posterity; it is a story of tribalism and concern for bloodline, ethnicity, and inheritance.
We humans have a predisposition to tribalism, to congregating in social groupings of similar people. Think about the neighborhood and community where you live; I’m willing to bet that your neighborhoods are made up of people for the most part pretty similar to yourselves. Aside from clearly racist practices like red lining and sundown laws, we modern Americans may not consciously organize ourselves into tribal groupings, but if we look at ourselves honestly we will find that we do. Like attracts like. As individuals, we are initially situated within nuclear families, then as we grow we broaden our social interactions to extended families, then clan, tribe, ethnic group, political party, nation.
It’s genetic: our nearest relatives, the great apes and chimpanzees, demonstrate this same family and clan predilection. And it’s religious: we find it in sacred literatures across cultures. Today’s lesson from Genesis is a case in point.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” advises the author of the letter to the Colossians (whom I shall call “Paul” even though there is some scholarly dispute about that). Is Paul echoing the Teacher who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes? Is he also asserting that “all the deeds that are done under the sun [are] vanity and a chasing after wind”?
And what about Luke’s Jesus? When he says that God calls the rich man a fool is he condemning his wealth or his saving for the future as a waste of time?
No, not at all! None of our biblical authors this morning – not the Teacher, not Paul, not Luke (and certainly not Jesus whom Luke is quoting) – none of them is saying that life is futile or that our earthly existence is unimportant.
There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Rachel has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theological doctrine is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise.
We try in all sorts of ways to explain the Trinity, through diagrams, through analogies, through some really bad and usually silly similes and metaphors. Most such explanations are less than convincing, and virtually all are theologically problematic. As Brian McLaren has observed:
Seemingly orthodox Christians expose themselves—often to their own surprise—as closet adoptionists or Arians, unconscious Nestorians or Apollinarians, or implicit monophysitists or monothelitists.
So I’m going to leave Christian theology behind for a moment and ask you a question from another religious tradition: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
We ask you to hold the people of Ukraine deep in your heart.
Protect them, we pray; from violence,
from political gamesmanship,
from being used and abused.
Give, we pray, the nations of the world the courage
and the wisdom to stand up for justice
and the courage, too, to dare to care generously.
Lord, in your mercy, take from us all the tendencies in us
that seek to lord it over others:
take from us those traits
that see us pursuing our own needs and wants
before those of others.
Teach us how to live in love and dignity and respect
following your example,
that life may triumph over death,
and light may triumph over darkness. Amen. 
The Pope’s message for Lent is a poignant one, beginning with an acknowledgement that “going to some small extent without food [may not seem to] mean much, at a time when so many of our brothers and sisters are victims of war … and are undergoing such suffering, both physically and morally.” Nonetheless, insisted His Holiness, “Lent must mean something,” and he urged all Christians to focus on “the common heritage of humanity.”
So, did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? I usually make three: lose weight, get more exercise, eat more healthily. I make them every year and every year by about Valentine’s Day I’ve let them slip. But this year I’m making a different resolution….
I did some research into the custom of making New Year’s Resolutions and here’s what I learned: the people of what’s called “the Old Babylonian Empire” are believed to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions; this was around the time of Hammurabi, the king known for his code of law. They celebrated the new year in mid-March, at the spring equinox when crops are planted. During a twelve-day religious festival known as Akitu, the Babylonians made both national and personal resolutions reaffirming their loyalty to the king, recommitting to pay any debts, and promising to return any farm equipment they had borrowed.
I really don’t like television commercials, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard. It’s a common complaint; we all talk about how much we dislike TV advertising. We all subscribe to Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services so we can avoid them. And yet, sometimes a particularly memorable advertisement tag-line will worm it’s way into one’s regular conversation. My step-father had one of those: whenever my mother made anything even slightly piquant he would say, “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball,” which some of you may recognize from an old Alka-Seltzer commercial.
Another one that ended up in America’s political lexicon was Clara Peller’s famous question in a Wendy’s ad: “Where’s the beef?”
My wife and I picked one up a few years ago from a commercial for the on-line auto insurer Esurance. Sometimes when we see someone doing something particularly bone-headed, one of us will turn to the other and say, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”
A book entitled Stories for the Heart was published a few years ago by inspirational speaker Alice Gray. It is a compilation of what Gray calls “stories to encourage your soul;” one of them is the following story, whose original author she says is unknown. It may not be true, but I (for one) hope it is:
It was a few weeks before Christmas 1917. The beautiful snowy landscapes of Europe were blackened by war. The trenches on one side held the Germans and on the other side the trenches were filled with Americans. It was World War I. The exchange of gunshots was intense. Separating them was a very narrow strip of no-man’s land. A young German soldier attempting to cross that no-man’s land had been shot and had become entangled in the barbed wire. He cried out in anguish, then in pain he continued to whimper.