Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)

There’s an old song that Roberta Flack used to sing called “Tryin’ Times.”

Tryin’ times, is what the world is talking about.
You got confusion all over the land.
Mother against daughter, father against son,
The whole thing is gettin’ out of hand.
But folks, folks wouldn’t have to suffer
If there was more love for your brother,
But these are tryin’ times.

That song was from an album called First Take, which was released in 1969. The trying times the song refers to were the social upheavals of the 60’s. But the lyrics are generic enough that they could really apply to almost any historical period. Every generation since the dawn of time has had its challenges. You’ll remember that famous old quote by Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The times he was referring to were the early days of our country, the Revolutionary War, around 1776. Fighting, disease, economic upheavals … Paine was not wrong. The times in which he lived were trying times indeed.

One of the great advantages of knowing a little bit of history is that it can give us some perspective. In the last economic recession in 2008, people spent a lot of time making comparisons to the Great Depression of 1929. Our current pandemic is being compared to the Spanish Flu, which began in January of 1918. I’ve seen some articles lately in which the writers have tried to make a case about who did or did not have it worse. Seems like a pretty pointless exercise to me. History will make its judgments once it’s all over and the dust has cleared, but when we’re right in the middle of a crisis, saying that our historical forebears had it worse isn’t going to make anyone feel better.

These times we are living through try our souls, every bit as much as Paine’s times tried his. Our pandemic, our economic crisis, and our social upheavals are trying our patience, our generosity, our courage and our endurance, among other things. We’re all working hard to maintain our optimism and balance, to love and support each other. We all need that, especially knowing there’s no quick fix on the immediate horizon. We need to be strong and faithful for the long haul.

I remember a few years back catching a nature program on television about avalanches. The program was filled with breath-taking photography of huge walls of snow and ice breaking loose and crashing down mountainsides. It was an incredible display. One of the things that stuck in my mind from that program was that they talked about times when people, who were caught in an avalanche, managed to survive by using a swimming motion to work their way to the surface. Now there’s a powerful image, swimming in an avalanche. Can you relate? Boy I can. And I find it helpful and encouraging to know that, even in the midst of an overwhelming avalanche of circumstances, we can always swim toward the surface; toward light and air and life.

You know, part of what makes our faith so helpful is that it has been tried and proven against times like these. I’m sure Paul would have said the early days of the church were trying times as well. The Holy Land was occupied by the Roman Empire, people were under constant threat from disease and famine. Rulers were every bit as self-obsessed and tyrannical as any of today’s rulers are. Paul himself, in his second letter to the Corinthians, gives us a list of the hardships he faced in carrying out his ministry: imprisonments, floggings, shipwrecks and such. But through it all, he was sustained by an unshakable faith. No matter the suffering this life might hand out to him, he was strengthened and upheld by a hope that would not and could not disappoint him.

His argument goes like this: We are justified by our faith in Christ, which means that our faith makes us right with God. And because we are right with God, we can live in a hope for the future that nothing in this life can shake. When we endure, with faith, the suffering life throws at us, it serves to strengthen us in our ministry. So, suffering does not destroy us. Rather, it produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope ….” The whole process, from suffering to endurance to character to hope, is a self-reinforcing circle for people of faith that draws us ever more deeply into the heart of God’s love.

This is an important message, because suffering is so much a part of our lives. That’s always true. There are always people who are hurting for one reason or another. No matter what times we find ourselves in, they will always be trying times for some. But right now, the suffering seems much more pervasive and all-consuming. World-wide, we are dealing with the convergence of a number of overlapping crises. We have the health crisis of the pandemic, the economic crisis of millions out of work, and the moral crisis of social injustice all folding in on top of one another. And, of course, the environmental crisis is still very much with us, even if it’s not making headlines right at the moment. Do you remember to movie that came out some years ago: “The Perfect Storm”? It was about an enormous storm off the east coast that happened when three large storm systems all converged on one another. That’s sort of what it feels like, doesn’t it?

One of the most powerful things about that movie was watching people go out of their way to help one another; taking people in, feeding, clothing, caring, putting their lives on the line for the sake of people they didn’t even know. That’s what always happens in a storm. The urgency and life-threatening nature of it tends to bring our core humanity to the surface. It brings us together. It brings out the best and the most heroic in us. There are always some who take advantage, but many people welcome the chance to stand up for what it right, to do something meaningful and important, and to help in any way they can. There’s a tremendous amount of that happening right now.

In the midst of our perfect storm, people, so many people, have bent over backwards to help, to heal, and to serve. They have cared for people who are sick with love and compassion. They have put their lives on the line for people they don’t even know. Some are marching in the streets because they have seen the need for significant changes to a system that isn’t working well enough for way too many people. None of us really know where we will end up when all the dust settles, but I hold out hope that our perfect storm will end up sweeping away our trying times of division and recrimination, and we will go forward knowing that we can only solve our problems by working together toward a better future for everybody.

Suffering does not have to destroy us. Sometimes, it can challenge us. Sometimes it can inspire us. Sometimes it can produce character, and endurance, and hope. But, as Paul knew, the hope that cannot be disappointed comes not just from finding a cure, not just from getting back to work, not just from more equitable social reforms or clearer skies and cleaner oceans. The hope that does not disappoint comes from knowing that, no matter what storms may roar their way through our lives, we have a home with God, eternal in the heavens, and nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love.

These are trying times times, no doubt about it. But we do not have to face them without hope. Sometimes music says it best. Let me close with the hymn that plays in my mind these days.

My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the clear, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die? I know my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his! How Can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

I hope that you know where your inmost calm comes from. I hope that you will take to heart the fact that our faith produces a hope that cannot and will not disappoint us. We have faith to endure the suffering of our current times, faith to find inspiration and lift people up to work for a better future here on earth, always knowing that we have a better future assured for us up in heaven.

May God bless and keep you all.

Amen.

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