Sermon: Sunday, February 24, 2008: Third Sunday in Lent

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7  ;  Psalm 95  ;  Romans 5:1-11  ;  John 4:5-42


In the name of Jesus, our guide on the long road from suffering to hope. Amen.

Well, I’m starting to feel like if I preach enough Boy Scout Sunday sermons you’re going to have to award me with honorary merit badges. You may recall that last year I had to research knots, and we talked about the kind of nets people used to fish with in Jesus’ time. We heard a story about God using us like a living net, tying us together and casting us out into the world so that we can catch each other up in our community and hold each other tight.

So, this year we get a whole slew of stories that are tied together in a variety of ways – but since it’s Boy Scout Sunday I want to talk about one particular thread that goes through all of these stories, and that’s character.

What’s the Scout Law?

“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Did I get that right? That’s a great code to live by. Aristotle said that if you want to be a person of character, you have to do the things that a person of character does. If you have a code to live by, something like the Scout Law, then our hope is that over time you grow into a person of character. This is part of what makes scouting such an excellent program for young men and women – its emphasis on developing character, citizenship and personal fitness.

I don’t know if you caught it while Ben was reading the second lesson this morning, the one from Paul’s letter to the Romans, but he’s talking about character too. He says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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.” (Rom. 5:3b-5)

The thing that popped out at me about what Paul has to say about character is that character isn’t an end in and of itself. The point, for Paul, isn’t to be a person of character, but to focus on what forms character and what character forms in us. So, there are two parts to the equation here: what forms character – and Paul says that character comes from the endurance that comes through suffering; and what character forms in us – which Paul says is hope. Character is not the thing we strive for, but the thing we gain as we move from suffering to hope.

This raises questions for me, and since these questions come out of our experience of reading the scriptures together they could be called theological questions – or questions about God, who God is and how God wants to be with us. This is good. Reading the scriptures should raise questions for us, and the church should be a community where we can ask those questions and look for paths that lead to answers… and more questions. The questions I’m curious about as I think about the journey from suffering to hope include things like:

  • If character produces hope, what are we hoping for?
  • And, how does suffering lead to endurance?

These aren’t easy questions, which means there aren’t easy answers. I want to share some thoughts with you based on my study of the lessons over this last week, but even more I want to encourage you to keep your minds open to these kinds of questions – questions that shape you.

To the question of hope, it seems to me that already implied in the concept of hope is an awareness that things are not as they should be. If everything were already as it should be, there would be no need for hope because our hopes would be realized. But things are not as they should be, and so we live our lives in the tension between hope that the future will be better than the present, and fear that it will not. Take for example the very long story from the gospel that I read this morning. In that story we catch a glimpse of the social divisions that everyone took for granted at the time the gospels were written. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman by a well and begins a conversation with her. He says, “give me a drink” and she replies, “how is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:7-9) The scriptures even go so far as to explain that at that time Jews didn’t share things with Samaritans.

The conversation goes on for a bit, and all the while the Samaritan woman is confused by Jesus’ strange behavior. If there had been Boy Scouts back then, and if Jesus had been a Scout, someone might have pulled him aside and reminded him of the Scout Oath to do his duty by his country and to remain morally straight. His behavior at the well was not really what people considered appropriate – he was talking to a foreigner, and a woman, and he was treating her like an equal. It was kind of shocking. But Jesus had a notion that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Jesus had hope for our life together in community that the walls that divide us – walls like nationality and gender – would be broken down and that we would come to understand that we belong to one humongous community that we sometimes called the “kin”-dom of God. “Kin” like family, like kin-folk.

That’s a wonderful vision of community, something we can and should hope for, but it’s not the way things are now. If we’re going to get there, we’re going to have to leave a lot of what we’ve been taught about other people and leave it behind. We’re going to have to free ourselves of the kinds of ideas about people who are different from us – whether that’s because of where they come from, or how they speak or act – and we’re going to have get free of the idea that each of us and any of us are any better or worse than anyone else. That won’t be easy work. It’s going to take a long time, and it’s going to take leadership from people with strong character.

We heard a little about that in Dominick’s reading from the book of Exodus. In that story the people of Israel are wandering in the desert on their way from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the promised land. Along the way they have to stop thinking of themselves as slaves and do the hard work of becoming free – not just in body, but in mind. Sometimes the hard work of transformation can feel overwhelming, and the old ways of doing things and being together seem good enough. Even if those ways meant thinking of yourselves as inferior to other people, or being treated like you were not as worthy of love and respect as other people, still somehow the suffering we know can look easier than the suffering we don’t know as we work to get free from the things that enslave us.

In the story that Dominick read the people of Israel begin to complain to their leader, Moses. They snipe at him, “why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our livestock with thirst?” (Ex. 17:3b) Now maybe that seems like a really good question, since they were in a desert and they were really thirsty. But remember that before they got to this thirsty place they’d already seen God’s powerful action on their behalf. They’d witness the parting of the Red Sea, and they’d walked through it to safety and freedom on the other side. They’d been led by pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They knew God was with them and leading them to freedom, but still they struggled with their faith.

This, I think, is a wonderful example of how suffering can lead to endurance. It would be easy to side with Moses in this story and criticize the people of Israel for their faithlessness – but I kind of suspect that we are all more like the Israelites than we are like Moses. We can look at our lives and see evidence of God’s presence with us, and still somehow we are plagued with doubts about whether or not God will stay by our side as we journey from our own narrow places of fear and anxiety into the freedoms of heart and mind and body that God wants for us.

But we are being shaped. We are being shaped as we tr
avel this long road from suffering to hope. We are being shaped by God’s promises of new life, promises made to us in baptism, promises painted on our foreheads with living water held inside stone fonts. We are being formed into people of character by practicing the qualities that foster hope: qualities like trustworthiness and loyalty, kindness, bravery and endurance.

Scouts, thank you for your service among us here this morning. Thank you for assisting with our worship. Thank you as well to all you parents who are fostering in your children qualities of character, that is itself cause for hope. My hope for you is that you will continue to follow a code that builds character – but even more than that, that you’ll remember to ask yourself what all that character building is good for. It’s good for creating hope, and hope does not disappoint us because it gives us what we need to create change.


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