You saw the survey questions. Why, there might be ice cream this summer. There could be dancing. Who knows? Do you like surprises? Is one of your favorite things unwrapping presents? All wrapped up — who knows what might be inside?
So, next week, you are going to come to church and open your worship bulletin and you will see three hymns — as usual. Each of those hymns will be special because each and every hymn you will find in the bulletin is a favorite hymn of someone in this congregation. Maybe one of your favorite hymns will show up in the worship service next week.
Every week, a surprise package — a gift to unwrap — just like Christmas or a birthday — looking to see:
Did you get what you wanted?
Is it what you asked for?
Does it fit?
And the most important thing: Will you try it on? When Dr. Z starts to play a worship song that was not on your personal wish list of favorite hymns — will you sing it as if it was just what YOU asked for?
Unwrapping gifts — sounds like fun, right? Think of the colorful paper — curly ribbons — tissue paper holding treasures — what would a birthday party be without birthday gifts? A Christmas tree looks all the more festive ladened with presents.
What is in those wrapped presents? Only the giver knows. Unwrapping presents is fun when it’s something from my wish list.
Unwrapping gifts might be the most fun thing about church life — and the most challenging.
So much of church life happens on schedule, by the book, as expected. We come to church. We do all the right things, all the things that are good and righteous things for all God’s children to do: We baptize our babies, we confirm our youth, we join the church. We take Communion, we serve on church committees. So many of you come to worship faithfully, serve God willingly, give generously. Each of these are more-or-less expected things to do — and important things for us to do — no surprises — these are all “gifts of God for the people of God.” These gifts come wrapped in regularly showing up, and suiting up, and getting on the playing field. We would be surprised to find anything less than each other — doing what we do — in church life together.
Ahh — but just when we think we’ve unwrapped it all, the apostle Paul crashes the party. No sugar plums and lollipop party for the apostle Paul. Paul lets us know that there are gifts yet to open. Our God is a generous God. Unwrapping God’s great goodness and mercy is a party that never ends. And it’s a party like no other.
Paul was such an Interim Pastor — always on the move! He got called into places — and called back to places — where there was uncertainty — where there were challenges — where there was wild anticipation of a future that hadn’t yet brought everyone together.
Paul knows that suffering happens even in lives lived in the Spirit. Paul knows that the suffering of Jesus didn’t end human suffering. Paul especially knows the suffering that happens when we join together as God’s people — the church. Paul knows that, when we come together, we each show up carrying our own personal trials and tribulations. Paul knows real life, and he is not afraid to unveil the swamps of life with all of its dangers, toils and snares.
Paul speaks boldly about suffering — he doesn’t deny suffering — he doesn’t glorify suffering. Rather, Paul puts suffering in context of the story of God’s grace: Suffering is the box that HOPE comes in:
Suffering produces endurance — (not passive “putting up with” but going through) — endurance is a gift —
Endurance produces character — (really knowing who you are and what you are made of) — character is another gift —
and character produces — here’s that word again — HOPE.
Even when it looks for all the world as if there is nary a gift under that tree — and maybe the Grinch took the tree, too — THAT is when we rejoice more boldly, praise more loudly, sing that unfamiliar song that I didn’t choose and am not even sure I like, anyway — and be grateful! For whether the suffering of the present age is excruciating pain, or the frustrations of church life — to keep on rejoicing in the midst of suffering — that’s HOPE! For it is HOPE itself that unwraps the gift of hope.
The reason this text is used today is surely because it is Trinity Sunday. God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit — all three are here in this passage, playing their part. Paul is not so concerned with getting their roles in proper perspective. Paul is very concerned for the actual transformation of our lives. Our relationship with God, our acceptance of Jesus as Lord, our life lived fueled by the Spirit — that’s the gift of LIFE itself. And can’t you just see the gift being handed to you — to you — to open and all eyes are on you: Loving Father God, your brother Jesus Christ, and Mother Wisdom — they wait to see if you will love the gift as much as they loved the giving.
Do you like unwrapping presents? Unwrapping gifts might be the most fun thing about church life — and the most challenging. I rejoice that this congregation is up for the challenge! You are embracing the challenging work of this time of pastoral transition — and you are opening the gifts that are coming your way.
That is HOPE that leads to HOPE. HOPE wrapped up in gifts that are yet to be imagined.
Even now, a gifted pastor is starting to feel a little God nudge — still wrapped in mystery — already being Spirit-prepared for you, even as you prepare for her or him.
A gift of God for the people of God.
And the best part: the look on your face when you delightedly say, “Thank you. It’s just what I always wanted!” Amen.