Scripture – Romans 5:1-5 – Trinity Sunday – May 22, 2016
There’s something shakin’ in Hollywood…and it’s got nothing to do with movies….well, except if you consider the retired airplane sitting in the Burbank airport which is often used on movie sets. But it’s also used for something else: a fascinating program I learned about this week. The plane is the site for a two-day class for people who are afraid to fly. Complete with simulated shaking turbulence, the program leads fearful participants through an education and desensitization process which culminates in their actually boarding a real plane for a true commercial flight with their instructor and the rest of the group. Results for the graduates are relief from intense stress, liberation from debilitating fear and the personal freedom gained to hop on a plane anytime in the future. That is, if they get on the plane. That is, if they show up for the class in the first place.
Turns out that fearful fliers are more ashamed of their fear than the underlying fear itself. Many sign up for the class multiple times and never quite show up. Some make it all the way to standing in line to board the real commercial airline and turn around and leave, fearing not only the flight but the embarrassment attendant to shaking hands, trembling knees and white knuckles, perhaps even tears. The 29-year instructor, a retired airline pilot who also flew in Viet Nam said on the NPR radio segment this past week “I find the shame about not being able to fly often exceeds the fear itself.” I would imagine it’s the same shame connected to not being able to swim in a community where everyone else can swim. You’re afraid of the water but you may be more embarrassed that you’re “the only one” who can’t swim.
Feeling like “the only one” in any situation is difficult. Being in the minority is a hard place to exist, but if there’s shame connected to it, it makes living in it that much harder. That’s precisely where the members of the early Roman church found themselves. They were part of a very small minority in their belief and worship of Jesus as the Christ and in their culture it was shameful. Atlanta professor Margaret Aymer explains that a better translation of the Greek phrase Paul uses, “hope does not disappoint us” is “hope does not disgrace us” or “hope does not put us to shame.” She writes: “The New Testament writers all wrote in a cultural milieu governed by honor and shame; honor was to be sought at all costs, and shame, particularly public shame, was to be avoided.” And she quotes other scholars: “to be dishonored publicly by some event, person, or …group affiliation with unique beliefs and practices was a grievous social ill.”
She concludes that “What Paul is addressing in Romans 5 is a matter not of Christian disappointment but of the real possibility of the public shaming of the Roman church.”
You would never boast of your sufferings in Paul’s day because you wouldn’t want anyone to find out about them. It meant you were out of favor with God. The people following the way of Jesus in first-century Rome were seen as shameful not only as Jews in a wider culture of Romans worshiping multiple gods, but as Christians in their own community of Jews who saw them as breaking the laws of the Torah. Shame from everywhere all around.
So Paul writes to them, encouraging them, reminding them who and whose they are. Listen to how another professor, Linda Thomas in Chicago, interprets Paul’s words and hear them for yourselves, today. Listen carefully and take this in to your own hearts:
“So now, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith in God’s promises, we can have real peace with God because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. Because of our faith, he has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand. We confidently and joyfully look forward to becoming all that God has had in mind for us to be.
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us – they help us learn to be patient. Patience develops our strength of character and helps us trust God more each day until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady. We are then able to hold our heads high, no matter what happens, and confidently know that all is well. We know how dearly God loves us, and we feel this warm love within us because God has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with God’s love.”
Sit with that and feel it and know it. My friends, this passage from Paul’s letter to the early Roman church is so empowering because it is a strong and inspiring reminder that no matter who we are or where we’re at, our faith in God through Jesus Christ allows us to stand in grace. Verse 2: “…we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” [ I invite you to just stand for a moment and take that in. You are standing in God’s grace.] If we can remember that we’re standing in God’s grace, there is no reason to be ashamed, there is no reason to hide who we are and how we feel and what we think, especially among each other, whether we’re in the middle of a sex-change or in the middle of a challenging bylaw change. We are all standing in God’s grace.
We are standing in God’s grace whether we’re afraid to get on a plane or jump in the deep end. We are standing in God’s grace whether we are fighting ISIS or fighting heroin addiction. We are standing in God’s grace whether we are clean and sober or getting back on the wagon this morning. We are standing in God’s grace whether our marriage is 40 years old or it is dissolving in anger and sorrow right before our eyes. We are standing in God’s grace whether we can climb the stairs two at a time or need to be wheeled in to the room. We are standing in God’s grace whether we have abundant diversified portfolios or are struggling to pay the rent. We are standing in God’s grace with our clean bills of health and through our rounds of chemo. We are standing in God’s grace whether our kid’s going to Harvard or she’s sitting in jail. We are all standing in God’s grace no matter who we are or where we’re at.
In the Church of Jesus Christ, our gay brothers and sisters don’t have to hide who they are. Our brothers and sisters of color don’t have to stay away. Our new immigrants – documented or not – need not live in the shadows. And we don’t have to either – not out there and, I pray to God, not in here.
Especially not in here. Especially not in our own faith community where I pray we do not hide our differing opinions from each other, the same people with whom we pray and worship and sing, from the same people with whom we rejoice during baptisms and weddings and health recoveries and good news, from the same people with whom we lament and cry in the face of misfortune and illness and death. See, the real shame is when we forget we all belong to God, when we forget, as Paul wrote, that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, enabling us all to stand tall in God’s grace with eyes not lowered in fear and shame, but with heads held high.
This passage was written by Paul to empower the Romans to remember the promises of God, to ignore the shaming culture around them and to see the strength and character and hope that can come from their own suffering and to stand tall. This same passage empowers us today to stand together as a beacon of hope in this culture, in this community, especially to those who are suffering or hiding in shame. And it empowers us to stand and face each other when we disagree within our own faith community with open hearts and open arms and even more love because through our mutual faith, we are all standing in God’s grace.
We baptized another baby in our midst this morning and we blessed him with the prayer that he never be ashamed to confess a personal faith in God. We were all blessed at our Baptisms and now we live in community with one another in this part of the body of Christ. May we never be ashamed to confess a personal faith in God and may we never be ashamed to accept each other with all our fears and all our flaws and, especially today, with all our opinions. Amen.
 Margaret P. Aymer, Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 39.
 Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003), 139.
 Aymer, 39.
 Linda E. Thomas, Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 38.