Success and Suffering ~ God Is With Us

The Rev. Robert P. Travis Pentecost 6th Sunday Sermon  – 5pm, 8am and 10am Church of the Ascension and Zoom, Wakefield RI RCL Proper 9 Year B 7/4/2021 Independence Day

Sermon Text:

A few years ago I received a copy of the Catholic Free Press

from Worcester, MA from Tasha Connor’s sister, who writes for that paper.

She gave it to me for another article,

But I couldn’t miss the top headline,

“College commencements impart wisdom.”

So I read the first part of each of two articles,

That were on either side of a picture of graduates listening,

The left one said, “A local pastor told graduates

At their commencement . . . that Jesus invites them

to be saints.” It continues,

“A sense of one’s insignificance,

Of being accustomed to suffering,

And experiencing failure makes one a saint.”


The article on the right side of the picture said

That a decorated military leader,

Speaking at a different college commencement inspired

Graduates to aim high, and never stop believing

In themselves.

He said, “don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t

Be that great person, and achieving leader.”


So which is it?

Failure and suffering, or achievement and being great?

It seems to me that if a family had a student at each college,

And brought kids to the ceremony,

Assuming the kids listened at all,

They would face a very confusing summer,

As they considered these two messages.


Both are important aspects of being human,

of growing as a person,

And both are elements that we celebrate as a country,

As we do today in our Independence Day.

The great thing about our Independence story,

As I was taught it,

Was that this insignificant group of colonies,

rose up against the most powerful

empire in the world at the time,

and, against all odds, actually won their independence.

If what made for our greatness was our insignificance,

our unlikely underdog story,

What does that mean for our country today,

When we are the ones exercising

Great power and success?


If we look at our scriptures for today,

We see three different but similarly faithful men,

All following God from a place of weakness, and power.


David has become the king of Judah and Israel, after rising to prominence out of obscurity and weakness.


Paul is a formerly successful persecutor of Christians,

Who has been given a calling to preach in the name of

the underdog Jesus, though he could certainly

have much more worldly success as a part of

the powerful Pharisee sect of Judaism.

Paul has had much success

In spreading that gospel to the gentiles,

as the Christians in Corinth were.

But now he is being criticized and challenged

To boast of his spiritual experiences,

To share the intimate details of his spiritual life,

Because other leaders preaching to that community

Are questioning his authority to teach.

So he has to share the ecstasy that he has experienced,

Even to the point of experiencing heaven itself.

But he hastens to add that he would rather boast of his weakness, because he knows from God that God’s true power in our lives, comes through our weaknesses,

not in our spiritual experiences.


And then there’s,

Jesus, the son of God,

come into the world to save the world,

who struggles with the unbelief of the neighbors

He grew up among.

He goes to the synagogue to teach them,

As he does everywhere else,

But in this place they do not believe that

He is the messiah, the savior,

Perhaps because they are too familiar with him,

In other ways, as son of Mary, who had him out of wedlock,

A regular carpenter,

And brother of men and women they know so well.

Their unbelief seems connected,

With Jesus’ own inability to perform

The works of power there,

that he has done in other places.

But he does not let this faze him.

He simply lives with the disappointment,

and moves on to other villages.

He sends out his 12 disciples,

Empowering them to go to other places with the message of hope, and giving them authority

To cast out demons, anoint and bring healing to the sick.

This man they followed was acquainted with weakness and suffering, though he is God incarnate.


Today (tomorrow) we get to baptize a precious baby girl,

Clementine Cosette, who I’m sure is the darling of her parents and everyone who knows her.

But at this point in her life, we don’t know what she will experience.

Will she have profound experiences of heaven in the body or out of the body as Paul did?

Will she grow up to be successful in her endeavors as David was?

Will she go away, find a powerful calling and come back to her hometown only to find that her own people reject her because they knew her when she was small an insignificant, as happened to Jesus?

We don’t know, but much as we don’t want to admit it,

we can bet that she will experience suffering and weakness, as that is what we all go through from time to time.


And as one who is baptized into the family of God,

we know that God will be with her in all of those times, showing her, if she’s open to see it,

that God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

In spite of all that we don’t know about Clementine,

as with every baby, we know that she has arrived,

that she is in this life, and she is headed to eternal life.

Her being fully alive is to us the Glory of God.

St. Irenaus said, “The Glory of God is the human person fully alive; and the life of humanity is the vision of God.”


In another and more mysterious way,

while we are celebrating Clementine’s new life in God and among us, we are also grieving the loss of a beloved member of our congregation.

Jeff Melish, as you know died suddenly in a car accident on Thursday.

We’re still in shock over losing him so suddenly,

and in prayer for Joanne, his wife,

as she struggles to recover from her serious injuries in the ICU.

Yet as believers, we trust that Jeff too, has arrived,

arrived into the beginning of a new life.

That is part of the story of the people of God,

The story that is ours,

and the story that we are baptizing Clementine into as well. As Paul says in the first letter to the Thessalonians,

We “grieve, but not as those without hope.”

Our hope is in the cross and the resurrection

of Jesus of Nazareth.


The rejection that Jesus experienced in his hometown,

Was a foreshadowing of the much greater rejection,

He would experience at the hands of the powerful ones

Who were also his people, but in a broader sense.

When he went to the cross,

It surely looked like failure,

it certainly involved great suffering.

But as only God can turn great failure

Into even greater success,

The way of the cross, suffering and death,

Became the way of life and peace.

What was a symbol of ultimate suffering and pain,

Has become a symbol of hope,

For Billions of people.

A symbol of new and everlasting life,

For everyone who accepts Jesus.


People suffer, and somehow it seems

without suffering we can’t succeed.

Somehow, as creatures, we learn best by our struggles,

learn to depend on God only when we cannot depend on ourselves.

And we develop most when we have struggled and failed.

We are imperfect.

Our failures and the failures of others are inevitable.

Sometimes our failures seem terminal, sometimes the failures of others lead directly to our suffering or even our death,

but even then we can still live the most amazing life with God.

The true measure of greatness, unlike what the world tells us,

Is not success or failure,

but whether in those successes and failures

we are with God or not.

For with God our failures become unexpected

and unparalleled success,

And our successes become greater.

But without God, our successes are meaningless,

And our failures are devastating.

It is the relationship with God that matters.


As a church, we exist to help others develop

And deepen that relationship with God,

and to grow in love for one another.

Our grief over Jeff and with Joanne is a part of that love we have for each other, just as our joy in baby Clementine’s baptism is.

We exist as a church so that everyone around us can come to experience what it is to be fully alive, alive with Jesus, the Lord who was crucified, and yet is alive today.


For that is true life,

And it is available to everyone.

If you are not sure you have this life in you,

Come and talk to me or others here who know him.

If you have this life in you,

Do not be afraid to share it with others,

For whether you succeed, or fail,

Jesus will be with you and will work

All of your efforts into His perfect purpose.





The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Father Rob goes by Father so that he remembers his duty to the people of God whom he serves. He’s been ordained since 2006, serving in Florida and Tennessee and before that served as a youth minister in Long Island, NY. More details