What kind of pet peeves do you have? When you think about the little mannerisms and characteristics that really irk you, what comes to mind? For me: it’s boasting. When people want to tell me how awesome they are at something, when they just can’t help but toot their own horn, it really irritates me. I’m not quite sure why it bothers me so much. I guess if I traced it back it was probably something my mom instilled in me when I was little - teaching me good manners, and teaching me to be kind and thoughtful and to not boast about anything that I thought I was good at, not boast about any advantage I thought I had over others. And apparently it stuck. Boasting - I really dislike it.
In these internet days, there is even a special category of boasting - which, to be clear, I also dislike - called the “humble brag.” The humble brag” is when you “try to get away with bragging about yourself by couching it in a [false] show of humility.” (1) So you might say something like, “Your [canoe] is way cooler than my 80-foot yacht. You get to be so much closer to the water and to nature. I envy you, I really do.” (1) And I’d know you just wanted me to know that you had an 80-foot yacht. Still boasting. Still my pet peeve.
Why does boasting irritate me so much? I guess I believe that if you have a quality worth boasting about, you don’t need to tell me about it - I’ll see it. And if I want to compliment you for it, praise you for it, I will. But boasting is like asking for compliments. And how sincere are compliments that you’ve had to ask for? Not very. Boasting, to me, seems disingenuous on the part of the boaster, and it kind of pulls the respondent into a disingenuous interaction too, making them feel pressured to praise you - as you basically asked them to - in response to your boasting. No thanks.
Still, I try to also think about what motivates someone to boast (besides being full of themselves!) I think when we’re tempted to boast, it comes from a place of insecurity. We might be proud of something we did - and that’s ok - but we’re afraid we won’t be recognized for our hard work, or afraid that we won’t be noticed. Maybe we’re always overlooked, and we feel that if we don’t ask for compliments by boasting, we’ll never get any. And compliments feel good - we all need them - we need to check in with each other to feel secure. I try to remember, when someone is boasting - that they probably need something they don’t feel they’re getting elsewhere. I try to remember that so I can be more patient with boasting.
Believe it or not, all this is on my mind because of our scripture lesson for today from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Over the years of my discipleship, from as long as I can remember being a Bible-reader on my own, for my own faith-development, I’ve struggled with the apostle Paul. There are a few things that challenge me about Paul’s teachings, but the thing I struggle with most? Paul boasts constantly! He has the spirit of the humble-brag down to a T, saying things like, “If anyone was going to boast on their own merits, I’d be the best one to do it, because I am soooo qualified as a perfecter follower of God’s law - but, all those ways I excel are not important now that I’m a follower of Jesus.” Sure, he tells us his awesome qualities don’t matter anymore - but he makes sure we know them all the same. Boasting - ugh!
What then, are we to make of a text like today’s reading from Romans that actually invites us all to join in boasting? Listen again: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that 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.” Ok - so here Paul is telling us to boast in our hope in sharing the glory of God, and to boast in our suffering - because the way Paul calculates - our suffering is eventually a path to hope, and we can trust in our hope in God. But do we really need to boast to get to hope? Is that necessary?
We have to remember, though, that the early followers of Jesus faced incredible obstacles in their path of discipleship. Following Jesus meant being an outsider, on the fringes of community, facing derision and persecution. When Paul speaks in this passage of suffering, he isn’t just talking about having a bad day - he’s talking about the years of rejection, persecution, imprisonment, accusations, beatings and more that he and other disciples have experienced because of their commitment to discipleship, finding themselves both outside the Roman culture and practices and outside of the Jewish faith community too. To remain a follower of Jesus in the face of such challenges took daily dedication, and a deep trust in the path they were following. And so, in the face of that … Paul calls for a bit of boasting. Paul uses this technique of boasting to take what might seem like nothing, or at least nothing good, and turn it into something worth having - worth seeking after. Paul takes the suffering the church experiences, and transforms it into hope. He gives people something to boast about when they’ve been crushed, and in doing so, urges them to remain faithful. He says that their nobody-status as outsiders is actually leading them to have God’s love poured right into their hearts, into being filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul is giving a pep talk, and using whatever he can to persuade his audience: even boasting, a quality that we otherwise might dismiss as simply bad behavior. (2)
Ok - so, I might understand Paul’s motives a bit better, and give him a little leeway on his boasting when I better understand his purpose. But what does this mean for us? Because as mostly white, mostly middle-class Christians in a nation of predominantly Christian adherents - probably few of us can claim to have experienced the kind of persecutions and sufferings Paul and the early followers of Jesus did. Mostly we’re not in the vulnerable place of feeling like we have nothing and we are nothing in the face of being pushed out of the community because of following Jesus. And so, too, we can’t quite give ourselves permission to boast, as Paul does, even if we’re only boasting about our hope of sharing in God’s glory. I don’t think we’ll be well-received in our boasting!
I do think, though, that Paul’s words can help embolden us toward more risk-taking discipleship. Sometimes, when we’re thinking about stepping out on faith, we can only imagine what losses we might experience if we fail, the standing we might lose, the security and sense of place we might lose. Paul’s words remind us that when our aim and purpose is following Jesus, our loss is gain, a fulfillment of hope whose value is immeasurable. Paul reminds us that God transforms what seems like nothing into sustaining abundance. So: what risks is God calling you to take? Is God calling you to be an ally and advocate for the marginalized and oppressed and excluded? Is God calling you to speak out against violence and injustice that brings terror to our communities? Is God challenging you to let go of some of your comforts in order to be more free to serve others? Is God asking you to minister, to heal? The scriptures are full of stories of God asking people to take life-changing risks. And then God is right there with them, turning their worlds upside-down, yes, but also meeting every hopeful expectation with promises fulfilled. I think God has a story to tell with us, too, if we’ll take the risk.
And once we’ve taken those risks with God? Well, we might even be entitled to a little boasting - boasting in God’s faithfulness to us. Amen.
Themes drawn from Crystal Hall, “Commentary on Romans 5:1-5,” The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/the-holy-trinity-3/commentary-on-romans-51-5-5