Proper 22 C
6 October 2013
Grace Episcopal Church
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well! What jolly lessons we have today! Paul happily urges Timothy to join him in suffering for the gospel. This is why Paul says that he suffers as he does, because he has been appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher of the Gospel. “Come on, Timothy, join in the fun! Preach and suffer!” And Jesus . . . first he tells his friends that their faith is weak. In fact, he seems to be saying that they have no faith at all. But if they SHOULD gain enough faith to work wonders, they shouldn’t take any pride in those works. Even if they work miracles, remember, he says, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” Ya know, the slave thing is bad enough. I could have done without the worthless bit.
These readings have reminded me of various sayings that you may remember, too. Years ago, when someone was suffering from some misfortune or illness, they might have been told, “Offer it up. Offer it up to Jesus.” I haven’t heard anyone say that for a long time now, even jokingly. When someone was commenting on their own unhappy situation, they might have been heard to say, “That’s just my cross to bear.” That’s a saying I still hear from time to time, but usually with tinge of irony. There’s another saying I remember . . . I don’t know from where . . . . It would be used, for example, to describe some poor woman putting up with a failure of a husband, “She’s a Christian martyr. That’s what she is, she’s a Christian martyr.” These sayings may make some of us giggle and roll our eyes now, but they express a belief that I was very aware of when I was young. It’s the sentiment that somehow suffering can be good for us; that it somehow can make us holier.
There’s a story of an old monk at Holy Cross Monastery that I’ve told some of you, but it’s worth repeating because it’s such a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about. This happened long before I was at the monastery and it seems that this old guy was a really cranky curmudgeon. Well, some local grade school was studying the Middle Ages and monasticism, and they asked if they could tour Holy Cross. I don’t know what fool assigned that old, cranky monk to speak to the children, but chosen he was. Upon arrival the children were ushered into the chapel. They’d obviously been told to be respectful and behave themselves. After they were seated and perfectly quiet, the old curmudgeon slowly entered chapel. Naturally, he was dressed in his habit, apparently he was also quite tall, and so was a rather intimidating presence, given his continual scowl and all.
He began his remarks with a question: “Boys and girls, what does God want us to do?” The children were all too frightened to say anything. So the monk repeated the question. “Boys and girls, what does God want us to do? To SUFFER!” Apparently, some of the children burst into tears. Fortunately, another of the monks was watching and was able to stop the old guy from continuing in a similar vein, and was also able to take over the tour. Nevertheless, the monastery was never again asked for a tour by ANY of the local schools.
Of course, these days we know better, don’t we? We know that suffering is NOT what God wants for us. God wants only the best for us, right? Suffering is not part of God’s plan. But wait, there’s suffering all around us. In fact, we ALL know a thing or two about suffering. To be a human being is to know about suffering . . . illness, bereavement, disappointment, mistreatment. Many of us come to church, at least in part, because it’s a community of suffering . . . a community that we can come to for comfort when we’re hurting. I suspect that one reason some of you stick with the church, despite all its flaws, is because when you went through some difficult time in your life, the church stuck with you. That’s an important ministry of the church . . . to share our troubles with each other.
But this is not the kind of suffering that Paul is talking about . . . that Paul is asking Timothy to join him in. Paul is talking about a very specific kind of suffering: suffering for the Gospel. Most, if not all of us, know nothing about this kind of suffering. In our comfortable North American churches, we are not outwardly persecuted because of our Christian faith. There aren’t many opportunities to suffer for the Gospel . . . and yet, as I say that, I wonder if it’s really true. I’m reminded of a quote of G. K. Chesterton. He said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” You know, Christianity is still counter-cultural. And when we try to live out the lessons Jesus teaches us we will – we do – bump up against resistance, and encounter suffering.
At this point it might be helpful to notice that there’s more to Paul’s call to Timothy than I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. Paul writes: “Join me in suffering for the Gospel . . . relying on the power of God who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our work, but according to his own purpose and grace.” When we suffer from some illness or other misfortune of life, we turn to others for support and help. Just so, when we are called to suffer for the Gospel, we fall back into the everlasting arms of God. We must learn to trust the power of God, rather than our own power.
Of course, God does not WANT us to suffer. But as human beings, suffering is inevitable. And if we are true to our faith, if we try to live out the Christian ideal, we will inevitably encounter another type of suffering. Our world definitely is not the embodiment of the Kingdom of God. But as we allow God to work through us to usher in the Kingdom – and as we encounter resistance as we do this work – we can also remember that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3: 22-23). And so Paul is also able to write to Timothy that because of our hope there is not a “spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline (Timothy 1:7).
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