June 24, 2012
I am struck by the contrast of today’s readings with last Sunday when we were reading about the slow, steady, quiet growth of the Kingdom of God. Like seeds “automatically” coming up after being sown, spreading like weeds without much coaxing. And we saw how God chose the overlooked, youngest Son of Jesse to be king, out of the limelight of courts and reporters.
Today in contrast to the quiet, unobserved growth of the kingdom, we have a threatening storm, a fearsome giant, and a list of hazards,both natural and man made,Paul has dealt with on missionary trips. These are definitely “on the other hand” sort of lessons.
When Jesus had finished all the hopeful parable of the invincible, steady, quiet coming of the kingdom of God, he got in a boat “just as he was”, not a suitcase or toothbrush. Just him. And when the boat left the shore behind, he promptly fell asleep. However much the story ends in stressing his divinity, let us not miss this picture of Christ’s utter humanity exhausted with a pillow under his head.
And a storm comes.
Trouble comes into every life.
Now I know you could have gone to some church today and heard some preacher assure you that if you keep your nose clean, tithe, and really have faith– that some bubble of protection will insulate you from anything going seriously wrong. But I think that is a lie. And you know it is a lie too.
Back when I was in divinity school I was driving home to SC and giving a friend who was from Greenville a lift too. Things were going great till we got to Charlotte and the race traffic was merging into I-85. I know they have improved all the traffic flow since, but it brought the interstate to a standstill. I had been sitting there just a while when I glanced back in my rear view mirror and saw someone barreling down behind me with her eyes on the visor mirror while she putting lipstick on. I braced for the crash and tried to point my tires off the road show I wouldn’t get crushed between her and the car in front of me.
The car was totaled. It did not matter that my tires were good and my inspection up to date, that I had been obeying the speed limits and watching the road.
Things happen to you that you in no way cause or did anything obvious to deserve. I don’t care if you have good karma. It won’t stop getting hit by somebody with bad karma.
Some trouble we do make for ourselves. But sometimes trouble just comes at us. And here is a disturbing thought, having Jesus on board did not keep the waves out of the boat.
Paul certainly knows that from personal experience. In today’s reading he recounts for a second time the stuff he has been through– well at least some of it– run out of town, shipwrecked, beaten, jailed, falsely accused, jeered. And the worse it yet to come– as tradition reports he will be martyred in Rome by Nero.
Despite all this, Paul seems to feel he is doing the right thing being a missionary. “I have nothing, but I have everything.”
I have known people like that, who had little but were so good hearted, and happy and nurturing and generous you’d never think of them as self-pitying.
And I have had the pleaasure of knowing people who have a lot of this world’s goods but didn’t let it go to their head. Paul says “have as if you didn’t have ” that is, don’t let what you have define you– because in God’s eyes it doesn’t.
And if you don’t have– don’t have as if you had– because poverty doesn’t define you either. “I have learned I can do all things through Christ.”
Paul writes about a thorn in the flesh in chapter 12 of this letter. “God, you know I could serve you better if you had pity and removed this thing that holds me back and makes me miserable.” God said, “no” God said, it is going to be all right, because you may have the thorn, but you will also have my grace. My grace will be sufficient.
Trouble comes and sometimes God just leaves us in it. It sets up camp and stays a long time.
So…Where is the good news?
God may not prevent storms, but God does not abandon us to the storms. The storm does not have the last word.
Bottom line– don’t be afraid, trust God, who is greater than the any storm.
That trust makes you brave to face anything. David faces Goliath, runs out to him. Faith shakes fear loose and makes you brave and daring and inventive.
There is a lot of flap in the news about the Vatican’s decision to come down hard on the nuns for writing frankly about sexual ethics and the desirability of women having priestly functions. Vatican slapped them down, but a lot of lay Catholics are saying people are not going to buy it. They know the work these women have done sacrificially and bravely in places of need, violence, desperation. Don’t mess with the nuns.
“Remember the “Kony 2012” video that was an Internet hit earlier this year, about an African warlord named Joseph Kony? One of the few heroes in the long Kony debacle was a Comboni nun, Sister Rachele Fassera.
“In 1996, Kony’s army attacked a Ugandan girls’ school and kidnapped 139 students. Sister Rachele hiked through the jungle in pursuit of the kidnappers — some of the most menacing men imaginable, notorious for raping and torturing their victims to death. Eventually, she caught up with the 200 gunmen and demanded that they release the girls. Somehow, she browbeat the warlord in charge into releasing the great majority of the girls.
Kristof writes: “I’m betting on the nuns to win this one as well. After all, the sisters may be saintly, but they’re also crafty. Elias Chacour, a prominent Palestinian archbishop in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, recounts in a memoir that he once asked a convent if it could supply two nuns for a community literacy project. The mother superior said she would have to check with her bishop.
“The bishop was very clear in his refusal to allow two nuns,” the mother superior told him later. “I cannot disobey him in that.” She added: ‘I will send you three nuns!’” 1
You know, you could be scared out of doing the right thing.
Francis Bacon, quoting Montaigne, wrote “If it be well weighed, to say that a man lieth, is as much to say, as that he is brave towards God, and a coward towards men. For a lie faces God, and shrinks from man.”
The Israelite army was afraid of Goliath. Their consciousness was flooded with the threat he presented.
David was more conscious of his trust in God than the intimidation of Goliath. And so he acted bravely in the face of that danger, not thinking his five stones inferior to the brass and iron of the giant’s armory.
If you have the proper fear of God we will not be intimidated by anything we have to face in this world.–Augustine
Psalm 18.1 The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.
Psalm 91 He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High/Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress;/My God, in Him I will trust.”
3 Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler/And from the perilous pestilence.
4 He shall cover you with His feathers,/And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler.
5 You shall not be afraid of the terror by night,/Nor of the arrow that flies by day,
6 Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness,/ Nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,/ And ten thousand at your right hand;
But it shall not come near you.
8 Only with your eyes shall you look / And see the reward of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge,/Even the Most High, your dwelling place,/10 No evil shall befall you,
Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;/ 11 For He shall give His angels charge over you,To keep you in all your ways.
12 In their hands they shall bear you up, /Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
Four Old Women – John Upton Messenger Spring 2012:
“It was during the last trip to China that I had an opportunity to visit and preach at a church in Hangzhou, a city southwest of Shanghai. After all the services that day there was an opportunity to have lunch with the pastor. The church cornerstone indicated that the church had been built in 1888 and therefore had seen many changes in China in its lifetime.
“So, I asked the pastor over lunch how the church had endured the Cultural Revolution era. The pastor leaned back in his chair, relaxed, and smiled a big grin and said, “That is an incredible story.” I asked if he would share the story, which he did.
“He recalled first the impact the Cultural Revolution had on Christians and on the church. Bibles were confiscated and destroyed. In front of that particular church thousands of bibles were taken both from the church building and from church members. They were gathered in a huge pile and subsequently burned as a lesson for all in the community. The ministers were carted off to western provinces for reorientation and to work in propaganda camps. None of the ministers who served the church in those years were ever seen again.
“Church members were told they would not be able to gather in the church for worship or for any other reason. If they did they would be arrested and taken to reorientation camps as well. Many of the church leaders were eventually taken and, along with the pastors, disappeared.
“It was a frightening time for members of the church and for Christians in general. They could not carry bibles; attend any church; pray in public; speak of their faith in any way, including with family members; and could not gather together for religious purposes of any nature.
“Family members could not be trusted. The government was thorough in its intimidation and scare tactics. Consequently, the church was completely shut down and essentially destroyed.
“That was true, he said, except for four older women in the church. They continued to gather for prayer and quoting of scripture as best as they could remember. The authorities wanted to arrest them but a high ranking government official just laughed when he heard of them meeting and said, “They are just four old women. They can’t do any harm, let them be.” So, they continued to meet for literally decades.
“At one of their meetings one of the ladies said that they have been enjoying their fellowship each week for years but did they think that maybe God wanted them to do something for him besides enjoy the fellowship. They were poor and totally disregarded by everyone, including their own families, but they began to pray about something they could do. After much prayer they felt a conviction to make a contribution to someone’s life so they identified a young man who demonstrated much talent in their neighborhood and decided they would put together the meager resources they had among themselves and help him attend college. He was very bright and gifted but came from a very poor family that could never have the resources to send him to school.
“The young man went off to college with their support. Several years later when he graduated he came back to the four ladies to thank them for believing in him and encouraging him and giving him a future. He asked if there were anything he could do for them to express his appreciation. They said yes, could he find a bible for them to have. It had been over 20 years since they had seen one. He immediately told them that was against the law and he couldn’t do it. They thanked him for listening to them anyway.
“In a few days he actually found a bible and quietly took it to the ladies. They were thrilled and held it close one by one. Then he made a mistake. He asked if there were anything else he could do for them. They said, “Yes, would you please read it to us? None of us can read.” So, he began reading.
“As he read to them for several weeks he noticed that he was reading more for himself than for the ladies. He found that he was being drawn to the gospel he was reading. It wasn’t long before he became a Christian himself.
“The pastor paused, looked at me, and said, “I was that young man they helped.” That day when I preached at that church there were over 25,000 in total attendance from all six worship services. I knew that day I had just heard a Pentecost story. The wind of the Spirit is blowing and there is no one at the margins, including four older women.”
Yes, Jesus cares, but it does not mean we will not go through times of danger, suffering, or even death.
The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil was born to agnostic parents. She suffered all of her short life from health problems. She fought in the Spanish Civil War and participated in the French Resistance in World War II. Along the way, she came to embrace Christianity. In the midst of a particularly difficult time of suffering, Weil had an experience of Christ’s presence. She has been reciting the George Herbert poem “Love” as she often did in the midst of violent headaches. Weil writes:’ It was during one of these recitations that…Christ himself came down and took possession of me…I had never foreseen the possibility…of a real contact, person-to-person, here below, between a human being and God…. Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love” [Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 69].
Reynolds Price tells of an 87-year-old woman who wrote to him about one of those moments in which the clouds scatter, the darkness lifts, and we see Jesus. She was facing her own time of difficulty as she was going through exhausting medical tests in preparation for surgery. One day she had a kind of vision. “I went out along the Galilee hills and came to a crowd gathered around a man, and I stood on the outskirts intending to listen. But he looked over the crowd at me and then said, ‘What do you want?’ And I said, ‘Could you send someone to come with me and help me stand up after the tests because I can’t manage alone?’ He [Jesus] thought for a moment and then said, ‘How would it be if I came?'” (Letter to a Man in a Fire, 30-31)(from a sermon by Lewis Galloway.)
Augustine comments on this story
Augustine : “Don’t forget the presence of Christ. When you have to listen to abuse, that means you are being buffeted by the wind; when your anger is roused, you are being tossed by the waves. So when the winds blow and the waves mount high, the boat is in danger, your heart is imperiled, your heart is taking a battering. On hearing yourself insulted, you long to retaliate; but the joy of revenge brings with it another kind of misfortune—shipwreck. Why is this? Because Christ is asleep in you. What do I mean? I mean you have forgotten His presence. Rouse him, then; remember Him, let Him keep watch within you, pay heed to Him. Now what was your desire? You wanted to get your own back. You have forgotten that when Christ was being crucified He said: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Christ, the sleeper in your heart, had no desire for vengeance in his. Rouse Him, then, call him to mind.”
1“We Are All Nuns” By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, NYTimes, April 28, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/kristof-we-are-all-nuns.html?_r=3