Suffering for the Sake of the World

Luke 17: 5-10   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

2 Timothy 1: 1-14         October 2, 2016

“...join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.

Prayer:  O God, we have come to hear your Word, to respond to it, and to sense even a little of how far your Spirit desires to take us.  Thank you, O Holy One, for this sacred space in which to move in your direction.  In Christ we pray, Amen.

One of those rare moments in the world of Christianity happened a month ago, on Sunday, September 4th.  The late Mother Theresa of Calcutta, India,  was canonized into sainthood by Pope Francis.  Practically everyone the world over has heard of her—she was a servant of Christ, tending to the “poorest of the poor” in the slums and alleys of Calcutta, for nearly 70 years before her death in 1997Some called her the “saint of the gutters” for her “radical dedication to society’s outcasts” (personal email, The Wired Word, for September 11, 2016).  She was once quoted as saying, “I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness.”

Many people don’t know this, but incredibly, this newly canonized saint suffered spiritually while on earth.  She struggled with her sense of faithfulness and her perceived absence of God.  She wrote these words in 1959: “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not existing. “I find no words to express the depths of the darkness” (http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?keywords=Mother%20Teresa%20sainthood, retrieved, September 30, 2016).  She suffered from the darkness of the soul.

Isn’t that something?  You would think that such a person, the model of faithfulness and mercy, would not have deep spiritual agony sensing that God had abandoned her; but she did.  Sometimes being a faithful servant of God means facing struggles and suffering of all kinds.

She’s in good company, though, isn’t she?  God has used plenty of people before her who have suffered in some wayor another while being in service to Christ.  Just look at Martin Luther King, Jr.  Or, Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero.  Or, Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Or, Joan of Arc.  And, many others.

The list of faithful people who suffered goes all the way back through the ages, to the likes of Timothy, Paul, and Jesus.  First, there’s Timothy.  Here was this new pastor, one of Paul’s students in a new church start in the Roman city of Ephesus, suffering through the hatred of the Roman government in the mid-first century.  The Roman soldiers practiced not ’stop and frisk’ but instead ‘stop and arrest’ any new Christians.  Toward the end of the 1st century, the polytheistic pagan public harshly persecuted the monotheistic Christians, forcing them to find secretive places to worship, like in the burial catacombs underground in Rome and in Ephesus and other cities.  Wow!  Can you imagine what that must have been like?  In the year 97 A.D., the 80-year-old Timothy tried to disrupt a procession in honor of the goddess Diana by preaching the gospel.  The angry pagans beat him, dragged him through the streets, and stoned him to death (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Timothy, retrieved September 30, 2016).

There’s Paul.  Paul suffered, too.  The author of 2 Timothy, writing in Paul’s name, knew that Paul was wrongfully imprisoned on account of Paul’s faithfulness as Christ’s servant.  But, Paul was not ashamed to be imprisoned for Christ; in fact, he considered it an honor.  And he suffered for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.. Paul was beheaded in 65 A.D. in Rome, just after Emperor Nero made it legal to persecute Christians in 64 A.D.

And of course, there’s Jesus.  Jesus suffered and died all because he was faithful to God and God’s ways.  He was arrested on beefed up charges of blasphemy, but really he was arrested for being a disturbance to the status quo, both religiously and politically.  He indeed suffered for the sake of the whole world, so that all people may come to know the “promise of life that is in God, that can be found through him.”

This is the faith legacy that all these people before us offer.  This is our legacy.  We stand on the heads and shoulders of faithful people who endured suffering for the sake of God’s good news of the promise that is in Christ Jesus.

As we live in these days,  right now, we are engaged in a cultural struggle that tests whether or not this legacy of faith can endure.

I’ve heard several people say they just can’t stand to turn on the news anymore. I get that! We are inundated with stories associated with people

behaving badly, with tragedies, with suffering of all kinds.  Our society in general seems to be reverting back to what I call an unsophisticated sense of cultural norms and values.  What we know is wrong and hurtful is accepted practice more and more.  The racial divisions seem to overwhelm us.  The suffering of violence is endemic and systemic.

As people of faith, in these trying times, I think we can use the same words of encouragement that Paul wrote to Timothy,  don’t you?  Can his words apply to us?  Let’s keep focused on faith during these times.  Keep rekindling it.  Let’s keep relying on the power of God.  Let’s work at keeping the spirit of power, the spirt of love and self discipline that comes with God’s promise in the face of our societal struggles.

Because in the face of suffering, God has given us the Holy Spirit.  We have it already.  We have faith already.  Even a little bit of faith can do wonders.  That’s what Jesus taught.  Jesus taught that his disciples are expected to have faith.  It comes with the territory of being a follower of Christ, even in the face of struggle.

Georgia representative John Lewis, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s disciples, was at the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  Lewis and his fellow marchers encountered hundreds of state troopers and sheriff’s deputies.  At that moment, Lewis suggested that the marchers kneel and pray.  As they did, the force opposing them advanced.  The authorities struck them with clubs and whips, chased them and trampled them with their horses.  John Lewis collapsed, unconscious, his skull fractured.  His courage came from a deep well inside him that he kept replenished by faith and suffering. He had faith already.  John Lewis may have been battered that day, but he and his fellow marchers did an amazing thing.  ABC News broadcasted a tape of the violence, and millions of Americans saw these marchers whipped and clubbed for simply affirming the promise of the Declaration of Independence.  One week later, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress and introduced the Voting Rights Act.  The fascinating thing for me was that Senator John McCain is the one telling this story in his book Why Courage Matters (http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?key words=Selma & Search=7&imageField.x=9&imageField.y=9, retrieved September 30, 2016). Courage in the struggle matters. Faith matters. We have it already.

Now, in a larger sense, the world needs our faithful efforts, even if it means suffering, I think.  Because when one person receives justice through faithful people advocating for their rights, it moves us closer to God’s vision that justice is meant for all.  When one person or a small group of people get fed at the First Reformed Church by faithful people, it is an act that reflects God’s vision that all people should have the resources to be fed.

Maybe we do feel overwhelmed.  Maybe the news is too much to bear.  Maybe the struggles are just too big.  And yes, we might think, “I’m just one person.” We’re just one church.

Yes.   We are one person.  Yes.  We are one church.  But together, we are more than just one person.  Together, our church, when added to other churches, together our community, when added to other communities, together, with faith and relying on God’s power, we can really make a difference in the lives of those who need God’s vision to be real.  And the good news of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus shall never cease to be a promise that’s rekindled again and again around communion tables of the world in churches of the world, not just today, World Communion Sunday, but on all days, everywhere.  May it be so.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.