II Corinthians 4:7-18
May 22, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
A New Yorker was driving through Texas on business when he collided with a truck carrying a horse. A few weeks later when he returned home, he submitted a claim to his insurance agent to collect damages for his injuries.
“How can you claim to have all these injuries now?” the insurance company lawyer asked. “According to the report made at the scene, you told the police that you weren’t hurt.”
“Look,” replied the New Yorker, “I was lying on the road in a lot of pain, and I heard someone say that the horse in the truck had a broken leg. The next thing I know this Texas Ranger pulls out his gun and shoots the horse. Then he turns to me and asks, ‘Are you okay?’”
The New Yorker kept quiet in the face of his pain, afraid that the Texas Ranger might decide to prematurely put him out of his misery, but even when not faced with Texas Rangers, many people choose to keep quiet about their pain. We suffer silently for many reasons: sometimes we remain silent so as not to burden others with problems we feel we should be able to manage on our own. If only we were mentally stronger, we chastise ourselves, we wouldn’t be suffering the way we are; we are embarrassed, even ashamed, to talk about our struggles. Or sometimes we hide our pain because others who initially shared our grief and sorrow have moved on while our hearts stubbornly refuse to heal. Or we remain silent in our suffering just because we don’t have the words to express what we are feeling. We can’t even articulate our physical ailments in ways that make sense to our doctor; how much more difficult it is to describe mental anguish or emotional pain to those who care about us. We have no words for it.
These reasons for silence in the face of suffering are enough for anyone to bear but Christians are unfortunately too often given an additional reason for their silence: many Christians are raised in churches that teach that suffering is a result of sinfulness and a lack of faith. The true believer, such theology goes, will be protected from life’s misfortunes by God’s benevolent favor poured out on the faithful.
“Have faith in Christ and God’s angels will protect you from tragedy and disease,” popular books trumpet.
“Follow Christian principles to achieve financial security,” the prosperity preachers proclaim.
“The family that prays together, stays together,” the billboards promise.
If you are a Christian, this theology implies, you will be a trim, slim, well adjusted, financially secure, happily married American living to a ripe old age in well-being and contentment. Which means conversely that if you are overweight, out of shape, mentally messed up, and in debt up to your eyeballs, you obviously better get down on your knees because you just haven’t been praying hard enough!
And so in addition to the many other reasons to keep our suffering to ourselves is added the burden of believing that to admit that we are in pain is to admit that our faith is weak and our prayers insufficient to cleanse us of our suffering.
It’s a very tempting portrait — Christianity as a magical amulet — but it’s not a biblical one. In the book of Acts, the church has barely toddled out of its cradle after Pentecost when the disciple Stephen is stoned to death by angry crowds. Stephen was a good and faithful man; where was his guardian angel when he needed one? And Stephen’s martyrdom is just the beginning: soon Peter is thrown into prison; Paul and Silas are arrested, and Paul goes on to be flogged, beaten, chased out of town, shipwrecked, and finally executed in Rome. For every success in the book of Acts, there’s a failure. For every friend, there’s an enemy. Christianity didn’t shelter the apostles from life’s harsh realities; if anything, it often caused them more trouble than if they’d been good Roman citizens minding the pagan gods.
In spite of the Christian telemarketers who promise wonders if we simply believe hard enough and pray hard enough, faith is not a magical shield protecting us from suffering. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” It’s a very poetic passage until you listen carefully to the first half of each of those poetic pairs. Here is a stern rebuttal to those who would make Christianity into a good luck charm: “We are afflicted in every way… we are perplexed… we are persecuted…. we are struck down.” In the Bible, life for the faithful is just as tough and as painful as life for the unbeliever. We, the faithful, are still mortal and we still bruise; we wither, we fail, we screw up, we get sick, and we die. Pain and suffering is not a mark of sinfulness; it is a mark of mortality and so we should have no shame in admitting our suffering for to admit that we suffer is simply to admit that we are not super-men and women.
So if you come to church in the hope of receiving a magical formula that will make your life safe and full of contentment, you should open your eyes and look at who sits here with you. Look around this congregation and see that we are a wounded people. Carried in these hearts are the scars of grief, broken relationships, illness, anxiety, sadness, and homes that have known turmoil. If there’s a magical formula to be had here that will keep life’s misfortunes at bay, then someone is obviously not sharing it with the rest of us!
Paul describes in stark terms the reality of life — sometimes life stinks — but describing the reality of life is only half of Paul’s message to us; the other half of each of his couplets is hope: “For we are not crushed,” Paul says, “We are not driven to despair… we are not forsaken… we are not destroyed… while we carry in the body the death of Jesus, the life of Jesus is also made visible in us.”
Faith cannot protect us from suffering but, Paul declares, faith can give us meaningful and purposeful life even in the midst of our trials and pain. Our faith proclaims that it can transform the way we experience our struggles and it can redeem our understanding of our future. For Paul, this promise is grounded in the reality of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection — “we carry in the body the death of Jesus, the life of Jesus is also made visible in us,” he says — and it is in this juxtaposition of the reality of suffering and the promise of new life, that we find the hope we need to endure. And what is that hope?
First, in the cross we are given God’s absolute promise that no matter what happens to us, no matter how deep the darkness, no matter how horrible the wound, no matter how bleak the day or how weak our hearts, God will not leave us alone. God will remain with us and is as close to us as the air we breath, as the tears that stream down our face, even as close as the sadness that weighs us down. Is there gloom wrapped like a shroud around your heart? Know that God is wrapped around your heart as well, wearing the gloom with you, feeling every struggle you endure. For the one without faith, suffering can be an alienating isolating experience, but for a person of faith, we have the promise of God’s steadfast presence, even should everyone else leave us.
In the early 1970s, the UCLA football team had a terrible season, and Head coach Pepper Rodgers came under intense criticism and pressure from alumni and fans. Things got so bad, he remembers with a smile, that friends became hard to find.
“My dog was my only true friend,” Rodgers says of that year. “I told my wife that every man needs at least two good friends and so she went bought me another dog.”
Rodgers is able to laugh about that lonely time now but if the stress and alienation had continued, his loneliness would not have been a laughing matter. Research has found that loneliness is as comparable of a risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness has been shown to depress the immune system and increase inflammation in the body, a condition that has been linked to everything from cancer to depression. Loneliness can literally kill us.
Faith, however, assures us that we will never be alone in our suffering because Christ knows our pain. Christ knows your grief and sorrow, because he too endured the very worst of deaths and the betrayal of friends; he is well-acquainted with the searing pain of both heart and body that comes in our darkest hours. He will not turn you away saying, “Hey, buck up. It’s not that bad. What are you crying about?”; he knows what you are crying about. He’s been there. While others casually toss out the phrase, “I feel your pain,” Christ’s words are as real as the nails that pierced his hands and feet; he does feel your pain and he will stay by your side through every dark night of the soul. We carry with us the death of Christ, trusting in the promise of the cross that there is no sorrow that is powerful enough to bar the doors of our heart from God’s presence. God will be with you. God is with you, now and whatever may come.
But God doesn’t leave us in the tomb: while the cross promises that Christ will be with us in our suffering, the resurrection declares that there is redemption for us even in the worst of times. God brought Jesus to life again and though Christ would always carry the wounds of the cross on his hands and feet, Christ continued to live and to work and to move in new ways in the world. God doesn’t send us suffering to teach us lessons — we suffer because we are mortal and sometimes life is hard and the world is cruel — but God does promise that if we look to God, God can help us forge goodness out of our suffering and discover new avenues for life beyond the tomb.
Billie Wilcox and her husband Frank were missionaries who traveled all over the world in their work for the church, and early in their career they were living in Pakistan when tragedy struck their young family. Their six month old baby died, and they were heartbroken. Wilcox writes, “An old Punjabi who heard of our grief came to comfort us. He said, “A tragedy like this is similar to being plunged into boiling water. If you are an egg, your affliction will make you hard-boiled and unresponsive. If you are a potato, you will emerge soft and pliable, resilient and adaptable.”
“It may sound funny to God,” Billie adds, “but there have been [many] times [since] when I have prayed, ‘O Lord, let me be a potato.’”
This was the prayer of Paul throughout his ministry: “O Lord, let me be not an egg that is hardened by the searing waters of trouble, but let me be a potato. Let these sufferings change me not for evil but for good. Let me emerge from these trials not hardened and unresponsive to others, cynical about the world, and huddled in my self-pity; but let me emerge instead soft and pliable, resilient and adaptable, able to sympathize with the sorrows of others, patient with myself and trusting in you, more ready to love and more open to new ways of living. Even as I carry in my body the death of Christ, may the life of Christ also be made visible in me.”
The cross promises that God knows our suffering and is acquainted with our grief. God will enter the tomb with us and never leave us alone. If you need God, God will be there as close as the air you breathe.
And when you look up from your sorrow, God will take your hand and lead you to a new life beyond the tomb. It won’t look the same as the old one, and your wounds won’t miraculously disappear. You may have to carry that sadness with you, maybe even for the rest of your life, but God promises there can be new joys, new discoveries, new ways of being, and new purpose for you, if you let Christ show you the way. In that resurrected life, Christ will be made visible in us and others will be able to see the treasure that we carry in this earthen vessel.
Let us pray, “Lord, let me be a potato.”