FOR OVERCOMING ADVERSITY
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
October 9, 2016
Lections: Job 7:1-11; Psalm 22:1-18; Hebrews 2:10-14; John 19:23-24;28-30
Lord, we pray not for tranquility, nor that our tribulations may cease;
we pray for thy spirit
and thy love, that thou grant us strength and grace to overcome adversity;
through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
This morning, as we continue to grapple with the shock of last Saturday’s tragedy, we pray “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Our need as individuals and the need of our community is very great, especially the need of the families, relatives, and friends of Eli Brookens, Janie Cozzi, Liam Hale, Mary Harris and Cyrus Zschau. We pray that their sorrow will not overwhelm them, and that they may be comforted. We pray also, in the words of our prayer, not for tranquility, “nor that our tribulations may cease,” because the hope we seek is a trustworthy hope; so we pray for the spirit of love and the strength and grace to overcome adversity. Our lives – and this holds true also for our deaths – are enveloped in love, even when we cannot find the wherewithal to trust this love.
Many, perhaps the majority of people in this community will long to hear words of comfort but find them hard to hear. They appreciate us reaching out to them as individuals who share their sorrow, who mourn as they mourn, and they gratefully accept the embrace of our love and our offers of help, but words seem to fail their meaning. We all share the pain of our sudden parting from those we loved, the anger at the loss we have sustained, and the helplessness that undermines our confidence.
Today’s service is organized around hymns and readings chosen to aid our prayer for mercy and grace in our particular time of need. The liturgy of the word does not shy away from difficulty or make assertions contrary to our common experience, for grief sharpens our discernment, and cuts through illusion. Today’s themes are transposed from the Good Friday worship of the church, in the hope that the tremendous loss we feel can be borne fruitfully alongside the promise for gladness and gratitude each new day will bring.
Let us take first the story of Job. Job is a righteous man, who suffers the loss of everything he loves and everything he owns; and as he does so, he also loses his health. Much has been written about why Job’s story should be found in the Bible, but we need not find it puzzling; Job’s experience is a very real one. How well we live our lives, the rightness and justness of our character, the goodness of our person, and the joy of our presence, is no guarantee against suffering.
In the passage we read from this morning, Job compares mortal life to several things: 1) the hard service of an enlisted soldier; 2) the hard labor of a hired hand; 3) the toiling of a slave in the hot sun; and 4) a hired hand waiting for his wages. Job’s days are vain, futile and empty, and his nights are sleepless, because of his misery, but also from the pain of his sick body. Job has no hope that his condition will ever improve; he says “life is but breath” and his eye “will not again see good.” Job expects to die, and to no longer exist. “When a cloud vanishes,” Job says, “it is gone, So he who goes down to Sheol [that is, the place of the dead] does not come up. He will not return to his house.” Job is anguished and bitter, and perhaps the emptiness of his being will stay with him, even throughout the restoration of what he has lost.
Psalm 22 goes even further in describing the physical and mental agony of the suffering that our pictures of death provoke. Job complained that God would not see the dead, but the Psalmist feels forsaken, as if there were no God. His prayers go unanswered; he is near death, and he says is like being surrounded by enemies, who like dogs, wait to tear the flesh from his limbs; in the meantime, they divide up his last possession – his garments – among themselves. Yet the Psalmist is still strengthened by his faith. He remembers that his ancestors, who trusted God, were delivered from their enemies. And when his enemies mock his faith, the Psalmist addressed God directly: “You are He who brought me forth from the womb; You made me trust when upon my mother’s breast.”
Let us pause for a moment. We find in Job and in the Psalmist two interwoven strands: our experience and our reflections upon experience. The first is common to all of us: our existence is subject to circumstances and conditions. Our whole life can fall apart, senselessly, regardless of how well we have lived it. Mentally and physically we suffer; we experience anguish, bitterness, and agony. Our tribulations seem unending. The second strand, our reflections upon this common experience, what we call our faith, does not deny this; rather, our faith insists that from birth –and even in the womb – we have been cast upon God. Our insistence is based on what we have learned from the story of our ancestors, from Job, David, and the countless others, and our trust in this story is rooted in our earliest experience: the dependence we know on a mother’s love for her child.
Psalm 22 relates our experience of suffering and our deliverance from suffering. One way to think about Jesus is as the greatest of all storytellers. A story is made great by the depth of the meaning it communicates. So Christians follow in the way of a Jewish rabbi, teacher and storyteller. Our teacher, a completely righteous person, was made to suffer; then he was tortured to death on a cross in a Roman province in ancient Palestine. He experienced anguish, bitterness, and agony. From the cross, he called out in the language of the Psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He breathed his last, and God did not see him any longer. He was buried, and went to the place of the dead.
Paul, writing to the Hebrews, says this “was fitting for Him.” And for what reason? Paul makes the astonishing claim that our teacher, our storyteller, was the creator of the universe, “for whom are all things, and through whom are all things.” Our rabbi is in fact “the experience of mercy and presence that we know as love.” He is the one who made us trust as we were breastfed, who surrounds us with love, even when we cannot find the strength to trust; he is the one who is the ground of our being and the gift given to us for overcoming adversity. And this God of creation who, Paul says, is also a person, suffered and died “to perfect the author” of our deliverance “through sufferings.” Sharing in our flesh and blood, enduring the greatest conceivable agony, he rendered death powerless.
We too are perfected by suffering, not because suffering is good for us, but because human life is simply impossible without suffering. The emptiness we may feel as we our dying, and the sorrow we may experience imagining not being able ever to resume our place in our household, are not, however, what we experience at the instant of death. God’s eye does finds us, and we are irradiated with love.
We know this from our story, which has been handed down to us over thousands of years of shared experience. As is true of any story, the Gospel story holds together; it coheres. In Psalm 22, as the Psalmist imagined his death, his enemies divided his garments among themselves. In the Gospel reading from John, when the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they “took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic [that is, his undergarment].” The death of Jesus is described as “the accomplishment of all things,” for all the devises of a good storyteller, the prophesies, foreshadowing, the parallelism and metaphor, are resolved, that is, the story is finished. In this most meaningful of all stories, we run the full gauntlet of experience, from tragedy to gladness and rejoicing; our story suffices for our strength, and its vision for our comfort.
Let us pray that when we have the opportunity to comfort others, we listen well, so we can say the words they need to hear. Let us remember the lives of Eli, Janie, Liam, Mary and Cyrus, their goodness, their joys, and the love they experienced, and trust, for our story tells us so, that death is not the end, and the brightness of love – like the light of the sun in a cloudless sky – surrounds us everywhere, even in our darkest moments of suffering, loss, and sorrow. May the peace of God be with us all. Amen.