St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Sexagesima, February 16, 2020
“in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft… Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck… If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities..”
I’M GETTING KIND OF… MATURE, and in my advancing age I have endured lower back pain, have to go easy on my knees, and the ankle brutalized by my ladder fall is always stiff and sore. Sometimes I forget just where I was going or why. The hair went long ago. I don’t glory in these things, but accept that my youth can only be maintained by a youthful attitude and outlook: not so much in my body. No more climbing 100’ water tanks for me, or the 700’ Skycatch tower in San Francisco, as I once did.
We all have tales of broken bones, injured pride, and heartaches. The first time I broke my wrist, I was seven and was washing windows at home. Needing to get higher, I stood up on a chair, and to get higher, on the arms of the chair. You can picture it. They called it a green stick break of the left wrist. The next two times I broke my wrists on roller skates.
Although we injure ourselves, and get hurt by others, or just feel the pains of illness: this life still offers us the pleasures of living, loving, laughing and lounging, even with an arm in a cast. At ten, my appendix joined the dark side. I never knew such pain. And after the operation, how much I needed stomach muscles to heal in order to walk or even stand up. But insult beyond injury was new hit song, Volare, that blared happily about twice an hour during my convalescence. I really hated song. “Let’s fly” is hard to hear when you can’t even walk. The Nel blu dipinto di blu blues.
So, life has its wounds, and doubly hard are those inflicted on us when we’re actually in the right place and doing the right thing. The irony is that you can predict this. The more right you are, and the truer your cause, the better your motives and the nobler your efforts: the more likely the chances that you’ll be opposed, hated, ridiculed and attacked for that very reason: you are selflessly performing the duties of a saint.
Had Jesus stayed with carpentry, there would be no story to tell, and no cross at the end. Carpentry’s fine, but saving the human race was His calling, and the minute He set His light against all the darkness that kept us ignorant and lost, people began cursing Him. All Jesus had to do was heal somebody, and judges showed up to determine what was wrong with Him. A man born blind was brought and He healed him. Then the Pharisees held court over the former blind man, claiming his miracle was illegal, on the Sabbath you know, and therefore the healer had to be a sinner. Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, started receiving death threats.
We’ve come to expect opposition and punishment from our fellow creatures. But at times we may also find ourselves under the rough Hand of the Almighty. The Psalmist cries, “O LordGod of hosts, How long will You be angry against the prayer of Your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears.” Psalm 80:4-5 Scripture says, “Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble… happy is the man whom God corrects; therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty. For He bruises, but He binds up; He wounds, but His hands make whole.” Job 14:1-2; 5:17-18 This confuses us: that God might hurt us, even when we’re being good. Bad things happen to good people. We need this explained to us.
Jesus knew, and predicted it. St. Paul figured it out. Our answer is given, if we listen. Then take comfort, even if you’re not healed. “They will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name's sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.” Matt 24:9-10 “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 St. Paul wrote that “no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation.” 1 Thess 3:3-4 “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” 2 Tim 3:12
We can blame stupid people, wicked intentions, villains and politicians for a lot of our troubles. But who do you blame for a hurricane? Where is the perpetrator of a heart condition? Who might I accuse for fire, flood, or fungus? PG&E? Insurance policies cover Acts of God. God protects us often, but sometimes His protection lifts, and sometimes He sends locusts. This is hard to understand, but wisdom comes with age. Wise old St. Paul put this thing well…
After planting a church at Corinth, training, baptizing and ordaining, leading and showing them Christ, Paul left for other shores. There he heard newcomers were in his church and claimed better teaching than his. He might argue theology, but he resolved to convince them by showing his battle scars. I’ve worked longer than any of them. Here are the scars of whips and rods on my back. I’ve spent days and nights in prison. I was left for dead. Here’s where they stoned me: I still can’t see so well. Three ships sunk under me, left me adrift. Danger was my companion, on sea and land, in the city and in the wild. I’ve nearly starved and about froze to death. I’m exhausted. And every day I get word from the churches like yours of their troubles. It weighs on me. But I carry it. Can these new guys compare their lives to mine? Who really loves you? Who was willing to pay such a price for your freedom? “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmities.” 2 Cor 11:30
Over our altar we have a crucifix. Some people have trouble with that image, that there’s a corpus on the cross. “Jesus died and was taken down. He isn’t up there anymore.” Well, an empty cross is a symbol that serves yourcomfort, maybe. But an empty cross could be anybody’s: it might be Spartacusor the good thief. This depiction is only art, not idolatry. We don’t worship it. But we know who that represents. It reminds us. He suffered. He died.
And it’s not the whole depiction. His true injuries were more than we could bear to look at, not if we painted on Him every drop of blood, every whiplash. He would be covered in red. He wouldn’t have that loin cloth, either. We protect ourselves from the horror, but we remember it. We remember and we appreciate. His suffering had a holy purpose, and we will not forget it. It was only for a few hours, and thankfully He gave up His spirit with a cry. But that cry was for victory. He won our lives back by dying in our places, and we remember. His suffering was not useless.
And our suffering is not useless either. Being hated for His sake has redemptive value. Even while dying, every Christian is brought into a close fellowship with Jesus’ death, and we know His purpose in our pains and sorrows. Blessed are those who mourn.
Christ’s parable of the sower points out four types of soil. Only one type makes use of the seeds and bears fruit abundantly. Not the wayside hard-packed cart path, nor is it the rocky soil, nor even the green patch full of weeds. Those of you who have grown crops know this. Native ground can’t grow much. The earth must be broken up, turned over again and yet again. Stones are raked out, piled up for fences. Weeds must be pulled. Finally, the soil is ready and we plant. The seeds are buried in fine dirt, and then we water, and we wait. The tiny sprouts appear and we set a watch for snails, birds and other threats. Farming is a battle. We transform native ground by cutting it, breaking it, beating it, raking it, drowning it and filling it with manure. The dirt doesn’t complain. It rewards us with a harvest.
We are made of the same dirt. Even scientists confirm this: we are created out of the elements of earth, this soil. In our native state, we can’t grow much. Seeds bounce off, hitting this shallow ground, and get crowded out by all our other passions and pursuits. Only when we’ve suffered some, been shown the pains of this planet, gotten knocked around a bit, and come to realize this life is not for wimps—then might we know the true depths of human existence, and find space for the roots of fruitfulness to take nourishment in us, and produce in us a plentiful harvest.
A life well lived is going to have a lot of stories, and the stories are punctuated with the cuts and bruises, the aches and heartaches that life gives us, or else the stories would be pretty boring, actually. “Blood, sweat and tears,” was how Sir Winston Churchill put it to his people of England facing WWII and the pitched battle before them as Europe fell under the Axis powers. Jesus had enough blood, sweat and tears in His Passion to fill the earth with sorrow, and then with joy. This blood, sweat and tears dropped onto the earth, were swallowed up by dirt, and that dirt, that enriched soil, became us—His harvest, the fruits of His suffering.
While we are in this world, expect trouble. Every day has enough of it to go around. But that only makes it exciting. It makes us interesting. It makes us understand that Christ’s Birth and Crucifixion meant pain for Him, and salvation for us. And we say, with some understanding now that we have also suffered: thank you, Jesus. Thank you. Don’t change any of it. I finally understand.