Sermon for Sunday, 10 July 2016. St. Paul’s in Philipsburg, PA.
Endure everything with patience
Colossians 1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
This past week we celebrated our country’s declaration of independence from Britain. Last weekend, I was unable to be with you because I was celebrating the wedding of a wonderful young couple; I babysat that bride almost as soon as she came home from the hospital. Times of joy and celebration, to be sure!
Yet we as a nation also witnessed humanity at its ugliest. Two more young black men were shot and killed by police officers and then one young black man exacted his revenge, gunning down a dozen Dallas police officers, killing five.
Our bishop wrote to clergy yesterday, offering her love, prayers, and support to all of us, and encouraging clergy “not to try and make sense or reconcile these horrific events…but to simply stand with [our] people in the place of hurt, bewilderment and sorrow, and hold the center Gospel message of love.” Wise words and good council, to be sure.
We cannot “make sense” of such events, to be sure, because they go counter to all good and common sense. But we know that they are all too common.
Over a year ago, when the events in Ferguson Missouri first brought the phrase “Black lives matter” to our attention, one of my students, a young man whose family had emigrated from West Africa when he was 8 years old and after his father was killed in a war, was upset with me and other university leadership for not speaking out quickly enough about such tragedies. I tried to explain to him as gently as I could that I knew such events were not new or unique. How was I supposed to know that this instance would be his trigger? But putting such tragedies into the larger context of other tragedies neither makes them right nor more bearable.
Two weeks ago when we talked about Jesus telling us to “take up our cross,” I mentioned that a burden our family carried was the sudden death of our son three and a half years ago, just before his 9th birthday. It was a blood infection that no one could stop and he was gone in a matter of hours. A dozen years before Mack was born I began work on my doctorate, looking at the Book of Lamentations and how Jews and Christians respond to tragedy and loss, especially when it was nonsensical and unjust. By the time Mack left us I was as theologically prepared as anyone could be. And it didn’t make any difference to the pain and the suffering. Except it made all the difference in the world.
First, I knew that this is the way of this world. We live in a broken and hurting world. Genesis 3 makes this abundantly clear, explaining that when sin entered the world so too did suffering. There is in our world pain in childbirth, subservience to others, envy and strife, the earth is cursed, and we “are dust and to dust [we] shall return.”
But we also know that this world is not how God intended it to be and it is not the end for those who love him. It is precisely because we live in a world of suffering and sorrow that God gave his Law to the Israelites, to provide order, charity, and justice. It is why that Law culminated and was fulfilled in the offering of Jesus for us. While we live in this world of pain we are called to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and [to love] your neighbor as yourself.”
While we live in this world we are to be agents of love and mercy. In times of grief, that often means to simply be present, but in times of injustice it also means we are called to take a stand for justice, to do what is in our power to care for our neighbors, no matter who they are, whether a Jew or Gentile, Levite or priest or Samaritan, German or Hispanic, Black or white.
And as we do what we can to bring God’s love and mercy into this troubled world, we are also to bring the Good News of salvation that this world is not the end. We have a new life and life eternal in Christ. This world and all who live in it are precious to God, but there will be a new heaven and a new earth and “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
This is how and why Paul is able to encourage the Colossians and us today, reminding us that we can endure everything with patience, knowing that while we continue to fight the daily battles against pain and suffering, grief and sorrow, injustice and poverty, war and famine, the war has been won, “death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Col. 1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.