MESSAGE – THE PRIVILEGE OF SUFFERING? – Sunday September 20, 2020
SCRIPTURE Philippians 1:27-30
I suspect I disappointed Adelyn when I cut today’s reading in half. She does such a great job that I hope she does not think I doubted her skills for a minute. But I didn’t want to get mired down in that, “For me to live is Christ but to die is gain” which is a little bit of Paul bragging about how bad he has got it; after all, who wouldn’t be better off dead than locked up, beaten, tortured for the sake of principles which offend those in power?
But in this second portion of the reading, what he really wants to get at becomes a little clearer, (well, maybe a little). By setting himself up as an example of Christlike suffering for the sake of the good, he is telling us to hang in there no matter what: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”
In other words, by word and action, continue to proclaim the love of God which you have come to see in Christ Jesus.
Now this presents us with a challenge of discernment. Because none of us, if we are psychologically normal, like to suffer.
But as one of my track coaches used to say, years ago: “No pain, no gain.”
So often we choose the easy way out. We go along to get along. And in some cases that may be wiser than making a big fuss to no effect. But how far are we willing to take that? Do we remain bystanders on the sidelines of life?
And then there is the suffering which we do not choose, those “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Sometimes we run the risk of being a little bit of a “woe is me” Eeyore. My mom used to tease me about that when I was a kid with a little jingle, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, sitting in the garden eating worms.” If you can’t do anything about it, buck up and make the best of it rather than making everybody else miserable. Nobody needs my bumper sticker “Life sucks and then you die” attitude.
But there is a difference between the colloquial, “Oh, don’t be such a martyr” advice we like to give to those who are mired in their own sense of entitlement, and the original meaning of that word.
It entered our language from Greek, borrowed into Latin, and thus inherited. The earliest use of the term meant simply, “Witness, one who gives faithful testimony.” So the real question raised by this passage is, “What price are we willing to pay to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel?”
Part of the problem is that it has been so often twisted into the opposite. The church, ever since it has gained political power in the time of Constantine, has been tempted to say that the oppression and murder of those who see things differently than we do is the answer. That may be a witness to something, but hardly faithful to the Gospel.
On the other hand, we have also been tempted to keep silent about injustice and inequality. All kinds of evil has been done without objection from the church, or those within it, for the sake of not rocking the boat.
“Well, you know, you suffer now but you will be rewarded in heaven,” may be true, but is hardly a prophetic response when what we mean is to justify, or at least ignore, the abuses perpetrated by power.
And don’t even get me started on the prosperity preachers, or the new age gurus who essentially say our problems are all rooted in our “stinkin’ thinkin’”.
Well, yes, it is true that much of our suffering and unhappiness is self-inflicted. Many of us are pretty good at making bad choices, and have an aptitude for blaming others for the consequences of those choices, and fixing that will move us a long way toward a better life.
But as soon as somebody starts to say, “Pay me for the secret of my success and you too can be wealthy and your life wonderful”, I’m looking for the exit.
But I think Theodore Roosevelt in the section of a long speech he gave in 1910 at the Sorbonne was on to something similar to what Paul is urging on us in this passage. That excerpt, famously known as the Man in the Arena, and which I believe a required bit of memorization for midshipmen at the Naval Academy, goes like this:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
The key phrase in that to me, which rings so true to the Biblical witness is that about the one who spends him (or her) self in a worthy cause.
As Paul says elsewhere (Galatians 6:9)
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.
Our challenge, whatever the cost, is to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel. Let us speak out for the inclusive love of God for all the world as we see it in the example of Jesus.
Sometimes that is easy and comfortable. Sometimes it is difficult. But as the old saying goes, The job of the preacher is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Our challenge is to figure out when it is time for which.
In the name of God,
our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.