March 24, 2013
Rev. John Watts
JOURNEY TO HOPE: SUFFERING
Bill Bowerman traveled toNew Zealandin 1962 to learn from the legendary coach Arthur Lydiard. Bill Bowerman was also a coach, head track coach at theUniversityofOregon. The difference between them was that Bowerman did not have a background as a runner. Lydiard did. And though he was well past his prime as an athlete, he had never stopped running.
So these two coaches went for a friendly run. It was a run with a group of all ages and abilities. Bill Bowerman recalled that he felt pretty good for the first half mile. This wasn’t so bad. Then they started up a hill. Now he wasn’t feeling so good. Soon he was really suffering. He was 51-years-old and thought he was in reasonable shape for his age. A man passed him who was 70, maybe 80. As he passed he said, “I see you’re having trouble.” Bowerman didn’t answer because he couldn’t. He was gasping too hard for air. He recalled, “The only thing that kept me alive was the hope that I would die.”
What keeps us going when our journey gets difficult? Hope. Not hope that we will die. Though for a Christian death actually is a source of hope! But the hope we’re talking about today is hope that keeps us going through life. It keeps us going way past the point where those without hope would have given up. As Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.”
Hope is what kept Jesus going. What a week it was for Jesus! A parade in his honor on Sunday and nailed to a cross on Friday. Today on our journey to hope we find in our backpack a nail. Big and ugly. Maybe like one of the ones they used on Jesus. Sometimes we skip over this part of the story. We’re not going to do that today. Today we’re talking about hope in the midst of suffering. We all know about suffering. Some of you are more intimately acquainted than others. Suffering is part of life. But the suffering of Jesus puts into perspective the suffering we face. I’m just going to pass this nail around and I’d like you each to touch it, press it against your skin, and ponder the suffering of Jesus on that cross.
I heard about a Good Friday sermon that went like this: The preacher walked up to the front and stood there. He didn’t say a word. It was a long silence. People were getting nervous. Then he moved to the altar and picked up a candle. He walked over to a statue of Jesus nailed to the cross. The lights were dim and this statue was in a dark corner of the church. He lifted the candle to the head of Jesus, so his crown of thorns could be seen. Then he placed the candle near the outstretched arms, illuminating first one nail-pierced hand, then the other. He moved the candle to the side of Jesus, showing where the sword had pierced his skin. Finally, he placed the candle at the base of the statue, to cast light on his pierced feet. Then he blew out the candle and sat down. The sermon was over.
Today we read from a passage of scripture that gives us a glimpse of the suffering Jesus endured leading up to the cross. And a glimpse at the hope that kept him going. We began reading immediately after theGardenofGethsemanepassage we read two weeks ago. The crucifixion is described in the next chapter. The Gospels give an inordinate amount of space and attention to this part of the life of Jesus. His suffering and his death are described in great detail. As if to say, this is an important part of the story. Don’t ignore it. This is where his story connects with our story.
There are some curious details in the passage we read. You probably noticed the part about the man wearing nothing but a bedsheet. That’s a little strange. Especially the part about the bedsheet falling off when they tried to grab him, so he ran away naked. That sounds like a dream I had once, but that’s probably too much information.
Then there’s the ear being lopped off with a sword. I had a New Testament professor in seminary, Mary Rose D’Angelo, who told about a Greek class she was in. A student was reading today’s passage from the original Greek, translating it into English
as he went. He got to this part and he read slowly, word by word: “He . . . drew . . . his . . . sword . . . and . . . struck . . . a . . . slave . . . cutting . . . off . . . his . . . ear.” And during the pause before he started the next verse, another student in class said, “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear.”
There’s some weird stuff in today’s scripture, but here’s a summary of the rest of it that’s not so weird, just sad: Jesus is betrayed by Judas, he is arrested, he is roughed up, the other disciples all run away, the chief priest goes to great lengths to find something to charge him with, it ends up being blasphemy of all things. Blasphemy means insulting God. They said he was insulting God by claiming to be God. For this Jesus is given a sentence of death.
Can you imagine what it would have felt like to be Jesus at that moment? Have you ever been betrayed by someone you thought was your friend? I’ll bet we all can relate to that. I doubt if you’ve had the experience of false arrest and suddenly being treated like a dangerous criminal. A little police brutality thrown in. Use your imagination there. It happens. You happen to match the description, but they have the wrong person. You may also have to use your imagination on what it would feel like to experience the mental pain of knowing that terrible physical pain and torture and finally, mercifully, death awaited you. And on top of it all, going through this entire ordeal knowing that you did nothing wrong. You are innocent. All you did was live a sinless life. (I know none of us can relate to that!)
How do you hold onto hope when you are in the middle of a life situation that is so impossibly and horribly hard? Where do you find hope in the midst of hopelessness? Are you just kidding yourself? Are you just torturing yourself? You know you’re just going to be disappointed. Wouldn’t it hurt less to surrender your hope early in the battle and just resign yourself to the inevitability of suffering that will never end?
Jesus was sentenced to death. There is an ongoing debate about which is the worst punishment, death or life. Especially with the more humane ways death row inmates are put to death today, wouldn’t the rest of your life being locked up be worse?
A few years ago Stephen King wrote a book and a few years later it was made into a movie. It was about a fictional maximum security prison in Mainecalled Shawshank. The inmates are almost all serving life sentences under the most inhumane circumstances you can imagine. But the single theme that runs through The Shawshank Redemption, from beginning to end, is hope. Hope in the midst of hopelessness. And there is a most improbable ending. Let’s take a look at a few clips:
(Youtube: “Hope and the power it provides”)
I know you’ve never been an inmate in Shawshank Prison because that prison doesn’t exist. But I also know you’ve lived through moments when it was very difficult to keep alive any hope at all. Maybe you’re in the middle of such a moment right now. If so, I pray that God will fan the flame of that candle of hope in your heart that has almost gone out. Keep it going. At least a flicker. That’s all it takes. As long as there is hope, you can keep on going. There’s a saying. As long as there is life, there is hope. But it’s also true, as long as there is hope, there is life.
The smartest Christian who ever lived lived 750 years ago. His name was Thomas Aquinas. He took the power of his mind, which was considerable, and joined it with the depth of his faith, which was also considerable. He came up with what he called his Summa Theologica, or “Summary of Theology”. Those studying for the Catholic priesthood practically memorize this 3,500 page work.
When I studied Thomas Aquinas, the most memorable thing I learned was what he said about the greatest sin. I wonder how you would answer the question: What is the greatest sin? What is the worst thing you can do? I put together a short list of possibilities. Murder. Child abuse. Pride. Blasphemy. That one by the way, remember, is the charge they trumped up against Jesus. Elie Wiesel said, “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin.” He obviously had the Holocaust in mind. Thomas Aquinas would agree all of these are serious sins, but not the worst sin. He said the greatest sin of all is despair.
Despair. That means giving up. That means losing all hope. Why is that such a serious sin? Thomas Aquinas says it’s because once we surrender to despair, God doesn’t have much to work with. It becomes a real problem to revive us. The spark has gone out, and no matter how much wadded up newspaper we put on it, it won’t catch fire. All long as there is hope, there is life.
That’s what Thomas Aquinas said. The smartest Christian who ever lived. So who am I to disagree with him? But I do. I agree and I disagree. I agree that giving up all hope is a very serious thing. I don’t think I would classify it as a sin, because those who find themselves at such a low place in their lives are not usually there by choice. But my main disagreement with Thomas Aquinas is that I believe there always is hope. I don’t think it’s possible to exist in absolute and utter despair. Because hope in the final analysis is not something we manufacture. It’s a gift from God. You may have lost that gift. You may even have rejected that gift. But our God just keeps right on giving!
As long as there is life, there is hope. And even when life on this earth is over, there is still hope. Because as long as there is hope, there is life.
Jesus seems to have bottomed out spiritually as he began his prayer inGethsemane. He was sweating blood. He was in the depths of despair. But there must have been a spark of hope there. Maybe only God could see it. And from that spark, God kindled a fire in the heart of Jesus. So he could rise from that prayer and face whatever must be faced. Because he knew God was right there with him. God had filled his heart with hope.
Suffering is part of life. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. It’s a rather big part of life. We’d better get used to that. It’s part of the journey we’re on. But God is with us on that journey. God is with us in our suffering. In fact, God entered our world of suffering when his Son was nailed to that cross. So no longer do we suffer alone. There is always hope. Even in our sufferings.
There was a little boy who was suffering. He was crying his eyes out because his bicycle was broken. Another little boy stopped to see what was the matter. Which made the little boy who stopped late getting home. His mother said, “Where have you been? I’ve been worried!” He explained that he had come upon a boy who was crying over his broken bicycle. He said, “I had to stop and help him.” His mother thought that over for a moment and said, “You don’t know how to fix a bicycle!” He said, “No, of course not. I stopped and helped him cry.”
We are not alone in our sufferings. Jesus wasn’t. We aren’t. And so there is always hope. Yes, hope is a good thing. It’s maybe even the best of things.
Lord Jesus, there are moments when we feel alone in our sufferings. Even you did. As we remember your death on the cross, may we feel with you something of your pain. And may we also feel something of the hope that is stronger than any pain. May we know that hope and may we bear that hope to those who are living right now in despair. We ask it in your name, Amen.