Deacon Terry Gatwood: Endurance and Joy

Sermon delivered on Trinity 12C, Sunday, August 14, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.1-2, 9-20; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’ve been a fan of A Prairie Home Companion for a very long time, so when it was announced that this would be the last season the Garrison Keillor would be hosting the program I was a little bit crushed inside. I can still re-live the memories through the texts that GK has written, recorded episodes online, and through the 2006 film.

In the film we are introduced to a familiar character from the radio program. His name is Guy Noir, Private Eye. In his opening monologue he tells us that for the last several years he’s been working security for a radio program at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was an old-timey radio show; the kind that grandma and grandpa would have listened to. Recently they had found out that the station was finally giving them the axe. Yet they carried on with the show as if things were going to be all right. “They were Midwesterners,” he says, “they felt like if you ignored bad news, it might go away.” As a proud Midwesterner, I know exactly what he means.

This quote often comes to mind when I find myself reeling from whatever shocking news our papers and pundits deliver to us through the mass media. Sometimes I think to myself, the world’s not that bad. There’s not much I can do about it anyways. Eventually all these things will just clear themselves up. Even though I know it isn’t true.

So I hear today’s Gospel lesson, and I just want to gloss over it and move on to the next lesson. It’s hard to hear Jesus state the reality of things. This is uncomfortable, but we see that it has been true just as Jesus said. But maybe if we just leave everything be, do our best to go along and get along, all will be well and work itself out in the end. I mean, Jesus came, so what’s the point of even really looking into things in the Old Testament that aren’t already prepackaged for us as children? That all worked out, didn’t it?

Well, sure. Jesus has come as the Lord promised. But if we ignore all the doomy and gloomy looking bits of the Scripture we’re going to miss out on a whole history of our forbearers in the faith. We’re going to miss out on something that is vital to our perseverance in the present day; we’re going to miss out on the sinfulness of our own people, the injustice, the strife…we’re going to miss the big picture of how great and magnificent our joy and celebration could be. We’re going to miss out on how our faith can really grow, and how we can follow in the same footsteps as those mentioned in Hebrews chapter 11, who not seeing the ultimate and final promise in their day still saw it as from afar, and followed after it diligently, enduring terrible things along the way. And through this struggle and hardship found themselves gaining in their person strength of courage, greater faith, to persevere even farther down the line.

The Christian life, as we are hearing from the Words of Jesus in the Gospel today, as hard as they may be to listen to as they hit us right in our hearts, this Christian life of faith and following is hard. There are divisions within families. There are divisions and discord in our personal relationships with others simply because we have been called by and have responded to the Lord in faith.

Don’t misunderstand me; when you walk out of here today you’re likely not going to experience a car bomb set to wipe out our Christian community here. There will be no masked men with machetes on the ready to take your head a prize for killing an apostate to his lord. We’re in a part of the world where we have, even on our worst times, a modicum of security that we may rely on. But it isn’t so in the vast majority of the world where these things are happening at an alarming rate. People are being slaughtered by the hundreds, and thousands by people who have know them their whole lives; some of them are being killed by their own siblings and parents, cousins, uncles, etc. The division is quite real in the present day. Our little bubble of security and safety here has been shrinking for decades. We’re not very far from having to live like our brothers and sisters overseas.

Consider the people mentioned in Hebrews 11: Moses refusing to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin. And there is the faith of those women who received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, and they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Living this life of faith is hard. It’s truly, and deeply, on all levels of our personhood, hard. But it’s not the kind of hard thing that we should just give up. We know what Jesus has said to us, that this kind of thing would exist in the world. So Jesus, knowing this, also has given to us the example through which we can draw the faith and perseverance to continue pressing forward, and finding ourselves growing in holiness all the while.

Listen to what the writer of Hebrews does to close out this section of his sermon: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,

“12:2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

So the hard part does not always remain hard. The persecution, the problems, they all come to an end at some point. These witnesses who have already gone to be with the Lord in his presence testify to this; and Jesus, our Great High Priest, our ultimate object lesson today and all days, disregarded whatever shamefulness may be attached to being treated the way he was (and make no mistake, for the Christ of God to even have been put on trial is one of the ultimately shameless things that could happen), Jesus continued his difficult walk toward his cross upon which he would suffer terribly and die. Not even the cross could be shameful for him, for he was there as our Great High Priest to make the ultimate sacrifice for us, his beloved. He became on that cross, through his death and resurrection, the author and perfecter of our faith in real time in a real world.

So for us, we see this, and we take comfort that, as Jesus has died, and so we all shall too someday, as he was resurrected in glory we also will share in that hope. The hard means there’s hope. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it. Through the process of enduring in faith we may get beat up, we may endure any level of persecution, but we have a hope and joy before us that carries us forward. We shall not relent, but persevere in this life into which we have been called by God. A process that produces a stronger character, a stronger will, a softer heart for God, and a faith that endures.

Think about some of the things that any of us have had to endure in this life already? Some of us are on a path that is particularly hard with health struggles (cancers, autoimmune diseases, body parts not functioning the way they were intended, and mystery illnesses that just can’t be figured out yet). Many deal with the struggles from marriages that are falling apart, broken, or shattered like a mirror that’s been run over by a train. Some from divorce. Some from actual, intentional persecution that has cost them in one way or another. These are real, hard struggles, but the Lord is still with you in these times, and he cares for you. Tell him about your struggle. Call out to him. Cry out to him! “Oh! God, please help me! I need you!”

And imagine the joy that has come after these struggles have come to some sort of resolution, or the joy that will be there when they ultimately do resolve. The joy will be so much greater than the hardship of suffering that had to be journeyed through to get to the joyful end.

The joy of Jesus was set before him as he endured the cross, despising the shame, and now he has ascended after his resurrection to be seated at the right hand of the throne of God, where he continues his priestly work on our behalf. He wants us to persevere, through the gift of faith given to us when we were first called and we believed, a faith that has been strengthened through hardship in this life.

So it would now behoove us not to act like the typical Midwesterner as opined by Guy Noir, Private Eye. Paying attention to the signs of what Jesus has given to us in this Gospel lesson is of the utmost importance. He has sent his Holy Spirit to walk with us, to guide us, through the Scripture and through life, that we may endure whatever may come, striving forward through it, living into the world that is imagined by the whole of Scripture. It’s a glorious vision of when sinfulness and the General of the Army of Sin, the ruler of the kingdom of the air, as Paul calls him, Satan is put down once and for all, and we shall live in paradise forever. But we still know we may have many more miles to go before this happens, but we strive to live into the world imagined, the world promised in the Holy Scriptures, by seeking and doing mercy and justice, by loving God, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by persevering in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church with our brothers and sisters.

Friends. According to the Scriptures we have already made it who are in the Church, but we still have many more miles to go to finally make it to what the total vision is. So press on. Live out the Gospel. Press forward through hardship, praying out to your Lord. Enlist the help of your brothers and sisters. Do not ignore problems, whatever they may be,but face them in the power of the Holy Spirit that you may grow even more in your faith in and love for God and find healing in him. We have the opportunity to begin experiencing what it shall be like now by faith. So be it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.