worship

Strange Blessings
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
June 1, 2014 - 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

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Strange Blessings
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
June 1, 2014

 

Once upon a time, there was a young couple on the rise. He had been the pitcher of the baseball team when he was in college, she was a fantastic athlete herself. They were beautiful people, successful and expecting their first child.
He was an advertising executive in a major firm and she was looking forward to staying home with their child.
Then, he went to China on business with the firm’s CEO, COO and President to check in on production of a product the firm was representing.
The four of them were driving from one province to another when a truck crossed the center-line, crashed into their car and killed three of the four occupants instantly.
Phil was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
Jane, nearly eight months pregnant, boarded a plane to fly half-way around the world to bring her husband home not yet knowing whether he would be alive when she arrived in China.
When she arrived, she found that the Chinese hospital would not release her husband to be med-evacked back to the United States until his entire hospital bill was paid. She spent days negotiating between the firm, the government and the hospital for his release. Finally, they were allowed to leave and she flew with him by medical transport plane back to the west coast.
Weeks later, their son Philip was born early and it was quickly clear that he had developmental disabilities.
Phil and Jane are two of the best parents that I know, so I was rather surprised when, as Jane was ordained as an elder, to learn that in the weeks following the accident and Philip’s early birth, Jane, who is one of the strongest people I’ve known said she had struggled mightily with her faith. She was, she said, angry with God, and hurt and confused by the unpleasant medical reality her life had turned into.
She said, “It wasn’t until years later that I came to realize what an extraordinary blessing Philip is. I have come to learn that with his developmental disabilities, he needs the same things we all need: to be loved, to be valued and to be respected.”
And Philip is a blessing. He lights up the room. And he has done extraordinary things, but we’ll come back to that.
I am struck by the places where we find blessings.
What’s more, I’m struck by when blessings come after incredible adversity, as they appear to in 1 Peter today.
Let’s be very clear: I’m not sure that I would use this portion of 1 Peter to try to entice someone to consider the possibility of Christian faith. Being reviled for Jesus is not really how most of us find inspiration. More than that, the first line, about being tested might even itself be something of a stumbling block. If that is a blessing, it is surely a strange blessing.
Indeed the idea of being tested by adversity is theologically problematic for those of us who claim to worship a good and benevolent God.
But if we pay very close attention to what is being said, and what is not being said, we see that nowhere does Peter suggest that God is causing the testing that the new followers
of Jesus are enduring. There is a test to be sure, it is from an external source, but nowhere is God identified as the source of the evil.
There are stories in the Bible where God does test individuals – but they are very few, and understood rightly, in their context, while they are still troubling, such as God’s test of Abraham which we’ll consider in a few weeks, they do tell us something of humankind’s understanding of God.
But generally speaking, it is very wise to avoid making the assumption that God is testing people through suffering.
We do not presume to say whether God is testing anyone because the overwhelming weight of the Biblical witness says that God endures testing with us, not that God subjects us to testing.
However, in this portion of 1 Peter, the new Christians are admonished to turn this test that they are enduring to their advantage by keeping faith with Jesus during their test.
Indeed, the message of 1 Peter is pretty to the point: resist the evil – and trust in the restoring, redemptive work of God.
“The God of all grace will restore, support, strengthen and establish you.”
Last week, Landon preached about making our witness to our faith through the sharing of our stories – of being ready.
This week, because we are still in 1 Peter, we are reminded once more that suffering enters into life, and that suffering is not what God wills for humankind – suffering happens – indeed, the tests do come – but the witness of faith is to stay strong trusting that God’s restorative work is coming.
Trusting that God’s restorative work is coming is not the same as thinking that suffering is a good thing.
The kind of suffering that Peter is writing about is the suffering that is incurred as a result of allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Peter celebrates that.
But suffering that is the result of evil is another matter. That is to be resisted and resisted deeply, and to be resisted deeply in the sure knowledge of God’s redeeming power.
God’s redeeming power is at work both when suffering is the result of sin, such as humankind’s inhumanity to each other, or when it is the result of natural evil, such as natural disaster, disease and disability.
In all of these things, the promise of the Gospel is of God’s redeeming power.
I was rereading an old classic this week, Leaves from the Notebook of A Tamed Cynic, by the celebrated twentieth century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr.
In it, Niebuhr recounts a sermon he preached wherein he advocated taking up one’s cross.
As the congregation was exiting the sanctuary, he noted that one older woman – he was twenty-four at the time – said to him, “Have you taken up many crosses?”
He was a little tweaked by the comment – and in his journal he assessed that yes, he had, more than she knew, but he understood as well her question.
So for each of us, the question is not whether others have taken up their crosses, but whether we ourselves have?
The question is whether our allegiance to Jesus Christ evokes from us the sort of response that engages us in the willingness to bear suffering on behalf of Jesus.
Jesus isn’t calling us to suffer for the sake of suffering, but in order to take on and participate in the redemptive work of God in the world.
Make no mistake about it – the arc of the narrative of the Bible is that of redemption and restoration.
The Psalter lesson we read this morning is an exuberant declaration of the redemptive power of God – the righteous are going to exult and be glad and God’s work is going to be clear in the world. It is as robust an expression of the power of God as we may find.
Indeed, the purpose of the psalm is confessional: it is a declaration of belief in God and God’s way of being in the world.
What is so fascinating about the Psalter, though, is this: it was overwhelmingly written at a time when Israel was enveloped in warfare and suffering. Indeed, these present tense declarations of the goodness of God come at the time of tremendous testing.
The Psalter is the hymnal of the worship life of the Israelites as they were in captivity.
And when we see them that way, they take on a whole new meaning. They are like the words of the Spirituals that sing of God’s transforming power even while the slaves are yet enslaved.
One of the things that I love the most about the Psalter is the present tense of the words themselves. While we know from context that the people were still awaiting God’s deliverance from their captors, they write as thought that deliverance is happening right now.
But what it means is that they write and sing as though the final victory of God is certain. So sure are they of God’s power that the write as though it has already been achieved.
That is the witness of faith in hard times, to know that God’s power never fails.
That’s not the same as thinking the bad times are the blessings. God does indeed always work to redeem the bad times. But the bad times are just bad times.
What is the blessing is what God brings out of it.
Let me finish Philip’s story for you.
When Philip finished eight grade, Phil and Jane learned a hard reality. The private school where he had thrived despite his developmental disabilities did not have a curriculum for students like Philip.
As Jane said to me, “All they offer is college prep, and we know that is not a realistic goal.”
What they came to find, though, is that they were not the only family in their city that faced the same problem in finding the right educational environment for their child.
And they began to think about an alternative. What if the opportunities that were available but weren’t the right opportunities weren’t the only opportunities?
So they approached their church, where I was one of the pastors, with question: could the Sunday School rooms that sat empty during the week accommodate a class?
I was in charge of education programs at that time, and my immediate answer was “yes.”
Of course, there were particularities to be worked out – how would it work with Sunday School and so forth.
And of course, Phil and Jane did all the hard work, the heavy lifting, but what happened was that a school was born – Philip’s Academy, with the goal of “real learning for real life.”
The first year, there were four students and one teacher who was also the secretary, fundraiser, counselor – she had a broad contract. The four students were living with
autism and profound learning disabilities – and they thrived in the new environment. One day, our organist/choirmaster asked, “Would it be okay if I offered music lessons?”
Then there were eight students. Then there were thirty-two.
Thirty-two students who might have fallen through the educational cracks in the system –but for one family who refused to allow their son to do so.
As Jane said, “I have come to see the blessing.”
God is always working for redemption, restoration, joy and peace. And God takes all of the material that God has to work with – all of the people and their experiences and their suffering and lessons learned and their hopes and dreams, and invites us to participate in that redemptive work together.
That is why when we come to this table, we are participating in something extraordinary – we are participating in God’s work. We are participating in God’s work as at this table, burdens are laid down, grudges are set aside, hurt and sin are lessened – and we know that God’s redemptive power will ultimately win because in the presence of God, none of these things can remain. And the promise of the Gospel is that at this table, God is present with us in Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Last Published: November 21, 2014 11:50 PM