Sermons That Work

In the Thick of This Thing…, Last Sunday in Epiphany (A) – 2002

February 10, 2002

“In the thick of this thing called life…weighing the loss and counting the cost-together.”

What in the world can September 11th teach us about companionship in mission? Good question. It is right up there with what use can hardship, suffering, dying, and evil be to God’s presence and work in our lives. Reams of paper, rivers of ink, gigabytes of disk space, and millions of kilometers of words and thoughts have — and will continue — to be poured into these concerns.

Given World Mission Sunday’s close proximity to Valentine’s Day this year, it is an interesting time to revisit one’s viewpoint about and experience of companionship in general, and mission in particular. For the most part, human beings find companionship a wonderful and transformative component of human existence. We love to be with someone or something beside our lonesome selves for at least a part, if not most, of our lives, because companionship is mostly a pleasurable and safe experience.

This vision of companionship is an incomplete one, however. Companionship simply means being together in the context of sharing something mutually meaningful to all in the relationship. It does not guarantee a life that is either a bowl of cherries or a rose garden. It is not a synonym for heaven. It is not made of a Teflon shield that can provide 24-hour repelling power from danger, loss, and death. Companionship cannot cure our ability to be wrong to each other and our world in thought, word, and deed. A destructive, unjust, or sinful plan can be hatched by “partners in crime” as easily as a positive, just, and virtuous plan can be constructed by bread-sharing friends.

Let us be honest. While we want to enjoy the personal benefits of companionship, we may not be too interested in contemplating the global implications of it. What we really want is to be Peter, James, or John in today’s Gospel. We want to have ascended already to an easy, eternal, and painless divine life, far away from our maddeningly fragile and problematic humanity. Or, we want to be freshly freed Israelites who have a servant God as their personal “miracle worker” in the wilderness, creating stunning visual spectacles like pillars of smoke and fire as well as dispensing painless, cost-free advice.

In short, we want the suffering to stop and the pain to go away. We are tired of asking or being asked about the “who, what, where, when, how, and why” of everything. We’ve just lost thousands of people in an elaborate attack strategy. Save your breath regarding resolutions, policies, and procedures! Stop the hatred, war, and madness! We are shutting out both neighbors and enemies-and shutting down our minds. No one cares about us and we no longer care about anyone else. Just save us from this painful and ugly existence already!

How remarkable it is to read Paul in his letter to the Philippians (3:7ff). What allowed a 1st century CE individual to see his future — a life as a maximum security prisoner of the Roman state, a social outcast chained in a dank, dark prison, and a person doomed to die an untimely and unpleasant death — as a desirable and worthy journey to take. Is Paul’s choice to live out a “painful and ugly existence” 2000 years ago, a “mission impossible” for us in the USA today?

In today’s Gospel, both God our Creator and Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior gave important guidelines for this mission assignment. As Peter, James, and John are proceeding with their booth building, God spoke to them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Then Jesus said, when his companions in mission fell to the ground overcome by fear, “Get up and do not be afraid!” These commands and questions are not only for Peter, James, and John. They are for us, too. It is probably safe to say we understand the listening part. But, what are we trying to listen to or for? Why do we have to find a way to stand up and have courage?

These communications from God and Jesus illuminate the fact that human beings are essential companions in the mission of God in Christ. Companionship is a divine deed. But it is not only exercised for a few hours on an unnamed mountain. It is also carried out on an eternal basis throughout creation. God was Companionship before our creation, God is Companionship whether we are at peace or at war, God will be Companionship when the earth passes away. Frankly, it is a mystery why God chooses to be in a constant state of companionship. It is just so.

As human beings made in the image of God, we are called to practice companionship as well. And the only way to start to learn how is to be willing to do so. Thinking about isn’t sufficient. We need to actively pray for the openness of God to be the foundation and intention of our companionship practice. Then we need to have the courage to actually live it out with God and with others fully. This is a part of what we are called to accomplish as an integral part of life. It is our mission.

We must radically cultivate our awareness of God by living out our lives knowing that God is present in others and in the world. For companionship to be a gift and not a curse, we must exercise discernment every day. Companionship takes a lot of trial and error, gain and loss, thinking and rethinking, and a mountain of faith. It takes constant listening for and finding what is important. It takes miles of walking — in one’s own and in others’ shoes. It takes rivers of crying, hours of suffering, and an exorbitant loss of dreams and life. Through this journey, all of us, the Body of Christ past, present, and future, need to be prepared for the openness and awareness that God’s Spirit seeks to confer on us. This transfiguring Pentecostal gift does not protect us from more work, afflictions, and death. It does not take away all the joys and miracles of life. Companionship with God and each other enlightens and empowers our missions and our lives. No longer counting the cost, no longer paralyzed by fear of loss, our lives become nothing more, but nothing less than, a work of the people — what might be called in the Greek of Paul’s time, a leitourgia, and in our time, a liturgy.

The Holy Spirit is indeed still transfiguring us every day. Listen to a prayer sent to the Episcopal Church Center on September 14th from a Sierra Leonean medical doctor. An active Anglican, he continued to practice in Sierra Leone through a very vicious civil war. It was a war in which the devastating physical death and destruction were compounded by psychological and spiritual assaults such as rapes and hacking of limbs, usually in front of the victims’ family and friends. For most of those terrible days of civil strife, his was the only hospital able to provide medical treatment to such victims. His life’s mission was to heal; yet life seemed to give nothing but suffering and pain. Who would blame him for cursing God and humanity, not only then, but also even to this day? Out of that searing experience, however, came courage and clarity. His message to friends in the Episcopal Church in the USA was that we are loved. He wanted us to know that he had heard what had happened, and he wanted us to stand up and take courage.

“It is clear that those who perpetrated this hideous crime are seeking retaliation to bring the whole world into Chaos. Therefore, please admonish against retaliation, anger, panic or frustration–only the showing of Love can bring them (evil doers) down, and the rest of the World TOGETHER. As Christians this is our fundamental obligation.

“I join you in praying that those who make decisions for us (the State, the Church, and the Home), do so with the spirit of LOVE and GODLINESS; and that those who have died be granted a place in his Kingdom. Amen.” (Dr. Kojo Carew, email from Freetown, Sierra Leone, September 14, 2001)

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Christopher Sikkema


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