Sermon – “Afflicted in every way, but not crushed”
Biblical Text – II Corinthians 4
May the peace of Christ be with you all. What a honor to be here this morning. And I thank you deeply for coming to Buckhead theater. Do you know Tom Long is preaching at the Methodist church? Just checking. I am very honored you are here.
When I was ordained the pastor who preached at my ordination service said wonderful things. But one not so wonderful thing was: “Watch your back! Because you will be hurt and people will hit you and you will need to be wise.” I was just 24 years old and because I had grew up in a church, so I kind of knew what he was talking about. But I did not think I would hear that in my ordination. (PAUSE) So much has gone by from that day and now, almost 20 years into my ministry, I can understand better the meaning of “watch your back!”
Our text for this morning is about our struggle. I am sure we can all relate to what Paul said in this text.
Afflicted in every way, crushed; perplexed, driven to despair; persecuted, forsaken; struck down? These words are not strange to us, aren’t they? I bet you have asked sometime during in your ministry “What am I doing here?” or “I can’t take this anymore” or that you felt you have lost your passion to continue to follow this call… Ministry is not an easy job as we all know it. Exhaustion, bitterness, frustration, anger and feeling betrayed are always hovering around us.
But what is at stake for us here friends, is not so much the struggles or the pain we have and will have to go through but rather the ways in which we deal and engage with it. What is at stake for us to think this morning is simple: it is to figure out the ways in which our knowledge of God plays out on our daily lives. Where does your strength comes from?
What we all know about ministry Paul also knew very well. To serve Jesus was not easy and Paul knew that in his own body. His body was marked by the bruises of the world, the scars of life, the sadness and frustrations and betrayals, and sickness and injustices that comes to us all.
In Galatian 6:17 he says” I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” This verse was not a metaphor. And in 2 Corinthians 11 he declares that he went through
“imprisonments, countless floggings, and often near death. 24Five times I have received the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people (WATCH YOUR BACK), danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”
Wow! That is quite a lot isn’t it? However, he didn’t thread on those dangers. Instead, he thread on what God had told him: “My grace is sufficient for you…”
Before and during and after his pain and suffering, he knew that his life was grounded in God’s love and grace and because of that he could face whatever life brought to him. His heart was placed in God’s mercy and that was key. He said: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Paul’s ability to say “we do not lose heart “ came from the fact that he knew the God he was serving and that his heart was wrapped up in God’s glory. He loved God with his body and heart.
But like St. Anselm he also loved God with his mind and that meant that his theology established God’s glory and light and mercy as the source of his life and well being! It was to God’s glory, light and mercy that he was always supposed to go back to again and again. Not to his wounds.
He was to shine God’s light, God’s glory and God’s mercy, things that were way beyond his ability and in order to do that he had to trust God’s power through the work of the Holy Spirit. That is what made him stronger! He says: it is God “who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
The same way, it is the light of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that give us knowledge, guides our path, offers God’s mercy and keeps the glory of God shining on us.
Thus, the key to Paul’s endurance was his trust that it was God who was holding him up. So much so that he learned how to engage life from that knowledge. If we pay a closer attention to our text, we will see that there is a grammatical rule that changes everything. Listen to the verses 8 and 9: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” The “but not” part here can also be translated as yet, although, in spite of and however. So listen to it again: “We are afflicted in every way, yet not crushed; perplexed, although not driven to despair; persecuted, forsaken; struck down, however not destroyed…”
Those prepositions are essentially modifiers, establishing the need for continuation with a difference. These prepositions do not allow the first sentence to stay as it was, but obligate the following sentence to state something else opposite to what was first affirmed.
Thus, if I say, I’ve been lonely, the yet of God will add: yet not alone! If you say, I’ve been betrayed, the but not of God will continue, but not destroyed! if we say, we have no jobs, the however of God will say: however, God will sustain us. Paul’s theology is deeply marked by God’s modifiers. For He knew God is the one who modifies our lives in Jesus Christ.
Thus, it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the possibility to utter the yet, although, but not, however and in spite of in our lives. These are our Christian markers. We are a people of the HOWEVER, of the BUT NOT, of the IN SPITE OF! Let us try, help me here:
The world is indeed crumbling down but IN SPITE OF THAT…
Life can hit us really hard YET…
My ministry is so impossible right now HOWEVER…
Somebody in my family is sick BUT…
God is not through with you brother and sister! The last word of God yo you is always a however, a but not, a yet.
We will only be done when God wants to be done with us. Until then, we are always moving in and through the modifiers of God. The world needs changes, movements of people for justice and peace and equality. We need to modify our look to the world and move towards the poor.
My mother is here this morning baking, preparing the dough for a bread. In order to do that, she needs to mix the proper elements and press hard to get the necessary consistency so the dough can go through the fire. Her making of the bread this morning is to serve as a symbol of God’s work in our lives. God is mixing things and pressing hard on us so we can be ready for whatever comes, so we can learn to see how the modifiers that God has given us can help us live. Like a dough, sometimes we are beaten up, we have to go through the fire. However, God will make us better, better for ourselves but essentially better for somebody else.
My mother serves for me as a living memory of God’s modifier in my life. It was this tinny woman who taught me the first stories of the Bible and how to pray. It was this strong woman who told me about God’s modifiers by living it in her body. There was a moment in our lives, when my father got sick and she had to work very hard to support her 4 kids.
She cleaned houses and offices, she cooked and did laundry for other families, and she even went to the streets to sale perfume in order to bring egg, flour, yeast, sugar and oil to bake bread for us.
During these times of trial, I never heard her complaining with God. Instead, an alleluia was always in her mouth, a however, I will trust in God was always in her hands. She reminded me of the Prophet Habakkuk who said:
“17 Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18 YET I will rejoice in the Lord.”
My mother did not know how to articulate her theology but she knew that in God her life was not only what she saw. She knew God would come to her rescue and to the rescue of her life and family. Her baking bread to us was a vivid way to show us that IN SPITE OF all of the adversities, God was going to provide the bread for us.
But not only baking bread. Every morning she would not let me leave to school or to work before I had read my Bible and before we prayed. I had to say an alleluia every morning. And then, only then, I was ready to face the world. Through her, I knew that God was the modifier of my life. With her I learned to be an adult, and I was getting ready, in case I needed to go through the fire. But not only that! I also learned I had to become a bread to feed others. I had to become a modifier of God in the life of the world.
Jesus Christ is God’s major modifier in our lives. Through Jesus, we become each other’s prepositions, each other’s modifiers. You are the one who do not let me end my phrase in tragedy because you will be God’s however, in spite of, but not, and yet in my life. So I can say you are God’s working prepositions in me! And together, through Jesus, we are God’s modifier in the world, fighting until justice can kiss peace.
God is always working in our lives, like my mother is working on this dough. In and through each other. We must remember that.
Brothers and sisters, may we carry each other with kindness, may we become each other modifiers, may we teach each other to say HOWEVER, God is doing a new thing in you, and create a new and just world that is possible.
Watch your back! My friend’s advise still holds! However, trust that God will take care of you IN SPITE OF anything! And may our HOWEVERS be glorias in our hearts and alleluias in our mouths.
May we be able to pronounce a word of gratitude, in spite of all of the hurt, sadness and despair so we may continue this journey of transformational preaching and serving and living.
To finish, I want to ask you to say BUT NOT very loud. I will say the first phrases in Paul’s verses and you will respond with BUT NOT. Very loud. Can we do that?
So we go:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
struck down, but not destroyed;”
(GO TO MY MOTHER AND HOLD HER HAND WITH BREAD)
Don’t forget, God is in the works, modifying our lives continuously! God is not through with you! Take heart! IN SPITE of everything, God is holding us carefully!!! May God bless us all.