text :: 1 Peter 5: 6 - 11
theme verse :: “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)
Few of us seek pain yet none of us are exempt from experiencing it. Job, named as a godly and upright man, is the one who ends up on the poster entitled simply, “Suffering.” He just wants to know, “Why me?” The very fact that the book of Job lands in our holy scriptures is testament to those who decided to include it – the recognition that an uncensored account of the depth of human pain and suffering is more to be valued than any correct doctrinal answer to it. We do know, however, that our God is one who restores, heals, and redeems – even the depths of our pain. Louis L’Amour said, “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.” In the feeling of pain, we acknowledge its presence as the beginning of our way to the all-things-new hope that is promised by God.
offertory :: 'Why?' (M.Harris) :: Kelly Ford, tenor; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
reader :: Jamie Jones
preaching :: Rev Mark Briley
special music :: 'Another in the Fire' (HillsongUnited) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
anthem :: 'Let Me Fly' (R.DeCormier) :: Avenue a capella ensemble; Barry Epperley, director
1 Peter 5: 6 – 11
6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” You’ve heard this before. Maybe your dad offered the sentiment when you were sitting out on the porch after you made one of those mistakes we make when we’re learning about the consequences of the world. Maybe it was a coach trying to make you mentally tough when your legs couldn’t possibly run one more line drill. Maybe you’ve uttered it to yourself under your own breath trying to convince yourself that things couldn’t get any worse. A friend posted just the other day this retort to the idea: “I don’t want to go through things that don’t kill me but make me stronger anymore!” Beyond survival, we offer other sentiments when we’re in pain. Things like, “Well, that was a character-building experience; a real growth opportunity.” Plato once said that pain restores order to the soul. Rumi said that it lops off the branches of indifference. “The throbbing vein will take you further than any thinking.” There’s the mantra many have shouted over time, “No pain, no gain!” My middle son, Dane, campaigned for president of his second-grade class a few years ago. His slogan? “No Dane. No gain.” He won. There is some honor in doing hard things – even if they feel painful at the time. We admire the resiliency of people who struggle through the worst and come out on the other side with a conquering attitude. Bruised, yes. Battered, perhaps. Scarred, yep. But now? Experience. Understanding. Wisdom. Strength.
Few of us seek pain yet none of us are exempt from experiencing it. Job, named as a godly and upright man, is the one who ends up on the poster entitled simply, Suffering. He just wants to know, “Why me?” The very fact that the book of Job lands in our holy scriptures is testament to those who decided to include it – the recognition that an uncensored account of the depth of human pain and suffering is more to be valued than any correct doctrinal answer to it. We do know, however, as Peter writes in his letter we highlight today, that our God is one who restores, heals, and redeems – even the depths of our pain. Louis L’Amour said:In the feeling of pain, we acknowledge its presence as the beginning of our way to the all-things-new hope that is promised by God. And, with some distance, some hindsight, some growth, we may even be able to see some of our pain as an altar – a tribute to God who doesn’t cause the pain or suffering but deeply longs to redeem it for some meaningful purpose.
“Pain is provocative. Pain pushes people to the edge, causing them to ask fundamental questions such as ‘Why is this happening?’ and ‘How can this be fixed?’ Pain brings out the best in people along with the worst. Pain strips away all the illusions required to maintain the status quo. Pain begs for change.” Pain is not optional for humans. “How can something as nonnegotiable as feeling pain serve as a spiritual practice? Like anything,” Taylor says, “I can try to avoid pain. I can deny pain. I can numb it and I can fight it. Or I can decide to engage pain when it comes to me, giving it my full attention so that it can teach me what I need to know about the Really Real.”
Really Real she offers in capital letters – representing God – what does pain teach us about God – the Really Real – the Ultimate Concern?
Peter’s first letter is our companion today – a word that he begins by saying, “I, Peter, am an apostle on assignment by Jesus, the Messiah, writing to exiles scattered to the four winds. Not one is missing, not one forgotten.” I love that opening. Just a man on assignment. A man whose life has been fully upended by being a fisherman at a certain age and time, in proximity enough to this carpenter from Nazareth who stumbled into his life and saw endless potential in his leadership skills. How many people knew Peter, passed by him at the docks day after day without seeing anything special about him? But Jesus has a way of seeing. Jesus drafts him for the cause and for as many rough edges as Peter had, Jesus trusted him, believed in him and gave him the freedom to lead. Pete had no clue what he was getting into. But here he is, abandoning the fishing nets for this ministry – on assignment by Jesus writing to the exiles scattered to the four winds. For what, for whom, are you on assignment? Don’t blow past that question lightly. As Peter says in our prayer today, something he knew all too well… “God will promote you at the right time.” Everything you’ve been through and learned and struggled to understand will guide you into a moment of time when you’ll be called upon to step up, step in, and be the unique gift to the church, to the world, that you’ve been created to be.
It’s amazing how this works. We so often never know the hows or whys of things until a great time later. I was talking with a dear mentor and friend this week whose total life direction that led to the shaping of some of the most significant realities of his life hinged on the way in which some trash bags were placed about behind the place he was living. It was a remarkable tale but all he could essentially say was, “My life became what it became because of garbage.” It would be a good spiritual practice for all of us to sit and make a graph of our lives – writing our birthdates on the far left and today’s date on the far right. In between those dates, fill in the major events of your life – the moments that have made you who you are – and note how many of those moments seemed inconsequential at the time. I imagine many of them may surround moments of pain as well.
How many of those painful moments bear significant relationship to leaps of your personal growth – in a relationship, in your career, in your faith? Maybe it was the move that bonded you in a new way to your family. Maybe it was the call from the doctor about that spot on your lung that made you finally make up with your estranged sister. Maybe your partner leaving made you discover some truth about yourself that had otherwise been shielded for years. None of these are the ways we script our lives. They are certainly not the ways we would have chosen to grow, shift, wise-up, become more than we were, but they did those very things. Peter’s been through it… but has owned it… and he wouldn’t have been the leader he became had he not first said “Yes,” to following Jesus… had he not over-reacted when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, had he not denied even knowing Jesus in crunch time and later resolving to be a leader in the movement forward. These human moments made him real; grew his compassion for others who were also flawed; gave him a relatable spirit. Such made him resilient. He didn’t roll over and quit. He got stronger. He learned. It’s like a guy I know who said, “I’ll never follow any leader who hasn’t failed.” Even C.S. Lewis  offered this interesting word:
Interesting. Pain. Loss. Grief. Growth. What do you think?
Pain comes in many forms of course. This move our family is making comes with some pain. The big day we talked to the kids about the move, my youngest son, Hayes, had moved the coffee table in the living room and spread out every sleeping bag and pillow we owned in the house. It seemed as good a place as any to have a family meeting – which every member of the family has power to call should they deem it necessary. We sat in a circle on the floor, my back against the couch. Hayes sat across from me, totally buried in the pile of blankets and pillows accept for his head that popped out of the pile like a turtle’s head out of his shell. As Carrie and I shared the word, my son’s turtle head withdrew bit by bit back into his shell. As the sharing continued, the questions were asked, the wonderings were full, he kept inching closer to my leg… another question, another few inches closer… until he was all but in my lap. When he finally looked up, our eyes connected and I said, “Do you want me to hold you, buddy?” And this rough and tumble, hard-shelled son of mine, buried his head in my chest and we cried some tears together. My daughter said, “That’s the first time I’ve seen you cry, dad.” Clearly, she’s never watched, “This is Us” with me. That show knows how to pull the strings, you know? Pain can come by no choosing of our own or even as the result of our own hard decisions.
Like the early church leaders and followers, the direction of Christ’s lead isn’t always the easy route – and we all know that is true. Richard Rohr said, “If you are not ready for change, don’t seek out God.” The very quest for God will come with change, and therefore pain… or pain and therefore change. But… a disciple is someone who has moved from being the recipient of the church’s mission to being responsible for the Church’s mission. If we are faithful to the pursuit of Christ in our lives, we’re going to have to own the effort that comes with being Church. And this is the call of you, and me, of Peter, and the early recipients of his letter.
It is in such seasons of change that we need to rely on our disciplines of faith – prayer, scripture reading, listening more than talking, worship, serving. Peter says, in those tough seasons, the devil, the adversary, the oppositional voice, will call to us to get us all worked up against one another, against the call of Christ, against the direction of Love. I caution us all in such a time to hold firm to these values of our faith. This is the discipline Peter is speaking of and the reason to gather close to one another and allow for grace in transition. I’ve been having lots of conversations with you… and I’m loving them. Such wisdom you have. One dear friend whose faith I’ve always respected and admired said, “If we would have done all the things I wanted us to do along the way, we wouldn’t even be here.” This is a voice of wisdom that cries for trust and patience and prayer. In our pain, we may be quick to jump and say, “I have the answer! Follow me to freedom!” But steady wins this race of faith. Steady perseveres through the pain. And this community is as grounded as any I have ever known. And so we keep laughing and telling the stories of our faith. We keep praying through the pain and trusting in the trials. It’s the parental reality of being at the pool in the summer. As someone shared with me, “93% of a parent’s time at the pool is spent “watching this” and adjusting goggles.” So we keep watching this – the journey of the Body of Christ – and we adjust the goggles so we can see what God is seeing for us in this new season.
Peter is preaching this very thing and as he moves to the “Amen” of this prayer, he says what will come through our season of pain and wonder: “After a while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” The Greek word for restore is kartarizein which is most commonly the word used for setting a fracture. It means to supply that which is missing or heal the gap or fill the space. God’s restoration is a true healing; an overwhelming grace. This work of restoration, of support, of strength, of establishment – a firm foundation – is already moving in us. “God is the very one doing this work within us even now.” Peter could not be more confident in this … and neither can I. And I’m leaning into that truth now more than ever.
Maybe you’ve got some big stuff you’re sorting through right now. Some painful stuff. Maybe it is happening outside of your control or maybe it has mostly come about through your own hand. It is in such a time when we start to determine where our faith is holding us and where it is most fragile. Whether it is a major loss or a bad case of food poisoning, we are susceptible to the doubt of God’s mercy. And we look to our poster of Job and we hear his voice asking, “Why?” But God does not give Job a single answer to his question. Instead, God asks Job forty-three questions in a row including, most famously, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Gulp. After another long and serious exchange, Job comes to get what others who have suffered before us have also accepted. The question is not “Why did?” or “Why does” this happen but “When will…” it happen. And when it does, a deeper question may be “How can breakdown become break through?” And yes, I have to be real careful with this… as I would suggest for you… lest we sound like one of Job’s friends who were less than helpful when their friend was suffering. Taylor reminds us, “No one who is not in pain is allowed to give advice to someone who is.” And while our experience of loss and pain is always unique, it is true that there are many others who have been through the same sort of thing before. But you have to live it this time. This time, it is yours. And you need to be kind to yourself along the way… just as we all need to be kind to others walking the same road.
Rituals help. Stay steady in your practice of worship… in studying with friends… in serving the meals and blessing the back packs and housing our neighbors without homes. The practices; the rhythms help us press through. Caring for another helps heal the soul too. A woman named Lucy was whittling away – she was not long for this world – but even as she lay in her bedroom near the front of her home, members from her house church gathered on her porch at night, singing hymns that she could hear through the windows. They covered her whole house with prayers. I trust that the hymns brought comfort to Lucy – I know it helped the people who sang them. (Taylor).
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of Earl, another man who was facing his second cancer surgery, uncertain how to prepare this time. He had been burned by church in the past and wasn’t much of a church goer. But the day before his surgery, his grown children came to his side as he sat in his office; a place he was day after day… a place where the light peered through the window just so every afternoon. They asked if they could lay hands on their dad. “Earl couldn’t think of a polite way to say “No,” so he let them, holding still as “one of them laid both hands on his hot, round head, and the other pressed down on both of his shoulders hard enough for him to know how heavy love could be. The three of them stayed that way for what was either a long time or no time at all. In that posture, it was hard to tell. Nothing was said, during or after. It was only years later that Earl would bring it up to his children, saying, “Remember that day you touched me in the sunlight? I still remember that day.”
These are the ways we find our way through pain, and can, like the scars they sometimes leave, serve as altars in the world – sign and symbol that God made us strong even in our weak moments or our weak places. God restored us, strengthened us, supported us, established us. And through it all, Christ leads on… always has, always will. Even when we are stifled or wounded or stunned still, the light of Christ keeps pressing and we trust the light. My office window offers me that grace-filled reminder every day.
My office chair swivels (which I absolutely love). And when I turn from my computer screen to remember that life is real and actual and not only lost in the virtual realities of Microsoft documents and email, I see the light. Through the gift of architecture, the braces in my window form the shape of a cross… that just all day long reflect the sunlight onto my wall, onto my floor, all the way through me and beyond me… quietly, steadily, firmly and right on schedule. I turned one morning this week… a day when I was in the office as the sun was rising… and I simply swiveled and marveled at that cross on my wall – draped across the shovel with which I turned dirt with the building team when we broke ground on this facility… through the art that graces the wall that is abstract but representative of the great many layers of life… light through a card board sign that I simply have been unable to recycle that says, “God says I bring something unique to the table.” And there… right in the middle of it all… is the shadow of the cross that says, “Pain? Yep. Suffering? Been through it. Hope? It’s coming. Endurance? Stick with it.” That light goes on and on… and you know what? Whenever I forget it? Whenever I get grumpy or lost in the pain or frustrated about change outside of my control, I can simply swivel my chair… and there it is again… the light of Christ as strong as ever. Peter knew that well. I say now what was all he had left to say as well: “To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”
 An Altar in the World. Barbara Brown Taylor. Harper One Publishing. 2009. Any quotes from Taylor come from this work and each sermon in this series is inspired by different chapters of the book. Her influence is scattered throughout this message and I am grateful for her insight and the vivid imagery of her writing.
 Letters of C.S. Lewis (April 29th, 1959. Para 1, p. 285)