Courage in the Struggle
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 20, 2020 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30 and Matthew 14:22-33
[You can watch a video recording of this sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here.]
Friday evening I was attending a zoom Rosh Hashanah service where a friend was blowing the shofar and singing. The rabbi was introducing a long silent prayer when a man interrupted her to say that he had just seen an email saying that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. It was supposed to be a prayer of blessing, praising God’s gifts and great saving power, but many of us spent it weeping or sitting in the stunned realization of what a loss this was and what it would mean for our nation.
How much more bad news can we take? The ancient cry of Israel wells up from within us, “How long, O Lord?” Yet I find myself again turning from grief when I feel like sitting shiva, and instead girding myself to enter the struggle with even more intensity.
We will have time for grief later. Now is the time for courageous and strong action.
We are seeing extraordinary courage and strength in Strafford in the face of tragedy: the McLane’s response to the total loss of their house and possessions and creations; and Mary Newman’s response to the near-fatal bike accident of her husband, Ross. The hearts of the entire community around them have been moved first with compassion and then with awe at the Spirit we see flowing through these amazing people, showing the best of what humanity can be.
The title of this sermon is “Courage in the Struggle,” and we need to give equal weight to both the first and last word. We cannot know the depth of the struggle that these families are going through, but we can imagine what we would feel in their place, the tears, the sleepless nights, the worry where the path would lead, the feeling sometimes that we lack the courage and strength required.
We can imagine this because we have been there ourselves, facing our private struggles and the struggles in our nation and world.
Jesus and all the saints have shared the same experience. Struggle is part of the human condition. Swahili wisdom says, “Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of the gods, so let us celebrate the struggle.”
What we celebrate is how we meet the challenges and what we make of them. Dylan Thomas said, “My poetry is, or should be, useful to me for one reason: it is the record of my individual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light.”
Greatness of heart is part of human nature, but so too is the desire to avoid or deny, to hide or run away from our struggles. I remember Bill Coffin saying that courage is the first Christian virtue because it makes all the other virtues possible. He said, “Courage means being well aware of the worst that can happen, being scared almost to death, and then doing the right thing anyhow.” He said, “No one need be afraid of fear, only afraid that fear will stop him or her from doing what’s right.” (Credo p 120)
Today anyone who is not afraid of what is happening to our nation and the earth is not paying attention. Anxiety, grief, anger, depression—these are all to be expected and they are not bad in themselves. As Bill said, what is bad is to become paralyzed because of them and stopped from doing what is needed.
So how can we rise above our emotional response to our struggles and meet them with our best self, moving “from darkness toward some measure of light?”
We have three scripture readings that provide answers. Remember that when God called Jonah to prophesy to Ninevah, Jonah’s emotional response was to flee as far as he could in the opposite direction. In today’s passage Jonah is having an emotional response to the loss of a bush that shaded him.
God says, “You are concerned about the bush…and should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city?”
This is the first thing the scriptures offer us to overcome the emotions that could block us from action. Try to see from God’s perspective. Think how much the Spirit that created life wants humans to find a way to live that is like the realm of God on earth, governed by the Golden Rule and love of all the earth. Think about how much the Spirit that created you hopes you will work with it, giving all you have.
The second lesson comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Paul reminds us of the life of Jesus and all who are part of the movement to create the realm of God on earth. We need to look with compassion at one another in our struggles and break free from whatever blocks our action, both out of love for those around us and in solidarity with them.
Finally, we come to the story of Jesus walking on the water. The first thing to see is that flawed, foolish Peter, a person like us, can perform miracles, but he sinks when his courage fails, and his courage fails because his faith, his trust in the power of the Spirit weakens.
Where did Jesus get his strong courage and faith? Well, what was he doing on the mountain just before he performed his miracle? The children would know the answer—praying! The gospels hint that Jesus practiced a self-emptying, contemplative kind of prayer, where he joined as one with the Spirit of God in his heart. This was the source of his faith, his courage and his loving actions. To paraphrase Gandhi, by reducing himself to zero, Jesus became able to work miracles.
St. Simeon the Theologian was a monk, mystic and poet who lived exactly one thousand years ago. He taught that there is a virtue we need as much as courage in order to be able to do what Jesus did. He called the virtue “attention of the heart,” achieved through the self-emptying kind of prayer practice we learn in our Heartfulness Contemplative Training Circle.
Richard Rohr explains why contemplative prayer and attention of the heart are so important. “Only the Great Self, the True Self, the Godself, can carry the anxiety within us. The little self can’t do it. People who don’t pray can’t live the Gospel because the self is not strong enough to hold the anxiety and the fear.”
It is natural to feel anxious about where the world is going, and also, on this Annual Meeting Sunday in our congregation, it is natural to feel anxious about where the church is going. We voted unanimously on a Future Directions Vision Statement two years ago in October of 2018. We say,
We intend to be a force, not merely a presence,
effecting positive social change
for peace, justice and the care of God’s creation.
The United Church of Christ statement of faith says of God, “You promise to all who trust you…courage in the struggle for justice and peace.”
The wisdom of our spiritual tradition says that the way through our struggles is to look at them from God’s perspective, to remember that we are not alone and our struggle is part of a movement toward the light of God’s love on earth, and to find the courage and strength we need through a deep inner connection to the Spirit.
So let us practice sitting amid all the fearful swirling chaos within our nation and within our minds and let go of our thoughts and turn in silent emptiness to the Spirit within us. Let us pray in silence…