Sunday, February 20, 2000

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
On Sunday, February 20, 2000
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Philippians 1:27-30 and 3:7-11

I think one of the most joyful and also at times one of the most pathos-filled things in life is to go through your memories and to look at memoirs. This past week I was afforded that opportunity as I went home to Nova Scotia to share my mother's 80th birthday and on the evening of her birthday one of the great treats was to take out a photograph album and to review many of the great moments of her life and of my life with her. It was spell-binding. And as we took different photographs, oh, we spent ages reminiscing about what we saw, thinking back on some of the good times and also some of the sad ones as well. A few tears were shed along the way, I can tell you.

But there were two photographs in particular that were particularly outstanding in this album and grasped me and my memories and in some way they both speak of suffering. The first was a photograph of a gentleman that we used to call my Uncle Albert. He wasn't a relation, but then again most of the uncles and aunts in my life when I was a child weren't related to me, they were family friends, but oh, did my mother and I smile at the photograph of Uncle Albert. For Uncle Albert owned a confectionary store and once a week, always on a Wednesday, my mother and I would go to the confectionery store and we would have a visit with Uncle Albert and my mother would buy a week's load of deserts and freshly baked breads. It was the highlight of my week and I remember one day going with my mother, I was five years old and there was a long line up and so my mother sort of let me go and I left her hand and I started to sort of wander around the store and I went behind this magnificent glass counter, behind which there were always the most gorgeous pies and tarts and breads and there sitting at just my eye level were my very favourites, custard pies with jam.

And so I thought to myself, my Uncle Albert loves me and I love my Uncle Albert, he will not miss one of these tarts, will he, I thought. And so I consumed it on the spot. But it was so good and there were so many, that I decided not to stop there. There was a second one and oh, the second time is always better, isn't it, you know what to expect, and I consumed it and I enjoyed it and I thought, my uncle will not mind, he loves me and I love him, but there was a third one there and I consumed it, and a fourth one. Very good indeed. The fifth one, a little over the top, but never the less tasty, and the final sixth one in this half dozen disappeared very quickly indeed.

And so, after having filled my stomach with my Uncle Albert's custard tarts and jam, I rejoined my mother in the line and my mother looked at me and said, "Have you been a good boy?" and I said, "Yes, Mummy." And my Mummy filled up her bag with all the goodies for the week and we started to walk out of the door until Uncle Albert appeared. And Uncle Albert said, "Andrew, Andrew," and I start to worry. And he says, "Andrew, I have just baked the most magnificent custard tart with jam and I was wondering if you would like to eat it now." I looked at my mother and my mother looked at me. I said, "Oh, I don't think so, Uncle, I wouldn't want to take one of your custard tarts with cream." And he looked at me in the eye and he said, "Andrew, there will always be a custard tart for you whenever you want one. All you have to do is ask." I don't think I have stolen anything in my life since. This is what I call self-induced suffering. The suffering of greed, the suffering of hubris, the suffering of delighting in our own pleasures.

But there is a second type of suffering and this came with another photograph, this time of another aunt in the same town, my Aunt Maggie, Maggie Dearden. And Maggie lived in a small row stone house at the bottom of the hill near the great cotton mill that had been the driving force of the town's economy. Whenever I visited a house, my mind would go back to Blake's great song, “Jerusalem,” for she lived right next to one of those dark satanic mills. For forty odd years she had worked in that mill, sitting on a stone floor with a wooden stool and she even wore clogs for forty years in that mill. Now that I knew her, she was considerably older and retired, and every now and again my mother would take me to visit her and we would go into her extremely small house which itself had stone floors, it had no bathroom inside, but only outside. It had a kitchen that consisted of a sink and one wooden washboard and for all her life, my Aunt Maggie had lived in the house next to the dark satanic mill and yet for every year, on my birthday, she would always give me a £5 note. Now my Aunt Maggie in those days was not affluent, she was very poor and £5 in the 1950s was of a great value and every single year up until my 36th birthday, my Aunt Maggie sent me a £5 note, until she died and the notes no longer came and I didn't miss the money, but I sure missed Aunt Maggie, for Aunt Maggie was one of the great Christians. She was a woman who would go to church every Sunday. She would walk miles to church in her clogs in the cold weather, for she was full of faith. She was an Elder in the church and even though she couldn't afford bus tickets or a car, she still was the one Elder who was able to visit every single person in her district without excuse, even with bleeding feet in her wooden clogs and return to a home next to the dark satanic mill. Here was a woman who knew suffering, but it was faith-induced.

When I think of this great book of the Philippians that Paul wrote to a congregation that he loved so much, a congregation that had been persecuted, a congregation that out of its kindness had sent to him when he was in prison in Rome, a man called Apaphroditus, but Apaphroditus had now become ill and Paul was sending him back to Philippi with a note congratulating Apaphroditus for all that he had done and he writes to the people in Philippi and he gives them a word of encouragement and he gives them a word of love for they have gone the second mile at a moment when they were in their greatest need, they provided for him in his, they sacrificed Apaphroditus, they sacrificed in their love all for the sake of supporting the work of the kingdom. In other words, they suffered for the sake of the faith. And Paul writes to them and he says, "For you have been granted by Jesus Christ not only the privilege of believing in him, but suffering for him." And later on in the book of Philippians he says, "For there is one thing that I want to know more than anything else and that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and to share in the fellowship of his suffering." You see, the Apostle Paul understood faith-induced suffering.

There are many people who say to me, "But Andrew, this is a far, far different thing than I want to experience in my life. After all, do I not have enough suffering already?" The great Scot Peck in writing his book "The Road Less Travelled," starts off at the very beginning of the book by saying, "Life is tough." And indeed life is tough. There are, as Brian Stiller said, missed opportunities, broken relationships, disappointments, moments of self-doubt, moments of agony and pain and often the cry goes up, "Isn't there enough suffering in this life without faith-induced suffering to add to it. If there is any virtue, shouldn't it be to turn away from suffering rather than to embrace it in our lives?" In fact, for the Apostle Paul, it is the suffering for Christ which makes all the other suffering seem to pale into insignificance.

This last week, as many of you know, Charles Schultz died and there is a wonderful editorial in one of the newspapers this week about Charles Schultz and it was entitled "God's Cartoonist." I don't know if any of you saw it. It was a marvellous article and in it the writer picks out all the things that Charles Schultz would incorporate into the story of Charlie Brown and Snoopy and Lucy and Linus and one of the things that you find in those stories is that there is indeed within all of these characters a frailty. There is a sense of a futility in life. There is a sense in which there is the hubris and the anger and the deceit of life and so many of the characters in the story portray the sufferings of life. After all, doesn't it always strike you as amazing that in forty years or so of the cartoon, Charlie Brown never got it that Lucy took the football away every time that he wanted to kick it. That is what is so central to Charles Schultz, that we don't always learn from our lessons and that there is suffering in life and that there are difficult things. But here was the amazing thing, that even in the moments of the greatest darkness in these stories, there was something liberating, there was something redemptive, something instructive for all those who read it, because when the characters ? and this is the key ? when the characters were willing to sacrifice themselves, when they were willing no longer to be self-centred, at moments like this, they understood the will of God. In other words, they had to suffer something in their lives, put themselves to one side in order that some good and something redemptive might happen. This is perhaps what one would call purposeful suffering. It is what I want to look at this morning.


And there are three real ingredients into what I call purposeful or faithful suffering, the first of which is the renunciation of sin, the renunciation of sin. You're probably going, Oh, my, this is an old outdated concept is this, the renunciation of sin, but to the people who were in Philippi, Paul said, "You must stand firm, you must stand firm in your faith and you must not be blown by the winds of society which might mislead you into a path of sin because if you do that, then you will suffer one form. If you, however, are obedient to God, you will share the sufferings of Christ in the world."

I couldn't help but think of that this past week when I turned on a television show, I think it was Tuesday night and I must admit I'd misread, I think, the TV Guide. I thought I was going to be watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The only problem is, it was Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire. Did any of you see this disgrace? I was in a state of shock, I must confess. I didn't know whether I was being entertained or thoroughly disgusted at the same time. But I couldn't help but think as I decided to watch the show to its conclusion to see if there was anything redemptive going to happen here at all, and by the way there was none, I couldn't help but think that the days of slavery, I thought, were ended. I didn't think people were bought any more. I didn't think that women were used as chattel any more until I saw this disgusting display. And then to dress a woman up in a white gown and to have a mock wedding when I understood afterwards that they had already written in an escape clause, I was mortified. And yet this is being revealed as entertainment in the day and age in which we live.

I mean I think that there comes a point where Christians just have to say no. When there is an immorality, when there is an abuse of a sacred sacrament of marriage, when there is the buying and selling of people for the entertainment of others to watch, there is something ungodly about this. So my friends, if we do not think that in the world in which we live we still have to denounce sin and call it what it is, the lust, the greed that exists in our society, then I think that we misunderstood the challenge that Paul gave to the Philippians.

This was further borne in on me this past week when I saw that two friends of mine had started in a new job and they were wonderful men, godly men, and one of their friends said to me that in the business that they were entering, he said, and I quote, "They will never survive because they're too good. They're too good."

My friends, if we do not think that sin has its hold upon us in business, in the world in which we live, in the morals and the morays of our day, then we are deceiving ourselves, but to resist is to suffer. To resist is to say no. To resist is to be like the Philippians who were, different. Not different because they had decided to set themselves apart, but different because they were sharing in the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross, which put sin to death. There is a suffering that comes from the renunciation of sin.

There is also a suffering that comes from a sensitivity to the sufferings of others. This past week I have been reading a book that was given to me, by the great Frederick Buchner entitled “Through the Eyes of the Heart.” And in it Buchner writes about one of the great struggles of his life and his memoirs as he is revisiting his relationship with his grandmother and his mother and his father, who had committed suicide when he was ten years old. And he said in his life that he was writing about his mother, that never once in all her life had he seen her cry except when she went to the dentist and had all her teeth removed. But that at every other moment in her life, moments recounting the life of her father, she never even shed a tear. In his own words, this is what Buchner had to say and I quote: "The sadness of other people's lives, even the people she loved, never seemed to touch her while she lived. I don't know why. It wasn't that she had a hard heart, I think. In many ways she was warm, sympathetic and generous. But that she had a heart that for one reason or another, she kept permanently closed to other people's suffering as well as to the darkest corners of her own."

My friends, one of the great dangers in our society is that we close our hearts and our minds to the suffering of others that are around us and that the pain of sharing those requires the suffering of our own hearts. The great William Sloan Coffin in his book “The Courage to Love,” suggests that one of the great problems in our North American society is that we have put ourselves in little cocoons and cloisters so we no longer have to feel the pain of others. "When", he said, "we say the Lord's Prayer, rather than saying Our Father who art in Heaven, in our own mind's eye we say My Father which art in Heaven." Rather than defending the good in society, we try and defend ourselves from the problems that are in society and he said in so doing we have separated ourselves from one another, in order that somehow we don't suffer because we don't want to share the sufferings of people that are around us and I think that he's absolutely right.

This past week I was sitting in an aeroplane in the middle seat with two people on either side of me. Now you're going to get worried now, aren't you, hey! What rude thing is Stirling saying now? For those of you who haven't heard a previous sermon, you'll be able to understand by asking the person next to you. Anyway, I was sitting in a plane with two people either side of me. In this particular instance, I actually moved from the outside to the inside in order that the woman who was sitting next to me could talk to her daughter, who was on the end of the other aisle. And in so doing, I sat next to an angel, next to an angel. For I found out after a few moments that the woman sitting next to me was a Christian missionary in Angola, at home on furlough. You can imagine the conversations that we had: Africa, God, the church. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I didn't even notice the terrible turbulence over Ottawa, but I suspect that that turbulence is due to the preparation of the budget, but I'm not absolutely sure! And there I was sitting next to this woman, never has two hours gone so fast in my life and she told me about the last fifteen years that she has lived in Angola. She said, "Andrew, do you realize that in the last five years, the last five years, the life expectancy in Angola has gone from 42 years to 37." And she looked at me, she said, "I suspect if you were in Angola you'd be dead by now."

She said, "In the meantime I have come back to North America after the last five years and I have seen the most incredible wealth, I can't get over what I see. It is amazing what has happened and only by being outside looking in do I see what's happening and yet here is the irony, that in the last five years, while their life expectancy has diminished, their churches have grown, from 200 to a 1000 on a Sunday morning, whereas in North America with all our wealth, ours have declined."

She said, "You see one of the great problems that I see in our society today is that we're all living in our own little cocoons in our isolated places, that we have lost our sense of community, that we do not share the fellowship of others and we try to avoid contact with anything that might bring those things to the fore."

And ironically, no sooner did I get home after that flight, than I turn on the CBC and watch that most ghastly, ghastly documentary on Sierra Leone. What are we debating? Whether or not we should show such graphic details on television because it's just too horrifying. In other words, it's going on, it's happening, children are dying but we are worried about whether or not we should see it. You see, my friends, to share Christ's suffering in the world is to open ourselves to be sensitive to the needs and the pain of others. And you know how I know that is central to our faith? It is called a cross between two thieves. And Paul not only wanted to share the resurrection, but share the sufferings of Christ on the cross and be sensitive to the sufferings of those who are around us.

There is one final suffering, that is the suffering of hope, the suffering of hope. You know one of the most powerful things in the book of Philippians is that no matter what people may suffer, no matter what difficulty might befall them, whether it be imprisonment or rejection or poverty or fear, the Apostle Paul always held up, always held up the hope of the risen Christ.

Frederick Buchner had a conversation with his mother and it's very humorous to read how Buchner tells it because his mother was very deaf and one day when she was in her eighties, she leaned over to Frederick Beekner and she said, "Do you think anything happens to us when we die?" and Frederick Buchner said, "Yes" and she didn't hear him. So he screamed a little louder, "Yes." And she said, "Dear, don't you have an opinion on this, can't you tell me what you think?" and so he bellowed, "Oh, for God's sake, yes, of course something happens to us when we die." She said, "Thank you, dear, there's no need to shout." ,/p>

And the next day Frederick Buchner went back to his room and he thought how can I convey to my mother what I believe, so he wrote her a letter and after she died, the letter and all those wonderful memories were given back to him and in it he said, "Yes, Mother, I do believe that something happens to us when we die, and I do so for three reasons. First of all," he said, "because I cannot conceive of a God who in this short time that we exist on this earth and with all the sufferings that we endure, will allow us to be without hope." He said, "The second reason, Mother, is I just feel it in my gut, I don't know what else to say except I believe we were made for holiness and holiness some day will embrace us. And thirdly," he said, "and I know Mother you won't like hearing this, but I believe it because Jesus said so." And I'm not sure he said in this letter whether Jesus understood whether the earth was flat or was round. I'm not sure he said whether Jesus knew all the great scientific discoveries that we know today, maybe he did, maybe he didn't, but this thing I do know and I would die for, when Jesus was on the cross he said to the thief next to him, "Today, you will be with me in paradise." Buchner said, "You see, there is one thing that rises above all other things, and that is the hope that faith brings."

My friends, whatever sufferings we might have for Christ pale in comparison to the glory which he gives us.

The last photograph that my mother and I looked at was a photograph again of Auntie Maggie Dearden. This time it had been accompanied by a letter that my mother had received some years ago from a lady who had been a nurse in the nursing home where Auntie Maggie had lived in her last days, for she was able to move from the house beside the dark satanic mill and was surrounded by people who cared for her and the lady, the nurse, had the grace to write to us to let us know that Aunt Maggie was dead and there in this photograph is Aunt Maggie in her wheelchair with a pink afghan over her legs, with a Bible clasped in her hands and a smile on her face, for for all her suffering, Aunt Maggie knew where she would go and so must we. Amen.