My parents and I went to Branson Friday and Saturday to see Samson and another show called Six. The main show to see, though, was Samson. Several people in Mom and Dad’s church had seen the show and were going on and on about it. This was the last weekend for it, and it was worth the trip. Samson, born in the Hebrew faith and tradition, was a typical child and teen who wanted a different life. The Hebrews, forced into submission by the Philistines, attempted to maintain their traditions and beliefs while navigating their public behaviors according to Philistine rule. Samson wanted to be freed from the restrictions of the laws and live unfettered. In the play, he spoke about the chains that held him down and the rules that he believed stifled his spirit. He complains and argues and bargains and fights and runs from the pull of his heritage.
It is this background of Samson, the understanding of his living in tension between his faith and tradition versus the pull of the world and supposed “freedom,” that draws me further into our texts for this morning. While Samson pulls away from the call of God for his life, Paul offers a completely different approach. Samson draws back and isolated himself, and, as a result, he suffers greatly. Paul, however, suffers and that suffering draws him further into the bosom of God.
We have been reading for several weeks now the letters of Paul to Timothy. In these letters Paul speaks to Timothy in encouragement to accept the servant Onesimus despite the servant having betrayed Timothy at some point in time. Paul also writes of encouragement, humility, persistence. And all of these attitudes are to be acquired through the grace of Jesus Christ. In our passage for today, Paul seems to take a different turn at first. He actually writes as if he is complaining. Look at what he says: “I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.” He offers to Timothy a physical image of what his life looks like in that moment. He complains, he speaks with honesty and truth, but that process of naming his sufferings is for a purpose. Complaining is one way he gets to bottom of his humanity, and there he comes face to face with his strengths and weaknesses, his abilities and limitations. And it is at this bottom of his humanity that we understand why he writes as he does. He states his discovery: “I endure everything to the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.” He endures hardship, physical pain, isolation so that those who know what is happening to him will understand that he gives all for Jesus. That Jesus is worthy of all he could possibly endure so that others will come to Jesus and believe.
In the play, God continued to call Samson to greatness, to leadership, but Samson struggled against that plan for his life. And it was through this struggle, his complaining, that he came to the understanding of his own limitations. He realized that his choices continually took him away from the presence of God and in turn he was restless, angry, isolated.
While I understand that Paul and Samson did not complain for the same reason, their results were similar. Samson suffered AGAINST God, and Paul suffered FOR God. And if complaining, or naming our sufferings, gives us understanding of our limitations, I would like to unpack what Paul speaks of in his letter to Timothy. And just as he offers encouragement to Timothy, we too are encouraged. Paul reminds Timothy, and us, that we are not alone, That we are not isolated. As a matter of fact, not only are we not alone, but we are saved from this misery of our own humanity because of our proclaiming our faith in Jesus. Paul refocuses our attention and our intention upon Jesus Christ. Paul slips the story from the pain and hurt being the center of his world to Jesus Christ being the center.
How does he do this? Exactly how does he shift the focus from suffering to Jesus? One simple word: “Remember.” The word “remember” is the Greek is anamnesis, which means to bring into remembrance. To bring forward. To bring into the present. This word “remember” is in Holy Eucharist as well when “We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.” Paul names his own suffering, and then he brings the suffering of Jesus into the present. He makes Jesus the center and focus of his attention rather than himself.
But there is a fine thread here that I wish to bring forward. In suffering there certainly is pain. I mentioned last week about those in our family here in All Saints who suffer. Many are at various points of treatment for physical pain. Recovering from surgery, preparation for surgery, or surgery in the very near future. Emotional pain. There are relapses. There are good days and very, very bad days. This thread I see in Paul’s letter goes deeper than the actual suffering, be it physical or emotional pain. And what I see Paul implying here is the implication of shame in suffering. He speaks of suffering hardship to the point of death. But, in our lectionary reading he also speaks with authority that conquers shame. Look with me at the words he uses: “that is my gospel”… “but the word of God is not chained” … “I endure everything” … “so that they.” [emphasis mine] These are not words of submission but words of ownership. Not words of defeat but words of power. Paul shares with Timothy that suffering is inevitable, it will come. But, Paul exhorts Timothy — and us — that when we suffer we are also triumphant. We need have no shame because of our suffering.
And you sit there and say, “Sure, Mother Janie. That sounds all fine and well. But you don’t understand how I feel. You don’t know what this is like. You cannot possibly speak to this.” And you know what? You’re absolutely right. I don’t. And I cannot know. Unless I have been through what you have been or are going through, I don’t know.
My response is, how will I know unless you tell me. Unless you share with me. And, it’s not just me, though. Paul wrote his letter, but there was a recipient of the letter. When you, when we, have sufferings, we are to share them. We are to speak them to one another. We speak the suffering and, as a result, we discover our limitations and expose our shame. And when we speak, our attention is intentionally refocused on Jesus Christ who offers the balm to ease our aches.
And it is amidst the suffering that a miracle occurs. When we share the burden and focus our hearts to Jesus, He transforms us to see hope, if even a slim glimmer of hope. Our faith strengthens, even if it is only for one day. With the faith, gratitude comes. Gratitude for the small events of the day. Gratitude for those who come alongside and suffer with us, pray with us, laugh with us. Through faith we express our complete trust in God. It may not be immediate, and it may not even be permanent. But, if we look with intention, our faith will grow into gratitude because we know that God, the giver of all good gifts, hold all of life in His providential hands.
And this gratitude, a small ripple within one individual, echoes within the person sharing the suffering. As we come together as a church body, we share in the suffering and in faith we pray. We come to the rail of Holy Eucharist exposing the hurt of our lives and giving that suffering to Jesus Christ. We pray. We lay hands on one another. Our gratitude for God and His grace grows, the ripples continue to echo. This gratitude will reshape the character of our congregation. No longer will we come to church to “get something out of it,” but we will come because we long to be together, to give thanks and praise together. To stifle this gratitude would be as unnatural as holding one’s breath for a very long time.