Jesus Christ, POW – Rev. Henry Brinton
Jesus Christ, POW
May 11, 2014
1 Peter 2:19-25
Happy Mother’s Day, all of you who are mothers. And Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who have acted in a maternal way, showing deep love and concern to others. There is much more to this day than the act of giving birth to a child.
In fact, did you know that Mother’s Day grew out of the women’s peace movement? Following the Civil War, a common activity was meetings between mothers whose sons had fought or died on opposite sides of the war.
Today’s Scripture lesson speaks of suffering, an experience well known to mothers and to others as well. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval,” writes the apostle Peter. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21).
If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval, says Peter. I don’t think that Peter is saying that suffering is a good thing, a right thing, or a desirable thing. In almost every case, suffering is a terrible thing. We should do whatever we can to avoid either giving or receiving suffering.
But in every life there are going to be times of suffering, and sometimes we suffer when we do what is right. In these cases, we have God’s approval. In fact, I think God uses these times of suffering to create something good.
Last week, Elizabeth Ninde asked me, at the end of the conversation with children, the provocative question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” I told her that I would have to try to answer that question another day. And so here is the beginning of an answer.
I think that God allows bad things to happen because there are some good things that can come only out of suffering. Peter tells us that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness” (v. 24). Jesus took our sins on himself and paid our penalty for all time. The good of forgiveness could only come out of the bad of Christ’s death on the cross.
Look at the cross above my head. It is clearly a symbol of suffering. But it is an empty cross, meaning that the pain is over and that Christ has conquered sin and death.
But good can come out of our personal suffering as well. I mentioned that Mother’s Day began when groups of women began to meet after the Civil War, to build bridges after the most horrible conflict in our nation’s history. As most of you know, we are moving toward the conclusion of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
In 1864, exactly 150 years ago, the first Union prisoners arrived at the prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. This Confederate POW camp has always been notorious, since almost 13,000 Union men died there from starvation and illness.
But a new side of the story is now being highlighted, one that shows the good that existed in that hell-hole of a camp. About 32,000 prisoners survived, and their stories are inspiring.
According to The Washington Post (September 15, 2013), the first prisoners had to create their own housing by making tents out of blankets or digging into a hillside. The water was polluted and the food rations were very meager. Some men went crazy as they dreamed about good food and life at home.
But others kept hope alive by keeping themselves busy. Some sold firewood while others made money by selling eggs, soap, cabbage and sassafras beer. A private from Massachusetts named W.F. Lyon reported in his journal that, “We had a great many breweries in the prison — in fact, there were a whole lot of breweries and saloons combined, for each one sold his own product.”
Who would have guessed that the first micro-breweries were in a prisoner-of-war camp!
“All this activity gave the prisoners something to do and a sense of a normal life.” So writes Linda Wheeler in The Washington Post. “That may have kept them alive while they waited to be rescued or paroled. Others who had nothing to do but sleep and eat the meager rations, surrounded by dying men, might well become despondent and resign themselves to their own deaths.”
Eric Leonard, the chief of education at the Andersonville National Historic Site, is particularly impressed by what the long-term prisoners decided to do with their food. “By early summer, in the midst of all those dying men and the chaos of prison life, they [were] planting corn,” he said. “They took kernels out of their ration of cornmeal and put them in the ground. That speaks to their knowing they will be there long enough to harvest it. What is corn? It symbolizes hope. It is a remarkable act of hope.”
In the middle of the suffering we face, Jesus Christ is our fellow prisoner of war. He gives us a model for keeping hope alive in a time of anguish and despair. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it,” says the apostle Peter, “you have God’s approval” (v. 20) — that was true for Jesus and it is true for us. “When [Jesus] was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (v. 23).
So, where do we find hope in times of suffering? When life feels like a prisoner-of-war camp, we are not alone — Jesus Christ, POW, is right beside us. He helps us to plant corn when we cannot see the future clearly. The corn planted by prisoners at Andersonville symbolizes hope — for them and for us.
We plant corn when we commit ourselves to doing the right thing, even when we cannot see the results clearly. The POWs who planted their kernels had no guarantee that they would be alive to see the corn grow, but they knew it was the right thing to do. The writer Anne Lamott has said something that I think is absolutely true: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”
Think about where it is that you are challenged to wait and watch and work. Maybe it is in your office, where you are surrounded by people cutting corners and acting in unethical ways. Maybe it is at school, where it can be unpopular to do the right thing.
Maybe it is in your home, where long nights with small children seem like they will never end — it’s been a while, but I remember those nights so well. Maybe it is when you are knocking on doors in our community, working alongside other leaders of VOICE to preserve affordable housing.
In all of these situations, the challenge is to be persistent and consistent, doing the right thing while refusing to give up. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it,” says Peter, “you have God’s approval” (v. 20). With God’s help, the kernels that you are planting will finally grow.
We also plant corn when we trust God to be the judge, instead of ourselves. Peter tells us that Jesus did not threaten the people who caused him to suffer, but instead he “entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (v. 23). As much as Jesus might have wanted to fight back and abuse those who abused him, he trusted God to bring about justice.
This is a tough one for us, because we want the wrongs of this world to be corrected right away! We watch the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian girls by Islamist terrorists, and want so badly for them to be rescued. We hope that the team of US experts sent to Nigeria will be able to help with this effort.
But at the same time, we know that terrorism is fueled by ignorance and poverty, and it will continue to flourish until people have safe schools and decent jobs. God is working through so many good Christians and other people to improve access to education and work in areas where young people are being recruited by terrorist organizations. Such changes take time, but they are so much more effective than a quick fix.
Finally, we plant corn when we invest in the work of the God who is “the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls” (v. 25). Think of those Civil War prisoners who took kernels out of their rations of cornmeal and planted them, instead of eating them. They could have kept all of their resources for their immediate needs, but instead they made an investment.
Each of us is challenged to do the same with the time and talent and treasure that we have been given. We can use everything we have to meet our own needs, or we can invest a portion in the work of God, our Good Shepherd. We can give an hour a week to teaching English to an immigrant neighbor through our ESOL program. We can give our gardening talents to the Glebe outside our Sanctuary, or offer our party-planning talents to the work of the Member Connections Ministry — see the ad in today’s bulletin. Each of us can pledge a portion of our money to the work of the church in the year to come. Fill out a pledge card from the pew rack, if you have not already done so, and place it in the offering plate.
In all of these ways we are like prisoners planting corn, which symbolizes hope. Jesus is right beside us, helping us to do the right thing, even when we cannot see the results clearly. He is showing us how to trust God to be the judge, instead of ourselves. And he is encouraging us to invest in the work of God, the shepherd and guardian of our souls.
If we do, we will not only survive the difficulties we face, we will thrive. Like Jesus, we’ll move past our crosses to new and everlasting life. And we’ll discover that here, as in Andersonville, there are some good things that can come only out of suffering. Amen.
Linda Wheeler, “Hope amid despair,” The Washington Post, September 15, 2013, H8.