Friday, May 20, 2016

“Life Together: Consolation” - May 22, 2016

Text: 2 Corinthians 1:1-11

Since last fall, we have been on a journey through the Bible.  We began in Genesis, with creation, and continued with stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Ruth and Naomi.  We read about the prophets Elijah and Hosea and we read from the Psalms.  We came to Advent and considered the hope and anticipation of the coming Messiah and then celebrated the birth of Jesus.

After Christmas we followed the story of Jesus through the gospel of Mark – his life and teachings, his parables, his miracles, calling and sending the disciples, growing conflict and finally his arrest and crucifixion, and then we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday. 

Since Easter, we have been in the book of Acts, the story of the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel though the Mediterranean world, and 1 Corinthians, a letter Paul wrote to one of the early churches in an important city in the Roman world.

The Narrative Lectionary, which we have followed this year, is designed around the way that church actually works, so it starts in the fall, on the Sunday after Labor Day, and runs through Pentecost, around the beginning of summer.  The thinking is that a lot of folks, ministers included, are in and out over the summer and that things are generally a bit looser, so there is not a prescribed plan for the summer months.

But we will be continuing the sweep through the scriptures with a couple of sermon series this summer.  This will get interrupted, of course, by vacation, services at the park, and so forth, but the plan is - at least when I am preaching – to do a sermon series from 2 Corinthians and then a series from the Book of Revelation.  Which only seems right: when it is almost time for school to start, it can feel like the end of the world, so Revelation in late summer seems appropriate.
On this day that we highlight Christian Education, it needs to be said that a lot of Christian Education takes place in worship, and the hope is that the way we have structured our readings and sermons through this year has helped us all develop a bit more understanding of the Bible as we see the scriptures as a continuing and unfolding story, and as we spend concentrated time in one gospel as well as pay attention to parts of the Bible that may be less familiar.

At any rate, that has been the game plan for the scriptures we have read in worship this year – that’s the big picture, and here we are today, with our reading from the first chapter of Second Corinthians (or Two Corinthians as some like to call it).

There was a time when a lot of people were regular letter writers.  When I was a kid, my mom and my grandma wrote each other about every week or so.  There didn’t have to be a lot going on; my grandma would just write a few lines about the goings-on of the day. 

Today, letter writing is pretty well a lost art.  Sending an email or just texting some emojis is not the same.  I can remember when long distance phone calls were expensive and money was tight, so you wrote letters.  Cheaper long distance seriously cut into letter writing, and then more recently, email and Facebook and skype and the like have pretty well finished off what was left of the letter writing community. 

But smartphones and ipads and computers and even the basic telephone are very recent in the big picture of things.  For nearly all of history, if you wanted to communicate with someone from a distance, you wrote a letter.  Several books of the New Testaments are actually letters – correspondence with churches and individuals.

In our Bible, the book is called 2 Corinthians.  But this is actually something like the 4th letter, at least, that Paul has written to the church at Corinth.  1 Corinthians includes a reference to an earlier letter.  And 2 Corinthians chapter 2, as well as chapter 7:8 include references to an earlier letter that is clearly not 1 Corinthians.  I mention this as a way of saying that this is a congregation that Paul knows very well and he has kept in touch with the church in Corinth, even while he has been away.  This letter was written while Paul was in Ephesus. 

He begins with a greeting – Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus along with our brother Timothy, to the church in Corinth, including those in Achaia (the surrounding area).  Grace and Peace to you.

Then he goes into a blessing.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all consolation…”  Amy-Jill Levine points out that the reference to God as the “Father of Mercies” is a very familiar part of the Jewish liturgy.  It is something people expect to hear, almost boilerplate language.  But the part about the God of Consolation was not.  This was different.  And if you want to know how important Paul’s description of God as the God of Consolation is, we can maybe quantify it.  “The God of all consolation who consoles us in our affliction, that we may be able to console those who are in affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God…”  And it goes on and on.  It’s almost the Department of Redundancy Department.  I counted the words console or consolation 10 times in 4 verses.

I might have used a few different words if I had been writing this, just for style – lift, comfort, commiserate, empathize – but I’m not sure we can compare first century Greek and 21st century American writing styles.  But I do know that in any language, when you repeat a word so many times, you get emphasis.  If you are reading this section and find the word consolation over and over, you get the message.  The theme here is consolation.

Now consolation is not necessarily a highly valued idea for us – we might speak of something as being “small consolation,” but I don’t remember hearing of anything being “large consolation.”  The winner on Jeopardy! goes home with $37,420 while the other contestants get a consolation prize – the home version of the Jeopardy! game.  Compared to the first place contestant’s winnings, that really is small consolation.

But the word that Paul uses here is actually a powerful word that means something like strength, encouragement, comfort.  When you have suffered affliction, when you have endured suffering, consolation is no small thing.  Encouragement and strength and comfort are not small things.

There was a 60 Minutes segment last Sunday night about a very promising treatment for glioblastoma, an especially virulent form of brain cancer.  The bold treatment at Duke University involves using the polio virus to attack the tumor.  It sounds crazy at first, but the polio virus has been re-engineered so that it can’t replicate in normal cells – it won’t paralyze a person.  But in cancer cells it does replicate, and it leaves behind a toxin that kills the cancer cells.

In 2011, Stephanie Lipscomb was a nursing student suffering from headaches.  A doctor told her she had a glioblastoma tumor the size of a tennis ball.  She had 98% of the tumor removed, as much radiation as a person can have in a lifetime, and chemotherapy.  But before long, the cancer was back.  There was no treatment for recurrent glioblastoma.  It is a hard thing to be 20 years old and told that you have but months to live.  

The only option was one that had never been tried – on anyone - but she felt like there was nothing to lose.  So Stephanie was the very first person to receive the experimental treatment.  She received the treatment in May, and by July the tumor looked bigger.  The doctor wanted to stop the treatment, but Stephanie said no, she wanted to continue.  As it turned out, the tumor was actually shrinking.  The MRI only looked worse because the presence of the polio virus had caused her immune system to wake up and go to war.  What they saw on the MRI was inflammation from her immune system fighting the tumor.  

Stephanie is now cancer-free.  No one could have imagined that outcome.  Nobody expects a cure in a Phase 1 study.  All you are trying to do is find the right dose and if a patient lives longer or has a better quality of life, that’s gravy.  This kind of a result in a patient with this kind of cancer was completely unheard of.

Scott Pelley did the interview with Stephanie.  She has completed her studies and is now working as a nurse.  Pelley asked how this experience had made her a better nurse.   She said that she can talk to her patients and tell them, “Look, I’ve been in the hospital; I’ve been sick like this.”  As she shares her experience, she said she can just see the hope in her patients’ eyes.

Vice-President Joe Biden is focusing a lot of effort on the fight against cancer.  He visited Duke to learn firsthand about this novel and very promising treatment that could potentially work against a whole range of cancers.  As part of his visit he had the chance to meet Stephanie.  She told him that she was the first person to get the polio treatment.  He took her hand and told her that his son had died of the very same cancer.  She said that she could feel the mourning for his son, but she could also see the love and the hope he had for cancer patients and how much it meant for him to see someone like her surviving and thriving and living their life.

Pelley asked Stephanie where she wanted to take her nursing career.  She said that she wanted to do pediatric oncology – to work with kids with cancer.  She said, “I was 20 when I was diagnosed.  I wasn’t completely an adult.  And I absolutely love kids.  With this unique experience of surviving Stage IV cancer in my brain, if I don’t do this, then it’s kinda like a waste.  A waste of being cancer-free.”  From helping kids with cancer to bringing consolation to the vice-president, this young woman has used her experience to offer comfort and encouragement.

Paul speaks of mutual encouragement within the church.  Christ’s sufferings on our behalf bring us consolation.  Because Paul had suffered affliction, he was able to bring consolation to other who were suffering.  Because God had brought them through hardship and suffering, there was hope for others. 

And Paul is very honest here; he says that there was a point when “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”  That is pretty low, friends, but many of us have been there.  Yet through the grace of God and through the consolation that we may offer to one another, we can still cling to hope even in the toughest of times.

Stephanie Lipscomb said that to not use her experience as a Stage IV brain cancer survivor would be “a waste of being cancer-free.”  We may not have that kind of dramatic experience, but we can all use the experiences we have had, our sufferings and our afflictions, as Paul puts it, to bring consolation and encouragement to others.

It may be as simple as sharing with a younger student how you survived Physical Chemistry or Anatomy and Physiology or English Literature.  It may be as simple as commiserating with someone over car repairs or water in their basement or a bad knee, or letting the overbusy working parent know that you have been there and offer to lend a hand, or lend an ear. 

There is a reason groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have sponsors.  You are paired with someone who has been there, who has gone through what you are going through.

Some of us have lost parents.  Some of us have lost children.  Some of us have lost spouses.  Some of us have been through divorce.  Some of us have had our parents divorce.  Some of us have lost jobs.  Some of us have faced serious illness.  Some of us have tried to do the right thing, tried to do the Christ-like thing and we only seem to get grief for it.  Some of us have been the object of bullying.  Some of us have had struggles in life for all kinds of reasons.

Through all of this, God has been there.  God has seen us through, even through those times when we were “so utterly crushed that we despaired of life itself,” as Paul puts it.  And out of the consolation we have received, even the consolation that can seem slow in coming, we are able to offer consolation – to offer strength and encouragement and hope to others.  To do otherwise, as that young cancer survivor said, would be a waste of our pain and struggles.

It’s not simply that we can bring comfort to those going through the same struggles we have experienced.  By God’s grace, all of our suffering, all of our pain, can change us, and we can become more caring, more empathetic, more sensitive to the hurt that is around us, whether we have had the same experience or not.

Jeff is a friend of mine from seminary days.  He was in a terrible automobile accident several weeks ago.  He had fractures and injuries in various parts of his body, and it could have been a lot worse.  After a few weeks in the hospital and a rehab center he was able to go home.  He was out in the driveway when an 11 year old neighbor girl came over.  She said that she and her family were worried about him after hearing about his wreck and she said how happy she was that he was still alive.  She also told Jeff that her family had been praying for him.

I don’t have to tell you that this young neighbor brought a whole lot of comfort and encouragement.  And that is what the church is called to do.  This letter of Paul offers us ways to live out our lives together as a community of faith.  One of those keys to Christian community is consolation – offering strength and encouragement and comfort to one another.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in our affliction so that we may be able to console others.”  Amen.

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