Comfort for Those Who Suffer

2 Corinthians 1:3-11                                                          Stephen Ministry Sunday

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                          16 August 2015

 Jesus was near to those who suffer.   He spent more time in one-on-one conversation with the woman at the well than anyone else when you look at the number of verses given to that story.   He wanted to talk to the children, not just their parents.   He was not afraid to touch those who had leprosy and those struggling with mental illnesses of many types.   Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.  (Matthew 5) He said, the Advocate/Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14)  He said, Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.  (Matthew 7:1-2) When Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.   (Matthew 18:21-22)  When Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.  (Mark 6:34)  Christ suffered for us and Christ offered comfort to those who suffered.  

 We modern people have a hard time with inevitability of suffering.   We want to be immune to it.   In the opening of his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is defending his apostolic authority by speaking about the value of suffering, as it allows us to be comforted by God and then to be comforters of others who suffer.   You see, the Corinthians, like many of us think suffering is all bad and must surely be a sign God doesn’t care or isn’t powerful.  But Paul seems to always see a purpose for suffering, not a simple answer, cliché type of purpose, but a deeper, more mysterious purpose.   He says just as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so also his comfort.   Paul’s words are legitimate because he speaks as one who is suffering.   He uses the Greek word parakaleio in its noun and verb forms ten times in this passage we are about to read.   The New Revised Standard Version translates the words as console and consolation, but I don’t think consolation speaks as deeply to us as the word “comfort” so we are reading the New International Version today.    Comfort for our troubles, rather than consolation for our afflictions.  Good reminder to read more than one translation of the Bible when you are seeking to understand the meaning of a passage of scripture.   Listen now for the Spirit of truth:  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. 8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (NIV)  

Life is hard!   We start life by wailing, and most of us die needing pain medication to keep us from wailing.  And in between birth and death, we have some tough stuff to endure.   Disappointments and dreams deferred.   Griefs, losses, betrayals, insults, and unfair, bitter pills of every kind.  

 Let’s just think about life’s decades starting with age seven.  At seven you want to be able to do things – like ride a bike and read a book and catch a ball and be a leader.   But often times people whom you call friends do these things better than you do and they make fun of you for your mistakes.   That hurts.   At seventeen, your critics and judges are even harsher, and there are pressures of all kinds to make good grades, get a first job, choose a college, manage your social life, and keep the parents from micro-managing your life.  

At twenty-seven, you are on your own now, making big decisions about career and marriage and there might even be babies coming soon.  At thirty-seven, many are struggling to balance career and kids.  The demands of young children put pressure on marriages and friendships.   You begin to see the consequences of earlier decisions.  At forty-seven, you might have teens challenging your assumptions at every turn.  You might feel like everyone but you is consumed with their kids.  Add to that the responsibility you are now feeling for your parents’ well-being.   At fifty-seven, you’d better be at your best in your career and have a plan for retirement or else.   You may have significant health concerns and adult children with struggles that you cannot bandage.   At sixty-seven, your body definitely shows some wear and tear.   You have to figure out who to be in retirement.   Add grandchildren and nieces and nephews to your worries.  At seventy-seven, you sometimes question your ability to accomplish things; mental and physical slippage cause you to make many adjustments.   At eighty-seven, all your contemporaries begin to die and you might feel rather lonely and without much control.   At ninety-seven people are amazed you are still alive, but sometimes you wish you might be relieved of the burdens, aches, and pains of this life.

 Every stage of life has its challenges.  And each stage, we need to know the comfort of the God who is with us when we suffer.   Now add to the average stress of each phase of life, a serious illness or accident; a death in the family or to a close friend; a child with special needs or painful challenges; a separation, marriage partners growing in different directions, a divorce; a job-change or move to a new city; the rupture of a friendship; a serious failure or infidelity of any kind; financial stress or a bankruptcy or foreclosure or high credit debt.

 Life is a series of hardships.   If you have not suffered much, it is perhaps because you have not been in touch with the pain of the world all around you.   If you have suffered much, you have had opportunity (opportunity, I say) to deepen your dependence on God – such that you are walking through the dark, trusting the Lord alone to be the light of your soul.   Many people want to approach suffering with the question “why?” Our scripture tells us that we suffer so we can comfort others.  It builds empathy and strength, it calls us into closer relationship with one another and with God.

It helps us grow when we make room for the comforting, challenging presence of God and others.   Paul gives another reason for suffering.   He says he was utterly, unbearably crushed, despairing of life, thinking that he would die – so that he would rely not on himself but on God who raises the dead.  He says, if I am being troubled/stressed, it is for your comfort and salvation/healing/wholeness.   If I am being comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience WHEN you patiently endure.   Out of the deepest pain can emerge the greatest experiences of love.   Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsamane struggling to accept suffering – Take this cup from me.   But not my will, O God, YOURS.   As we walk through this journey of life with all its suffering, we are slowly but surely being conformed to the image of Christ who said, “Not my will, but Your, O God.”

 

Today we commission a new group of Stephen Ministers who are committed to being there for you, to listen to you, to be a comforting presence when you are struggling with Jesus to say, “Not my will, but yours, O God.”  In Biblical times there were professional mourners who would come to weep with you at the time of a death.   Stephen Ministers are skilled, caring listeners who come to help you sort through your troubles.  Stephen Ministers can help you to experience the comfort of Christ by being with you in your difficult days.   They do not come to offer solutions or cheap plateaus.   They come to listen, so you might find your way through with the help of a close friend.

All of us are called to the ministry of caregiving, but the people who will be commissioned today have spent many hours in training, and have committed to serve in an intentional process of Christian caregiving for the Peace congregation & Friends of Peace.   This means they will participate in monthly supervision and will be prepared to meet with a care receiver on a weekly basis, but only when you agree to do so.   It is a confidential relationship of care, more than a friendship, but less than a counseling relationship.    Hear more from this video (video)

 It takes courage to decide to become a Stephen Minister but it also takes courage to take on a Stephen Minister’s care.   By saying “yes” to having a Stephen Minister, you are being humble enough to admit that you need some support.   Many of us do not like to admit that we need support.  

When we offer you a Stephen Minister, it is not because we think you are so weak or helpless, that you will not make it without one.   No, we are simply hoping that by having one for a few weeks or many months, you will experience the love of God in a more tangible way.  I hope all of you will take a moment now to consider whether you would like a Stephen Minister.   There is a portion of the tear-off that you can use to request a Stephen Minister.   No one but I will know you are requesting this.   You can put it in the Peace mailbox or simply contact me.  You and I can confidentially discuss it with me before I assign you a confidential caregiver, but it is great when you take some initiative.   When you do accept the help of others, it makes us all a stronger, more authentic and caring church.   This goes back to the issue of vulnerability.   To receive help is to make yourself vulnerable enough to build this trusted relationship.   The song says well.   Will you let me be your servant?   Let me be as Christ to you.   Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.