Monday, December 19, 2011

Thanksgiving in the Midst of Suffering

A Meditation on 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 preached in Cagayan de Oro.

Today we are gathered here as family and friends to celebrate Christmas, the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and also to offer our thanksgiving and praise for the goodness of the Lord in our lives especially in the lives of Tita Phoebe and Tito Rod. Our scripture text this morning is a letter from Paul to the Corinthians and it begins with words of thanksgiving and praise. In the New International Version, it says in verse 3 – Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We often see the opening letters of Paul with words of thanks and praise to God. But in this letter, we see after the words of thanks are words like suffering and affliction. It is often very difficult to see praise and thanksgiving with suffering and pain put in the same sentence. But such is the letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Paul was at that time was suffering, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually like most of us today. We are troubled with physical illnesses, some of us may be having problems – in work, in our relationships, some emotionally – we are depressed, sad and even angry.

I. There is suffering because of brokenness

The first thing that we should consider in this letter is the recognition of Paul about the reality of suffering and affliction in our lives. When I was a student Pastor in the US, I was tasked to reply to a letter from a youth church member. She had bone cancer in the age of 17. And her letter basically asked the question why? I would like to read an excerpt and the message of my reply to her.

Letter: Dear Rachel,

… God loves you. And all of us do. You have every right to ask questions about your illness. Why you? And why at such a young age? But I am afraid I don’t have all the answers. All I know is that we live in a broken world, where accidents, problems and diseases exist. But all these do not prevent God from loving you…

The letter reminds us about the reality that we live in a broken world. In a world where accidents happen, tragedies occur and suffering is present. The flash flood that killed several hundred people and destroyed millions in properties is the result of our sinful stewardship and brokenness.

II. God comforts us in our suffering

Paul reminds us that God is the father of all mercies and the God of all comfort. The Greek word for comfort is “paraclesis.” This is the root word of the word “paraclete.” Remember in John 14:16, Jesus said that I will pray to the Father that he will send you a Paraclete, that will be with you forever.” That is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is with us forever, to bring us comfort especially when we need it.

But aside from the Holy Spirit, God also embraces us with his comfort and love in our times of suffering through other people. In verse 4, Paul tells us that God comforst us in all our afflictions that we may comfort others who are also afflicted. God uses other people to comfort us.

Example: one of the ministry of the church is the ministry of presence. There is a Stephen ministry – whose ministry is to be present whenever people are in need. Mother Teresa once said when asked, why do you do what you do? She replied, “we are the body of Christ – we must be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ in this world.” We must be the hands and feet of Jesus to provide care and comfort especially those who are abandoned

What kind of comfort do we receive?

III. Comfort that gives us hope/endure suffering

Too often, when we are experiencing difficulties in our lives, we want comfort. But the comfort that we want is to be spared from the pain we might experience. That is almost human nature. Even Jesus, in his humanness prayed when he knew that he was going to suffer and die that his cup be taken from him. But that is looking at the cup half-empty. That is being pessimistic. Too often, our pain blinds us to see the brighter side. But the bright side is too difficult to see especially in troubled times. But that is where we see hope. My professor once said that hope is hope when there is nothing left. It’s like being locked and trapped inside a room with no chance to go out. When it becomes impossible to get out of the room, when nothing is possible… there is hope. Such is the comfort we receive from God. Comforts that help us endure the challenges and gives us hope to continue fighting.

This comfort gives us hope, hope that helps us endure suffering. Endurance is very important as it allows us to withstand any challenge regardless if it

Example is a runner of marathon and sprint. A sprinter can run the 100m dash but may never complete a marathon. The difference is that the sprinter can run fast and finish the race in a few seconds but may never cross the finish line in a marathon. Only the marathon runner has the endurance to finish several kilometres of running in the shortest time possible. That is our comfort from God, a comfort that gives us endurance to face suffering.

IV. God’s comfort to us makes us a blessing to others

Even in the challenges that we face, even in our sufferings and pain we are still called to be a blessing to others. We are not to be self-centered.

Sometimes, our difficulties narrow our vision to look only into ourselves. This self-centeredness even leads us to the point of self-pity. But self-pity leads us to. In fact, the situation we are in gives us the opportunity to receive the comfort of God. The comfort of God in the midst of our suffering calls for us to be a blessing to others. In verse 6, Paul reminds us that “if we are comforted, it is for your comfort.”

The good news my dear brothers and sisters, is that even in our suffering God is our paraclete, God is our comfort. That is reason enough to give thanks and praise to God.

As Christians, we are not exempted from suffering and pain. But in our suffering we receive God’s comfort and become channels of blessing and comfort. The challenge for us this morning, have we become blessings to others because of the comfort we received in our sufferings and pain? In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sinmbang Gabi

A Sermon on the Gospel of Mark 5:25-34 preached in Davao City, Cathedral United Methodist Church.

A Future with Hope is Coming

By Neki Soriano, MD

It is nice to be back here in Central UMC. It is always nice to be back here in Davao City. I always have to wait for one year before I can have a reason to come back home. Waiting for that one year is almost forever. But I always anticipate this moment. I always wait for this one moment in time when I can be together with my family and friends. Despite waiting for one year, I am always hopeful that this time will come and it will be a joyful occasion Advent is like that. We anticipate – we wait for the coming of the king, we wait to see our Lord and Master and be in his presence and we hope that when that time comes it will be a wonderful event. We wait and hope for the best. This is the same hopeful waiting that the woman in our Gospel text experienced.

We read about a woman who has been bleeding for a long time. She is bleeding. “Dinudugo siya!” Eh di may regla. That is common among women. So it should be nothing unusual for her. But this is not menstruation. This is not a usual problem for her. But she had been bleeding for years. Hindi naman sinabi kung saan ang pagdurugo niya. And so the doctor in me naturally thought that this was a case of Abnormal Uterine Bleeding. Most probably this was cancer and it was probably at the end stage. But the woman is not just suffering from cancer. She was suffering more than that. During those times, bleeding was a sign of uncleanliness. So the bleeding woman is reckoned to be unclean. And she knows it. People think it too. The woman who is bleeding is unclean, and unclean people should be shunned away by the society, rejected, and discriminated. People look at her in an indifferent way. More than the physical pain she was suffering, she could be hurting inside her heart. People hate her. People don’t like her. And people say all the bad things about her behind her back.

I remembered one friend of mine from college who became very sick. He was very thin, he was weak and he was sickly. For almost two years, he goes in and out in the hospital for treatment of different kind of infections. He was bisexual but he was a decent man and he continued to go to work in one of the offices here in Davao despite being sickly. But two months ago, he became very ill. He was immunocompromised and people are having opinions on why he was immunocompromised. His officemates began to distance themselves from him. People did not want to associate with him. Even his family wanted him out of their house. So he went to Manila to seek help and he was admitted in one of the hospitals there. He eventually died of complications of a rare form of pneumonia. This was the same treatment that this woman was experiencing. She was being rejected.

And so what the bleeding woman did was do everything possible in her human effort to find a solution to her problem. She did it her own way. So she consulted every doctor she knew. The gospel text said that she spent all her money and properties just so she can cure her illness. But obviously it did not treat the problem. In fact her condition worsened.

I was trying to imagine and understand her situation. I thought she could be like my friend who wanted to be rich. He was a proud man. He wanted to do things on his own. So he borrowed some money from his father to start his own internet business. He had a sister who was a business degree and wanted to help him in his business. But he thought he can do it on his own. His sister got upset and so was their parents that their family relationship suffered. Aside from that, my friend did not also want his wife to be working nor be involved in any of his business. His wife was so hurt to not trust her in matters that affect their family that she left him. In short, he was his own boss. Because his argument was that, he was a lucky man and with his luck and his own efforts he can succed. He can do everything on his own. Because he was self-centered his business did not click. He is now bankrupt, his family is angry at him and his wife left him. He lost everything all because he put his trust in the wrong places. Just like the woman in our story.

So for twelve years, she has been miserable. This is a common human response. Whenever we are faced with a problem, we immediately try to find a solution – on our own efforts. We try to spend all our efforts and resources in finding a solution. But we never ever ask for God’s help. We are too proud for that. We think we can do it on our own.

In the hospital, many people go to the doctors to seek help. The doctors are very willing to help them of course. The patient goes to the doctor and they say, “gawin nyo po ang lahat ng makakaya ninyo para pagalinging ako.” Gawin nyo lahat ng makakaya ninyo – lahat ng makakaya ng doctor. Of course, the arrogant doctor will say, I will do all that I can. But that is just human effort. The doctor will do everything he can but that will just be human effort. But a greater healing will happen if God is at work. But we all know that medicine, the doctors, the nurses are nothing but God’s instrument of healing. They are not the ones who will treat the disease. It is God who does the work. And so the doctors were not able to cure her. And for twelve long years, she suffered.

I want you to experience her suffering, her suffering for twelve long years. She did not only suffer physical discomfort, she also suffered mental anguish and emotional pain, does she have family? Where are they? If she had a family, they must have abandoned her because she was unclean – she is sinful. A woman who is already suffering physically gets more insult to he injury by being rejected by her family and the society giving her psychoemotional pain.

And it did not last for one day, not even one week, it was more than a month, matatapos din yan… it was more than a year, imagine a chile growing a year older… but the pain and anguish is still there… for twelve years… graduate na ng elementary and highschool yung bata… you are still being rejected and discriminated. Ganun katagal. This is her condition. This is the moment when she was desperate to find any means to end her suffering. And then she heard about Jesus.

Jesus was coming to town. And so she thought. This Jesus is known to make miracles happen. In a desperate move, she thinks that this Jesus can help her. So she said, I will go and touch his garment. Because even touching it will heal me. She had so much faith that Jesus can heal her. She was full of hope that finally, she will be cured from all her diseases.

This is our hope this advent season – we will be made whole when Jesus comes. And Jesus is coming. Jesus is our hope. Hope is coming. Our future is with Hope.

The good news my dear brothers and sisters is Jesus is coming to town. Yes, Jesus is coming to town, that is the meaning of Advent. When he comes, we can touch him and we will be made whole again.

Sometimes we may be like the crowd who are near Jesus, they may be even rubbing elbows with him, but we need to touch him and through faith receive his power to be made whole again. We need to touch him, attach with him, join him and be with him that we may be made whole. To touch Jesus means to be like him. To be attach with Jesus is to be Christ-like in everything aspect of our life. To join Jesus and be with him is to walk in Christian perfection. The challenge for us this advent season, are we touching Jesus? Are we walking toward Christ-likeness? Are we moving towards Christian perfection in what we think, say and do? Jesus is coming to town and like the woman, let us have the desire to touch and attach with Jesus – to walk in Christ-likeness towards wholeness and Christian perfection. When Jesus comes, when Hope is here, it will be a joyful and glorious occasion. In the name of the Father, of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mary and Elizabeth

Lectionary: Luke 1:26-38

What does it mean to read a story of a virgin woman and a barren woman in the same thread?

Both women are, medically speaking, unable to become pregnant because of biological reasons. But as God always humors us with his miracles - it happened beyond human comprehension.

I was reflecting what a virgin woman was thinking when she was told that she is pregnant. Again, I thought, what did a barren lady thought when she was told that she too is pregnant. Probably they reacted the same way - disbelief with a little annoyance that to this seemingly irresponsible joke. But if it were to be true, since it was an Angel who was cracking this joke to them, how can this become reasonable?

This is what most of the readers would probably jump into after reading the story. All our reasonable mind would like to do is find a logical explanation to this phenomena. Our suspicious minds digs into our scientific side to find an answer to our question. How can a virgin, a barren woman become pregnant?

Maybe.. Thus begins our formulation of a hypothesis how things happen. Maybe the virgin woman was implanted in vitro. The barren woman was artificially inseminated. Or maybe, the easiest way out is to think that the virgin was not a virgin and the barren was not a barren. That is almost blasphemy though.

Why do we even have to ask how? Cannot our human mind accept the what is incomprehensible? How about our heart? Can we not believe that what is impossible with humans is possible with God?

Being trained in the scientific ways and thinking is not an excuse for us to prevent God from being God. I still see everyday miracles happen and I know God is at work. This Christmas, when I see a very selfish and arrogant co-worker voluntarily bringing in some new toys to donate to street children, I know that the God of Mary and Elizabeth is working another miracle.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

How do you prepare for Baptism, really?

How do you prepare for a baptism? If the fanfare is a measure of preparation for how big and important an event is, then the baptism I witnessed this morning is not even a sideshow. This morning, an infant baptism took place during the worship service. Thank goodness that the baptism was done within the worship service. It was also good to have the Holy Communion and Baptism, the only two sacraments in UMC, done in one worship service. In that respect, nothing could be said further about the theological appropriateness of celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism.

But the preparation for the baptism of the child was lacking. I doubt the amount of effort the Pastor and the parents gave in preparation of this baptism. A three day notice and the manner it was done today are telling of the people's understanding of baptism. The amount of preparation one gives to an event equates to the importance of that event to the person. For example, the "big day" for almost all ladies is their wedding day. The preparation for such event takes several months if not years. Even before the girl meets his perfect "prince charming", she already has planned in her imaginative mind her dream wedding. The big event for ladies calls for a thorough check of the location, designing the color coded gowns, sending out the invitations with RSVPs, practicing the vows and other speeches and making sure that the minutest detail of the event is not left to chance. Because the big event happens is supposed to happen only once in a lifetime, it should be perfect. I hope we can say the same way with how we prepare with baptisms.

Baptisms only happen once in our life. To be sure, the amount of celebration and preparation is not a measure of the grace we receive from God. But the importance we give to an outward even of an inward grace is a mark of how well we understand and give meaning to the sacraments we celebrate. A diamond is nothing but a sparkling stone to someone who does not understand its value. As Christians and United Methodist, let us responsibly learn what is important in our faith and beliefs so we can prepare for it. Just like this Advent season, when we prepare for something that is very important to us. We know preparation helps us to be ready for a special event. Let us teach one another to prepare properly and have a Wesleyan understanding of baptism. For we were all baptized and in our baptism we received the same calling from God.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

December and Advent

It is already December and Christmas is just a few days away. Christmas decors have been put up in the offices and homes, the streets are lined with Christmas lanterns, and Christmas songs can be heard playing on radio. But not everyone had their Christmas decors ready. We don't have it in our house, we don't have it in our office. We are too busy to do that. Because we are waiting for the perfect time to do all that.

Today is Advent season. We are now in the second week of waiting. But we even forgot to prepare our Advent candles. Because we have been busy waiting for the perfect moment to make our preparations. Now trhat the Advent time is here, we could not light our own candles. Because we waited but did nothing.

The waiting season of Advent this December is not a passive activity of doing nothing. John Wesley gave serious thought about what waiting for Christ means. He realized waiting involves doing something. Wesley's understanding of actively waiting even put him at odds with his friends. Waiting for the coming of the Messiah is not patiently sitting in the couch and praying something will happen. Waiting demands action. It means taking time to do the work of Christ-reaching out in love to others. It means 'sharing the Gospel, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the sick.' Waiting means getting up from that couch, picking up the lantern and start decorating the Christmas tree.