By Pastor Bryan Niebanck
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.Psalm 30:5
You are walking through a busy city. There are tons of people and lots of things going on every way you look. Have you ever heard or said the words “Stick together,” said by a parent or group leader who does not want to lose anyone? If you do not stick together, it is easy to lose the people you know in such a big crowd.
Or maybe you are on a hiking trip. Some in your group are relatively fast hikers. Others are a bit slower. Would you allow the fast hikers to go out in front and have the slowest ones take up the rear? Most of the time, it will be best for the group to stick together. The slowest person leads the pack so that no one gets separated. On occasion, if you have a large enough group, you can form two groups, but generally, you want to know where everyone is at all times and the best way to do that is to stick together. Then you won’t end up taking two distinct but different forks in the road somewhere up the trail, like what happened on one of my college mission trips. As we were driving down Interstate 87 from Albany, New York, we had to merge onto Interstate 95 to drive south toward North Carolina. Well, we were in two cars, and one car thought you had to go north on I-95 to get to North Carolina. The car I was in went south. After we had been waiting at our next check in point for a half hour with no sign of the other car, we thought that there might be something up. Had we been in sight of each other, that mistake likely would not have been made.
We have seen the faith and doubt of the disciples, especially in the case of doubting Thomas. But did you notice something else spectacular about the story of the Resurrection? Even though they were afraid, they chose to stick together. We like to criticize them for not having a stronger faith. But they did not end up running away to their former lives as fisherman, tax collectors, or whatever else they were. Even though they risked being caught by the Jewish authorities, they stuck together. This is actually a wonderful example for today’s faithful generation. Many are all too ready to throw away a relationship if there is a bit of disagreement. Parishioners leave a church after decades of attending because they do not like the current pastor or they had a fight with someone in the church. In doing so, they also dispose of the positive relationships they had formed, both with God and with others in the church. The covid-19 pandemic taught us a bit about relationships too; when the ability to meet together way taken away, we all realized how much we missed it. We would not have had church as we know it if the disciples had not overcome their fear and stayed to figure things out. We would not have church if they had been so quick to leave after their leader was seemingly defeated. We would not have had church as we know it if the disciples had listened to the pressures of the world. They believed even when all else seemed to contradict it.
They believed even when Saul, one of the most prominent persecutors of the early Christian church, came to them with Ananias in Damascus. They stuck together and were able to do a very hard thing: “For several days Saul was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” (Acts 9:19-20). They forgave their mortal enemy and taught him about Jesus. They were able to trust God because they were all still together. When we stick together, we are stronger. We can help each other try to understand.
Have you tried to deal with something all on your own? Perhaps you are ashamed of it so you do not want to admit it. Perhaps you just are convinced that you are the only one who struggles with whatever it is. Maybe you are too occupied with it to talk about it. Whatever the reason, all of us have done this from time to time. We keep it to ourselves. We try to deal with it on our own. If we do not resolve it relatively quickly, it starts to occupy our minds. It is often not truly resolved until you confide with a trusted person. I am sure if the disciples started to think about everything that happened on their own terms, each one would find something to blame himself for. But together, they can share the burden. They can affirm each other, tell each other that they are not the only ones, and work together to figure out what is next.
First, we should stick together as Christians because we are given that example through the disciples in the Bible. They are a model for our Christian lives, imperfect though they may be. Second, we should remain together so that we can be stronger together, affirming one another and growing past our own self-criticisms. Third, and most importantly, it allows us to move beyond ourselves so that we can keep doing ministry.
The book group has been studying Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner has reviewed a variety of reasons why we justify God allowing suffering in the world. You may recognize or relate to some of them: “I’ve sinned and I deserve this punishment.” “It is not for us to question God.” “God is teaching me something through this suffering.” God never sends you more than you can bear.” “He is in a better place now; God needed another angel in heaven.” None of these are entirely comforting to the bereaved – to someone who is grieving the loss of a big part of their life. Why would God cause or even allow some pain for one person, and prevent it in another case? The answer is in spiritual warfare. Maybe God does not cause or want to allow any suffering. In the book of Job, we are told about God wrestling with a Leviathan, which is a big beast (Job 41). Although God is ultimately the victor, God does not win easily. The same is the case here. God will be the ultimate victor, but Satan puts up a good fight. God has wins and losses; those wins are the little miracles that we celebrate, but the losses are those where God grieves with us. God is not picking and choosing because God loves us all. Ultimately, God wants to stick with us, and to have us stick with Him. Too often, the existence of suffering blinds people to the possibility of an existence of a just and good God. But our very own parents can be just and good, and still not prevent us from suffering or even from tragedy befalling us. This is not to answer for all time the problem of evil and suffering in the world, but it is to say that just like the disciples chose to stick with each other in a confusing time, and perhaps their greatest time of trial, we should stick with God through our own greatest trials – perhaps especially through them. God cares first and foremost not how far we are away from God in our faith and our trust in Him, but what direction we are facing. As long as we are facing God – turning to God in every circumstance – it does not matter whether our faith is the size of a mustard seed or the size of a mountain. Even faith the side of a mustard seed can move mountains. And further, as our Association Minister Dan Busch preached about yesterday at the annual meeting, doubt is a part of our faith journey. It was a part of the disciples’ journey. And it is also a part of ours. The Easter season – those fifty days between the Resurrection and that first day where the church actually began – which we call Pentecost, is the season of moving through doubt to come to believe. It is learning to trust God even when we do not find everything as we dreamed it would be. That’s exactly the journey that the disciples are making. It is why they trusted God when they were told to teach Saul, who had done nothing but persecute the church. It is why, when Jesus told the disciples to cast the net over the boat one more time, after they had had no luck all night and they were tired and frustrated, they obliged. It is why the Psalmist in Psalm 30 writes, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
“The initial story in the John reading might remind us of numerous invitations to “launch out into the deep” and not to give up “when you’ve toiled all night and caught nothing.” … But Jesus is not done. The summons to try again isn’t just for the fish in the sea. We rally at the possibility of Jesus coming through when we have tried and fallen short, but what is to be said when we have left the work unfinished? How many “good Christian soldiers” have received the initial call, only to be assaulted by life and circumstances and to go AWOL?” ~ Kiki Barnes, Christian Century (AWOL: Absent from where one should be but without intent to desert)
What is to be said is that, Jesus tells us to try again. Cast the nets over another time. Trust that God is still our helper. And when you are discouraged, take it to God. Take it to each other. Stick together. For God fights for us. God loves us. And God grieves with us when it does not go right. May all glory and honor be to God! Thanks be to God! Amen.
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
9:2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
9:3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
9:4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
9:5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
9:6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
9:8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
9:11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,
9:12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”
9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;
9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;
9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
9:17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,
9:19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
9:20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
30:1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
30:2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
30:3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
30:4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
30:5 For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
30:6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
30:7 By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
30:8 To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication:
30:9 “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
30:10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!”
30:11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
30:12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
21:1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.
21:2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.
21:3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
21:4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
21:5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”
21:6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
21:7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.
21:8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
21:9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.
21:10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”
21:11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.
21:12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.
21:13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.
21:14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
21:15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
21:16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
21:17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
21:18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
21:19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”