Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 26, 2014, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (Non-lectionary sermon)
Psalm 40:1-5, 16-17; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”
2 Corinthians 4:8-9

It’s not often you get to celebrate a 500th birthday — but that’s what we’re doing today,
with John Knox.

Actually, we’re not entirely sure when his birthday is. No records exist for the actual day, But the historians are pretty sure 1514 was the year. So, the suggestion has come down to us that we celebrate it on the Sunday closest to Reformation Day — so, here we are.

John Knox was the founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland. But he traveled a long road to get to that place in his life.

As a young man, he studied at the University of St. Andrews and was ordained a priest. He was so impressed by the early reformer George Wishart that he traveled with him throughout the country as his bodyguard, packing a two-handed sword. The authorities, led by Cardinal David Beaton of St. Andrews, began cracking down on the Scottish Protestants. Wishart was one of the Cardinal’s most wanted men. Knox was willing to be arrested with him, but Wishart sent him away, telling him to return to his earlier work tutoring sons of the Protestant nobility. Wishart said to him, “Nay, return to your bairns” [or children] “and God bless you. One is
sufficient for a sacrifice.”

Well, a sacrifice it was. Cardinal Beaton put Wishart on trial, after which he burned him at the stake, on a public street in St. Andrews. A cross in the paving-stones marks the spot, to this day.

The Scottish Reformation was a bloody business. Enraged at the execution of Wishart, a group of Protestant nobles conspired to kill the Cardinal in revenge. Two months later, they talked their way into St. Andrews Castle — where the Cardinal lived — murdered him, and hung his body outside a window of the Castle. Then, they hunkered down to await the inevitable reaction. John Knox came and joined them there, preaching Reformation in the Castle, and in the parish churches of St. Andrews

When the reaction came, a few months later, it came not from the Protestant King Henry VIII — who was happy to hear of the Cardinal’s death — but from the French. They sent a fleet to besiege the Castle, which sits on a bluff high above the North Sea. Knox and the other defenders were holed up inside, but they couldn’t withstand the bombardment from the French cannon. They surrendered, and were taken prisoner.

He and the others were sentenced to become slaves on French galleys.

A galley, as you may know, is a Navy ship powered not only by sails, but by the musclepower of slaves, who were chained to the oars. A drummer beat out a cadence, to keep them rowing in unison. An overseer walked up and down with a whip, beating the prisoners if they rowed too slowly.

For many men, the galleys were a death sentence. Only the strongest survived. Knox was one of those — although there was one time when his survival seemed to be in question.

He fell victim to a high fever, and in his weakened condition, his fellow slaves feared he was going to die. It so happened that their galley had traveled up from France, and was patrolling the Scottish coast. When they were anchored off St. Andrews, one of his fellow prisoners pointed out the spire of the parish church where Knox had once preached. He asked him if he recognized it. Indeed he did, Knox whispered back. And he promised he would not die until he preached there again.

He did recover, of course, and 19 months after the his ordeal began, the French released him, possibly as part of a prisoner exchange. He made his way to England, where he served various Protestant churches for a time, before traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, the city-state governed by the great Reformer, John Calvin.

Knox was mightily impressed by everything he saw in Geneva. He not only marveled at Calvin’s preaching, but also at the way the religious authorities governed the city (there was no such thing as separation of church and state, back then). He would later call Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ that was ever on earth since the days of the apostles.” Knox eventually became pastor of the English-speaking church in Geneva.

But the voice of his homeland continued to call to him. Knox returned, and quickly found himself at the heart of efforts to overthrow Mary of Guise, the French Catholic regent who ruled Scotland on behalf of her young daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. The efforts succeeded. Mary of Guise was overthrown, and her daughter Mary, by then a young woman, came to rule in her own right. A few years later, she too had to flee, after refusing to abandon her Roman Catholic faith. She ran to her cousin Elizabeth — daughter of Henry VIII – who had become Queen of England. Elizabeth — a Protestant — would later order her cousin executed by beheading.

Scotland had now become a Protestant, Presbyterian nation — at great cost in blood and toil. And John Knox had become its leading religious figure.

I’ve given you a lot of history here, in a very short time. But what I’d really like to focus on is that most difficult period in John Knox’s life — his 19 months of service as a galley slave.

When the French first sat him down on that bench and chained him to an oar, he had no expectation he would ever be released. He could hope for that outcome — and the record shows he did encourage his fellow slaves, telling them that, one day, they would all be exchanged for fellow prisoners — but he had no proof it would ever come about.

Think of the monotony of that existence: day after day, cringing at the incessant beat of the drum, heaving on that oar, hoping the overseer’s lash wouldn’t come down on his back. Surely he saw some of his fellow prisoners die at their oars, and witnessed their bodies being thrown overboard. How did he maintain his faith, in a system in which human life was as expendable as that? How did he keep his sanity? He was made of stern stuff, that John Knox!

Somewhere along the line an idea may have occurred to him, an idea that helped him focus his energies for the task ahead. This idea we would call today “the new normal.” Knox wouldn’t have known it by that name, but surely he would have gone through the same mental process to accept it the new reality of his life. It’s a mental transition just about anyone has to go through, to survive a protracted period of suffering or difficulty.

“The new normal” is a phrase that meant a lot to me, as I came to terms with my cancer diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, nearly nine years ago. You get a diagnosis like that, and there’s one thing you know for sure: your life will never be the same again. One day, you wake up healthy. The next, you’re carrying this terrible weight — and every time you look at yourself in the bathroom mirror, you remember it.

The same is true, by the way, for any crisis in life that brings major change: a job that disappears for good, a divorce — even the happier crises of kids leaving the nest, or retirement.

As I sat there at home, in the days of my disability — having lost my hair from the chemotherapy and feeling weak from the nausea — I reminded myself I was just living into the new normal, and that God had not abandoned me.

A scripture passage that meant a lot to me in those days were the great words of the Apostle Paul I read for you as our New Testament lesson today:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to
despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may
also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being
given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible
in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11)

Paul doesn’t mince words here. He’s not like those prosperity preachers you see on TV — who promise that if you just give your heart to Jesus, every good thing will come drifting down to you, that you’ll never have any pain or difficulty or heartache. ever again.

No, Paul is brutally realistic. Just look at the words he uses: “afflicted… perplexed… persecuted… struck down.” No hint of a prosperity gospel here: just a frank acknowledgment that life — for Christians as for any other person — is hard sometimes, very hard.

Yet, here’s the good news. Such affliction is not forever. Eventually we can grow to accept the new normal. We can claim it as our own. And we can come to realize that, while life may knock us down sometimes, it can never keep us down — not if we approach such obstacles with Christ by our side.

Paul goes on to speak of the death that will one day come to us all. To him, even the prospect of death is a new normal: for beyond it, by the grace of Jesus Christ, is the promise of resurrection. “Struck down, but not destroyed.”

There are lots of stories I could tell you, of Christians who find, amidst the new normal, a new strength for living. One that I like a whole lot is something written by a friend and colleague of mine, Father Paul Bresnahan — an Episcopal priest I used to work with, on a writing project. Paul was undergoing radiation treatments for prostate cancer. Here’s what he wrote about the experience:

Last week when I was called for a radiation treatment, I quipped: “My turn
to shine.” My companion for the day told me that the entire waiting room
erupted in laughter as I left the room. “Who is that man?” several asked.
“He is my parish priest,” was the proud answer. And thus the witness to
Jesus’ love and healing touch tickled those within the Cox Center for Cancer
Treatment at one of the world’s great hospitals.

Inside the treatment facility, as I lay on the table with a giant metal fork
rotating around me and beaming its rays within my body, I saw the hand of
God and sensed a healing touch within me. I saw no vision other than the
hand of science and medicine ministering to me out of the gifts God so
generously bestows upon the care giving community in my home city. The
beaming rays of radiation give me the gift of healing and of life, and I am
brim full of gratitude.

“Afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair.” This is exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m very aware — as I know many of you are — that this coming Wednesday is a very special anniversary for people who live in our part of the world. This Wednesday is the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. Two years ago today, life was pretty normal. There were some alarming weather reports about a hurricane forming in the South Atlantic, but most of us where hopeful it would give the Jersey Shore a wide berth, as so many other storms had.

Two years ago this coming Wednesday, most of us watched the lights go out — and stay out, for the better part of a week (for some of us, even longer). Do you remember what it was like — those of you who lived through it — sitting in the dark all those nights, with nothing but a flashlight or a lantern? The only news came by text message, or maybe a battery-powered radio. We couldn’t even turn on the TV to see the news reports all the rest of the country was seeing. I learned later that Al Roker was in town, right down on the boardwalk, standing there in the rain with his microphone and yellow raincoat. But we had no idea. We were cut off. Our world was what we could see from our front door.

Some of us were evacuated. We waited out the storm at someone else’s house, or maybe in a shelter. Others of us stayed at home, but had to get out quickly, once the waters entered the house.

My aunt and uncle in Toms River sat with their family on the second floor of their home of nearly 50 years, after fleeing upstairs when the waves started breaking into their living room. They sat there in the dark, wrapped in blankets, listening to the first-floor windows breaking, one by one. They had to be rescued by emergency vehicle. As for their home, the place of so many family celebrations, it’s no more. They hope to rebuild, with an elevated house. Two years later, they still haven’t broken ground.

I don’t think we get very far, as survivors, pretending bad things don’t happen to good people. They do, in this fallen world we all live in. Nor do I think God protects Christians from pain and struggle — just ask Paul, with all his talk of affliction and perplexity. But I know from experience that the Lord does give us what we need to get through such times: especially the skill of survivorship, built on the awareness and acceptance of the new normal.

Yes, there are losses in life. Accepting the new normal means bidding farewell to the old, knowing it may never return. John Knox learned to do that, chained to the oar of a French galley. My friend Paul Bresnahan learned it lying on a radiation table. Countless survivors of Sandy have had to say farewell to their old homes, but have learned to look forward rather than back, knowing that the life they are living is still a good life.

We Christians are a resurrection people. We know that out of death comes new life. Out of a shattered old normal comes a new normal. There’s still joy to be found, hope to be cherished, a resurrection faith that sustains and strengthens.

Even if the worst should come, God creates for us a new normal, a place of blessedness and joy!

Copyright © 2014, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.