“Spirit, Stress and Strength”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
Romans 5: 1-5
June 16, 2019
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5i
Have you ever seen the Holy Spirit? Remember last week? It was Pentecost and the reading from Acts talked about tongues of fire coming to rest over the disciples. I’ve never seen it. Or what of Moses and the burning bush left unconsumed. I have never seen that, either. Remember the prophet Isaiah who heard God’s voice calling to him and Isaiah answered. I’ve never heard the voice of God. But while I may not have seen tongues of fire, a burning bush or heard a voice from heaven, I have seen the Holy Spirit of God
The Holy Spirit did not descend like tongues of fire from heaven above, but reveled itself in the world here below. I have seen it in the mother of a man with Downs’ Syndrome whose ceaseless devotion and cheerful heart gave her son a longer life than most. I have witnessed it in the unflagging commitment of a man who created his own ministry of giving unwanted furniture and household goods to those less fortunate. I watched as his carport became an overflowing warehouse and his basement became filled with shelves holding dishes, pots, pans, bedding, towels and just about any other essential a home might need. I saw it in the loving devotion of a Church School teacher who took young adults who were cognitively delayed and offered them a place to learn, in words and deeds, of the love of Jesus. I saw it at work in a woman who volunteered to watch the two young children of a single mother so the mother could get a job. That single mother worked hard and became the nurse manager of a major hospital ward in Boston. I saw the Holy Spirit move in the life a man who obeyed the laws of this nation and how, after he came to know an immigrant from Nigeria and her two sons, laid the law aside and worked to insure her success supporting the church’s efforts to harbor an illegal alien who was escaping the violence of her own country. I have seen the Holy Spirit in the kindness shown to those who are broken and bruised in this church. Oh, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit.
And you? Have you seen the Holy Spirit, too? Sometimes this Spirit comes unbidden. I don’t think Saul wanted to be blinded as he journeyed to Damascus. I don’t think John Newton wanted to be converted from a slaver to an abolitionist. And we know Moses didn’t want to go to Pharaoh and work to set his people free. Yet Saul was blinded, Newton was converted and Moses stood before Pharaoh. Did Saul or John Newton or Moses ask for the Holy Spirit to shake their lives? No. Sometimes the Spirit of the living God comes unbidden.
And I don’t think this has to be a sudden transformation. You may have heard the John Newton who lived from 1725 to 1805 was the captain of a slave ship when he was converted to Christianity. The truth is somewhat different. Newton’s mother had taught him the Bible but she died when he was but 7 years-old. His father took on the role of parenting but at the age of 11 John Newton went to sea. He was, even by the standards of sailors at the time, coarse, crude and lived in debauchery. In his later teens, he was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. He hated the discipline and later deserted. He was caught, put in irons, flogged. He later convinced his superiors to release him into the service of a slave ship. He was treated so poorly by the ship’s captain that he had to beg for food. He was transferred from the slave ship to the Greyhound in 1747 and it was aboard this ship when a terrible and vicious storm descended with the crew’s survival very much in doubt. John Newton, facing the very real prospect of death remembered his mother’s teachings and turned his thoughts to God. He said of that event that, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.” Indeed, he later served as a mate and then as captain of a number of slave ships. It would take years before the Holy Spirit fully moved in his life and he renounced his past and became an abolitionist.
The Holy Spirit does not always come as a blinding light. It can have the same coercive character as salt. You can’t live in New England and not know what salt can do to the sheet metal of a car. I have had holes in the metal of several cars I’ve owned. What about you? Did it happen overnight? No. It was the cumulative effect of lengthy exposure to the brine that makes driving in winter possible. We are called the salt of the earth and we are to apply the coercive power of God‘s love to the power of hate, whether it be found in our own hearts or in the affairs of this world. You and I may not live to see the results of God’s salt applied to the wounds of this world but span the course of history and you will see that God’s love conquers hate. And while we are on this metaphor of salt, remember that it doesn’t get on your green beans until you use the saltshaker. It’s there on the kitchen counter, available for you and your guests, but unless we shake the shaker it will not flavor your food. Stay in prayer, practice spiritual disciplines, read the Bible, this is how you apply the salt of the Sprit and keep your focus not on the problems set before you, but on the power of God to overcome them.
If I have seen the Holy Spirit, I have also known stress. It seems to be ubiquitous. Is there anyone here this day who has not known how stress can dampen life’s joy and impair one’s health? This from the American Psychological Association in 2014:
Teens report that their stress level during the school year far exceeds what they believe to be healthy (5.8 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale) and tops adults’ average reported stress levels (5.8 for teens versus 5.1 for adults). Even during the summer — between Aug. 3 and Aug. 31, 2013, when interviewing took place — teens reported their stress during the past month at levels higher than what they believe is healthy (4.6 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale). Many teens also report feeling overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent) as a result of stress. More than one-third of teens report fatigue or feeling tired (36 percent) and nearly one-quarter of teens (23 percent) report skipping a meal due to stress.
So we must ask, is Paul right when he speaks of hardships and struggles building character? Are we asked to give thanks for what sounds like crippling stress among our young people? No. Paul is pointing the way to triumph over our hardships. The strength we gain is given by the gift of knowing the love of God. Paul was thrown into prison. Did he not know stress? Moses had to take on the power of a despot. Did he not know stress? Jeremiah had to deliver a hard message to a hard people. He was thrown into cisterns to die and ridiculed by those in power. Did he not know stress? They all did. They also knew the ultimate power of God and the problems that stood before them, would not stand. They found their strength in the loving spirit of God.
So one last thing I would ask of you this morning. Do not think of the love of God as some weak sentimental mush. It is far from soft and toothless. The love of God has led to the death of martyrs who would not let go of the plight of the poor and it led Jesus to the cross. The love of God is the strength in which we stand. There is nothing that can conquer you when the love of God is your motivation. Hold fast, then, to the God of heaven who loves you unconditionally and who will carry you through the struggles of life. Listen not to those who minimize the power of the Holy Spirit. Seek the Spirit’s presence and follow wherever it leads. In so doing, you find your power. Let us pray….
i Romans 5:1-5
1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.