Afflicted but Not Crushed

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

May 16, 2021

Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/924420098338906

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:7-10, 16-18

photo of graduates throwing caps into the air

Every time I preach on a graduation Sunday, I feel compelled to start my sermon as if I am a university commencement speaker.

So.

Faculty and staff, parents, families, friends, and distinguished guests (who wants to be my distinguished guest out there?), class of 2021, these are my words of advice and encouragement for you:

Do NOT be optimistic. I repeat. Do NOT be optimistic.

This week, I have been reading about “the Stockdale Paradox.” This idea is one featured in the book we’ve been exploring Good to Great by Jim Collins. Some of you might be familiar with this already. I’ve already spoken to one of you who told me you hate “the Stockdale Paradox,” so that bodes well for this sermon. But give me a chance.

Admiral James Stockdale was, according to Collins, “the highest-ranking United States military officer in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War.” [1] Stockdale was tortured over twenty times during his eight years as a POW. Collins writes, “Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoners’ rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again.” [2]

Also, as the highest-ranking officer, he had responsibility for the other prisoners in the camp. He carried the burden of wanting to ensure that as many of those prisoners survived as possible – that they were able to persevere and make it home to see their families as well. Stockdale helped them by instituting systems and protocols to help people deal with torture. He also created a system of communication, kind of like a morse code, to help people feel connected with one another and feel less alone and isolated. 

Collins writes, “At one point, during an imposed silence, the prisoners mopped and swept the central yard using the code, swish-swashing out “We love you” to Stockdale on the third anniversary of his being shot down.” [84]

Many years later, when Collins interviewed Stockdale about his experiences in captivity, Collins asked him, “Who didn’t make it out?” Who was not able to survive the physical and mental suffering of being in the Hanoi Hilton? Stockdale responded, “Oh, that’s easy…the optimists…they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas… ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.” [3] Then Christmas would come and go, and they would still be imprisoned. Stockdale said, “They died of a broken heart.”

As I said earlier, “Don’t be optimistic.”

Yet Stockdale and many prisoners survived. How? That’s the Stockdale Paradox. Even given the absolutely brutal facts of reality as a prisoner of war, Stockdale said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story…I never doubted that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.”

The Stockdale Paradox is this: confront the brutal facts, and never lose faith.

In our scripture today, the Apostle Paul also confronts the brutal facts. He writes that the early Christians are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. He writes this from his own experience of trying to spread the gospel in a hostile world. They have knocked him down, but he gets up over and over again. He does not pretend that the work is easy. It is not. There are many obstacles and roadblocks, and there is suffering.

Paul confronts the brutal reality of being a follower of Jesus…and the brutal reality of the human condition.

He owns it. He acknowledges that our bodies are a problem. They are subject to all sorts of decay. Our lives, our human experience is full of all sorts of challenges. The way he says it, the metaphor he uses, is that “we carry in the body the death of Jesus.” But we know that Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. We carry death and struggling in our bodies so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. That’s what Paul says.

We experience struggle and suffering in these bodies, and we experience hope and resurrection. That is because we have faith that God is with us, and we know that whatever struggles and obstacles we experience are worth it when we do so in pursuit of God’s dream for the world. Our bodies and our lives are a paradox. We are fallible, breakable clay jars (as Paul puts it), but we hold this extraordinary power that comes from God. It is the power to endure, and it is the power to make a difference in the lives of others – to transform the world. 

I think that nothing makes this paradox more-clear than the last year (and some change) of living during a global pandemic. We have had to confront some brutal facts, and we have made hard decisions that care for one another in light of those facts. I am so proud of this congregation who I feel has done an extraordinary job of engaging with the reality of the pandemic, making hard decisions to keep each other safe, and never losing faith. We have suffered. We have lost loved ones. Some of us have gotten ill and even now not fully recovered yet. We have lost the opportunity to worship how we would like, to see our friends how we would like. We’ve missed in-person school and graduations.

We were afflicted in every way. But we have not been crushed.

Was this, and is this coronavirus reality difficult? Yes! Life is filled with struggle. Those are the brutal facts. We carry in our bodies the death of Jesus. We also carry the hope of resurrection.

And here we are. The CDC has updated its masking and distancing guidelines for vaccinated people. We have confronted the brutal facts of this pandemic, and we are here to see the hope of a return to normalcy. The Reimagining Task Force will be meeting this week to discuss how we will continue to do this as people who confront the facts AND never lose faith.

Because while the brutal facts are brutal, they are not the whole story. Even those who we have lost this year go on to live. 

And so we love God and one another the best we can in the midst of the brutal facts, and we do not lose faith. Why? Because even as we acknowledge reality, we dwell in hope.

As the Apostle Paul writes, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.’”

So may we continue to not be unrealistically optimistic, but to confront the brutal facts, and keep our hearts fixed on the hope of God!

Thanks be to God.

Amen. 

[1] Jim Collins Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York: Harperscollins, 2001. p. 83

[2] Collins, p. 84.

[3] Colins, p. 85

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