Wednesday, March 30, 2016

An Easter Sermon from the Methodist Church

Rallying points

James Bhagwan
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
This year, Easter was observed at a time when many of our sister and brother Fijians are suffering from the impact of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston. Their experience, their despair, may have led them to ask the question, "Where is God?"
In his Easter message, Methodist Church President, Rev. Dr. Tevita Banivanua writes that Easter gives us an opportunity to ask and answer that question.
"In terms of the Easter event, we hear this question from Jesus Himself, on the cross as he cries out, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?". (Mark 15:34). Even the Son of God, who has the most intimate relationship, as part of the Trinity, with the Father, experiences this moment of separation from God, experiences a moment of asking God the Father, "where are you?" "why have you removed yourself from me?" In the aftermath of Cyclone Winston, many people have asked themselves and others, "where is God?" Some may have even asked, "is there God?"
Rev. Dr. Banivanua refers to the Judeo-Christian scriptural story of Job, which tells of a man who continues to trust in God's presence through all the calamities he face: his sons and daughters and servants a great amount of material wealth through natural disaster, human greed and disease. His wife loses faith, his friends ask, "where is God?" and think him insane for remaining faithful to God.
"Even Job begins to question God Himself and this is when God answers Job out of the whirlwind. What job's wife and friends all fail to recognise; what Job eventually understands - is that God was here from before the beginning of the world and is with him all along. It is God who is helping him endure in this crisis. God rewards Job for his faithfulness and his endurance through such suffering."
For the Methodist community in Fiji, as we journey through our New Exodus, the question of "Where is God?" will be one we will have to wrestle with on our journey to take our people of Fiji to the Kingdom of God.
In the event of Easter, we find that the disciples did not understand how God could be present in their difficulties. They did not want to see Jesus go to such difficulties. Perhaps they thought, "How could God possibly be present in such a terrible situation?"
They are moments when even Jesus seems to feel this sense of abandonment during his suffering on the cross. He moves from "Father forgive them…" to "my God, my God, why have you abandoned me," to his final words, spoken in a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!"
God was there! Through pain and struggle throughout Judeo-Christianity history, the question "where is God?" is a common expression of the human condition during trials and tribulation. Nevertheless it is a question always answered, with "I am here. I have been here. I will always be here."
John Wesley silently asked this question in the midst of a storm at sea between England and the American Colony of Georgia in 1736.
As he and many of the English passengers aboard screamed in terror that they would soon be swallowed by the deep, Wesley noticed that a group of Moravian missionaries from Germany calmly sang throughout the squall. They were unafraid of death, because of their faith.
Later, after his own personal conversion; during times of persecution, Wesley's faith in God's abiding presence gave him comfort and empowerment whenever he felt alone in his tribulations. Lying on his deathbed, he repeated the affirmation, "The best of all is that God is with us."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa once reflected on this very question of "where is God?" suggesting that the answer is not up there, but down here, because God is with us in the midst of our misery. He told the following story:
"You have probably heard the story of the little Jew in the concentration camp, humiliated and taunted by his Nazi guard. And one day he is asked to clean out the restrooms, and the Nazi guard standing above him taunts him, and says, "Where is your God now?" And the little Jew replied quietly, "He's right here with me in the muck."
The Archbishop Emeritus said that in South Africa, in the time of apartheid people would ask, "God, where are you? God, do you care? God, do you see?"
"And we would tell our people that wonderful story in the book of the prophet Daniel, of the God whose servants had been cast into a fiery furnace. And then, and then, God didn't stand at a safe distance giving useful advice — "Guys, when you go into a fire, it would probably be sensible to put on protective clothing." No, fantastically, God entered the fiery furnace, and was there side by side with God's servants in their anguish and agony, because this God was Emmanuel, "God with us," God with us in our suffering, in our oppression and in our anguish."
Rev. Banivanua writes that in our struggles in Fiji, going through a second month of a State of Disaster, we must remember that in all our difficulties, God is with us.
"We continue to hear the experiences of Cyclone Winston, of our brother and sister Fijians hiding under beds, hiding below the floor, hiding in a bush. Their minds, their faith and their thinking during this situation was most likely on "God help us," "where are you God?" This is because faith lived in real life for most Fijians. Yet we must all realise that the issue is not whether God was blowing these winds but that he is right there where the suffering is."
The chief shepherd of the Methodist community's hope is that after all we have gone through as a nation that we will affirm our faith; in the painful, dark, moments that are part and parcel of our life; we will remember that God is with us.
Rev. Dr. Banivanua suggests that Easter is not only about individuals in crisis but a faith community in crisis and that how that community responded almost two thousand years ago can teach us on how we respond as a larger community.
"The cross itself, signifying death and the empty tomb, signifying resurrection of Jesus was the rallying point for primitive Christianity. The cross and the empty tomb was what bonded the People of the Way into a community, and that has become the rallying point of facing difficulties throughout the Christian era. The faith of the people standing together; not in an individualistic way, but different people - poor and rich, high and low status, young and aged, men and women - rallying together to attempt to answer the cry of those in the most need. That was a sign of the togetherness of the community of faith."
"We need such a rallying point in our Fiji today. The local responses to Cyclone Winston is a demonstration of a sense of community that goes beyond denominational boundaries and even faith and has brought Christians and those of other religious communities to work together to provide for those in need. This communal aspect of our nation is our main strength and a source of unity."
"One thing that strikes me during our time of difficulty is how we as a faith community and how we as a nation have responded to this cyclone. Our sense of community, our sense of unity, of being our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper has brought men, women, aged and children together to help one another in such a time of difficulty. Our call to the whole Christian Church and to all religious organisations and faith communities is to stand together, stand alongside each other, in love, in honesty and in trust to serve those that are in need."

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