Can we be thankful?

Proper 16B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
August 22, 2021

“Who am I? Why am I here?” (Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale, Vice-President Debate, 1992). Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale sounded a little like Rumpelstiltskin waking up from a long nap. He was one of the most highly decorated officers in U.S. Navy history. Ross Perot chose him to be his running mate in 1992. But on stage at the nationally televised vice-presidential debate, he sounded just as bewildered as everyone else at why he was running.

Today, many of us feel as bewildered as Jim Stockdale at the daily diet of “oh, now what?’ news. I wonder is this us—the new normal? How did we get here? In today’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching provoked a similar crisis. Many turned back and no longer went about with him (John 6:66). His incendiary language about consuming flesh and blood went against a thousand years of biblical teaching. It was like fingernails on a chalkboard for many ancient Jews. Judas appears to have been among those who decided then and there to cash in his chips. Tell me, when you reach the end of your rope, what’s next?

Re-enter Admiral Stockdale who may not have been a successful politician, but who knew something profound about how to sustain hope and persistence that helps to unlock the meaning of our gospel today. In 1965 he ejected from his burning plane into enemy territory over North Vietnam. He was imprisoned for nearly eight years where he was routinely and brutally tortured. While there, he led a prisoner resistance movement and created a secret “code of conduct” that all prisoners pledged to uphold, including the “proper” response to torture.

He was released in February 1973—his body so broken that he could barely walk. He went on to continue his distinguished career in public service. When asked what kept him going, Stockdale responded: “I never lost faith in the end of the story…[he went on to say]…You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The redemptive tension required to meet brutal reality with sustained hope and faith in the future has been called the “Stockdale Paradox,” by author and business consultant Jim C. Collins. Collins went on to ask Stockdale what he thought was different about those who survived compared to those who didn’t. “Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale, “[they were] optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Optimism offers false hope because it is not married to “brutal reality.” To experience true freedom, it’s necessary for us to embrace both our brutal realities and our prevailing hope at the same time. Jesus, it turns out, lived in the tension of the Stockdale Paradox. He was always and everywhere exposing brutal realities while pressing forward into prevailing hopes. He blew the lid off the scandalous and humiliating secret life of “the woman at the well,” then offered her the “living water” her soul was desperately thirsty for (John 4:7-29). After his resurrection, he asked his closest friend Peter if he really loves him three times and followed each painful question with a life-giving invitation: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-18). The bread that came down from heaven, is not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).

“Following Jesus wholeheartedly means He’ll move us to face the “most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be” while holding onto our absolute certainty that we will “prevail in the end” through his love and grace. Many are familiar with the preamble to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer,” but few know well the “payload” portion of the prayer that follows. Here’s how it begins…”

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

But Niebuhr went further into Stockdale Paradox territory in the less familiar conclusion of his prayer…

“Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
Amen.”

Our serenity flows to us in the liminal space were brutal reality meets prevailing hope. We cup our hands to hold both truths—the truth of how things really are, and the truth of how things really will be—and eat and drink deeply. This is the bread of life, and the wine of new birth. (Quoted and adapted from an article by Rick Lawrence, Vibrant Faith Executive Director, titled The Stockdale Paradox, 8/20/21 taken from his book, The Jesus-Centered Life.)

Our gospel includes familiar words: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We often sing these words surrounded with alleluias before the reading of the gospel in worship. We go to Jesus the one who is both the end of and the beginning of our story.

This is how we persist in the face of pandemic, military collapse, humanitarian disasters, climate emergencies, systemic racism, and social injustice. This is how we listen to the stranger with open ears. This is how we forgive our enemies and be generous toward the poor. We stride toward the prize, not by our own strength, but by Christ incarnate in us—we literally enflesh and embody—the love of God that is in the world and for the world.

This love is glorious, and it is also a hard road. Jesus wants us to participate in transformation, beginning with ourselves. Who wants that? Such a transformation is too costly. Why can’t Jesus just do the good work in the world while we watch? The difference is between watching those in love and being in love. To follow Jesus is to give yourself over to falling in love to be a visible sign of God’s invisible grace (St. Augustine).