by the Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Exodus 19:2-8; Psalm 100; Romans 5:1-8 & Matthew 9:35–10:8.

A few weeks into the lockdown, Catherine and I sat down to watch a documentary about a pro surfer called Bethany Hamilton. You may have heard of her. She competes at the very highest level all around the world.

What’s even more remarkable about Bethany, is that at 13 years old, while she was out surfing with her family she was attacked by a shark.

“I didn’t have time to think much,” she recalls, “Right away, I knew I had to get to the beach to survive this.”

“I prayed the whole way in, asking God for help.”

Bethany lost one of her arms in the attack, and the documentary shows something of the massive psychological and physical impact this had on her. Despite this set-back, Bethany went on to become one of the best surfers of her generation.

She attributes all her success and her endurance to her hope in Jesus. Speaking at a prayer breakfast in the USA a few years ago she said this,

“Because of where Jesus brought me, I have no regrets of the adversities God has allowed me to go through,” Hamilton said. “As you look at me, you could think, ‘Wow, have pity on her, she lost her arm to a shark.’ But I look it as something beautiful. God has taken something awful and turned it into something incredibly amazing.”

What remarkable faith and endurance. When I heard Charlotte read our passage from Romans this week, one line stood out over all the others:

“[We know] that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5)

In these challenging times we live in, I wonder if you need the Holy Spirit to give you a shot of endurance this morning:

Endurance in the face of loss: of a loved one, or of time spent apart from those who are important to us, because of the lockdown.

Endurance in the face of feeling drawn out and tired. With a challenging job, or lack of job.

OR Perhaps, you need endurance for another reason: This week I was in our school and I asked the children, “What shall we pray for?” Without missing a beat, a year 6 pupil said in one word: “Equality.”

Reflecting on the powerful interview last Sunday with Lynette and the black-lives-matter protests, I am particularly mindful of the struggle for racial equality and the need here for endurance and justice.

Lynette and I spoke about our shared love of Dr Martin Luther King, who famously spoke about character and hope in his “I have a dream” speech given in Washington DC in 1963. He said:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.”

I wish that dream was already a reality; across the UK and across the world. It must be pursued with endurance, love, godly character, and prayer. Always with prayer.

As Lynette said, “we will get there. We have to.”

And I think this is what Paul means when he says “our hope does not disappoint us”. God will bring justice.

Paul says: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us”

Reflecting on suffering and endurance, here in church my eyes are drawn to our Lord Jesus suffering on the cross. As I picture the scene I am reminded of those famous hymnal words,

“did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?”

Our God of love and long-suffering and endurance is there in Jesus and our Bible readings this morning remind us that God’s enduring love and character has been visible even further back in history.

Centuries old. Millennia old.

In the reading from the book of Exodus – a book about the liberation of an enslaved people – we hear how God made a promise to the Israelites:

“if [you] keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”

All those centuries ago, God called out a people – as he still does today – to be set apart. But why? Why set a group apart? Why did Jesus call the 12 apostles? Why did he gather a church?

This question is at the heart of why there is a church in New Southgate – and all across the world.

Why the church?

Because otherwise we are like sheep without a shepherd.

Because the harvest is ripe, but the labourers are few.

And because, we have a job to do. Jesus calls his disciples together and tells them plainly:

Go. Go, proclaim the good news, The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand

That is why God gathers a people together. We are sent outward with God’s love for his creation, to proclaim the good news of His salvation through Jesus Christ.

We are not called to save the world. That would crush us.

Instead, we are invited to face suffering with endurance, allowing this to shape our character, and give us hope. That pattern was what impressed me about Bethany Hamliton’s story.

Let us in small, and big ways, declare God’s love to the world:

Love to a world in pain. Of division, injustice and greed.

Love, in a world with unexpected tragedies.

Love, for a world unsure where to turn.

We can all feel like that at times, and so we must always return to that great shepherd of the sheep, Jesus – who will gather us, bless us, break us, and send us out, back into the world.