The Courage to Commit
2 Corinthians 4:1, 7-15
October 7, 2018
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
I want to share with you this morning about one of my heroes, Sister Chan Khong. My guess is that you have probably not heard of her, though she has been the closest collaborator of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master, of whom you likely have heard. Sister Chan Khong and Thich Nhat Hanh sought together to build and bring peace first to Vietnam, and then to the world. Born in the Mekong Delta in 1938, Sister Chan Khong began working with the poor in the slums of Vietnam as a teenager. She was from a family who, as she described it, “was not so rich, not so poor.” Though she had a deep desire to serve, she felt that if she went into the inner cities without thought and intention, she would not be trusted to offer what she could. And so when she entered the slums, she wore a frayed dress and asked if anyone had seen her Uncle Ba. In this way, she was able to build rapport and hear the honest challenges people were facing, then respond in ways that she could to help.
As war escalated in Vietnam, Sister Chan Khong founded with Thich Nhat Hanh the School for Youth and Social Service which trained thousands of young peace workers to bring aid to the remote villagers of war-torn Vietnam, for which she and the peace workers received harassment from combatants on both sides as well as frequent bombings. Sister Chan Khong herself had a motorbike, and was known for driving her motorbike through dangerous situations, sometimes to bring aid to those in need, sometimes with a box of pamphlets strapped on her back that she and Thich Nhat Hanh had created on the third way, a way that transcended the sides in the conflict. She rode with bombs exploding beside her, always at risk of being stopped and jailed or worse for the material she carried. She now lives at Plum Village in France, the monastery she and Nhat Hanh founded, where hundreds of thousands come to learn and meditate on the way of peace and being peace every year.
“Brave” is a word that is often used to describe Sister Chan Khong, and she certainly deserves that praise. But bravery is different from courage. To be brave is to be willing to face fear or danger or risk. But to have courage is to commit to a vision of something larger, something more excellent. Courage not only requires the facing of fear or danger or risk but requires perseverance, fortitude, true courage requires an “all in” kind of commitment.
Sister Chan Khong was both brave and courageous. She was committed to continuing to speak her truth, that there was a way out of the war, and that way was to not participate in the war. The force of violence around her threatened to pull her into it, as violence swirling in its centrifugal pull is wont to do. But she pressed on, braving danger every day, keeping in front of her and others a vision of peace that seemed remote at best but to which she had given her full commitment. This is the courage to commit.
As a Buddhist, Sister Chan Khong committed everything she had—her time, her resources, her vision, even her fear—to living in way that both sought to bring about the reality of a peaceful world, and acted as if that peaceful world of compassion already existed. And so for her, in some ways it did and still does as she teaches others at Plum Village to this day.
This has been a difficult week. I’ve heard from so many of you who are discouraged or feeling low. We believe that speaking truth and calling for justice is the way to build a world that operates with compassion to bring healing and equity. Yet, in one large and very public way this week and in I’m sure many smaller ways, progress toward that world we seek and can even envision, felt, this week, at best, incomplete.
Sister Chan Khong, too, faced despair, and destruction and sometimes a sense that all of her best efforts could not overcome the violence around her. She has said, “Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But I try to work one day at a time. If we just worry about the big picture, we are powerless. So my secret is to start right away doing whatever little work I can do. I try to give joy to one person in the morning, and remove the suffering of one person in the afternoon. That’s enough. When you see you can do that, you continue, and you give two little joys, and you remove two little sufferings, then three, and then four. If you and your friends do not despise the small work, a million people will remove a lot of suffering. That is the secret. Start right now.”
Our scripture today is from second Corinthians, in which Paul writes to his recently established church at Corinth. Corinth had many features which are reflected in our nation today. The most prosperous city in all of Greece, there were abundant signs of wealth in Corinth, yet there was a great disparity between rich and poor. Corinth was an intellectual but a factious city, with factions stemming from the disparate population which included Greeks, Romans, Jews, persons from the Far East as well as persons who were travelers and move around in this part of the ancient world.
Paul had been personally involved in establishing the church at Corinth and when it began it flourished. But then it began to experience infighting and a lack of clarity of direction. It’s out of this context that second Corinthians comes, which contains both rebuke and encouragement.
In our scripture today from 2 Corinthians, it is thought that Paul is writing to the church at Corinth after receiving word that the church had been able to reorient itself back toward its mission, but he knew that there would be other challenges to the church’s perseverance. Paul writes, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart… We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
Paul, like Sister Chan Khong, knew that to persevere and eventually thrive, the church would need to have a deep commitment to a larger and long term vision of peace and transformation. The short term challenges would be present, and in the short term there would be many defeats and setbacks. To continue to practice a daily walk of faith, as Sister Chan Khong described, of giving one person joy in the morning and removing the suffering of another person in the afternoon, would require a kind of deep commitment that is only sustained by a courage that presses on in spite of anything, knowing the goal had ultimate value.
For Paul the symbol of that goal of ultimate value was the resurrection. In the resurrection we see the ultimate courage to commit in the life and death of Jesus, who came to us in the midst of a fractured and oppressive world, and continued day by day to proclaim liberty to the captives, good news to the poor and healing for the brokenhearted. I believe that it was not a foregone conclusion that Jesus would die on a cross. It was always a possibility. But that possibility could not prevent him from sharing the vision of what the world could be like, what our lives could be like and who we could be if we followed his way of love, and truth, humility and sacrifice, generosity and deep and daily commitment to this way. I believe he did know that if people failed to understand and respond to his healing and transforming message, the world, in its brokenness, would deliver him to the cross.
And that, as we know, is what happened. But in the resurrection, we have confirmed that even death and the brokenness of the world could not conquer the ultimate power and rightness of the path toward a new heaven and new earth of true peace that he showed us. And now the carrying on of his way and making the possibility of fully loving and just world, depends on us.
Hear these words again from our scripture today from second Corinthians,”For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak.”
Speak your truth my friends and know that you will be believed. Believe, and speak your truth. This is an act of courage and commitment to a vision of the world that Jesus inaugurated. It is both here and not yet here. But we bring it ever more into existence when we have the courage to live out this call and when we have the courage to commit to this vision no matter what we encounter, not even death.
Today is World Communion Sunday. Christians all over the world on this first Sunday in October are partaking of the bread of life and the cup of courage. And this very holy worldwide communion is part of what emboldens us to have the courage to commit: we are members of a worldwide body, when one member falls, another will pick her up. When one member makes a mistake or causes harm, another member will assist in restoring harmony and rightness to what has been broken. We need each other and we are bound together in our common belief in the blessing of the path that Jesus showed us and in our hope for a world, a true global community in which every tear is wiped away and justice and compassion reign. Amen.