Sermon for 2nd Pentecost, June 14, 2020: Make the Suffering Count (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Lord speak through me. Amen.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me.” This is not a passage we want to hear right now. Far from being the comforting and comfortable scripture of the “Jesus loves me” variety that we crave at difficult times like these, Jesus’s assertion that his disciples need to get out there and work for their faith seems too hard to deal with right now – but, make no mistake, we definitely need to hear it. We need to hear it not in spite of the fact that many of us are suffering as a result of the turmoil in our country and the world, but because of it. We need to use it as an opportunity to consider what it means to be a Christian.
This is, I believe, an unfortunate but necessary exercise right now. Recent events, such as the condemnation and labeling of a black Roman Catholic bishop by a conservative Roman Catholic group as an “African Queen” show us that those who call ourselves Christians have some very different ideas of what that means. Such differences of opinion are evident in many areas of our public and personal lives. Episcopal Church leaders recently condemned the use of force to clear a peaceful protest so that an Episcopal Church could be used as a backdrop for a political photo opportunity. This week I received email criticizing the bishops for their “knee jerk reaction” and arguing both that the church’s condemnation of violence demonstrated an anti-police stance and that “an armed society is a polite society.” Closer to home, in response to the Diocesan Regathering Committee’s publication of the strict criteria that we would need to put in place in order to gather in person again, Episcopalians in this diocese have complained that the rules are too strict. I have repeatedly heard people respond to the church’s cautious approach by arguing that if they can go to Walmart, they should be able to go to church because church is more essential than shopping. I agree, but there are two things I would encourage you to consider. The first is this: Walmart doesn’t care about you. The Episcopal Church does. The second and larger point is that the church is not and was never closed. Worship and community are essential and available to those who seek them. Thinking that we have been deprived of the right to worship because our building has been closed suggests that the soul of our Christian community is located in a physical place. I do not think that the people of Grace believe this. I trust that we are Christians because we seek to follow Jesus.
Today’s gospel tells us what that means. In it, we hear Jesus clearly define the disciples’ mission. First, to do what he does – proclaim the Good News that the reign of God has come near. Secondly, to have compassion on those who are harassed and helpless, or- rendered in a more exact translation- oppressed and thrown to the ground. In doing this, they are told, they are to give without payment, allow themselves to be detained by hostile leaders and, most terrifying of all, to put themselves completely in the hands of God, believing that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” This is daunting because, as Luke Powery suggests, Jesus’s command to reach out to “the sick, dead, leprous, and demon-possessed may be a distant cry from churches that reach out only to those who look like them and cannot harm them.”
But this is what Jesus himself did. He did not seek out wealth, power, or privilege. The bedrock of his ministry was, “compassion for others, not financial gain.” Any “Christian” minister or church that promises to make its members more “blessed” – healthier, wealthier, or more powerful – than others is not walking the way of Jesus. The purpose of following Jesus is not to make our lives easy. If you find it easy to follow Jesus, then you’re simply not doing it right. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that while Jesus never told his disciples to seek out suffering, but he recognized that his disciples would suffer – because some things are worth suffering for.
Today’s Hebrew scripture is a story about what can happen when we take a risk to live a life of compassion. It is a tale that Jesus himself knew well – the story of how Abraham and Sarah showed hospitality to strangers and were rewarded with their heart’s desire, teaching them – and us- that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord. It was this ethic and understanding of the mighty power of God that Jesus attempted to teach his disciples. The problems of one infertile couple were not too small for God to consider, and the future of God’s people was not too large a task for God to accomplish. God asks only two things in return for her favor – that we believe in him and that we seek to do for others what God so willingly does for us. This seems so simple, and yet it is almost always very hard for us. That is why we have each other. That is why we live in community.
Jeffrey Salkin suggests that the purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable – and that “we are now squarely in the ‘afflict the comfortable’ role.” He knows this is a lot to ask of a people who are coping with our own suffering. To help us understand why this is so important in this crucial moment Salkin cites a prayer in the Jewish Reform Prayer Book that reflects what Jesus asks his disciples to do:
“Disturb us, Adonai. Ruffle us from our complacency. Make us dissatisfied – dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans. Shock us, Adonai. Deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us the delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred. Wake us, O God, and shake us from the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by half-forgotten melodies and rubric prayers of yester years. Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living and the walls of your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice, and reality.”
Consider us shocked and disturbed. The question is what we will do with the shocks and disruptions that surround us – what we will do with our suffering. Trillia Newbell writes, “Christians have to realize that we are ambassadors… for Christ…Our allegiance isn’t to worldly structures and systems, but to the Lord. This reality frees us to labor for our neighbor, to engage in the culture for the good of society and to speak the truth in love.” We can choose to focus on our own fears and complaints -or we can place our trust in God, following the way of Jesus not because it serves us, but because it allows us to serve others. We can use our suffering to identify with and support others who suffer. We can be true Christian disciples, growing, enduring, confident in and never failing to commend God’s power and Christ’s love to those around us. Such love, such hope – is not endangered by protest or defeated by violence or contained by location. God’s love is ever present – and eternal. Amen.
Luke A. Powery, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 143.
Guy D. Nave, Jr., (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 145.
Jeffrey Salkin, (June 8, 2020), “Thou shalt not be Comfortable,” in Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2020/06/08/george-floyd-protest/
Trillia Newbell, (June 8, 2020), “I’ve always suffered racism. Becoming a Christian didn’t make it easier,” in Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2020/06/08/ive-always-suffered-racism-becoming-a-christian-didnt-make-it-easier/