Most of the people in this room have attended an Episcopal funeral. Although these occasions are sad, we acknowledge that when we lose a loved one it is important to honor our relationship with them. Yet more and more people are requesting that we don’t hold a service when they die. I think they do this out of an honest desire to act humbly. They do not want to be praised or for their loved ones to suffer any more than they have to. They want them to move on. The only problem is that it doesn’t work. Whether our beloved dead want us to mourn or not, we do – and there is no better place to grieve than in community. Community is the reason the church exists.
This is made very clear in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the lives of the early followers of the Way of Jesus. Luke tells us that “all who believed were together and had all things in common,” including how they chose to spend their time – eating, learning and growing spiritually, and praying – both for and with one another.
Grace is a praying congregation. At Grace, we are not afraid to ask for prayer and we faithfully respond to the prayer requests of others. But like the desire of some of our friends not to be formally remembered when they die, simply asking God to take away someone’s suffering may not be the right thing to do – or so our lesson from Peter says. Certainly, we should not wish for or cause suffering to others, but sometimes, he says, suffering is necessary.
I’m sure that’s not what you wanted to hear in today’s sermon. After all, today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the day in which we hear and are consoled by one of our most reassuring scriptures, the twenty-third psalm. It is filled with images of what we imagine heaven to be: green pastures, still waters, abundant food and drink, and, above all, peace. It is a place where we are no longer anxious and afraid – a place in which our stressed brains and roiling emotions are finally, mercifully at rest. We love to hear about it because we are so desperately in need of it. That’s why this delightful vision has spoken directly to the hearts of millions of people over thousands of years.
But it’s not actually about what happens after death or about someplace out of this world. It is not describing a far away heaven, but heaven on earth – what we call “beloved community.” David’s song tells us not what we can look forward to after we die, but what we are supposed to work for in this life. It is about how God wants everyone – all creation – to make this dream real - right here and right now.
I’m sorry if you suddenly feel less comforted. I know most of us come to church because it makes us feel better. It helps to alleviate the stress and anxiety of our daily life. It makes us feel safe. We do not come here to be told that suffering can be good, and that our most comfortable words are really a call to action. But that is exactly what today’s readings are saying. Now, make no mistake, I am not suggesting that we seek out suffering or that it is okay to let others suffer. Peter’s words are not a justification for injustice and oppression. What he’s doing is reminding us of something we already know- that anything worth having takes work, and nothing is more worth having than the beloved community of God, heaven on earth.
The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu told this story to explain why he believed suffering is necessary:
“You know, when Nelson Mandela went to jail he was young and, you could almost say, bloodthirsty. He was head of the armed wing of the African National Congress, his party. He spent twenty-seven years in jail, and many would say, ‘Twenty-seven years, oh, what a waste.’ And I think people are surprised when I say, no, [those] years were necessary. They were necessary to remove the dross. The suffering in prison helped him to become more magnanimous, willing to listen to the other side. To discover that the people he regarded as his enemy, they too were human beings who had fears and expectations. And they had been molded by their society. And so without the twenty-seven years I don’t think we would have seen the Nelson Mandela with the compassion, the magnanimity, the capacity to put himself in the shoes of the other.”
Tutu was speaking from his own experience and with the wisdom of generations of oppressed people, who have much to teach the privileged about faith. That’s because this particular scripture has been – and sadly still is - used against people of particular cultures and races by making them believe that suffering is simply their lot in life. Not true. Our state in life- rich or poor, sick or well, powerful or powerless – is not about fairness. Humanity has made God’s world unfair – and it is the work of good people to change that. We do that by understanding that when we say certain people don’t deserve to suffer because they are kind, or gentle, or faithful, we are inadvertently implying that others do deserve to suffer.
Whether we deserve to suffer or not, we all do. What matters is how we endure it. Peter tells us that the pain we feel because of our own bad choices is simply the cost of the human condition, but suffering unjustly helps to build a better and more compassionate world. This seems cruel, but think about it. Why is it important to learn history? Because knowing the suffering of generations past, we can hope not to repeat the transgressions that caused them. And suffering for a good cause inspires us. How many times have we been motivated by someone who continues to help others even though they themselves are in pain? That’s why we tell the stories of our beloved saints and martyrs. We should and must pray for our suffering friends and ask God to help them, but we must also recognize that their faith and endurance are gifts to God’s people.
Fortunately, while establishing the beloved community may require suffering, it is not about suffering. Rather, it is about resisting the ways of the world that pull us away from God, by fighting the “structural sin” created by society and shared by all. This is hard. The sly, seductive voice of our insatiable culture is constantly whispering in our ears, telling us that we deserve what we have, that we are better than others – that we are blessed. This is the voice of the thief that sneaks into God’s sheepfold -the voice of the adversary of God. But as hard as it is, we have to close our ears to that voice and listen instead for the call of our true shepherd, who opens the gate to salvation. Real joy is found not in self-concern, but by living with glad and generous hearts as one beloved community. And God has given us all we need to endure whatever we have to suffer: a God that is always with us, the knowledge that there is nothing we can suffer that Jesus has not endured before us, and a community that struggles like us and with us. These gifts of abundant life are available to everyone. God does not offer entry into the beloved community because we do right or believe right. God offers this perfect state of being simply in response to our need for it.
There is a different translation of the twenty-third psalm than the one we read today. Instead of saying that goodness and mercy shall follow us, it reads, “Surely goodness and kindness shall dog me all my life.” Imagine that - a God who is hounding us to accept the possibility of bringing heaven to earth simply by listening to God’s voice. Surely, it is worth it to respond. Surely such goodness and mercy are worth the cost. AMEN.
Desmond Tutu, quoted in The Book of Joy, (2016), New York: The Dalai Lama Trust, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, pp. 43-45. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (eds). (2010). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 2, p. 434.