Suffering With and Speaking Life

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 18, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 5:1-8 + Matthew 9:35-10:23

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This is a tough sermon this morning.
One that I hope names some of our deeper hurt, but also calls us to greater love.

Please pray with me:

Holy One,
We live in the midst of suffering.
But we do not suffer alone.
Remind us again of our call to bear one another’s burdens.
Call us again to speak words of life and peace and love.
Amen.

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I served as a chaplain in 2013 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. The summer of 2013 was one of the deadliest on record up to that point, and each summer since then has seen the violent crime and homicide rate increase in Chicago.
I served on the Medical ICU floor…the worst-case scenarios, the long-term sick, the touch-and-go cases, and the folks who were out of options…

I didn’t know what suffering looked like until I served in a hospital.

I prayed with a family of about 25 people all crammed into one hospital room as we held hands around the bed as their matriarch took her last breaths. The room was filled with cries and sobbing and shouts of lament like I had never experienced before, but they were the most honest prayers I’ve ever heard.
I sat with a man for 5 hours in the lobby of the hospital after he watched his wife of 47 years die on the stretcher in the ER. Sometimes suffering looks like someone who’s just lost their beloved staring blankly at a cell phone, trying to remember who they were about to call, or even what they were going to say.

As I’ve listened to and watched the personalities on NPR and the news channels this week, it seems like everyone’s carrying around a heavier weight with them. It feels like the news cycle is starting to catch up to us.
On Wednesday, a man felt justified in opening fire on Republican Congresspeople as they practiced baseball in part because of the virulent rhetoric present in our political discourse.
On Friday, a jury in Minnesota acquitted a police officer in the 2016 murder of Philando Castile.
Yesterday was the 2-year anniversary of the massacre at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A massacre of 9 beautiful children of God, including their pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who, by the way, studied at an ELCA seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. A massacre perpetrated by the white supremacist Dylann Roof, who, by the way, was baptized, grew up, and was confirmed in the Lutheran church. Our church, our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, the ELCA…

And all of this in the same month when Coptic Christians are being martyred in Egypt, terrorist attacks are happening around the world including Manchester and London, and more than 50 people are presumed dead in an apartment fire outside London.

There is no shortage of suffering in our world.
And yeah…it’s been a tough week.

I think of the end of our Gospel reading this morning when Jesus talks about siblings and parents and children warring against each other, and ruling classes oppressing the lower classes, and state-sanctioned punishment and execution. And it really doesn’t sound so different than today.
And when we hear this, I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, like “What can I do in the midst of all of this?”
And I turn to our Gospel today here too. See, because I don’t think Jesus is sending the disciples out to convert people, to create the newest batch of the first Christians. We hear Jesus this morning sending the disciples with explicit directives to “cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.” Friends, the call to discipleship is a call to go and alleviate suffering. And not through thoughts and prayers and retweets and facebook posts, but through actual embodied presence. To alleviate suffering is go to the places where suffering is and do what you can with what you have to make things even just a little better for those people in those places.

Our Gospel this morning notes that when Jesus saw the crowds of people he was ministering to, those that were sick or diseased or cast aside or beholden to something outside of themselves, he had compassion for them. The Greek word is interesting…compassion…splachnizomai…literally, to be moved from your guts. Compassion is visceral, it’s feeling that moves you to action. Compassion, which we get from Latin…com—passio…to suffer with. To have compassion for someone is to be physically moved to suffer with them.
It only requires an investment of yourself.

But how many of you are dealing with suffering of own? I wonder for how many of you the thought of being present with someone else in their suffering feels like a really tall order because quite honestly you’re just trying to deal with you own stuff…
This, dear friends is why discipleship is a communal effort. Because it really does take all of us. To bear one another’s burdens. To lift one another up. To be present with one another in the midst of our suffering. To search out meaning and fumble around to find moments of joy in the midst of suffering.

There’s another interesting language note in our reading from Romans this morning. St. Paul writes that, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance; endurance, character; and character, hope; and hope doesn’t disappoint.” That “boasting in sufferings” part, that’s not boasting or being prideful because of suffering, but is more accurately translated as boasting in the hope we have from God in the midst of our suffering. It’s having hope in spite of suffering.

And that is the message of the cross. That though we are still sinners, Christ suffered and died for us. And for “them”. And for all of creation.
And not just that Christ died, but through the Resurrection, Christ overcomes suffering and death—Christ defeats death and takes away the sting of suffering. Death no longer has the last word. God’s final word to God’s people is one of life.

And if that’s true, I think that gives us an indication about how we are to go about at least beginning to follow this call to discipleship. If God’s word that overcomes death and suffering is a word of life, then the call is to alleviate suffering where we find it begins with our words. Speaking words of life instead of words that harm and injure and inflict violence.
Because how can we know the needs of someone else unless we talk and listen to them? How can we possibly start to show compassion to someone who is suffering if the words we use most often are those of division and violence and hatred?
There’s no shortage of suffering in our world; that harvest is plentiful, but the laborers willing to be present with and speak life-giving words into the midst of that suffering are few.
So how will you undertake the call to that kind of discipleship?

I think it starts with our words.
In the wake of the attack in Virginia on Wednesday, US legislators of all parties are calling for a toning down of the vitriol and spitefulness in the rhetoric of Washington. And I think that’s a helpful lesson for us. It may or may not surprise you to know that your pastor can see your facebook posts. And you may or may not be ok with that.

Be kind to each other. Speak words that lift up and give life rather than words that tear down and destroy. Build bridges instead of walls. Build bigger tables for sharing food rather than larger fences for closing yourself off.

And when you do that, I think you’ll find that your capacity for sitting with one other in your suffering begins to grow.

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