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Sermon for July 12, 2015: Suffering Silently
My son is a big fan of horror movies. He has an Evil Dead poster on one wall of his room and a World War Z poster on the other. He spends his spare time making movies with his friends, most of which require his skills as a special effects make-up artist to create wounds, scars, and entrails. Sometimes it worries me – but I have been assured by a number of sources – including psychologists, clergy persons, and teachers – that his interest in fantasy violence is unlikely to be related to a similar preoccupation with realworld bloodshed. Which is, of course, good news. But it also leaves me wondering how a kid who was not allowed to watch scary movies or television programs, and who burst into tears during “Santa versus the Snowmen” became so interested in celluloid carnage.
Of course, he has gone to church his whole life, which means that’s he’s heard today’s “R”-rated gospel at least five times – and probably more. And, let’s face it, the story of the death of John the Baptist has all the makings of an episode of “Game of Thrones” – incest, cutthroat politics, unfaithful husbands, plotting wives, endangered virgins and the beheading of a popular main character. We should have had a parental warning along with the gospel proclamation. And yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard a parent complain about the negative influence biblical violence might have on their child. And I doubt that if my son’s hobby was making films based on Bible stories I would feel the need to consult with child development experts.
But the Bible is full of violence – as are many “Christian” books. I recently uncovered “A Child’s Book of Saints” that was given to my children when they were probably around five years-old. Thumbing through it, I found that some of those stories would curl the hair of even the most seasoned fan of “The Walking Dead.” And some of the most violent art I have ever seen are depictions of Christian martyrs – often rendered in beautiful, careful, and frequently disturbing detail in which the horror of physical suffering is paired with facial expressions that depict the apparent emotional ecstasy that accompanies it. These images suggest that the desire and ability to suffer and die for our faith is an integral part of Christian identity. As a result, many of us believe that when we suffer, the “Christian thing” to do is to endure it bravely and stoically. The Christian thing to do is to provide encouragement to others who suffer to bear it with humor and dignity. The Christian thing to do is to suffer beautifully and silently.
And this focus on suffering and death doesn’t just significantly influence our own understanding of our relationship with God. When most people learn about Christianity the first thing they are told is that the primary tenet of our belief is that our God demonstrated his love for us by suffering and dying. Some writers have suggested that in an era in which self-fulfillment is prized over communal stability, the Christian focus on sacrifice and humility is about as appealing and relevant as a re-run of “Father
Knows Best.” Church leaders are concerned that people are pulling away from
“traditional,” “mainline” religion in favor of churches that preach a simplified form of Christianity in which belief is the only arbiter of salvation – or to “spiritual but not religious” practices that focus on self-fulfillment over responsibility – or simply to a credo of “self-care” that prizes Sunday mornings in bed with the New York Times crossword puzzle over the trek to church. As a result, some churches have made an effort to shift their focus from the more complicated and less appealing aspects of Christian theology to more upbeat and attractive messages which suggest that believing in Jesus Christ can provide not only spiritual but concrete rewards in this lifetime.
The prosperity doctrine – the idea that the strength of someone’s faith is related to their level of health and wealth – is not a new one – and not solely a Christian one. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of stories of “righteous” people who are “rewarded” with good fortune. The psalm we read today suggests that for those who are faithful “The Lord will indeed grant prosperity and our land will yield its increase.” And in this morning’s New Testament reading, St. Paul tells the Ephesians that by believing in
Christ we will inherit redemption and salvation and enjoy “the riches of his grace.”
The notion that wealth is somehow related to goodness has been reinforced across cultures and over time in a variety of ways – through the “divine right of kings” which suggests that people born into power are somehow favored by God – by the way in which popular media encourages us to emulate the rich and famous – and even inadvertently in our own lives when in response to a compliment we humbly allow that we are “blessed.”
Except that’s not really what we mean. What we mean to say is that we have grace – free, unmerited and available to all. That’s not the same as being blessed. When we say we are blessed, we are implying that our gifts are a sign of God’s favor – and, conversely, that suffering is a sign of God’s disfavor. But prosperity and reward for the righteous and suffering and punishment for the unworthy is not the Christian gospel. It is the new American gospel. It is what is preached by our politicians, in our media – and, sadly, in countless pulpits. According to that doctrine, suffering is a warning against acting outside of societal norms. Because the prosperity creed sees poverty as punishment for laziness; inequity as the result of ineptitude; and mental and emotional illness as moral weakness. In this view, suffering is ugly.
But suffering is neither innately beautiful nor ugly. It is simply necessary – and it is part of our Christian identity. Christians, according to Carol and Philip Zaleski, should be unsurprised by “the unavoidable harshness of life, believing that they inhabit…a fallen world, albeit one filled with God’s grace.” Suffering is not the result of fallen people; suffering is the result of a fallen world. We live in a world that is ruptured by resentment. A world in which the peace of the holy is drowned out by the powerful voice of prejudice. A world in which faith is used to create fracture. The fact that we are Christians does not separate us from it. The fact that we are Christians does not elevate us above it. Rather, the fact that we are Christians obligates us to suffer for this world that we have brought so far from what God created– not silently – but by crying out against ignorance, injustice and inequity at the top of our lungs.
Amos knew this. When the priest of Bethel accused Amos of being a false prophet, Amos told him that he was not a prophet at all. He was a herdsman and farmer. But the Lord called him to speak truth to power – and he was prepared to suffer to fulfill his call. Because Amos was a keeper of sycamore trees – and he knew something that the priests didn’t; sycamore trees require bruising to encourage ripening.
He knew that sometimes suffering is necessary for growth.
We don’t really know how much John the Baptist suffered. Scholars think it is likely that he was the member of a strict religious sect, so it is likely that he was willing to suffer for his faith. We know that John believed that Jesus was the Messiah who would free the Jewish people and preached that freely. But today’s gospel tells us that ultimately it was his politics – not his faith – that killed him. John the Baptist did not die because of the work he did in the name of Jesus. In fact, King Herod believed that John was holy and righteous. Some scholars have suggested that Herod actually imprisoned John as a form of “protective custody,” because he wanted to keep him safe from his wife Herodias. It was Herodias that had a grudge against John, because he had preached that their marriage was illegal. That’s important – because it was John’s beliefs that compelled him to speak out about the marriage, but it was invocation of the law that earned him Herodias’s enmity. That’s politics. And religion. Because for John the Baptist – and for Amos – being faithful to the word of God meant preaching politics –not by aligning with a certain leader or dogma – not by attempting to tell others what to do – not by asserting that believing in God is the same as knowing the will of God – but by seeking to alleviate the “unavoidable harshness of life,” by speaking truth to power, and by pointing out the difference between morality and prosperity.
We are not blessed because we believe in God, but because God believes in us.
God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love…according to his good pleasure.” All of the good things we read about in today’s psalm – righteousness, peace, truth and, yes, prosperity – are not characteristics of those who are blessed by God. They are characteristics of God – and all that we have – health and wealth and happiness – are free gifts of grace. But we are blessed by opportunity – the opportunity to “live for the praise of God’s glory” – the opportunity to preach the true gospel – and the opportunity to suffer for it. Christian suffering is not something to avoid or endure or desire. It is a chance to demonstrate who we are – not meekly or stoically – and certainly not silently – but brashly, stridently, and joyfully – paving the way for truth to spring up from the earth, for righteousness to rain from heaven, and for peace to be a pathway for our God.
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