Sermon for Sunday October 7th

Holy Suffering

Both New Testament readings this morning raise the issue of suffering for the Christian.  The reading from the Epistle of James leads off with the question, "Are any among you suffering?"  Jesus teaches us in the Gospel of Mark that "if your hand causes you to stumble...if your foot causes you to stumble...if your eye causes you to stumble....Cut if off or tear it out."  All of these hopefully symbolic acts involve suffering!

These words refer graphically to some of the unholy ways in which Christians suffer, through our own sinfulness.  But I want to share a few insights with you this morning about holy suffering, suffering not because of our sins, but suffering because of our righteousness.  As in, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:10)  As in, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

I suffer and I limp through life because of my sin, yes.  I have been wounded because of some of the poor choices I have made in the past.  For these self-inflicted wounds I seek the forgiveness of God and healing with the holy oil that James commends to me.  But Jesus, without sin, also limped through his brief life in a way—the “way of the cross” that permeates Jesus' ministry and constitutes a manner of life for me and for all who seek to follow Jesus. 

Jesus was our suffering servant not just at the cross, but throughout a ministry in which he was frustrated by the misunderstanding of his disciples, confounded by the conspiracy of his enemies, and disappointed in his attempts to convert the common folk of Palestine.  He says, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing."  (Matthew 23:37)

The marks of the cross down through the ages of Christian mystic tradition mean that I am wounded, especially in my hands and feet, in the same way that Jesus was wounded in his hands and feet at the cross.  "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to Him in His death," writes the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians.  (3:10)   And in Second Corinthians, "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body."  (4:10)

These symbolic marks of the cross in our hands and feet are called the "stigmata"--the marks of the nails that pierced the hands and feet of Jesus, coupled with the stigma of rejection in a world that ignores the Christian message of peace and love and justice.  I want to quicken your consciousness this morning to that sense of being an outcast in a secular and violent world, but also to remember in this context of suffering the tremendous movement for good in the world that has been brought about by our suffering servant Jesus, and also by our own suffering.  One of our early church fathers, Tertullian, wrote “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."  (John 12:24)   So our holy suffering is directly related to the goodness we produce for the sake of the coming Kingdom of our Lord.  We are evangelists for justice and peace in our world.  We bring people to Jesus.  And our frustration and sometimes persecution in the pursuit of these goals constitute our suffering.

Just as we don’t fully understand how a grain of wheat buried in the ground yields a harvest, we don’t fully understand how our suffering yields the Kingdom of God, but it does!  Amazingly, mysteriously, miraculously, it does!

Let me share with you a personal story to illustrate what I mean. 

Mark was a resident of our sober living homes who graduated from us about seven years ago.  He was clean and sober all the while he was with us.  Before Mark came to us, he owned a printing business in Orange County.  He used to own a condominium in Pasadena.  He was a fellow Episcopalian all of his adult life.  He succumbed to the disease of addiction and he lost all of this success.  I didn't know Mark during those heady days of his prosperity, but one single fact stands out for me as a symbol of his good fortune in life, as well as a symbol of his eventual demise.   He confessed to me once that as a result of his addiction he wound up owing the IRS $250,000.    What a triumphant person he must have been!  His great worldly success and his ultimate failure were all made apparent to me in that one fact.

As a result of his addiction he had a severe stroke that caused him literally to "limp through life."  I was with him in the hospital when the doctor told him that if he returned to his addiction he would surely die.  But Mark eventually did return to his addiction.  I remember once receiving a call from him in his distress.  He was laying on the pavement in the middle of the day beside a dumpster in back of a thrift store on Colorado Boulevard.  People were passing him by out of a sense of fear and helplessness.   He had only a small bag of belongings and a cell phone next to him.  He couldn't get up, and he had called me for help.  I scooped up his frail body along with his belongings--all he had left in the world really--and drove him to the emergency room at Huntington Hospital. 

The last time he called me a few years later he was living in a small room that he had rented for himself in Boyle Heights.  He was immobilized once again by his addiction, shriveled up in his bed, with the covers pulled over him.  He asked only that I bring him some ice.  I did, and as I pressed a chip of ice on his parched lips, I decided that I would say a prayer and leave him in place, in accordance with his wishes.  That chip of ice represented my anointing of Mark, and my prayer was my version of the last rites, and Mark died the next day.

While I still experience some suffering and sadness myself because of Mark's death, and I naturally wonder what more I could have done to save him, today I am filled with the fruit of the resurrection in my life and my work.  Holy suffering yields such a harvest for good in the world!  You see this Church owns four homes and provides 50 beds to people just like Mark to give them an opportunity to recover from addiction, and the miracle is that the majority of them do recover!  This is the abundant fruit that comes from our occasional suffering.  This is the great fact for us.  This is the source of the overwhelming joy and gratitude I have for you, and for this Church, and for God, because of our common commitment to the poor.  Holy suffering always taps into that miracle stream that comes from God!  Holy suffering always taps into that miracle stream that flows from the throne of God!

Our corporate vicarious suffering because of the disintegration of Mark’s life attaches itself to this Church on this Sunday morning.  The fact that you are sometimes disheartened in your prayers and your generosity and your efforts for peace and kindness is the basis for our hope and joy!  It is the powerful and transformative stigmata that mark us as Christian in a world that passes by the poor.  But we have chosen to engage the world, to scoop up folk in their distress, through so many varied ministries, in so many personal acts of caring.  And we emerge victorious for the Kingdom that is to come just over the horizon.

Thus Jesus concludes his talk about the reasons for our suffering.  We limp through life because of our sin, because we have symbolically lost a hand or a foot or an eye because of our poor decisions.  But concurrent with our dereliction, we are also encouraged in our holy suffering with these mysterious words from our Gospel reading:  "For everyone will be salted with fire."  That is, our goodness will be confronted by the fierce and fiery resistance of this world.  We will be subject to the fire of the cross that we bear in the spirit of Jesus.  "Salt is good," says Jesus.  Our saltiness preserves the Kingdom with our work on its behalf.  We are the salt of the earth, proclaiming our hope for the Kingdom of God that is coming just over the horizon.  So Jesus says, "have salt in yourself," and continue the work of this Parish for compassion and kindness.  And this morning as we pass the peace we fulfill Jesus’ final word to us from Mark’s Gospel reading:  "And be at peace with one another.”

As Father Bob said to us in his sermon on Our Saviour Sunday, Holy Cross Sunday, a few weeks ago:  “To be people of the cross means to proclaim without reservation that Christ meets us not only in our successes, but most especially in our suffering….The cross shows what it looks like when God gets involved in the world.”