Sermon for Sunday, May 11, 2014
Not that there’s ever a “good” week in the news, but this week has been an especially tough week in the news for me. For example, with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev back in the news, and the bungled execution in Oklahoma, I find myself thinking about and being disturbed by capital punishment. After hearing an NPR interview about a single, 24 year-old mother of three in rural New York State, who is essentially trapped in a Catch-22 of poverty – she’d like to go back to school, but doesn’t have the money; if she gets a job, she’d have to pay for child care, and then also lose her food stamp money – I find myself disturbed by the widening divide between rich and poor in our country. I am deeply disturbed, too, by the recent findings of the National Climate Assessment, which report that the mean temperatures in part of the United States have already risen more then 3 degrees since mid-century and which predicts more and more severe floods and droughts. And who couldn’t be disturbed by the searing story in Nigeria of an entire school of girls kidnapped to be sold off into forced marriages or slavery? (Even Al Quaeda could not condone the attack!) As I consider these events, I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist, which still ring true today, over 2,000 years later: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” What is our hope, when we live in such a world?
In a way, the Easter season is a great time to be disturbed. Easter is a great time to be disturbed not only because Easter – celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – reminds us that even though we live in a world filled with death, yet life will have the last word, but also because Easter reminds us that we the Baptized have the capacity to be disturbed.
Let me back up a little bit. Easter is a Baptismal season. In the early Church, the Easter Vigil was the Baptismal feast, the time when candidates were baptized. In our church today, the Easter season is the time when the Bishop does Confirmations – really an extension of the Baptismal rite – and blesses those who make re-affirmations of their Baptismal vows. And the scripture readings in the Easter season tell us about what it means to be baptized. What I hear these scriptures telling us about what it means to be baptized, is that we the Baptized have the capacity to be disturbed – really disturbed; not to suppress or minimize the disturbance we feel, but to let the pain of the world enter and take hold within us. For example, today’s lesson from 1 Peter reminds us that because of Christ we know how to endure suffering; indeed, we may be called to it. The book of Acts, with its stories of persecution in the early church, reminds us that we can expect suffering. And today’s Psalm assumes that we will experience suffering: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” the Psalmist says. And, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”
We Christians can expect trouble and suffering. We have, after all, been baptized into Christ’s death. As we heard at the Vigil, in the lesson from Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Lest this sound like bad news, Paul continues with the good, and the good news is the main point: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his… If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him… Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
This, then, is the capacity, the charism, that we Christians have: we know about suffering and death, and we know about resurrection. And our world is crying out for people who can not only share in suffering, but who also, in that sharing, can bear witness to resurrection.
I see plenty of ways for us to live into our capacity of sharing in suffering and proclaiming resurrection. Consider Sister Mary Scullion who founded Project HOME, which works with the homeless in Philadelphia. She went to a place of suffering and brought with her resurrection. Our capacity to share in death and bear witness to resurrection may look like volunteering for Birthday Wishes or the Centre St. Food Pantry, both housed here at Trinity. Our capacity to share in death and bear witness to resurrection may be simply standing alongside those who mourn, as did President Obama when he visited Arkansas last week, where 16 were killed by tornadoes. All he did was be there and let them know that a nation was grieving with them, and his visit and his words meant the world to those who lived there. Maybe, for places that we cannot go – such as Nigeria – or for times in our lives when our other vocations take precedence – maybe you’re the mother of young children or caring for an elderly parent – maybe our going out takes the form of intercessory prayer. One of the great vocations of the Baptized is to pray, to ask God to be alongside those who suffer, where we ourselves can’t.
It’s not always easy to remember that we the Baptized have the capacity to share in suffering and to bear witness to resurrection; we don’t like suffering, and it’s often hard when we’re in the midst of suffering, to remember resurrection. Thank goodness, then, that we have Eucharist, the “repeatable part of Baptism,” as Augustine says. The Eucharist is our weekly reminder that we share in Jesus’ suffering and death – we eat his body and blood; we take it into ourselves – and it is our weekly reminder of Jesus’ resurrection power, incorporating into our very selves his resurrection, so that we might take it out into the world.
I leave us, then, to go to Eucharist, which weekly trains us in bearing Jesus’ death and resurrection into the world, and also with a quote from Julian of Norwich. Julian was the 14th-century anchoress who lived enclosed in a small room attached to her parish church in Norwich, England, and whose feast day was in our calendar this past week.
Julian is a great example of one who shared in suffering. The time in which she lived in 14th century England was a time a great suffering, a “period of anguish in which there was no sense of an assured future,” as historian Barbara Tuchman put it. Julian’s time was marked by the Black Death, multiple famines, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and schism in the church. And yet, in the midst of this suffering, Julian brought encouragement and hope to those who visited her cell, and even during these dark years was able to pen what are perhaps her most famous words:
Sin is inevitable,
But all shall be well,
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.
I hope that we as Christians – we who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus – can, in our period of anguish, stand alongside those who suffer and to bear witness to them of Jesus’ resurrection, that – in the end, with Him – all shall be well.