Suffering Love

Suffering Love

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” Matthew 16:24

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

September 3, 2017 – Pentecost 13A

Jesus is angry. It doesn’t happen often in the gospels, but when it does we should pay attention. Today is one of those days. Jesus’ anger this morning is directed at Peter, who just last week, you will remember, emerged as a leader among the disciples: Peter, the rock, upon whom Jesus hoped to build the Church, the disciple who boldly identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Ah, but Peter’s fall from grace is swift and dramatic. It turns out that Jesus is a rather different Messiah than Peter expects. When Jesus today explains for the first time to his followers that his destiny is not worldly fame and power, but instead sacrifice, Peter is dumbfounded. He goes so far as to rebuke Jesus, insisting that suffering cannot possibly be Jesus’ future. Peter has bigger and better plans for Jesus.

It must have been impossibly hard for the disciples to hear, really hear, that the Cross would be Jesus’ fate. Suffering and death are not things than any of us want to hear – for Jesus, for those we love, or for ourselves.

Surely, Peter must have wondered, if this man is God’s son – if he can heal the sick, feed the hungry, make the blind see and the deaf hear – then certainly he can do better than yielding to arrest and torture and death. I can hear his thought process now, ‘I’ve given up my livelihood, and left my family and friends to follow this teacher. This isn’t how the story is supposed to go. This is not what I want in a savior.’

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter for wanting a different outcome. For the truth is that the human heart longs for heroes: heroes who are strong, heroes who are winners.

The Yale theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff, puts it this way: “When you and I are left to our own devices, it’s the smiling, successful ones of the world that we cheer. ‘Hail to the victors.’ The histories we write of the odyssey of humanity on earth are the stories of the exulting ones—the nations that win in battle, the businesses that defeat their competition, the explorers who find a pass to the Pacific, the scientists whose theories prove correct, the athletes who come in first, the politicians who win their campaigns.”

We love winners. But Jesus asks something different from us. He asks us to turn our eyes toward suffering. And not just his suffering on the Cross. Jesus is asking us to turn toward the world’s wounds, for Jesus is in fact the lens through which God wants us to see all humanity. Like us, Peter and his friends would rather not look into the world’s pain. Like us, they would rather think about their own dreams for a safe and secure future, apart from the world’s needs.

But repeatedly throughout the gospels, Jesus tells us that it is those who struggle, not the victors, who deserve our attention. Jesus turns everything on its head. All our notions about “success” turn out to be wrong. To be like God is not to win at all costs, but to lose for the sake of others. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Of all the heartbreaking stories this past week from Texas, I was most moved by the rescue of little Jordyn Grace Sulcer, a three-year-old girl. Shivering from hypothermia, little Jordyn Grace was found clutching her mother’s unresponsive body as the floodwaters rose around her near her home in Beaumont, Texas.

Jordyn’s mom, Colette, was a nurse, and Colette was doing what moms and nurses do: in a crisis, she wanted to make sure her little daughter was safe from the rising waters, even if that meant putting her own life at risk.

A rescue team in a Zodiac boat, on the lookout for those in distress in Beaumont, spotted the small pink backpack Jordyn was wearing at the time and pulled her and her mother aboard. They made it in time to save Jordyn Grace; but it was too late for Colette. “Mama was saying her prayers,” the 3-year-old kept telling her rescuers, in those last moments of life.

A co-worker at the nearby Beaumont hospital where Colette worked described her as a relentlessly cheerful person. “Her smile, I mean, the room just lit up. You couldn’t help but smile back.” “I never did see that woman in a bad mood,” he said. “I never saw her upset or mad. And hers was not an easy life, one that would naturally lead to such a positive attitude. But Colette, she built her character on the adversity she faced rather than letting it knock her down.”

And so we mourn Colette’s passing, at the same time we give thanks for her daughter’s survival. I try to imagine what it must be like to be three years old, and to watch your mother die as you hold on to her, as the world you had always known to be sunny and safe turns violently dark, chaotic and murderous.

Little Jordyn Grace’s story is, of course, only one among thousands and thousands of such stories of trauma and distress that we are watching unfold each day as the extent of the devastation in Texas emerges.

In a moment, I will be presumptuous enough to invite you to open your wallets and purses to help those who are suffering in Texas. With the enthusiastic endorsement of our Trustees, today’s collection plate will go toward Episcopal Relief and Development, and a special fund it has set up to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey. I know you will be generous.

And yet, as important as it is to give money in this moment of crisis, the greater challenge of today’s gospel is that we not allow our compassion to be merely episodic. One of the hazards of our modern life is that we engage in the suffering of others only until the next news cycle, when something else grabs our attention, and then life for us returns to normal. Last week it was Charlottesville, this week Harvey, who knows what next week brings. It is easy to become numb to it all. Whatever the benefits of our smartphone lives, the downside is that all the instant information overwhelms us, leaving us unable to attend meaningfully to any one thing, as our screens bombard us with images and stories that paralyze and divert.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul suggests a different pattern of living. He teaches that a Christ-like life is not episodic and diffuse, but rather grounded in the intentional habits of Christian practice. “Hold fast to what is good,” he writes. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.”

The early Church understood these disciplines of mindful habits. What differentiated the earliest Christian communities from others in the Empire were not just their beliefs about this man Jesus, but the moral practices that defined them as Christ’s people; practices that were always rooted in compassionate engagement. They organized their lives around giving to the poor; caring for the sick; opening their communities to all people no matter who they were; sharing their resources without possessiveness; practicing hospitality to strangers; seeking and extending forgiveness; and giving of themselves cheerfully.

And the truly remarkable thing these first Christians discovered is that such a life of compassionate engagement actually yields an unbelievable joy. Far from being grimly dutiful, to attend to the needs of others opens our hearts to the fullness of God’s love. We find ourselves living in a joyful equipoise between celebrating life’s blessings, on the one hand, and rushing to meet its needs, on the other.

St. Paul captures this paradox of Christian living when he writes that we are to: “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” just as we “weep with those who weep.” In Christ, we find ourselves living in a creative tension between gratefully celebrating our many blessings, while always then turning to those whose lives are not so blessed so that we can meet their needs by sharing what we have been given.

Such joyful, yet compassionate, living needn’t be heroic. It can be as simple as visiting a friend in a nursing home; or helping a blind man across the street; or volunteering to cook for those who are hungry; or donating those clothes you really no longer need to those who do need them. And yes, it also means giving generously to those suffering from calamities like what has befallen our brothers and sisters in Texas. But while our acts of compassionate engagement needn’t be heroic, they do need to become a consistent part of who we are.

The good news of the gospel is that we find our truest and most joyful selves when we let our own egos go and look instead to the other. The mystery of our faith is that when we turn ourselves over to Christ, He works through us to mend this fractured world and to heal our own broken lives. Let us hear and respond to the cries of those suffering, including little Jordyn Grace, always remembering, in the words of Saint Teresa of Avila, that:

“Christ has no body now but ours,

No hands, no feet on earth but ours,

Ours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,

Ours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Ours are the hands with which he blesses the world.

Ours are the hands, Ours are the feet,
Ours are the eyes, We are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but ours.”